ONLIES

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You may have seen the Motherlode post written by an unhappy only child this week in the New York Times. It’s fairly typical of its ilk: my mother wanted more children, and I wanted siblings, and therefore an only childhood is a miserable thing.  The only data points the author offers are on the rising number of only children in America.  According to her anecdotal experience, this is a terrible thing.

Perhaps without knowing it, the author–a public relations specialist and essayist–reveals what may be the two surest ways to lay the groundwork for unhappy onliness.  It starts a generation earlier than you’d think, with our parents’ longing. She writes: ”For my parents, having an only child was not a …

WeirdScience1985

I’m preparing to talk to a group of high school psychology teachers about “bad” science. (How is “Bad Science” not an eighties movie? Was “Weird Science” enough?) I’m reeling, as I have many times before in reporting on the science of only children, from the disconnect between what studies about only children show us, and what we tend to believe, regardless.

I visited birth order guru and scientific historian Frank Sulloway at Berkeley last year.  We talked about why bad scientific reasoning about onlies tends to occur outside the data sets. He believes a Darwinian impetus may well underlie the stereotype. Our relatives had an evolutionary imperative to spread their own genes.  “They need a good story to convince us …

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There was a plaid wool blanket in my parents’ car, just big enough to cover me when I would stretch out across the backseat. During snowy Massachusetts weather, I would wrap it around me, cocoon-like, and lean forward to wedge myself between the front seats where my parents sat, making plans, cracking jokes, or listening to the hum of “Weekend Edition.”  Summertime meant I would ball it into a pillow, and prop my head on it to re-read every book in the Anne of Green Gables series, inhaling the permanent rubbery smell of our boxy blue Jetta.  These days, my daughter sleeps under it when she stays in their apartment; I am always amazed at how small it is, and …

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I recently picked up Nell Freudenberger’s new novel, The Newlyweds, unaware it’s a story about only children.  (Is she one herself?  I wonder.) Amina, the protagonist, is Bangladeshi, the new bride of a Rochester engineer she met online. She is dutiful to her parents (who are a third world mess), with a single-mindedness that could be explained as cultural—or, to some, typically like an only child. The there’s Kim, the groom’s cousin, a yoga instructor who barrels through a rootless life with an desperate need for intimate connection, ultimately to satisfy her own needs, not others’.  Another quintessential only, you might say.  (Isn’t it interesting how we have such warring types heaped upon us?)

Amina finds she is an outsider …