Birth Order

  Jerome Shea       August 26, 2009      Weekend Wonk

The Sheas are having a kitchen renovation done. The new countertop, sink, and dishwasher are eagerly anticipated. But all the countertop people do is install the countertop and the new sink. So the Long Suffering Diana and your faithful Wonker are having a…uh…spirited discussion about who is going to hook up the dishwasher and re-install the drain pipes under the sink. She wants me to do it, to save money and perhaps to bolster my self-esteem (that latter is a guess). Yes, I have put in dishwashers before, but expense is not the object that it once was, and I hate to do plumbing work: something winds up leaking no matter how hard I try. And I am decades older—read “crotchetier”—this time around. I therefore adamantly oppose her on this: spend the blasted money and get the job done right, I say!

Do not bet the rent that my (reasonable) view will prevail. Sometime next week you will find me under the sink and cursing a blue streak as I get my poor old noggin conked, misplace the wrench I need, etc. Things will turn out this way not simply because Diana is the best thing ever to have come into my life (which you ARE, Love, you ARE), but because, although Diana is six years my junior, she is a big sister and I am a little brother. I never seem to stand a chance. She will of course tell you different. Ignore her. After 35 years of wedded bliss, I know whereof I speak.

I tell this tale to introduce the fascinating and controversial theory of birth order, which refers to when you were born relative to your siblings. Diana is the oldest of five kids; I am the younger of two. Oldest siblings learn to take charge and give orders; younger, and especially youngest, siblings learn to take orders (or, more kindly put, are happy to go along with others’ agendas).

Several things need to be said right off the bat. One is that this is a minefield of generalizations. I am sure that there are “take charge” little brothers and sisters out there happily married to oldest siblings who are atypically passive. And of course there are oldests married to oldests and youngests married to youngests. I focus on marriage because marriage would seem to be the best laboratory for such dynamics, with all their permutations. My parents’ marriage was the same oldest/youngest combination as Diana’s and mine. Mom was not only older (and taller, for what that’s worth, and I’ll bet it was worth quite a bit) than Pop, but she was the oldest of four and he the youngest of three. My brother’s marriage was the same, except that he was the older sibling and his wife the baby of her family. I won’t comment on those marriages except for what you might like to glean from “J. Laurence Shea, 1907-1966.” And different settings make for different behaviors, certainly. In my marriage I think that I display typical younger sibling behavior. (Again, I seldom have a problem with this: I would usually much prefer that Diana set the agenda for our weekend, decide on the restaurant or the movie or the chores, and so forth.) But behind the big desk in the classroom, I am “Papa” Shea, with all that that title implies (and thank goodness for that). It’s also possible that a two-career marriage such as ours is a lot different in regard to birth order effects than was the traditional marriage. Mom was always a housewife, and neither she nor Pop questioned that arrangement. Pop may have been the baby of one family, but he was the sole breadwinner of another, which I suspect balanced things out psychologically for him.

The characteristics of oldest and youngest are not just those of leaders and followers. Oldest siblings are also reliable and well organized and believe in authority. They tend to be conservative and love to make lists. Youngest siblings are also charming, affectionate, outgoing, creative—hey, no argument there! And for all these virtues there are corresponding vices. I am afraid there is just no space here to describe middle children and only children (and—dear me—twins) so you’ll have to do that on your own.

Alfred Adler—as in Freud, Jung, and Adler—was an early proponent of birth order theory. Nowadays you can find many psychologists and psychiatrists who still believe in it, others who think it an interesting but negligible concept, and others who think it bunk, just slightly more respectable than phrenology. A tour of the Internet will show all these views. Some websites are pure pop psychology, using celebrity couples to make their points. There is a Birth Order News Letter that you can subscribe to and a Birth Order Book of Love that you can buy. You can take a quiz to find out if you are the oldest or the youngest (yes, I was puzzled by that, too). I took the quiz, answered the five questions as honestly as I could, and was told that I was obviously a first-born!

Anyway, next time conversation flags at your get-together I invite you to trot out this birth order business. Don’t blame me, though, if some couples go home in frosty dudgeon at each other.

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