One day earlier this week — maybe Wednesday but I don’t know — I took Mara downtown on the #26 bus to run a few errands with me. We went to my office in the National Building on Western, where she could see the new cubicle I moved into last January, stopped for lunch at Okinawa Teriyaki around the corner, then walked up to the aforeblogged WaMu Tower to do some banking. We took back alleys and “magical super-secret stairways” up to the bank, then zimbered along Third Avenue to Union Street, where we stopped for a treat at Gelatiamo in the Vance Building, and finally to Aaron Brothers Art and Framing between Pike and Pine, where we picked up a couple of 8×10 frames before catching the #26 back home.
When it became clear last week that Emilia’s birthmother was going to have labor induced on Friday, we took Mara over to our friends’ house to stay for a few nights so that Angela and I could both be at the hospital while Emilia was being born. Just before we gathered up Mara’s things to go — some dolls, a few changes of clothes, a tiny blanket named Freddie that she has slept with since she was an infant, her toothbrush and rinse cup — we circled up in a family hug, which is one of Mara’s favorite things, and we said goodbye to the Time of Three and hello to the Time of Four. Mara understood the meaning, but perhaps not the significance, of the change.
It has been a sweet little triangle that we have had, and the time of that time has now ended. When Mara came along we were able to focus all of our attention on her without any reservation, without having to think of anyone else. It is always this way with the first child. The parents are experiencing a deep shift in their identities, separately and as a couple. Each of them is now not just a person, and a person committed to a marriage, but now also a human being responsible — totally and dangerously responsible — for another human life, a helpless human life. A journey away from self-centeredness that began, at least for me, on my wedding day takes a new, steeper turn, as the idea of what I want and need for myself becomes even more than before a matter for negotiation rather than demand. There is a new Demander, and there is no negotiating a child’s needs. They must be met. And as a couple, the parents are no longer simply in love with each other, but united as the twin object of the child’s dependency.
When the second child arrives, none of these first experiences happens for the parents. Their work and their joy merely increase (more than double, interestingly enough). The deepest shift in identity this time occurs in the first child, who was previously alone in her role as dependent and as recipient of parental attentions and whose kidly fiefdom is suddenly halved. She is now a sister, a member of a little sub-society within the family. And most of the sacrifices that she is able to perceive being made are hers to make (she sleeps right through the two-ay-em feedings and changings and so is not aware of parental sleep deprivation). We can’t to this or that because the baby needs this or that. Often we can’t even give an immediate response to her questions or to her demands for us to look at what she has drawn.
Like most parents these days, we have anticipated Mara’s psychological and emotional transition and the needs attendant to that journey. Kevin Henkes’ beautifully honest children’s book Julius, the Baby of the World, was a good starting place when we first started thinking that a new adoptee might join the family several years ago. In it, the protagonist — a female child mouse named Lilly — finds that having a little brother isn’t the bowl of cherries she thought it would be. It’s funny and sweet, but it also adequately captures the frustration of the older sibling. A similar book is Katharine Holabird’s Angelina’s Baby Sister, also about a girl mouse dealing with a new baby sibling. These books are just several props in our program to help Mara understand and process her feelings about the big change in family structure. Mara has made the first stages of this transition very successfully.
She and I have always been pretty amiable pards out on the trail, and I reckon we’ll be spending a little extra time in the saddle for a spell.