From what I’ve seen, humans tend to hold assumptions in their head based on someone’s rank in birth order. We generalize oldest children as go-getters, cautious and responsible. Middle children are typically perceived as forgotten, and in turn develop rebellious traits, yet are somehow the peacekeepers and mediators of the family. Youngest children — such as myself — are thought to be free-wheeling, manipulative and attention-seeking. While this does seem like a vague description of any family, this, to me at least, is not the most salient truth about growing up with siblings.
The thing about being the youngest is that I’ve always had someone to do things with. As they say, “Three is a crowd.” When my brother stuck gum to his hair and my mom had to cut off an entire chunk of it, my sister and I were there to make sure he never lived it down. When our parents partitioned our computer time growing up, my brother and I learned how to squeeze our growing bodies into the same computer chair — where Club Penguin and dress-your-own avatar games became communal experiences.
We merged together, shapeshifting so we wouldn’t have to do things alone, and this only strengthened when my family moved to Singapore. Suddenly, all we really had was each other, and together, in this coalesced form, we learned how to navigate entirely different terrain.
It didn’t matter if my family was constantly talking — we still made a habit of sitting next to each other. It didn’t matter how incongruent our activities were. My mother would watch HGTV while I did homework, or my siblings and I would scroll on our phones and occasionally break the silence to brandish a knee-slapping meme. My mother, ever the developmental pediatrician, called this “parallel play,” where we upheld our own independence but shared the same space. We were always physically present with each other.
As an introvert, I was used to being on my own. But when my two older siblings left for college years ago, I was left in a faux only-child simulation. Reckoning with my siblings’ empty rooms, with no one else to sit on the couch with, no one else in the backseat — it felt like a phantom limb.
As an international student, coming home was all I yearned for after the fall semester. And yet, coming home felt like a familiar stranger, a sense of déjà vu. Things that used to be an everyday occurrence — my dad driving, my mom in the passenger seat and my sister, brother and I in the back — were suddenly so foreign. My brother’s knees suddenly towered over mine, the once spacious haven of the back seat now felt like, well, a back seat. It jolted me, that despite being the same pieces, we fit together a little differently.
I tried hard not to think about how my family had burst out of the mold of everything that once was. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, the feeling stuck around for the entirety of the break, uninterpretable — or maybe it was just something I didn’t want to understand.
Moving to college was bound to be hard, but I didn’t expect to feel so homesick while still at home. I spent the days leading up to my birthday grasping for memories I could hoard, little trinkets I could tuck away. Gentle reminders to myself that there would always be a space that I wouldn’t have to contort or shapeshift to fit into; that there would always be a space where my little puzzle piece could just settle — and that would be it.
Perhaps everyone being home made me realize how lonely growing up can be — how the quest for independence feels a little less daunting when home base is right there. The hardest part is realizing that I could’ve stayed home. But that geographic familiarity, that physical sense of belonging, would’ve never given me the opportunities that coming to Berkeley provided.
It was a dull sort of pain, the kind that festers in the background, but stands in the way of full concentration. It is haunting, a quiet grief I don’t think I’ll ever reconcile. Every day at some point, I look at the clock and I split into three different time zones. +3 and suddenly I imagine what my siblings are doing, walking the bustling streets of New York or wrapped up in blankets in Toronto. +15 and my parents are tucked into bed, living in my near future. I awake in the morning and realize this is a day my parents have already lived through.
It’s weird that some days, I watch the clock just waiting for 4 p.m. — for my dad to be sitting halfway across the world, sipping coffee and turning his social media status button green.
Maybe that’s the thing about growing up. You’re never quite ready, but you do it anyway. And no matter how old you get, how many doctor’s appointments you book or how many tires you replace on your own, you never really stop yearning for home. Maybe no matter how much you fill your brain, and no matter which edge of the world you reach, nothing will ever really beat settling back into home base — whatever that means for you.