Only parent, only child: An ode to our small family

Julia Cho

THE WASHINGTON POST – I didn’t become a member of a small family by choice. My husband died when my daughter was almost two years old, and we became a family of two – the smallest number of people I suppose one can have and use the word “family”. While I may have hoped for a Brady Bunch situation, she is now 11 years old, and at least for the time being, we are more Gilmore Girls than Brady Bunch – minus the living father, perfectly scripted banter and idyllic town. There are many movies and stories about large families, but the small family feels less celebrated. Navigating the rhythms and dynamics of our small family has felt less familiar and observed, almost hidden – but no less sacred.

I am my child’s entire family, it hits me one day early on. Yes, there are grandparents, uncles, and family friends – but when she speaks of her “family” at school she is talking about one person: Me. I am the only person drawn with her in the “family pillow” she made in kindergarten – the one on display in the elementary school hallway for the yearly art show. “Look! There’s mine!” she said at age five, excitedly pointing. I eyed the other drawings filled with smiling stick people and wondered if she noticed too.

She is my first and my last. I don’t get a second chance to do this better. While other parents of two or three often seemed relieved to get rid of their last high chair or stroller, saying goodbye to each of these was difficult for me. There was no one coming up behind her to save her cute dresses for, and I couldn’t rationalise hanging onto that cute play kitchen any longer. Our attendance in each school – preschool, elementary school – will last exactly the number of years allotted for one child – no more. Each chapter is succinct. One growing child seems to accelerate time. But it’s also the reason I unabashedly go early to get a seat in the first row for the holiday concert, have never missed an elementary school field day, and enjoy our walk to and from school each morning and afternoon so much.

I am an only parent with an only child. Even the word “only” has often sounded like “Not enough,” or “That’s all?” “Is she your only one?” people inevitably ask. “Yes.” There is usually a short silence and a head nod after I answer. To combat the “only,” imagination has played a large role in our home, and we’ve both invented our share of additional family members over the years. There was that unicorn puppet for which I did a Julia Child-esque voice. At age three she had four or five (including the twins) imaginary friends that joined us sometimes for meals. Her dolls have accompanied us on multiple vacations. When she lost her first tooth, I glued fairy doors above the baseboards in our home. The fairy that moved in with us left tiny packages and envelopes with glitter. My daughter’s stuffed animals have had marriages and started families of their own.

Being the only parent of an only child means that when she was a toddler and pre-schooler I legitimately worried that if I had a heart attack or fell at home, it might be days before anyone found us. As soon as she was old enough, I got a landline and programmed in 911 and her grandparents’ number and taught her how to use it. It means I made up my will carefully, I think regularly about her guardians, and I write her yearly letters that she can read one day if anything happens to me. There is no other keeper of our family stories. “I love you more than anyone in the world,” she tells me in the dark as I’m tucking her into bed at age seven. I must stay alive, I think.

It means oftentimes I’ve left the kitchen lights on when we’re out, just so that we could know the feeling of coming home to a house with lights on. That doesn’t happen when you’re a single parent with a young child. It means there is no one to “check” my parenting and weigh in on whether I’m being too demanding or too lenient. There is also no natural delineation: “The grown-ups are doing this,” or “Kids can sit over there.” There is only she and I.

As a family of two it’s difficult to manufacture the “fun family” feel that seems to come from sheer numbers. But we make adjustments. Santa had to leave a few wrapped presents with my name on them because my daughter didn’t enjoy being the only person opening presents Christmas morning. “This one’s for you!” she said excitedly handing one to me. We vacation in the summer with her grandparents. We invite our neighbor over for Sunday dinner and host a cookie decorating party at Christmas for her friends. On our nightly walks in the summer we have time to chat on the porch of the elderly widow who lives down the street.

Ironically, it also means it’s difficult to have the special “mother/daughter” time I see other parents highlighting on social media (“Out on a mommy/daughter date!”) because spending time together is our norm. But we do laugh a lot at dinner each night. We do drink root beer floats, have dance parties in her room and sob together watching golden buzzer moments on feel-good TV shows.

After nine years as a family of two, I still feel the phantom limbs of the family we might’ve been if my husband had lived, but most of the time our family life has a rhythm that is spare and deep – like the lines of a good poem.

Like the Chopin my daughter plays nightly after dinner while I sit and write. Like this morning when we stopped to notice the crepuscular rays of the sun shining through the evergreens onto the grass across the street as we walked up to school. She said it looked like an angel. Or like that day when she was four or five, and she picked up two small white clovers while we walked outside and handed me one. “These will be our friendship flowers,” she said in her grown-up baby voice, “and when they die it’ll just mean we’ve been friends for a really long time.” I saved the flowers on a little dish until they were nothing but crumbs.