It’s a somewhat morose perspective, uttered with tongue planted firmly in cheek. He knows his parents love him just as much as their firstborn… right?
But all facetiousness aside, the comment made me analyze my relationship with both of my daughters more closely. And as much as I’d like to believe that I’ve given both of my children equal attention since their births, I’m nevertheless haunted by a shadow of guilt cast by the worry that my youngest child faces a lifetime of feeling shortchanged on account of the fatefulness of birth order.
It’s not a conscious thing, this inclination to pay closer attention to the oldest child. It just sort of happens that way; That firstborn comes into the world enveloped in a shining cloak of novelty, eliciting awe and adoration from her parents at the slightest inclination. We literally took five hundred pictures of Elodie during her first five months, and probably a thousand more during her next two years. Snapshots documenting every momentous, earth-shattering occasion: The first time she drank from a bottle. Her first St. Patrick’s Day. First ride on the Gondola. First bite of carrots. Really historic stuff.
The second kid, meanwhile, could literally be taking her first steps while communicating through sign language and showing off a new tooth before Craig and I look up from whatever we’re doing and wonder, where is that camera of ours?
Elodie, at just over 1 year old, could say a few basic words – mama, dada, hi, the expected stuff. She would occasionally use sign language to tell us what she wanted; squeezing her little fist meant “milk,” putting her fingers to her lips meant “food.” Of course, she didn’t need to convey much, since we hovered over her like fretful mother birds, flapping off to answer her every request before she even had time to request it.
And because she said a few words and signed a few signs, we assumed she sat at the pinnacle of the baby intellect scale.
Her sister, meanwhile, at 13 months, has a vocabulary of well over two dozen words, and uses both sign language and the spoken word to tell us what she wants: to wear a hat, go to bed, be picked up… as it turns out, a second child learns quickly that to be heard above the din of an older sibling, she needs to make herself heard by whatever means she can muster.
The other day I asked Emmeline if she needed a new diaper, and she patted her hip and said “poo poo” – not a word I’ve ever coached this child to say.
Did I throw my hands up in the air, extolling the astuteness of this miniature genius? Did I dial my husband, narrating breathlessly what our child just communicated to me? Did I get on Skype to show her grandmother what she had accomplished?
No. I picked her up and changed her diaper, then got on with my day.
I’m not sure there’s any getting around that obnoxious sense of wonderment a firstborn elicits. A second child, just by coming after the first, may not extract the same level of starstruck consideration from her parents, because those parents slowly come to the realization that all babies are special, but not supernatural. Despite the more composed nature with which we regard our secondborn, we don’t consider her an extra, and she’s definitely not a watered-down supplement to our first.
You make all the mistakes with the first – including catering to their every whim, answering their every demand, and glorifying their every accomplishment. I can’t control whether or not Emmeline will feel shortchanged when she realizes there are five pictures of her older sister to every one picture of her, or that every item of clothing she wore or toy she played with as a baby first belonged to someone else. Emmeline is a second child, and so it is her fate to be second to her sister. But by being second, she is also the pint-sized product of improved parenting.