Elizabeth is eight and Matilda is four. They are both individuals and a unit together – sisters. Together they form a distinct class in our house – the class of “children.” They have their own hierarchy, mostly policed by Elizabeth, who is the “big sister.”
I’m sure that all of this mindbogglingly simple observation would be utterly uninteresting to anyone except another only child. To anyone else the noise and chaos, fights, and intense love that a child shares with their sibling is normal – it is part of their own memories and identities. Even if you didn’t and still don’t like your sibling, they were there. They also remember. They were witness.
There are many only children who enjoy being an only child. Being an only child is arbitrarily no better or worse than not being an only child, and has a different set of problems and privileges. As you are either one or another no one can really say which is “better.” But for me, based on my experience as an only child and married to an only child (albeit one with siblings in another house) we made a decision that we did not want to have an only child.
I remember before Matilda was born. I would lie in bed in a sudden panic – what if I never had another child. What if Elizabeth had to go through her childhood alone, with no companion, with no witness. With no one to love when she inevitably hated her parents. I imagined my childhood of endless summers alone, of always wanting more of my friends’ time than they wanted to give. I remembered people around having “family only” events that did not involve three people sitting awkwardly around a table in a Chinese restaurant and just wanting it to be over. I used to imagine that I had seven siblings, all with names, ages and personalities – Doris (we called her Dorsey because Tim simply couldn’t say her name when he was a toddler and so it stuck! She’s five now and we need to keep a puffer on hand for her asthma. She’s a real Daddy’s girl!) and the rest lived with me for years and played with me in our old fashioned garden in the old country house I grew up in.
When I found out I was pregnant I was so delighted, more for Elizabeth than myself. Four years between them – what a gift! I was buoyed by a thousand blessings and happy thoughts. Our house would be happy and filled with the sound of laughter and excited conversations. It never occurred to me until years later that the house would be happy because WE were happy.
I have always sung and read my babies to sleep – doing that was a commitment I made to address autistic Elizabeth’s sleeping difficulties. Once Matilda had arrived I used to stand in their room and listen to the sweet sounds of their gentle breathing. I would speak in a low voice “You love your sister! You love your sister!” I wanted them to be Best Friends. I wanted them to be the sister I always wanted and then found at 19 in my best friend.
Has it worked?
Well, with half of our family being autistic (myself and Elizabeth) we do sometimes divide into camps a little, but with four of us that is easy to do. We have the noisy, chaotic, and happy household of my lonely childhood dreams. Elizabeth, who would usually rather write in her journal or read Pokémon books, is under an obligation to play with Matilda for half an hour before bed and as much as Elizabeth rolls her eyes and huffs, they always seem to enjoy it once they start and rarely wants to finish.
Their sisterhood can be disinterested, but it can also be fantastic. Wannabe playground bullies will quickly be chased away from little Matilda by the assertive and eloquent with the quiet fury of a small autistic whirlwind. They check in with each other throughout the day like we do with them. They talk and laugh and have secrets. They love our big collie dog and call him their brother.
It’s not the moments of perfection that fascinate me about their relationship, however – it’s the funny little conflicts that I never experienced with my imaginary siblings. Elizabeth can and will ingratiate herself with new playground friends by telling them her sister is annoying. While Elizabeth does sometimes tell on her sister in the altruistic interest of making sure rules are obeyed, Matilda tells on Elizabeth with unfettered glee.
“Mom! Elizabeth! Drew! On! Her! BOOK!!!!!” is the cry to war, accompanied by ecstatic dancing. “COMEANDSEE!!!!”
For me and to a lesser extent my husband, being an only child was the first step into a word where I was always wanting more from people and they were always unable or unwilling to give it. Begging on my knees for a sibling to parents and God alike, to someone who would please, please give me someone to love unreservedly, is a prayer that was somewhat answered with being given my own two children. I saw the possibility of a sibling as the answer to a difficult relationship with my parents, which it probably never would have been.
But I am glad I have my two and I only wish I had more and more and our house was filled with children who would grow up to remember fondly the days that Mom used to stand in the hallway with a smile, listening to them play with a heart so full it leaked out of her eyes.