The Big Sisters’ Club by
50
(89 Stories)

Prompted By Birth Order

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Through my front window I watch my neighbor’s oldest girl, Imogen, a tall, lovely blond sprite who just turned 11, take charge of her younger siblings. I recognize the look in her eyes–the oldest girl look. Because I’ve looked that look: the one that’s outgrown playfulness. Imogen’s look is vigilant, glancing first at her 8-year-old twin sisters on their bikes, and then at her 3-year-old brother toddling after them. I can’t go out and meet Imogen on the sidewalk, but wave to her through the glass. Her face turns toward me, serious. “You are invited into the Big Sisters’ Club, Imogen,” I think. “There are those of us like you.”

When you are the oldest, your parents practice on you. So you receive the benefits of more attention and bear the brunt of their mistakes.

My good friend Joanie, also an oldest girl, came up with the Big Sisters’ Club idea when her neighbor brought home a newborn son, and the older daughter was getting lost in the shuffle. Joanie told the little girl about this special “club” that, of all her family, only she could join. In my mind I make a particular woman a charter member–Carly, a professional acquaintance, the oldest of 10 siblings. Carly was a talented engineer, very focused. She didn’t have any children, and as she said, she didn’t need to because she felt as if she’d already had 9 of them.

I wish I’d known about the Big Sisters’ Club growing up. When you are the oldest, your parents practice on you. So you receive the benefits of more attention and bear the brunt of their mistakes. You do more chores and caregiving because you are “grown up,” and your younger siblings are, well–younger. While it didn’t seem unusual to me, by age 7 I made breakfast for my younger brother Allan, who was 3, on weekday mornings before I went to school. At age 10, a year younger than Imogen, I was babysitting Allan when my parents went out for a few hours in the evening. Today would someone call Child Protective Services?

Complicating matters for me was that both my mom and dad were younger children, so they had no clue about the older child experience. Very much according to the birth order stereotype, both my parents even followed their older siblings into the same careers. When I quickly researched birth order for this story, there was conflicting information: the stereotypes have been debunked, or they hold true. As far as my own experience, I’ve seen some consistencies and differences.

As the firstborn, I’m focused, serious, often driven, hypervigilant, persnickety, and somewhat hard to get to know. There are a lot of positives, though. I’ve taken initiative, become independent (“cussedly independent” as my mother puts it), and am intrinsically motivated. In contrast, my younger brother Allan is a type B, much more laid back and approachable. Children love him. Sometimes he needs a little extrinsic motivation to get him going.

Where our personalities depart from the stereotype is in how conventional or rebellious we have been. The oldest is supposed to follow rules and become a part of the establishment, whatever that might mean, and the younger ones can drift a bit more.

In contrast, I didn’t follow the program, picking a career different from what my parents wanted for me, marrying late, not having children, and getting divorced. Allan has worked for the State of California for 30 years, has a delightful wife, and a beautiful daughter, Elizabeth, who defies the stereotype of only children in that she is giving and unspoiled. My first cousins on my father’s side have followed the same pattern. Steve, the older brother, was and still is rebellious. Barbara, the younger, is “Mrs. Conventionality.”

So, how much of this is birth order, how much individual personality, and how much environment? Who knows? What I do know is that the Big Sisters’ Club feels right, and I feel a special bond with Imogen as I watch the tornado of cute, younger siblings whirling around her. As I wave once more, I send her a second message. “I see you, Imogen, welcome to the Club.”

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    I love the way you watch and signal to Imogen and silently welcome her into your “Big Sister’s Club”, Marian. You really researched the type of person the older and younger siblings are “supposed” to be. So it is fun to read how much your family does or doesn’t fit the stereotype you’ve laid out for us. You give us a lot of insight into your own personality here, but bring us back full-circle to lovely Imogen, your lovely neighbor. Wave to her from us, too.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    From one member of the Big Sisters’ Club to another, Marian, I remember so much of what you described. Like Imogen and you, I knew about taking care of my younger sibs when I was still a child myself. But we did learn some good life skills, right?

  3. I just love the image of you, Mare, waving at Imogen from your window, telegraphing that silent message of big-sisterhood. If it’s any consolation, I grew up wishing I had a big sister exactly like you. I had a big brother, but all he did was tease me unmercifully. Allan (I wasn’t clear as to whether there were any other siblings) was lucky to have you!

    • Marian says:

      Aw, thanks Barb. I hadn’t thought about a younger girl not having a big sister. Allan is my only sibling. He did appreciate me, although I was the more academically inclined and he had a tough time following me in school. Fortunately because of our four-year age difference and moving, we never were in the same school at the same time.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    I love the idea of the Big Sisters Club, Marian, even if I am 0 for 2 in terms of qualifications. But you really describe it beautifully, both in yourself and in Imogen. Plus, the other thing that particularly got me thinking about your story was the parents’ birth order and how they could — or could not — relate to their various children.

    Thanks for sharing this with us. Real food for thought.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, John. Years ago I had conversations with my parents about being younger children and how that impacted their understanding, or lack of it, of my experience. Your story resonated because my dad was more like you, and his older brother more like Tom.

  5. Suzy says:

    Marian, I love this story about the Big Sisters’ Club, and how you frame it at beginning and end with your silent messages to Imogen. This is one of my favorite stories ever! Of course, as you know, I know nothing about being a big sister, so it is like visiting a foreign country.

    Like John, I am intrigued by your notion that the birth order of the parents affects how they treat their children. Both of my husbands have been younger children like me, which may have affected how we treated Sabrina, our oldest. If only she had had someone to tell her about the Big Sisters’ Club!

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Suzy, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the birth order phenomenon has intergenerational implications. A long time ago I read an article stating that, for best compatibility, an oldest child should marry a youngest child. I don’t remember what’s supposed to happen to middle children. I found this interesting because, with one notable exception, all my serious relationships have been with men who were the oldest child. Not sure what that means. The exception, by the way, was Hugh, whom I’ve written about a lot. He was a middle, the fourth of seven.

  6. Marian, it’s fascinating to read yours and the other Retro stories as we look back at our younger selves and our siblings and parents.

    As I’ve written I had only one sibling who was 10 years my junior and perhaps we did fit some of the classic birth order roles. I, the first born seems to have lived a rather conventional life – at least by outward appearance – while kid my sister was always the rebel.

    Then there’s my husband and my son who are both only children, yet my husband’s a conventional type and my son marches to a different drum, so go figure!

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