Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The woes of a firstborn

Little Miss said something one day last Fall that broke my heart. Not for me, but for her. She had admitted to me that she’s tired of being a “big girl”, that she’d rather be a baby, and when asked why, she said, “Because then I will get the attention like Pickle does. I feel like you guys pay more attention to her than to me.”


I feebly countered with, “But that’s because she’s so little and needs our help with so many things still, unlike you, who can manage and understand so much on your own. When you were little, we did the same for you.”

But I’m not sure I convinced her. I’m not even sure I convinced myself. The thing is, I couldn’t quite confront the truth either. Was she right? Have we been neglectful with her? It does feel a little lopsided at times.

It didn’t help that Little Miss’ Terrible Three stage started around the time Pickle’s Adorable One began, which means while we’re tearing our hair out with one, we were smitten by the other. But Pickle isn’t an angel either, as her Terrible Two-ness emerged far sooner than her sister’s ever did, but when it comes to mischief, Pickle does get away with more.

We feel that, at two, she doesn’t quite understand the consequences of her actions yet so we use those as teaching moments, choosing to be gentler in our approach, more calmly explaining to her and holding her instead of resorting immediately to discipline. With Little Miss, while we understand that she often acts out to call our attention to her, we also feel she should know better at five, which is why we’re stricter and more no-nonsense with her. And because her Terrible Three morphed into Frightening Four, the negative attention seemed to overshadow the positive.

I do feel the imbalance, and I am often wracked by guilt because of it. As an only child, I grew up watching and hearing stories of friends and their siblings being treated differently, even unfairly, and I felt an injustice for them. How could a parent do that? And, of course, I vowed I would never be that parent.

I would always be fair. I would never favor any one child. I would always make all my children feel equally important, equally loved. But funny how we usually seem to know exactly how to parent before we actually start parenting isn’t it? As it turns out, it’s much easier to spout our ideals than to actually live by them.

Days after Little Miss’ crying helplessly into my arms (and me in My Guy’s after the incident), I shared my pain with one of my dear friends at dinner one evening, and she simply shrugged and said, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”

First of four herself, she explained that sometimes birth order does dictate certain expectations and affect equal treatment, regardless of a parent’s best intentions. My own mom was first of seven, and her life was radically different from her youngest siblings.

She had to be the responsible one who took care of all her siblings and the house while her parents worked. However, her youngest sister, the sixth in line, went to expensive dance classes and didn’t have to lift a finger around the house. But that was also because, six children and many years later, my grandparents were also better off financially. What they couldn’t afford with the first few, they easily managed with the last. As a parent, why wouldn’t we want to give the best to our children with what we have, and if we had more, it does seem natural to want to do more, give more. But as a firstborn who missed out on the dance classes? I can see how that can be frustrating.

On the flip side, Pickle is stuck with hand-me-downs and if-I-have-time parenting. If I have time, I will help her count to 20 (whereas Little Miss mastered it before she even turned two); if I have time, I will handwrite her a letter just for her as a keepsake, something I did for Little Miss at each birthday; if I have time, I will schedule a class just for her, unlike Little Miss, who had her first group class when she was just weeks old, when she accompanied me to Mommy and Baby yoga. At eight months, she had her first swim class while  Pickle finally started her first music and movement class (Wiggleworms) last year, at 2.5 years.

Pickle doesn’t have her own My First Year pictures proudly framed and displayed. She doesn’t have a memory box in her name. Heck, the one toy that is programmed to say the child’s name still says Little Miss’ name even though it is Pickle who is now playing with it. We are not proud of our slack, but I can certainly, emphatically say that it is in no way a reflection on our affections for her.

My friend’s honest perspective helped me step back and see that the disparities are not just stacked against my firstborn. The imbalance is not happening because we love one child more than the other, as I had secretly feared myself. Our affections are not based on how cute they are or how well they behave. 

readingIt’s always a treat to see Big Sister reading to Little Sister

My girls, no matter how close in age, are still going through radically different phases in their lives that invite different reactions from us. From their point of view, there’s perhaps some inequality, but a two-year-old who speaks loudly in movie theaters because she can’t regulate her volume and a five-year-old who does it despite knowing it’s rude and chooses to ignore the social norms are not the same thing. So we respond accordingly.

While rationalizing thus has eased my guilt somewhat, I continue to scrutinize (second guess?) myself everyday. Was that the right response? Did I make her feel less than her sister? Was that an appropriate reaction to Pickle’s outburst? Did we do the same thing with Little Miss when she was two?

And as I go about my every day trying to do right by them, trying to make up for the guilt that I feel for Little Miss, thinking that perhaps we have overburdened her with her firstborn status, the balance is beginning to shift a little. Turning five has changed Little Miss. While still challenging, it is a little less confounding. She is taking less and giving more so we’re less likely to feel completely depleted before the end of the day. She is also growing into her big sister role nicely, which is amazing to behold, and she is less prone to tantrums (hallelujah!). Being with her during her individual time with me – and we’re firm believers of having one-on-one time with each child – is truly a pleasure.

Now that Little Miss is becoming easier, Pickle, on the other hand, is sliding into her Terrible Two (and quite possibly Three) phase with gusto. The tides are beginning to change, and I have a feeling Pickle will be the one with the complaints about how we treat her compared to her sister, a few months down the road.

I will perhaps be consumed by guilt all over again, but I am at least accepting of the fact that such is life. No matter how hard we try and how well we think we’re doing, it will always seem like it’s not going to be enough for someone. Things will not always be perfectly aligned, and the symmetry and balance we seek may be more myth than reality. Yet, we keep trying.

As with most people,  I have my good and bad days. When I’m especially hard on myself for failing to stick to my ideals, I remind myself that there is always the next day, so I wake up every morning, fresh with hope, that today will be better. That I can do better.

And sometimes, I do.