There are three main levels to the sibling dynamic. Level one: the youngest child. In this level, you are the “baby” of the family. You are pelted with gifts from your over-sympathetic parents as they slowly come to terms with the fact that you are the last human being they will ever raise (which, in turn, sparks their dramatic mid-life crisis as they discover that they are officially old so just be prepared to receive the brunt of that blame). Level two: the middle child. You’re old, but not old enough. Young, but not the youngest. In terms of labels, you’re more of a “terrible toddler” than the “baby”, or one of the two pots of porridge that Goldilocks eats before she finds the one that is “just right”. You’re never the first, never the last and as a result, you end up feeling like the middle ball in Newton’s Cradle that never really does anything.
And finally, level three: the eldest child. You’re the designated role model, a close-to-home celebrity whose every move is closely watched by those that follow you. One wrong move and you’ll end up in the tabloids (or, in this case, the family newsletter).
I have another name for this stage, though, one that I think is entirely more accurate: the guinea pig child.
First-born children enter the world as clean slates for new parents. Here you are, a freshly minted baby void of life experiences and embarrassing middle school memories. And then there’s your Mom and Dad, who only a second before were just Bill and Sue, and who now begin to panic about their new-found responsibilities. “How strict should we be? How much TV should they watch? Should we teach them about Santa? How will we tell them where babies come from?” You are an experiment, subject to your parents’ “fake-it-til-you-make-it” beginnings and whether you like it or not, your experiences are the ones that will shape the lives of your younger siblings.
For awhile, I was a bit bitter about the whole ordeal because if you didn’t already know, being a human guinea pig isn’t all that fun. In fact, the only thing being a human guinea pig is particularly good for is turning every life experience into something you would find in an awkward television sitcom. Take my first day of Kindergarten, for example. At the ripe ol’ age of 6, my mother put me on the school bus with my 5th grade neighbor (after taking 3 disposable cameras worth of pictures) and sent me on my way. I followed my mini-tour guide to her 5th grade classroom where she bid me farewell and left me standing in the empty hallway. After wandering the school for a good 30 minutes, a rogue teacher found me and led me in the right direction just before I found a closet big enough for me to sit down and panic in.
Rewind back to my very first birthday party, where my parents discovered that having someone dress up as Elmo was not appropriate for a one-year-old and would initiate a 2-hour tear fest filled with shrieking, hiding and throwing things. My younger brother never had to experience being chased by a giant fuzzy monster because I had already involuntarily made that sacrifice for him. (And I never even got a “thank you” for doing so.)
Fast forward again to freshman year of high school, when my mom bought me a ticket to see my uncle in California and I walked onto the plane alone and straight into a layover in Texas filled with big signs that I couldn’t see (I was also the first child to inherit bad vision) and accents I didn’t recognize. I had been tossed into a life that had been less planned out than one of those spontaneous, poorly constructed plans that you make with your best friend every other weekend and I was utterly unprepared for it.
But then again, sometimes those are the best kinds of plans. As a guinea pig child, you can make your own footsteps rather than follow the ones of the sibling that came before. You can learn to do things the hard way because you have no excuse not to. You can jump off cushion towers or eat buckets of candy before your parents realize that those things are not okay. You can struggle through high school, opening all the hidden back doors so that your siblings don’t have to. But most of all, you can collect life experiences that no one else can, experiences labeled with the guinea pig stamp of approval that only you can provide.
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