WE JUST DECIDED TO PUT ALL OUR eggs in one basket,” my father used to say by way of explaining why I was an only child, and then he would pat me the basket on the back if I was anywhere within arm’s reach. I heard him say it often because my aunts and uncles, with their big Italian families who regularly joined us for holiday dinners, never could shake their puzzlement and surprise at the oddity of such an underpopulated family.
Being my parents’ one and only basket never bothered me I just thought of myself as a more concentrated form of family than that of my cousins, whose strengths and weaknesses were spread out like laundry in their many, overflowing baskets. From other children, I’d concluded that siblings were more trouble than they were worth “He always borrows my stuff,” my friends at school complained about their bratty brothers and sisters. “She’s always bossing me around.” They would draw stick figures of their families, with red bombs exploding on the brat, or take a big, black crayon and go over and over their circle faces until holes were worn through the paper in an effort to scribble their brothers and sisters away.
Adult siblings, from what I saw in my own family, weren’t much better. My father, the fifth of six kids, had rotating 20-year feuds with one or two of his siblings. When I was a teenager, a woman with my father’s hooked nose and curly hair mysteriously showed up in our living room one Sunday afternoon and was introduced as my aunt Just as suddenly, another aunt and uncle dropped out of sight, only to reappear during my second year of college.
When I was 9,1 had a brief fling with siblinghood that confirmed my preference for being an only child. A man my father worked with was having problems in his marriage, and my parents took in their 6-year-old daughter for a few months a skinny girl with red hair and a less-than-enthusiastic appetite for Italian food. Clearly, she wasn’t one of us. Following the advice of my siblinged friends, I did my best to bring this to my parents’ attention. I bettered her across the board, pulling in the best grades ever, cleaning up my room every morning and eating three helpings of my mother’s spaghetti, the most wonderful in the whole world. That Kale red-haired girl was no match for me. After her parents patched up their differences and came to take her home, my mother stood on the front porch, all limp and teary-eyed. ! couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about I had won, and my parents still had their only basket.
Then, when I was 16, my future wife, Rosemary, came to my house for the first time. It was a normal weekday: both my parents were at work and I was alone. “This room is all yours?” she marveled, as she ran her fingers slowly over my bookcase, my wing-backed chair, my bedspread and color-coordinated curtains. She went downstairs and sat on the living room couch. “It’s so quiet here,” she said, and made a sound like the human equivalent of a purr. She leaned back into the silence.
“Yeah, so?” I thought “What’ s the big deal?”
I realized what the big deal was when I went to her house. She was the oldest of six kids, but it seemed Eke there were 20 of them. “This is my brother Bill,” said Rosemary, “and this is Michael, who’s 10, and this is my sister Cathy, and Barbara’s upstairs, and my little sister Jackie isn’t home from school yet” A hundred and fifty pounds of clean, folded laundry sat on the stairs, and stacks of schoolbooks covered the kitchen table. Rosemary’s mother ran around checking homework papers, periodically dashing back to the stove to stir a 40-gallon pot of beef stew. So many names, so many faces how did they ever manage to remember them all? Never before had I seen so much hubbub and excitement It was noisy, it was chaotic it was wonderful!
Sometimes, I think I married Rosemary as much for her family as for herself. But when we started to talk about having children, I instinctively wanted a family that looked like the one 1 had grown up in. Our son, Christopher, was born soon after we married, and, in my mind, we were just the way a family should be father, mother and one child.
Rosemary, not unexpectedly, had other ideas. By the time Christopher turned 5, she was saying that it was time for more kids, time for a real family. I mumbled vague responses. I feigned sleepiness when she brought it up for the 600th time in the middle of the night. I reminded her of the days when our house always smelled of dirty diapers and we both woke up at 2 am. for weeks on end Did she really want to start that all over again? And I had deeper fears, too. In spite of my in-laws, I had seen in my therapy office how too many children could tip a family out of balance, drive parents to exhaustion or craziness. But I slowly melted By the time Christopher turned 8, I had somehow overcome the apprehensions that held my parents to their one-basket view of life. Over the years, I’d heard Rosemary’s hushed conversations with her younger sister, and listened to all six of her siblings laugh about the time the youngest one didn’t make it to the car window and threw up, nailing six out of the seven people in the car. I laughed, too, but I still felt like an outsider. I remembered how I’d felt as a child, unable to share a small but important moment in my life with a close-at-hand, almost-peer. It was a kind of loneliness I’d taken for granted then, but I’d learned from my wife’s family how different things could be. I wanted something different for my son.
Having a second child wasn’t as easy as we’d hoped But finally, when Christopher was 12 and old enough to be a built-in baby-sitter, our long-awaited second child was born. When I held Jennifer in my arms, I knew I’d broken my family’s mold She is 11 now, and Christopher is 23. My children have given each other a connection to a circle of intimacy wider than we as parents alone could provide.
Being an only basket certainly isn’t so bad, and having brothers and sisters certainly does not give us any guarantee against isolation or loneliness in life. But their place in our lives gives them a special power to provide us with a way of remembering who we were and where we came from. They can help us to see ourselves and our past more reasonably, more sanely, they can remind us how much we, and our lives, have grown and changed in a way our parents can never do. By reaching out and touching those in our family, we can learn that moving toward others can be a special gift. In a world that is becoming increasingly brittle and fragmented, these are valuable lessons indeed.
Robert Taibbi, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 40 years of experience primarily in community mental health working with couples and families as a clinician, supervisor and clinical director. Bob is the author of Clinical Supervision: A Four-Stage Process of Growth and Discovery and Clinical Social Work Supervision; Doing Couples Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Work with Intimate Partners; Doing Family Therapy: Craft and Creativity in Clinical Practice; Boot Camp Therapy: Action-Oriented Brief Treatment of Anxiety, Anger & Depression; and The Art of the First Session.