Postcard from Vermont: Birth order

When we started thinking about having a second child, we thought long and hard about the spacing between them. Three years sounded good to us because by then, we reasoned, Zoe would be old enough to be helpful, she'd be potty trained, she'd be, you know, a BIG GIRL. With my fairly miserable pregnancy, I subconsciously assumed that Zoe would be the easy kid in the first few months and Eliza would be the challenging one. I imagined that Zoe would be so old and grown up and compliant while Eliza would be screaming and crying and sleepless.

Just goes to show you, I am still totally clueless.

There is a strong feedback loop happening here. Zoe is struggling with normal three year old control issues and we all are struggling to grasp the magnitude of this completely abnormal cross country move. I often find myself approaching Zoe with trepidation and preemptive annoyance, braced for the inevitable meltdown, mentally armored for protection. I'm sure she feels my distance and shorter fuse and it makes her more on edge.

At the same time, I invariably approach Eliza with relish. I smile just thinking about her. Is she a happy baby because I am happy to see her? Or is it the other way around? Which came first? (All I know is that I am the chicken and she is the egg.)

I know it's not fair to Zoe but I'm a different mother to her than I am to Eliza right now. Mothering Zoe at this time in her life feels like it's all about restraining and reigning her in and defining every boundary of every thing we do every minute of every day. She is three. This is developmentally appropriate. And yet it feels unfair that when she whines and cries I sometimes ignore her or get frustrated but then go running to Eliza the moment she starts crying, eager to fix whatever I can, immediately.

It feels sometimes like I'm cheating on Zoe with a younger woman. I know it's not fair to compare my girls (and I'm not really, it's more like I'm comparing how I am with them). Just as it's always struck me as deeply unfair (not to mention immoral and just a wee bit creepy) for a (hypothetical) 50 year old man to cheat on his 50 year old wife with a 25 year old. His 50 year old wife, with whom that thrilling initial spark has necessarily faded, cannot compete with a 25 year old who by definition does not have the wife's less-than-taut skin and saggy boobs and years of arguing over who does the dishes and how. Just like Zoe cannot compete with Eliza in terms of simplicity and ease and drool-y happiness.

Eliza gets what she wants when she wants it, most of the time. Eliza is not testing me or hurting my feelings. My mothering of her is simple now, and I love almost all of it. She needs nursing, burps, diaper changing, cradling, smiles, sleep. The feedback loop is clear and simple and so - relatively - easy. We spend most of our time interacting by grinning with goofy smiles. I have the sense that I am a good mother, that she is a good baby, that we work together in a way that is simple and pure and lovely.

I keep reminding myself that Zoe was this little smiley baby once, a baby who made my heart leap whenever she grinned. In fact, she is the one who taught me to love this so much. She is the one who introduced me to the unbelievably addictive joy of a baby's smiling gaze.

I keep reminding myself that Eliza will one day be a big girl who needs to test me. To run away when I call for her. To openly defy me. To throw fits in public that make me wish for the earth to swallow me whole.

I am so sorry for Zoe that she has to go first. To be the one that I learn it all through. I cannot compare the thrill of my new little mistress to the long time relationship with my first love. But everything is first with Zoe. With Eliza, I am not, can not be, the crazed first time Mom who is nearly immobilized by fears ("This knife will jump out of my hand and poke out her eyeball!" "That car will veer off the road and flatten us like pancakes!" etc. etc. PARANOID etc.). I am free to enjoy every smile and coo from Eliza because Zoe came first, forging the path, showing me the way, beating back some of the demons.

I allow Eliza to remind of me of my early days with Zoe, gazing at her perfect face, grinning and goo-goo-gooing my days away. Sometimes I mourn the loss of Zoe's babyhood, because I cannot find the same simple pleasures of grinning endlessly with Zoe anymore and I cannot fix her problems just by sticking my boob in her mouth. Her complexity, our relationship's complexity, confound me most of the time.

So I'm working on revelling in Zoe's complexity. I shake my head in amazement at her running commentary of everything she sees, her need to share every thought that runs through her head, how she uses her whole face and both hands to express what she's feeling.

I giggle at how she correctly uses the words "familiar" and "tempting" and "similar" for weeks and then, one day, asks me what they mean. I marvel at how she runs and talks and plays in new ways every day. She brings me to new territory, riotously fun and horribly challenging and everything in between, every minute of every day.

I struggle with her first.

I am sorry she has to go first.

I am grateful she goes first.


Marie Green said...

Very beautifully well put!

You know what I struggle with? There just seems to be this... tension between my first(s) and myself that does not exist with the "baby". I mean, with the twins, we are always walking the line of them wanting to stretch and grow and me always resisting at first and then relenting. There's just this constant give and take with them that doesn't exist with the yougest. I WANT to be close to them all their lives, to be someone they can turn to, so I do not like this ever-present under-current.

Still working to try to figure that one out. I'm clueless too!

Erin said...

Beautifully said, as always. You put these complexities into words so well.

I'm also realizing that my first is also just an entirely different creature than my second. My second, with few exceptions, is so much easier than my first ever was. It's partly ME, figuring out how to be a Mom to this ever changes child. It's partly HIM, being more complicated & willful by nature than his brother is.

clueless but hopeful mama said...

Marie Green: I obviously feel that tension with my first too. I was wondering if this will always be true. I wonder if it's who she is or how our personalities mix or just how it is with first borns??

Erin: Having two kids totally makes me realize that even if I feel like I'm pouring the same ME into both of them, they are fundamentally so different that it doesn't really matter. Nurture? HA. It's feeling a whole lot like NATURE right about now.

Kathi McCracken Dente said...

I wish we could put our challenging wonderful 3 year olds in a room and have a cup of tea. We are going through so much of the same stuff. Things with Mira are so very complex these days and things with Tessa are simple. I am more of a natural at the baby phase than dealing with a three year old. At the same time I look forward to when Tessa is three and I know her as well as I know Mira. I am with you, it is all about nature. Tessa reminds us everyday she is not just like Mira.

Stef said...

Having a second child has made me way more interested in birth order in my psychotherapy practice. I think it makes a huge difference in terms of the family environment what number child each patient was. It's fascinating, for all the reasons you say!

Our kids are 3 years apart, too, and my angelic 2-yr-old became a nightmare at 3 (which coincided with the birth of his baby brother). Putting all the time, energy, and thought into it that you are now, though, makes ALL the difference in how things play out as they grow. My boys are seriously best friends, at ages 5 and 2. Hang in there! (oh, and I also cheated on #1 with #2...)

Anonymous said...

Someone told me that "everyone should be a second child."

Amie said...

Beautifully written and photographed!

Whimsy said...

Another lovely post that I need to put in my pocket for that time when we are navigating the world of birth order.

Is it comforting to know that most first kids faced this? And second kids faced this when there was a third? And so on?

I'll never forget when they first brought my little brother home and I asked when they'd be taking him BACK.

Existential Waitress said...

Beautiful, well-written post. And something I think about almost daily in relation to my four year-old and six year-old.

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