Thursday, February 4, 2010

Life in the middle

I was born in a no-win situation. My older brothers were born 13 months apart. I came along 4 years later, and in a last ditch effort to have a daughter, my mother and father produced my sister two years after me. Being the baby and the only girl, she ruled the family.

My parents took a fairly laissez faire attitude when it came to sibling disputes. As a young boy, I was at a distinct size disadvantage to my brothers, and by this point in my parents' child-rearing careers, yelling and screaming wasn't going to bring anyone to my rescue. If I couldn't make it into their presence, I was on my own. I suffered many brotherly beatings at the bottom of our basement stairs, caught when I paused to open the door. As I grew older, the lessons became more practical. I made a deal with my middle brother to trade mowing for pool cleaning duty. When he told me I was going to have to do both, my parents left it to us to work it out. I did both.

This policy had one important exception. Sister was "too important to fail" and was accorded all manner of protections, immunities, incentives, bailouts, kickbacks and favors. Sort of like AIG. I was not allowed to hit her or yell at her or through inaction cause any harm to come to her. It was sort of like the 3 Laws of Robotics, except replace "human being" with "baby sister" and "robot" with "what's his name." She figured this out early, and made a habit of torturing me until I lost patience and broke one of the laws, resulting in big problems for me.

It's not that my mother and father were uncaring. I know they loved me more than I will ever comprehend. But they were definitely not from the "everyone is a winner" school of child-rearing. Fair play and the golden rule were important, but competition and natural selection were definitely in play. If you wanted self-esteem, you had better find someone who had some and figure out a way to get it from them. And if you did cross the line, there was a good chance you would be told to "wait until your father gets home." When the dreaded moment arrived we were often "worn out" or "given something to cry about." If my mother took matters into her own hands, we usually would "go round and round."

I used to be pissed about all of this, like most of us resent whatever part of our past we believe is keeping us from being happy. This was before I figured out that (1) happiness is a choice, and (2) happiness is often not all it's cracked up to be. That Tom Jefferson knew what he was talking about when he focused on the "pursuit" part, because that's really where the action is. But I digress.

I eventually realized two other things. First, all of my siblings have had a profound impact on who I am, through actions large and small. When I was about twelve, my oldest brother walked into my room while I was listening to Venus, by Shocking Blue. He berated me for listening to bubble gum music and walked out. I didn't think anything of it until a week or so later when he presented me with a Moody Blues album and said, "Listen to this. It's better." That one act changed my relationship to music, probably to this day.

The second thing I realized was that I acquired valuable skills and some of my favorite personality traits* because of my position in the family. Without any real power, I learned to work through logic and negotiation. I learned how systems worked, and how to find the pressure points.  I learned to watch people, and to listen, and to try understand what they needed.

Oh, I guess I realized one more thing. Eventually, we all have to grow up, grow a pair** and get over ourselves. I was lucky enough to grow up in a beautiful home, with a family who mostly love each other, and no one is in jail, or molested, or on the pipe or living in a cardboard box. Life is good, and sometimes the middle is a very comfortable place to be.

*And some of my least favorite behaviors and traits, but what are you gonna do?

** Of course, pairs come in two flavors.


  1. Sounds like you grew very wise as well as "up".

  2. "we all have to grow up, grow a pair and get over ourselves"

    amen. you can wallow and be the victim, or you can get on with it. i chose the latter, as you clearly did.

    those lessons, though. freakin' 'lord of the flies' when you're at the bottom of the familial dung heap (i was youngest of four).

    i wonder if i've shorted my children - i only had two. they will never experience the full joy/pain of those sibling lessons...

  3. I absolutely enjoyed this post. I loved reading about your past and how you came to be the person that you are today. Your blog is admirable and a reflection of your personality.

  4. LOL...your family was many things and never boring to be around. Being the only girl and having only one brother, I was raised in that sorta AIG mode, which made it pretty sweet until I bordered the real world. Yikes. Money doesn't grow on trees??! Dang. Life wasn't all roses growing up - it never is, unless you're Paris Hilton or a fucked up Lohan or somebody - but I did realize I had had a pretty sheltered life until then....Good post 'rowe

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this post and fully agree with you. Life is what you make of it mostly!

  6. I'm in the middle too- I completely relate. I've been the "mediator" as long as I can remember- sometimes I resent it, sometimes I'm grateful that I'm the one with enough sense to BE the mediator.