Katie rode her bike to the school playground. I walked behind her, dribbling a basketball. Once we got there I couldn't get her to shoot hoops with me though. She was drawn instead to two older girls sitting under the playground equipment, picking at the pieces of recycled tires spread around the playground to keep kids from breaking their bones. Casts are a distraction in class.
The girls both looked about fourteen, but I'm guessing they were in fifth or sixth grade. Kids seem to mature so much faster these days. They were giggly, but still polite. They treated Katie's self-invitation to their conversation with patient amusement.
"How old are you?"
"Do you go to school here?"
"Are you in kindergarten?"
"What do you like best about kindergarten?"
The same questions grownups ask five year olds. They were probably asked the same questions not that long ago themselves.
I hung around in the background, letting Katie have her friend time. I shot some solitary baskets. When I realized I'd forgotten to wear my athletic bra, I sat down on the shaded bench and watched the girls talk. I could hear sounds but I couldn't make out the words. Their laughter brought back memories of my own childhood friends.
When it was time to go home and start dinner, I aproached the girls.
"Katie, we gotta go now. I need to make dinner." I smiled at the two older girls and they instantly returned the smile.
Katie complained. Told me she wasn't hungry. Told me she wanted to stay and talk with her friends. I told her I had to make dinner.
As Katie stood and despite her pouty lips proceeded to brush the dust off her skort, I smiled some more at the older girls and stuck my hands in my pockets, waiting.
"Is Katie your only child?" One of the girls asked.
"Yes." I smiled at Katie, walking toward me.
"Are you a single mother?" The same girl asked.
"No." I said. And then I wanted to say, "A single mother? What are you, an eleven year old sociologist?" But as I contemplated the meaning behind her question, the girl replied:
"Ah, that's nice." She tossed a tire chip a few feet off to the side and looked down.
I just finished reading Only Child, a book of essays written by people who grew up in single-child families. I've been reading Katie books written for kids about this topic too. So the subject of only children is fresh on my mind. I began to get annoyed with this girl's question. Assuming she was making a judgment about only children. Until she said, "Ah, that's nice." And then, instead of feeling defensive, I felt sympathy for her. Her parents might be divorced, like many kids' are. Or maybe she's never known both parents to begin with. She probably thinks Katie is lucky to have two parents, regardless of her siblingless status. It was I who had been judging siblinglessness as a disease to overcome. This girl reminded me, once again, that healthy families come in all sizes.
I often worry about the family hand my daughter has been dealt. When I was twelve I went from being the youngest sibling to being an only child when my last sister moved out of the house. When I was born I had two brothers and two sisters living with me, taking turns holding me, sometimes literally tossing me back and forth to each other like a toy. When they all grew up and moved away, I felt terribly alone. I vowed to myself that I'd have a big family again some day. I would have ten children when I grew up. All one-year apart. So no one would feel like an orphaned sibling at the age of twelve.
Now I'm getting old and my body has produced just one child. Who I worry about incessantly. How will she turn out? I have just one chance at parenthood: Don't fuck this up.
But this girl at the playground reminded me to pull my gaze away from my navel. Katie's life is not my life. This is her childhood, not mine. And her life is not her peer's life either. She doesn't get to experience what it's like to live with a brother or a sister, but she gets to experience what it's like to live with a mom and a dad. Unlike a lot of kids. Her lot in life has its fortunes and misfortunes, just as all of our lives do. I cannot guarantee her fortunes nor hide her misfortunes. I can follow her home to dinner with her daddy, giving her a gentle nudge when her training wheel gets stuck in a crack along the sidewalk.