The author at 7.

Stuck in the Middle


I am a recovering middle child. I have the double whammy of birth orders. I was born the middle child of a brood of five, but also the middle girl. I spent a great deal of my time trying to be noticed or being so very good that I would be, if not noticed, at least appreciated.

Born and raised in central Oklahoma, when fall comes, I think of the State Fair. It was the harbinger of autumn. Oklahomans all over the state would drive to Oklahoma City to show their prized bulls or enter jams and quilts in contests against other jams and quilts in hopes of winning the blue ribbon. The fair had its own Ferris wheel, but a carnival company brought rides like the Tilt-O-Whirl and the Merry-Go-Round. There were freak show trailers with the bearded lady and bizarre things preserved in jars, like embryonic piglets with two heads.  Local schools offered free admission tickets and released early on a Tuesday so students could attend the fair.

I enjoyed the fair until 1971, the year I turned seven. I remember that night, vividly, though filtered heavily through the eyes of a second grader. There were the five of us kids and Mom and Daddy. We were in the midway where all the games and rides were centralized. The bells, music, smells from the food trailers, the rides and lights and all the people were intoxicating. I was taking it all in, while Mom and Daddy discussed the plan of attack.

“Hey, little girl” a carney whispered. “Wanna try your hand?” The carnival worker motioned to the series of bushel baskets hung at a tilt on the wall behind him.

“How much?” I asked.

“How much do you have?” he asked.

I pulled out the few bills and coins I had left, maybe three dollar’s worth and showed it to him. He said it was “just enough,” took the money from my hand and put five baseballs on the counter. The point of the game was to throw the balls into the baskets. The balls were so hard, and the baskets angled just enough that the balls always bounced back out.  I threw five balls and was immediately out of money.  He laughed, “too bad, try again next time.”

I turned back to my family but there was no family to turn to. They were gone.  I looked around my area, in a full circle, then ventured out and back. I looked at each game and the lines of the rides until I was frantic. They were simply gone. I remembered Mom said she wanted to go to the crafts building and Daddy wanted to go to the livestock building, but I did not know whether they went together or split up. I didn’t know which one of the many buildings on the far end of the fairgrounds were the right ones. I walked up and down the midway, carneys motioning to me, taking my hand, calling me “pretty girl” asking me if I wanted to play. Some of them sent me away quickly when they realized I didn’t have any money. Some of them invited me to come sit and wait, some just inviting.

For awhile I hid under a trailer, watching feet go by, looking for my Daddy’s boots. I traveled behind the carnival trailers to stay out of sight and try to make it to the buildings. The strong odor of diesel, grease and urine in these crude alleyways mingled with the smell of corndogs. Each time I checked my progress it seemed the buildings got farther away or were suddenly in the other direction. I may have gone in circles, but it felt like I had walked miles.  I didn’t have any money to use the pay phone, which didn’t matter because anyone I would have called, or whose number I knew, was at the fair. I was terrified and afraid to cry where anyone could see me. I held my sobs back and tried to keep the tears from falling. In my memory, it seemed the carnival workers were there to taunt me. It plays in my mind like some madhouse scene from a horror movie. I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as I am describing it, but to a lost seven-year-old girl, it felt worse.

The fear that my family was going to go home without noticing I was not with them grew in strength along with the sting behind my eyes. The thought occurred to me to find the exit and wait there. I reasoned If they had not left yet, they would eventually show up at the exit and I would be saved. I found the space needle, a familiar landmark in the fairgrounds, and from there I was able to locate the exit.

I sat down on the curb near the gate and worried that I had missed them already. I cried silent tears off and on for what seemed like hours. Then, I saw the familiar petite figure of my mother walking toward me. I heard “there she is” and she pointed to me.  I was so overwhelmed with relief that the tears poured out in a flood. The sobs hurt my chest and throat in their rush to escape. I wanted to run to her, but I had no strength left.  She helped me up from the curb. “You’re alright,” she said, “Stop crying. You’re alright.”

I tried to talk but could only sob. I felt so foolish. On the drive home Mom explained that she had gone to the craft building with my sisters and Daddy had gone to the livestock barn with my brothers. I liked livestock more than crafts, so Mom thought I went with Daddy. Daddy thought I’d gone with Mom and the other girls. It wasn’t until they got back together, they realized nether of them had me. We never spoke of it again. It was done and over and there was no point.

Being the middle child in a large family, it is only natural to feel somewhat insignificant and invisible at times. However, I do not blame my parents. I cannot imagine having to keep track of a brood like that. I mean, there were five us! Well, five that I know of. Hell, there could’ve been more of us and the others are still wandering around a mall somewhere. 

Honestly, I know my parents did the best they knew how to do. We all have baggage from our childhood. My baggage is a fear trigger when I feel I’ve been forgotten, or if someone makes me feel insignificant. All my worst behaviors as an adult are a result of this trigger. Someone at work getting credit for my work or not getting an invitation to some event will bring it all back in a rush. All those indescribable feelings from being left behind, feeling forgotten, the fear of never being found, the strange emotions from being looked at by strange men in a way I was unfamiliar with but knew instinctively that “pretty girl” was sinister. It wasn’t hard to figure that out, at seven years old I was not even in the neighborhood of pretty.

I had just had dinner with Daddy like I do every Sunday night. I had a trigger earlier in the day that brought the night back to me. I asked him if he remembered the event. He nodded.

“How long was I missing, Daddy?” I asked him.

He said he didn’t know really remember how long, not all day of course. “But, quite a little bit,” he said. I told him it felt like forever.

He said, “Your Mom sure had a fit when she realized you weren’t with me.” I was surprised. She seemed so calm when she got to me. 

He said “No, I guarantee you, she had a fit. She was always having a fit about you kids.” 

I wish I had known this detail of that night years ago. I wish I known that while I was panicking my Mother was, too. That she was having a fit about losing me. I wonder if I had known years ago that I was simply lost but not forgotten, if that knowledge would have made a difference in my today.  Even though it is nearly 50 years later, I think just knowing it now has helped me tremendously. Managing my triggers through the years has been a full time job. But the conversations I had with my mother during her last months, and now with my Daddy, I see that sometimes my perspective is a bit off just based on a child’s ability to understand. This is what it means to be a recovering middle child.

One comment on “Stuck in the Middle

  • susan ballard , Direct link to comment

    Middle child syndrome : feeling not heard, not seen, not important and very invisible. I hated being the middle child, the older ones moved on, but I as the middle child always felt like the adult and babysitter to my 2 younger siblings, . On a good note middle children grow up to be more passionate, more forgiving, more loving. tend to have longer relationships and be more devoted to the things in their life. I guess i’ll take that as my positive . I had a talk with my dad like you later in life and realized he had alot of misconceptions about my life and never realized many things about me, too bad it was only a year before he passed, i’ll always wonder if things would have been different. But I did my best, I survived I have good morals, good friends, and a spouse that gets me and my quirks, but I will always hate having been the middle child.

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