Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood


Mon semblable, mon frère…

Captain’s log, stardate 5044. Or thereabouts? Somebody told me it was 2007 but that feels like a million years ago. Anyway, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to regularly write long blog posts. Then the baby started crawling, leaving me - and you - floundering in his wake.

Remember we dubbed him Rocket Baby when he arrived in a shower of sparks just over a year ago? An early master of the art of irony, he spent his first six months in a state of such advanced mellowness that a glance at my google cache from around that time would throw up strings of anxiety-ridden search terms like “too much sleep, such a thing?” “narcoleptic infant” and “rain man, early signs of.”

Then he started moving. Still mellow, with a side of cheerful, but faster than a speeding bullet. I used to fret that he didn’t make long, soulful, Bill Clinton-style eye contact with me, until someone pointed out that he was busily checking out the rest of the room over my shoulder. The boy is a novelty-hound (and possibly a hound-dog as well, but we’ll have to wait till the teen years to be sure on that score). I can’t decide if he’s high-needs and low-maintenance, or low-needs and high maintenance, but whatever it is, it’s an... interesting combination.

His big brother was the handy sort of baby you could plonk down like a bean-bag and leave to his own devices with a single fascinating toy; or he’d sit in your lap for hours and have extended, thoughtful conversations. Little brother, on the other hand, is cut from a very different cloth.

First task of the day is upending the toy basket and working his way through all the toys. Five minutes later he’s cleaning out the closets and changing over the washing and inspecting the cat-box, and so it goes until I cajole him down for a power-nap. He wakes up again an hour later (two if I’m lucky) and starts rampaging again until he collapses at bedtime. Chasing around after him, I’m constantly reminded of that old bit of graffiti wit: “Be alert - the world needs more lerts.” He’s a lert, to the very core.

When I pause for breath after dissuading him from dismantling the fan-heater, I have a few seconds to consider the second-child conundrum. Like novels, or films, the first child is the vanity project, the autobiographical undertaking. Even as you suspect that children are a random shuffle of all available human genes (something adoptive parents know for sure), you feel secretly convinced that all of your child's marvellousness is directly due to you, the parents, and if not your brilliant genes, at least your constant benevolent vigilance on the child's behalf.

This is especially true if you get what is known in the trade as an “easy” baby, the sort of textbook creature who gives you very little trouble. We also call this the “sucker baby.”

Because the second child is the reality check, the realization that it really is -- and this may be a metaphor that needs rethinking in the context -- a crap shoot. (At this point, parents of more than two are invited to laugh out loud at my sudden authority on things parental). Having one child is in some ways like having a particularly delightful pet. A chipper, handsome Briard, say, or a cat with genuine people personality. You can take it with you most places, your friends think it’s adorable and are generally glad to see it, you have little or no shortage of volunteers to take over walkies when you need a break.

Having two children – and I am told this is true of more than two as well – is like suddenly finding yourself running a farm. Yes, you get fit, and you get lots of fresh air, but oh my god, the work never, ever stops. You’re never wearing anything but gumboots. One or more of your beasts (and come to think of it, your breasts) is always needing the vet. And good luck finding someone to take over that dawn milking shift for a single day, let alone a weekend at the casino. (As the mother of a baby who didn’t really master the food thing until ten months, and rejected all possible breastmilk substitutes in favour of my increasingly ravaged bosom, I know of what I speak).

But it’s OK. Turns out that all the boy wanted was real food, not that pureed crap in a jar, so now he’s eating like a sumo wrestler. Make that a slender, swan-necked sumo wrestler; he’s still leprechaun-like, Legolas to his big brother’s Chewbacca (more later on the astonishing testosterone surge of the five-year-old boy). And the odd visit from grandparents, the nascent evening babysitting co-op, and the three-way baby swap are helping to make a few spaces in the week. Enough for me to ponder the ways in which life must be very different for a second child.

In particular, the benign neglect enjoyed by the latecomer, as opposed to the hot-house life of the cosseted flower who just happened to be born first. It’s a paradox: on the one hand, I regret not being able to give the new boy the super-concentrated attention that Busytot got. On the other, he seems all the more robust for being hustled around the place like a cheerful caboose at the end of the family train. Many learned tomes have been written on the subject, but the best is yet to be penned: a friend in New York wants to write a book called How to Raise Your First Child Like A Second. I am sure it will sell like hotcakes.

Then there’s the whole birth order question, you know: oldest child = most likely to be an astronaut and/or go bonkers (Houston, we have a problem!), middle child = middle management or rock star, baby of the family = arch manipulator and darling of the world. It’s only marginally more scientific than horoscopes, but there does seem to be something in it. A Belgian friend of mine boiled it down nicely: her oldest child’s first decipherable phrase was the quietly poetic “la lune!” Her second boy, on the other hand, barreling along eighteen months after his brother, broke his silence with “à l’attaque!”

(Their baby sister, I should add, inaugurated her language use with "les gars." Yeah, those guys...)

For the moment, our little fellow seems perfectly happy with being alternately smooched and walloped by his big brother and the cat, and alternately preferred and deferred by his parents. He has learned how to ask efficiently for what he needs, when he needs it. He points and gestures -- “Dat!” -- then nods or shakes his head as necessary.

If the object of desire is not forthcoming, he goes and gets it himself. He’s not standing independently or walking yet, preferring to cruise the perimeter of the room or walk on his knees, but the other day he pushed a stepladder across the kitchen and climbed up to reach something on the bench. I could not have been more surprised if he had teleported himself. Actually, sometimes I think that’s how he gets to the top of the stairs in the time it takes me to pour a cup of tea.

Speaking of cups of tea, my teapot is empty and my child-free hour is almost up. I was thinking the other day how silly my timing was, having a blog hiatus just as PA System got up and running. On the one hand, I barely have time to compose a shopping list these days, let alone monitor a couple of dozen discussion threads. (OK, true, I do have time to crank out the odd book review). But on the other hand, the System is the perfect set-up for someone who, like me, prefers to socialize by inviting a bunch of interesting people over then disappearing into the kitchen to potter around producing scones or cocktails, leaving the rest of you to chat amongst yourselves.

So, I’ll go put on the kettle/fire up the blender, and you lot feel free to chat amongst yourselves. Second (third, fourth, fifth) child syndrome, anyone? Hot recipes for cold Connecticut nights? Solutions for the Iraq situation (oh my god)? I’ll be listening in from the kitchen.

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