Little Sister by
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(187 Stories)

Prompted By Birth Order

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June 1952, sisters, ages 6, 10 months, 7ΒΎ

In 1961, Elvis sang “Little sister, don’t you do what your big sister done.” But I was always trying to do what my big sisters did.

In 1961, Elvis sang "Little sister, don't you do what your big sister done." But I was always trying to do what my big sisters did.

I am the youngest of three girls, the baby of the family. I was very happy to be in that spot most of the time, although I wanted to tag along with them when they were teenagers and they wouldn’t let me. If only I hadn’t been quite so much younger. But that’s not a birth order problem, it’s a family spacing problem.

My oldest sister was The Brilliant One. My middle sister was The Beautiful One. But all I had to do was be The Baby. I was smart (which I knew) and I was pretty (although I didn’t know it until later), but I didn’t have to be The Most anything. So there was a lot less pressure on me than on either of my sisters.

The two of them were only nineteen months apart in age, and very competitive with each other. I know my oldest sister was annoyed that they generally both got to do things at the same time, whether it was having the same bedtime when they were little, or wearing stockings or having a later curfew when they were older. My oldest sister fought to get privileges for herself, and didn’t think it was fair that when she succeeded in getting them, my middle sister got them too. It seemed especially unfair because when they fought, my mother would tell my oldest sister that she should give in, no matter who was right, because she was older. So she got the burdens, but not the benefits, of being the oldest child. And because she was still so young when my middle sister was born, she didn’t have any memory of the joys of being the only child.

As the youngest, born when they were 7 and 5 Β½, I also got the benefit of anything either or both of them had experienced or negotiated with my parents. When I said at age eight that I wanted to drop out of Hebrew school, my parents didn’t object because they had already been through that whole scene with my sisters. The stockings, the curfews, even birth control pills, were things I didn’t have to argue about, they had already been there. The only area where I had to forge my own path was drugs, because my sisters had grown up before the drug explosion of the late sixties, and hadn’t partaken. So this was a new one for my parents. But we muddled through it eventually. It just made me appreciate even more what my sisters had done for me in every other area.

I was so much younger that they never felt competitive with me, except perhaps regarding the amount of attention we each got from our mother. My middle sister told me at one point that I had ruined her life by being born, although she later denied it. I do know she felt very aggrieved at being the middle child, believing that she got less attention than either of her sisters. There is a poem that we learned when we were young, although I don’t know where it came from. It was by someone named Ethel M. Kelly, and was called “The Middle Child.” It described how, when company came over, they fussed about how cute the baby was, and how grown-up the oldest sister was, and ignored the middle child. The lines that I still remember to this day, probably because they were so often recited by my middle sister, went like this:

Although my name is Marguerite
And Marguerite means pearl
Nobody thinks that I am sweet
‘Cause I’m the middle girl.

The last stanza of the poem says that when the narrator has her own family, she will send for only the middle child to come downstairs and be shown off to company. In fact, my middle sister went even farther than that narrator, deciding that since she didn’t want to inflict the burden of middle-childness on anyone else, she would have only one child herself. That way her child wouldn’t suffer from any sibling rivalry.

So, do the three of us fit the birth order stereotypes? I never knew what these stereotypes were before writing this story, so I had to do some internet research.

I would say that my oldest sister fits the firstborn pattern of being diligent, conscientious, and reliable. She would never goof off if there was work to be done (unlike me!). She is definitely a high achiever. She was valedictorian of her high school class, magna cum laude in college, first in her class in law school, and has risen to the very top of her profession. I don’t think she will ever retire, because she knows nobody else can do her job as well as she does. She also sees it as her responsibility to keep our family together, and we all appreciate her doing so. She does tend to take charge, but I wouldn’t call her bossy.

My middle sister always thrived on friendships rather than getting her validation from the family, just as the stereotype suggests. People always like her, so I guess you could call her a people-pleaser. Her communication skills are excellent, and she can always get people to do what she wants and make them think it was their idea. She was very popular in high school and was part of a sorority of popular girls. She was head majorette of the twirling squad, and later was crowned Cherry Blossom Queen in a New Jersey beauty pageant. She went on to become a therapist and life coach, which is the perfect career for her. It makes me wonder now if all therapists are middle children.

I don’t think I fit the stereotype of the lastborn child. I was not terribly sociable growing up (although I am now), and I certainly was not manipulative or an attention-seeker. A website I looked at said that youngest children are known for feeling that “nothing I do is important,” and I NEVER felt that way. In some sense, because I was so much younger, and both my sisters had left home by the time I was in eighth grade, I had some of the characteristics of being an only child. This same website said that only children are mature for their age, perfectionists, conscientious, and diligent, and I think I was all of those things growing up. I was definitely mature for my age, because I learned so much from watching my sisters and trying to be like them. I have always been a perfectionist, which I attributed to being a Virgo, but maybe it also comes from being a quasi-only child.

When the three of us compare our memories of growing up, they are often very different. Although we all experienced the same events with the same people, the view from each of our birth order spots doesn’t look the same.

New York, 2017, standing in birth order from left to right

I always thought that three children in a family was the perfect number, probably because I liked my family so much. As a result, I had three children myself, and I still think it is the perfect number. None of my children fit the birth order stereotypes at all . . . but that’s another story.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: funny, moving, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    I really appreciate the depth and the honesty of this story, Suzy. (Fun pictures and perfect song too, of course.) You acknowledge the inevitable birth order impact, but note that your world view — or, at least, family view — was more shaped by being so much younger than both of your sisters.
    And I love your clear-eyed appraisal not just of your sisters, but of yourself — brains AND beauty — no false modesty here. But you also acknowledge how much you learned from watching your older sisters and what they had gone through years before you did. Indeed, though it is too late either for my brother and me or for my own two kids, I think I agree with you that three may be the perfect number of children.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. I didn’t think false modesty was necessary with this crowd. In truth, I’m still a little uncertain about my looks, but since people always tell me that I’m pretty, I decided to go with it. πŸ™‚ I knew I was never going to be as brilliant as my oldest sister or as beautiful as my middle sister, and that was okay. That was the point I was trying to make.

      My middle sister would emphatically NOT agree that three was the perfect number, so before you adopt that view, you should probably talk to some more middle children. Not that you are going to do anything about having a third child at this point (I assume).

      • John Shutkin says:

        OK. I better set up a meeting with your middle sister. And no way am I claiming paternity over another child. I think my settlement agreement with my former wife basically prohibits it. As does a certain medical procedure I undertook about 30 years ago (which, of course, made the settlement provision entirely unnecessary). TMI?

  2. Suzy–

    Thanks for this story–it has me thinking about my own childhood. I am the eldest of three children, with two years between myself and my sister, and another two-and-a-half years to our brother. I was the scholar, brother was the athlete, and sister was–I want to say tomboy, but that seems to define her only in relation to her siblings, and that is not right. I’ll have to think more!

    Mike Wallace

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Mike, it’s great that my story got you thinking about your childhood. You should consider writing your own story this week, I would love to hear about you as a big brother! I know you’re a good writer!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, you describe the role of your sisters and your relationship so beautifully. I love the photos, both baby and recent, of all. I tend to think, since you are much younger, that you really weren’t in competition at all. As you describe, you were able to take advantage of all the trail blazing that came before. The poem is priceless and remarkable that you can still remember it. It clearly made quite an impression on you and your sister!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Betsy. My sisters and I had a great email discussion about the poem, because I couldn’t remember who it was by or how the rest of it went, and couldn’t find it by googling the Marguerite line. Eventually my oldest sister tracked it down, and we all three said we were so happy to find our Marguerite again.

  4. Suzy, you’re lucky you didn’t grow up with the nickname “Baby”…I know someone who did (and for some reason decided to keep it). If anything I think your story confirms what JS called “convenient determinism” in his story…just as with astrology, birth order is highly susceptible to nudging into shape to correspond with the lore. That said, I should have known you’re a Virgo…as are most of the people I’m closest to.

    Thanks for a beautifully constructed story, more insight into your you-ness, and the ear worm…and now I think I’ll pass it on to my husband.

    • Suzy says:

      Wow, the nickname “Baby” makes me think of Dirty Dancing, which was a great movie, but I couldn’t imagine why they gave her that name. Never occurred to me that there were real people who were actually called that. My family would never have done that.

      Glad you liked the story . . . and the earworm. In my own head I’ve been alternating between Elvis’ Little Sister and Billy Idol singing “Hey little sister what have you done” – but that is from Nice Day for a White Wedding, and I’ve already used that title.

  5. Marian says:

    I really enjoyed learning what the middle child experience was from this story, Suzy. I can relate to your oldest sister having to fight for those privileges that automatically came to the others. Your analysis of being more like an only child sounds right to me because of the age gap between you and your sisters. My niece, an only, is a real perfectionist, and I hadn’t realized that was an “only” characteristic.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Marian. I learned about all the characteristics for this story, I had never paid attention to all the birth order literature before. Even though it doesn’t always apply, it certainly seems worth thinking about.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, I got a huge laugh out of your middle sister telling you your birth ruined her life. My middle child (daughter) often said the same thing about her baby sister. I have to say what you described was true for my youngest. Her tantrums made me laugh, while her older sister’s made me crazy. Do you remember the Judy Blume book, The One in the Middle is a Green Kangaroo? My middle child loved/lived that book. Like your sister, she also became a therapist. Love the photos of you with your sisters.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for your comment, Laurie. Glad to get confirmation based on your daughters. I thought I had read all the Judy Blume books, but I don’t know the Green Kangaroo one, so I will have to get it from the library.

    • Suzy says:

      Just read the Green Kangaroo book, because I was able to check it out of the library as an e-book without leaving my desk. Very sweet book, and perfect for all middle children.

  7. Thanx for the family story and the insights Suzy! Because my sister and I were 10 years apart I think we each felt like an only child for much of our childhoods and thus don’t think we fit into the classic birth order categories.

    It happens both my parents were middle children in families of three, yet thinking about them and their siblings I don’t see those classic birth order characteristics there either… Maybe because gender plays a role – my father was the older of two boys, and my mother was the only girl.

    But any way you slice it Suzy, you are so lucky to have two big sisters, cherish them!

  8. Joe Lowry says:

    Your memories as they relate to the birth order in your family are illuminating. It also seems that all of you leverage your personal strengths with good results.

  9. Laurie Levy says:

    Hi Suzy. You are so lucky to have sisters. I always wished for one.

  10. A vivid story, well told. I was the middle of three boys, just 14 months younger than the first, four years older than the third. Not an easy position. Thanks for your insights.

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