Apologia to My Second Child
A father reflects on being an only child—and what his two kids stand to gain from sibling rivalry.
By John Hodgman published January 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Attention unnamed male child to come:
Do not be alarmed. I realize you do not know who I am.
Here is a hint: You are not born yet, and already I must apologize to you.
Can you guess? My name is John Hodgman, and I am your father. Feeling sorry, as I trust you will sadly learn, is something of a habit of mine. I am always apologizing, afraid that I have offended someone. This is because I am a person who wishes to be liked all the time. Even by hateful people. Even by historical figures I will never meet. Even by strangers and children and, naturally, by you.
Here is an example. The other day, I was at a playground with my 3-year-old daughter. Surely you are familiar with my daughter? In public, I refer to her as "Hodgmina."
At the playground on this spring day before you were born, Hodgmina desired to use a certain playground structure. It was a kind of corkscrew fire pole. At the time, there were two girls circling down together, their legs entwined.
Okay. That sounds dirty. But it really wasn't. They were just 5-year-olds, wrapped up in each other in that unselfconscious way that children—some children—are able to achieve. Laughing, beaming, they were perfectly connected as they inched their way down.
Hodgmina and I watched them, and here I would use the adverb sullenly. We are both quiet people. Shy people. We do not entwine much with others. We held hands, but we were each alone. Hodgmina said quietly, "I am waiting my turn."
After a period of time, I intervened. I explained that Hodgmina now wished a turn, and the older girls broke off reluctantly. Naturally, I apologized. Hodgmina walked over, and I lifted her up to the top. But I didn't let her go. I held her all the way down, guiding her fall into a slow, stuttering slide that was visibly unfun for everyone.
I turned to the older girls, who were observing me skeptically. "She needs my aid," I explained, "for Hodgmina is only a 3-year-old child, a little girl. She is not a big girl, like both of you."
My daughter, who has better manners than I, let this pass in silence. But when we got home, Hodgmina let me have it. Why was I apologizing to children? she asked. And why was I running her down, calling her a "little girl"? Why did I feel I had to do that?
"You're right," I said. "I'm sorry."
This is not a good habit, and I do not recommend living this way, and that is part of the reason I am writing this letter.
I am also sorry because your father, who is me, is a professional writer.
Now don't get excited. This is a profession that often seems exciting and glamorous to young people. It did once to me as well. There was a time in my life when I, too, believed that it would be easy money to sit on beautiful lawns and write and read short stories. For reasons you will soon learn, I didn't know any better.
But to you this fact will mean mainly that your college education will be unfunded. College is where the most beautiful lawns exist, of course. But you will not be able to enjoy them as I did, for you will be forced to work various menial jobs (for some reason, I picture you in a butcher's shop, trimming briskets) in order to pay for your education—all because I wanted to sit beneath a tree and read Love in the Time of Cholera.
Because I was something you shall never be, which is to say, an only child. I trust you shall never quite forgive us for this. But before you damn me forever, please hear this explanation.
Over the years, many people, including your mother, who has two sisters, have asked me the same questions: What was it like to be an only child? I would always respond the same way: "I have no idea." Being an only child was all that I had ever known. And since I had no basis for comparison, how could I possibly compare one experience to the other?
Of course, I was being polite.
The fact is, I was always comparing, always subjecting my siblinged peers to the cool, dispassionate analysis and reflection that only an only child has the quiet hours to cultivate, while watching Doctor Who without fear of interruption.
And my conclusion was inescapable. Being an only child was much, much better. Probably the best thing in the world.
Cast sentiment aside, and siblings are always a matter of cruel math, the unfair distribution of limited resources: cash, love, attention, patience, solitude. This is obvious on its face—even my siblinged peers knew it. That was why they asked the question in the first place.
And as they asked, I could see the quiver of dread in their eyes, fearing an honest answer. And so I would say, "I have no idea." Only an only child can afford such emotional generosity.
As an only child, I had gotten used to a certain lifestyle. I was born in the Boston area in 1971, to two successful but by no means wealthy nonwriters. My father was the eldest of three, my mother the first of seven, though in some ways she was an only child as well. She was older than her one brother and five sisters—in her 20s when the last two arrived (twins).
Did she seek for me the privacy that she had always coveted? Or the solitude that she had always, in her own way, known? We will never know, for she is no longer living. But by the time I was 3, the decision was made that our family would never grow larger, and so we did the natural thing: We moved to a 16-room house.
Our house in leafy, nearby Brookline was the largest I have ever been in, except for one, which I will tell you about later. And it cost $68,000. That was real money in 1974, and not a debt my parents took on easily. But still, that's less than five grand a room. Even at your age, I trust you can sense a bargain.
We were really alone, in the way the family of an only child is always alone. A family of three is as stable as a triangle, unlikely to collapse, each point strengthening and relying on the other. There are no favorites, no alliances but to the triangle itself. We traveled together to distant countries, saw movies together, dined together watching public television. Even in a house in which it could take 25 minutes to find another soul, we were bound and insulated from the world by rooms upon rooms.
After it had lain fallow for some years, I commandeered one of these rooms for the purpose of my practicing the clarinet and the viola. This pretty much sums up being an only child to me. Only an only child could afford to take up not one but two relatively esoteric supporting instruments. And when I say afford, I speak not only of the actual cost of lessons. A siblinged child enacts his own insecurity when he picks up the guitar, the violin, the piano, those desperate showboat instruments all yearning to solo. But an only child has no need for these sorts of games. Assured of love and sustenance and space and time, the only child is free to cultivate idiosyncrasy.
And I cultivated it ruthlessly. I grew my hair long. I wore cowboy shirts and jumpsuits and I carried a briefcase. I wore a fedora. Yes, on top of the long hair. Rightly, my grade-school peers saw me as a kind of space alien. Perhaps, my unnamed child, this is what you think I am trying to save you from. This isolation and poor fashion sense. But no, I am telling you, this was the best.
By the time I was entering high school, I had a bedroom, a bathroom, and a living room furnished from scavenged castoffs. My bunk beds (yes, I had bunk beds! Why not? Why not tribeds? Only my imagination limited the perverse excess!) were broken apart and arranged into an L-shaped sofa; a green shaded lamp lit a manual typewriter on which I would write letters and short stories. I had a tall fern (it was still the Eighties).
An only child in a family without want is the culmination of three centuries of Enlightenment ideals: the rational, critical mind conquering want and need and the base desire to conform. A good student and an attentive son (for what did I have to prove or rebel against?), I was trusted and independent. I was a dilettante, a man of leisure, an eccentric aristocrat. Free from worldly cares, I devoted myself to my passions and hobbies: old postcards and teaching myself counterpoint. The only child in a family without want is the apex of Western civilization.
But it cannot last, of course. The apex of Western civilization cannot last, of course.
Here is the story I promised you about that other very large house.
Not long ago, I visited a mansion in the mountains surrounding Aspen, Colorado.
I was in Colorado to appear as the token literary humorist at a comedy festival, and I was accompanied by a friend of mine named David, who was the token cartoonist. One evening, someone we did not know told us that everyone was about to board chartered taxis to be shuttled up high into the mountains where we would enjoy the hospitality of the richest man in Aspen. We said that would be fine.
We threaded several twisting mountain roads to get there, and then our taxi slipped down a narrow driveway. And there it was: unquestionably, preposterously, the home of the wealthiest man in Aspen. It looked more like a hotel, or a modern museum: a great peaked foyer, walled with glass and elegant blond wood, the double doors open and pouring golden light upon the snow, and two turtlenecked security guards standing at the door wearing Secret Service-style earpieces.
The party was already churning through the house. There seemed to be no host present. In fact he wasn't even there. We recognized a stagehand we had befriended. "Whose house is this?" I asked. The stagehand answered that it was the home of a local billionaire named Michael Goldberg, who leased private jets and hosted John Kerry and Al Gore when they happened to be passing through Aspen.
David asked, facetiously, if Michael Goldberg was related to the world famous professional wrestler known only as "Goldberg." Goldberg is not the star he once was in the wrestling world, but you should know that he was for a time a professional wrestling champion, the latest and most snarling and beguiling incarnation of a long and somewhat forgotten tradition of unabashedly macho Jewish boxers and brawlers.
"Yes!" the stagehand confirmed. "They are brothers!"
David and I got drinks and walked around, pondering this bizarre coincidence, and then I began to notice that nestled among the priceless paintings and sculptures there were many photographs of Goldberg the wrestler, in his black tights, flexing. I thought then about the relationship these brothers must share. What affection these titans of vastly different worlds must have for each other, but also, what rivalry. What strange grain of competition had ground between them, starting at birth, spurring both on to create these ostentatious pearls... for one to build a palace in the mountains and the other to become the world's most famous Jewish wrestler?
This, I realized, was not the home of an only child. This was the home of a person who from the beginning had fought for love and attention, who probably grew up having to steal food, his very sustenance, from the muscled jaws of his massive, all-consuming brother!
The other day, when I was in Boston, I drove by the house I grew up in. And though most things feel larger in our memory than in our real life, in this case, the house seems even larger. In part because I know that I will never be able to provide it to you or Hodgmina.
I emerged from only childhood to only adulthood, surprised to learn that life does not offer you a suite of rooms just for being alive. My wealth, instead, came early—in the confidence and assurance and limitless resources I did not have to compete for. And because I have become that most wretched of things, a professional writer, in large part seeking to recapture those lost dilettantish days, my wealth in all these things has since dwindled. In part because I was an only child, I can really only afford to have one. But yet we are taking on another, who is you.
Partly we take this leap out of hope that you will become a professional wrestler—and not just because we need some sort of retirement plan. Or if not a professional wrestler, then at least the richest man in Aspen. Hodgmina may be the wrestler. Or if not a mogul or a wrestler, then at least you may be someone who has in fact had to compete, a happy, confident person who understands from the training of childhood and not just from expensive therapy that it is acceptable not to have the whole of every resource; that it is acceptable not to receive all the love in the world, and even to tolerate a little hate; that one does not need to explain oneself to children on playgrounds or in letters.
But because I am an only child, there is another, purely selfish reason: I lost my nerve.
In 2000, my mother died of cancer, at a time when I was still childless and wracked with credit-card debt and, though married to your mother, still largely a child myself. The following year, your mother became pregnant with Hodgmina. Your mother was and is a high-school teacher in lower Manhattan. On September 10, as Hodgmina's birth approached, I interviewed a comic-book writer who was astounded that we would bring a child into the world. "This is a world of limited resources," he pointed out. We shouldn't have children just because we want them.
The next day, I watched on television as a building near your mother's school collapsed. For a few hours, I could not reach her and did not know where she was, or what would happen next. Suddenly, solitude seemed about to return in the worst way possible. I flashed briefly on a life in mourning: me and a fern, alone again, and it was not anything I wanted anymore. And then the phone rang.
On balance, these hard experiences were perfectly ordinary, hardly as sad as others endured and still endure. But I understood suddenly that I was susceptible to fate in ways others are not. My parents had a similar realization, I think, when I left home to go to college, immediately got drunk, and fell down a tall staircase. "What if you had died?" my mother asked by phone when I explained why they would be getting an ambulance bill. They learned then, as I did later, that there is indeed a way for a triangle to suddenly collapse, and what is left when it does is nothing at all. My mother, contemplating this, wondered aloud, "Did we do something wrong?"
"No," I said. "You did everything right. I am sorry." I am sorry, I am sorry.
And so you see, I cannot take the risk. Like a farmer who needs children to till the soil and cannot risk having but one, so I need more than one child to lower my risk of absolute awful heartache.
To be honest, I do not know how this will work out. I, the only child, find it difficult to understand how love can be dispersed between two children. And there will be other shortages. There will be no perfect triangle. There will be alliances and counteralliances. There will be no short stories written near a fern. The stories that you write will be those you conspire out of nighttime conversation with Hodgmina. For, yes, you will live in an apartment, and you will have to share a room.
But you will be freer to fail, as your errors will be outshadowed by Hodgmina's and vice versa. And thus you will free yourselves of the unfair burden to avoid death at all costs. By having you, unnamed male child, I have chosen to give you both less so that at the end, as point by point, the shape of our family disappears, you will not have lost everything.
I hope when that time comes you will remember this letter and feel that I have nothing to apologize for. But just in case: I am sorry.