To Only Children: Being the oldest child dooms you to the responsibility chip, whether you have no siblings or 7. Until both your parents die, you are being parented by people who have no clue what they are doing. They get better with younger children, but they don’t know how to parent a 25 year old, a 40 year old, a 55 year old anymore than they knew how to parent an infant or toddler. Their grandparenting skills are nonexistent. Children raise their parents to be grownups. Being outnumbered makes the job more challenging and stimulating, but you are always up to it.
In the first picture, I am two and one half; Joe is one. In the second, I am four, Andrew is six months. In the third picture, I am seven; Bob is newborn. In the fourth picture, I am 12; Gerard is 1. In the fifth photo, I was 13, Brian was 1 month.
Studying the pictures helps me clarify my family dynamics. Sibling closeness has mattered more to me than to my brothers. I try much harder to keep the family connected. Being both the oldest and the only girl seems central. I was my adult height when my two younger brothers were born; they were only 5 and 7 when I left home for college. I must have seemed a maternal figure to them. In some pictures I look like their young mother.
We did not grow up in the same family. My mother returned to school full-time when Brian was 5; when he was 7, she started teaching high school. Joe, Andrew, and I had had a stay-at-home mother until we went to college. Brian doesn’t remember my mom staying at home full-time. My father retired before Brian finished college.
We have very different perceptions of our parents. Joe, Andrew, and I remember our dad as a brilliant intellectual and mathematician; Gerard and Brian remember a grail old man who disappeared into Alzheimer’s Disease. The three oldest remember our childhood perceptions of my mom as “just a housewife” who never went to college. My younger brothers remember her the way her obituary describes her: “teacher, activist, trailblazer.”
With the death of my mom, Joe, 18 months younger, is my only collaborator for family history. Fortunately, Joe was too busy climbing on the roof as a kid to remember very much. I could write family fiction and convince everyone it is family history.
I struggled not to favor my first daughter Anne in sibling squabbles, because she, like me, is the oldest of several siblings. Both my first husband John and I were the oldest children of oldest children of oldest children–not the best recipe for marital harmony. Certainly Anne shows the same sense of responsibility for her younger siblings that I felt. John, Anne, and I thought younger siblings owe considerable gratitude to the oldest, who has fought all the battles necessary to whip parents into shape.
In my constant discussions with friends about baby spacing when my kids were young, I noticed that adult relationships with your siblings greatly influence you. If you love your sibs, you might think a brother or sister is the best gift you will give your kids. If you don’t talk to your sib, you will feel guilty about the trauma you are inflicting on the oldest. As people only have two children, there will only be younger and older older. Middle children seem to have special gifts society will sorely lack. When I told 6 year old Michelle, I was pregnant with Carolyn, she rejoiced, “Now I won’t be the only middle child.”
Faced with the challenge of caring for my mother during the last years of her life, my brothers and I had to confront and heal lifelong conflicts and misunderstandings. It is so easy to fall into childhood roles. My mom was always the family switchboard. We would call her, not each other; she would relay the news to everyone. I struggle very hard not to play the same role.
I adore my brothers and wish we saw each other much more often. We are scattered from Maine to North Carolina. My mother had five brothers as well. As a teenager, I used to reproach her, “Mom, how could you do this to me? You knew what it was like.” My mom, a long-term care activist, used to begin her speechs, “I have lived with 12 men–long pause–only one of them intimately.” Growing up with my brothers, I acquired a lifelong comfort around men. Daughters were a challenge; sons would have been easier. Taking care of my grandson revives many wonderful memories of my brothers as children.
What is your birth order? What impact has it had on your life? Being the oldest is being the oldest, whether you have no siblings or 7 siblings. You were raised by parents who had no clue. And that will continue until the day both of them are dead. They get better with younger children, but they don’t know how to parent a 25 year old, a 40 year old, a 55 year old anymore than they knew how to parent an infant or toddler. Children raise their parents to be grownups. Having no accomplices just makes the job more challenging.