“Ok, Mom, here’s the deal...” These are some of Avery’s favorite words, right before she launches into a counter-argument to whatever instruction I’ve just given her. For example: “Ok, Avery, it’s time for you to feed the animals.” Avery: “Ok, Mom, here’s the deal: you give Bailey, Maya, and the rabbits the food and you give me the water bowl and the water bottles and I’ll fill them up and give them back to you. That way we can be a team. Deal?” Sometimes I hold the line and she has to do the job herself; other times (a lot of the time) I admit that I fall into her negotiations. And man is she good. Either way, though, the pets get fed. Still, these daily exchanges started me thinking about birth order and what happens when your birth order and your child’s birth order collide.
The importance of birth order and how parents treat older and younger children differently was first set out by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler in the early 1900’s, but it’s been researched for a century ever since. Even in everyday conversation, you hear people talk about “middle child syndrome” or “you know she’s the baby of the family” and almost automatically we know the traits being described. For example, first-born and only children tend to be mature, conscientious, cautious, high-achieving, leaders and even mini-adults. Middle children are often people-pleasers and peacemakers who are loyal and thrive on friendships. Last-borns tend to be the most free-spirited, and are fun-loving, attention-seeking, and at times, self-centered. Each spot in the birth order has its’ strengths and weaknesses in childhood and even into adulthood.
So, what happens when the adult middle-child (me) is trying to parent a first-born only child (Avery)? I instinctively want to avoid conflict, look for compromise, and get along. Avery, on the other hand, wants to be a leader and do things her way. Parenting her requires me at times to go against my personality, which is really hard, since I am not a “do what I say because I said it” kind of parent or person.
When I stop to take a deep breath, though, I realize that we were put together for a reason and we have a lot to learn from each other. For example, Avery tends to take life seriously and wants to be the best at something on her first try. When teaching her to ride a bike without training wheels, I was mindful to try riding only for minutes at a time, to watch for signs of discouragement, and to back off and just be available when she was super-determined to do it herself. For her, I think I model flexibility and that it’s ok to not get your way all the time. I allow pets (lots of them) so she can learn to be nurturing. I’m also pretty good at teaching her about friendship, and she knows I am always there for her.
When I do “put my foot down,” I try to give her a reason she can understand and that’s meaningful to her. For her part, Avery has taught me to stand my ground, that it’s ok sometimes to put your needs first, and that I can be a leader. She brings the mama bear out in me, and I admire her tenacity and spirit. She is also very moral and has a strong sense of justice, and that helps me to hold true to my values even in the gray areas we often find ourselves in as adults.
Whenever I feel stuck as a parent, I think back to the first night Avery was home from the hospital after being born. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing as a new mother. She was hungry and crying, and in the wee hours of the morning two days post-C-section and no sleep, I was crying right along with her. I will never forget, though, holding her at the changing table in my hands and looking at each other eye to eye. From somewhere deep I told her: “I am your mama and you are my baby, and together we will figure this out.” And six years later (with thankfully more smiles and fewer tears), we are still figuring it out every day.
Amy and Avery are each unique but together complete.