The Only Child Box, by Sara Afzal

What does it mean to be a mother? Exploring the experiences of a daughter raised by a single mother, a new mother whose life is unexpectedly transformed by the birth of her child, and a gender-neutral parent raising children in a non-binary environment, the reflections in this series are as insightful as they are personal, offering a powerful look at the meaning of motherhood.

A 5-year-old with an Anna Karina-esque bob prances into her mother’s nude drawing class in Santa Monica, California. With the focus of a cat, a jet-black-haired woman with striking olive skin and pouty lips sets up her easel and starts to sketch a voluptuous female model. She hears a child’s whisper and turns: “Sara, you can’t talk.” The young girl decides to eat the diced apples in the Ziploc bag to distract herself from this boring adult world, full of silence and spectacle.

If I wasn’t at art class tagging along with my single mom, I was at art parties or gallery openings where I was the only kid in attendance. Having a constant foot in the adult world was uncomfortable and challenging at times. My mother would say it was good for me because it would allow me to communicate and get along with people of all ages. Later on, I realized she was right—especially since talking to adults was somewhat alien for most of my high school friends. Their voices would trail off awkwardly around teachers. They were more accustomed to their sibling bubble, which was a club I longed to be a part of.

At home, there was no kiddie table. No bunk beds. No playing “tea party” underwater in the pool as kids and then as adults like in the show “Transparent,” which portrays a complicated yet tight bond between three siblings. For an only child, it is hard to fathom the unbreakable bond between siblings and the relationships they form. The closest experience came with my older cousins, who called me out for my “only child” behaviors like cradling my possessions and not sharing my food. They taught me to avoid falling into the stereotypes associated with only children, such as being spoiled, selfish, gullible, or sheltered. I promised myself I would make it my life mission to get out of the only child box.

At times, my relationship with my mother took on an almost sisterly quality, which helped the mission. We were close—maybe too close. My slender mom, who shopped in the juniors department, was practically the same clothing size as me in high school, and we would fight over our clothes just like sisters. While my friends loved listening to Britney Spears and NSYNC, she had us hooked on Björk and David Bowie. She got “cool mom” points, especially for the premature sex talk she gave me and the fact that she bought my older cousin her first female reproductive health book (which was later passed down to me). She also helped me navigate my relationships with boys. If I couldn’t have siblings, I was going to ask and tell her whatever I wanted—well, that is, until she went into mom mode.

She was half cool-mom, half caring micro-manager telling me to get straights A’s to land into a top college, eat dark green leafy greens for more iron, not sleep over at my friend’s house, and hold off on shaving my legs too early. I was a child of divorce, and she was the parent who supported me through the most angsty “finding myself” years of my life. We fought like sisters throughout it all. Now I realize that if having a very close relationship with my mom is the result of not having siblings, then perhaps things aren’t so bad in the only child box.

This essay originally appeared in the Mothers & Grandmothers issue. For more inspiring stories about dealing with mothers and grandmothers, check out Thank you for being a friend: What we learned from “The Golden Girls” and My Legacy as a Moroccan Woman.