How does our birth order influence our lives, our relationships, our personality, our parenting, our future? I am the first born child, with two younger siblings. My mother was an only child, and my father was the youngest of five. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life thinking about birth order mainly because my parents made a point of impressing upon me the responsibility to take care of my sister and brother. “Friends will come and go,” my mom would tell me, “but your siblings are forever.” “Make sure you take your sister with you.” “Hold your brother’s hand when you cross the street.” “Always look out for your sister and brother.” You get the picture.
I have no recollection of the 18 months of my life before my sister was born, but I’m told my parents had a pretty good time with me. So good, in fact, that they couldn’t wait to have another baby. That was always their story and they stuck to it. The new baby girl arrived, followed two years later by, “the boy.” I do remember my parents bringing him home from the hospital all swaddled up. “Watch the soft spot,” was the refrain for months as I awkwardly tried to sit with him on my tiny lap.
I guess you could say I am a classic big sister. Caregiving, bossy, driven, organized, high achieving. I organized parades where I would sit in my brother’s red wagon, draped in a boa, tiara on my head, my brother gamely pulling me as I waved to the neighborhood. I choreographed ballets for my sister and I to entertain our parents, clad in my mom’s old nightgowns. And when my brother would get sick, I was obsessed with taking his temperature, bringing him toast and reading to him in bed.
As the oldest, my developmental milestones and achievements were always the first for my parents. And attention-loving drama queen that I am, I generally liked it. I loved feeling grown up and couldn’t wait to, “get there.” By the time I was 17, I’d graduated from high school, left for college and rarely looked back. My summers were spent involved in theater companies, part time jobs, hanging at the beach with friends. I got married right after college and never lived with my family again. I guess you could say my early years were pretty standard for an L.A. girl growing up in the 1970s.
This all sounds charming, right? But underneath all that grooviness lurks a dark secret. You see, I did enjoy being the oldest for all of the above reasons. But I also hated it. I hated the burden dumped on a little girl to always look out for the younger ones. I hated not having any cover for my mistakes, so I just worked to avoid them. I hated the assumption that my hard fought victories were preordained because I was the golden one. I hated there not being much room for me, so growing up fast and leaving was the best option. Most of all I hated not being allowed to rebel and act out like a normal kid. “You’re older, you should know better.” It’s all so exhausting.
One time I asked my mom if my dad was happy his first born was a girl rather than a boy. Her answer, “He was thrilled! Big sisters are better at keeping the family together,” meant to be reassuring sounded to me like another assignment. I spent years studying my mother’s techniques for entertaining and preparing holiday dinners. I listened in on her conversations with my dad’s three older sisters for clues on how, exactly, I was supposed to keep us all together. And when I became a mom to three children, I vowed not to put the same burden on my first born, also a girl. Karma, right?
So here we are, all three of us in late middle age, our parents alive only in our memories. I guess you could say I have lived up to my birthright. I continue to try and keep the family together, to look out for my sister and brother. We have aged, live in different parts of the country and each of us has been knocked around by life. For one of us, life in general is a battle and the other two of us do our best to keep moving forward. A very good therapist once told me it was time to fire myself from the job of being the Big Sister. It’s hard to break the old patterns and often when I try, one of the two resists my effort to change, but I continue to work on that. And while I now have a loving husband, amazing grown children and a circle of close friends, sometimes that little girl inside me just wants someone to take care of her.
About Barbara Dab
Barbara Dab is a journalist, broadcast radio personality, producer and award-winning public relations consultant. She is the Editor of The Jewish Observer of Nashville, and a former small business owner. Barbara loves writing, telling stories of real people and real events and most of all, talking to people all over the world. The Jewish Observer newspaper can be read online at www.jewishobservernashville.org .
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