If you’ve ever done even a cursory study of birth order, then you know that where you fall in the lineup of your siblings has an undeniable effect on your personality. Numerous studies have shown that, in families with two kids, the first born tend to be type-A, control freak over achievers, who are more serious, more anxious, and less spontaneous, while second children are usually the fun, laid-back ones who march to the beat of their own drum, could care less what other people think of them, and often fail to live up to their full potential. When I worked as a high school counselor, I saw this phenomenon play out all the time. The older sibling worked her butt off to get good grades, was the president of every club and organization known to man, stayed in studying while other kids partied, stressed endlessly about getting into college, and then, ultimately, had a nervous breakdown at SAT time and scored well below what her grades predicted. Meanwhile, two years later, her younger brother would show up with a transcript full of Bs, a resumé comprised of video game-related activities, a laissez-faire attitude towards college, and then, without so much as cracking a book, would pull off an SAT score in the 95th percentile nationwide.
My husband and I, both being first children, tend to be more comfortable with the first child model, at least with regard to success. For us, success is measured quantitatively. Test scores, diplomas, positions held, salaries earned. Our younger siblings probably wouldn’t agree. For them, success has to do with where they’ve traveled, what they’ve experienced, and how often they get to hang out with friends. I would rather have a prestigious job with big responsibilities, a big salary and two weeks vacation, while my brother would rather make less money, get less recognition, and have summers off. Neither one is right or wrong – it’s just how, and who, we are.
Being that my husband and I are who we are, when we found out that I was pregnant with our second child, we were determined to turn him into a first. We agreed that we would raise him exactly the way that we had raised our daughter to that point. We would applaud every achievement, no matter how small. We would bombard him with letters and numbers from the moment he learned to talk. We would lavish him with attention. For us, and for my husband in particular, not having the drive to succeed is a fate worse than death, and we were going to instill a drive in this kid if it killed us. We were going to control the situation. We would make him care, God damn it.
Then, of course, he was born, and this is the part where I chuckle and shake my head at how young and naïve and foolish (and type-A and neurotic and first child-like) we were. Applaud every achievement? I barely had time to notice them. Letters and numbers? That’s what Sesame Street is for. Lavish him with attention? I don’t think the poor kid even left the house until he was almost a year old. The fact is, second kids totally get screwed. Their lives can be nothing like the lives of their older siblings, simply by virtue of the fact that their older siblings exist.
When my daughter was in preschool, on the days I didn’t work, I used to pick her up at two-thirty and take her to the park, where we would play in the sand and explore the jungle gym for hours. But when I pick my son up from preschool, we have exactly twenty minutes before we need to be at the bus stop to pick up his sister. When my daughter was four, we would spend weekend mornings in our pajamas, playing Chutes and Ladders or making art projects together. But now, on Saturday mornings we’re all out the door by eight am to take my daughter to her basketball game. When my daughter was little, we would spend weekday mornings cuddling in my bed until it was time for her to go to school at nine o’clock. Now, I leave at seven-thirty to take her to school, and most days, my son isn’t even up before I leave. Ever since my daughter was born, she’s been told that she’s the best at everything she does. But my son never gets to be the best at anything, and his older sister is a constant reminder of how deficient he is in so many ways.
It’s no wonder that second children grow up to be more laid-back, more spontaneous, and more flexible. They have to be, when they’re always getting dragged around to wherever their older siblings need to go. And it’s no wonder that they so often grow up to be underachievers. How can they be driven to succeed when there’s always another kid around who is better than they are at everything?
The truth is, I don’t care anymore if my son is driven, or if he’s an underachiever, or if he never has a real job. He’s a great, fun, silly kid, and part of being a parent is learning to let go of the things you can’t control, and loving your child for who he is, not for who you want him to be. But I still hate that it has to be this way. I hate that I don’t get to spend time with him the way I did with my daughter. I hate that I’m missing his childhood so that I can schlepp my older kid around. I hate that he’s missing out on important time with me. And most of all, I hate that I can’t change it; that I can’t control the situation.
What can I say? I am a first child, after all.