Does your youngest get an easier ride?
by Hayley Doyle
All the prep in the world didn’t actually prepare me for what to do when my first child was born. Yes, I ticked every box off the list. I joined an NCT group, did pregnancy yoga, bought ridiculous things like baby shoes. Wow, they’re cute. But babies don’t wear shoes. They don’t stay on for longer than two seconds and one will suddenly, magically disappear, never to be seen again, and you’re left feeling perplexed about what to do with one adorable fake-Ugg boot the length of your index finger. The reality of how to handle a newborn is learnt in the moment. In the thick of it. You can’t even practice changing nappies on somebody else’s baby because your baby will wriggle and poop in its own, unique way! So, if someone were to ask me for advice on how to handle a six year old, I wouldn’t be able to answer honestly. My children haven’t reached that age yet. Parenting is the kind of job that you learn on the job.
Or, let’s rephrase that… You learn how to become a parent with your first kid. So, if you’re the oldest sibling (hi!) or an only child, congratulations. You taught your parents how to parent.
All the expectation is on the first. And that’s not because you happen to be particularly pushy or competitive. Quite simply, the first born is the guinea pig. You have nothing else to compare it with or mark it against, so you’re left with expectation. Perhaps you have recognised this as worry, or anxiety, but rather than live your life thinking that your child won’t ever reach their milestones, it’s more likely that you are wondering when. Naturally, you have expectations for that small, growing human to meet.
Extended family members, friends with older kids, or even perfect strangers, can add to this expectation, too, unknowingly. They create topics of conversation that push the expectation; “Ah, it won’t be long before she’s crawling…”, “You’ll be weaning him soon…”, “By Christmas, they’ll be walking, you mark my words!” And as the parent, learning on the job, working hard into the unknown, you watch and wait. Wait for your baby to sit up all by themselves. No padding. No cushions. Wait… Wait… wobble! Wait… Wait… thump! Wait… Wait… Shhhh… Your baby is sitting! Sturdy! Ah, and giving themselves a huge round of applause! You join in! You cheer! You ‘sharent’ the evidence on your family WhatsApp group or Instagram story. You’re fiercely proud, and even more relieved. Then you think, right, what’s next? A PhD in neuroscience? Bring it on!
The energy shifts when it comes to the younger sibling. The dialogue changes. “Look at her, keeping up with her big brother…”, “Yeah, he skipped the Duplo and went straight onto Lego…”, “They’ll eat anything, probably copying off the older one…” The parent is still so busy learning on the job with the oldest, that the youngest reaching milestones becomes a jolly afterthought; “She’s sitting up already?! She was only born five minutes ago!” And the parent can give themselves a huge round of applause this time. For raising a genius.
As parents, we do not set out to treat our children differently. I remember when I fell pregnant with my second child, my initial thought was panic. Not shock. My husband and I had been talking about wanting another baby ever since our son came along and we were actively trying! But I panicked that I’d never be able to love another human as much as I loved my son. That love is so all encompassing and overwhelming in the most wonderful and terrifying ways. I literally feel my heart swell and catch my breath at the thought of it. A friend who’d just had her second baby told me, “The moment your new baby is born, that love multiplies.” And she was right. I don’t know how else to describe it, but yes, the second I saw my tiny purply-pink daughter, baffled as to how she’d just catapulted into the world, that love instantly multiplied. My heart grew twice its size and easily found space for her. It opened and said, I love you.
However, I was more laid-back with her. With my son, I’d done my research on breastfeeding and done the “homework”, but every sensation and pain throughout that journey in reality was brand new. Over time, I developed certain tricks, personal to me and him, and I tried them on my daughter. Some worked, some didn’t. But I was able to let go of the problem rather than dwell on it. As hard as it was having a newborn all over again, I had a sense of knowing what I was doing. Okay, when it came to suddenly coping with two children, I was (and still am, a lot of the time) navigating my way blindfolded, but that’s a story for another time! It’s just that whatever I’m doing with her, I’ve already learnt how to do it with him.
When my son was two and half, I took him to a weekly activity with a superhero theme. It was basically a toddler assault course where they got to wear a cape and jump around to the Superman soundtrack (I know!!), but there was structure and mild discipline involved. Some weeks, my son was enthusiastic, whereas others, he just wanted to climb on the stacked tables and chairs or try to escape through the fire exit. When the latter occurred - and it makes me sad to admit this - I got cross with him. I told him to listen like the “other children” did. On the drive home, I’d tut and tell him he hadn’t been a very good boy today. Now, my daughter is that age and I take her to a similar class. When she decides she’d rather hide in the corner or raid my bag for snacks instead of copying the actions to The Grand Ol’ Duke of York, I still tut, but think, “Ah, she’s only two…” My son is at school now. He can read, sit and listen (mostly) and follow instructions to activities. He got there. He arrived. And he amazes me every single day. He is the one who gives me faith that my little one will get there, too.
This whole vibe seems pretty common amongst parents I talk to. One mum recently admitted to me that she’s way more relaxed around her younger kid. A dad friend of mine said that when his second kid came along, he and his wife chilled out on the whole temperature-of-the-milk saga, but the third kid… well… the third kid could have eaten the cat litter and they wouldn’t have worried. Another pal told me that their second child seems more advanced because they’re copying their older sibling, but they’re also a bit naughtier because, “He just gets away with more.” For sure. My oldest never ate chocolate until he was almost two. My youngest certainly never waited that long and can throw a right old tantrum if she gets told, No. And again, when the tantrum happens, I take a breath, walk away (if I manage to peel her off my legs) and (reluctantly) let her ride it out. She’s only two. It will pass. But when I first learnt about tantrums, let’s just say that our friend Google wasn’t much of a friend at all. By the time I’d read about every behavioural problem my son could be suffering from, he was happily playing with his dinosaurs and I’d increased my stress levels up a few notches. Still, how was I to know? I was learning on the job.
Having grown up as the oldest child myself, I look back and see that these patterns have been around for a long time. My mum - ever the classic Libra, who will still, to this day, put twenty quid into my bank account if she’s just spent twenty quid on something for my sister - would never admit to treating us differently. Yet, when my sister got some tattoos, my mum loved them. Thought they were soooo typical of my sister, the wacky one. “Oh, what’s she like!” She laughed, adding, “And they’re absolutely beautiful.” I mentioned I was thinking of getting a tattoo, too. The reaction couldn’t have been more different. “What?! Oh no, Hayley. Oh no.” You see, to her, I don’t do things like get tattoos. My little sister though, does. To her, I do things “properly” and my sister “goes with the flow.” It’s funny really, because we’re only human, and there are plenty of things my sister does “properly” and a lot of times I’m happy to “go with the flow”.
Really, you’d think I’d have learnt… After all, I am the oldest. I should know better.