On Birth Order and the Plight of the Middle Child

In college I majored in psychology. It was a privileged major. I did not know that at the time, but I know it now. In order to making a living as a psychologist you need a masters degree at a minimum. Preferably you get a PhD, and go on to teach at a university while simultaneously trying to publish studies. All while trying to unbury yourself from all the student debt.

I had no real concept of what I would do with my degree when I committed to it. I just knew I was interested in studying how the mind works. Read into that what you will. So I spent a few thousand dollars of my parents’ money in pursuit of knowledge that I would essentially do nothing with in a professional capacity. From a practical standpoint it would have been much wiser for me to go into computer science or finance and business, or anything really (besides theater or communication). For heaven’s sake, my only required math class was called “math for the liberal arts student”. I graduated with a lot of knowledge about the human brain, and zero job prospectives.

I loved my major, and I am proud of my degree. I was the first person in my immediate family to receive a college degree. My parents included. As the third of six kids, I think getting my degree is an accomplishment I should tout to the world.

Speaking of being the third of six… One of the classes I took as an undergrad was childhood development. I loved this class and I loved my professor. She was a middle aged woman, and a relatively new mom. She was earthy, and maybe even a little homely. Thick set with a short brown bowl cut and glasses. She married and had her two kids later in life. One of the most poignant memories I have of her is the time she told us that if she knew how much she loved having kids, she would have started sooner and had more. She was incredibly open about sex, and the joy of sex. Considering I was at a very religious college at the time, her openness was refreshing.

During one of her lessons, she divided us into groups according to birth order. This being a college predominantly made up of mormon kids with big families, dividing us up into oldest, middle, and youngest wasn’t going to cut it. We had groups of oldest, second oldest, middle, second to youngest, and youngest. We had a simple assignment. Each group was given a virtual $500,000 budget to plan a party.

I am the third of six so I was solidly in the middle child category. My group went all out. We rented and entire cruise ship with all the bells and whistles. And we hired a famous band to perform. I don’t remember which band. I want to say Aerosmith, but that might be wishful thinking. Whatever the band, I am sure they would have asked for more than our budget allowed. I remember being very aware that we were going way over budget, but the planning was just so fun!

When it came time to present, each birth order laid out their plan. After each presentation, my professor read a synopsis of what was typical amongst that group. It was spot on every single time.

I tried to find any information I could on the $500,000 study, but I came up dry. So I will tell you the two birth orders I remember most clearly.

My group presented our monstrosity of a party, and when we were done, my professor said something like “the middle child’s party will be flashy and extravagant, and they will most likely go over budget.” Bingo.

One of the groups that presented planned nothing. I want to say it was the second oldest child group but I don’t remember clearly. The young man presenting said something like “we thought this was stupid, so we didn’t do it.” My professor’s synopsis read something like “this group will either put in minimal effort, or they will refuse to participate altogether.”

The experience was mind blowing. And I have been a firm believer of the role of birth order ever since.

I come from a family of six kids, so the whole oldest, middle, youngest child synopsis doesn’t hold totally true for all of us. Summer is the oldest, but by quite a bit. She reads more like an only child in a lot of ways. She is independent, driven, wise, creative. Sarah reads more like an oldest child. Reliable, structured, competitive.

In being the third born, I am a classic middle child. In my younger years, I may or may not have been neglected the spotlight, but either way I demanded it. I did anything I could to differentiate myself from my older sisters. Sarah was on homecoming court. So I cut my hair short and stopped shaving my legs. Sarah was athletic, so I did theater and learned to play the guitar. I was louder than I needed to be. And I am ashamed to say, I did many many stupid things in my younger years in order to be noticed. At the time, I preferred recognition over anonymity, even if it meant I played the fool. As a teenager, I was raucous, inappropriate, too open. Anything I could be in order not to be anonymous. In order to differentiate myself from my sisters. I still struggle with this to some degree. I like to think I have tempered this tendancy, but I don’t know.

I also have an incessant need for everyone to get along. Mostly in my family, but really in all aspects of life. This ringing of hands, wanting everyone to just be happy, it’s very middle child of me.

As the fourth of six kids, Chris was a different middle child. He truly was the one that missed the spotlight. The one who felt neglected. The one who just slipped into the shadows, intentionally allowing the rest of us to shine. I feel sad and sorry I did not recognize this in my younger years. Chris had a lot to offer. And we missed it.

I see the same middle child tendencies in Lilly as I see in myself. Her life goal seems to be that we all get along. That I am happy, that Rachel’s needs are met, that Emmy feels loved, that Carson is recognized. Lilly is the first middle child. Just like I was. Lilly will do anything in her power to make sure everyone in her family circle and her friend circle are happy. Comfortable. At ease.

Carson is the second middle child. In the same category as my brother Chris. And he also experiences little spotlight. My dad spent two days with Carson this week. He hired him to help my parents move into their new house. They moved furniture, built shelves, created spaces. Today my mom took Lilly to run an errand. The dummy that I am, I called my mom and asked her about her time with Lilly was. My dad was in on the call and interrupted to ask “Do you want to know how my time with Carson was?” He didn’t do it to be rude, or make a point. He was just curious. But it made me think for half a second. I should have asked. I didn’t even think to. Carson is easy. He requires little attention from me. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need the attention. Just ask my brother Chris.

Rachel as the oldest is truly a trip. When she was around 8, I told her she could do nothing until her room was clean. I left her to her task for a while. When I checked back, she was working hard on her room ORGANIZING HER GARBAGE. She was compiling small scraps of paper in order of importance, completely ignoring the chaos that was her room. I asked her the other day if she thought she fit the oldest child profile.. Organized, list-oriented, outspoken, independent, perfectionist. She said she identified with some of it. She is outspoken and independent. She loves a good list. And she has a black and white view on things. There is right and wrong with Rachel. And very little grey. The rest though… She is not organized. Not at all.

Every one of the kids will tell you Emmy is my favorite. This is not strictly true. Emmy is always nice to me. Which is great. And she spends time with me. I’m her most important person right now. But that is more age related. In a couple years, I am sure I will hardly see her. The typical traits of a youngest child are attention seeking, manipulative, affectionate and charming, easy-going, and carefree. Emmy loves and needs attention. She is charming and she is affectionate. But manipulative? No. Carefree? Definitely not. She has way more anxiety than an 11-year-old should have. And attention seeking? Yeah, she demands attention where she needs it. But good for her.

Birth order plays a huge role in who we will be. Of course it does. With Rachel, I had huge expectations about the kind of kid she would be. Expectations I wish I could take back. Expectations that shaped her. Lilly probably felt like she had to fight for the love we gave Rachel. She had to define herself. Make herself different and distinct from her sister. Carson had to fight his way in, being the third child and the only boy. He has held back. Emmy is loved, unequivocally. She is man-handled. She is moved about. But she is loved. Obsessed over. Cherished. It’s probably hard not to embrace that.

Ultimately we get to decide who we will be. But it would be foolish to believe factors such as birth order, socioeconomic status, race, and a million other factors don’t play a role. All you can do is take what you are given and make the decision to do the best with it. Rachel can choose to let go of some of her black and white. Lilly can decide her own happiness is more important than making sure everyone in her world is comfortable. Carson can decide to demand the spotlight. Emmy can learn to stand up for herself. I don’t know. I am just spitballing here. Middle child that I am, I just want everyone to be happy.

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