The Art of Interpretation and the Second Child
My husband and I always wanted a big family, at least by American standards.
We were mostly recovered from the happy earthquake that was the birth of our first. My doctor said my son’s first birthday marked my body open and ready for more baby business.
Two years apart seemed like fair spacing between our children, maybe a little overachieving but what was another year in the Bermuda Triangle of coddling, bottling, and swaddling?
One night before Carter’s first birthday, sipping wine and summoning another earthquake, my husband and I hatched the plan to get pregnant.
But Was It Too Soon?
A week later we took our most ambitious family trip to Patagonia. Surrounded by some of the world’s most stark and stunning wildlife and scenery, Carter, enveloped in his snowsuit, remains the most memorable image from the trip.
He had seemed so big in recent months, so heavy to hold, like a small goat perched in my arms as he nursed, but big enough to be a big brother I thought. But with Patagonia as the backdrop, literally at the ends of the earth, he appeared but a wisp, vulnerable to the great forces of nature.
Maybe it was too soon; maybe Carter was not ready. I allowed this thought to break off from the giant glacier of my intention. It floated numbly into an ocean of forgetfulness. I would have a second child. The time was right.
“Smile!” I shouted through the heavy wind. My husband held Carter up next to the largest iceberg near the shore. Carter struggled to offer a gummy grin from the depth of his hood, proud to have his photo taken.
We returned home from that blissful trip, and several months later I was pregnant again.
“Are you excited to have a baby sister, Carter?” I asked stroking my growing belly. “She is going to be your BEST friend!”
I could hardly contain my excitement but Carter was barely verbal and hardly acknowledged the pregnancy beyond laughing and pointing at my stomach whenever I dressed in front of him.
In truth, I was beginning to grow worried about our decision. The “terrible twos” ambushed us around 18 months. Gone were the days of long romantic dinners and adult conversations with a child in a high chair.
Carter became aware, a full participant in everything. "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse" repeats replaced "Game of Thrones" marathons. Carter staked out a spot in our marriage bed. Some nights neither of us could remember who finally gave up and let him snuggle in.
With both of us working full-time, we lacked the energy, and arguably the philosophical conviction, to sleep train.
Ignorance Is Bliss When Conceiving #2
I learned the hard way that parenting a baby and a toddler are two entirely different job descriptions.
I looked desperately back on online conversations with other mothers about spacing children. Parents with children two years apart agreed there was a ‘honeymoon’ period, a fleeting moment for two young parents to conceive before the first becomes a toddler and conquers a home in earnest.
If we waited too long, many warned, our home would fall victim to a tiny Genghis Khan ruling with a ruthless pudding-covered fist; in other words, get pregnant again before you know just how hard it can get.
Winnie Enters Stage Right
I had other worries that fed off of my powerful body chemistry of pregnancy hormones, morning sickness, and a never-ending exhaustion. What if I could not love another child as much as Carter? This turned out to be the least of my problems.
When my daughter, Winnie, was born a week before Christmas, she opened an entire chamber of my heart I never knew existed. Carter shuffled shyly into the hospital room and cautiously peered in at his pink and wrinkled sister.
“Hello, Winnie,” he said softly. He bent down and gently kissed her forehead. Spielberg could not have choreographed a more endearing introduction. My heart was full.
The Projection Begins
For Carter the excitement of Winnie’s birth wore off quickly. She was no longer a creature of lore inside my stomach, a growing promise of a potential playmate and lifelong friend. She came out of my belly but could not watch “Jungle Book” or play kick — she could not even lift her own head.
She cried. She nursed all the time. Her poop was yellow and weird. In other words, she was a dud.
“Carter, today Winnie told me how much she loves you. She said she could not believe she gets to be YOUR little sister!” I bounced Winnie in my arms, still donning her blue and pink knit cap from the hospital.
Carter grimaced. “Winnie eating?” he asked pointing at her head resting near my chest.
“No, not right now, but she might be hungry soon.” I stroked Carter’s hair and mustered my best Mary Poppins smile on three hours sleep.
“Winnie hungry,” Carter said, pointed at my breast, and walked away.
Not Won Over Yet
Carter would not be won over so easily by his seven-pound sibling. Winnie needed to try a bit harder.
Sure she was making a pretty good effort to fit in — breathing oxygen, for instance, crying uncontrollably to get her needs met. He could respect that.
They might share a giant tub of diaper rash cream, but clearly, at least for Carter, that was where the relationship ended.
Better in Two Years
I sought the wisdom of my pediatrician. “At what point will I start to feel like having children two years apart was a good idea?” I asked flatly at one of Winnie’s early appointments.
The bemused doctor laughed. “That’s hard to know…. probably when he is about 4 and they can play together.”
I erupted with a small, deranged sounding laugh. Maybe I cried. I don’t remember.
“I know it’s hard,” he said. “But definitely don’t ever leave them alone together.”
Mom Makes Good on Winnie’s promises
This was not the answer I was looking for. I could not wait two years. I was trained to build goodwill between nations at odds. What mother was better qualified to establish a rules-based approach and norms of interaction between a two-year-old and an infant?
Perhaps I should have taken heart of the sage advice offered in my tattered copy of Dr. Spock’s "Baby and Child Care," — “Don’t overdo your enthusiasm or expect him to be enthusiastic about the baby.”
But I was determined to make good on promises I made while pregnant. I cradled Winnie’s tiny translucent foot in my hand to “kick” a plastic ball back and forth with Carter.
I sat her up in the cradle to join Carter in watching "Jungle Book," well, for about ten minutes. Then Winnie cried and needed to nurse.
Winnie Is Generous
I dug in harder as the weeks went by. “Winnie has a surprise for you, Carter. Come here!”
Carter galloped over to the cradle and gritted his Chicklet teeth in anticipation.
“Now you have to close your eyes. Winnie needs to get her present for you.”
“OK, Momma,” Carter said putting his tiny sausage fingers over his eyes. When he opened them he found Winnie’s face nearly smothered by a package of wooden cars almost the length of her body.
“Look!” I beamed, grabbing the package off her face. “Cool cars! Winnie, that was so thoughtful of you to get Carter this gift. You must love him so much.”
Winnie sneezed and snorted confusedly from her cradle.
…And Winnie Is Magical
Carter did not respond. He looked at me. I could almost see the electric flashes of synapses firing in his 2-year-old head. Perhaps he had underestimated Winnie.
Obviously, in the midst of her intense feeding and crying schedule, she graciously found time to Houdini her way out of her swaddle, learn to walk, drive a car, and find one of those plastic swipey things to purchase these awesome cars! Winnie was not just alive. Winnie was magical.
“Okay!” Carter yelled tearing the package out of my hand. “Thanks, Winnie!” he hollered as he ran away with his new toys.
Mom Takes Second Job as Interpreter
I took the small victory of the cars as a sign that I should barrel ahead as Winnie’s full-time interpreter. It started out innocently, a young exhausted mother just trying to forge a bond between her tiny progeny. Winnie made daily declarations of love for Carter and offered kudos on a job well done.
“Winnie says she thinks your winter coat is cool and wishes she had one,” I blurted to Carter, watching a tantrum brew as he struggled to dress for the snow.
Things got out of hand quickly. Winnie chimed in on Carter’s nutritional needs. “Winnie wants you to eat your dinner,” I said, more to Carter’s untouched grilled cheese than to him.
She was a stickler for hygiene too, and slightly neurotic. “Winnie says she wants to see you use your toothbrush. She’s nervous she won’t know how to brush when she finally gets her teeth.”
Even Carter pinch-hit as Winnie’s interpreter. “Oh, you want appa juice, Winnie?” he said cradling her face with two hands. “Ok, I ask Momma.”
Rare Moments of Sibling Bliss
Other more inspiring moments made me think of retiring as Winnie’s interpreter and letting the relationship blossom more organically. Like the time I briefly left the room for coffee and came back to find Carter rocking Winnie in her swing chair and singing “Let It Go” from "Frozen."
He even caressed her cheek with his toddler paw, an act so tender and miraculous that it felt like I was witnessing something divine.
Another day I caught Carter trying to breast feed a baby doll. “It’s not working,” he told me, jostling the doll’s porcelain face against his bare chest, his shirt bunched at his chin. But these moments were rare occasions in a daily reality of balancing the very immediate needs of two small children.
Carter might have been big enough to be a big brother, but in many respects he was also still a baby.
One afternoon when Carter returned home from his part-time nursery school, he rushed, as usual, to Winnie’s cradle. “Hi, Winnie.”
He leaned in with lips puckered. I watched uncertainly, too far away to ensure a “soft touch.” Suddenly he pushed himself up on the side of the rocker and slapped Winnie in the face. A horrifying scream erupted from the cradle.
“You!” I yelled — Mary Poppins turned Maleficent. I glared at Carter, taking Winnie into my arms. She cried so hard she sounded like she was choking.
Rhetorical Questions for Toddlers
Carter ran around pulling magazines from coffee tables, books from shelves, and pillows and blankets from sofas and chairs. He finally settled on the floor, crumpling himself in a corner and began to cry harder than I had ever seen him cry. He looked so small in his pint-sized school uniform.
“Carter, why? Why would you do that to Winnie?” I kneeled down so I was face-to-face with him.
He did not answer, but what emotional insight did I expect from a toddler? For the first time since she was born, Winnie was speechless too. She wept on the shoulder of her stunned interpreter. Carter had hurt Winnie, and Winnie by simply being born had hurt Carter.
Time to “Let It Go”
Normally this would be the moment Carter would begin to wail “Let It Go” into Winnie’s ears, an unsolicited and off key serenade that usually made Winnie cry even harder because of sheer volume. Yet, all I could hear was the sound of my two children weeping. Of all places it was in the mess of this moment that I found clarity.
Ever since we decided to have a second baby I carried not only another pregnancy but also enormous expectations about what our life would be as a family of four. All of those promises made to Carter were promises I had made to myself. Despite my best efforts, Winnie and Carter were not best friends although they shared a giant tub of diaper rash cream, a mother and a father, and all our good intentions.
It was time to move on from the unmet expectations and self-doubt, and “Let It Go.” That afternoon I softly rocked my children, humming the song to Carter, to Winnie, and to myself.
Our Collective Memory Shifts
Two-year-olds do not have a long memory. After six months as a mother of two, this was another bittersweet revelation about the spacing of our children. Carter can scarcely remember a time when Winnie was not around.
While the initial trauma of Winnie’s birth has worn away, and the sneak attacks and inexplicable swats with it, so have his memories of Patagonia’s glaciers and what it was like to be a family of three. Like the glaciers, all that history is melting away into our collective memory, which is always changing and shifting, doubtless colored by our present experience.
Our pediatricians warned us about the inevitable regression Carter might experience after Winnie’s birth, and in short order Carter started sleeping with us again. At times there are four of us in one bed, a cartoonish arrangement for reluctant co-sleepers.
Each night we put Winnie in her sleep sack and hat, and place her in her bassinet next to the bed. Carter ceremoniously wedges himself between my husband and me with a huge grin, as if he has been waiting all day just for this moment.
"Goodnight Moon" and kisses ensue, and the ritual concludes.
“God Bless You, Winnie"
The other night I heard a tiny sneeze erupt from the belly of the bassinet. I took in a quick breath and braced myself: Carter would wake up and wail as he did every night after he heard Winnie make a sound, setting off a small but determined symphony of discontent in our bedroom.
I heard nothing from Carter. I thought to check on him to make sure he was breathing, an old habit. Relax, I told myself. He’s a big boy. Let him sleep; let all of us sleep. Winnie sneezed her tiny sneeze again. I waited. I clenched my teeth in the darkness.
“God bless you, Winnie,” whispered a voice so tiny from beneath the covers I almost missed it.