Art by Kim Salac
Picture a family. How many children do you see? How many parents? Mother, father, boy, girl: the nuclear family almost always appears as a two-parent household with (usually) two children. One child or two, “the family,” according to popular media, has two parents.
That is not the reality for me; I am a part of a two-person family -- one child, one parent.
Just as an only child behaves differently than a child with siblings, a single-parent household functions differently than a two-parent household.
I wanted to know if I was the only one who felt shaped -- in specific, unspoken ways -- by the family dynamic of my single-parent household as a daughter. I spoke with two only children like me, about how they handle life with a single mother, and how that experience has affected or defined who they are. What I learned surprised and comforted me: we are so alike in how we think and even communicate about our lives as only children.
Randall: At what age did your parent feel comfortable leaving you at home alone?
LS: It was a mix. It wouldn’t be like I was always home alone… sometimes she’d drop me off at someone’s house or someone would come over. I know there were times I was alone. She’d go over the whole “Don’t open the door for anyone,” and “If they say they are my friend, they’re not my friend,” so I think like nine [years old].
SM: I think it was sixth grade, but I don’t know if “comfortable” is the right word. It was more so out of necessity — she didn’t feel comfortable. It was the whole reason why I got my first phone, so I could stay at home by myself.
Randall: How does your personality change when you’re alone vs when you’re with your parent? What part of yourself do you change when you’re around your parent?
LS: I have the parent control setting on. There are certain topics I don’t talk to her about. On the one hand, I am definitely still goofy, and I talk to about social issues sometimes to an extent just ‘cause sometimes we don’t agree and I feel like getting into things. My mother raised me as a mother and not a friend, and that line was definitely known. As such, I’m not always “on”; I do my thing: Go to the kitchen, get my food, and go back to my room.
SM: When I’m with my mother… I’m [usually] censoring [myself] because I don’t want her to worry too much, rather than when I’m by myself, I just let it go. When I’m not with my mother, I don’t think I change too much because I have gotten used to acting older than I am. In my college application, I wrote [how] I knew my mother’s email password before I had my first phone. I’m a bit more stressed out when I’m by myself because I’m constantly worried about everything, whereas if I was at home I am seeing the process of things being solved.
When distinguishing between how to act with [a] parent versus friends, those relationships are completely different. As a daughter, you are inhaling all of the thoughts from your peers, teachers, family, and the media and trying to mold your own identity.
Randall: How did your parent talk to you about responsibility in public vs. in the house?
LS: She’d always say, “Think before you speak, don’t just blurt out what you’re thinking. She used to say not to embarrass her. Since I was an only child, I was a very energetic kid. Going to another kid’s house was the only chance I got to play with people. I was the ringleader of the kids, so she would tell me to pipe down.
SM: It was never explicitly said, but you know I picked up on it and if she gave me that look, [I knew], “I’m doing something wrong.”
Every only child gets that talk from their parent on how to stay alert and behave when they are alone. That trust placed in us is out of necessity as there cannot always be someone to be there to watch us.
Randall: Did your parent remember the names of your friends?
LS: I remember I had this one best friend, and [my mother] she knew her name because I would talk about her all the time, but other than that... My mom just also [is] really bad at names — she was never one for friends. I never hung out with people outside of school. I hung out with family, went to [family members’] houses, couldn’t go to sleepovers except for family. I only saw school friends at school.
Randall: Have you ever felt any pressure that was set by your parent?
LS: Coming to terms with the reason why I’m so… I’m not the most insecure person, but the insecurities I do have come from her. The way she used to frame things, was like… kids were going to judge you. That kind of set me up into questioning everything I did. I grew up, and no one judged me, and I was like, “Well no one judged me. That was just you and not kids.”
Randall: Do you know the order of your love languages, and do you think your parent recognized them as your love language growing up?
LS: Yes, I think [love languages] are the same in platonic relationships as they are in [romantic] relationships. [My] first ones are tied: Quality Time and Acts of Service, then Physical Touch, then Receiving Gifts and Words of Affirmation at the bottom. I don’t know if she recognizes them; I think most immigrant parents do acts of service as a love language — physical touch, not really. I’m not really pressed for quality time. Words of Affirmation does not really happen, and [neither do] gifts.
SM: I’m going based off of what I think of myself, so Quality Time, Acts of Service, Physical Touch, Words of Affirmation, and Receiving Gifts. Yes, I think too much. I didn’t think about that, but I think she might have influenced them.
When I first took the love language test I also had quality time as my highest priority. In terms of the test, the five language are ranked from most important to least important for you; these results are said to be based off of what you were neglected of during childhood. When reminiscing on my childhood I realized I had to question my belonging; Did someone spend time with me out of necessity or because they wanted to? It was not surprising when it was revealed that all of us [only children] had Quality Time ranked highest when taking this test. There was never anyone always there for you so you’d be with someone yet feel alone.
Randall: How has your relationship with your parent been affected during this pandemic?
LS: It’s a complex relationship… [as] only children, you kind of always get guilted if you try to do other things or want to — at least that’s how I feel — go hang out with people. It’s kind of like, “Oh, what about me?,” feeling [guilty] for kind of leaving them “alone.” I work from home 9-5, so I’m holed up in my room, and sometimes I sense hostility if I can’t do something for her because of work, which is a priority. It’s always like a complaint of, “Oh, you don’t miss me,” “You don’t spend time with me,” and it’s like, “How am I going to miss you? We live in the same house.” It’s really hard, and it’s not talked about enough; it’s so intense. People be like, “Oh my god, it’s so cute, it’s y’all two,” and I’m like “No.” And there’s no one to intervene in the middle — there’s no dad, there’s no sibling to break up the tension.
SM: This pandemic has solidified — the way college does for students — like you’re an adult. Financial stuff, I think that because of the pandemic my mom was like you need to have a car because you’re not about to ride the bus. I’ve taken on the responsibility of owning my own car, and I’m not going to ask my mother anything about my car. I think this pandemic has shown her and I that I can handle my stuff [financially].
As an only child attending school online with a mother who works most of the time, I am by myself. I have become accustomed to being alone and knowing that you can have fun by yourself. While this pandemic has put me in an unlikely situation, I know that there is someone who will support me no matter what. We are together and alone in the same house, living in our own worlds, and loving each other.