My Other Two-Thirds

I am the middle of three kids. But because my mother’s journal, which we’ve been reflecting on, was written when it was just my older sister and me, there has been little mention in this blog about the youngest sister in our family.

Whitney was born in 1991, when I was seven and Mindy was nine. It is, of course, a much larger gap than the two years that separate us older sibs. I’ve already talked about the role of siblings as learning peers and about age diversity in the post On Not Being Grouped by Date of Manufacture. But I was especially curious about how birth-order affected Whitney’s experience in our family and in homeschooling. How was her experience distinct? How were our parents different by the time Whitney was of school age?

Holding Whitney after her birth!

Holding Whitney, the day she was born — look how psyched I am!

Part of my interest in the subject of siblings (besides a loving preoccupation with my own sisters) was reading the New York Times review of Jeffrey Kluger’s book The Sibling Effect: Brothers, Sisters, and the Bonds That Define Us. The review is from back in 2011, but I just read it this past week. The article itself consists of two adult siblings, Alison and Adam Gopnik, discussing Kluger’s book and the overall premise of studying siblings and birth order to glean insights:

“The best and most interesting developmental psychology, especially recently, is not about how children turn out as adults. It’s about what we adults were like as children.” — ALISON GOPNIK

At nine and seven years old, Mindy and I were very aware and thrilled to be getting a new sibling. I remember with clarity sitting at the kitchen table, debating name choices for the new baby, and weighing in on my parents’ decision. Notably, my request that our new sister share my middle name, because Mom and Mindy share a middle name. This request was actually granted! And I’ve always felt a little bashful to have affected my kid sister’s identity in this way, fresh out of the gate, based on a petty concern for “equality” in middle-name-sharing.

Whitney & me

Whitney Michelle & Lindsey Michelle, 2013

Of course, a seven-year gap is a lot when you’re zero and seven, or five and twelve, ten and seventeen, or even seventeen and twenty-four. But suddenly, and rapidly, the gap is shrinking. And the space between twenty-one and twenty-nine, although still spacious, is less significant than it has ever been. I do wonder how connected Whitney felt we were in her childhood, were we still children together? In the New York Times book review, the Gopniks talked about the unique significance of shared experiences with siblings:

It’s that we experienced those [childhood] events with the same vision, both exalted and skewed, the sometimes almost hallucinatory vision of childhood. — ALISON GOPNIK

That resonated with me. I asked Whitney about her memories of young childhood, and her experience of homeschooling as the baby of the family:

Lindsey:  I have a sense that, by the time you were of school age, homeschooling was already more common even than when I was that age… What is your early sense and awareness of homeschooling?

Whitney:  I think because my two big sisters, who I looked up to, were already so involved in the homeschooling process, it felt super normal and cool to be homeschooled. All my young friends were homeschooled, and it wasn’t until I was a pre-teen in dance classes that it really hit me that we were different at all.

Lindsey:  Yeah, that was my theory: that having older siblings probably really “normalized” it for you. It may have been a little harder for Mindy, she said she felt like she was always the oldest homeschooler she knew of.

What do you remember homeschooling being made up of, as a daily routine? How do you remember spending time?

Whitney:  A lot of activity, and being outdoors. With Mom sometimes trying reel me in, to get me to sit down. When I asked her to teach me to read — the only way she could get me to read was if I read two pages, and then ran around the house a couple times; or I would balance on a basketball on one foot while I read to her out loud.

Lindsey:  So, do you remember playing with Mindy and me? Or were we already leaving the imagination-play mode when you were little?

Whitney:  I have vague memories of playing in the homeschooling group at the park, with older kids and younger kids together, including you. But I feel like you and Mindy were mostly busy when we were at home, and Mom was doing a kind of juggling act with the two older daughters and a much younger one, with way different needs and methods of learning. But, you and I had a spastic-exuberance that I think was super different from Mindy’s calm demeanor.

Lindsey:  I think you gave me an outlet for some of my “extra” energy.

We’re all different, age gap or not!  But I still feel like we’re also made of the same stuff, and that we all have these places of cross-over and connection and specificity. For example, I share more experiences and memories with Mindy, but maybe more personality traits with you. So there’s different kinds of bonding…

Whitney:  Yeah, I think we all felt so blessed to be this close group of sisters: the three Muscato girls.

I remember Whitney as a constant fixture of fun and liveliness in our family. She was the sweetest, coolest kid!  In my teens, when I went through a little rebel-phase, I remember staying out till all hours, and sneaking into the house, very quietly, trying not to wake our parents. I would curl up in Whitney’s bed. She was still just a kid, sound asleep and steaming under the blankets, her tiny hands curved into the small gestures of sleep. It helped to ground me, remind me who I was, at 16 years old, when I barely knew… It was so comforting to have childhood still real and present in the house.

The influences that make particular children into particular adults are, as you say, largely either obvious or irremediably obscure. It’s much more interesting to explain childhood itself — a period that is much longer for humans than for any other animals. […] Childhood is a fascinating mix of innocence and cruelty, brilliant intelligence and painful ignorance, expanded consciousness and narrow experience. And not just your childhood or mine but childhood in general. That is the sort of large, impersonal fact we can start to understand and explain scientifically. — ALISON GOPNIK

(To be continued…)