‘What’s your name?’
‘What’s your favourite colour?’
‘How many brothers and sisters do you have?’
‘Ummm. . .’
When I started school, there were a lot of questions. Where did I live? Did I like My Little Pony? And my old favourite – how many brothers and sisters did I have?
It’s much easier for me to answer it now, post-divorce referendum. We are getting used to non-traditional families. But it wasn’t so easy in 1990.
‘I have two half-brothers and one half-sister, and they’re grown up and live in England.’
‘Oh. Which of your parents is dead?’
I was about seven before I understood well enough to explain.
My father was married twice. The first time was when he lived in England, where he had three children. After his divorce, he met and married my mother and they moved back to Ireland, where divorce still wasn’t legal and no one, including my teachers, was quite clear on what exactly a half-brother or a half-sister was.
‘Which of your parents is dead?’
‘Neither. OK, here we go. My father was married twice. . . ’
And so it would go. I even developed a quick ‘n’ easy guide to the difference between half-siblings and step-siblings: half-siblings had one parent in common. Step-siblings had none.
Where I grew up, it wasn’t unusual for women to have more than one relationship that resulted in a child. But those children were raised together – lived together, woke up in the same house and ate the same dinner. And the common parent was a constant presence in all of their daily lives, so it was natural to call each other simply brothers and sisters, dropping the pesky and inconvenient ‘half’ prefix.
But my half-siblings? The youngest is twelve years older than me. While I was learning about the 1916 Rising and fielding questions about which of my parents was dead, they were in England, where they had always lived, doing cool things like A Levels and working for Barings’ Bank. I really liked all of them. I was my half-sister’s bridesmaid when she got married – I had very definite and real relationships with all of them, albeit sporadically because of the distance involved.
Day to day, though, I was an only child. It didn’t make sense to call them my brothers and sister, and then have to explain to my teachers that no, they wouldn’t remember teaching them because they had gone to school in Lincolnshire. And to explain to friends who came to the house that my brothers and sister weren’t here because they’d never lived here.
It seemed needlessly complicated, really. I grew up with a second, distant family, so it was perfectly normal for me. These tall, cool English people would descend and bring me chocolate and that was simply how my family was. But it was very difficult to find the right way to explain it. I had siblings, but I didn’t.
In the last twenty years, we have grown accustomed to people who have lived abroad arriving in Ireland with family arrangements that aren’t familiar to us. The Irish are now far more likely to respond with a shrug and an ‘each to their own.’
That being said, it’s still not easy for me to explain. I instinctively describe myself as an only child because that’s how I was brought up. When people say that only children are lonely and badly-adjusted, I argue in favour of the lifestyle of an only child vociferously and passionately, because that is the life I lived. In spite of the texts and Facebook messages from my siblings, in spite of the birthday cards, I regularly forget from moment-to-moment that I am not, technically, an only child.
And don’t even get me started on my second cousins once removed. . .