That Time You Were Stuck in the Middle--The secret weapons of middle children
The saying goes: “Don’t live up to your stereotypes.”
The middle child’s response?
“Hold my beer.”
I am the youngest, a caboose by nine years. My four older siblings will quickly state that my upbringing was vastly different than theirs. My rules were lax. I had more opportunities and advantages, and I basically got whatever I wanted. That’s grossly exaggerated. I was, however, a master manipulator, as are most youngest children, who soon discover the superpower to wield over their older, exhausted parents. I have a youngest, Fiona. She is just as cunning, but also adorable. That’s her weapon. It’s no secret.
My oldest, Billy, covers all the necessary bases: He is responsible, a pleasing spokesperson for the kids, and a well-humored guinea pig for us to raise. He handles these burdens valiantly. His reliability is his weapon. Again, not a secret.
Michael is my middle man. He was born in what can only be described as volcanic conditions. I had opted to go drug-free and basically screamed his entry into the world. He was small, snuggly, and had a particular look in his chocolate brown eyes that I couldn’t place. It was like he was filing everything away at only an hour old.
Michael fired back and screamed for seven months straight. He had colic that could prevent overpopulation. I drowned out the volume of his cries with the vacuum by day and numbed my frazzled brain with wine by night. When he finally chilled out, there was that look again, pensive, contemplative.
He established early on that I needn’t entertain him. He’d toddle off to the playroom and quietly push toy trains or look at books or just study things. Once I found him curled up in a laundry basket, having put himself down for a nap. Independence, it seemed, was his invisible friend.
I recently asked him, “What are the best and worst parts of being the middle child?”
His answer surprised me.
“No one focuses on me. That’s the best and worst part.”
He read the panic in my reaction.
“It’s cool, Mom. I like it that way.”
Billy is the keeper of all the firsts: the first to walk, ride a bike, and read. Fiona is a doubleheader: the baby and the only girl. She steals focus like a puppy in a window. Michael is stuck in the middle, somewhere between first moments and adorability. And I wondered, in that moment, if perhaps his position had a secret weapon I’d missed.
Michael is an A student. I take little credit, for on the rare occasion he brings home anything less, he’s already overcome it. He’s naturally driven, not simply to succeed, but to push with all his might. An exam isn’t aced; it’s slayed. A flag pulled in flag football isn’t tugged and dropped; it’s yanked and slammed to the turf. It’s not a Nerf gun with soft cylinder pellets; it’s do or die. Attention seeking? Or maybe something more positive? Somewhere between firsts and adorability, Michael chooses to keep going until he has reached his finish line, not anyone else’s.
Michael is naturally amidst battle cries. Sometimes he’s at the center as the antagonist. More often he’s negotiating a deal. His years of observation have made him a budding conveyor of ideas. My instinct has been to supersede. However, if he can bridge peace between eleven and seven, he’s one step ahead of the pack. As with his prized possessions, arranged methodically on his dresser, or his school binders in mint condition in May, Michael narrows his focus when necessary and tackles chaos with order.
Sometimes it’s unorthodox.
All three in my brood are creative, but Michael sends his creations over the edge, from imaginative to transcending. They aren’t just clever ideas. He takes a journey. They aren’t simply plastic dinosaur replicas battling it out on the carpet. They’re genetically engineered killing machines on the loose where only the Jedi can save Barbie and Ken trapped in their camper. Michael’s a visionary. Worlds collide in his mind in a way only he could dream up. Maybe when he toddled off, all along it was imagination pulling him?
Michael is in the company of esteemed middle children, who, from the shadows of firsts and adorability, emerged on top: Abraham Lincoln, Dave Letterman, Warren Buffett, Anwar Sadat, Martin Luther King, Michael Jordan, and Walt Disney. While others thought small, they thought big. When the middle child finally steals focus, they grab it by the balls.
I know enough to know that our birth order sticks with us like Roman Candy on a molar. We can gripe about what we lack—freedom for the oldest, memories missed for the youngest, and attention for the middle child. Or, we can utilize our placement as a secret weapon.
Oldest, go forth and lead. Youngest, charm the world with your social skills. Middle Child, you badass baby, let us hold your beer. Keep observing. Keep filing away. Plot your move with precision. For when you take off, you will soar.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.