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Does Birth Order Determine Personality Even into Old Age?

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By Gretchen Fuller

Last week I was visiting my mother at her residence at the assisted living center where she has been since July 2012. As I sat chatting with her in the lobby, one of the aides stopped to tell me that my mother had refused to take her shower the night before, and she needed my help. She wanted me to talk to her to convince my mom to take her shower that afternoon. I said I would try, but that I was not making any guarantees my efforts would have any effect. The aide was under the impression that my mother would want to please me by taking the shower. The aide obviously doesn’t know my mother very well. She is not inclined to do anything she doesn’t want to do to please anyone – least of all me. I did talk to her about it. You know what her response was? She said she didn’t feel like it. I did not follow up to find out if she eventually took the shower or not. I did not get any phone calls regarding the shower, so I assume that she did take the shower at some time.

This incident got me to thinking about what shapes our personalities and why we are the way we are. Many years ago I read “The Birth Order Book” by Dr. Kevin Leman (1985, Fleming H. Revell Company). In the book he discusses how the order of our birth in the family affects our personality: first borns, onlies, middle and last borns. He even delves into what birth orders make the best marriages.

I thought that I might revisit that book with the personality of my mother in mind, as she reaches the sundown of her life. The first time I read the book, I read it thinking of myself as the oldest of three children. According to Dr. Leman, I discovered that I have almost all the characteristics of the first born: “perfectionistic, reliable, conscientious, list maker, well-organized, critical, serious, and scholarly.” Now I am looking at it from the viewpoint of the last born. My mother was the baby in a family of ten. She grew up with four sisters and three brothers. One sister and one brother died either before she was born or shortly thereafter.

Dr. Leman says that some of the characteristics of the last born are “manipulative, charming, blames others, show off, people person, good salesperson, precocious, and engaging.” I noticed that some of these personality traits do show up in my mom in her old age. She never was a show off, and she still isn’t. She was a people person which made her good at being the receptionist in the doctor’s office where she worked for a time. However, she can be manipulative, and it usually works because she is charming. She manipulated me into letting her move in with me when she felt she couldn’t live by herself anymore. We looked at many independent living facilities, but she kept saying she could not afford them. So, we determined that if she were to move in with me, I would need to put an addition on my house giving her a bedroom on the first floor and her own bathroom. She said she would help with the cost of it, but in the end she reneged on that. I am still bearing the cost of the addition. It should be paid off in another eighteen months.

She has everyone at the assisted living center thinking that she is really a lovely lady. Behind all that niceness she is self-centered and blames others for her problems – two more characteristics of a last born. An example is the loss of hearing that she experienced in the last six years. When she was living with me, she would turn the sound on the TV up as high as it would go. I would complain that it hurt my ears and could not sit in the same room with her. I tried to convince her to get hearing aids, but she claimed that it wasn’t her hearing that was the problem, but that I had particularly good hearing! She also accused my sister and me of mumbling when we were talking with her because she couldn’t hear us. It was our fault not hers.

Since she moved into the assisted living facility, I can keep my house much cooler than when she was living here. When she was about to move in she said, “When I move in we’ll be warm because I’ll help with the heating bills.” It was of no concern to her that I was not comfortable with the house really warm. I kept it at a temperature that I could live with and like, not because I was saving money.

I suppose that as the youngest in a large family she put up with a lot of teasing and tormenting from older brothers and sisters. I think this made her really paranoid. Any time something would happen that may have been an accident, she would think that it was done purposely to annoy or hurt her. Even now if I can’t go to visit her, she thinks it’s because I don’t want to see her – not because I may have had another commitment that prevented my visit that day. Although, luckily for me since her memory isn’t as good as it used to be, sometimes she doesn’t remember that I was not in to see her for a day or two.

Back to the subject of birth order and marriage. My dad was a middle child, so he had good negotiation skills. He really used them living with my mother. Take the time my future husband asked my dad for his blessing in marrying me: my mom did not talk to me or my dad for several days because she was not consulted. Somehow they made it work for many, many years. After my dad passed away 37 years ago, my mother forged ahead. She continued to play golf until she was 83 years old. She sold her house and moved to an apartment. She dealt with several bouts of cancer all on her own. I think her faith and her last-born characteristic of independence helped her deal with life without dad.

Since I read Dr. Leman’s book, I think I understand how to work with my mother a little better. I am not saying I like it, but at least I understand it.

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