My first child, that poor soul, got the young mother in me. The one completely untrained, unskilled, still much of a child herself — not old enough to rent a car but old enough to be the sole caretaker to a helpless infant.
That’s what my first child got.
He also got 100 percent of me, all my youthful energy and dewy-eyed ideals. Which is why he could count to 10 in five languages at the age of 2. He got books and songs and a two-hour bedtime routine. He got the panic of first stitches and the pride of the first birthday cake.
Child number two received a partial sum of his mother, though I like to think that sum was a little more grounded. As second son, his infancy was one of comparison: he walked later than first son, but talked months before his brother.
Child three got my raw edges, the pieces of me left after having so many children in quick succession. He got the hand-me-down clothes and the hand-me-down mama, both a little tattered and worn. He got the mother who had eased up — no toddler language lessons or 3-year-old soccer league. (Who puts a toddler in soccer?)
Child three got a mother who had done it before and didn’t go to pieces at a sniffle or trip to the ER. He had the mother who could wedge three children into a single stroller and hike two miles to the beach, make dinner and nurse at the same time, read a book with one hand and fold laundry with the other.
Child number three became subject to all the stereotypes for a third: a paltry photo album. Few videos. A late-blooming vocabulary because he never got a chance to talk. He ate pounds of sand while I chased his older brothers down the beach. Fully aware that he was on the edge of my vision, he drank toilet water and cleared the bookshelf in a single swipe.
Child four got full-fledged mother, the kind who can put herself together in the morning and stay that way through the sundown. She knows how to discipline, keep house, plan meals, avert tantrums and solve every argument under the sun. She knows the right fingerplays for church and the right bedtime songs and she has memorized every picture book worth reading. In a pinch, she can create a meal out of breadcrumbs and banana peels. Child four got less of me than all the rest, and in doing so he learned to make toast, get dressed and fight for his rightful place all on his own.
I see shadows of my own missteps in my children: the eldest child who demands so much because it’s what he got in those infant days. Child two with the jealousy of being so easily replaced by number three. Number three who rolls with life because that’s obviously a byproduct of ingesting too much sand as a baby. Child number four who carries that same assurance of his mother, but knows to yell louder than all rest.
There are times I want to rewind the tape and have a heart-to-heart with my new-mother self. I’d tell her where to back off and where to tamp down. There is a balance to these things.
I would like to sit by that young mother with three children under three, the one sitting on the park bench with her hair under a baseball cap, bags ringing her eyes, and say, “Take care of yourself. Get more sleep. Take a shower. Take a nap. Do the things that matter and forget the rest.” I wish I could put my arm around her and say, “Don’t forget that third little guy, the one eating sea shells in the corner. He loves hugs. Do you know that?”
Of course I know that now. As a mother of tweens I know my children so well, their love languages and motivations. I know which ones crave friends, and which ones would rather befriend a good book. I also know they will grow out of the biting, hitting, screaming stages into fine young men. There is so much I know, volumes of wisdom I want to impart to my earlier self. To have known that a decade ago would have saved so much heartache and frustration.
However, I like to think that the grace of God covers the raw mistakes of early parenting, the blemishes of late parenting, and all the follies that tumble out of us as we try to teach and manage so many little people.
Surely, in the final accounting, the Lord will give a special pass to first children for their stubbornness, the seconds for their jealousies, the thirds for their carefree-to-a fault attitude, fourths and beyond for their volume and willfulness — and most especially to parents, who, in not being able to travel back and consult their former selves, must learn line upon line what being a parent means.
If that isn’t enough, I have a younger sister who told me recently, “I’m so glad you had children first, so I could learn from your mistakes.”
I’m the oldest, you see. And I bear the burden and blessing of that privilege.