I always knew that I wanted a large family. Now with three kids, by the standards of my non-Jewish hometown social circle I am procreating at the speed of bunny. And I’m not done, God willing. Growing up I decided early on that being an only child was lonely and boring, and I hoped to save my own kids from the monotony of being one of one. Now looking back I think subconsciously I believed that if I spread the double-helices around a little I would spare myself from having to raise any creature as difficult as myself. While I do have eight step and half siblings from a variety of marriages, I never lived with any of them. I am my parents’ only child; they split up when I was two, making me the solitary proof that they had ever been together.
As the only child of a single, struggling mother I learned how to give of myself, how to be kind, how to be honest and modest to the point of self-deprecation. I learned to find beauty in sunsets and sonatas, and love without limit. I learned to be a generous hugger. My mom spent most of her adult life sacrificing everything to give me opportunities she never had and entertaining me endlessly.
Without siblings or any kids my own age around for blocks, my mom was compelled to sit on the floor and play games, read stories, sing songs and chaperone me in the park. I didn’t play well with others, never quite grasping the social cues necessary to build relationships with other children, and my mom had no mommy friends so she probably thought I was normal. The single greatest thing I experienced as a child was being someone’s entire universe. Not many of us get to be the center of gravity around which another person’s existence rotates. Only a child who is one of one can understand never having to share a parent’s affection.
But unconditional, absolute love is not what characterizes plebian social interactions. My friends growing up were fictitious. Developed through chapters rather than years, my experience of human interactions came mostly from books. I read my way through the children’s library, and quickly moved upstairs to the adult shelves. The librarians knew me by name. Books hid under my pillow, under my mattress, between my bed and the adjacent wall, under my bed… my mom’s nightly sweeps never caught all of them, and so I would read by my dim night light until the early hours of the morning. I devoured three, sometimes four books a day. I read under my desk during class, ignoring the capitals of the Canadian provinces and the mining capabilities of Abitibi-Temiscamingue in favor of Jerzy Kosinski and John Irving and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka. I never went outside during recess, tossing my bag lunch into the trash in its entirety before retreating to the aisles of the small, dusty school library.
When I finally chose a sport, I chose to swim. Isolated and submerged, there was no demand of team playing. No need to communicate. In lieu of inter-subjective interaction, I wrote self-absorbed morbid poetry. Through the pattern and rhythm of those written words I expressed all the things I could never speak to a real person. Reading over my work, writing and rewriting, I never needed to learn that words cannot be unspoken in the same way that they can be erased from the page. I never learned to filter hurtful outbursts or youthful infatuations, empty threats or painful confessions. When it came time for me to actually be with real live people it took many falls before I could walk.
Now a woman, wife and mother I feel truly blessed by all the infinitely giving individuals who tolerate my only-child quirkiness: I need to always be right. It always needs to be my way. I don’t know how to step back and I don’t know when to engage. Sometimes I get into friendships that only hurt me and leave me wondering whether the thing that is really wrong is me. I both offer and demand total loyalty, and feel deeply betrayed by anything less. I assume that people know when I am playing Devil’s advocate for sport, but even I forget sometimes. I am suspicious and greedy for affection. I hate being left out. I hate being alone, but I hate being in a crowd. I need to be both held close and given space simultaneously. In short, I am complicated and sometimes difficult. Though marriage and motherhood have taught me to back down, to listen and to compromise, I remain the same intense, lonely only child I have always been.
Many of my friends and acquaintances in Israel come from large families. I watch with fascination how they know each other, really know each other. How they fight and love and laugh. Through terrible loss and joyous gain, I watch them reminisce, laughing about things only siblings could understand. I look at my husband and understand that his brothers are the ground beneath his childhood. His memories are shared memories, his story a tapestry of mutual experience. He has a quilt where I have a single square of fabric. I seek this feeling in my friendships, but it is elusive. It is exclusive to real blood. I have come close; in my marriage, in that rare friendship, through being mothered and mothering. I have watched this shared story, in some form or another, from the outside, and now I watch as one writes itself between my children.
I know that siblings fight. I know of too many families where brothers and sisters are lost to one another beneath a sea of resentment, jealousy and misunderstanding. Every day I question whether or not I am fostering a deep and loving relationship between my daughters. Every petty argument is magnified by my earnest desire for them to always be there for one another. To never let their sisters be alone. When I decided to get pregnant with my second child just ten months after my first was born, it was for my eldest and not for me. I wanted to give a sibling to my child, I wanted to give her the greatest gift I could imagine and the only thing my own mother was unable to give me no matter how badly she wanted to.
I imagine a future where they laugh about how overbearing their mother was, how she loved them like they were only children because it was all she ever knew. I imagine watching them with one another as grown women, hurting and rejoicing together, talking late into the night, laughing and crying over things long past. I hope I have the strength to teach them to cherish one another, to support one another and intervene when one steps too far over the line. I never had any myself, but I pray that my girls understand that siblings are a mother’s gift to her children and that they are an invaluably precious gift to one another.