Although This Is Us is on hiatus until fall, there was one episode from season two that has really stayed with me since I first watched it in the comfort of my living rooms with tears flowing down my face. “The Fifth Wheel” addresses Kevin’s stint in rehab and during a visit from his family, some old feelings are dredged up when Kevin admits he always felt like second fiddle to his brother and sister. Kevin tells his family, “I guess, my entire childhood, I always felt like I came in second to you two with Mom and Dad. You know, like I was a fifth wheel of the family.”
That spoke right to my inner middle child and feelings of inadequacy, and of being forgotten. Call it classic “middle child syndrome” or whatever stereotype you want to throw at it, but it is very real and has lasting ramifications years after childhood.
Many of us middles are not like Jan Brady, Laura Ingalls, or Maggie Simpson. We don’t always act out, seem desperate for attention or suffer from feelings of not being loved. In my case, I never felt like my parents didn’t love me or that I was neglected. For me, it was more about the ease of the transition from being the baby of my family for eight years to the arrival of my little brother. It was difficult for me to handle the shift of focus from my older sister and me to my little brother. I love my parents immensely, but this was not a transition they handled well.
I often felt like my needs took a backseat to my older sister’s needs as the firstborn and everything that comes with that. She was the first to enter high school, the first to have a boyfriend, the first to drive, and the first to test boundaries. While I was grateful for that in many ways since she paved the road for me, in many ways I resented her because I tried to compensate for any headaches she may have caused my parents as a teenager. I was very straight-laced, did well in school, and barely spoke of boys to my parents. I worked extra hard to be “the good one” and in some ways I regret trying to fill this role in my family.
Then there was my baby brother, the one who changed my whole world with his arrival. I hated him for the better part of his first year of life. He was the one who stole my parents’ attention from me. It wasn’t until he started walking that I began to have any kind of appreciation for him. I started to realize it was never really him I was mad at, but rather my parents for “replacing” me with a new baby.
I know I sound like a spoiled brat and here I am at 32 -years-old with two children of my own complaining about the fact that my parents wanted to expand their family way back when. Yet, hearing Kevin Pearson discuss how he felt growing up, I felt a kinship with the character in that moment. I firmly believe every family that has more than two children in it has that one sibling who felt forgotten about many times. They feel like everything they did to please their parents was for nothing, and at times still feel unloved or like the black sheep.
I’ve discussed my feelings with my mother over the years. How being the middle child really helped to form the adult I’ve become. I’m extremely independent, severely defensive, approval-seeking, and I’m very hard on those in my inner circle if they let me down. I know I’m like this because of being born in the middle. I tried to please my parents and get their attention at every twist and turn, fought with my older sister because I had no other place to channel my anger (and she was mean), and I’m hard on those around me because I’m always afraid of losing their love.
My husband has done a good job of taming many of these qualities with his unconditional love and support, but they still linger.
My mom has opened up to me about that period in her life, about having postpartum depression after the birth of my brother—it made her feel withdrawn, overwhelmed and stretched too thin. Being a mom myself now, who has also suffered from PPD, I can now see why her attention might have been elsewhere in those early years with three kids. As far as my dad, I can just imagine the pressure that was on his shoulders being the breadwinner during the day, watching us kids at night while my mom went to her job and helping his wife through one of the worst forms of depression a human can withstand. It must’ve been hard for them. I get that now.
Yet, that didn’t stop me from crying during that episode of This Is Us. I was instantly an eight-year-old girl again who just wanted a little extra time with her dad at night while they watched a television show or an outing out with just her and her mom to buy some new clothes. I will always have a special place in my heart for my fellow middle children, even if they were part of “The Big Three” or not.