Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

This essay was the second–place winner in Brain, Child magazine's recent "How Big Is Your Brood?" essay contest.  You can read the rest of the winners and subscribe at www.brainchildmag.com.

Only One
In our family, three’s company

by Robin Bradford

My onesome son, singleton, all-in-one, absolute, only-begotten, unique, only child. I cannot picture another version of his four-year-old Dutch-boy bangs, his torn-jeans and gripping-the-mike fake guitar-playing, his ornate stories woven of sci-fi, dog lore, spy gadgets, and rescue jargon. He is the only one who calls me "Mom" and I answer; anyone else is a stranger. Only one fits in our bed at 5 a.m. with still plenty of covers. One chooses three bedtime stories and hears them in the perfect order he has devised. One rides between us on his bike, we the bookends of safety. One fits in the backseat with the dog. With one, there are always more of us than him. We are the adults who are sometimes wrong, sometimes right, but in any case there are more of us, so there. With one, someone can get beyond the present zen-like moment of exhaustion and pay bills on time, fold laundry in the tight corner of a weekend, sleep, and, perhaps, dream.

After all, I was one, my father is one, my cousin is one, my son is one, and also my brother.

The first girl I knew whose parents were divorced was me. My dad had his own place in another town by the time I was three, and just a few years later he married the woman who’s been his wife for nearly thirty-five years. My half-brother was born when I was eight and though I gave him a bottle, balancing his heavy body on a pillow on my lap for my dad’s camera, he was never mine. He had a mural of zoo animals on his walls and later a Star Wars theme with a trash can hand-painted to look like R2-D2. I lived in apartments where putting a nail in the wall was considered a dangerously permanent act. When middle school got dicey for him, he went to private schools while I had to just ignore the kids yelling a hazy invitation from the bleachers at 7:30 in the morning: Come get fucked! We weren’t siblings, the same, at all. Once we played Chinese checkers—I was never good at games because there was no one to play with—and though I was eight years older, he won. "Sibling rivalry," my stepmother crooned proudly, ignorant that his getting all my pretty marbles was the least of it.

Only is lonely, I would tell myself, listening to John Denver records and strumming my own guitar in my room. I traveled with a space around me that no else one could occupy. I had friends, we pricked fingers, but at the end of the day it was just me. Just my mother and me, pressing close and pushing away like two people breathing in a tight embrace.

Then, during five years of high school and college, the length of my mother’s third ill-fated marriage, I found myself one of four. For one spring, until my oldest step-sister graduated from college and married her boyfriend, I even shared a room. In June a bridesmaid threw out her back and suddenly I stood in a row with my "sisters," identical only because of the powder-blue dresses with matching pink-flower flocked capes. I fell between the oldest, heading for her destiny as a high school history teacher, and the youngest, an eleven-year-old would-be gymnast, with another middle child who had never had to share the role before. Candy was a grade younger than me, tiny as a bird, who made Cs and worse and whose boyfriends drove cars that left tracks in our yard. In the end, I went away to college and their father died of leukemia. In the very end, they disappeared. If there is anything I live in shame of, it is abandoning them as sisters, following my mother’s footsteps out of their lives. But there is not a word for what we really were to each other, except: survivors.

In college, I wore my aloneness as a badge along with my vintage velveteen peddle-pushers, rhinestone housefly pin, and spikey haircuts that required a new hair product called mousse. Only the lonely would have dated the umpteen depressed, alcoholic, artist-types I did.

As an adult, when I meet another only child—somewhat rare among nearly-forty-year-olds—for a moment we bond around our aloneness. Do you remember? Do you remember playing with stuffed animals for hours by yourself? Do you remember hiding in the bushes while the other kids looked for you? Do you remember writing/drawing/reading all day until your body was sore from being alone? Do you remember willing the phone to ring, door to knock, sound to form on someone’s lips: I want you.

Then somewhere around thirty, my half-brother returned from India and Nepal and Bulgaria, the places he’d gone to make his life complex, and when he came back he was sad and lonely and mine. With our giant eyebrows, green-blue changeling eyes and square chins that throw off our good looks, we are more alike than many siblings. We’re both writers, we both married people we didn’t expect to love, and right now we both have an only child—but in the spring his second will be born.

How did we ever become a family of onlys? My father is an only child because the love of his parents—a thirty-eight-year-old woman caring for a widowed mother and a forty-something, married, construction company owner—had a short, secret life. My brother is an only child because the baby who was supposed to be his sister died and left his mother unable to bear more. I am an only child because there wasn’t space in my parents’ loud marriage for another mistake. My son is the only one that was planned to be alone.

I’ve always imagined having one. After all, I turned out all right. I hardly flinch when I pull a wad of my husband’s gray hairs from our shared hairbrush—though before we mated, I confess my idea of sharing was two spoons and one large scoop. Despite my board game losses, I play well with others—especially if Mexican food is involved. Of the growing-up hurdles I’ve jumped, being an "only" wasn’t even in the race. As it turned out, love came to me late and strong, with a single flower blooming from it, rooting us to this small house which has room for only one.

Yet a month ago, when my husband finally scheduled the sperm highway demolition I’d been demanding the past two years, I wasn’t so sure. He repeated the doctor’s admonition: "You’re fifty-three, but your wife is only thirty-nine—are you sure?" For two semi-free hours the next morning between swimming laps, driving around town for my job, and meeting a friend for lunch, I was intensely unsure. A second one I could get right. For number two, I was ready to worry less, enjoy more. This one wouldn’t kick me in the butt like the first, because I’d finally get the knack for sleeping when the baby sleeps and letting the house just go to pot.

So it would set back my writing career another four or five years.

So it would mean we’d have to move to a bigger house and therefore another neighborhood where we’d have to get all new friends for all three, oops, four, of us.

So we’d have to get bigger cars, bigger jobs, a bigger pay-as-you-throw trash can, and a bigger bed.

Yet, what a whopping gift for our son: someone to play with, someone to fight with, someone to be big for, someone to look like, someone to grow old with, someone to bitch about old mom and dad with, someone to love.

That night at dinner I watched a mom (tee-shirt, ponytail) and dad (t-shirt, dark circles) care for their two kids, one my son’s age and one just a baby. Wearing gray slacks and an artful barrette in my hair, I had met work friends at this vaguely Hawaiian-style, lake-side restaurant to celebrate a hard-won city council vote. While I nursed a beer and pu-pu platter, the parents kept the big one from falling in the lake and jiggled the little one, eating their dinner in shifts. I watched the hundred tiny tasks the couple performed—cutting the meat, moving the cup from the edge, dropping the blanket on the floor and shaking it out, fishing socks from the diaper bag—in the time it took me to gobble a shrimp. All that work, that tender, back-breaking, soul-changing work. I saw as clearly as the sunset gathering pink on the water, it was beyond us. Somewhere my husband and I had crossed an arching bridge back to the paradise of how our lives used to be—but better. Once again we enjoy a world where people are mostly ambulatory, can more or less take care of their bodily wastes, and go more than thirty minutes without going red with tears.

I could argue that one child means less weight on our dying world. I could confess that we are too old (combined age of ninety-one now), too tired (our son didn’t sleep through the night until he was three), and too poor (talk is the only thing I’ve found that’s cheap). I could point out that in this dual working-parent age, one child is all a couple can really squeeze on their calendar. I could get political and rage that our family-oriented government doesn’t know flip about how hard it is to raise one these days. I could lament that one is all I’ve ever known myself—so how could I possibly imagine more? But that’s not why we’re only having one.

Friends with two or more, friends who have siblings, and even strangers encourage us to give it another go. They say we’re such good parents. They say our hearts will grow. But all I know is us. We want to parent hands-on, intensely, completely, uniquely, all-night-long, win-or-lose, deep as dirt, so our kid will grow up independent yet woven into a community he will make better. I know our limits. On bad days I’ve crossed them and thought my life was just a daily marathon of raving exhaustion or nuclear family war. Trying to juggle all these hard apples, I’ve nearly missed the moments when the whole world opens up to hear my little one say: Does Godzilla know King Kong?

Jesus, I can’t have a baby—I need to make coffee every night for Onyx, the invisible dinosaur taller than a skyscraper that follows my son around everywhere!

The truth is my husband and I and our tiny extended families are stretched as far as we can reach, yet we’re still no bigger than a pup tent. We’ve just barely got our single pup covered—how could we possibly raise another?

So, no more tiny tongue hoovering my nipples, left side, right side, repeat. No more little diaper-padded butt to pat-pat-pat. No more ear infections to make a certain Valentine’s Day date even more memorable. No more dancing around the living room to every song of Oklahoma! (no one else would dream of joining me). No more night-of-the-living-poo or magic-colored urps. No more chances of being side-swiped by a love that ruins your good looks while making you happier than you ever dreamed.

Instead, we’re the house where our son’s friends with younger, toy-devouring siblings safely retreat for important spy missions. We’re the people who bounce our friends’ baby so they can eat dinner together for at least one night. We’re the ones in the tiny house with the middle-sized car and the ill-paying jobs that we love; we’re the rebels who listened to our hearts; we’re the ones who just love sleeping through the night too much; we’re the lovers who already scheme way too often for time alone together. So if it gets crowded, noisy, too fulsome at your house of two or three or more, come on over. The coffee’s brewing.
Robin Bradford has published stories and essays in The Austin Chronicle, Glimmer Train, Quarterly West, Boston Review, austinmama.com, and many other publications. She works for a nonprofit that provides affordable housing and also teaches writing.

"My brother Tim attended the birth of our son, singing Buddhist chants and Bulgarian folk songs. At a low moment in my weekend-long labor, my husband rested while Tim coached me in the shower wearing his Speedo (brought just in case there was time to swim at Austin’s famous spring-fed pool) while I was in the very pregnant buff. At the time, he was into recording sounds, so when the baby was finally born he plunked his tape recorder down, to record our son’s first cries, onto what the midwife informed him had been a sterile field. I hope our son is lucky enough to have a relationship like ours with someone."
-Robin Bradford