I’ve commented before that being a parent around non-parents is to weave a tapestry of lies about how glorious and rewarding it all is. And yes, there are some glorious, rewarding moments, absolutely. Hearing Joshua reading on his own is one of those. Seeing Jack finally figure out how to hold his own cup without us holding it like he’s a damn gerbil is another. But these moments are punctuation. They’re fleeting, however sumptuous. In between them are run-on sentences in which we, the parental protagonists, fight furiously against them, the bulwarks of the status quo, amid a maelstrom of kiddy stubbornness, resistance to change or challenge, unarticulated fears of having to Do for themselves, of not being ready, of failing.* You whip out one of those tales around a non-parent, and she’ll gladly amass more cats and call it a day.
The very first time I held Joshua was the antithesis of life flashing before your eyes in the moment before death. It happened in reverse for me. I saw a lifetime of happy memories I’d not yet remembered unspooling until I was old and mixing my drool with my iced tea and forgetting what pants are for.** There was mystery in the air, excitement mingling with fear and anxiety and promise in life’s ultimate emotional mixer. And so, when I got to hold Jack for the first time, I was ready for it all to run by me again. But it didn’t. There was no euphoric, time-traveling exhibition of all the wonders-to-be. There was simply nothing at all.
If the biggest thing parents don’t tell non-parents about is how truly terrible it is having a baby in the house, the second-biggest thing is that subsequent children affect you less. I’m not saying you love them less; hardly. I’m saying that all those moments of discovery that accompany your first-born’s every milestone are spoiled for all the other kids you have. I did not know my heart could feel the rush of joy and pride that it felt when Joshua said his first word. I had no idea how completely invested in the life of another person I’d allowed myself to become so that his accomplishments lit my nights like stars. Nor did I know what helplessness was until he received his first shots in my presence. I could not scoop him up fast enough, hold him tight enough, comfort him in any way. Seeing great big gobs of tears dash down his face broke my heart in a way that I thought could never be mended. All of that happened, and continues to happen as Joshua plows slowly but unceasingly through all of life’s developments. And Jack… poor Jack gets sloppy seconds.
I love my little boy, but I know he gets photographed less.*** This has a little to do with Joshua doing his level best to demand and absorb as much of my attention as there is to give. But it also has to do with a certain been-there-done-that attitude which is inescapable, however minimal. Again, this is not something parents really broadcast, because it’s all supposed to be magic from Kid #1 to Kid #8,**** but it’s there. And there’s guilt attached to it, too, because you know it’s supposed to be special. You remember it being special. And it is special. But not quite as much, and that makes you feel like a Terrible Parent, as if the failure of your hysterical mania about your first kid’s first step to transfer to your second kid’s first step means you don’t love both kids the same. It’s nonsense, but when your attention and emotions are being divided, these are the irrational worries that begin to populate your psyche. You also remember how crappy you were at division in elementary school (my wife not withstanding) and fear that this is now permanently screwing up both your kids and your arithmetic.
As I mentioned, Jack finally began holding his own cup just a couple of months ago. According to the books and websites, he was supposed to master this oft-overlooked life skill about a year before he actually did, but these things are marathons and not sprints, so finish lines are all you’re really worried about, or at least that’s what you tell yourself when your kid goes hands-free with his cup at the dinner table at sixteen months. When he finally got it, and actually meant it, we heaped praise on him as you’re supposed to, but it felt hollow. When Joshua accomplished things like that, I felt pride. When Jack did it, I just felt relieved that my right arm was going to be free for dining again.***** Obviously, I’m not telling my kids that. Rather I share it with strangers on the Internet, them being known for their compassion and open-minded reception to others’ thoughts and beliefs.
Of course, when kids are little, they’re a bit more formulaic, so much so that the aforementioned books and websites have rubrics and outlines and schedules for when certain abilities develop. It’s all shot to hell by the time they start growing a personality and interests of their own. Joshua’s five years old and his favorite thing on the planet is letters. So far, he knows the alphabets from three different languages, and he’s consuming them as quickly as we can learn/remember them to teach him. I do not and cannot expect Jack to follow his brother’s lead on this because, frankly, it’s an insane thing.
What excites me for Jack is that through this I can see the end of his second-class citizenry. He will, some day, be interested in something. He will stop being Kid #2 and start being Jack, whoever that ends up being. He and his brother will continue to compete for our attention and time, which would be perfectly normal, if not maddening. But they’ll be little pre-people with little pre-personalities, and I’ll get to stop feeling guilty because it will all be new again.
There. I knew if I wrote about it long enough I’d find a way to make parenting all about me.
*I know some things about run-on sentences.
**Caring for the elderly is basically like caring for young children, but with more Canasta.
***Part of this is because he, like me, is a ginger. Despite all the advancements in digital photography, there is still a certain animus between cameras and our kind.
****Kids 9 and up are always assumed to be unmagical. It is known.
*****I am bad-ass at eating soup left-handed now.