For the first two decades of my life, I would have insisted that being an only child was awesome. I had special privileges that children with siblings didn’t often have: friends joined our family on vacation, I had 3 or 4 girls sleep over (every weekend if I wanted) and all of my birthdays and milestones felt like national holidays. Life was centred around me. The Universe simply spun on my axis. As the years went on, though, the reality of being The Only One started to set in, and honestly, it’s not that great anymore.
2017 rocked me to the core. Parts of it gutted me, literally knocking the wind from my sails. I’m still standing, but being an (adult) only child is one tough journey. Maybe some of you Only Ones can relate.
Every month of last year dealt me daunting personal hurdles, challenges I did not want, and frankly, was ill-prepared to handle. Yes, I have supportive friends, who are (for the most part) willing and able to lend a hand when needed. However, the deep emotional work of getting through tough times could only be experienced by me, with no siblings to share the load. I swear getting through that one year felt like it shaved years off my life. The experience left me dealing with a cornucopia of emotions—some of which are painful to admit.
Last July 19, I had to make the heartbreaking decision to take my Mom straight from a month-long stay at the hospital into a retirement home. After her last big fall, she never saw her apartment again. Neither of us saw this fate coming, and as primary decision maker, I relied on logical thinking, and dug deep for a combination of common sense and compassion. Quickly shifting into auto-pilot, I was forced to make decisions based on her safety, which sadly, were not congruent with her wishes. For weeks prior to her discharge, I struggled. I was second –guessing myself, doubting, procrastinating, wishing, and praying the situation was different. As an only child, you carry this massive burden of ‘I’m the only one who can do this’. And the fact was, I had to do this—alone.
Now I know that even people with siblings sometimes carry the weight on their own because they’re estranged, or live far apart. I realize that some people have cut ties with parents for various reasons, leaving siblings to bear the brunt of this wonderful thing called ‘the sandwich generation’. In my case, though, there are no options for reconciliation or discussion. When it comes to family, I’M IT. There’s no one to delegate to, no one to off-load a small chunk of burden or worry or stress. Suddenly, all those years of a wonderfully self-indulgent, existence, came down to the realization that I had to single-handedly deal with my mother’s life.
The mother-daughter relationship is complicated at best. I won’t lie; ours has been a combination of immense joy, fraught with intense anger. I now have the added pain of the underlying premise ‘YOU put me here’ (And those exact words have been spoken OUT LOUD on a few occasions. Yah, let that marinate for awhile). Every now and then, that beast rears its ugly head and I want to scream ‘For fucks sake, I had NO CHOICE – I DIDN’T WANT THIS EITHER!‘ (this is where the selfish aspect kicks in, the part I’m sometimes ashamed to look in the eye). Ask the handful of friends to whom I’ve cried, ranted, bitched to. They know, but they don’t feel it to the same extent because they have siblings. They are not alone.
To get me through my days and interactions with Mom, I have embraced the phrase: “patience, at all costs”. I’ve had to view our situation through a different lens. Mostly, that I’m modelling the kindness and loving behaviour I will want my own children to show me when my time comes. The truth is, eventually the family I’m left with will be the one I’ve created.
On good days, I’m thankful that my mother is still here because I really do have much to be grateful for. She’s loved me unconditionally since the moment I arrived on the planet. On bad days, I’m grateful she hasn’t sent me 9 emails asking me to book doctor’s appointments, pick up lengthy lists of things she doesn’t need nor has room for in her tiny one-bedroom dwelling) or phoned me 5 times between 11pm and 4 am. Yes, I’m the only one who can do this stuff, so I do it all whenever I’m called upon.
What I’ve come to realize is this: Grief is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All that unspent love gathers in the corners of my eyes, the lump in my throat, the hallow in my chest. Grief is love with no place to go. And I must carry this grief, all on my own.
We could use a forum for Only Children to converse honestly about what it’s like, to speak openly about the complexity, the pain, the burden, the toll it takes on your other relationships. I’ve always said I felt sorry for people who married only children; we come with some serious baggage. And…it’s not our fault. I can’t help but be reminded of the song ‘One’ by Three Dog Night. I sometimes imagine I am singing this tune with other women who walk through life as Onlies so in the hard times, we can all feel less alone.
Jane Pearlman is a recent member of the ‘fabulous at 50’ club. When she’s not designing events for a decor company or working on The Shopping Channel, she’s embracing her busy roles as loving mother and wife, and of course, devoted daughter.