One of my sons and his wife announced good news the other day by posing their youngest daughter in a pink dress and with a sign that read:
Soon To Be
Good Thing I
Can’t Read Yet
Predictably the members of our WhatsApp family group went wild. A cousin asked if they knew the baby’s sex yet. A great-aunt, who is the only one with a birthday in February, expressed delight to finally share a birth month. And I, who had known about the newest addition to the family before this grand reveal, wondered how the life and role of my youngest grandchild, the girl in pink, would change.
As parents choose to have fewer children, the smack-dab-in-the-middle kid has become rarer, some might even say endangered. In fact, this will be the first — and maybe the last — middle grandchild for me. My daughter has one daughter and no plans for another. My oldest son has three, but the eldest are identical twins, which, for all intents and purposes, means only two birth-order settings. (Frankly, minutes in the delivery room simply doesn’t count.) And if I were to bet on family size for my two unmarried sons, I’d err on one or two kids, the more popular choice these days.
It’s no secret that women, for various reasons, are no longer having those big, boisterous families of yesteryear. A 2016 Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data revealed what we’ve long observed: These days many more women have had one or two kids as opposed to three or four by the end of their childbearing years. And the number of women having four or more — as I did — has shrunk by about two-thirds over four decades.
Back in 1976, when I was in college, the numbers were reversed. About two-thirds of mothers 40 to 44 years old had three or more kids, while 35 percent had one or two. I suspect if we turned the calendar back even farther, large families would be the norm. As a girl growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, most of my cousins had several siblings, and so did my Catholic school classmates, some of whom were one of 10 or one of a dozen.
Let’s face it. Raising children is expensive and tedious and nerve-wracking and time-consuming and isolating — and increasingly difficult. Working mothers don’t always get the support they need, and today’s parents are expected to spend more time and money than ever before to ensure each child has a leg up in a world where one-on-one tutoring and private sports coaches are common. (I nearly fell out of my desk chair when I found out what one of my kids was spending on specialized summer camps for his girls.) Families can swing the expenses for one, maybe two, children but resources might be stretched to breaking with three.
Which, in a roundabout way, leads me back to middle children and what it might mean to society as a whole if there are fewer around. Apparently as we grow scarcer, there’s an emerging appreciation for people like me — and there should be. A July article in New York magazine lists not only the names of some famous middles but suggests that our society will suffer for the disappearance of people like yours truly.
“In fact, the more you learn about the skills of classic middle children — peacemakers, risk takers, levelheaded loyalists with expansive friend groups — the more middle children seem essential to our survival,” wrote New York magazine’s Adam Sternbergh. Indeed. We are the diplomats, the go-betweens, the peace-brokers, the dealmakers, and often the open-minded speculators because, heck, what do we have to lose. (Think Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.)
As a middle child myself, I’ve always known the importance of being the hinge between the older sibling and those that followed. So I’m not going to worry too much about my soon-not-to-be-youngest granddaughter. I’m certain that one day she will appreciate the benefits of middleness, the skills one learns while residing in the shadowy edges of the limelight: resourcefulness, independence, focus and the ability to get away with so much.
Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.