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On Being a Middle Child
As our annual family picture day approaches, disputes about matching attire, scenery, or whether or not our pets will be included continue to dominate our dinnertime discussions. I’m not keen on, nor do I oppose, this occasion. Pose, say cheese, smile, click and it’s over. Though, looking back on previous family photographs, there seems to be a pattern in each of them: not the awkward smile, nor the significant height difference, not even the chewing gum evident in my left cheek, but rather my spot that always remains wedged in between my two sisters and two younger brothers. Somewhere in between, a glimpse of a smile, neither haughty nor coy, is evident, but only just. It’s mine, indicative of my rank in the family. The middle child. Simply average. My life as a middling has been a journey through the obscurity of a middle child’s role, a struggle for recognition, and ultimately a pursuit of my own identity.
I cannot debate my second class status of being the middle child; mathematics would argue that three is the median of five, clearly placing me in the middle of my siblings. Thus, the responsibilities of an older sibling have long been unclear and the position of the youngest short-lived. With this uncertainty of what role to assume, finding and adjusting to a middle ground is difficult. With no authoritative role, nor the sympathy of being the youngest, my expectations as a middle child have often been ambiguous. This lack of clarity prompts two questions: should I be responsible for finding that middle ground on my own? Am I responsible for fulfilling unclear expectations? Answers to these questions may seem obvious; however, as a middle child, I was not given the option to answer “no” to either of these. While the eldest and the youngest delighted in their pre-cut mold and all its explicitness, I did not have the same sense of pride in my non-existent role. Often met with disappointment and lectures, the much sought-after middle ground is one that I eventually chose to shy away from; partly because it was so hard to detect but chiefly due to the failed attempts at discovering it only further substantiating its inexistence.
Whatever the conclusion, simply dismissing the existence of a median proved dissatisfying. In attempts to find and secure a place in between, my search for recognition began. As a middling, I wanted the same attention that my siblings received, perhaps even more. The eldest and youngest felt entitled to it regardless of their accomplishments simply because they marked the first and last. With these set precedents, excelling was no longer revered, but expected. Inevitably, competition and sibling rivalry ensued.
I recall being on the same soccer team as my sister one year, both of us forwards, with only one field to share, fighting for the name our mother would yell from the stands. Cynthia or Jackie. “It’s my time to prove myself,” I would think. Call it motivation or sheer madness, it was apparent in the way I ran toward the goal. I envisioned the image of the ball passing the goalkeeper as she failed to stop it, the stands cheering “Jackie! Jackie!,” my raising my arms triumphantly and yelling “GOAL” as I ran across the field like a legendary Pele, my teammates carrying me off the field, tapping me on the back as if I had finally lived up to the potential I had in me all along. Madness indeed. In truth, I never scored in that game, but the motivation was present. It wasn’t the craving for attention that propelled me; it was the promise of the acknowledgment that would follow, like a salute indicative of recognition. Lacking certainty regarding my place in the family, I was many times robbed of this thrill. Being the one in the middle entailed an invisibility that I thought could only be counteracted with defiance or excellence.
The mediocre standard middlings are subjected to is, after all, due to a random shuffle in the birth date deck. I wasn’t always a middle child; there was a lovely point in time when I was the youngest, enjoying the liberty, attention, Christmas presents and everything that accompanied being the baby. Nonetheless, this was short-lived. I was deposed by my younger brother in an undisputed coup d’etat. I watched as he played with my toys, relished in my attention and delighted in the best Christmas presents. This was my spot. I couldn’t argue or protest, I simply had to yield. I had begrudgingly signed a silent covenant to render my throne to the next heir.
As I found myself overthrown, I was forced to adjust to a role that was essentially indefinite. It was once again necessary to start from zero. Beginning something is indeed difficult; like an essay, the first few phrases are always the hardest, but once that first sentence is penned, the blank page is more than just bare, and it becomes an image full of potential and creativity. The prospect of being a middle child is relatively similar. It resembles a limbo of uncertainty, vague expectations and roles — but, most importantly, a blank canvas, pending a masterpiece. Ultimately, being a middle child entails knowing what to make of this bareness. Whether to remain arrested by the thought of finding a place amongst others or to conceive one of my own is the real question. The frustrations and doubts of being the middle child are simply incomparable to the ultimate benefit: an identity. An identity shaped by my own ambitions and dreams, naked of expectations and finally, rising above to claim its own place.
Needless to say, dreading our family pictures is a thing of the past. Being in center seat does not define me, nor does it confine me to any certain role. I have room to become a work of art from a blank canvas; and I know New York University will be my first step in fulfilling that endeavor.
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