When I was writing The Empty Room, and doing a considerable amount of delving into the scientific literature on siblings, I, of course, encountered the notion of birth order, i.e. the theory that the order of your birth in a family affects your personality, your intelligence....basically everything about you. It's a theory that isn't thought to have all that much import, as far as I can tell. I gave it short shrift in my book, too, largely because it exemplified the limited extent to which anyone within the psychological realm had considered the relationship at all. And experts told me that the theory was, in essence, stupid. Plus, the idea of a formula that neatly summarized the relationship annoyed me. (I'm easily annoyed when it comes to ignoring the subject of siblings.)
Now that I have two kids, I find myself thinking what a HUGE influence the order of birth may have on each of my sons. Henry had our undivided attention, my doting anticipation of his needs, for the first three-and-a-half years. Luke, on the other hand, gets planted places--a bed, the floor, a bouncy seat--while we tend to Henry or some other immediate crisis in the household, and, bless him, often quietly amuses himself until one of us remembers to go pick him up again. Lately, he's taken to giving an enormously loud cry when he's had it...and I can't help but wonder if he's learned that he better be loud if he needs something, and whether this I'm-mild-but-I've-hit-my-limit loudness will become part of his mature personality. Luke's childhood has also been vastly more social, more kid-oriented, than Henry's, by virtue of the fact that he's watching another kid--Henry--all the time, and dragged around to the park, etc., where other little kids peer into his face and poke him.
I encountered this article, noodling around on the web with the search phrase "birth order." The article, by Joshua K. Hartshorne, appeared in a recent issue of Scientific American Mind. Hartshorne--another quick google search suggests that he's a Harvard grad student in the psychology department, but I'm not sure--comments on the fact that birth order theory hasn't been taken all that seriously in the past, largely, he says, because the studies were pretty weak. But he cites two recent ones that are stronger--one that suggests that firstborns have a few more IQ points than younger borns (ouch), and another, which he worked on, that suggests that, when it comes to birth order, like seeks out like in both romantic and platonic relationships.
Hartshorne says the two new studies are "good news" for the theory, which strikes me as odd. As a scientist, aren't you supposed to be more interested in the truth than in validating your theory? That quibble aside, I have to admit, now that I'm watching my two guys evolve in relation to one another, and thinking about just how different Luke's early childhood has been, thus far, from Henry's, I can't help thinking there really has to be something to this birth order stuff. I doubt it dictates everything, of course, but something...yeah, I wouldn't be surprised. I also wouldn't be surprised if, like most sibling research, it's complicated and difficult to do.
Not long ago, I got off a plane in Phoenix and confronted the words “Ted is Here,” painted on a pillar in bright orange. I almost cried. Ted, I realized, was the name of a budget airline. But it was also my older brother’s name.
My Ted died of an immune disorder 27 years ago, when I was 14 and he was 17. His story, along with that of another boy in Texas, were merged in the movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.” (Which my family did not authorize.)
Like most people who’ve lost someone they love, I’ve always wanted him back, or at least present, in some way. As a kid, I wished for a spectral sighting. As a young adult, I sought out psychics and mediums, one of whom once instructed me to ask Ted to give me signs that he was still present. Once, I asked Ted to show me a clown. Two days later, at a coffee shop, I looked up and realized I was sitting under a clown mural. My elation was short-lived, however. Had Ted contrived it, or had I unconsciously found myself a clown?
I’m not making a case for the supernatural here. But seeing that “Ted is Here” sign gave me the old I-see-the-clown feeling again.
This blog, which I’m launching on May 27th, the anniversary of Ted’s death, is an invitation to those who knew him—and those who didn’t—to share their thoughts and memories about the Ted they knew, or the Ted they imagined. Hearing about him, knowing that others are carrying a bit of him around with them, is another way of keeping him present. Honestly, I’d like that much better than seeing a clown.
I’ll also be posting thoughts and commentaries on siblings, sibling loss, families and grief—subjects I have, not surprisingly, become interested in. And for those of you who’ve read my book, The Empty Room, which tells my story and those of others who’ve lost siblings, I welcome your thoughts and messages.