15th June 1997


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Someone to watch over me

Never mind the gap- a much
older sibiling can be your best
firends, says Ann Trenman
Liz Simpson is 42. She is an author and magazine journalist who lives in Kent. Her favourite television show is Inspector Morse and she likes baroque music. Michael Alexander is 32 and a landscape gardener in south London. He likes The Simpsons and Britpop. Matthew is 23 and a hairdresser in Liverpool. He loves Frasier and Paul Weller.

Liz Simpson and her brother Michael only got to know each other properly in adult life
On the face of it these three people have little in common but, before you agree, look at their faces again. They may have all arrived in different decades - 1954, 1964 and 1973 to be precise - but they were all born to the same mother and father. They are siblings and, despite the conventional wisdom about gap children, they do have something in common: each other.

The subject of birth and order and siblings has attracted an army of researchers. We know that first-borns are driven and competitive. Middle children are constantly seeking an identity while the youngest can be babied to the point where they believe adoration is a normal state of affairs. Only children are more likely to be self-confident, self- possessed and self-sufficient.

But what about gap children? "You won’t find much on that because with an age gap of ten years there is none of the normal rivalry you find in siblings separated by two, three or four years. Their lives are not intertwined, says Dr. Richard Woolfson, author of Sibling Rivalry. "So psychologically it is not seen as very interesting.

Mums and dads planning their families find it very interesting indeed though, and most decide to have their children fairly close together. "I want them to be friends," they say. "They need to have someone to play with. But there are also pleasures to having a gap sibling and perhaps it is because I have such a close relationship with my youngest sister, Mary, that I did not mind a considerable gap of eight years between my own children.

"Gap siblings are not friends early on, however. I was 12 when my sister Mary was born, and her arrival barely registered. Similarly when Michael Alexander arrived, his sister Liz was ten and intent on getting on with her own life (as well as with her two other brothers closer to her own age). By the time Matthew came along, she was 19 and ready to fly the nest. "Frankly, his birth did not impact upon my life in any way. Matthew was born in May and I left home in August to go to London."

Michael has only the foggiest childhood memories of Liz - "I remember her cooking the meals and that was probably my only recollection of her until she left home’’ - while Matthew remembers a fleeting visitor to their Lancashire home. He says: "I was closest to Michael. I think he moved out when I was 11 and so he was the one I shared the house with the longest." Birth order has a tremendous effect on our lives but this can be much more subtle with gap children.

Frank Sulloway, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Born to Rebel, a book about birth order traits, says: "You could say that without knowing information about age gaps, birth order information is totally irrelevant. The age gap is part of what you meant by birth order. The impact of birth order is at its maximum when there is a gap of three to four years. Anything closer and the siblings are practically equals. Anything farther and they are too removed to react strongly. With gap siblings though, traits can get mixed up. Matthew may be the youngest, for instance, but in many ways he may be like an only child or a first born.

Then there is the first born who thinks they are an only child. "Technically with a gap of six years or more the first born becomes very close to becoming an only child. They grew up and had much of their personality formed before they ever had a sibling," he says. The US President Bill Clinton is a good example: he was ten before his brother came along. Would history have been different if the gap was smaller?

Mr. Sulloway is a gap sibling himself. "I have a brother who is nine years younger. I consider myself a functional last born. There was just no rivalry on my part with my younger brother. He was so much younger it was like having a toy in the house. It is not the same thing."

Without a shared childhood, gap children often go their own way for years, if not decades, before discovering each other. I did not get to know my sister Mary properly until I was at least 30 and she was 18. This was also true for the Alexander family. When Michael was 15 his older sister invited him to London for a visit. "This is when we began to re-acquaint ourselves," says Michael. They are doing so again now that they both have (non-gap) families of their own. "In the past two or three years we’ve become a lot closer," he says.

Could it be that as adults we find it easier to get along with noncompetitive siblings? I can usually predict what my other sisters are thinking but I can never assume anything when it comes to Mary. She grew up at another time. My mother was different by then too. It is fun to just enjoy the gap and not constantly try to bridge it. Matthew understands what this means. "I look up to Liz because of what she has achieved, even though we don’t have that bond from the early years."

It still comes as a surprise to Liz how much younger her brother is. She recently realised that his girlfriend’s mother was her age. "I don’t think of myself in terms of my age. I feel as much as a sister to Michael and Matthew as I do to my other brothers."

Liz sees much of herself in her youngest brother. "We are peas in a pod. Personality-wise he is incredibly like me and it is almost like watching a return of my own career. It is interesting that after 19 years you get two people who are so alike." Yet it is possible that, as a gap child, Matthew has many traits of a first born. Perhaps it is not so strange after all that he and his first born sister have so much in common - finally.

-The Times, London

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