The One and Only

Author: Mary Grace Donaldson, Real Life Stories

Yes, I’m an only child. My existence as an only child was what led my parents to bite the bullet and bring a dog into our home when I was 11 years old. It also has contributed to my development into a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

You’ve probably heard a number of negative notions thrown around about only children. Spoiled. Entitled. Not too far off from the negative stereotypes surrounding millennials that we work so hard to fight. But the ones that are rarely discussed I sum up in three words: clingy, lonely and confused.

I experience a number of feelings (clingy, lonely and confused have all been part of my package, unfortunately) that come as a result of being the one and only — but they are compounded by the fact that I wasn’t supposed to be the one and only. My parents gave birth to another child who would have been three and a half years older than I am. Since my brother was born approximately three months premature in 1985, before the days of highly advanced life-saving incubator technology, he had no chance of survival and died in birth.

The technical term for a child who arrives following a deceased child is Replacement Child. But I never felt like a “replacement.” My parents bent over backwards to give me the best life they possibly could. One example that is appropriate today is that they never made my December birthday feel as though it was just “part of Christmas” — I always received separate birthday presents, and up until age 12, we never even put the tree up until my birthday had passed.

But those feelings of clinginess, loneliness and confusion that come as a result of living as the only child of two parents who lost their first child do not dissipate — even when the aforementioned child receives her heart’s desire.


My desire to please everyone around me — especially my parents — knows no bounds. In my mind, consciously or subconsciously, I was (and still am) all they have. I was their only hope to have a kid who made honor roll and earned lead roles in school plays. When I learned early on that I didn’t have an athletic bone in my body (isn’t it a wonder that I write, act and sing?), I stuck with soccer for years because I somehow decided that it was my responsibility that my dad didn’t have a boy to play sports with (oh, if only the me who hates the idea of gender roles could have a chat with middle school me…).

As a child, one of my greatest fears was “getting in trouble.” I never wanted to bring home less than my best on weekly spelling tests, and there was no room to just have an off day. I don’t even know how to “sneak” anything, let alone have tried. It was highly difficult for me to make friends, as I didn’t behave like a “normal” kid — I used big words and could talk someone’s ear off (clingy!) and came up with complicated games that my mom always understood, but other kids didn’t. And when the friends I did have fought with their younger siblings, I used to leave the room in tears, off on some diatribe about how that friend should be thankful for what she had.

Today the feelings of clinginess, loneliness and mostly, mass confusion manifest themselves differently, and yet in some ways the same. I love to talk about myself and my life – because as the only child, I had several opportunities to talk about myself. I am independent and have the need for a lot of personal space, but wonder what’s wrong if I’m home alone on a Saturday night. I think of everyone except myself in many situations because that’s the people-pleaser in me, but in other situations, I’m fast to only think about my own wants and needs…. and then, I beat myself up when I do.

I cannot stand situations in which I have to share my food, or someone orders shared appetizers in a restaurant (I just want my own!) And for the life of me, I still do not understand why siblings fight with each other and then five minutes later can talk as though nothing happened!

I also perpetually find myself on the search for surrogate “siblings,” even as an adult. My extended family is beyond important to me, and interaction with my cousins is always a priority. I spoil the life out of my cousin’s son, who I actually refer to as my nephew. And a number of my friends feel like family members. I don’t trust easily, but when I do, I do it fully… because the people I truly trust are the people who make me feel like I think the love between siblings is supposed to feel.


But there is one big plus of my only child life – even as an only child following the death of a baby. The love of my parents is never in question. As I mentioned in our collaborative piece on why millennials live at home, one of my favorite parts of living at home is that my parents are always around to understand me. We have grown to know each other differently than we did when I was a child, even though they taught me how to behave as an adult from a very young age.

While my parents were highly protective of me as their one and only, I can look back and understand their reasoning and their emotions. And today, in those moments when I just don’t want to behave like an adult, I have a place I can go where I know that’s completely acceptable… and I can emerge from that place when I’m ready to rejoin adulthood (because my parents will be the first to tell me that I can’t stay in that place forever).

One thing I’ve learned from this only child life: I should thank my parents every single day for all they have given me as their one and only.