I Am an Only Child of an Only Child… Right?

I told myself I was…
I knew it was not true…
I could only imagine a different scenario…
I learned to love my life as it was…
Till the story changed…

My mother at the age of 28 married a man with 6 children ranging from 5 years to 18 years old; she put her heart and arms around four beautiful girls and two amazing boys. She stepped into an instant family in 1960.

Two years later, she gave birth to me and became a mother to 7 children.

Sometimes I imagine what it must have been like for her to step into that role with zero experience as a parent.

How did she manage? How do you go from cooking for one person to eight? Was she confident or terrified? What were her thoughts when she laid her head on the pillow at night? What was she thinking? What were others thinking? Most importantly what were the children thinking?

The six were in the wake of their birth mother leaving them behind; I can only imagine how this was affecting their respective little brains and hearts.

The number of children, range of ages, and now a mother to an infant must have been intimidating and scary at best, but she held the course, till the weight of it all became overwhelming.

Two years later, she left my father and her instant family to create a life raising me as an only child.

The sad part is I never knew the details of the breakup and or why she left. I just know she did. My half-brothers and sisters were not a secret – I knew they were there; I just did not know them.

My story has always been, I am an only child of an only child.

When I turned 18, I became curious and went searching for connection. I reached out to my father and my half-brothers and sisters who were still living in the area. Two sisters lived away, married with children, one brother had moved to another country, the youngest sister was serving in the US Navy overseas. So here I was, excited, scared, and feeling a bit sideways in seeing my father and 2 siblings.

I remember shaking as I walked up to the house, all my emotions of not being a part of this family were rising to the top. Would it be a hug or a handshake? The little girl in me felt unprepared – I could always turn and run back to the car.

I drew in one big breath of confidence and courage and rang the doorbell.

I connected but found little connection. There were no birthday memories, family vacations, family dinners, etc.… I am not sure what I was looking for, but it was clear to me that everyone had just moved on, and maybe I had as well. It is difficult to recreate or rebuild your life based on minimal memories. There was no foundation to build on.

Sad and disappointed, I moved on with the resolve to create a life without them. At least I had tried, there was really nothing left for me to find, I was at peace. Or was I?

It was seven years later that my mother showed me my father’s obituary – he died of a heart attack; he was 63. I was listed as one of 7 children.

Three years later my mother died of a heart attack – side effects from chemotherapy at the age of 58.

Being an only child with parents who are gone is a very lonely place to live.

Fast forward 37 years, now 55 years old I chose to participate in a DNA test just out of gross curiosity. I learned things about my ancestry heritage that I never knew. (I am mostly British and Irish, a bit more French and German, some Scandinavian, Portuguese, Finish, and 0.5% Sub-Saharan African). I was fascinated with the data, but it could not fill the hole.

About a year after the results were published a distant relative found me on social media and reached out to ask if I was related to my father’s family clan. She was interested in what I knew and what was I interested in knowing. I answered the call with utter trepidation and unwavering curiosity. She provided me with in-depth history from my father’s side along with updates on all 6 of my siblings.

Sitting with this new information, I vacillated daily on what actions I would take if any.

After so many years, what would I say? Was I looking for connection or closure?

If and only if I chose a step forward, I knew I had to be completely unattached to any outcome.

It was weeks, maybe months later when somewhere deep down I found the courage to reach out to the youngest of the six children, she was only 7 years older than me. Her name is Cathy.

My only portal was to send her a private message on Facebook, that would be my first and only move. It was a warm, simple, and emotionally detached message. It felt safe.

Two months later = No response.

Frustrated, disappointed, angry, and heartbroken, I was confident that this part of my life was what it was, and it was over.

And the next day Cathy responded with:

“I just opened this message – is this really you? I have thought about you so many times over the years and have looked for you often”.

My entire story was changing in slow motion.

In my mind’s eye, there were pages being torn from a book and shredded.

We began to share emails and started a real, raw, and beautiful exchange of our prior lives. We framed it in a way of ‘this is what happened, and this is me today’.

We chose this as a neutral and safe starting point.

This chapter starts right here.

She shared that she and her wife Sandi were considering moving to Spain or Portugal. They were planning 30 days in Lisbon to get a feeling of ‘it or not it’. They planned their trip, and we held the vision of seeing one another.

We met at the train station in Cascais where my husband and I live. The depth of my emotional response was suffocating and exhilarating at the same time. I saw her, and I froze.

And in a nanosecond, I felt her arms around me, with the words floating over my head “I thought you were taller”.

It was in this moment I felt home, like I had ever known.

We walked and talked for hours in a new space of listening and learning without judgement.

It was easy but also came with some razor-sharp edges of reality of time lost.

Some pieces were falling into place and other stories were shattered in an instant. We melted into an organic and raw space of sharing our authentic adult versions of ourselves.

This all unfolded in just one visit.

For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a sister – and I felt like I was a sister.

A year later, Cathy and Sandi made the decision NOT to move to Spain.

They moved to Cascais Portugal, 6 blocks from where Wayne and I live.

They did not move here because of us, they moved because it felt like the perfect space for them to retire and thrive.

I am still processing this new reality and remain profoundly touched. Sometimes I just cannot find the words to describe how this feels after holding on to a story for so many years.

We text every day, have lunches and dinners together, attend social gatherings and meet at the farmers market weekly. We walk by the Atlantic Ocean and share stories, share music, celebrate our sameness, and embrace our differences. We are exploring layers of the women we have become and finding that beautiful space where our voice feels valued, and our heart feels heard.

I am incredibly grateful and humbled for the life I had as an only child for 60 years. And now I cannot imagine my life without this incredibly rich and deep connection that is nurturing me in a way that I have never known.

I am not an only child.

Is there anyone in your life you want to thank for shining light on your life?


Carolyn Lebanowski
Carolyn Lebanowski
Carolyn began her professional career in retail and grew to become an experienced and respected senior-level executive with expertise in strategic development, organizational communication, and executive coaching. After nearly three decades of career growth in corporate organizational development, Carolyn was ready for a career change—and a life change. This led to a new role and the most challenging, enriching, and rewarding work of her life, as a Strategic Business Leader for nonprofit spiritual institutions. As Executive Director and Chief Opportunity Officer for 2 large organizations, it gave her the opportunity to fuse the professional and the personal, aligning her business acumen with her spiritual identity and passion for the development of human potential—in her colleagues, in her community, and in herself. Carolyn is a writer who seeks above all to share from the heart. Her impulse to write began 20 years ago with letters to her children and grew into journaling that was unedited and life-affirming. Today she writes with a focus on raw, authentic, and lived experience, to explore, express, and make sense of the pain and joy, and struggles and triumphs, of life. In all her endeavors, she champions connection, integrity, and radical positivity. Today, Carolyn is a published author and a Columnist/Featured Contributor at BIZCATALYST 360° and is living in Cascais, Portugal.

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  1. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you….for sharing your story. Sharing is caring. I know, first hand, it is difficult to not only dig deep, but sharing the dig-deep experience publicly. Yes, she is a gift to you, BUT YOU are one hundred percent a special gift to Cathy. I am proud of you.

    • Thank you so much Peggy for this beautiful affirmation. It is one thing to live the story and another to share the story.
      I was texting with Cathy this morning and she shared that after reading the story – she is still in ’emotional shock’ and loving every minute.

      Your words mean everything to me – so grateful.