Branded By Birth Order?

Tamara Heath wonders if it is better being the oldest or the youngest in the family.

When my eldest daughter was a newborn, I snipped a bit of skin off the top of her finger while trying to cut her nails. The moment I realised what I had done I began to cry, feeling ill with guilt at having been so clumsy. I did not touch those little nails again for months – my husband was on nail-cutting duty until my confidence returned.

Fast-forward two years and my second daughter has been poked, prodded, hit, sat on and generally endured a much rougher introduction to life at the hands of the aforementioned eldest daughter. Perhaps the lowest point was when, at barely three months old, I found her being straddled by her older sister, with a muslin wrap looped around her neck. “Look, Mummy, I’m riding a horsey,” my two year old exclaimed gleefully, as she jiggled up and down on her little sister’s tummy. I was, of course, alarmed. But there were no tears, no recriminations; just a speedy resolution to the situation.

As a big sister myself, I have been known to voice an opinion on the difficulty of being the eldest child – from having to shoulder greater responsibility and expectations to having to share all your things.

But now, as a mother, I suddenly have a whole new perspective. It is tough being the youngest.

For one, my youngest daughter will never get the same undivided attention her sister basked in for the first two years of her life. From the moment she was born, she has had to share the limelight with a loud and demanding toddler. And while never short of kisses, cuddles and nuzzles, she has often had to wait for that fresh nappy or breastfeed – something her older sister rarely, if ever, experienced.

Then, of course, there is the fact that almost everything my youngest daughter owns is used or pre-loved, from her clothes and toys down to her cot – even her bedroom already had an occupant. Anything given to her specifically had already been given a thorough going over by her older sister before she’d even learned to reach out and grasp objects in her hand. Not that being able to hold objects has made much difference; anything of interest is generally wrenched from her grip by her bigger and stronger sibling, her squeals of protest completely ignored unless I happen to be in the vicinity.

And then there are those inevitable comparisons – from her appearance and temperament to her development and sleep patterns. Already I have an ache in my heart as I think of her first day at school and the ubiquitous question, ‘So you’re such and such’s younger sister, are you?’

My own younger sisters are thrilled by my revelation. Finally, I have seen the light, they say, with much glee.

Of course, I still think there are definite benefits to being second. My youngest daughter gets parents who are infinitely more experienced and confident in their parenting, having tested their techniques, theories and ideas on her older sibling. She gets to grow up with a protector, someone who will always love her, look out for her and show her the way. And she gets someone to adore and look up to (she was, of course, grinning from ear to ear while being ridden like a horse).

But still, I can already see why it is often said that youngest children are ‘spoiled’ and ‘allowed to get away with more’– it is all set up in the early years as we parents try to protect them from rampaging toddlers and make amends for the dirty, second-hand toys.