When we first moved into this house, a classic clapboard colonial with five shutter-trimmed windows spaced neatly around a portico, we had two children, a girl and a boy, ages 4 and 2. We planned on giving them separate bedrooms, but they insisted on staying together in one. They shared a bunk bed, its mattresses placed like parallel lines against a painted blue wall.
I would find them on the bottom bunk, decked out in their jaunty play duds like Jane Fonda and Popeye, arms wrapped happily around each other as they turned the wide, colorful pages of their favorite book.
In those days, wherever we sat in our family square, the four of us matched up effortlessly in two perfect pairs.
Then, our third child was born. He was vocal and charming, and a hearty four years younger than our first son. When I finally clawed my way out of those early, weary months, I found that our family order had been tossed into the air and reshuffled, leaving each of us to settle back in and find our place in the deck.
Conflict between my two older children began bubbling through what I had assumed were waterproof seams. It was natural—all siblings fight—but it was also this: my first son who had been the youngest was suddenly and forever my middle child.
As my third child moved through his first two years, bidding his needs like a booming tyrant, my middle son became less compliant—subversive even. He hid his older sister’s beloved blankies behind the second-floor toilet. He took quarters from her piggy bank and hoarded them in an empty tissue box under their bunk bed.
She protested, loudly. “Mom? When am I getting my own room?”
At first, it didn’t seem necessary to reassign bedrooms just because of their squabbling. Besides, I liked viewing myself as a stalwart for gender neutrality; it was perfectly fine for a girl and a boy to share a bedroom indefinitely. But my middle son was not just perpetually needling his sister—he often refused to talk to me or follow directions unless I put everything aside and gave him my full attention. He was feeling insignificant, left behind.
My own childhood struggle to find my place in a growing family took a similar form. Mine was a blended family thrown together around the time I turned 2. One day while playing in the trim boxwood bushes in our front yard, a bee stung me on my palm at the base of my pinky finger. The toddler-sized portion of my memory holds that as the moment in which I became the youngest of four children. I would hold my palm out proudly, the bee sting marking my identity. I was the pinky—the littlest one and the only girl among my three older brothers. Then, my parents set the cheerful family crown jewel with the birth of my baby sister, and my proof of place faded away.
My mother talked about “second-child syndrome” as though it were a disease with which I had been infected at birth; it felt that way to me, indeed. I had been the second child, then the fourth, and finally, next to last and often lost in the crowd. Some nights, I lay curled up in my bed, facing the wall. My parents would sit beside me and hold me while I sobbed, overwrought and unable to say what I could not articulate anyway: that I wanted to be cared for the most—to be loved madly despite my confusion about which piece in the family puzzle was mine.
On a Saturday afternoon when our children’s bickering finally escalated to the point where we were desperate for change, my husband and I made a plan: we would get rid of our toddler’s crib, the boys would bunk together, and our daughter would get her own room.
I worried that my middle son wasn’t getting anything out of the deal except a newly potty-trained, free-range toddler in his room—that alone might have set the stage for disaster. What happened instead was a subtle and significant change of hands.
When I asked him to help out if his little brother needed to be ferried to the toilet at night, my middle son lit up, agreeing immediately. He suddenly had VIP access to the family’s hot commodity—his little brother. We couldn’t dissolve the bond of birth order that assigns him the middle spot, but we could tinker with the arrangement enough to allow him to take on a new role in which he excelled: the oldest sibling in the room. With this reign over new territory came his proof of place.
The boys are both neat and orderly—a sensible match. They prefer their stuffed animals in pressed piles on their beds and their library books shelved, easily accessible like nautical maps.
My daughter’s room bares the contrast, where last week’s underwear is still attached to the inside of her leggings and both articles are turned inside out, dangling from the edge of an open drawer.
Our older two still argue with one another, howling their grievances and retreating to separate bedrooms to kick the wall angrily with their heels. The difference is that now, they each feel the same level of territorial control over their own stretch of self.
When I look at the face of our house from the street, its five separate windows read like a family atlas, revealing the various relationships contained within. On it, each of us holds a figurative place, like a dropped pin on a digital map. Right now, if given the choice, my older two children would stake out the top corner windows, identical left and right, leaving their little brother suitably front and center. My husband and I would claim the two larger windows flanking the entryway on the first floor, just above the foundation.
Most of the time, in my frayed but often reliable working memory, what is clear from this view is that ours is a joyful home, one in which each of us feels that we belong.
Samantha Shanley is a writer and editor. She is a D.C. native who now lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children. You can follow her on twitter @SimShanley.
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