December 9, 2008

Importance of Birth Order

In the first picture, I am two and one half; Joe is one. In the second I am four, Andrew is six months. In the third picture, I am seven; Bob is newborn. In the fourth picture, I am 12; Gerard is 1. Next I am 13; Brian is one month. The last picture was taken when I was 14.

Studying the pictures, I understand family dynamics much better. It has always seemed that sibling relationships matter more to me, that I try harder to keep the family connected. Being both the oldest and the only girl seems central. I was my adult height when my two younger brothers were born; they were only 5 and 7 when I left home for college. I must have seemed a quasi-maternal figure to them. In some pictures I look like their young mother.
We did not grow up in the same family. My mother returned to school full-time when Brian was 5; when he was 7, she started teaching high school. Joe, Andrew, and I had had a stay-at-home mother until we went to college. Brian doesn't remember my mom staying at home full-time. My father retired before Brian finished college.

We have very different perceptions of our parents. Joe, Andrew, and I remember our dad as a brilliant intellectual and mathematician; Gerard and Brian remember an old man who disappeared into Alzheimer's Disease. The three oldest remember our childhood perceptions of my mom as "just a housewife" who never went to college. My younger brothers remember her the way her obituary describes her: "teacher, activist, trailblazer."

With the death of my mom, Joe, 18 months younger, is my collaborator in family history. Unfortunately Joe was too busy climbing on top of the roof as a kid to remember very much. I realize I could write family fiction and convince everyone it is family history.

I struggled not to favor my first daughter Anne in sibling squabbles, because she, like me, was the oldest of several siblings. Both my first husband John and I were the oldest children of oldest children of oldest children--not the best recipe for marital harmony. Certainly Anne shows the same sense of responsibility for her younger siblings that I felt. John, Anne, and I thought younger siblings owe considerable gratitude to the oldest, who has fought all the battles necessary to whip parents into shape.

In my constant discussions with friends about baby spacing when my kids were young, I noticed that adult relationships with your siblings greatly influence you. If you love your sibs, you might think a brother or sister is the best gift you will give your kids. If you don't talk to each other, you will feel guilty about the trauma you are inflicting on the oldest. As people only have two children, there will only be younger and older older. Middle children seem to have special gifts society will sorely lack. When I told 6 year old Michelle, I was pregnant with Carolyn, she rejoiced, "Now I won't be the only middle child."

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