First children are lucky, we say. They are pampered and adored, and the focus of everyone’s attention, at least until a baby sibling rocks up. Slices of cucumber and blanched courgette are laid before them in the name of baby led weaning, and if this goes down like a sack of sick, organic purees are lovingly prepared and frozen in individual tubs. Name tags are sewn with care into pristine new school uniform, three months before they start school.
“Poor second child,” I’ve heard many parents joke, guiltily, as their younger child helps themselves to chocolate digestives from the shopping bag stuffed into the buggy with them (always the bottom seat of the double buggy, where they can’t really see out) during the school run. “Poor neglected second child”.
Baby led weaning is a given for second children, because you don’t have time to puree, so their first food is a giant slab of lasagne stolen from your plate and jammed into their gob. If they’re lucky, parents remember to cross out their older sibling’s name in the name tag of their hand-me-down school uniform, before scrawling the younger one’s name in a felt tip pen nicked from the craft box on the washcare label.
Our youngest learned to settle himself for his morning nap in his pram- not through any conscious sleep-training, but because I just had to let him cry in the porch while I stuffed a three-year-old’s feet into shoes, and her arms into her coat, and wrangled her and her iron will out of the house for nursery school.
Poor second child, we joke. And yet I’ve heard as many parents marvel at how much easier their second child is, how much less demanding and difficult a baby, how much more compliant a toddler and child.
But I think it’s easier to be easier when you are a second child. I speak from experience. I was a nauseatingly well-behaved child- and that’s largely because I watched my big brother pushing boundaries and getting told off, and decided that it wasn’t for me. (I still don’t get why children misbehave- I mean why would you do that? Why would you make people shout at you? But that’s the second child in me talking…).
So maybe it’s not that first children are more difficult. Maybe it’s just that, just like we have to learn from scratch how to be parents, the eldest has to learn from scratch what oils the wheels of family life, and what makes them fall off in a flurry of sparks and screeching. The first kid and the parents learn together, and it involves trial and error. All while the second child watches placidly, taking it all in and learning how to sidestep the drama. Poor second child? Bollocks to that. Don’t feel sorry for us second children- we’ve got it sussed.
And maybe second babies aren’t really less demanding. Maybe it’s just that, for parents, being presented with these demands isn’t like being thrown from a world where you have freedom and autonomy and can take a shower, onto a different planet where a tiny dictator who can only scream and not speak, and whose needs must be deciphered through a series of secret codes and signs, is in charge; and where you can never, ever sleep. It’s just life as you already knew it.
By the time you get to your second, you’re prepared. Sure, every child is different and presents new challenges. Our big one never clung to my legs or limpet-like to my body when I dropped her off at her childminder’s house, so I learned how to deal with that for the first time with our little one.
But generally, most things he can pull out of the bag, we’ve already dealt with. So instead of flying into a panic with an internal scream of WHAT FRESH HELL IS THIS? at some new phase, we just think, ‘oh this again’, and possibly make a better fist of it. Or at least, chill the f out a little more. That’s why, when our youngest wouldn’t sleep as a baby, we didn’t spend knackering nights shush-patting in the dark- we just bundled him into our bed so we could all get some shut-eye, and woke up to his slobbery, smiling little dough face each morning, and generally felt more relaxed.
But the first child has to do everything, well, first- and I don’t think that’s an easy role to play. So here’s to the first children. The pushers of boundaries, the venturers, the ones who test our limits and pave the way. The ones who teach us how to be mums and dads.
And to my eldest,- my feisty, fierce, funny first. Thank you for bearing with us, and sorry for the times we’ve messed up. It’s a trip, learning how to be parents with you (still learning, seven years in), as you learn how to just be. There’s nobody I’d rather get it right and wrong with.