Yale to Jail - Growing Up One of Ten Kids (somewhere in the middle)
I have nine brothers and sisters – six of whom were adopted from various corners of the world. (And as the title of this article suggests, we ran the gamut in terms of how we “turned out.”) Growing up with so many siblings shaped every aspect of my life and my values. I got less personal space, belongings and attention than many, I gained a deep understanding of group dynamics, and I had to find my own identity within a diverse whole.
My family’s large size dictated certain unusual practices. Assigned seats at the dinner table and in the 15-passenger van. Mountains of hand-me-downs with labels that read “Itsa Larsen’s.” An infamous “job chart” with allowance doled out only after morning, evening and Sunday chores were inspected. There was a line for the bathroom, breakfast, and Atari. And it took me years before I knew there were standard rules vs. “Larsen Rules” to games like Monopoly, Uno, and Backgammon.
We were quite cute as kids, with eight of us so close in age (only 5 years apart) dressed in matching clothes (including bathing suits every summer to keep track of us at the beach). Our Norwegian names unified us with my dad’s background. At our annual holiday party, we performed shows like we were the multicultural Von Trapps. Family friends would start reaching out to my parents in early fall to make sure they saved the December date.
But it wasn't easy to stand out from the pack. Everyone mistook you for one of your siblings either by name or talent (“Are you the one that sings?”).
By the time we were teens, it wasn’t so cute. Having eight teenagers under one roof was chaos. Condoms were put in Christmas stockings, curfews were missed, and each sibling taught the next sibling how to smoke dope. A family raised free from yelling or violence gave way to hormones, anger and disruption. I was scared of my brothers (some of them), and competitive with my sisters (most of them). Some of us formed alliances. Others began to distance themselves. A few lashed out. Mostly, we calibrated, adapted, and kept growing up.
Bathrooms were segregated for boys and girls (thank God!). Laundry piled up in heaps and you never quite found all your clothes. Our phone was always busy, since we didn’t have call waiting, and everyone ignored the 15-minute per call time limit. And an old neglected job chart hung in the kitchen, as everyone was too occupied by school, hobbies, sports, friends and “real” jobs. (We were all encouraged to get working papers at 14 years old.)
By the time I entered high school in 1989, we were so busy that my mom started capturing the whereabouts of my siblings in a semi-monthly newsletter. She left it on the dining room table. It was often multiple pages, double sided, with pictures. This was the 1980’s/90’s -- pre-social media days. Family friends would ask to get copies and Mom started mailing them out.
The newsletter never got “approved” by us kids and I always learned something new (and often inappropriate) about what my siblings were up to -- like the time my mom announced my sister had spent the weekend with her boyfriend and now had a UTI, or seeing a picture of my family with Bill Clinton. “When did that happen?” My parents had forgotten to invite me.
Let me take you back to the year 1990.
Here’s what everyone was up to. We’re listed in order of arrival instead of age, because it just made the most sense to tack on a name to the end of the list when someone new showed up.
Tage - 18, African-American, adopted from Connecticut
Sophomore at Michigan State on a full music scholarship. Tage was the oldest only by a year but he seemed far older. It was a huge responsibility to be the first. A role model he did not want to be. He pushed boundaries farther then he should have, but I was so far removed from his life that I don’t remember much of the drama he caused. By the time I may have started my own teenage boundary-pushing, my 7 older siblings had already done it all and had been punished in every sort of way. My parents were geniuses, as they didn’t ground us -- depending on our offense, we’d have to do something that improved their lives and was often embarrassing, like weeding the sidewalk in front of our house or scrubbing all of the pots and pans until they shined. I do remember the beautiful sound of Tage playing trumpet floating down from his room on the third floor. It was a melodious backdrop for the chaos of the house (aka sonos for the 80’s) and I remember how quiet it felt when he went to college.
Tage would later become the first African-American trumpet player in the Chicago Symphony (CSO). He has two teenage sons. (Let’s start the Larsen grandchild count = 2).
Jens - 17, Native American, adopted from Connecticut
Senior in high school. Hockey fan. Aggressive and hard to get along with or relate to. Many negative incidents stand out in my memory: him spitting on me and my sister and calling us “cunts,” and never acknowledging me in the halls of school even when people asked me, “Isn’t that your brother?”
The last time I saw Jens was in 1997, when he flew into a rage and came after me with a bat. My mother had to call the police. He lived in Alaska for a long time before moving to Minnesota. A big Boston sports fan even from a distance, he bonds with my siblings and parents over Red Sox and Patriots wins. He has two sons. (Larsen grandchildren = 4).
Peik - 17, Half Black/Half Vietnamese, adopted from Vietnam
Senior in high school. Smart, social, fun, full of life and more energy than could be contained in a classroom. Spontaneous, creative, and utterly unique. He was the soul of our family. Mischievous but loving, master of pranks but fiercely protective. As we grew up, our family reunions would be scheduled around him because life was just more fun with Peik.
Peik would complete college while working full-time when he was in his late thirties because he wanted his sons to have a father with a college degree. In 2014 he got a gig teaching 6th grade at the grammar school we all went to but the summer before he was supposed to start, Peik died suddenly of septic shock and left us all devastated. We are lucky he had married an incredible woman and had 3 sons who are as rambunctious as he was and remind us of him in the best of ways. (Larsen grandchildren = 7)
Kari - 17, Vietnamese, adopted from Vietnam
Senior in high school. Caring, kind, smart and second mother to us all. She played the role of protector and was always there to support us. Her adoption papers said she was a certain age, but our pediatrician disagreed. After an x-ray of her hand better determined her age, Kari jumped from 11 to 13 (never being 12). She was a perfect student and got along with everyone. Still friends with her grammar, high school and college friends, she is one of the kindest and most caring people.
Kari would attend my father’s alma mater, Williams College, marry her college boyfriend and, not surprisingly, become a social worker before becoming a mom to 3 great kids. (Larsen grandchildren = 10)
Anika - 15, arrived by birth
Junior in high school. The star in every Larsen Christmas Show, she performed in every theater performance in school. Strong-willed, smart and confident, she and I struggled to get along as kids. Because we looked so similar, we were constantly confused for each other, which irritated and frustrated both of us. We were so used to being called by the other’s name that one time when I went to the dentist, they called out “Anika?” in the waiting room and I shrugged my shoulders, followed the dentist back, and had sealants applied to my molars that were meant for her teeth. Stuff like this made me long desperately for people to know just who I was. Hence the name of my company. Even though we didn’t get along at home, Anika would stand up to my bullies in grammar school and look out for me in high school. By the time we were in college, she often sent me postcards, and when she turned 21 she got me a duplicate of her driver’s license. That was the first time I didn’t mind being confused for her. I still know her social security number by heart.
I would follow Anika to NYC, where she was beginning her acting career and I would start my fashion career. She would teach me the difference between the local and the express trains and we would live in the same building in Manhattan and next door to each other in Brooklyn.
Her soulful voice and acting skills would lead Anika to study theater at Yale University and be one of the few white people in the multicultural singing group Shades, which looked a lot like our family. After a 20 year career in theater, Anika was nominated for a Tony-award. But her favorite role so far is mother to her two young sons (I was a key member of her birthing team for both births) and wife to a talented trumpet player. (Larsen grandchildren - 12)
Siri - 14, Cambodian, adopted from Cambodia
Sophomore in high school. A world-class gymnast competing across the globe. As a baby in Cambodia, she was found by the side of a road with her umbilical cord still attached by two nuns. She weighed only 2.2 pounds. Her rise to becoming an elite athlete was a miracle. Her dual citizenship as Cambodian and Norwegian allowed her to compete on the Norwegian national gymnastics team. Tons of press outlets captured her story over the years, one of my favorites being Evening Magazine. It feels like a time capsule, as you can see us all as teenagers in this TV segment.
Siri would attend Michigan State University on a full athletic scholarship and later work for the US Gymnastics Federation, before landing at a PR company in NYC, where she's been for years. She is married with a son and, not surprisingly, lives around the corner from Kari in Westchester, as they were always intensely close. (Larsen grandchildren = 13)
Britta - 13, arrived by birth
Freshman in high school. Girly. Styled all my sisters for their proms and parties. The go-to advisor for all things fashion and make-up. Always able to make friends of any age, background or interest -- I got along with every clique but wasn’t really in any. I started a hiphop dance group called the ‘Fly Girls’ that I loved leading. But school was tough, as I struggled with dyslexia and went through years of bullying in grammar school. Self-esteem issues would lead me to an abusive relationship with my first boyfriend at age 15 that lasted for five years.
I would later attend Boston University and translate my love for all things fashion and beauty into a career in the fashion industry. Highly influenced by the personalities, relationships and dynamics of my family, my people skills would prove to be my unique superpower. The executives at an agency I was a founding member of saw my people operations skills and promoted me to HR. It was a role I didn’t want, having grown up with a hyper-awareness of stereotypes and biases. An enthusiastic, blonde, white woman as HR? Not me. But eventually I couldn’t deny that it is me. I love being an advocate for employees -- all of them -- regardless of role or rank.
I would meet my husband at 20 and be the first daughter to get married. My wedding was in the backyard of my childhood home. I had all the bridesmaids and groomsmen come down the aisle to the song of their choice like it was a runway show. After struggling to get pregnant for years, I have a son and daughter. (Anika was a key member of my birthing team at both of those births.) (Larsen grandchildren = 15)
Nissa - 9, arrived by birth
5th grade. Bright, funny and talented. With so many siblings and so many roles already taken by them, Nissa struggled to find her identity. She was good at so many things, but everything she was good at, someone had done before her. My parents have to be exhausted by this point, and Nissa had 4 older sisters and 4 older brothers simultaneously bossing her around and ignoring her completely. I like to think she and I were close growing up, although I think I also enjoyed bossing her around as I had no one else who would listen to me.
Nissa would attend my mom’s alma mater, Vassar College, and study Art History. She lives in the Hamptons with her girlfriend of many years.
Christian - 14, El Salvadorian, adopted from El Salvador
8th grade (I think). Not sure if he was still in school at this time. Christian was adopted in 1982 and spent more years living outside our home than in it. His biological family struggled in poverty and violence and lied about his age and health in order to have him adopted (they said he was 4 years old when he was 7 and downplayed his crippling polio). Confined to a wheelchair, not speaking a word of English, he joined the Larsen family. Within a few years, he set fires in the house, tormented his siblings, and darted out into streets in his wheelchair just to watch panicked drivers swerve. My parents would have to send him to a residential treatment center because he was so destructive.
Christian would spend years in and out of jail before being deported in 1994 back to El Salvador. My adopted siblings all had green cards, but my parents left them citizens of their native country so as to keep their identity -- in Christian’s case, this backfired. He now panhandles in the streets of San Salvador. He calls my mother every Mother’s Day, often apologizing for blowing the opportunity he was given in America. Christian has one son. (Larsen grandchildren = 16)
Trygve - 3, arrived by birth
As our high school teachers called him: The Caboose. So much younger than the rest of us, he was our favorite doll to dress up. Tryg was spoiled by everyone and had such a different upbringing than the rest of us -- he was more an only child with 11 parents than part of the pack of 10 siblings. After all the teenagers left home, the house must’ve felt empty with just Mom, Dad, Nissa and Tryg.
My parents would end up divorcing a few years later. Tryg would pretty much go through middle school and high school with a single mom, hearing stories of the Larsen legacy. He would study auto mechanics and then go to work for the Boston Marathon. He was mere feet away from the bombing at the marathon finish line in 2013. A few years ago he decided he was done with Boston winters and he moved to Hanalei, Hawaii to live in paradise with his beautiful wife. We hope they add more grandchildren to the Larsen count of 16, since the rest of us are well into our 40’s.
How did growing up in such a dynamic team environment influence my working style?
In about a million ways. I talk about my upbringing often in my HR role, as it influenced the way I approach negotiation, teamwork, motivation, and many other areas of my work. But today, I’m reflecting on one part of this story… the place in the middle.
Growing up, I wasn’t the most talented and I wasn’t the most troubled. The world class gymnast was featured on the evening news and the abusive sibling was sent away. Meanwhile, I was usually mistaken for the sister that I most looked like.
In my family, extreme behaviors, both positive and negative, were the ones that won time for attention. This is true for large families and it’s true for companies.
Though I didn’t live at either extreme, I care about people who did. But I also care about people who thrive and suffer in the in between, and struggle to be seen, heard, supported, and rewarded. Just because your talents aren’t newsworthy doesn’t mean they don’t have an impact. And likewise, just because your actions aren’t criminal doesn’t mean they don’t hurt others.
I’ve made it my mission to improve the employee journey at all stages and for all employees. And I mean ALL employees. Founders, interns, rock-stars, fuck-ups, and every single one in between.
I look forward to sharing more stories of my unique upbringing and the influence its had on my values, work style, and mission. This middle child finally knows how to be heard! “I’m sorry, which middle child?” It’s Britta!
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Some more family pics, articles and videos from my childhood below.
Holiday Party Dress Rehearsal ~ circa 1977
Tage - standing up for his sister
Jens - probably lip syncing
Peik - clearly rambunctious
Kari & Siri - clearly very close
Anika - clearly a star
Britta - trying