An accident of birth order

Are you a 'rebel' eldest child or a 'mature' youngest '? The fashionabl e birth-order stereotypes don't work, says Sarah Litvinoff

I Am A natural-born eldest child: responsible, hard-working, rather conventional. I worry about my siblings and have a tendency to cluck around everyone I know, feeling it's my duty to look after them. Only I'm not an eldest child. I'm the youngest of three. Current lore (and psychology) dictates that because I was spoilt, indulged, allowed to do my own thing - all true - I should be an adult baby: wilful and seeking to be nurtured throughout my life.

I'm not a fan of statistics, generalisations or rules - probably the only vestige of youngest child waywardness remaining. There is logic in the convention that the eldest, burdened by the expectations of excited new parents, becomes a pillar of society, that the youngest, unfettered, becomes an emotional and professional dilettante, and that the middle, caught between the two, feels a bit of an outsider and becomes an expert in compromise.

But the glorious thing about humans, versus the tidy predictability of machines, is that no one really knows how we will turn out. Birth order works well as a general rule of thumb, but there are exceptions, as Mr Ian Simpson, head of psychotherapy of the Lambeth Healthcare Trust, points out: "Life events, particularly within childhood, can alter the natural order, as can family and social dynamics."

Clifford Isaacson, who founded the Upper Des Moines Counselling Centre in Iowa has made a special study of what he calls the "new" birth order, in which he defines five personalities (only, first, second, third and fourth - the fifth exhibits characteristics of a first-born, and so on). He says, "Exceptions to birth order occur because of large age differences, parental influence or unusual circumstances."

For example, a live-in grandparent who helps with the babies can create a set of siblings who all exhibit "only child" characteristics, or a nanny or child minder can affect the order. "A child can pick up birth order from a care-giver's family, taking on the next birth order of other children as if they were siblings," he says. Isaacson's ultimate get-out clause is that "psychological birth order may not correspond to your actual birth order. However, your psychological birth order is the more significant of the two."

I'm fortunate that my sister Vida, ten years older than me, felt similarly misplaced in the birth order. "I was born at the wrong time, like people born the wrong sex. The only perk was being the one who could stay up latest. Nothing else was worth it." You only have to look at our work to see that fate got our roles mixed up. From my early twenties I've been writing earnest self-help stuff about getting your life in order and repairing your relationships. People who meet me for the first time often say I'm "different" from what they envisaged. Sometimes they mean "younger". Most people who've read me expect me to be older, by quite a bit, than themselves.

Vida, on the other hand, is an anarchic and achingly funny novelist. In Sons, Lovers, Etcetera, her heroine, Kate, a heightened and fictionalised version of herself, careers through life and love disasters as a child would - despite having a grown-up son herself - protected, as life's innocents are, by zest, optimism and a big heart. She copes with tawdry reality by dialling into her imagination and by doing the kinds of things most "grown-ups" believe are past them. As Bernice Rubens, the Booker-prize winning novelist, says, she is "audacious and funny".

Vida was the mother of two children before she spotted my potential to take over as her older sister. "One day I was telling you to go fetch my handbag, because you were the littlest, and the next you turned 18, and I saw the answer to my prayers. I'd spent my life looking for people to look after me and there you were. I could say 'these are my problems, solve them'. We swapped roles seamlessly. It only brings me up short when, by mistake, I call you 'mummy'. From the moment we had the realisation that you'd be the eldest and I'd be the baby, we didn't jostle, as some siblings do. We'd found the balance that suited us both."

There's also Sandro, a boy I've known since he was eight, the youngest of five. All his siblings and even his parents were wild. From the earliest age, he felt it his place to be the man of the family. He longed for order in his Bohemian household. He tried to keep domestic order as best he could, tidying, washing up, and trying to stabilise an unruly family. As an adult he is immaculate, bourgeois and tidy. He married young and has become a dependable father and husband of extreme rectitude. He fits Isaacson's theory that the fifth child, ignored by the fourth, becomes an eldest, or first child in personality.

Once you start looking, there seem to be more exceptions than not. Look at Princess Anne, a natural eldest, if ever there was one, who, if the laws of inheritance were different and she had been born a few years earlier, could mightily and responsibly ascend the throne when the time comes, and leave her brother Charles free to do the more interesting but less taxing things that appeal to him.

But for the swap to work there also needs to be collusion. Many feckless, flighty older siblings hang onto their positions of precedence, while the younger, staid ones fret helplessly.

Another pair of sisters who, like me and Vida, had a tacit agreement to trade roles, are Stephanie and Claire Calman, daughters of the late cartoonist Mel. Stephanie, the elder, who writes the hilarious Dressing for Breakfast on Channel 4, divides the world into "people who eat the icing off the cake immediately and people who save it for later - Claire is a saver."

We have spent a couple of evenings as a foursome, in which Claire and I have sat smiling indulgently while our "younger" sisters have competed with outrageously funny anecdotes. Under the storm of noise we try to maintain a sophisticated banter. We're the ones who surreptitiously check our watches, and use our repertoire of significant looks, veiled hints and gentle kicks under the table to keep the sisters in line.

According to Isaacson, you can tell your psychological birth order by deciding which of the following T-shirt slogans would apply to you. Only child: "Leave me alone, I'd rather do it myself". First: "I don't know, what do you think?". Second: "That won't work, It's not good enough". Third: "No problem, It doesn't bother me any". Fourth: "Life isn't easy, You have to try hard". If several seem to apply to you, he says, consider yourself an only child.

I have my own theory - current trends are upsetting the natural order. When forward-looking companies are flattening hierarchies or squashing them out of existence, junior employees are encouraged to rate their bosses' performances, and schoolchildren to take their teachers to court for their failings, something is certainly changing. Popular demand for Prince William to leapfrog his father onto the throne is reflected in my generation by parents who have to use adolescent wiles to keep their excesses from their Saffy-like children, who wail at them to "be careful", use condoms, and demand to know what time they call it when they tip-toe in at dawn.

As party leaders use youth as a campaigning card, and it is common for babies to rule in the home, it is only a matter of time before it is accepted wisdom that authority and gravitas are the preserves of the youngest, and that children behind you in the birth order liberate you from the onus of responsibility.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

    £18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

    Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

    £40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

    £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

    £20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future