I never identified as a middle child, even though I was. I was too busy surviving the attacks from the north (two older siblings) and the needs of the south (two younger siblings) to notice my birth order. I cared more about who got to use the car and how I could sneak my oldest sister’s boots out of the house without her noticing.
My approach to surviving a large family was to keep my head down, stay below the radar and get out any chance I could. You could find me at someone else’s house most weekends. I was the kid who would not take a hint:
“Dinner?” “Sure, I’d love to.”
I would have gladly stayed all summer at my friend Nancy’s camp on Unity Pond. I wasn’t unhappy at home – I was just happier somewhere else. New bed, new food, not my siblings, not my parents.
The middle, I found, was also a great place to hide. A great place to observe how others behaved. A great place to make decisions based on what has gone down before. An excellent vantage point for … “Hmmm – that didn’t look fun.” “I should probably avoid getting caught doing that.”
Being the middle child allowed me to assess the damage and plan my approach.
My parents, who I can only assume were winging it for the first two kids, continued certain parenting themes down the line of five whether they worked or not. A consistent refrain of theirs was telling the truth. We might as well have had a sign on the front door that said, “Just tell us the truth!”
Now – let’s be real. If we are honest and really do tell the truth, we should admit that no one tells the truth 100 percent of the time.
It’s not prudent. There are too many factors to consider: Will the truth hurt someone’s feelings? Will the truth make any difference in the outcome of the situation? Will I get into really big trouble?
Considering that I was getting into really big trouble anyway, I decided to give this truth-telling idea a turn. It wasn’t long after that that my parents qualified their wish by saying, “Jolene, you don’t have to tell us everything.”
They backed off from this viewpoint around the time that I asked my mother for birth control. It was a straightforward request that had nothing to do with acne. (Every teenage girl I know starts the argument for going on the pill with a complaint about pimples.) Whatever.
There was no website, chat room or online information about birth control or sexually transmitted diseases or anything related to being a sexually active teen when I was growing up. If there was a sex education class offered at my school, I don’t remember it. So, taking the risk to ask my mother for birth control was a very big deal – like starting from zero.
Today, with health classes covering everything from drug use to safe sex to sexting, a mother might be blindsided on her way home in a dark car on Brighton Avenue by her sixth-grader, who might share what she has learned in health class that day.
Words like “AIDS,” “safe” and “sex” might fill the inside of that car like little fans blocking the sound of the other words being shared by her sixth-grader. A mother might need to take a deep breath and hide her shock.
I remember the moment that I dared ask my mother. I walked into her bedroom one afternoon as she was making her bed and just asked. She took a deep breath and said, “Yes.”
With that hurdle completed, we then needed to make an appointment. There was no way that I was going to ask our aging family doctor for birth control. The same man who had made house calls for measles and ear infections and other childhood ailments was not, if I had anything to say about it, going to question me about my sexual activity. I had very clear skin, so that angle was out.
My mother honored my needs and made an appointment at the nearest Planned Parenthood. It was affordable, and we both knew that I would be seen by a woman.
When my own daughter started high school, I experienced all the fears that a mother feels as her girl approaches adulthood. I knew that she would not tell me everything. I knew that no matter how often I said, “Just tell me the truth,” she might not. I knew that she might need to talk to someone else. I knew that all I could do was keep the door open and suggest other options.
With this knowledge, I told my daughter that if she ever needed to talk to someone other than me, she should consider Planned Parenthood.