The middle way
Julianna Conley | Thursday, January 17, 2019
The summer before fifth grade, I went to see “Ramona and Beezus” with my mother and two sisters, Elleni and Alexandra. After the film ended, I turned to my mom expectantly as she fished around in her purse for the surprises she and I had picked out the day before for my sisters: two sets of sisters necklaces, fresh from Justice. To Elleni, I bestowed a purple half heart that said “Big Sis,” and to Alexandra, a blue half heart that read “Little Sis.” Over my own head, I slipped both a Big Sister necklace and a Little Sister one, proud to proclaim both roles. Unlike the bitter, jaded middle children seen on TV, I’ve always been comfortable in my role, excited by the flexibility that comes without being chained to a singular relationship dynamic.
As a proud middle child, I was horrified to read in a recent article published by “The Cut” that I belong to a dwindling kind. Americans nowadays are choosing to have smaller families, causing the role of the middle child to disappear. With warnings of endangered pandas and sea turtles, though, the disappearance of an arbitrary role may seem unimportant. After all, how great an effect could the disappearance of a birth order have on society?
As a middle child, my place in the Conley household hierarchy has always been fluid. When I was younger, I enjoyed the luxuries that my status as one of the “big girls” brought me: I learned to ride a bike at the same time as Elleni, my parents let me stay out late playing kick the can with the neighborhood kids and our dance studio allowed me to start taking classes when I was still below the minimum age. As a “big girl,” I carried myself with a sense of maturity beyond that of many of my peers, a sense taught to me as my big sister held my hand.
But I was also part of the “little girls.” Sharing a room with my younger sister, I never ran the risk of growing up too fast. When we finished our homework, the two of us would plan fabulous fashion shows, even after most of my classmates had retired their dress-up boxes. Alexandra and I would play with Barbies well into my middle-school years, though the plots and characters grew more complex. By considering myself an equal with Alexandra, I allowed myself to relish my childhood longer, developing my imagination.
Rather than align with one school of thought, I was able to dart back and forth into both roles, synthesizing what I learned in each of my sisters’ worlds to create my own hybrid. I was able to observe. From watching my older sister move through the prickly preteen years, I learned which approaches wouldn’t go over well with my parents. From watching my little sister grow up, I realized the importance of preserving one’s childlike penchant for whimsy. I wasn’t just the oldest, or the youngest; I was Julianna, defining my own role in the world.
Being a middle child, I learned to adapt. When I received hand-me-down pants that were still much too big for me, my mother folded the waistline and sewed the fabric shut. I strutted around for years with a bulky wad of material hanging off my waist that got the job done. When my little sister was still scared of the dark, I slept with the door always open and the hall light on. Unlike my older sister who did things her way, or my little sister who had everything done for her, I grew used to accommodating the crowd. Some nights I watched “NCIS” and “The Bourne Identity” with Elleni, some nights “Good Luck Charlie” and “Hannah Montana: The Movie” with Alexandra. People love to say that middle children are peacemakers because they hate conflict, but I’ll confess I’ve always loved a good bit of drama. I was a peacemaker because, accustomed to never getting my way, I knew how to compromise.
Most importantly, though, middle children have empathy. They belong to both teams, and because of that, they revel in each sibling’s victories and mourn in their losses. They use their own experiences, putting themselves in their siblings’ shoes, realizing how the others feel. When my friends came over, I always let Alexandra play with us, remembering the hurt and betrayal I felt when I was ousted by Elleni’s best friend. When Elleni had a lot of homework, I kept my distance, realizing how annoying it was when Alexandra pestered me while I was studying. My status as a middle child allowed me to know how my sisters felt and treat them how I wanted to be treated.
Middle children are often seen as bitter, angry and sensitive to every slight, but I’d argue that we’re just better attuned to the family dynamics. We’re in the thick of things. We realize the inconsistencies; we know the wrongdoings, and we’re impassioned to right them. Middle children are more likely to fight injustice (see Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony). We know the pain of being treated differently than those around us, and we know it’s in our power to create equality. We don’t feel intense distinctions between groups; we don’t need to. We’re used to belonging to the collective and don’t feel the need to demarcate. Just as middle children bridge the worlds between siblings, understanding commonalities in each sibling, middle children feel the common humanity in people. As middle children go extinct, the world loses a special group of people engineered to bring us all together.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.