Janet Sheridan: Blame it on birth order

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Janet Sheridan

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 ugliest 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 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 look up, increasing the chances I could inflict serious injury.

I had to veer off at the last moment when Mom appeared. She gave Barbara towels to fold and 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 learned that, “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 6 abound, a few even shot by professional photographers. My infant gallery consists of one fuzzy snapshot Mom thought might be me.

Not that I’m complaining. For every downside listed by the experts for middle children, I experienced an advantage. Evidently, I should have felt lost in the crowd: unknown and unnoticed. No problem. I discovered I could do anything I wanted during the chaos created by rebellious teenagers or 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.”

At times I did whine, especially when Bob or Carolyn thumped on me; then, when I flicked Barbara, I heard: “Shame on you. You’re old enough to know better.”

But I recognize that the privileges of the older came with increased responsibility — they had to babysit the rest of us; I could think of nothing worse. As for the babies, they were at the mercy of all of us. They couldn’t evade supervision as I could, though they did sometimes try to outrun us.

The positive middle-child descriptors — cooperative, flexible, independent — seemed like good traits to me. The negative characteristics — secretive, avoids conflict, may exaggerate or lie to get attention — couldn’t possibly describe me. Every word I write is true.

In addition, I see some advantages to my middle position the researchers didn’t mention: I received excellent parenting. Mom and Dad hit their stride with me. They had learned from skirmishes with the oldest, but weren’t yet battle-weary, as with the youngest.

At family reunions I notice another blessing of my birth order. Twenty one years separate my oldest and youngest siblings. Lawrence was a Marine in Korea when JL was born. I’m lucky to be in the middle. I know all the others in sometimes alarming detail, and I love every wonderful thing about each of them. And I believe they feel the same about me.

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

Not in my family.

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