Monday, January 09, 2012

The curse of being first

Last night, le Petit had his very first homework assignment.  The class mascot, a bright pink bear with a sweater and cowboy boots, spent the weekend at home with us, and Le Petit was instructed to bring "Clara Lulu" back on Monday morning with her portrait done.  On Friday afternoon, Le Petit started a rudimentary drawing at Grandma and Grandpa's house.  He traced a pink balloon-like animal with big black eyes.  It could've passed for Clara Lulu easily enough if he'd just bothered to color it in, but drawing and coloring is not le Petit's thing.  It's taken all of the teacher's efforts this year to get him to hold his crayon properly and concentrate on it at all.  From what I see tacked to the wall in his classroom, his reticence is not unique, particularly among the boys.  But I'm a mom, and I'm me, so I have to worry, and when I saw the sparse pink lines haphazardly scribbled on Clara's round belly, I felt I had to intervene.

It was his first assignment, and he was failing.

So I gently tried to get him to sit down and color with me, and when that failed I complained to my husband, who bellowed at le Petit which made me yell at him for not being a sensitive parent but seemed to work.  And then I fled in shame to the kitchen to make dinner and my husband sat down with le Petit and a new reserve of patience, and le Petit finished Clara.  After a fashion.  With more than a little hands-on help.

As I tried to fall asleep last night, my mind raced to extrapolate this scene as far into the future as possible.  Soon there would be real homework and who would be behind him to make sure it got done?  Should we be behind him at all?  Or should we instead let him turn in a picture with a few stray pink lines?  Would I have time to decide?  Would I fail as a mom?  

Poor Le Petit.  I do this to him all the time.

It began with the first long nights when Le Petit was a newborn.  We didn't know what we were doing, so like so many bleary-eyed rookie parents before us, we searched in vain for the owner's manual in the parenting section of the bookstore.  Clearly, our baby would never sleep on his own, we were certain of it.  Of course, he did eventually; the details of when, exactly, he finally slept through the night are lost to me now, as are the sometimes tender, often tedious hours spent putting him to bed.  But I still do remember, clearly, the desperation I felt in the middle of the night -- not to mention the middle of the day, as I discussed the problem over a nth cup of coffee with anyone willing to listen -- that the sleeplessness would never end.  I remember the middle-of-the-night arguments with my husband. The raised voices, the angry words to or in front of our baby that I immediately wished we could take back.  Although we muddled through and eventually figured most of the important things out, we were not always the best parents, I'm ashamed to admit.  All because we wanted to fix things, right then and there.  All because we had too little faith in our child.  

The curse of the firstborn.

Mademoiselle, on the other hand, gets battle-scarred parents who are impressed by nothing, comparatively speaking.  I'm not saying our patience is never tried, but in general we keep our cool because we have an important piece of first-hand information: children do eventually sleep though the night.  (We also know how quickly it all passes, so it all seems more tender and less tedious the second time around.)

You'd think we would have learned, so marked were we by the ordeal of sleep deprivation, but every new parenting challenge seems to throw us into the same desperate reasoning.  Potty training.  Tantrums.  Table manners.  Some significant part of me is always sure that this time we've never going to help le Petit over the hurdle.  My husband obviously often feels the same way, and some of our worst parenting moments have been when we were mired in mutual despair over something that in retrospect was no big deal.  Something that le Petit figured out on his own, despite --- not thanks to -- our best efforts to help him.

I was mulling this over yoga class today when I was supposed to be thinking of nothing at all and concentrating on my breathing.  I've spent so much of my life trying to be the Good Girl, and this segued quite naturally into trying to be the Good Parent.  And what makes a Good Parent other than the Perfect Child: proof we did everything right, which is, of course, the great lather-rinse-repeat of dysfunction.

I contorted myself into a bow-shaped pose on the floor and thought about this further.  So, some part of this was clearly ego.  And my impatience with the sleeplessness, well, there was a whole lot of selfishness there, too.  But there was more.  Why do I always want to be the Good Girl again?  Because I irrationally feel that if my conduct is beyond reproach, then everyone around me will be happy: everything will go swimmingly, the sun will shine, the dollar will go up, everyone will smile and agree with one another, and I, personally, will never be hurt.  The ever-anxious mom, I extrapolated this reasoning to le Petit.  If he could just be Good, he'd be safe from all the bumps and bruises of the world.

So what exactly does this have to do with coloring, potty training, and sleeping through the night?  Nothing much, I guess, except that at every step along the way, le Petit finds some ingenious way to teach me that I'm wrong.  Step back, Mom, lighten up.  Let go.  Trust your kid.  Trust yourself.  I've taken to asking myself if my parenting problem du jour is something I'm likely to still be dealing with in two, five, or fifteen years.  The answer is usually no.  My response (when I'm thinking clearly) is to stop and take a deep breath.

Still, I fear le Petit is going to continue taking all this collateral damage as he grows up first in the family.  My yoga teacher would say he chose his parents and birth position, long before he was born.  If that's the case, let's hope he knew what he was doing.  I'll give him a big grateful hug and an apology in advance for my inevitable missteps. 

Because after all, there are advantages to being the firstborn.  Right?

(My goal for this year is to be better at mothering, not just le Petit and Mademoiselle, but also myself.)


Cloud said...

I think first borns are supposed to have higher IQ. And I say that as a younger child!

I know exactly what you mean with this post. We're pretty much there, too.

Except I am somehow despairing of the sleeping through the night thing again, because Petunia is two and damn it, that is when Pumpkin started sleeping through!

Also, I am really looking forward to getting to sleep through the night in my own bed again. It doesn't seem too much to ask... and yet it is, right now.

hush said...

"I've spent so much of my life trying to be the Good Girl, and this segued quite naturally into trying to be the Good Parent. And what makes a Good Parent other than the Perfect Child: proof we did everything right, which is, of course, the great lather-rinse-repeat of dysfunction."

Brilliant. You are brilliant. Amen. Thank you for this post.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@Cloud and @hush - thank you both so much for commenting, because I kind of felt like a freak or a loser for admitting to this in this post! But at the same time, it feels fake to pretend that I'm always getting it right as a parent...

@Cloud - Yeah, I can see the moment when I end up despairing again over sleep, because Mademoiselle is still waking up 2+ times a night and Le Petit at her age was waking up once or not at all! And I'm getting tired of it... I guess that's the drawback of being second: you get stuck with all the "at your age, your brother/sister was already..." crap.

The milliner said...

I totally second what @Hush said...this post is brilliant. This is exactly it. I can never seem to figure out when something is just a damn phase or it's something that is going to ruin. The. Rest. Of. His. Life. (Yeah, pretty much never the second one). We only have one, so I don't think we'll ever have that relaxed experience. Everything is always so new. Luckily, as time goes by it's slowly getting a bit easier to handle the curve balls. I think...(hope).