I have the fortunate distinction of being the middle of three daughters. I can find the fortune in it now that I am an adult with healthy relationships with both my sisters. I love going out with them; hearing people comment about how much we look alike. I am accustomed to the way we compensate for each other like a three-legged stool—balancing each other without enlisting Sister A to gang up on Sister B. Sisterhood can be a fragile ecosystem.
Now that we are adults (40 is grown up, right?), we are comfortable with our roles, but growing up was a different story. If I had understood the predicament of the middle child better, I might not have been so upset upon finding a copy of Raising the Sensitive Middle Child—dog-eared and underlined—by my mother’s bedside. Now I appreciate the irony of the scene: “What does this mean?!” I moaned to her through clenched teeth. “Are you saying I’m sensitive or something?”
To the casual observer, my sisters and I held equal places in our mother’s affection. She relied on the wisdom of humorist Erma Bombeck to explain her diverse feelings about us. Hanging in the upstairs hallway were three framed tributes to our respective birth order. Each began with “I’ve always loved you best…” Erma’s attempt to placate all the feelings of her children is admirable, but the words of those framed keepsakes mainly confused me.
Each passage ends with a parting thought. To the oldest child: you were the beginning. To the baby: you were the culmination. But to the middle child: you were the continuance. In other words, you were the not-as-great sequel to a blockbuster, or you were just there to get us one step closer to the big finale. The part that particularly rubbed me the wrong way as soon as I could read was “you drew the dumb spot.” I never finished reading the thought. It said: “You drew the dumb spot and it made you stronger for it.” I just focused on the fact that it said dumb and assumed it was calling me names. Again: Am I sensitive or something?
The greatest curse/blessing of being a middle child would have to be empathy. I experienced persecution from the maniacal brain of my older sister. (For example: “Abby, you can go first on our homemade zip-line. Just climb up this porch pole and grab on the rope. Come on, don’t be a baby.” After the failed zip-line… “It’s just skin. After your hands stopped bleeding, it’ll grow back. Stop crying, cry-baby.”)
So when it came time for me to join in the initiation of our younger sister, I was robbed of the joy so evident in my older sister. To say that I experienced no enjoyment in seeing our younger sister scurry to do our bidding just because we said “If you don’t, the bug is gonna get you!” would be a lie, but it was an empty happiness I swallowed as I drank the juice she brought us as we watched an episode of Little House on the Prairie.
Now that I have children of my own I understand how difficult it is to make every one of them feel special every day. No matter how carefully I craft my praise for one, the others feel slighted. If I say, “You’re really good at drawing pictures of butterflies” to one daughter the other daughter assumes I think her butterflies stink. My one consolation is that I don’t really have a middle child. My firstborn are twin girls. My older son Knox came three years later, and we adopted another son six years younger than Knox.
You could argue that they all “drew the dumb spot” in the family in some way. Being compared to a twin sister in everything you do has been problematic for both of my girls and being the little brother to two strong-willed, older sisters has not been a picnic for my older son. (Knox used to shoot baskets in the driveway alone a lot. Maybe he really liked basketball or maybe he was trying to avoid playing “house” for the thousandth time.) Our youngest has his own set of unique challenges, although he does have the advantage of being our baby with three older siblings to spoil him.
My prayer for my children is that they will receive the blessing I think I have finally learned to appreciate: being inconvenienced by your siblings and making compromises for your siblings and showing lifelong loyalty and devotion to your siblings will eventually create compassion for people who are not your family. In other words, it will make you stronger. Thanks, Erma!