Sibling Position Across Generations – Dad’s Family of Origin

Yesterday we looked at my mother’s side of the family as an example of how birth order influences the formation of a child’s personality. Today we’ll look at my father’s side.

The 11th of 14 children, my father was the oldest child in the youngest set of four, and he was followed by a brother, a sister, and another brother. Abuses of all kinds were rampant in his family, so the patterns are difficult to untangle. My father was autocratic like a typical oldest child, and he expected obedience from his wife as he carried on the moral code of his upbringing. Like a youngest, however, he never seemed to be able to manage the responsibilities of his adult life well.

Furthermore, his unacknowledged and untreated ADHD prevented him from reaching his potential (he was highly intelligent), and the family coffers were always low. Still, he felt personally slighted when my mom went to work 15 years into their marriage. He was averse to criticism, and I suspect this had as much to do with his own pervasive sense of shame from never living up to his own standards, or the standards of his extreme religiosity, as it did with his sibling profile.

In recent years, I’ve been able to connect with one of my father’s younger siblings, Barb, who has provided helpful insight into the patterns that Dad brought with him into his marriage and subsequent fatherhood. My Aunt Barb revealed to me that although my grandfather was institutionalized when my dad was six years old, Dad was more like his dad than any of his other siblings. If that’s so, it could explain why he was so strict about others following Biblical rules (as our church interpreted them) but was so inconsistent with following them himself.

His own father was the fourth child, and the firstborn male, out of eight siblings. His mother died when he was 15 when she was pregnant with the ninth child. If family patterns hold true, I suspect that his position as the firstborn male brought him much attention, and that he was doted on by his older sisters and his mother.

What other factors contributed to his mental illness (and the mental illness of three more of his eight siblings) I may never know, but I have the newspaper article that describes the bizarre interaction between him and the police the day he was removed from the home in 1944. Strange that my dad would be so much like his father who was only a (seemingly?) distant influence from the time he was a small child. I suspect that there were some genetic or epigenetic factors, beyond ADHD, crossing generational lines.

Sibling Position Across Generations – Dad’s Extended Family

I recently connected with my Dad’s cousin Emma, the third daughter of four children of one of my father’s aunts. Emma has done incredibly extensive work on the family genealogy, which has allowed me to put together a bigger picture of the multigenerational family system on my father’s side.

On many Sunday’s growing up, Emma’s family made the 3-hour trek from one rural town to another to visit my dad’s family. Emma’s own mother, a sister of my father’s dad, was also afflicted with mental illness (diagnosed with schizophrenia), eventually dying in a mental health facility. Another sister and another brother of that generation also spent much of their adult life in mental health institutions, and as I continue to learn more about the family system, I’m sure I’ll come to understand how mitigating circumstances may have impacted the mental stability of that generation.

Cut Off

Having cut myself off from the family for a few decades, I have a lot of catching up to do with the families my father’s siblings raised. I don’t know much about which siblings did better or worse in life. I do know that the firstborn son, Sonny, tangled with the law all his life, and that the oldest daughter, Ginnie, never married after breaking off an engagement to a young man that her institutionalized father didn’t like.

I also know that the fourth child, the second oldest boy, Jerry, earned a reputation in the family as an upstanding person, a “real Christian,” my Aunt Barb called him recently. The second youngest child, Joe, also had a reputation for being kind and good-hearted. The other siblings stand out less clearly to me–some achieving greater functioning and some less.

I can’t help but recognize that my last name still carries negative connotations in my father’s hometown, a name that has carried a stigma for many generations. The tribal, anti-authority sentiments of the family continue to trickle down through the generations into my own family and into the families of my cousins.

Still, as I continue to keep contact with this side of the family, I expect that there will be some golden nuggets among the rubble. Perhaps I’ll meet some of my father’s mother’s family–a family of teachers, social activists and musicians–from whom she was cut off after marrying my grandfather, a man who was beneath the social status of her family of origin.

Tomorrow, we’ll try to draw some conclusions about birth order, and then we’ll move on to our last concept in this Dating Wisely series.

(For more information about sibling positions and profiles, see Birth Order & You, by Ronald W. Richardson and Lois A. Richardson; and Family Constellation: Its Effect on Personality and Social Behavior, 4th Edition, by Walter Toman.)


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