The Long-Term Effects of Birth Order

Today is my sister’s birthday. Regular readers of this blog can figure out which one, but this post isn’t really about age. It’s about birth order and growing up and distance and—well, maybe it’s a little bit about age.

My sister is eight and a half years younger than I am. In some ways, we grew up in two different families. There was me—the oldest—and a brother just seventeen months younger than me. Then there was a gap of seven years before my sister came, and three more years before our youngest brother.

We first two children had different early experiences than the younger two. I was born just nine months and ten days after my parents were married, and their second child came along before they’d been married three years. Our father went back to graduate school, first to get a Master’s degree, and then his Ph.D., all of which happened by the time I was in the first grade. While he was in graduate school, Dad held several part-time jobs because he refused to have his wife work. Money was tight, and I knew it as a young kid. We weren’t poor, but the extras we had came from doting grandparents. During my early years, we lived in five different houses, plus had a stint with grandparents. I didn’t live in a long-term home until shortly after I entered second grade.

By the time my sister was born, our father had earned his Ph.D. and had been promoted into managerial positions. My parents bought a nice house in a new part of town. It was a long way from our school and there weren’t any other kids in the neighborhood, so my brother and I played by ourselves. We got a second car so my mother could drive us around during the day.

Then there was this new baby in the family. She was a happy infant but became an opinionated toddler. One of her opinions was that babysitters were evil. The only babysitter she tolerated was me. It became my job to watch her whenever our mother was busy. At ten years old, I didn’t enjoy that responsibility. When my parents went out for the evening, they hired a babysitter, but I did everything my sister needed except change the diapers. (I wasn’t getting paid, after all.)

When I turned eleven, my parents quit hiring a babysitter, and I was in charge. When our brother was born later that year, my parents hired a sitter again for a few months for the newborn, but by the time I was twelve, I was in charge again. (By then I was getting paid 50 cents an hour, and I even changed diapers.)

The eight-and-a-half-year gap between my sister and me was never enough to endow me with authority in her mind. I could sometimes bribe her into doing what I wanted, but I often resorted to bullying. (I was not the Good Big Sister of family myth.) So we didn’t get along well. And we were never close.

The only formal portrait of my birth family; I was 19 here.

Fast forward a number of years. I went to law school and married a law school classmate. Then, the younger two kids in the family had some upheavals during their high-school years, when my parents moved across the state. That was only the second home they’d known, but it may be harder to move during high school than preschool. By that time, I was married, so that move didn’t impact me.

Several years later, my sister also went to law school and married a classmate. Then our lives became more parallel. We both had stressful jobs as attorneys. We both had two kids. We developed a lot in common, but through all this time—and she has now been married 29 years—we only saw each other about once a year, for a day or two during my approximately annual visits to our parents. We rarely spent extended times together.

Still, as long as our parents were alive, we knew what was going on in each other’s lives, because we each heard from our parents what the other was doing. When Mother got ill and Dad became her caregiver, we emailed each other to report how we thought our parents were doing.

After our parents died, I stayed at my sister’s house on several trips to the Seattle area to manage their estates. I probably got to know her as well as I ever did.

Now the estate issues are behind us. There are fewer reasons to stay in touch. My sister still works and has little time for herself, let alone for a distant older sister. My life in Kansas City is busy, and I have obligations here that keep me from frequent trips to see her and my youngest brother.

The three siblings who are left, after our father’s funeral

And yet there are also important reasons to stay in touch. Because there is no one else. That brother right behind me has no contact with the rest of us. My sister and youngest brother are the closest family I have left. Even though they have no memories of my childhood years, they go back in time with me longer than anyone else I know. We are each other’s history.

Perhaps we’ll become closer in the years ahead. We have the example of my father and his sister, who rebuilt their relationship in their seventies. That is my hope. If we’re lucky, it won’t take us until our seventies. (Or, as our youngest brother would gladly point out, when I’m seventy, our sister will be in her sixties, and he’ll still be in his fifties.)

Which family relationships would you like to foster?

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4 Comments

  1. Theresa, this is so far outside my experience, I have no way to respond. The last few months, I have been enmeshed in family: sons, grandson/granddaughter/great-grandson, nieces, nephews, siblings that about the only thing I’m wanting to foster is some quiet time! In addition, we’re roughly plotting a family reunion next summer of some 50+ members. That’s not so much to brag, it’s to say, I have no way to even think about your question. But I do hope you and your sister find a way to bridge the distance in miles and time.

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