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Aug 17 2016
by Xinlan Emily Hu

College as an Only Child: On Being Both the First and Last to Leave Home

By Xinlan Emily Hu - Aug 17 2016
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Some days, even thinking about it cuts my heart.

Other days, I'm held in a vice grip of excitement and disbelief.

In either case, leaving home is a topic I can rarely escape. For one thing, there's the large purple suitcase occupying a conspicuous corner of my room – it fills steadily: out-of-season jeans, bath towels, sun hats. For another, there's the stream of goodbyes as my friends leave one by one: the photos of their teary parents and the memories of their last hugs.

I imagine myself in their shoes, a month away from now (my school opens mid-September). I imagine my mother smoothing the final wrinkle on my bedsheets – "don't forget to make your bed; you're always such a mess" – and shutting the door with a soft thud. I imagine my parents driving home with a missing space in the backseat.

I can't imagine anymore, lest I dissolve into tears.

If moving away is this difficult even to imagine, how can I describe the feeling with words? And how can I answer the family and friends who ask, all too lightly, "aren't you so excited to be rid of your parents?"

As the title of this essay reveals, I am an only child. This fact is not lost upon me; every moment feels as if it's going to happen only once. And along with the thrilling freedom and vast opportunities of of a new environment, there rests a sort of weight, an invisible thread, reminding me that, as an only child, this journey also means something else for my parents.

To be clear, I'm not here to bolster stereotypes about only children; if anything, only children are MORE independent, not less, because we grow up in an environment of mostly adults. And often, the youngest people in the room must work the hardest to prove themselves.

Rather, being an "only" is an experience, one that cannot be defined by stereotypes and cliches. Growing up, I developed a rather unique relationship with my parents – there were no siblings to take my side in fights (on the other hand, no siblings to fight against), no sisters in whom to confide and no brothers with whom to share chores. My parents became, in a way, both parents and surrogates for the siblings I never had. I came to see them more as equals rather than as the family monarchs, and we developed a unique bond through our joint experiences of “firsts.”

​After all, as an only child, each event is both a “first” and a “last” – there would never be another sweet sixteen, another high school graduation, after my own. Perhaps this fact drove our family to cherish each moment more: my father documented everything from my first day of kindergarten to my last day of high school with his clunky video camera (in some cases, too much awkward hand-waving and my general chagrin).

More importantly, being an only child opened me to share thoughts with my parents, to have frank conversations over dinner and to benefit from their wisdom. It wasn't that we always agreed – more often we each left conversations feeling more confident in our differences. But we respected each other for them (though we also teased each other, especially about politics), and we cultivated individuality within our little trio. Sometimes family trips felt like secrets shared between just the three of us; over the years, we collected enough inside jokes to rival a sorority. My parents and I became a tight unit, a bond that would seem incomplete if somehow broken.

​Thus, wanting to get rid of my parents could not be further from the truth. Like everyone else, this moment is bittersweet. I'm beyond excited to start the next chapter of my life, yet torn by the prospect of loss.

Sometimes the thought of my absence – my seat at the table empty, my room untouched and gathering dust – genuinely saddens me. Sometimes I can’t help but feel that, in leaving everyone I love behind, I’m somehow responsible for the heartache. The feeling is exacerbated by the fact that I’m an “only;” there are no younger siblings to distract my parents from the conspicuousness of my leaving home. There is just a void, and the certainty that I created it.

Of all the “firsts” and “lasts,” college is by far the most emotional. Its lows are deeper, highlighted by physical separation. Its highs send little thrills of anticipation in even the smallest of events. And there is all the more excitement in planning when you have neither the precedent of previous experience nor the reassurance that things will get easier the second time around. Sending me to school is as new to my parents as it is to me.

​Our mutual inexperience is a blessing in disguise; helped perhaps by the closeness of our family dynamic, we end up enjoying everything from trips to Marshalls to quibbles over packing. (I like the flower patterned bedspread; my mother thinks it's hideous; my father wonders why I'm worrying about bedspreads at all.)

And as the days of waiting dwindle, as we finally make minor progress on filling my suitcase, I feel a sort of comfortable finality: this is it. I will never have the chance to advise younger siblings or to ask older ones for counsel. On the other hand, I am guaranteed to live without precedent; my choices and experiences will be, for better or for worse, my own.

Myself – but enhanced by the wisdom I've gained from being around my parents. Only childhood strikes, in this way, a balance between independence and teamwork. We are close despite distance; we are individuals, equals, despite closeness.

Though at times I wonder what life would be like with a sibling, I wouldn’t trade my "only" experience for the world. I'm sure those with siblings wouldn't trade their experiences, either, though over the years, I've received several joke offers of friends' annoying brothers.

After all, as my mother tells me, she's happy to be "one and done." She's looking forward to a long nap and and a lifelong break from college tours. (We all know she's still going to cry, though.) But that's the thing – we know each other well enough to understand these little caveats. And like any other family, we're there for each other through every moment.

This new chapter is, after all, but another first. And another last.

Lead Image Credit: Unsplash via Pexels Creative Commons 

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Xinlan Emily Hu - Stanford University

Emily is a prospective engineering student in Stanford University's class of 2020. However, she loves reading and learning about a range of subjects, including philosophy, computer science, and physics. When not writing, she enjoys debate, table tennis, reading, boba tea, and the occasional DIY art project (let's face it, those are hard).

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