Question: What can tell you a complicated story about nuclear bombs, TNT, zombies and a super-powerful blaster, but can’t pull up its pants?
Answer: My three year old.
I am the eldest of three. I always thought that being the eldest was a bit of a raw deal: all that responsibility, all that being expected to set a good example. My little sister seemed to have it so easy in comparison; we had already tested (and, where necessary) broken down the boundaries for her. She got to watch Dynasty in primary school, for goodness’ sake.
Looking at my own three now, though, I’m not so sure. Yes, being the eldest isn’t necessarily easy. You’re always the family guinea pig. You get the glory of doing everything first, but you always have the fear of one of the younger ones eclipsing you at some point by doing it better, earlier. You get lots of attention, but you are also the subject of all your parents’ more-or-less hare-brained theories on child-raising.
It all seems to matter terribly when you’re doing it with your eldest. No1 had a wonderful diet, and barely knew of the existence of sweets and chocolate. He had a strictly rationed allowance of TV, and even then it was always CBeebies – I cringe now that I banned Milkshake, because I wasn’t sure about all the adverts. He had a carefully designed routine (which he largely ignored) and every new development was scrupulously checked and recorded.
If No1 was an example of parenting by the book, No3 shows what happens when you’ve lost your library ticket and are too tired to read anyway. His growing up seems largely to take place while we’re all doing something else. I weaned him, certainly, but I can’t remember for the life of me when or how. He walked at some point; he spoke his first words, but they weren’t huge occasions – they were just happy little miracles that happened, as they would, in the course of everyday life. He gets on with it, frankly: finding his own place and trying to make it fit – by brute force, if necessary.
Being the youngest seems to be a story of hurry up and wait. Duplo? He never touched it; why would he, when Lego was obviously better, by dint of belonging to his big brother? What matter that he couldn’t make anything with it and got frustrated to the point of rage? At least he wasn’t playing with baby toys.
Perhaps there are parents out there who manage to hang on to their principles no matter how many children they have, but I’m not one of them. How do you restrict sweeties when your big two come out of school with birthday Haribos, or sit in the carseat next to the little one with a bagful of loot after a party? How do you let your older children watch and play the things they want to, that are suitable for them, without letting the little one see and hear? In the Night Garden used to be a key bit of our bedtime routine when the older two were little: No3, by the age of two, was tucked up in bed cuddling Darth Vader and reciting bits out of the Star Wars encyclopaedia. After starting my days as a mother with such high standards, I am going to be That Parent who all his friends’ parents hate: the one whose little boy passes on snippets about sex and Call of Duty to their sheltered darlings.
It’s a funny contradiction, though. At the same time as he’s demanding to be treated like a Big Boy, he’s by far more dependent than the other two at the same age. He still goes in a pushchair – largely for my convenience on the school run, but he mopes and flollops feebly if we go out for the day without it. He sits on the bottom step with his velcro-strapped shoes in front of him when I ask him to get ready, wailing that it’s Too Hard, as if I’d asked him to lace up a pair of Doc Martens blindfold. He is desperate for a new baby so that he’s no longer the youngest, but he demands cuddles with menaces and knows perfectly well that he gets away with behaviour which would never have been tolerated in the older two.
Would he have been very different if he hadn’t been born last? There’s no way of knowing, of course. I suppose there isn’t really an “best” position to be in a family anyway. Just a different set of realities, opportunities and expectations to explore and make sense of.