LIFE

Being An Only Child Was Great Until I Fully Realized What I Was Missing Out On

by Ann-Sophie Kaemmerle
Native New Yorker, University of Virginia graduate, runner, and sometimes stand-up performer.

When I tell people that I grew up as an only child, most respond in the same way. “Really? That’s interesting,” and they say it in a tone of polite pity. I guess they are making the assumption that I had a miserable childhood, with no playmates at home, and I lack all of the valuable learning experiences that come with having brothers and sisters.

Contrary to what most people might think, I was quite happy as a child. My parents were my best friends growing up. Some of my favorite things to do when I was young included reading outside or wandering alone in museum halls and galleries (I could sit in the corner sketching for hours). To be honest, there is something freeing about feeling invisible, from time to time, and I never craved the constant company and attention of others, either.

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But, during my teenage years, I started to wonder how my life would have been different if I had an older sister, not out of want, but out of need.

In my mind, an older sister served a purpose: If I was facing bullies in school, she would rescue me. If I needed help with homework, she would help me. Between playing soccer in the mud with boys and spending time by myself reading and drawing, I didn’t know how to “act like a girl” my age, so I longed for a female role model to guide me on who to be and what to do. My parents constantly scolded me for coming home with muddy pants after spending time with the boys my age.

Even if I wanted to stop and obey, I didn’t know what girls talked about. I decided to try it one day, and sat by myself, waiting for the girls to notice.

I went right back to playing soccer when they started making fun of me, and didn’t look back. If I had an older sister, she would have been able to solve my problem (so I thought, at least).

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In college I started to form some very close female friendships, and my curiosity about what life would be like with a sister did fade.

While in school, I met many strong women ranging from their early twenties to early forties whom I came to see as my siblings. They are all very different people, and each separately provided something I wanted: protection, companionship, a shoulder to cry on, and emotional validation.

My roommate at the time, for example, and I were total opposites, but we are both only children. I was surprised that someone so sheltered in many ways could grow accustomed to my antics (I was very impulsive at the time). In turn, I inadvertently took it upon myself to teach her all the things I knew and she didn’t. She never shut me down when I made a spontaneous or rash decision when others did, and for that I was grateful. We balanced each other out perfectly.

She, and the few others I kept close formed the perfect “sister” I never knew I needed. I thought that my feelings for them were the same, should I have had a sister. 

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And then, just like that, a few weeks ago, as I rode the train home, sitting across from a man and his two daughters that yearning for a sister hit me harder than it ever had. 

The girls were dressed in matching bright pink jackets, gloves, jeans, and glasses. They were no older than 10, and were separated by only two years or so.

For as long as I observed them, they were quiet and well-behaved. They did not bother their father, who appeared to be distracted by his phone. As soon as seats opened up, all three sat down, their father still ignoring them, though the girls did not seem bothered. 

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But it was one small, insignificant gesture that nearly brought me to tears.

Without so much as a word, the older girl took her little sister’s hand in hers. They did not look nor did they speak to one another in that moment. They absentmindedly held hands for the duration of the ride. 

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The simplicity of the gesture struck me. I did not know that love could be expressed in such a simple, seemingly banal gesture.

I was used to “I love you’s” (my father says them too much, but my mother too little) and hugs from friends and family, but those expressions of affection seemed premeditated, even calculated. Favors by others, both big and small, seemed all of sudden artificial, and for a brief moment, I was convinced that all kindness that others had shown was simply in pursuit of getting something in return. I had experienced nothing as pure and simple and automatic as hand-holding

Sisters
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The sudden realization didn’t change how I felt about my “sisters.” I still love them and would do anything for them, and we are all still very close. But all this time, my perception of what a true sister is was wrong. They don’t have to offer things, like guidance and protection. They don’t need to have a functional purpose in one’s life, and you don’t have to do something to be loved and appreciated.

Both being and having a sibling I’ve come to realize means that you love for the sake of loving, without rhyme or reason. These girls held hands like nothing around them existed. They were one island in this sea of people. And there was something just so beautiful about watching these two little girls, holding hands — them against the world. 

That is sisterhood.