Firstborn of Large Family

Sarah Bowman
Sarah Bowman, studied family dynamics formally and informally all my life

The others have already said it all. I’m the firstborn of eleven. My next sibling was born 17 months after me. It was my job to keep her happy. Thirteen months later, another baby arrived. Less than another thirteen months brought another baby and at the age of three and a half years old it was my job to look after the little ones. The babies kept coming every thirteen or fourteen months and Mom expected me to help make them behave. I wasn’t allowed to spank anyone but if I failed to tell her or dad if someone misbehaved at school or on the mile-and-a-half of country road between home and school the punishment was on my head.

“If we don’t know about it,” Mom used to say, heavy on the guilt-inducing tone, “we can’t do anything about it.”

We kids did have a lot of fun playing hide-and-seek on our large farm property, either around the house or in the barn by lantern light. Sometimes Dad joined us and we had great fun. I often wonder, even today, how kids in smaller families pass their time. On the other hand, we had fights galore and the quickest way to solve them was the threat to “tell Dad.” He never hesitated to bare a kid’s bum and spank his heart out, then set the kid down and go back to his newspaper. The boys got strapped sometimes.

By the time we grew into our teens, my siblings closest in age thought they were better than me. As the younger ones reached puberty, one by one they “kicked me out,” as though I had been the cause of all their childhood woes. Years later, when both me and a much-younger sister were adults, the two of us happened to be living at home. I wanted my younger sister to iron my work clothes, arguing that I ironed enough of her school clothes to justify it.

“I never asked you to do it,” she retorted.

“Mom did,” I calmly replied. I will never forget struggling with still-wet heavy winter garments Mom insisted I iron when I was fifteen or sixteen, saying that will make them dry faster.

My sister looked up, grunted, but could not reply. Mom was sitting quietly by. Like all of my siblings, she revered Mom.

Besides playing hide-and-seek and policing the little ones, I had to spend much playtime rocking babies, including babies in my games so Mom could work—meaning do the housework. And I, along with the others who were old enough, had our regular chores in house, barn, garden, and field whenever school was out. By age fourteen I was seen as a grown-up and had about one hour of free time a day. By fifteen I had none. Thus, many years later when I discovered my teenaged nephew—my brother’s son—having time off during the middle of the afternoon I did not understand it.

What would it have been like being an only child? Once, and perhaps only once, I indulged in seriously imagining this. I thought I’d have been allowed as much Scotch tape as I wanted to make things out of paper, that the red and green crayons would not have gotten lost all the time, and that Mom would have taken an interest in my projects. As it was, she was pregnant or nursing all the time and never cared about her kids except that we were physically cared for and well-behaved. I am glad we did have that but it was not enough.


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