What Happens to the Third Child When Older Siblings Leave

By the time my third child arrived I had overcome the common parental concern that I wouldn’t be able to love an additional child as much as the first. I knew there was plenty of space in my heart for the little one we now refer to as Peach. But there never seemed to be enough time or patience to express my love for my third child in the ways I did for the others.

There were no private tea parties, no quiet cuddling sessions, and certainly no attendance at weekly baby group. Bedtime reading was done by an older sibling or skipped altogether. There were fewer crafts and more television time. And bath time was all business.
Peach quickly became a self-soother, aka thumb sucker, because she often had to wait for her needs to be met.

“Look at how good she is!” the passerby would notice.

I would cringe, knowing that Peach was employing third-child survival techniques. Mother-guilt was plentiful as I lamented over the myriad ways in which I was cheating my daughter out of the five-star mothering she deserved.

Fast forward to the year my first-born left for college and my second got his driver’s license and a job. In the blink of an eye, the house emptied, leaving 12-year-old Peach left behind. At last I had time dote on her and make up for years of perceived neglect.

[More on what happens when the last child is left behind here.]

In my fantasy, Peach and I would be a team. We’d bake together, have dance parties, and talk about EVERYTHING. I relished the thought of investing renewed energy into my beloved last child and getting to know every nuance of her being.

But Peach wasn’t interested. It came as a bit of shock to discover that not only did she not crave parental attention, but she was threatened by it.

During a recent dinner, Peach, a natural chatterbox, was uncharacteristically quiet. She laid down her fork, looked at me and my husband square in the eyes and said, “STOP! Stop looking at me! I can’t stand all this attention. I don’t want to be an only child!!!!”

That’s when it hit me – Peach’s first 12 years weren’t consumed with wishful thinking about what she was missing in the mothering department. She was a third child, born and raised to fight for what she needed and wanted. Peach was used to flying under the radar and being ignored. She enjoyed her natural camouflage, or at least adapted to it.

Birth order is a strong influence. It’s at the very core of our personalities. Peach arrived on the ready-made family scene and was expected to compromise from day one. She is built for sharing (everything), for peace-making, and for patience. She is diplomatic, resilient, social, and self-sufficient. Her third child assets are numerous. To fiddle with them by trying to recreate my mothering style would be misguided.

At the next opportunity, when Peach’s brother was home for dinner, we video-chatted our college Freshman. In first-born fashion, she lead the conversation. Second-born initiated an argument with crude jokes, interrupting as much as possible. Peach tried her best to squeeze in a thought or two, but only after she waited out the bickering between the others.
For my part, I lost track of the conversation and stepped back to take in the whole scene – loud, chaotic, and wonderfully family like, with everyone playing the parts they were made for.

Peach and I are working on our new relationship dynamic. She’s learning how to act on center stage and I’m learning how to under-emphasize her presence. Not easy for this mother with a heart that is bursting with love and a life that finally has the space to prove it.


Sibling Separation 

Kids Going to College: 7 Big Talks Before They Go

Dorm Room Shopping: 50 Questions to Answer First

unnamed-1Deb Dunham is a native New England city girl who lives a pseudo country life while raising three children – two teens and a tween. She works as a Physical Therapist for the aged and maintains a closet
writing career. She wrote a self-help book for tweens called “Tween You and Me: A Preteen Guide to Becoming Your Best Self.” You can
find Deb’s writing about life and the lessons it teaches us at her blog Chaosandclarity.com

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