By Erin Mantz
I wake up worrying what will happen if I ever need someone to give me bone marrow or give me a kidney. Someone like a sibling. If faced with a life or death situation, the angst and longing I feel as an only child could strike me even harder. I am an only child. But pieces of me, literally and figuratively, are strewn across the state of Illinois in the form of long-lost, lost and almost-never-found half and step brothers and sisters – nine to be exact.
On any given day, one or more are on my mind, though unfortunately, they’re not really in my life.
Growing up, I don’t recall being terribly unhappy because I was an only child with divorced parents. But I did feel like part of my identity may very well be missing. I was sure I should have a sibling, and convinced myself that if only I had a sister, every change I kept going through – parents’ divorces and remarriages, stepfamilies, moves, school changes – I could sail through much more smoothly. All my friends seemed to have busy houses with sisters and brothers flying through. (I was, after all, living in a Chicago neighborhood full of big Catholic and Irish families). I felt different as I began my early years of elementary school. I was convinced my “only child” status was why.
The winter I turned eight, I got a new pair of lavender roller skates, won an essay contest at my school, and got “siblings.” With a new stepfather came a package deal: I gained a stepsister four years older, and a stepbrother my age. They moved in with us (a rather unusual arrangement for kids to live with their dad almost full-time, instead of their mom, back the early Eighties), and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was part of a real family. I was never lonely or alone anymore. I couldn’t believe my luck.
I worshiped my stepsister, Jenny, who was a high school girl with everything I hoped I’d have someday: blue eyeshadow, hidden cigarettes, pom-pom practices and boys calling the house at all hours. Silly squabbles with my stepbrother forced me to face new things – negotiations over television shows, typical sibling teasing, secret jokes and a general need to toughen up.
We sat side by side in the car on family trips to go cross-country skiing in the snowy mountains of Wisconsin. My stepsister and I sang corny songs on summer drives up to a family resort called Nippersink Manner. She cheered me on there when I learned to water ski and was fighting back tears (it was so hard to get up)! We ordered pizza when our parents worked late on many nights.
Five years later, she was gone. Our parents were getting divorced, and I was back to being an only child.
Thirty minutes after leaving with the moving truck, I sat in my mom’s new apartment. I felt like I’d been transported to another world. I cried for days for the family I had suddenly lost, but especially for the girl I’d considered a real sister, and wondered how I could live a life as an only child again. I wouldn’t have to for long.
Five years later, at eighteen, I received an out-of-the-blue letter from my biological father. He’d left when I was three months old. Here he was now, his unfamiliar cursive writing on the envelope somehow curious and revealing of someone he might be. And, maybe, of someone I might be!
Before I even opened the letter, what I hoped for most was a clue or lifeline to a long-lost sibling. I don’t think I was interested in my dad – I was hoping for a half sister or sister.
As my shaking hand held the letter, I learned she was out there – he had a daughter from another marriage! He proposed I meet them when I returned to Chicago from college that Christmas. There was a younger half-brother, too.
In the dimly lobby of my favorite seafood restaurant, my heart raced watching for this fourteen year-old, freckled-faced girl to walk in.
I wanted so badly to find proof we were similar. As we ordered completely different meals and compared notes about our favorite things, I was struck by the contrast. I don’t know why I’d expected us both to love the exact same foods, or why I was disappointed when she ordered spicy shrimp instead of my favorite, scallops. It was shocking, though it shouldn’t have been. My definition of a “real” sibling was far from sane. But I didn’t know that then.
Funny enough, her name was Jenny, too – just like my ex-stepsister. I wasn’t sure how to be “sisters” starting off a relationship long-distance, but over the next two years, we kept in touch when I came to town, and she visited me one weekend in college.
I wanted a sister so badly, but there was no “there” there. I wanted to feel something – a sense of protectiveness over her, some sibling bond, a level of love, or even affection. But I felt…nothing.
Maybe I was doomed to be an only lonely.
When she asked me to be in her wedding, I wearily accepted. I spent weeks agonizing over going – never mind the dress – and felt a sense of dread as the day loomed closer. I never made it to her wedding.
When it came time, I bowed out, or chickened out, or panicked. I couldn’t go there. I realized I didn’t want a forced family anymore, after all. I didn’t want a role in her wedding, or in her life. We didn’t grow up as sisters. I would never be a “real” aunt to the kids she’d have someday. We had no bonds, no memories, and I couldn’t see how we could make any. I’d already grown up – without her.
In the years between it all, I’d accumulate more steps and halves as my parents went on with their marriages and lives; two more step-sisters from my mom’s new husband, and a half-sister and two half-brothers from my adopted dad’s marriage. None of it ever felt real.
But, wait! I was lucky enough at that time to have met my future sister-in-law. The boy I’d dated through college had a younger sister, and for seven years I got to know and love her. And then he and I got married and I felt like I had a real sister! I was constantly surprised how much I loved hanging out with her, even though the blood relation and childhood memories I was so sure were required were not there.
She was my sister-in-law for more six years after that. And then I got divorced, and she was no longer family. It was over. A familiar scenario, but not her fault or mine. Or was it mine? I would miss her. Dearly. But I didn’t know what to do.
For some things, there simply are no second chances.
As for my ex-stepsister Jenny – the one I did get to grow up with from eight to thirteen, we still keep in touch a few times a year. Through our own marriages and divorces, becoming parents ourselves, and more. On a recent trip to Chicago, I met her at a Japanese noodle house for lunch. When she walked in from the rain, it was just like old times. Her voice, her laugh about so many old times – I felt like my old self again. I felt like the person I’d always wanted to be.
We remembered the time her brother made peanut butter marshmallow fudge for a Friday night dinner and our parents let us eat that as the main dish. We snickered about the time we ditched Sunday school and got caught within the hour. We sat wondering why our parents brought it all to an abrupt and bitter end, and took away our chance to be sisters.
At 45, I am still a lonely only. If I hated being an only child as a kid, I hate it even more as an adult. I have friends, I have sons, but I wish I had a sibling.
I don’t deal well with negotiating or sharing or conflict. I never had siblings long enough to practice with. I feel lonely on holidays and, sometimes, in life – for myself and for my kids. No real sisters or brothers for me means no aunts, uncles or first cousins for my kids to hang out with on my side. Nostalgia is non-existent. There’s noone to reminisce with. I worry about how i’ll handle my mom getting older, all by myself, 600 miles away.
I am hard on myself. For forty years, I have wondered: if I had tried harder, felt stronger, hung in there longer, would the other nine pieces of me be part of my life now? Could I have made a sister work?
I don’t know if I am to blame, or if the adults in our lives made the scenarios impossible. But pieces of me are no longer missing. I don’t know what I was looking for, searching for a sister, but in the process, I found myself. And that is enough.
Erin Mantz is the Editor and Contributor of Hey, Who’s In My House?, and a writer, marketing professional and mom of two active boys, ages 11 and 14. Her work been published in The Washington Post “On Parenting” section, Chicken Soup for the Soul Parenting, Huffington Post Divorce and Parenting, Washington Parent Magazine, the New York Post, Bethesda Magazine and more. She serves as Editor-at-Large for Washington Parent and appeared on NBC News 4 in Washington, DC. She has more than twenty years of experience in communications and currently works as a Senior Director of Engagement Marketing at a digital health company. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, was born and raised in Chicago, and currently resides in the Washington, DC area.