Being an Older Youngest
“I’m very good at math,” the boy said as I passed. He was five or six years old and made this declaration not to me, but to the adult who belonged with him. With his mop of long curls and declaration of brilliance, he had more self-confidence than I’ve ever had. How could a child have more self-assurance than a fifty-year-old woman? He must be an only child, I reasoned – maybe an oldest child, but certainly not the youngest.
As the baby of my family, I grew up knowing my opinion did not matter, my voice was not needed. While prevailing wisdom often points to the youngest child as the family favorite, I learned that being favored in any way by older relatives meant being singled out for ridicule by siblings. Any attempt to assert myself was met with derision by my sisters, so I learned to keep quiet. Why bother to speak if no one listens? Being present, but quiet, existing on the fringes, became a way of being.
When our family traveled, and accommodations outside of the home were needed at a hotel or the home of an extended family member, I was always relegated to the cot. There was no drawing of straws, it was simply the way things were. My sisters would never offer to take the cot; this was below them, and my parent would never force them to do so. After all, they were older, and certain rights came with age. Howling about the gross of injustice of being forced to sleep on a cot again got me nowhere. Neither of my parents were youngest children, so they had no sympathy for my complaints.
In my family, age rank determined most aspects of our existence. My oldest sister had her own bedroom. My next oldest sister had to share a room with me, but she had a later bedtime because she was older. While I had to go to bed half way through Little House on the Prairie, at 8:30 p.m., my sister was allowed to stay up to see the entire show. In high school, she continued to keep later hours than me. When I needed to go to sleep, she insisted the light stay on so that she could do her homework, and the music stayed on so she could listen to it while she did her homework.
What are the outcomes of such an upbringing? I can sleep anywhere at any time. A date was once stupefied when I slept through a Dr. John concert we attended. I never had conflicts with college roommates about lights or noise. Very little bothers me. Behaviors that others find maddeningly annoying in co-workers and peers don’t upset me. Distracting tics that strangers in stores or restaurants may have don’t impact me. In fact, I usually don’t even notice them until my husband (an oldest child) points them out.
There are drawbacks, too, in both professional and social roles. I’m not assertive. I do not exude confidence; I hate being designated the first person in a line, the leader of a procession. I tend to keep quiet because I know some others will find fault with my ideas or ignore my comments. I never like being the center of attention. I feel most comfortable on the fringes of a crowd, but I also know that being ignored in a group brings about an acute loneliness, so I have a tendency to withdraw completely. Being raised as the little, baby sister has shaped every aspect of my personality. At fifty, I see this more clearly than ever.
Katherine Carlman is a writer, instructor, and academic advisor based in California. Her poetry has been published by Otto and Adelaide Literary Magazine. She has also written short stories, essays, and plays published in print, online journals and magazines.
Edited by Clara Ng and Ailish Woollett.