There are two questions I commonly get asked. The first, unsurprisingly, is: ‘are you an only child?’, the answer to which is ‘yes’. Another, less frequent but nonetheless pertinent one is ‘how will you avoid putting your own spin on things in your thesis?’ I don’t see it as too much of a problem myself, but I can see why it might be a concern.
I don’t think my personal experiences of being an only child should skew my work because I’ve gone in with a curious eye. I don’t have an agenda - sure, it would be nice to present a positive image of only children (which I am, because I’ve found it doesn’t necessarily make a difference), but if I’d found that all only children in my study’s experiences were negative, I would report it equally faithfully. I’ve coded for all sorts of personality traits, school experiences and social relationships and come out with some findings that are totally opposed to each other. In fact, my work would be a lot easier if there were a coherent pattern - writing about a huge variation of experiences is much harder to write about!
Of course, I have opinions on things I read and hear, and identify with some only children in my study more than others. I think the late nineteenth/early twentieth-century research on onlies is a bit daft, but who wouldn’t? Those writers said some pretty extreme things with very flimsy evidence, and I mention that as methods improved, so did findings about only children (without actually using the word ‘daft’). As part of my research I’ve read a few modern books about only-child experiences. These tend to include a whole mixture of opinions on and experiences of being an only child, and I didn’t relate to every single one. The same goes for my subjects - some I could identify with, others I couldn’t relate to at all. Even then, birth order might not be the reason that we happened to have a certain experience or characteristic in common. As my thesis argues, it’s a mixture inborn personality and individual circumstances that determine how someone’s life pans out rather than birth order, and an only child can turn out to have a lot in common with a sibling child. I think identifying with the feelings of at least some of the people you study is an unavoidable, not to mention human part of studying social history. If we all acted like robots, how could we write sensitively about subjects such as, say, losing a child? Better that than to steamroll through every topic.
More generally, this week I read the argument that it’s impossible to write objectively about the history of childhood because we’ve all been children, and this leads us to sentimentalise it (Carolyn Steedman, Strange Dislocations, (London, 1995), p. 6). I suppose I am putting myself into my work in a sense that I don’t sentimentalise childhood, and therefore childhood is not sentimentalised in my thesis. I’ve never seen childhood as a hallowed time, and prefer the freedom and opportunities of adulthood. On the whole, my autobiographers and oral history interviewees present a mixed experience of childhood - sometimes good, sometimes bad, as they have nice nannies, but then they leave and are replaced by cruel ones, they do or don’t like school and do or don’t have friends, or they have a consistently good relationship with family members or they’re strained. But as far as I can, I try to keep myself out of my work, and save my own views for my blog posts!
Charles Schulz knew life for children isn’t always happy!