An Only Child’s Solitude

Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,
right solitude oils it.

—Jane Hirshfield

Solitude is important to me for two personal reasons: I grew up as an only child, and I am the father of an only child, Elizabeth.

The arc of an only child’s experience is easy to trace. Solitude begins as a problem and grows into a necessity. The problem of solitude is that it is so easily transmuted into loneliness, boredom and isolation. This is wrong solitude. The necessity of solitude arises from an inability to turn off the “busyness” of other people.

These points will seem obvious to only children. We are the ones, for example, most likely to have imaginary friends who become involved in complex narratives of our own invention. This sort of thing is part of the only child’s solution to the “problem” of solitude, and it can easily ripen into the right solitude of serenity and psychological integration. I am stunned to learn that some “experts” have decided that the imagination necessary to dream up imaginary friends is somehow pathological! I doubt that any only children were consulted in making that determination.

I don’t remember much about my own imaginary friends, but Elizabeth had half a dozen or more, each with a unique personality and voice (she did the talking for all of them). She could play happily by herself for hours on end. As a fellow “only,” however, I put myself in the role of her advocate and protector whenever we were in large social settings because I knew what she was up against—the lack of effective mental filters that would allow her to focus on some things and ignore others.

It was hard-won wisdom, and for her sake I was glad I had it. Both of my parents grew up with siblings. They had, of necessity, developed the mental filters early in life and seemed to assume everyone was born with them. My mother had three sisters. My father had six sisters and a brother, all with loud voices. At family gatherings, I would quickly be overwhelmed by the level of activity and noise because I didn’t know how to ignore any conversation or activity. If someone was talking, I was listening. If something was happening, I felt drawn into it, even if it didn’t interest me. Again and again I would find myself trying to follow several conversations at once and keep track of what everyone was doing.

It was exhausting, and before long I would instinctively seek out a quiet corner. Non-participation, however, was never an option at these events. Invariably, one or more of my aunts would see me off by myself and try to pull me back into the middle of things. They called me “shy” and “stand-offish” and “spoiled.” It made me angry and hurt my feelings. It also failed to answer my most basic question: “Why can’t anybody ever shut up?”

I was an adult before I developed the necessary mental filters, but large groups can still wear me out. These days, of course, I can decide when I’ve had enough. At my best, I can take care of myself without seeming “shy” or “stand-offish” and without hurting anyone’s feelings. It is always a complex dance, but whatever I do I have simply aged out of the charge of being “spoiled.” I will never have to endure it again. That is quite simply the greatest blessing an only child can ever receive.

And anyway, if you think hanging around with large groups of kids is the sine qua non of healthy childhood, please take another look at Lord of the Flies. 😉

3 Replies to “An Only Child’s Solitude”

  1. What a lovely post – I am an only child – with 4 older brothers and sisters – who are so much older that they were gone before I could know them or they know me as a person. (I had an imaginary friend named “Elizabeth”) Very interesting thoughts expressed here on solitude – I have struggled with that versus loneliness and isolation sometimes even in company and a crowd (even more so). I feel so gratified for you insights as I have more into my own being. This is coming at a very good time for me – making a difference – wow! Thank you!

  2. Mary,

    Perhaps I’ve thought about “only-ness” more than many people because of the circumstances of my life – first as an only in an extended family that obviously didn’t approve of onlies, then as the parent of an only.

    What really set me off yesterday was a short piece in the current issue of Newsweek that regurgitated most of the conventional twaddle about only children.

    Thanks for stopping by AIWS!


  3. Well said, and I’m thinking I’ll forward to others.

    I was so impressed I even clicked through on an ad. Your check should be arriving shortly.

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