Published on October 26th, 2016 | by Ashley Lefrak Grider4
Ashley Lefrak Grider ON SECONDS
There are appropriate things to say to strangers in the check out line, and then there are the things people actually do say. I was in good-enough spirits when the lady behind the register commented, “Wow, your kids look reeeeally close in age,” followed by, “how close are they?” Because no one in my grocery cart was crushing crackers or defecating in his underwear, I was able to ignore her tone, laden with sibling-spacing recrimination, and just answer. “Two years,” I said, though the truth falls closer to 22.5 months.
“Believe me,” I added, “we didn’t realize how crazy it’d be until it was too late.” Immediately I recognized I’d made what could pretty fairly be misconstrued as an abortion joke, if there is such a thing. Her face dropped. Conversation ended.
What I meant had nothing to do with a sanctity of life state mandate and everything to do with the nuttiness of existence with two small children, ages just one and barely three. The reason it was “too late” was my husband and I only realized how demanding it would be to have two tiny people so close in age once we were already on the ship, the one that has sailed.
Along for the admittedly bumpy ride with us now are our sons. And the reason we are fine with this situation is because even if life has turned into a bleary-eyed cycle of diapers and disrupted sleep, a juggling act between work and fitful demands, a frantic refrain of “just trying” (i.e. “I’m just trying to eat!” / “I’m just trying to shower!” / “I’m just trying to scrape poo from the floor!”) we wouldn’t have it any other way. We adore the small people who made it so.
That said, a good friend and a mother of two once told me she was tapped out at one and a half. This, I get. One and a half would be a perfect number of children to have. You’d have the simplicity of one with the added fun and energy of another, about half the time.
A considerable surprise of two children versus one, especially when they are both so young, is how elusive it becomes to keep what my husband calls “a lid on it.” This is his shorthand way of saying flat surfaces decently clear of plastic crap, unwashed laundry not piled high as Everest, food not desiccated on the table, stairs uninhabited by week-old mail, and spills not harboring their own microcultures. When it was two parents and one child, it was possible, after the early adjustment period, to kind of keep a lid on it. With two, the lid resides firmly on the ground. Or, some place. We can’t actually find it right now.
But the truth is, I like having two kids. I really like it. And one of the reasons why is because it has made me less of a jerk. With one child I was able to maintain the delusion that there was a direct link between what I did and said and what my child did and said. This screwball logic applied, naturally enough, to other parents as well. With two, I have been handed the humbling evidence that my children are their own people with strong inborn tendencies that I can attempt to nurture or curb, but that’s all I’m doing, not making my child this way or that.
So how, exactly, has my jerk quotient diminished? These days, when a child at the park charges my one-year-old’s face with a stick, I still think a certain other-kid’s parent may want to consider removing said super-sharp stick. Thankfully I can also recognize that this parent has on his hands, every single day, a feistiness of spirit he’s probably just as baffled by as I am. Instead of judging, I’m now more grateful that I don’t share in the upkeep and upbringing of this charged particle than upset about my child’s brief brush against him.
And while I enjoy being less of ass and all, the real reason I love having two kids has to do with something a mother of two told me in that unedited way people feel free to advise the pregnant or baby-clad. “What’s great about having a second child,” she chirped, “is it helps you know the first one so much better!”
I confess: her comment first struck me as having the same up-side-down logic of a couple announcing they are having another child because, “We wanted to give little Sophie a sibling!” In other words, I wondered about the older child’s seniority. Who exactly is calling the shots here? And how in the world do little Sophie’s desires in any way inform the when and why of a marital boink? To have a second child in order to “know your first” sounded similarly off kilter, maybe even a bit shady, like illegal organ trafficking, except not quite that bad.
But then, we did it. We had a second. And sure enough, what she said was true, but thankfully it came with the added corollary which is, of course, it helps you know both children better. Not just the one.
With two children I was finally able to see with more clarity what is sometimes called genetic inheritance, other times just plain temperament. It was as if a scrim had been pulled from my eyes, which was a gift, because it helped bring into relief the limits of my agency. I became far less worried about making all the “right” parent moves, far more humble too.
Exhibit A: Our first child. He is generally a cheerful fellow but can go from zero to sixty in 1.5 seconds. And by “sixty” I mean utter, uninhibited rage, expressed most often by lying prostrate on the ground, yell-crying in rhythmic spurts, the only limiting factors being 1) his lung capacity, and 2) the ability to stay focused on whatever the source of irritation. This behavior is usually short lived, thankfully, but for a person who generally expresses anger by silently leaving the room, this has been a disturbing phenomenon to witness.
Before our second was born, I agonized over these bouts of wild behavior. My husband and I tried what we considered “methods” to curb it: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, ignoring, the works. He has remained, incontestably, a live wire. The displays are thankfully tempered now by whatever neurochemical wash has settled on his no-longer-two-year-old brain. Still, he’s intense, or “passionate” as a better mother might suggest.
Now that we have a second, who arrived, day one, with an uncanny sort of self-possession, I can see how our first child’s propensities are not necessarily the result of something my husband or I have done, or not done. Some little kink in the northwest corner of his DNA and – voila! – all things loud or engine-operated are endlessly fascinating. Leaf blowers and motor boats (despite my ecological diatribes against both) are immoveable items on his “top ten favorite things of all life” list. He likes painting with large brushes on big paper, heavy-duty farm equipment, handsaws. He likes sun on his body but NOT in his eyes. He likes word play, and rhyming, making up jokes and songs, but NOT hearing stories with scary parts. He likes hitting baseballs, not so much throwing or catching them. He prefers fruit to veggies, fish to meat, chocolate milk to anything. He loves to eat octopus, talk about octopus, pretend he’s an octopus. This is who he is. Our first.
Our second whispers half of what he says, could care less about tractors or leaf blowers, and pretty much prefers to be as far away as possible from anything with a motor in the “on” position. When he’s upset, he has never once flung his body or an object. He just weeps, soul-wrenching, harrowing cries that do not come and go, like our first’s outbursts, but last (i.e., drag on and on and oh boy, on.) He moves to music with natural abandon. His inclinations are still emerging, but what’s clear is if he’s wildly anything it’s attentive. He listens, carefully, to everyone and everything. And unlike our other son, do not give this boy anything that originated in the sea and expect him to swallow it. He will spit it onto the table. He is who he is. Our second.
The difference between my children does not endear one to me more than the other. It forces me to see what is unique to each of them. It leaves me a little less powerful and a lot more awe-struck by the mystery of what makes a person. I am wary to construct lists of contrasting characteristics since I recognize most preferences and inclinations exist on a spectrum, and that they will each, in their own way, evolve over time. Still, I’m grateful to have gotten the message, and happy to have had, however quickly after the first, the bundle that delivered that wisdom: a second.