I was wandering around the house like a very helpful poltergeist in the wee hours of this morning, tucking a sick toddler back under his blanket, patting a baby, starting a pot of coffee. And I started thinking about those first five years of life before school creates a clearer timeline of memory and you just exist in a blur of Mom and Dad and Sibling(s) and Home, punctuated by the occasional birthday party or trip to the park.
I’m the second of six kids, but until I was seven there were only three of us. I was pure, unadulterated Middle Child. Middle kids jonesing for attention have two options: act out, or become overachieving people-pleasers. Ding ding ding for option two! Though I’ll note that I largely grew out of the people-pleasing, and am now obnoxiously insistent on doing everything my own way. Except even that is a backlash against the early people-pleasing! See? There’s no escaping. And I’m definitely still a hopeless workaholic.
Those early years are SO FORMATIVE. And yet, you barely remember any of it. I have some faint, ghostly memories of jumping up whenever we were asked to do chores, or experiencing anxiety at doing something wrong, but it’s hard to tell if those are real memories or the secondhand memories you form when your mom repeatedly tells you what your childhood was like. Do I remember my fifth birthday party, or just the home video of my fifth birthday party?
So now I’m looking at my own kids and wondering what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong. You can’t escape a bit of both. Am I raising them to be assertive but not bullies? Self-confident but not egotistical? Sensitive but not fragile? Appreciative? NICE? How much depends on their predispositions and innate potential, and how much is trying to push a boulder uphill?
And how does the sibling dynamic change things? What is the dynamic of raising one boy and one girl, as opposed to one boy and a boatload of girls? I’ve always been surrounded by sisters. My childhood was exceedingly loud. We’re still constantly up in each others’ business, and talk basically every single day via instant messenger. Will my kids be this close to each other? I hope so.
I don’t have a conclusion here, so I’ll turn the subject to writing. Any time that I’m grappling with a facet of my own life, I’m mentally filing it away for future character-building consideration. Writer friends, consider the sibling dynamic when building your characters’ backstories, even if it will never be explicitly mentioned in the main plot. What was this person like at five years old? Did life reinforce those personality traits, or dampen them, or strip them away? Why?
And don’t shy away from siblings. Fiction is chock-full of only children. I’m guilty of it, too. It simplifies the backstory and the choreography of plots that do involve family members, and let’s be honest, it’s hard to maintain the brooding allure of your anti-hero if his sister calls up and says, “Remember that time you pooped your pants at Jenny’s birthday party?” But he did. He totally did.
Big families lend themselves to comedy and sprawling epics, but they don’t have to be confined there. Maybe your brooding anti-hero was the oldest of eight and co-parented them through poverty. Or maybe he was the youngest and is trying to earn his way out of the shadow of many older siblings. Or maybe he was right in the middle and they all think he’s an asshole because he never calls home. Whether you mention the reason or not, he’s rooted in those core personality traits.
So. Who were you when you were five?