I had been feathering the empty nest with self-pity and sadness since our daughter Emma left for college. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover at the breakfast table a baby bird not yet launched—Ally, our younger daughter.
Such is the lot of the second child. Even in utero Ally suffered benign neglect as I consumed the occasional Diet Coke or glass of wine.
“Whatever,” I’d think.
After an exhausting labor, I couldn’t have cared less when Ally was whisked away to the nursery and given a bottle. This from the same woman who wrote a four-page letter of complaint to Kaiser when a nurse suggested a little sugar water for my firstborn! The second time around, I was too busy contemplating not so much the miracle of birth as the debacle of my body, which felt like it was filled with concrete.
“Whatever,” I rationalized as they carted away my squalling baby. “What’s the harm in a rubber nipple now and then?”
This was unthinkable when Emma was born. We were warned not to introduce a bottle within the first several weeks lest the baby get confused and reject the breast. Of course, Emma screamed the house down the first several times we eventually tried a bottle. Initially tyrannized by the cult of breastfeeding, we were next tyrannized by an infant who was furious rather than confused about the difference between rubber and flesh.
As for the whatever child, doomed by a mother who preferred sleeping over bonding–she sucked happily at both breast and bottle from the get-go. And she did it wherever, whenever, since she was used to being hauled around to suit everyone else’s schedule.
Benign neglect had further salutary effects. Whenever Emma pitched a fit, I oozed empathy, thus encouraging marathon tantrums. With Ally, I just stepped around her sob-wracked, prostrate body. Whatever. I went on with my business, and pretty soon she went back to hers.
I wonder who suffers more: the subsequent children who are so often ignored, or the firstborn who lives so cozily in an enchanted web of enmeshment? Ally may not be coddled, but she avoids the sticky entanglements of my too-rapt focus. She’s an independent go-getter. Still, she complains that she can’t get enough of my attention.
I took note. While mooning after Emma, who needed to fly free, I had overlooked the one who still relished my company.
So this weekend Ally and I spent a whole day together, just the two of us. I cheered her on at her track meet, then we gabbed over lunch at the Beach Chalet. We chased down ducks with a pedal boat at Stow Lake, then prowled her favorite vintage clothing haunts.
I know it won’t be long before she’s rolling her eyes and saying “whatever” under her breath, ignoring me as I once ignored her. But until then, I’m going to savor every moment.
How’s it been for you as a parent of more than one child on this score? How about as a sibling–either firstborn or subsequent?