The Unexpected Benefits Of Being The Middle Child

Mixed race businesswoman jumping over gap between cliffs
Mixed race businesswoman jumping over gap between cliffs

August 12 is National Middle Child Day--a dilemma for those of us in the center of our families: We're not often used to having the spotlight on us.

Middle children get a lot of mixed messages. Some reports, like this disturbing thing, say we're often outcasts in our family (and later in society at large) with low self-esteem, who may turn "psychotic" and "weird."

Others try to mitigate the dreary verdict on our sad place in the family: though we may feel "invisible" and be "prone to depression," according to sites like this, we may also be "more outgoing and flexible" and have stronger immune systems. (As if the ability to fight off a cold is a happy little upside to a lifetime doomed to wallow in a morass of depression and sorrow. You get what you get and you don't get upset, middle child...)

Still other sources claim that we're pretty much the golden children of birth order, claiming our lost-in-the-middle status lends us traits of "empathy, independence, articulacy and creativity," and citing famous, world-changing middles like John F. Kennedy, MLK, Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela. Not bad company to be in (if you don't mind the seemingly strong likelihood of assassination or a lifetime of suffering).

But the truth about being sandwiched in the center of your family--unsurprisingly--might lie somewhere in the middle of all these claims.

Here's how I saw childhood from my position as the middle child, born between my brother and sister:

• I was the peacemaker, the bridge over troubled waters
• I was the levelheaded, rational one who could see both sides of a situation and help solve conflicts
• I was the "good one."

But here's how my siblings might describe it:

• I was the namby-pamby, unadventurous sibling afraid to break the rules with them
• I was a doormat, a people pleaser, who was so busy trying to make everyone happy that I just played both sides of the fence
• I was a suckup.

Three changes the family dynamic. With three, there's always a unified force of two and one on the outs--and guess who that one usually winds up being?

So sure, maybe I got a little overlooked as a child, sandwiched as I was in the gray area between my rebellious, strong-willed older sister and my oh-thank-god-finally-a-boy crown prince younger brother.

But it also gave me a lot of leeway--invisibility is a double-edged sword, with a little loneliness on one side, but great personal freedom on the other.

And that resulted in my learning to think for myself, to fend for myself, and--during the often long stretches when my brother and sister were happily colluding on something that seemed to me like a Very Bad Idea, or blithely forgetting I existed--to entertain myself.

Far from making me "weird" or an "outcast," those experiences gave me some of the best tools for my success as an adult.

• A kid left on her own much of the time learns to be self-sufficient, self-motivated, and a self-starter--all essential traits for my freelance career as a writer and editor.
• Someone who doesn't draw as much attention between her flashier siblings finds herself able to sit and quietly observe people and situations, and form rational, levelheaded, objective conclusions. Those are indispensable tools to me in my work as a journalist, columnist, and author who writes about relationships.
• A child accustomed to calming the waters between emotional, impulsive siblings learns people skills, how to see many varied points of view and offer empathy--qualities that teach you how to be a good friend. I credit the large and varied group of intimates I have today to the skills my siblings taught me long ago.

Am I good at the things I'm good at because as the middle child I had to learn to be? Or would I always have had those traits, been who I am, no matter what number I'd fallen into in the birth order?

There's no way to know.

Now that we're older, my brother and sister and I have become good friends--yet the same similarities that drew them together and kept me on the outside when we were kids often lead them as adults to butt heads. And more often than not, I get to be the glue sticking us together--my middle-child peacemaking still in action and keeping us close.

We serve as the memory bank for one another, telling stories of our childhood, both hilarious and awful, prodding each other's recall of things one of us may have forgotten--like the time my sister and I dressed my baby brother in doll clothes and makeup and rolled him all over the neighborhood in a baby stroller, or the way my brother would bring his GI Joe and superhero dolls to play Barbies with me when my sister outgrew the game and refused to play.

Stories that remind me--because even the rational middle child can have a faulty recall of the past--that it wasn't always two against one, or at least not always those two. Sometimes it was me and my sister, or me and my brother.

And sometimes it was all three of us together, united, a single unbreakable team--my sister on one side, my brother on the other...and me in the middle.

Phoebe Fox is the author of the Breakup Doctor series (from Henery Press). You can also find her @phoebefoxauthor.