The firstborn gets it all. For too brief a time, because there’s never time enough for this, she has all the love, all the attention that he’ll seek for the rest of his life. She gets the raw fear and uncertainty, the parenting theories, the failed experiments. During that crucial time when infants soak up the information they need in order to to become children, he has only adults to observe and learns their behavior long before they realize they’re being watched.

She’s the one who’s eaten her parents’ freedom, the one who absorbs the unspoken rage and frustration that her birth spawned, as well as that first joy and the unexplored realms of tenderness. He’s the one who had his parents’ own childhood bring pain to his own, as they passed on what had been taught to them, what crawls out of them like poisonous insects whose bites don’t kill but leave scars that never heal.

She learns the weapons that she’s seen her parents use–the shouts, the invective, the violence of an ashtray shattered against a wall. He learns that sarcasm can bring attention, sometimes laughter, sometimes punishment.

The firstborn is hybrid, part child, part adult. He lives under scrutiny that never wavers. She grows under the beam of a ferocious and untutored love. He breaks ground for the younger children in the family, forging a path they’ll walk in more easily than he ever did. She is forced to follow rules that her parents will later abandon out of absolute exhaustion. He will, in some inner corner of his secret self, hunch under the expectations that his parents placed upon him. She learns ways to break her parents’ hearts.

She tells herself she will never be like them. He makes lists of the things he won’t say to his own children. She does her best when she becomes a mother, just as her parents did. He learns that each generation of parents improves over the previous one but never quickly enough to satisfy their children. 

And the beat goes on.