The Birth Order Equation

I just read an article In the Huffington Post titled: The Achiever, the Peacemaker and the Life of the Party: How Birth Order Affects Personality. I always find articles and books on this topic frustrating because I am the second of five girls. It seems that the formula works well if there are three or fewer siblings in a family circle, but what of those who do not numerically fit into the formula? When you have to start solving for X, my brain automatically shuts off- perhaps that’s indicative of my birth order. There are certainly themes that apply to each of my siblings, though I’d say most accurately to my big sister, two and a half years my senior, and the oldest of the lot. Her place as the eldest pretty much solidifies her place in the equation, and perhaps my baby sister since she brings up the rear. The three of us in the middle are all, well, middle children. But there is eleven years in between the oldest and the youngest of us, each connected by the two and half to three years between us. It would be much different if there were only two that were eleven years apart. For a family of five girls, there are innumerable variables that determine how our birth order affects our personalities and solving for X may require a degree in advanced mathematics. We number ourselves for the clarity of others, so here’s a breakdown of how we each fit into the equation:

Number 1

Number one may be the easiest to solve for but the hardest to work out. My big sister, all of my sisters’ big sister I suppose, but I only have the one, has been all grown up since the day I met her when she was two and a half. She’s the only one that got mom and dad all to herself and the only one that never had to share attention. It goes to reason that she would have a natural ability to assume the lead role and expect your undivided attention. Not coincidentally, she is a teacher with teacher of the year honors on her resume. I can remember her correcting my use of “to” and “too” when she was eleven, I was nine and we were writing a story. She was the detail person, I the big idea person. As an adult it’s hard to not have a detail person managing my big ideas. I find myself surrounding myself with at least one person like my big sister as surrogates.

Number 2

I fit fairly well into the life of the party category. I found that being outgoing and outrageous defined me from my big sister and eventually little sisters. I am the one my mom worries about, because I’m most likely to jump from a bridge just to see if I could stick the landing. My mom once asked me where I got the blisters on my hands. I eventually admitted to tying a toy jump rope to the footboard of my bed on the second story and repelling out the window on it, burning my hands as I slid down the rope. As the second in command I took on the role of enforcer, partly because my dad liked that I wanted to fight and partly because I really enjoy getting into scraps. My big sister would start fights with other kids and I’d be the one actually fighting them. Unless of course it was a verbal battle, then she came to my aid.

Number 3

Number three most resembles the classic middle child. She is definitely the all time peacemaker. Her voice of reason and ease with defusing a volatile situation is something at which to be marveled. Growing up, where I were to get in serious trouble, she could have my mom laughing and forgiving her anything. There is a precious video of her when she was about five where my mom was asking her how she felt about having so many sisters, mom had just had our fifth sister. In her raspy little voice she laced her little fingers together to show conflict and said: I love them except when they’re fighting.

Number 4

Number four is one I can’t figure out how to place. She is most like the oldest, though with a little less burden. She is outspoken, assertive and independent. Her first day of kindergarten she almost made us miss the bus on a rural route where that was the only way to make it out the door, because she didn’t have the right socks to go with her dress. In her teens she disregarded the- you can shove, push, slap and throw your siblings down a flight of stairs, but no punching- code of sisterly conflict. She once punched me in the face when I was trying to calm her down and called me a bitch for getting blood on her new shirt.

Number 5

But then there’s the baby, number five, or as she likes to put it: I might be THE baby, but I’m not A baby. Fair enough, but I still remember changing her diapers and claiming her as mine. My oldest sister had claimed number four as her pet, so I was determined that number five would be mine, which solves for number 3 being the most middle child like. See, people, math can be fun. But back to the baby. Her little personality was an amalgam of all five of us. As a toddler and young kid she kept up with our banter and infighting quite well with quick comebacks and appropriate levels of orneriness, like hocking loogies from the far back of the Volvo wagon onto the steering wheel while mom chastised her. Growing up she was called brat or puke rather than her actual name because our step-dad spoiled her so much. He lovingly gave her these names. Brat is self explanatory, puke came from him telling her she was so spoiled she made him puke. This was of course as she slipped a big ticket item tag into his shirt pocket while at Sam’s. Even with all of her shenanigans, she was always more introverted and less outspoken than the rest of us. She went through a phase in young adulthood of being less likely to speak up for herself, then she found her voice again and it was like she was telling number 1 she wished she’d roll down the stairs again after being told by number 1 she wished she’d go downstairs.

It’s like we had to each develop our own way to get attention and in the processes we got that much louder and more argumentative so we could be heard. If you are hanging with us all together, don’t take a breath, that’s the only way to get a word in edgewise. You learn to talk over each other without being rude. Our step dad, an introverted soft spoken man, developed the method of walking into the middle of us and giving the time-out hand gesture and verbally declaring a time-out so he could get in whatever it was that needed to be said.

Now we are all adults and we are no longer content with our roles in the birth order. Number 1 doesn’t want the burden of being in control all the time, though still wants veto power. I don’t want to be the combative life of the party all the time but can snap into it almost effortlessly and blow my top. Number 3 is emerging as more the coordinator and less willing to be the keeper of the peace, though she can quickly diffuse a situation with a well timed smart ass comment. Number 4 thankfully outgrew punching us and is going with the flow, though how well she is put together still dictates the timelines of our plans. And Number 5 has found her voice independent of the rest of us, finally convincing us she’s not a baby, though I think Brat will always follower her.

Why do we need to understand our place in the birth order? So we can better understand why we are the way we are? So we can understand our parents and how their roles as parents changed with each subsequent offspring? There are so many variables that it seems would affect how we react within our birth order. My oldest child is my husband’s fifth child, his third son who is separated in age from his closest older siblings by 33 years, while I sit pregnant with my second, my husband’s sixth who will be three years removed from his older sibling. Clearly, I think it’s safe to assume the rubric resets with that much time in between siblings. It doesn’t change the kind of parent my sons will get from my husband at 64, versus his first set of kids when he was younger. My sons will have a young neurotic first go round parent in me and essentially a grandparent with all the wisdom and patience that that age and experience affords. I think perhaps the formula does not apply in today’s equation of modern families, where there are not 2.5 kids per two biological parents of the same age. The variables are too complex for even the most adept mathematical brain. I think it’s enough to understand we each represent something in our families that is invaluable, even if that value does not solve for X.

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