Overcoming the familial obligation I felt as an only child

I grew up as an only child and grandchildbut soon, this won’t be true anymore. 

My family recently told me about the first cousin I will have come December. When they told me over the phone, I was in a complete daze and said nothing besides “wow.” While I’m excited to see an addition to our family, I realized I don’t know how to engage with a future family member in my generation because I’ve never had one before. 

At Emerson, I’ve heard many hilarious and sweet stories from my friends about growing up with siblings or cousins: getting the same teachers in schools, having each other’s back, and fighting over chocolate Easter bunnies. Now it’s my turn. 

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I grew up in the generation affected by China’s controversial one-child policy. As a result, Chinese kids my age were the center of families’ attention at all times. My needs were easily met since I never had to compete with any siblings or cousins. And to fill up any loneliness I experienced growing up, my neighbor’s child and I often raced against each other or tested who could learn a certain skill first. 

As I grew up, I realized that being an only child taught me more than just being self-sufficient. More so, it forced me to carry the weight of all my family’s expectations and obligations. I still remember when my grandpa reminded me I was “the future hope and the backbone of my generation in the family.”

But other only children should realize it’s best to use this sense of familial obligation as an opportunity to get to know more about their families and themselves. In reality, preserving your family name is all about balancing these feelings of pressure and motivation. Otherwise, the pressure to perform as an only child can quickly become burdensome, stressful, and sometimes unhealthy. 

When China officially ended its “one-child policy” program in 2016, the change did not erase the struggles of the children who grew up under the law’s restrictions. More often than not, people expected these children who grew up alone to be “perfect enough to justify the fact that there is only one of you,” as BBC News correspondent Juliana Liu said about her personal experience of growing up as an only child

When I grew older, there seemed to be nothing more important to my family than to have me stay home, get a stable job, and support them as much as possible as time passed. But my only-child identity also granted me a natural-born sense of eagerness to explore the world. It taught me the world’s power structure and helped me understand the laws of nature. Eventually, it was tough to tell my family I wanted to come to study in the United States alone and pursue journalism as my future career. 

Though I love them, I knew I had to go. They had their dreams for me, but I also had my own.  

Now that I’m here in Boston, there are heavier burdens on my shoulders as an only child far from home. I have to strike a balance between my personal choices and family responsibilities and sometimes feel guilty for not being able to help out with our family affairs—especially when it comes to life and death situations. 

I can never forget the panic I felt last Christmas when my dad hugged me tightly at the airport to welcome me back home and then switched to an anxious tone, saying, “let’s hurry up to go see grandma in the emergency room” without any advanced notice. I felt upset that they hid the news of my grandma’s surgery from me while I was away, but then realized that there was little I could do for them while being away even if I knew. 

But as the new birth in my family approaches, I think I can finally release this pressure I’ve always felt being the only grandchild. Yet I also know I will soon face a new challenge: setting a good example as the eldest in the generation. Without previous experience, I’m excited to find out how to navigate being an older pseudo-sibling.

One thing that has not changed for sure is how grateful and fortunate I am to have my family’s financial and spiritual support. They helped me step forward and explore the world from a young age. From now on, I hope to take family responsibility as motivation to remind me of what home means. And I urge other only children to do the same. Wherever I go out and chase my dreams, I know home is never too far away. 

 

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