i am a middle child and i live with all the baggage that brings. i’m also the only girl, which adds yet another complicated layer to the core of my identity. did i mention i’m black? yeah, that’s pretty big, too. while i’m at it, i’ll divulge that i’m short, extroverted, christian, single, hard of hearing, and need glasses to see anything more than a foot in front of me. there are a lot of labels swirling around in this cyclone of my identity. but what does it really have to do with who i am? and did i live up to the expectations of 12-year-old me?
according to dr. gail gross, human behavior and education expert, as a middle child i’m likely “understanding, cooperative and flexible, yet competitive.” all of these ring true of my personality. especially the competitive part. i’m super competitive. she goes on to say middle children are concerned with fairness. yep, also true. but the kicker, the part that stopped me in my tracks was how being a middle child shapes your concept of family.
as a middle child, you are likely to pick an intimate circle of friends to represent your extended family. it is here that you will find the attention likely lacking in your family of origin. as a middle child, you receive the least amount of attention from family and as a result, this family of your choice is your compensation.
jaw drop. my best friends will unequivocally tell you how perfectly this assessment suits me. there is no difference between them and the family i was born into. this is an important realization as i’ve wrestled with the concept of family over the last few months. i didn’t choose the word family, it was chosen for me. but i’ve diligently tried to live into it many times with no definition or constraints for what that is supposed to look like as i build a life geographically separated from my natural family. i’m in seattle and they are thousands of miles away in missouri. my little brother recently moved to florida and now the three of us live in three different cities. it’s hard being so far away from home sometimes. yet, i’ve always known i’d live far from my family.
as a kid, i planned to leave home and never return. you can interpret that many ways and i’m still deciding what that says about me and my connection to family. no one graduates childhood without wounds and i’ve had my share to lick. when it’s all said and done, i’m on a plane no less than twice a year to see the people i love most in this world. they aren’t perfect but they are part of me and i’m part of them. i wouldn’t be “me” without them.
it’s the journey to becoming “me” that weighed on me today. if an earthquake and a hurricane somehow got together to mate, my life would be their love child. i know that sounds crazy but that’s how deeply my core has been shaken lately. for many stages of my life, i was the poster child for hitch’s assertion that “‘you’ is a very fluid concept right now.” i struggled trying to find my place in the world and who i was supposed to be. i really wanted to just fit in despite all evidence i was created to stand out. i’m not talking about dimming your light so others could shine. i’m talking about hiding in the shadows off-stage despite being cast as the leading lady. and today i ask myself, what are you afraid of?
i think back to my prepubescent self occasionally and wonder if i let her down. when i was twelve, we moved to the south end of kansas city and i was enrolled in a white elementary school for the first time. i had previously gone to an all black catholic school with the same students since kindergarten. my entire family had also gone to that school so i had several cousins in the other grades. it was the end of an era for me. i went from being in an affirming space of black culture to being one of four black faces in a sea of whiteness. i was crushing on new edition and my classmates were talking about some group called new kids on the block. the identity crisis i endured was epic.
i can’t tell you what the internal struggle i felt looked like to outsiders. but i can tell you that i didn’t want my teacher or classmates to be able to tell me who i was supposed to be. i started plotting my life plan once i made it to sixth grade. my entire life. at 12 or 13, i set down and mapped every single decision i would need to make to become the woman i wanted to be. it was calculated and thorough and left little room for error. i’m talking about everything from the classes i needed to take from middle school to grad school to the types of organizations i had to join to the professionals i needed to secure as mentors. this life plan was serious. and at 12, i knew exactly where i was going in life. my 12-year-old self was resilient and powerful and fearless. but somewhere along the lines, she encountered a society that told her that power was not hers to own and she relinquished it, becoming complacent in her own silencing and claiming her spot in the shadows.
so here i am today, thinking about all the things happening in our country and wondering what role i’m supposed to play. my 12-year-old self would know how to make a plan of action and execute it with unwavering determination. but at 35, i find myself drowning in the layers of identity that compete for dominance. who and what am i? am i woman? am i black? am i christian? am i single? am i independent? am i part of a family? am i alone? am i confident? am i afraid? am i strong? am i invisible? am i vocal? am i silent? do i have to be either or?
‘who are you?’ said the caterpillar.
alice replied, rather shyly, ‘i — i hardly know, sir, just at present — at least i know who i was when i got up this morning, but i think i must have been changed several times since then.
the thing about dwelling in the shadows is you get a behind-the-scenes look at the pain and glory. many times we don’t want the glory because it can’t be separated from the pain. i for one am no fan of pain. i don’t like being hurt. but i have to ask myself if my rejection of the possibility of pain is worth the price of my silence at a time when i clearly hear the charge to speak. it’s funny. years ago i was called to teach. i’m stubborn so i crafted my own definition of what that looked like. strong-willed much? for me that meant using my words to teach. i’m a great writer (lazy sometimes, but quite gifted at it). i knew then it was not what God meant. and now i have to admit that my period of hiding is the shadows is over.
so i ask myself again if i lived up to the expectations of my 12-year-old self, and i have to say, no. but that’s not the end of the story. as i continue to find meaning in the necessity to cultivate family at this particular season of my life, i concede a few truths. i don’t want to have to face this very scary season alone and i am terrified that saying yes changes everything. it is never an easy thing to fully accept the “calling” God places on your life and it’s almost impossible when you have to do it alone.