By Lynn Berger
Our first child was our only child. She came without material for comparison. We knew other people with babies and children, but we didn’t see them often enough to base very specific expectations on them.
We also didn’t really care, I think. “People without children,” Rachel Cusk observes in A Life’s Work, “don’t seem very interested in anything that people with have to say about it: they approach parenthood blithely, as if they were the first, with all the innocence of Adam and Eve before the fall.”
Our daughter was our first and only child, and she taught us who she was. Sui generis, on her own terms. Of course, there were the pediatrician graphs, against which her own development was measured once in a while, but those were abstract, generalized gauges with little influence on how we saw our daughter. (Had she been ill, or colicky, or her development disrupted, it would undoubtedly have been a different story—but, as it was, we were able to be every bit as blithe as the parents of Cusk’s description.)
With our second child, things were different. We knew, more or less, what we were starting out on. The comparisons commenced as soon as I was pregnant. In contrast to our first, our second didn’t arrive precisely on his due date. “He’s late,” I grumbled when I woke up that morning, my belly as big and round as it had been the night before.
At his birth, less than twenty-four hours later, he was heavier than his sister.
After the birth, he cried longer and louder and more heartrendingly than she had.
He fed more and more frequently.
Her expression, in those early weeks, often had a fierce quality to it, somewhat furious, even; he looked more shocked and worried (I thought).
After eight weeks, she slept for twelve hours at night; his sleep pattern remained erratic and unpredictable for more than a year.
He walked a month later, his tantrums didn’t last as long, and where her first word had been “apple,” his was “that.”
One Wednesday morning, not long after a conversation in which my sister confronted me with the bully I once was, I cycle to a conference room with a suspended ceiling on the edge of town. There, along with ten other parents, I’m to take part in a parenting course on sibling rivalry.
Parenting courses, like parenting books, are a modern phenomenon—a sign, perhaps, that the “correct” way of raising children concerns us more than ever. And, in particular, that we believe that the correct way exists in the first place.
I’ve joined this course because I’m curious as to how that hunger for advice is catered to—by the market, by experts. But my presence is also, in part, a form of penance: my sister’s stories have made me feel guilty in retrospect, and I somehow hope to atone for my childhood sins through my own children.
Upbringing isn’t just something that happens between parents and children: the preceding and following generations participate as well.
The cheerful, friendly instructor asks us to form groups of two and describe our children to each other. I’m paired with a mother who, during the round of introductions, told us about the constant fighting between her two daughters, coming close to tears as she recounted it. She’d smiled bravely, and I’d thought of my own parents. I too had occasionally found my mother crying on the edge of the bed, her hands over her ears, after my sister and I had fought yet again over more bathroom time or a particular top with an asymmetrical neckline.
I start with our eldest. I describe her as sensitive, clever, and curious, and somewhat afraid of failure. She’s sharp and funny and easily upset. The youngest, I say, is more emotionally stable and perhaps also rather more cheerful. Physically he’s less clumsy, more adventurous. Socially, good-humored and kind, but also quicker to anger.
And there I go again, I think. I’m making comparisons.
It’s not even that the comparison is to the advantage or disadvantage of the first or second child. Nor am I disappointed that he doesn’t “live up to” the standard my daughter has set—or, vice versa, that he in some sense does “better” than she does.
It’s the very existence of a standard, a norm. That when I look at one, I immediately see similarities and differences to the other. That I describe my son with my daughter in mind—and that I do so constantly. Because she’s effectively always ahead of him, enjoys a head start of more than two and a half years.
Call me romantic, but it strikes me as fairer for a child to go through life without a yardstick. To be seen as they are, not in contrast to someone else. At the same time, I don’t know how else to do it: human beings have a deep-rooted tendency to make comparisons. It happens automatically.
The mother of two with whom I’m partnered listens patiently and watches me with gentle, sympathetic eyes. She smiles and nods and asks if it’s her turn.
Her eldest daughter, she says, is curious and very imaginative. Her youngest is levelheaded, down-to-earth, mischievous. You can have a great laugh with her, says the mother.
Oh, I think, as I listen to the way she describes her children—separately, without comparing them—so it’s possible after all.
Parents who openly compare their children, the instructor explains later that day, may inadvertently create the conditions for rivalry, or at least contribute to them.
She confirms what I fear on my anxious days: that my tendency to describe one child with the other in mind will also be expressed in my behavior, in ways I’m perhaps only barely aware of myself. That my son’s enthusiasm, for instance, will make me cheerful in part due to the contrast with my daughter’s morning moodiness—or the other way around. That it’ll make me that much nicer to the one who makes me feel happy. And that all those subconscious signals together will shape my children, give them the feeling that I don’t just love them as they are, bring them to see each other as competitors.
Of course, there are plenty of other conceivable causes of sibling rivalry, I think as the instructor continues talking. Developmental psychologist Laurie Kramer, the one who studied how a mother’s own childhood experiences trickled down to the way she raised her children, told me that it had long been believed, in her field, that children fought to gain their parents’ attention. But when researchers observed and interviewed siblings, they came to very different conclusions: most fights, she told me, arose because one had irritated the other, or because one had something the other wanted. Parents could play a role in the continuation of such fights, but often enough, they had nothing whatsoever to do with their taking place to begin with.
There’s a good chance I’m overestimating my influence on my children. And perhaps I’m also underestimating my own capacity to compensate for all those subconscious tendencies, all those failings big and small that are probably unavoidable anyway. Because even if humans are inclined to make comparisons, that doesn’t mean you have to behave accordingly.
The remedy put forward by the instructor is as simple as it is fundamental, and comes, workshop style, in the form of concrete examples:
Don’t tell the youngest he should eat nicely like his elder sister, just say you can see he’s playing with his food.
Don’t say your daughter gets upset so much faster than her little brother, just say you see a girl crying, and ask her to help you understand her tears.
Don’t project, don’t compare, just look—and describe what you see, child by child.
When I cycle home at the end of the day, a long ride along the river into a bracing wind, I hope that soon I will be asked again to describe my children.
Next time I’ll do it differently: I won’t describe them in terms of each other. Because if the way we see our children influences the way we approach them, then perhaps the opposite is also true: that a different view of your children can begin quite simply with a different way of speaking—both with them and about them.
Lynn Berger is a staff writer at Dutch journalism platform De Correspondent, where she covers care. She holds a PhD in Communications from Columbia University and lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Adapted excerpt from Second Thoughts: On Having and Being a Second Child by Lynn Berger. Published by Henry Holt and Company, April 20th 2021. Copyright © 2020 by Lynn Berger English translation copyright © 2020 Anna Asbury. All rights reserved. Buy the book here!
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