Looking at indistinct footage from 16 millimeter home movies of the 1950s has invited me to examine from a distance the much younger, and in many ways different, version of myself. Not surprisingly, I appear in the “mothering” mode in many of the shots. I have always assumed such behavior was because I was the first-born child.

But where does the mothering instinct come from? Is it inborn? Learned from one’s own mother? Are some born without it? Who knows. The jury is still out on the answers to some of these questions.

Mother guiding me with pigtails for the photo shoot with Grandma

Mother positioning me with pigtails for the movie shoot with Grandma

My mother was not the firstborn in her family but she was the oldest girl, so when her own mother died when she was nine, there were high expectations for her including milking two cows in the morning before she went to school. All too soon, she became a little mother alongside the house-keeper, nurturing her two younger siblings.

In the sit-com Everybody Loves Raymond, “Mother-ish” is the word Mama Marie Barone has used to describe her modus operandi.  Although I cringe to compare myself at any age to meddling mama Barone, it did seem natural for me to take on such a mothering role in my family. After all, I was the first-born, always ready to “tend” the younger ones.

Big sister helping little sister Jean to walk

Big sister helping little sister Jean to walk

Even looking straight ahead, I was aware of wiggly little sister, who would spoil the photo if she crawled away in this video clip:

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Several years later, with a prayer covering almost as big as my mother’s and with motherly aplomb, I held my baby brother Mark.

13-year-old "mother" holding baby brother Mark

13-year-old “mother” holding baby brother Mark, with sister Jean

Alfred Adler was one of the first theorists to suggest that birth order has a profound effect on personality. However, his ideas about birth order have been repeatedly challenged by other researchers, like Cliff Isaacson, who argue that birth order is not a fixed state but subject to other influencing factors. Other studies (Scientific American) claim that family size, rather than birth order, is a better predictor of personality than birth order. Yet the concept of the take-charge, bossy (did I say “mother-ish?”) first-born persists in popular psychology.

Question Mark w border1_1x1_300

I wonder where you are in your family’s birth order: first, middle, last, or an only child?

Do you think this has influenced your personality at all?

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