"Are you an only child?"
That question always gives me pause. Yes, but also, no. I am not alone in being the child of a blended family. Nor am I the only one who’s a bit confused by the whole situation—parents included.
Between 1970 and 1990, the shift in family dynamics was staggering. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of children living with both parents declined by nearly 15 percent. The number of single-mother households or children living with grandparents saw similar, double-digit jumps. In the past decade, we’ve reached something of a plateau, as far as family statistics are concerned. From 1991 to 2009, there was only a 4 percent decrease in the number of children living with both parents, relatively small compared to the drop in the previous two decades.
While the shift in demographics might be slowing, time has only solidified the effects of this shift for most children of “blended” families. We who grew up during the downslide of “traditional” family life might now look around and realize we are not alone. Not only that, but we are in some ways the first generation to come of age during a time when mixed families are as common as “regular” ones.
It’s important to note that “regular” is in quotes because it is such an arbitrary term for the two-parent, husband-and-wife household that the modern western world has built into a paragon of family life. Looking over the most recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics, you’ll not only see a drastic shift in the way children live but also astounding differences between children of different racial groups. So, “regular” is a very subjective term.
It comes down to knowing who you are
and where you stand.
As a child, this is understandably difficult.
I remember dreaming that I was an octopus that could wrap my many indestructible arms around my family and my home, thinking that maybe
if I clung tightly enough I could keep it all together. Father-daughter dances prepared me for the awkwardness of being a third-wheel on outings when
I grew up. Transitioning between mom’s house and dad’s house was sometimes a week-long adjustment period marked by squabbles, tears and confusion. All this is to say—most young minds are still trying to decode how the world works, not to mention how they work in it. Add in the complexities of broken marriages, tragedies, separations, re-marriages, adoptions or any of the panoply of life events that lead to a blended family and the result can be the equivalent of a mental short-circuiting in a child’s mind.
Are you an only child? I am my mama’s only one. It will always be just me and her.
Who am I in this blended family:
eldest or only child?
I am also the eldest of four. I am the big sister. Together, we are a mixed bunch of polar personalities who goes years sometimes without seeing one another and who’ve also spent weeks in tight quarters trekking around Europe, sharing bunk beds, illnesses, irreplaceable memories.
Neither one of these lives is something I could or would ever let go of. Each identity is inextricably linked to my sense of self—who I am and where I stand. This is the juggling act of being a sibling in a mixed family. You can be both 100 percent a big sister and 100 percent an only child.
Inside yourself, and inside your own family—that’s what matters. The rest is periphery.
The Awkwardness of Blended Families
Grocery shopping with my stepmom and my half sister is an odd experience. Any time a checkout person or stranger wants to say, “your daughter is so cute,” or “how old is your child?” or “please stop her from touching that!” I notice a flicker of pause before they speak. Whose child is this after all?
My stepmom already had two children when she and my father remarried, then, at the relatively old child-bearing age of 42, she gave birth to my half-sister. When my half-sister was born, I was seventeen. Since I’ve always looked older than my age anyway, it’s common that people mistake my sister for my own child. Worse still is when we go grocery shopping with my dad and people think my half-sister is the child we had together.
Grocery shopping is the periphery. When we are traveling, watching a movie at home, or catching each other’s stomach flus, there are no “step-brothers” or “half-sisters,” there are only my siblings. I have no memory of my father or stepmom defining our siblinghood. We understood what it meant to become siblings even before we had any experience of what it would feel like. But the feeling—that’s what ends up making it real. Now, after nearly 20 years, the four of us know what’s true—what we are and where we stand. It may not look or sound like the “regular” sibling dynamic, whose does?
Reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, this passage about sisters and brothers popped out at me:
“People talk about the happy quiet that can exist between two loves, but this, too, was great; sitting between his sister and his brother, saying nothing, eating. Before the world existed, before it was populated, and before there were wars and jobs and colleges and movies and clothes and opinions and foreign travel -- before all of these things there had been only one person, Zora, and only one place: a tent in the living room made from chairs and bed-sheets. After a few years, Levi arrived; space was made for him; it was as if he had always been. Looking at them both now, Jerome found himself in their finger joints and neat conch ears, in their long legs and wild curls. He heard himself in their partial lisps caused by puffy tongues vibrating against slightly noticeable buckteeth. He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away.”
That is not something I would ever know as an only child, but it is not my sibling experience either. I remember life before they came into mine. We do not share the same skin tones or eye colors, hobbies or speaking patterns. But through the years of sibling squabbles, power struggles, vying for our parents’ love, tight quarters and long silences, we know who we are. In the grocery store, the answer is easy: “this is my sister; this is my brother.” While nothing will ever take away the fact that I am my mother’s only child, I am also one of four. When sitting with my other three, it’s like Smith writes: “sitting between his sister and his brother, saying nothing, eating...They were just love.”
Are you an only child? Yes, and I have three siblings.
Enid Spitz is a writer and yoga instructor based in Charleston, SC. She previously lived in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA, where she was a newspaper editor and researched yoga for traumatic brain Injury. Heartmanity combines Enid's passions for social well-being,