The Time of Four

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.

Back in the saddle. A father-daughter adventure.

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.

Lunch at the Teriyaki. That is not the new baby, by the way.

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.

Chillin' at Gelatiamo. Ice cream -- or gelato in this case -- makes Mara kinda glossy-eyed.

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.

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4 Responses to “The Time of Four”


  1. 1 ami July 3, 2010 at 17:50

    I must say, as one who has gone through this, you have smitten the nail upon its 10 penny head with this one. Although, when the triangle becomes a square, well, you’ll see! And the extra time in the saddle with Number One Child is ever so sweet!

    Oh, and it looks like you got an empty bus!

  2. 2 jstwndrng July 3, 2010 at 18:53

    Your little family is a beautiful square, Ami. Thanks for the encouragement. We live near the beginning of the #26 bus route, which means we get our choice of seats before it fills up, especially midday.

  3. 3 Ben July 9, 2010 at 14:07

    As you know, my family has been through a few of these odd corners and shapes you speak of. I really like the way you said goodbye to the time of three. What a great way to define that. One can never under estimate the feelings a child has. When my oldest was finally free of the fear of the past, I stood with her as she claimed my name and double dared anyone, including the County Clerk to defy her. I often warn those who are a little careless with attitudes that to suggest that my oldest isn’t a part of the storied “clan” is to invite a good smacking from her. Unlike the older two, the twins cannot even begin to fathom these things thier older siblings have had to cope with. Mom and Dad have always been.

    Jack asked his mother one day, “what was it like to be in the Civil War, Mom?” “Do I really look that old, Jack?” his mother replied.

    • 4 jstwndrng July 9, 2010 at 19:17

      Yes your family has some uniquely beautiful angles, difficult to frame. It is a blessing for Jack and Em that they have both of you together, and we would have wished that unity for the other two as well. What the olders have both endured I believe makes them candidates for special compassion, and I agree you cannot underestimate what children are feeling. They are resilient, as the saying goes, but much hurt can be avoided by being honest and intentional with them and preparing them for difficult transitions.


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