On Saliva, and Only Children – By Beth

6 Aug

When I was a little-un I used to play a game with my parents called “licky eww”. I’m pretty sure that my mum made this game up (I googled it to make sure). The rules of licky eww are that you poke out your tongue and the other person pokes out their’s and then you see how close you get to touching tongues before one of you inevitably pulls aways and says “licky eww!” Cue total hysterics.

When Jeff and I got together, I told him about licky eww and he could not mask his horror. (Just to make it clear so that DOCS aren’t called retrospectively, we never actually touched tongues!) But even so, the thought of playing such a game with one’s parents grossed Jeff out. Totally.

I got to see my parents being total goof balls more than pretty much any other kid I know, and I always thought this was something to do with me being an only child. That they had to be my playmates – part-sibling, part-parent.

I think it is fair to say that licky eww is emblematic of everything that is both right and wrong with the only child parental dynamic I am most familiar with.

It’s entirely possible that whatever topic came up for writing this week, my mind would have found a way of twisting it towards being about only children. It’s something that’s on a background channel in my mind 24 hrs a day to some extent at the mo. Jeff and I both say that we’re sure that Leo could handle having another sibling nine months from now, but that we’re just not…. quite. ready. Yet. So while I “get ready” I weigh up the pros and cons of only childness. Wanting to do the right thing for Leo, as well as the right thing for ourselves. The feeling deep in my gut says that we are going to have another one, but still I find the internal debate rages.

Here’s a little preview…

Only child – pros

  • Maximum parental attention
  • Parents become like best friends/flatmates/siblings
  • No siblings to fight with/get beaten up by
  • Due to lots of adult interaction and conversation, you find it easy to get along with/become friends with older people
  • Don’t have to share (can either make you a very generous or a very stingy person, or mixture of both – so really this is neither here nor there)
  • Family less stretched financially
  • No sibling rivalry/fights
  • Less family (and therefore more time for people you chose to hang around)
  • Promotes strong friendships with people outside the family

Only child – cons

  • Maximum parental attention (narcissism, solipsism etc.)
  • Parents become like best friends – can be privy to stuff that is a bit too much ‘in the adult realm’
  • No siblings to play with/love/raise families alongside/share memories with as you get older
  • No siblings to gang up against your parents with/get toughened up by (I am such a wuss)
  • Adults out-number children in the household. You’re living with a couple – can be a bit like a third wheel.
  • Due to lots of adult conversation, can be a bit of a bore/not know how to have fun
  • Less family (to hang out with)
  • Sole responsibility for your ageing parents
  • Even if you have lots of close friends – a best friend is not family. Blood (and saliva) are thicker than water.

Would you like to hear my saddest only-child stories? The first is that when I was about seven years old, I wanted to play elastics. Not having any siblings to play it with, I used chairs to hold the elastic, and eventually it flung off the end of the chair and smacked me in the eyeballs. My eyes swelled and closed over and were very sore. But the physical pain was nowhere near as bad as the pain of the self-pity I felt at having been reduced to playing a game with two chairs instead of two humans. This is honestly the only time in my childhood where I can remember wishing for siblings. The rest of the time I seemed aware that I had a sweet deal. I could go over to friends’ houses to play, but when I came home it was chilled out and all my toys were my own. There was no shouting or hitting or storming off or grabbing like I saw at my friends’ houses. Everyone in my household felt very reasonable and looked after the welfare of the group. (I’m trying my best to not cloud my memories with what I think now. I seriously had very reasoned logic as a small child… I remember before the age of eight (because we were still in NZ) wondering what I would do my PhD about when I was old enough. I decided I would do a study of how many ants a person killed in a lifetime by accidentally stepping on them. I was a serious bird.)

My other saddest only-child story hasn’t happened yet, but I dread it. Being so close with my mum and dad, I hate the thought that when they’re gone there’s no one left to remember them with. No fourth witness to all the love and fun we had as a family. That one brings tears to my eyes every time. I hope they live for many, many years to come.

In my twenties I became aware of the phrase “one’s a pet, two’s a family”. I fucking hate that phrase! In my adult years I intermittently offer counsel to women I meet who have only children and feel terribly guilty about it. I tell them that their children’s lives will still be rich and full and the women nod with flecks of tears in their eyes. Come on people! It’s not the end of the world! Surely though, only children must be on the rise in Australia – considering that men and women are having children later. The mind boggles about the cultural shift that has occurred in China.

Annoyingly for the conclusion of this story, but fortunately for humanity, I find myself thinking that the experience of only-childness is like everything else in life: swings and round-abouts. Neither a particularly good, nor a particularly bad phenomenon. I know some kick arse only children, and I know some painful ones, just as I know some people from bigger families who are rad, and some who are dullards.

As for Jeff and I, we’ll most probably get round to it, so please don’t take this as an invitation to nag me into (or out of) having another kid. Besides – I’m an only child, so I can’t handle any form of criticism 😉

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11 Responses to “On Saliva, and Only Children – By Beth”

  1. Tabitha August 7, 2012 at 8:43 am #

    I really enjoyed this post, Beth! I’ll be interested to hear what your fellow only-child Flinger has to say on this subject, now having two offspring of her own. I agree that it’s absolutely ridiculous to claim that not producing siblings is some kind of child abuse. Interestingly, I saw in the latest census results that the average number of children per Australian family is now only 1.9, so that view is obviously changing.

    Nathan and I both agree that if it were he or I engaged in Licky Ew with our children, we’d have licked them from chin to forehead in about twenty seconds! Nothing wrong with a bit of saliva exchange in the name of hilarity.

    • Justyna August 7, 2012 at 10:46 am #

      I was totally into this post! There are so many things to comment here!
      First thing’s first. I too played elastics with chairs! Sometimes and only sometimes I would nag my mum enough to stand in for one of the chairs. I also played soccer with myself or with our dog (I learned to dribble the ball because there is only so much fun a 9 year old can have kicking the ball into the wall), I played tennis with the wall and a skipped on the skipping quite a lot. All on my own. It sucked and I wanted sibs bad. When we lived in Poland in wasn’t an issue because the streets were filled with kids to play with, Germany ditto. When we moved to Ashfield my cousins and I lived in the same apartment block so there was constant kid contact. But when my parents made the trip out westieland, I found myself in a house with a closed-off backyard and a primary school that I had to travel by bus to get to. No kids about. The wall became my kicking companion.

      I totally agree with the parents/best friend element of only children and I too have this. I think this is rare. And I have always loved it. But there were times when my parents treating me like their equal was a bit too much for me to handle. I knew too many details about their problems and having the additional burden in the early years of being their official translator in their adult world, meant I was open to information I should not have been exposed to (like their financial woes etc). As a result I became an adult-child and my mum for example more a child-adult. To this day she rings me and tells me all her issues she has with my father for example. At 32 years of age I can now handle it. But at 19 I should not have been bothered by their marital problems.

      My parents never planned to have just me. They wanted more but nothing came of it (immigration, illness, other issues, too late…). Ever since I could remember I always wanted siblings. And have always been fascinated by big families. Being so close with all my cousins on my mum’s side I also was madly jealous of their unspoken bond that they had with one another. Even though I was totally in the cuz group (and am) and the love was (is) shared, sibs will always stand by their sibs. A little nagging feeling that I will never totally be ‘in’. Sure I can also see sibling relationships that are defunct and it saddens me. I think I carry this utopian picture of brothers and sisters never having a sib myself. I try to convince myself that if the parents lay the foundations properly, sibs can be each others best friends too. Yes? In a way?

      Beth the old age parent issue frightens me to the shit! It is also during this period in life when I think that having siblings and sharing old parents burden would be a plus. Got a crazy mum, well hey, let’s spread the load on all of us and not just carry it on all yourself! Benefits of not being an only child.

      Before Kazek was born we said with Michal we definitely wanted to have more than one. In fact three. Then Kazek was born and we started to say that if it turns out that we’ll just have the one, life will also be super sweet and that our family aspirations were fulfilled. But then we started talking again about the second one and like with everything we do, it wasn’t all that planned, it was a bit slap-dash and hey presto I was pregnant before I knew it. Then I freaked out. Tabitha can vouch for this. She convinced me of all the pros of a family with sibs. Being a tired pregnant mum with a toddler the most convincing element was that the kids can just look after one another. And you don’t have to pay them so much attention. Kids sort of fending for themselves. Brilliant. And that’s how it has sort of been. Jules and Kaz can spend long stretches of time amusing themselves. Leaving me in peace to write this reply for example. Kaz is totally smitten by his little bro, which is wonderful to see. He already has plans that when Jules is a bit bigger he’ll be able to take him on the back of his bike. What has also been amazing is seeing Kazek incorporate Jules into his little micro concept of our unit. He will never leave Julek out of the equation. When we do something or go somewhere Kazek makes sure that the four members of our unit are taken into account.

      Sorry, about this super long reply. Having said all this, I totally support all family models! Like Beth said in her post, neither a particularly good, nor a particularly bad phenomenon. My abiding principle of the past recent years is hey! if the shoe fits! Really. When we told my mum that I was pregnant with Jules she went on for a while about o poor Kaz, he barely had enough time to have parents all to himself! Pft. If I wanted to have just the one, and others told me more, I’d kick their arses too. People should just chill. Yes, you heard, I said people should chill.

      For the record – we continue to want three.

      • Tabitha August 7, 2012 at 11:14 am #

        Aah, thanks for this awesome response Justyna! Loved it. Although I got all excited thinking about how for my post I would write about growing up in a large family, and then remembered the topic is actually “saliva”.

      • Beth August 7, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

        Yes, thank you Justyna! I loved reading what you had to say. I can identify with a lot of it. I just touched on the aspect of being an adult-child because you got a lot more info and a lot more inclusion in decision making process than you might have had if there was more than one.

        I thought of an extra thing too. As well as not having someone to remember the good times with (who was your age), I feel like I don’t really have anyone to have a conversation with about the not-so-good aspects of my upbringing. It was a scientific experiment without a control. And I’m so tight with my mum and dad that I don’t like to hear anything bad said about them by other people not in the fam.

        I still find it funny when I hear people with a certain number of kids in mind because I’ve never had that. Mostly just wanted more than one, actually. I always attributed my lack of a concrete number to being an only and not having a particular number I wanted to emulate, but your feeling about wanting three makes me see that it’s probably not to do with that. I know that my parents never set out to have an only child – Mum was 38 when she had me and they did try for more, but like Justyna’s folks it didn’t work out. I never had a number of kids in mind.

        Go Kaz you big brother! He sounds like such a gem. That must be so heartwarming for someone who’s always looked upon sibling love longingly (as I have done too).

        I agree with the need for everyone to take a chill pill. I’ve never heard anyone say “we did the wrong thing – we should have only had one” or “we should have had 3 instead of 2”. You just make the best out of any situation.

        Love you guys!

      • Karen August 9, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

        Actually Beth, my dad once said, in front of me (the third child), that he thinks two is a good number.

      • mischb August 11, 2012 at 7:08 am #

        so lovely that the kazman looks out for jules!

    • Beth August 7, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

      P.S. Leo and I have played licky eww and it was a short game because we just touched tongues!

  2. remoteareamum August 7, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    Really enjoyed reading this too. It is such a personal topic and a huge life decision. I have to admit upfront (as you probably already know!) I’m completely biased as an only child who has always wished for siblings. That said, I can’t really remember any sad only child stories from when I was little…it is the points you made about aging, and seeing our parents age, that worry me. Maybe us only children will just have to a support group to help each other get through it 🙂 Yet again on the flip side, you are an amazing community-builder and really bring people around you together…would you be like that if you had a large family?

    • Beth August 7, 2012 at 10:24 pm #

      I hadn’t thought about my compulsion for community-building in that context, but I’m sure you’re right.

      And yes, we do need to set up an only child support group! It’s still something I’d like to make a radio doco about. It’s going to be an experience for more and more people. And that coupled with older parents (37-41 is the norm for first kids in the inner-west it seems) creates a scary situation in 30-40 years time.

  3. mischa August 10, 2012 at 7:37 am #

    having lots of siblings doesn’t necessarily immunise you against loneliness. i’m one of five and my dominant childhood memory is of playing by myself – probably because i was the only girl and there was a fairly significant age gap between me and the two brothers closest in age to me (5 years on one side and 4 years on the other). i have few recollections of my three older brothers ever playing with me (though they certainly enjoyed beating me up, farting on my face etc). i played with my younger brother a bit – we put on plays and stuff – but he was a bit too young.

    as an adult though, i do enjoy being part of a big family. i’m close to my three older brothers and we certainly share gripes about our parents, as you suggest, beth, which can be very comforting. i’m hoping we’ll also be able to share care for our mum as she ages, although i’d have to say some of us are likely to do more of the heavy lifting than others on that front (due to geography, differing senses of familial responsibility etc). we also just really enjoy each others’ company – we share particular turns of phrase, a similar sense of humour, similar penchants (sweets!).

    but in some ways this is just luck – we could equally have found ourselves with nothing in common. i know plenty of siblings who are chalk and cheese.

    • Beth August 10, 2012 at 9:50 am #

      Fascinating Mischa! Thanks for sharing that.

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