Birth Order and Divorce
Part 1: The Impact on the Oldest Child
We don’t walk down the aisle dressed in our best with our thoughts on divorce. Much less do we start families and create life thinking we’ll one day break our offspring’s hearts.
In the aftermath of the end of a marriage, anger, sadness, and shame can cause us to want to hurt each other. Blinded by rage and our own feelings, it’s the kids who bare the brunt of the ensuing storm.
When they’ve grown up a part of a world shaped the only way they’ve known, they grieve the loss of their own identities when it ends. We, the adults, become single parents and accept our new titles. But kids don’t have that. There isn’t a new job title for them to assume as part of their new existence. As a result, they can become lost.
My kids were no exception.
A Little Backstory
He left in December of 2011. I’d just returned from a semester away at Texas A&M University in College Station when my 10-year union collapsed. Initially, we were both determined to make it work. Couples counseling failed. Then, we failed.
It was like a bomb had gone off. He and I were blinded by the smoke and debris around us. We couldn’t see what we were doing to our children. Hell bent on hurting one another (as if to bring about our own version of karmic retribution), we were selfish and behaved more like squabbling school children than responsible adults.
I began to see differences in the way my children were handling it. Blessed with a big family, there were patterns forming. Each child seemed to grieve differently according to their birth order.
Each one of them was grieving the loss of the only life they’d ever known. The proverbial rug had been pulled out from under their little feet. My sheltered children hadn’t dealt with much loss in their lives. They were in for a shock.
I took to Google to learn how to help them get through it. I searched all the psychological studies on birth order and divorce I could. As a parent, the last thing I wanted was to deliberately hurt them. But in those moments, in their grief, they had only themselves to go to for comfort. I was emotionally unavailable.
As the smoke slowly cleared and the rebuilding began, a family therapist helped me figure out ways to help them individually. The patterns I’d noticed noticed initially were real.
Science validated my research and observations. Each child takes on responsibilities as part of their position and birth order. This shapes the way they grow and mature, which affects the way they handle grief.
What Science Says
The eldest spends the most time with their parents. As their siblings are born, they become surrogate parents. More is expected from them than anyone else in the family unit.
A deeper closeness develops as they choose a parent to most emulate, sometimes even adopting their style of parenting in rearing their subordinate siblings.
They’re more likely to internalize their feelings, keeping the worst of them to themselves, in an effort to tend to their younger counterparts.
Parents tend to think of them as the responsible child, which can alleviate pressure off of the custodial parent. Still, both parents should work together to ensure the child doesn’t feel penalized by special burdens placed on him or her.
Pushing against the source of their grief is normal. They’ll need space to do that, to push and pull at and away from (what they feel is) the cause of their strife. They should have an outlet, an activity away from the home (such as sports or extracurriculars) where they can vent to their friends.
Grieving children are still children. They deserve to have a childhood, a refuge they can go to and be themselves. Their existence should be as burden free as possible so they can continue to do their jobs as secondary parents to their siblings.
By grieving together, they can help one another get through the worst parts of their ache.
How It Affected My Oldest
My oldest was ten at the time (now 14), and she had always been closest to her dad. Mind you, I had just arrived after being gone for months in pursuit of my education. So, it was natural for her to cling to him.
Of all my children, she took it the hardest that day in December when he walked. She wailed and screamed when it clicked, when she realized he wasn’t coming back. It was an animalistic cry beckoning her father to return to her.
My kids couldn’t see that none of it was their fault. Four years later, my fourteen-year-old still talks about what she could’ve done to keep us together. She still hangs on to hope believing her father and I will reconcile.
Her dad and I have become great friends. Despite the awful things we’ve done and said, we managed to get past it. I won’t say we did it just for our family, but it had much to do with it. We did it out of respect for the 10 years we shared together. We built something big in that time. It deserves reverence.
She ached for sometime, even rebelled against my authority. Months of being away from my motherly duties had already cost me a lot in my stock as a mom. Our connection changed. Where once I could command her to pick up after herself or do the dishes, at that point she felt the wherewithal within her to flat out say no.
She came around slowly. It was almost like she let me back in out of duty. Counting on me for her own survival, she knew she wouldn’t get far without talking to me. Still, she rebelled.
At one point, she even left my house in the middle of the night, younger sister in tow, to camp out at a McDonald’s across the highway. They made it there, too! Luckily, a sheriff spotted my runaway children before harm came to them.
Birth order plays a role in the way children handle divorce. Your oldest child is the leader of the pack, so to speak. He or she is likely to be the smartest, most ambitious, and most like you. Guide them down their path.
Dads have it hard. Most of the time they are the absent parent in this situation. For me, it was hard because I needed him. He’d made his decision and left, but I had lost control of my house.
Get in and deal with the muck. My daughter now says that if her father had helped her (walked her through) what was happening, she’d have been able to handle it better. Instead, he and I decided it was best for him to stay away.
Honor that which you built with your partner. Be there. Lift what you can off of your children. Your oldest may act out. He or she may feel exactly what you’re feeling. If you’re ill-equipped to help, find a family counselor. Make sense of it.
Urge your kid to name their feelings. Name yours out loud. Resist the need to pass blame. Tune in and manage their situation. You’ll learn lessons on how to handle your own internal pain by helping them carry theirs.
Don’t disconnect from your oldest. Keep your bond intact by talking to them. Be their outlet. Even kids need to vent. Don’t pull back from your family.