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“Are you really bad at sharing?”: The experience of being an only child

By October 16, 2021No Comments

Aoife Rooney‘s experience of being an only child is one she’s comfortable with, but is everyone else?

When I tell people that I am an only child, more often than not I’m met with something like “And how do you find that?”, or “Are you really bad at sharing?”.


While the sharing thing is being worked on, worry not, the former is something that has always stumped me. Asking someone how an experience that is entirely normal for them is, is an impossible thing to attempt to answer, especially in the context of having siblings. It is as normal for me to have none as it is for a peer to have more than parents in their immediate family. 

Being an only child is a space that I have always been very comfortable to exist within – not because I don’t think I would excel in a multiple child familial unit, but because I have made it to adulthood without (as far as I am aware) the perceived character traits that only children have been said to exhibit. I don’t see it as something that has jilted me in any way as I find myself leaving education for the first time in my life. 

This shift has focused my attention on what sets me apart from my peers – most of whom have grown up in homes with siblings. While there was a definite raising of an eyebrow whenever someone asked me how many siblings I had, the statistics surrounding singular child households are changing the conversation around family sizes altogether. As of the 2016 Census, there were more households with only children than any other configuration. 341,259 families had one child, more than three and four or more children households combined. 

Family planning factors such as financial flexibility and women having children later in life are contributing to the increase in single children households. Alison Curtis, presenter of Weekend Breakfast on Today FM, and parent to only-daughter Joan, spoke to me about her experience of parenting an only child. “The only child, or the single child, is relatively new (in Ireland)”, Alison told me, before going on to detail how out of her daughter’s class of 31 students, seven were only children.

While this figure is not aligned with statistics, it is significantly higher when compared with my own school experiences. I can’t recall anyone from secondary school who was also an only child; all my friends have siblings, and I am the only grandchild with no siblings on both sides of my family. While there are many benefits to having siblings (none of which I can speak to), Alison spoke fervently about the legwork her and her husband have been putting in to ensure their daughter is well socialised and emotionally served by her age group. “I was really cognisant of her just constantly having someone around, like a little pal so she wouldn’t be lonely and she would learn to play well”.

While this is a well-worn topic of concern associated with only children, the loneliness associated with not having siblings isn’t something that I have ever felt growing up. I subscribe to the stereotype of being independent, but am also somewhat oxymoronically close to my parents and an admitted home bird. Being away from home for extended periods of time is not something that massively appeals to me, and while I have great friends and truly enjoy time spent with them, I do feel a definite responsibility to touch base very regularly, often much more often than friends or peers. 

Whether it be the case or not, I have chalked this trait up to the fact that there is only one of me. This matters both from a perspective of carrying the burden of meeting the self-perpetuated needs placed upon my shoulders, but also fulfilling expectations that may ordinarily be dispersed amongst many children. This is all totally self-imposed; my parents have never been anything but supportive of anything I pursue, but I find myself acutely aware of the fact that my inevitable failures are not something that can be mitigated by a sibling. Despite small insecurities like this, I have never found myself yearning for a sibling, both for the fact that I don’t know how I would even be as a sister, but also that I am aware that having a person be a close family member does not make them a good sibling, or person, for that matter. 

Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr. Claire Hayes spoke to me about the variability of sibling relationships, and how having a sibling does not guarantee a good relationship, especially as people move into adulthood. “There’s fallout; a lot of siblings don’t get on, and as people get older rivalries can kick in.” 

Curtis spoke about the importance of cultivating friendships, and allowing her daughter to develop meaningful relationships with those who she hopes will fulfil a role of support that may have been left to siblings historically. “I want to have as much put in place for her (for later in life)– this also means encouraging her socially, whether that’s a network of friends she has to turn to, I do forecast all of that.” She went on to reinforce the important role her daughter’s chosen family will play in her life “They will be her siblings going forward in life.” 

While, socially, I feel like I may have thicker skin had I received the (playful) abuse many younger siblings deal with growing up, I am lucky in that I do have great friends that I would align with as siblings in the same way they do with their own brothers and sisters. Dr. Hayes explained how being a sibling is not a one-size-fits-all experience, citing that individual experiences “depend a lot on birth order”, amongst other factors. 

I have many questions about whether specific personality traits or worries I have about life in general can be attributed to my only child status, or if they are just mine, regardless of whether or not I ended up with siblings.

Falling down that rabbit hole allows one to posit what factors are actually contributing to our personalities, and core makeup. 

Am I notoriously disinterested in children because I had no younger siblings growing up, or is it because I’m 22? Would I be funnier and more hard-shelled if I had an older sibling to keep me humble? These are not typically questions that cause me much discomfort worth speaking about, but it does pose the question, if these big factors about us as people can affect who we are so much, it leads me to wonder if we are the versions of ourselves we’re meant to be? 

The solace I find myself seeking out is that, siblings or not, many of us are in the same boat when it comes to finding out what exactly it is that defines us, and I revel in the concept that being an only child is becoming less of a delineating fact about me. I probably subscribe to many other conventions beyond this one, but worrying about ageing parents, or making big decisions later in life alone are not exclusive to those who do not have siblings. What I am finding is that I, like everyone else, have the privilege of choosing who I share life’s heaviness with, and in the same vein, enjoying the good bits with those same people.