20 tales of being an only child

Father and son

A Magazine feature on the generation of single children in China that has resulted from the country's one-child policy prompted readers to share their own stories of growing up without siblings.

The piece noted that some Chinese children regretted the lack of brothers and sisters, while others saw pros amid the cons. Among our readers, too, there are both positive and negative views.

Shirley Saundry, Saltash, England: My parents emigrated to South Africa when I was six. Mother died when I was eight (I'm now in my early 70s) and my father died 40 years ago. Only continuous presence was my aunt who kept in touch with me by post all my life until she died. Met up with surviving cousin and now elderly aunt in Australia in the 80s - I felt a complete outsider. Have always thought of myself as an orphan, belonging nowhere, no family history, no home. Had six marriages and still lonely. Childhood stability and family are vital. I get on well with people, but very few people "know" me. Looking back, my isolated and unloved childhood crippled me. Numerous changes of schools - almost no education, friends, possessions or support. But hey, I am a survivor.

Shirley Saundry From left: Shirley with her father, in South Africa aged six, and her mother

Gosgog, Masinloc, Philippines: I grew up as an only child. Aged seven I was sent to boarding school, but when at home I had a best friend, an excellent mother and a good dad who worked hard but was a disciplinarian. Later in life, I married a number of times and today live with a girl 40 years younger than me, who has three kids.

Ildi Clarke, Colchester, Essex, UK: I was an only child and now I'm 61. I was born in Ballarat, Australia, to Hungarian refugee parents. At the age of 22, I went to see the world, then went back to Australia, then wanted to explore ideas, starting a BA at Monash University at 24, which led me to Essex at 29 to do an MA. I left [home] with intense guilt, and my relationship with my mother has been a psychological preoccupation - lots of therapy to stop feeling guilty about what I was doing to her by my absence. It's not simple, lots of guilt and now a very sad lonely mother who at 85, looks forward to my weekly Skype. I still feel very mean to have done this to her - but could I have stayed and lived up to her expectations? I feel I've ruined her life and that's a heavy burden at times.

Ildi Clarke Ildi Clarke aged one (top left and centre), seven (right) and 30 (left)

William Buchanan, Athens, Tennessee, US: I had no siblings or cousins while growing up. Furthermore, I had only one widowed parent (my mother), and no other family within 600 miles. Such an existence was OK, albeit a bit lonely sometimes. Even so, I suspect that my heightened creativity and imagination have been enhanced by my frequent solitude as a child. The fact that I had no father figure, as a child, has had a much greater impact than no siblings, I feel. I have absolutely no understanding of what it is like to have brothers, sisters, or a father, and such concepts are only abstractions to me. My personality and values were shaped exclusively by one parent, with no other familial members to influence me or provide alternative perspectives. My life might have turned out differently, and I suspect "better", if I'd had two parents... but as for a lack of siblings, I'm rather glad that things turned out the way they did.

Chloe, Gloucester: I grew up as the "privileged" adopted only child of a university professor and his fairly upmarket wife. Their personal anxieties - which could not be aired or helped, in the 60s and 70s - led to a life of perpetual greyness. Everything fun was "too much trouble". I was repeatedly told "don't aim too high, you'll only be disappointed". But my parents also lavished educational and life enriching experiences on me: I had loads of books, and holidays abroad. From the age of four, I knew I was lonely and that it would be ill-mannered to complain or behave badly - since I'd been "chosen" to be their child. Being an "only" caused huge difficulties at school and university - I had the mannerisms of rather stuffy adults (my parents) which made me a laughing stock. I'm now 53. It turns out that enduring so many years alone was good training for how my life is now. I don't get frightened and I don't permit people to bully me. I've worked to develop empathy and I am protective of people who find themselves isolated and in difficulty.

Chloe Chloe aged 11 at Hadrian's Wall, aged 18 and today, at 53

Rachel, London: I'm an only child born and raised in a time and place where this was unusual. That meant being constantly reminded of "how lonely" I must feel and even "how selfish" my parents were (since they chose having only one child). I personally hated being an only child when I was a child; I remember playing with another only-child friend as if we were "sisters", or seeking the attention of my cousins constantly. Nowadays, however, I am almost 30 and I realise that being an only child has also many advantages. I'm more independent, more successful, focused in my studies and career and (you wouldn't believe) it has also made me a very sociable person (since "only children" tend to be always looking for friendship and understanding).

WZ, Singapore: I'm currently 25 - when I was born it was the final years of our country's "stop at two" policy - not as draconian as China's policy but there were many similarities, such as hefty penalties (the third child did not qualify for state benefits, coerced sterilisations etc). Notwithstanding the prevailing policies, my parents had more personal reasons not to give me a younger sibling. We are also ethnic Chinese, and my parents were from huge families themselves. My mom had four other siblings while my father had to contend with nine other living siblings, and influenced by their own growing up experiences, they have decided that they should concentrate their resources to rear one child. I don't think that I would definitely be happier if I had a sibling - it really depends on how the dynamics are. While some of my cousins are close with each other, I also know of those who are perpetually in conflict.

Raymond Ritchie

Dr Raymond J Ritchie, Phuket, Thailand: I was an only child. I am now 59 and my youngest cousin is 14 years older than me. No regrets at all. My mother was widowed at 56 with a 15-year-old son to bring up. If I had had a sibling, I would not have been able to get the education I did. I inherited my house in Australia and every cent my parents had ever earned. When I was growing up there was an enormous bias against only children, now it is the norm. Most couples have only one child because that is all they can provide for. Society has not adjusted to it. One effect is the enormous generational concentration of wealth by the middle class - a single grandchild is inheriting all their grandparents' and parents' money.

Sophie Chorich, San Francisco: I was never measured or compared to a more accomplished brother or had to worry that maybe my sister was prettier than me. Holidays were always bountiful and I have always had my own room. I didn't miss the opportunity of having a built-in playmate or road trip games partner. I was just accustomed to being mostly on my own from the start. I guess this individualism and isolation runs in my family. My family is a very small one, full of distant people. Distant geographically and distant emotionally. I'm not socially crippled by any means, I make friends easily and find it easy to empathise with others. But long-term relationships are a weakness of mine. I'm not sure if the spindly family structure can be implicated in that defect, but I feel it plays some part.

The piece that sparked these responses

To begin with, the very notion of "sibling" was a hard one for the children to grasp - a task made more difficult by the Chinese tendency to use the term for "brother" or "sister" when talking about cousins.

Karen Cha, Shanghai, China: As a victim under China's one-child policy, I do hope my parents can bear another kid to keep my company. When I was young, my parents asked me: "Do you want a younger brother or sister?" "No! I don't want to share anything belonging to me with her." Now I know it's just a joke made by my parents. But I don't need to regret to say such words, because even if I "approved", my parents will not bear another child, otherwise, as teachers in school, they will be dismissed. I have six cousins though, and they treat me very well. Sometimes when I am alone, I eagerly hope I can have my own brother or sister, rather than cousins. Except my parents, there is no one in the world I can talk to and share joys and sadness any time I have a need to with.

Sorana, Iasi, Romania: I myself grew up in the 70s and 80s without siblings. However, I was fortunate enough to have had "neighbourhood siblings" - my childhood friends, who lived in the same apartment block as me and played in the same "yard". We went through school at the same pace, passed our exams at the same time, and some of us still keep in touch despite the distance that now separates us. Having a long-term, live-in relationship has also been pretty strange for me, as having to share stuff (space, things, food etc) felt new and slightly weird, at least in the beginning. At the same time it is wonderful to be able to share both joy and hardship - I can't help thinking that most people who have siblings enjoy this from the start of their lives.

Stellar success with no siblings

Clockwise from top left: Elvis Presley, Tiger Woods, Natalie Portman, Robert de Niro
  • Elvis Presley
  • Tiger Woods
  • Natalie Portman
  • Robert de Niro

Joy Abbott, Nottingham: As a twin who unfortunately lost my only sister at the age of seven, I am in the unusual position to be able to comment on life both with and without siblings. Beyond the major grieving period, I adapted to life as a singleton and as a teenager watched friends argue with their siblings. I think it is now aged 30 that I miss not having a sibling more than ever. I see my friends who are now close to their siblings, and share life events such as getting married and having children. This is something I won't ever experience. I worry that as I get older, the responsibility to care for my parents will be on me alone.

Dr Jun Zhang, Cardiff: I was born in 1976. It was just after the Cultural Revolution, life was tough. I think it is not that bad to be a single child in a collective society as I have seven cousins just from my mum's side. As a child, I was looked after by grandparents, aunties and uncles, therefore, I never felt alone. I agree with what Yang Ge said in the article that I wouldn't have had the chance to come to the UK to study if my parents had another child. They wouldn't have been able to support me financially. I do see the negative side - as I was away for the first year, my parents especially my mum felt very lonely. As my parents are 5,000 miles away from me, I do make sure I ring them at least twice a week. Overall, I am a very happy single child.

Rachel E Hodges, South Staffordshire, UK: I have no siblings and, unusually, as both my parents are only children, I have no cousins or aunts and uncles either. I did not find this a problem growing up - my parent's friends were my "aunts and uncles" and I am naturally gregarious and have always had a large and wide friendship group. Obviously my parents had more time and energy to focus on me, but, luckily they weren't pushy types and this made me closer to them rather than feel pressured. My household was notably much, much calmer than those of my friends as there were rarely any arguments. However, as an adult I realise the value of having had a sibling as a child to spar with. I still avoid confrontation at all costs and am pretty hopeless in an argument. I look at my two daughters now, aged three and six, and realise the love they have for one another and what I have missed out on.

RM, London: I had no siblings and my cousins all live in the north so I was the distant southerner that only saw them once a year. My mother's family lived abroad. I remember as a small child begging my parents for a sibling. Growing up as an only child is miserable, personally I think it should be illegal to have only one child. Being an only child with no close cousins is also a worry when you are older. My mother is also an only child. Since my father died she is completely isolated in the UK. I have vowed to have at least two children. If we were financially better off I'd have four.

Lisa Cox, Fort Worth, Texas: I got a bit lonely sometimes but my grandparents kept me when my parents were at work, and sometimes there were cousins around. I have a lot of cousins, so I got the idea of what it's like to have siblings, and based on that experience (and things that have happened since we reached adulthood), plus the experience of other family members, I am very very glad I'm an only child! I'm also glad based on what I've heard friends say about how they treated their siblings when they were growing up. In some cases, it's a wonder their siblings still speak to them! I don't mind having the responsibility of taking care of my parents - even if you do have siblings, there's no guarantee they'll help you.

Karen Rogers, Ashland, Oregon, US: I am an only child and both my parents were only children. I had no cousins. I learned at an early age to be self-reliant. I had and have lots of great friends. I am 52 now. I chose not to have children though I enjoy my friends' kids and have been kind of an auntie to them. I don't feel lonely or less whole because I don't have siblings. In fact, some of my close friends have become "sisters and brothers" to me. I have not met too many people like myself. Sure, I have met only children, but not with parents who were only children as well. It is easy for me to be alone and at times I probably need my personal space more than others. There is almost a spiritual aspect to know oneself so well, to not rely on others for anything. I have to say that at times it has been difficult to share possessions, finances, time with others or intimate partners. I don't know if this has anything to do with being an only child. I suspect it does.

Karen Rogers Both Karen's parents were also only children

David Wootton, Beamsville, ON, Canada: I grew up not only with no siblings but without any grandparents, uncles, aunts or cousins. Furthermore, my dad was 57 when I was born and my mother was 40. My grandfather on my dad's side was born in England in 1841 and my first uncle was born in 1870. I am now 70. Almost everyone whom I knew when I was a child was born in the Victorian era. Most of my family pictures were taken during this time and I still have them and cherish them. My dad was sent to Canada in 1910 and so I never knew of his family. He had seven siblings. I think that he was a Barnardo's child.

Lisa, Bangkok, Thailand: I grew up an only child in the southern US and am now in middle age. I do tend to be introverted, less socially focused, which has been an advantage in terms of cultivating my skills and accomplishing things. This said, I value my social life and would have liked to have closer family members of my generation. There were huge advantages to being the only child and few disadvantages. I was less socially sophisticated than the other children in a way that made me less sneaky and aggressive than a lot of the other girls. So far as I could tell, all of the class bullies cut their teeth at home on siblings. As an only child I definitely got more resources (expensive schools, cultural and travel opportunities) and this gave me a big advantage. With overpopulation looming, the world adding one billion people a decade, the prejudice against only children needs to be re-examined. We are generally *not* selfish, antisocial and spoiled, the stereotypes I grew up hearing.

Liz Burgess, Ribble Valley, Lancashire England: I have had a very interesting career, worked in four continents and many different countries, had several long relationships which I hoped might lead to marriage, but which never did. The biggest hole in my life is, and has been for a long time, the lack of anyone with whom to share wonderful - and not-so-wonderful -memories of my life, from childhood to retirement. A brother or sister would naturally have had a part of my experience, if only by letter and conversations on annual leaves - but there is not, and never has been, apart from my parents who both died when I was a fairly young adult, anyone who has ever shared this throughout my entire lifetime. When I see present-day friends sharing both troubles and joys with their siblings, I am so very envious. It is a relationship I yearned for as a child, and yearn for still.

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