Hi, my name is Jeff Mandell and I am a second child. My baby book is a virtual sliver compared to my older brother’s bountiful collection of memories. My annual school portraits are a showcase for late 1970’s and early 1980’s hand-me-downs. And now I am the proud parent of my very own second child. As an only child herself, my wife has no idea what’s in store. The rivalry, the jealousy, the allegations of parental favoritism.
So I’ve made it a mission to not fall into the trap of second child syndrome – where less photos are taken and where new clothes are bypassed for ill-fitting hand-me-downs. I’ve made it a mission to have our older child treat his sister well. Unlike some other kids (and adults) I know, he doesn’t get a free pass because of the “disruption” in his life. Rarely, if ever, is his life actually disrupted – so there should never be any lingering resentment. And so far, it’s working.
On the other hand, we’re incredibly less rigid with our second child. Maybe it’s because our attention is split or maybe it’s because we we’re less OCD about the mundane. We’re not wiping down every surface 6 times and we’re not googling every ingredient. We also know that we can’t catch every fall and that every cry doesn’t necessitate a trip to the ER (in theory only – we have a special second child who loves the ER).
When I started thinking of this piece, I automatically decided that the second child gets the shaft. But after thinking about it in a more practical way, my opinion is drifting. My baby book might not be as meaty as my brother’s, but I’m certainly more independent. If I was the first child, maybe I wouldn’t have gone away to college (and met an independent only child from Minnesota). If I was the first child, maybe I’d be more rigid and less open to new people, places, and things. Maybe I’d be more afraid to fall, so I wouldn’t take any risks.
Studies have shown that first-born children tend to be more conservative (my brother is a card-carrying member of the Jewish Republicans and I have a Vote No to the marriage amendment bumper sticker) than their younger siblings. They also tend to be far more conformist (my brother is a suit-wearing lawyer and I try not to wear socks as often as possible).
Research aside, I just hope for two independent risk-takers who think for themselves and love each other. So I better go fill up my second child’s baby book before she starts accusing us of playing favorites.
Full disclosure: I am the baby of the family. I’m seven years younger than my brother Gil, and when my mom married my stepfather, we gained two more siblings in between us. So I am the youngest of four children. Which makes what I’m about to do an unexpected, even traitorous move – I need to stick up for oldest kids.
Conventional wisdom tells us that second children get short shrift, and as a parent of two, I’ve found that to be mostly true. By the time Henry was Miriam’s age, we were already on his second Early Childhood and Family Education class. He had shelves of books that we read to him each night before bed. I took pictures daily and kept a blog of our adventures. We used Baby Sign Language in earnest. By the time he was six months old and ready to start solid food, I’d pureed and frozen individual servings of six different fruits and vegetables. So far, the only class Miriam has been to was when I schlepped her along to Sunday school with Henry, and her first solid food was a spoonful of his applesauce that he offered her when I wasn’t paying attention. When I was pregnant with Henry, I stripped the wallpaper in our guest room, painted the walls pale yellow, and made curtains with a high-contrast black and white print that I’d read would stimulate brain development. When I was pregnant with Miriam, I…added a crib to Henry’s room and dragged his old sheets out of the garage (I did at least wash them).
Baby Henry’s parents were almost 5 years younger than Miriam’s. We had more energy. We had more money. We didn’t have any other kids. He had it made. If Miriam could see the life Henry had when he was a baby, she would be filing grievances left and right. But here’s the thing: while Baby Miriam gets way less attention than Baby Henry did, Henry today gets less attention than he did before his sister was born, and only one of these kids can actually feel the difference. Second kids might get less of everything, but so does the older kid once the new baby comes along, and the baby doesn’t know what she’s missing.
I’ve stood in the kitchen in front of my 5 year-old, his face streaked with tears as he complains that That Baby gets all the attention now. The fact that That Baby is, during all of this, in a different room, all alone watching CNN in her Bumbo seat is immaterial. Henry correctly perceives that while our love is infinite, our attention and time just aren’t, and something’s changed. We can’t drop everything for him like we used to, we’re on a tighter budget than we were before, and we’re postponing our next family vacation indefinitely. There is less to go around, and he knows it.
Not that I’m too worried about it. He adores her, and honestly, part of the reason we even had a second kid was to save Henry from being smothered by the intensity of our constant attention. If Henry had remained an only child, he might’ve been to Disney World by now, but he’d also be bearing the weight of our parenting by himself. He’d be our only outlet for all our fears and anxiety. I’d have a ton of energy to spend worrying about whether he’d eaten enough bites of his dinner. I’d never be too tired to make him try on pants at the mall. And he’d be our only hope for a doctor in the family (not that he should expect us to pay for medical school since, you know, we have two kids now). Above all, he’d have no one to take his side when I’m being unreasonable about any of the aforementioned things.
It’s hard to be the youngest. It’s hard to be the oldest, too, but by the time he’s a teenager, Henry will probably relish any opportunity to sneak under our radar; he’ll treasure the distraction his baby sister provides. And Miriam will find out that having parents who are more tired and less earnest means you can get away with a bit more. And they’ll have each other to complain to whenever we do something that bothers them, because at least there will always be enough of that to go around.