Blame It On Birth Order

I felt mistreated when Mom assigned chores by age. Being too old for Barbara’s pretend work and too young for Carolyn’s skilled tasks, I drew the dull, dirty or distasteful jobs. I remember pushing our vacuum down the hall, trying to finish before the antiquated machine erupted. It needed to be emptied; I hoped to avoid doing so by stowing it away before Mom noticed the dust clouds oozing from its bloated pores.

I cut mean glances at Carolyn who ironed in the kitchen, popping nary a bead of sweat. She sneered back at me as she took a sip of lemonade, turned up the radio, and crooned along with Patti Page: “How much is that doggie in the window—arf! arf!” Seemed more like a party than work to me.

Pushing my belching machine into the living room, I aimed for Barbara, who sat on the floor pairing clean socks from the laundry. Concentrating on her task, she didn’t glance up, increasing my chances of inflicting serious injury. Unfortunately, I had to veer off when Mom appeared and gave Barbara towels to fold along with praise: “Look at the good job you’re doing; you’re getting to be a big help.”

What was I? An incompetent orphan on loan from the poor house?

No, I was a middle child.

Recently, in an article about the impact of birth order on the personalities of children, I read, “If you are a middle child, you probably have fewer photos in the family album.”

Bingo!

A stranger could skim our family albums and immediately identify me as the in-betweener. Baby pictures of the other six abound. My infant gallery consists of one fuzzy snapshot Mom said might be me.

Not that I’m complaining. For every disadvantage listed by experts for middle children, I experienced an advantage. Evidently, I should have felt unknown and unnoticed in the crowd. No problem. I liked doing anything I wanted during the chaos created by rebellious teenagers and needy babies.

Another accepted generalization: “Middle children may feel life is unfair since they enjoy neither the privileges of the older nor the attention given the younger.” But I, too, doted on the babies; and I knew those older did more chores and had to babysit the rest of us. Not my idea of a good time.

The positive middle-child descriptors — cooperative, flexible, independent — seemed a perfect fit for me; while the negative traits — secretive, avoids conflict, may exaggerate or lie to get attention — obviously didn’t apply.

My position in the middle also had advantages the researchers didn’t mention; for example, I received excellent parenting; Mom and Dad hit their stride with me. They’d learned from skirmishes with those older, but weren’t yet weary of the battle as with those younger.

I notice another blessing of my birth order at family reunions. Twenty-one years separate my oldest and youngest siblings. Lawrence was a Marine in Korea when Blaine was a toddler and JL was born. But I lived for several years with all my siblings; I know those older and those younger in alarming detail; and I love them all. I believe they feel the same about me.

“Feels unloved and left out,” one authority said of middle children.

Not in my family.

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60 thoughts on “Blame It On Birth Order

  1. I loved this wonderful memory of your childhood Janet. As an only child I didn’t experience any of these things. I was the lone person doing chores which understandably caused some complaints. But to be able to remember all your siblings working at keeping home firs going I am quite envious. I have noticed the similarity of middle children in friends. I guess it is universal. Great post.

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed my thoughts and feelings as a middle child. I do think birth order influences us in various ways. And you are right, it was nice to have so many siblings to share chores with.

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  2. I admire your attitude, Janet. You seem almost intent on finding the good in thing, the bright side if you will. I like that. I do understand the no-pictures thing – oh well, given that the ones I have are embarrassing, maybe it’s a blessing.

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    • Odd, Dan, but I don’t remember being offended by the lack of baby pictures of me. When I was old enough to remark on it, Mom explained I was a baby and toddler during a time when money was scarce, my older sister was sick with polio and then hospitalized a long time in Salt Lake City for surgery to repair her crippled leg, and Dad was working long hours because of a labor shortage due to WWII. It made sense to me; and I didn’t think about it again until I was writing this post.

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  3. Ahhh! Birth order. Being the first girl of three I can tell you from experience the firsts get all the work and the blame. LOL
    .When we announced we were getting married my mothers first responce was “Who is going to cook supper every night “. My responce..”.I guess my sisters will need to learn how.”Hehe.

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      • I really don’t know. they were both approaching college age so probably not much. My sister just behind me was not really sick but had a lot of health situations to work through. She finelly passed away at 23 years a week after open heart surgery. the nex was only 15 mos. younger and learned to cook pretty well after marrage and two kids.

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  4. That vacuum cleaner!!! What grand descriptions! I may have to use them when I teach creative writing this fall. Really noteworthy! My middle child, my only girl, is very independent. When she was 10, she was going on 40.

    Nanette Heckler Fine Art http://www.nanetteheckler.com

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    • Thanks for your kind words about the descriptions in this piece. I had no problem thinking of descriptive words and phrases for the vacuum. I hated the thing. Perhaps a girl in the middle of brothers needs an independent spirit!

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    • I never thought much about being a middle child until later when I read research on birth position and the way it impacts children. Then, once I got to know my students as a teacher, I started guessing their birth positions. And I was usually right!

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  5. I’m the first born, and I was in college when my last sibling was born (we are a blended family). You are so right about the middle child. Our family’s middle child has the closest relationship with everyone. She is “news central”. When anyone wants to know what is going on in the family, we check with her.
    I never thought about her strategic birth order position before.

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  6. leave it to you to make a birth order funny. I am the oldest child and the oldest grandchild in some way, for my oldest cousins did not live close for many years, It was a golden spot at times though I ended up babysitting as you said! I was always suppose to “know better” if the little ones got in to trouble. I had to set the example too-how tiresome. Do you know, that if a child is having difficulty in school, I ask their birth order? Well, you made me smile as usual. Good to know we both made it and made it well. Thank you for an entertaining post love Michele

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    • I know in our family the eldest child carried the same responsibilities you mention, and even as a child, I recognized being oldest had both advantages and disadvantages, as does every birth position I suppose. I too, considered birth order when trying to understand and help my students. I’m glad you smiled at my memories and that we both made it and made it well, dear friend.

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  7. I’m technically the oldest and I was always enviable of my sister as the middle child and my brothers as the youngest. They certainly got away with more than me and growing up I was always so sure my sister was ‘the favourite.’ Funny how everyone’s perspective is different!

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  8. This made me laugh. My mother, fourth of six, always says of the middles in her family “We never got any attention,” to which I always say, “Yeah, mom, but you received things and learned from being in the middle.” One is character. Two is independence. Not only that, and my favorite: You are the link. ❤

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  9. Middle of three..horrible photo in too small a dress the day I fell out of the truck en route to being baptised..following a year behind my naughty brother in a small school, patted on the head and shoved aside by maiden aunts because my sister was cute and my brother “A Boy” Getting the turkey wing because my sister was a baby and my brother was “A Boy”, and knowing there was no point complaining. Old Ness levels the field, wish I had my siblings here to laugh about it. Great post Janet, thank you.

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    • It sounds like you could be a case study for middle children. I have a granddaughter, the second of four, who says she is the spare child. She’s not special because she’s not the oldest, not the youngest and not the only boy. I’m going to share your comment with her; she’ll identify. How did you manage to fall out of a truck on the way to your baptism? And, yes my wise friend,, Old Ness does level the field.

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      • Oh, dear Janet- We were all in back of the pickup, turning onto the highway,(Not even paved then, 1962) My cousin took a swat at me,I stood up to dodge it and fell out. No one said anything till they reached the church, I sat in the dirt eating blackberrys, Ma irate as I tore my dress. Got baptised anyway. Do share with your Grandaughter- with my blessing. Cheers!

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      • I knew if I asked for more of the story, it would get funnier; and you didn’t disappoint. I love the visual of you sitting in the dirt in your too-small, ripped dress, eating blackberries and the way the baptism went on nevertheless. You do make me laugh.

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  10. Sometimes I’ve wondered how it would be to have had more siblings. It was just my younger brother and me. Across the street, there was a family who had four kids. We lived in a cookie-cutter neighborhood so I knew before I was ever in their house that there were two kids per bedroom. I felt privileged because I had a bedroom all to myself.

    My mom and dad were both middle kids. My mom was like you not really caring where her status was in the family doing her own thing when not doing chores. My dad felt slighted.

    I was the older one, which suited me just fine. I was left to my own to find things to do, not needing to be entertained.

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    • I used to wonder what it would be like to have fewer siblings or none at all; but I never got very far because, really, it was unimaginable for me. My best friend had her own bedroom while I shared a room with three sisters. I loved escaping to the quiet of her bedroom. I like picturing you quietly and happily entertaining yourself.

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  11. Wonderful post Janet. JL and I are both the baby of our families and I only have my brother, who is eight years older than I am. So, I had no experience growing up with a middle child. Jake being the middle child seems to play the role of the bridge between his sisters. I also think it helps that he is a different gender.

    I have always thought of you as the person who is the bridge of your brothers and sisters. You have the advantage of knowing them well, which I think is a good place to be.

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    • It is a good place to be, Janice, and, actually, I thought so even when I was young. Though ai haven’t had a chance to get to know Jake really well, he seems to have the other middle child attributes as well: flexible, independent, cooperative. Do you see those traits in him?

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    • Actually, I do see those traits in Jake. Oddly enough, he seems to be the happiest of my children as well considering that Kelsey was born so close to him, so his time as the baby was cut short and Katie absolutely hated him (and JL and I) for a time. Somehow, it all worked out and our family really enjoys one another.

      Jake will be here for the reunion, so maybe you can visit with him a bit and get to know him better!

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      • I’ve often thought your family genuinely enjoys one another, Janice. I’m so glad Jake will be at the reunion. I’ll look forward to visiting with him. It was at the reunion Joel and I hosted on the Grand Mesa that I first really talked with him and enjoyed him — as did everybody!

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  12. I, too, come from a large family…there are seven of us. I am the third oldest, but the oldest daughter, so not quite in the middle, but the oldest of four girls in a row. I agree that the oldest had more chores, at least in our family, and because I was the oldest girl, it was the cooking, sweeping, and laundry. My younger sisters had to empty the garbage cans and dust…a little easier and quicker jobs. As the oldest, my sisters have told me that I had to “pave the way” for them. Once I had done something, and paid the price, it was easier for them, as “well she did it”. LOL! But there are a lot of fond memories of a large family…the family dinners, the holidays, and the summer neighborhood baseball games. The ring of our doorbell after dinner and our neighborhood friends were ready for a game. They couldn’t play without us as we made up a whole team! Such fun and such memories! Thanks for sharing yours!

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    • I enjoyed reading your memories as well, Nancee. I, too, liked being part of a large family. We used to play baseball as well with our dog, Boots, playing the outfield for both teams. Your family and mine also shared the oft-used phrase, “well she (or he) did it!” but our parents never fell for it.

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  13. Loved your description. I suspect family size might come into it as well. Middle of 3 is probably different from Middle of 7. (I am elder of two; my husband is an only child. I would love to have a sister and a larger family.)

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    • I too think being the middle of three differs from being the middle of seven. The research I read indicated all birth positions have both advantages and disadvantages that varied depending on the family size and dynamic. For example, in large families like mine, if there had been a gap of several before I was born, I could have developed and functioned more like the oldest child to my younger siblings. I find it all quite interesting.

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  14. The image of you dragging that vacuum cleaner all over the house cracks me up! Having said this, vacuuming is something I do not do even today (we just got rid of all the carpets!) as it is the chore I detest most after ironing.

    Your post has given me comfort in the midst of conversations with my younger sister who is visiting from Phoenix (middle child) who is struggling with her Middle Child. Just yesterday there were many tears shed, and last night, before turning in, I read your words of encouragement.

    Your ability to see the other side of the coin with such clarity & humour has always delighted & amazed me. This time, it also lifts me out of my sadness and brings hope back.

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  15. Thank you for enjoying and finding comfort in my exploration of my middle child experience. I hope your sister and her daughter find a way to remain friends as they go through difficult times. It must help your sister to feel you kindness and concern as you listen to her.

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  16. I only have one sibling, and she’s eight years older than me so these sorts of comparisons have always been difficult for me to use in my own situation but, as I was reading your post it made me wonder about the balance of relationship in between my dad and his three siblings and my mum and her three siblings. Not sure which child would have been regarded as ‘the middle one’ – the 2nd or the 3rd or both? But in my dad’s family I’m aware that the 3rd one was different from the others – quite a loner in many ways, often rather defensive. And the one in my mum’s family of that same position – also a loner, but not defensive. As both were boys, though, in a time when they weren’t expected to care for the family in the same way as girls, it’s difficult to know how they regarded their positions.

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    • I don’t remember what, if anything, I’ve read about families of four children, so I’m afraid I can’t be of much help. It’s interesting, though, that in both of your parents’ families, the third child was a loner; independence is a strong middle child trait. I think the characteristics developed in each position also depend on how many years there are between the children. It’s all quite complex, but interesting. Thanks for your interesting comment.

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  17. Hi Janet,

    Birth order and its influence on personality and achievement is an interesting field of study.
    From my observations it seems that the middle child in a family of three is oftentimes the most independent but also the most withdrawn.

    I am a firstborn (or co-firstborn as I’m a twin) and here’s something weird—Tim is a firstborn, as are most all of my close friends from childhood. Coincidence?

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    • That is weird, Rita, and i can think of no explanation for it. I’ve spent several minutes thinking of many firstborns and their spouses whom I know and only one is married to another firstborn, but I don’t know their childhood friends, so found my bit of research uninformative at best.

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