We all saw it coming. She stood there, tight little balls for hands, smoky blue eyes filling and brimming over, face slowly and steadily blanching except for the spots on her eyelids that had been scarlet stork bites in her newborn days and now looked, in moments of terrible duress, like she had watched too many Tammy Faye YouTube videos but could only find my blush to practice with. Her mouth stretched open as wide as it could go.
“MINE!” she screamed, the consonants an afterthought to that piercing, crescendoing vowel. The operatic quality to her shrieking only enhanced the sense that we were unwittingly starring in “Tosca for Tots.” “MINE!” She ran straight towards her older sister, desperately grabbing at her blue tulle skirt, while my little ballerina danced around me to avoid the attack. I tried to shield what could have been a month's worth of gas from furiously determined claw-fingers. “MINE!”
I scooped my youngest up in my arms and held her tight against my chest. Nothing I could say would make her feel better, but what I was about to tell her was definitely going to make it a whole lot worse. “I have to take your sister now,” I yelled over the sobs, except I couldn't get more than one word out at a time, so I sounded like the newbie high school sports announcer who hasn't gotten used to his mic reverb. “Daddy'll be here with you to make you dinner and put you to bed.” I braced myself for the impact: deadweight, shoulders collapsed in their sockets, back arched impossibly backwards with her head careening, but for the grace of my underdeveloped biceps, straight towards the tile floor. Her tantrum trademark.
“I GO TOO! I GO TOO!” she wailed, her snot-covered face pressed against the screen of the garage door, coating it with a shimmering layer of her misery. My fingers fumbled in my hurry to buckle my preschooler into her carseat, to race out of the driveway before the hysteria-induced retching began. My husband stood beside her, motionless, expressionless except for the “dear lord help me” cartoon thought bubble above his head.
It was time for ballet dress rehearsal. She wasn't going. Her sister–the older one, the one in the beautiful Cinderella tutu who did everything that was wonderful and magical and important–was.
I don't know what it's like to be the youngest. I'm the oldest of two, as is my husband. When we decided to have a second child, I wondered what it would be like for our new baby to be the only second-born in a house of firsts. And I worried. Worried that I wouldn't have enough of my heart to share, enough of that deep and profound love I felt for her older sister that came so easily and without question.
Parents I knew with two or more kids shared war stories with me as an armor to clothe myself in, but it felt more akin to a straitjacket. One's son wouldn't even be in the same room as the new baby. Another had to buy two of everything to avoid weekly trips to the ER. They hadn't shared a peaceful meal together since that long-ago time when the adults outnumbered the children.
The transition was hard–harder than I anticipated. I sat in the hospital bed the night she was born, tears dripping on the ugly, standard-issue gown while I nursed her, as my mom, my brother and his wife, my husband, and–most importantly–my oldest child gathered at my house, sharing each other's company over my dining room table, lovingly carrying out bedtime rituals for my first baby. I resented my husband for getting to leave when I had to stay. I ached from the jealous need to be there and away from here. I stared out into the dark beyond my window, struggling to make sense of my love for this new baby and my fears about what was changing.
As the days became weeks became months of learning a new kind of mothering, I began to worry less about my own abilities to share my heart with my two daughters and more about the impact that sharing the spotlight of parental attention had on their development. It was impossible to focus solely on one of the girls. I willed myself to become one of those many-armed goddesses you see, golden and serene, in the ancient wing of the art museum. Despite my best efforts, my unimpressive arms still numbered two. And despite my hospital-bed worries that I would neglect my first-born, I found myself repeating an apologetic refrain: “sorry, second baby.”
Older sister needs help with a craft project? Here's a rattle and a propped up book. Sorry, second baby. Potty training is proving more challenging than I expected; guess you're hanging out in your Jumperoo a bit more. Sorry, second baby. Twenty minute drive each way to sister's morning preschool, then the same drive in the afternoon to her gymnastics class plus an interminable hour wait during it? Sorry, second baby.
Guilt sagged my shoulders every time I saw how our second-born learned to cope with sharing my attention. I'd suddenly notice her absence and find her in the pantry, contentedly mouthing handfuls of crackers from the box she'd managed to pull off the shelf. We could never open the windows in the dining room for fear the neighbors would call the cops when they heard her screams–not of pain or anguish, but for more noodles. I gave in to her whining too readily. I let the rules slide more, not that it mattered, considering how unconcerned she was when we used even our best stern parenting voices.
An offhanded comment–“Isn't she smart? Just think what she could do if she had been born first”–was a knife in my heart for weeks. I was sure that our second baby suffered because I could only give her my second best. She was a toddling J. Alfred Prufrock, her life measured out by easy-squeeze pouches in waiting rooms, because that's where she spent the ends of all her days and ways. I felt certain she was filling up on a diet of resentment and jealousy no matter how well I tried to nourish her.
I still cried late in the night, looking out into the dark. Now I cried because, even though the love I shared with both my girls was endless in its supply, maybe that wasn't enough.
The night of the recital, the three of us–the dramatic diva and her personal handlers–sat in the half-full auditorium, sucking down our shared concession stand lemonade, waiting for the curtains to rise long after bedtime had come and gone. My husband and I met for an emergency strategy session the night before and were prepared with plans A through F, an actual bag of tricks, and multiple escape routes from the theater when the screaming commenced. We knew that, once she saw her sister in that heavenly costume under the bright lights, it was only a matter of how many seconds it would take her to make a break for the stairs to the stage and shove her way into the performance. Since some brilliant mind had scheduled the three- and four-year-old class's number to be on at the same time as “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” we'd also be contending with the unpredictability that comes alongside a desperate need for sleep. That jumbo lemonade we ordered was a sad substitute for the liquid courage we really needed.
But as the lights went down, our hopes went up. My girl was enthralled by the spectacle of each dance, clapping madly and demanding “What be next, Mommy?” in a voice that, stripped of its horror movie pitch and decibel, was disarmingly sweet. She clutched the seat in front of her, exclaiming breathlessly whenever a new costume or tricky footwork struck her fancy, the way you might when watching an Olympic figure skater land a triple Lutz and not, say, a third-grader shaking her stuff on the offbeats. Finally, it was big sister's turn.
“I see her! I see Yai-Yai!” our beloved second baby yelled out, her pet name traveling like a beam of light over the heads of the exhausted crowd. She danced by her seat with exuberance, little 20-month-old feet keeping up with the choreography she'd learned from weeks of watching the big girls at the classroom door. In one hundred and twenty-seven seconds it was over. She clapped as hard as she could while the last of the blue tutus flounced off the stage, her tiny body vibrating with joy, her adoration of her sister palpable and real. Even in that dark auditorium, you could see those smoky blue eyes brimming over with happiness. Mine, too.