Tuesday 20 February 2018

Vicki Notaro: I'm an only child - but don't call me a princess

When people hear Vicki Notaro is an only child, they automatically assume she's spoiled rotten. Not so, insists the writer who - on behalf of all of the only children out there - wants to debunk a few myths about life without siblings

Only child Vicki Notaro. Photo Naomi Gaffey
Only child Vicki Notaro. Photo Naomi Gaffey
Vicki Notaro

Vicki Notaro

It might be the divil in me, but I enjoy telling people I'm an only child because I like to see how they react. More often than not, I get: "Oh you must be spoiled rotten!"

 Sometimes it will be "Ahh, OK", as though the news of my sibling-less status suddenly makes a lot of sense. But for the most part, the general reaction is an odd mix of pity and curiosity, a cocked head and sad expression.

Only child Vicki Notaro. Photo Naomi Gaffey
Only child Vicki Notaro. Photo Naomi Gaffey

This irks me. Not only is their pity misplaced, but being the object of it is incredibly aggravating because I know no other way - oh, and I've turned out fine, thanks. Just as people can't imagine what it's like to be raised without brothers and sisters, or indeed to raise a lone child, I have no idea what it's like to have siblings, and you can't miss what you've never had.

My friend Thomas sums it up nicely: "Being asked what it's like to be an only child is a bit like being asked what it's like being a boy - I have nothing to compare it to." Would I be better off, a better person if I had a brother or sister? I'm sure I'd be different, but it's impossible to say how.

The preconception that I'm a total princess is inevitable, but inaccurate. The only thing I've ever been spoiled with is my parents' time and attention - in terms of material things I certainly wasn't handed elaborate outfits, money to buy a home or even a car like so many of my friends with multiple siblings were. If I sound defensive about my solo status, it's because I am.

Family psychologist Dr Owen Connolly has years of experience dealing with broods of all shapes and sizes. "My own experience working with only children is that they are often more articulate, better educated and have received a more privileged life," he says. "They are likely to make good friends and seek out friendships with others that they share their thoughts with. They would be more likely to have imaginary friends and have 'conversations' with them. They don't see themselves as spoiled"

I guess it depends on your interpretation of privilege, but I never felt any more so than my friends. Sure, when you've less mouths to feed, dress and educate, money goes further in the family, but we were never particularly flush. Friends have always been incredibly important to me, both real and er, in my mind. And no, I'm not spoiled!

I was born in 1986 to parents who always assumed they'd have a big family. My dad has seven siblings, and the maternal side of my family is massive going back generations. For whatever reason (and they don't know why), it just didn't happen for them - but they had me, and they were satisfied with their lot. My mother has told me that she found the whole "trying" process incredibly trying - they were married several years when I made an appearance - but they never really stopped. I once read the journal she kept during her pregnancy and was so touched to see how much I'd been longed for.

Mam and Dad have always made me feel very special - I never felt like our little family was incomplete. I know that they felt the weight of expectation to have more kids from just about everyone. Only children were more rare in the 1980s, and I have early memories of being referred to as "just" the one by people who should have frankly known better. I was often also dubbed a lonely child by other kids who had clearly heard the term from their parents, no doubt disparagingly.

The honest truth is that I never had an issue with being an only child. Having my mother and father's undivided attention certainly did me no harm; I could read by the time I went to playschool, and had a very strong sense of self from an early age. Their devotion to me gave me confidence and I was never lacking in social skills because there were always other children around. Sure, I was precocious and liked to be the centre of attention because I was used to it at home, but school knocked that out of me at an early age. (I'm still a bit of a show-off, but hey, so are lots of people who grew up fighting for attention in a big family.)

The older I got, the more content I was by myself - to the point where I made it clear to my parents that I didn't want or need a baby brother or sister. This in no way deterred them; if one had come along I would have had to deal with it. But maybe it was nice for them to know that I was fine just as I was.

Dr Owen Connolly says we're seeing more only children these days for several reasons. "I would say it's a result of women continuing their careers and having a child later in life, as well as the freedom of contraception. There has been a steady decline in the population since the 1950s and in Ireland we have some of the oldest first-time mothers in the world starting to have families in their 30, which inevitably results in single-child families."

He also finds that many only children would like to have more than one baby themselves, but this isn't the case for me - I don't want to have any. I'm now at the age where a lot of my friends are starting families, and I hear all the time that they don't want to have "just" the one, that they'd like to give their babies a companion. While I understand this urge, I also want to tell them that there's really no need to panic.

I can't say I've never observed the dynamics of certain families with envy, and as an adult it might be easier to have someone on my team who's tied to me by blood, a ready-made mate - but of course there's no guarantee of that. A few years back I noticed how awkward it was for my parents to sit and observe a grown woman opening her Christmas stocking, and I felt odd ooh-ing and aah-ing over its contents like I had as a child. But then last year my boyfriend spent the festive period with us, and for the first time I had a Christmas pal. Maybe it was a true partner I was missing, and not just a sibling partner-in-crime.

I want parents of lone children to know that they're not sentencing their son or daughter to a life of being lonesome or socially impaired, nor depriving them of anything tangible.

"The attention they get from you, the time you give to their dreams and aspirations will more than help them develop into fine young men and women," says Dr Owen Connolly.

I don't think I've let being an only child hold me back in any way. I'm neither a loner nor needy of company. I never felt any conscious pressure to be a high achiever in terms of exams or career, probably because it never occurred to me that my parents "only" had me to be proud of.

I'm currently working towards spending a few years in the States, but I know I'll eventually come back home. The fact is, some day my parents will need me. And because I'm the only one, the duty will fall to me. That's just how it is, and I've accepted it - if I'm lucky, I'll have my own self-made support system to see me through.

Talking to my mum, it's interesting that 30 years later she still feels judged by her peers. She often hears, "Oh, you have just the one?" in a tone that implies it's not quite enough. She responds that she went for quality not quantity, typical of her sarcastic humour, and that in a nutshell sums up how I've been made feel my whole life by the people who matter most.

One & only

● According to the 2011 census, almost a third of Irish families have one child, while in the UK single-child households make up half of all families.

● Only children perform better in school. A US study of 24,599 eighth graders (13-14 years), suggests academic achievement drops as families grow because parents have less time and economic resources. for each child.

● A study at the University of Ohio found that solo kids  are more likely to divorce as adults. Each additional sibling a person has (up to about seven) reduces the likelihood of divorce by 2pc.

● Famous only children include Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Natalie Portman, Robert De Niro and Rory McIlroy.

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