An article in the most recent issue of The Atlantic explores the paradox of being Chelsea Clinton. On the one hand, she cautiously guards her privacy. She even coaches those in her inner circle to keep mum about her life! They also have uniform responses to press questions about Chelsea. On the other hand, she uses the influence that comes with her surname champion various causes and continues to remain relevant in American public life. But the article never addresses another important fact: Chelsea Clinton is an only child.
Without taking this into consideration, the article went on to argue that she has struggled to break free of the orbit of her famous parents. Every time it seems like she has finally done so, it turns out not to be the case. She hasn’t had the opportunity to write her own story, independent of Bill and Hillary.
While I definitely cannot relate to my dad being the President of the United States, or my mom possibly being elected the same, I saw something familiar as I read this article. I think that is because Chelsea, like me, is an only child.
The Experience of Being an Only Child
A handful of friends of mine are also only children, and we would often talk about what it was, is, and will be like to be an only child. Most others have at least one sibling they grew up with, and find our circumstance mysterious. We find solace in gathering together to share our experiences.
Common features in our families have emerged. Being an only child has life long implications. As a youngster, with no one else to team up against the parents, you truly become a junior partner in the family firm quite quickly. Sure there are moments of misbehavior and rebellion, but for the most part I think only children realize the value of conforming, to some degree, to household expectations to keep the peace with the only other people you dwell with until you leave the nest. Fortunately for me, this was not a challenge with my parents.
So it kind of felt right that Chelsea’s name appears after her parents’ on the foundation they run together. Or that she is there for all of their important moments throughout their public life. Hello! That’s what only children do! She’s the only one!
Even the amount of privacy that Chelsea craves seems consistent with her only child status. Yes, quite possibly it is the product of growing up in the public eye as well as a quirk of her personality. Yet many of the only children that I know, myself included, live in this kind of tension between wanting to keep a separate, personal sphere from the rest of the world, while also desiring the adulation that comes with certain accomplishments, rites of passage, and the sense that there must be something remarkable about our existence since we were the only ones our parents produced.
The author thinks that it is hard for Chelsea to write a story of her own. But maybe, despite the frustration she has expressed, she doesn’t want to. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. But maybe that’s just something an only child would understand of another only child.