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Monkey in the Middle

Several years ago, I resigned as middle child in my family. I can’t remember what made me tender my resignation, but I was sick of the role and I told my older sister so.

I remember when we were kids, my sister and her best friend standing on either side of me, tossing a ball above my head. I was maybe 10 and they were 15. I’d jump up, trying to grab the ball, hopelessly short, hopelessly inadequate. “Monkey in the middle,” they shouted, laughing.

The metaphor isn’t perfect. It was my sister and her friend, not my two siblings on either side, but it does beg the question: Why did I put myself in the middle of their game? Lifelong I’ve suffered from a terrible discomfort when people I love aren’t getting along. My first impulse is to jump in and smooth things over. My sister is five years older and my brother is five years younger, creating a Boomer to Gen X gap that only I could bridge—or so I have believed, from time to time. But they really don’t need me in order to understand each other. They’re grown-ups. Why should I resent a role I’ve imposed on myself?

So a few years ago, when there was some family rift that I can’t remember at the moment, I told my sister that I was resigning as middle child. I was sick of trying to smooth things over. Besides, I’m not very good at it, being at least as strong-willed as my siblings and not always the most diplomatic. She laughed, but she accepted my resignation, for what it was worth. But recently, when a disagreement arose between family members (not my siblings), I felt that old monkey-in-the-middle feeling. I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t my fight, but I felt terrible. I wanted to make it better.

“I don’t know how to be in this situation. What do I do?” I asked Keith (an eldest).

“Just speak the truth,” he said. Instead of trying to make everyone feel better, he suggested I just be honest about how I feel.

So I did, and it worked pretty well, for a monkey. I can see it’s a delicate balance though. As soon as I start flinging my own feces, I’ll know I’ve gone to far.

There’s a new book out called “The Secret Power of Middle Children,” by Catherine Salmon and Katrin Schumann. The authors claim that “middle-borns” are agents of change, even more so than the eldest or youngest. They use all sorts of nice adjectives to describe us: outgoing, diplomatic, loyal, risk-taking, trail-blazing. Yet we suffer needlessly from poor self-esteem. I blame it on those demoralizing childhood games of Monkey in the Middle. Maybe if we quit putting ourselves in the middle of other people’s games, we wouldn’t feel like such monkeys.

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