Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Gift of Being the Oldest

Today I was on Skype with a faraway friend who has two little children under five, and I thought again about young stay-at-home mothers and how frustrating their lives can be. Even if they live in comfortable material circumstances, there is the difficulty of keeping the home nice long enough for their husbands to see it nice. After all, it takes small children five minutes to undo an hour-long cleaning job that in actual fact takes a mother with demanding infants all day to do. Then the tired and cranky husband comes home, sees the mess and thinks, "What have you been doing all day?"

I've read that it is actually easier to be a mother of four and more than a mother of two because a mother of four and more automatically recruits the elder children to help with childcare. My first word was "diaper" because I had helpfully brought one to my mother when she was changing my first brother. I was two.

Naturally I enjoyed the power that came along with being the eldest and in charge of making sure my brothers and sisters didn't fall down the stairs, or out of trees, or in front of cars. But nowadays I just enjoy the childcare knowledge that came from youthful experience; it means that I can empathize with mothers when they talk about the "terrible twos." My youngest sister, I can say with confidence, did not actually suffer from the "terrible twos." She was a wonderfully cheerful toddler.

What she did suffer from, as do most if not all babies, was waking up in the middle of the night from birth until about the age of two. She did not like this; it made her wail. The nursery was across the hall from my room; my parents' bedroom was downstairs. So I would get up and sing my infant sister back to sleep with the small store of appropriate songs I had learned at school. "Eidelweiss" was very helpful as were "Skye Boat Song" and "Too Rah Loo Rah Loo Rah." "Too Rah Loo Rah" is fake Irish Tin Pan Alley garbage, but it worked.

I thought it was tremendously noble and saintly of me to be the one to get up and rock the baby sister back to sleep although I very much enjoyed doing it. It was extremely good for my soul, too, to be dragged out of my habitual self-absorption to think solely of someone else for an hour. Meanwhile it is probably much easier for a child of thirteen to go without an hour of midnight sleep than a busy woman of thirty-seven anyway. And since it is increasingly unlikely as each day goes by that I shall ever have infant children of my own, I am supremely grateful that I was given the opportunity to care for my mother's in such a special way.

I don't think there can be anything better than rocking your very own children to sleep, but I was reflecting that there can't be anything worse than worrying about your child when she is sick or about to do something stupid or running around with bad friends or gaily going off to an alien religious service. Maternal types without children may not experience the great highs of parenthood, but we don't experience the horrible lows, either. We gets flashes of joy and flashes of fear, the former inspiring gratitude and the latter deep compassion for parents.


Sheila said...

I wish I had a generous 13-year-old! I could tell you how last night went, but it might put you all off getting married altogether, and anyway I don't want to dwell on the awfulness of it.

Me, I was the youngest till I was 15, then my brother left home and my parents had more kids, so I was the oldest. So I put my younger siblings to bed, rocked them when they woke, and so forth. It broke my heart to leave for college, because I didn't know how my baby brother would ever go to sleep without his comfort object -- my hair!

That kid is twelve now .... how time does fly.

Julia said...

I heard a joke once related to the content of your first paragraph. Paraphrased, it goes like this:

A man comes home from work one day to see his small daughters running around in the front yard wearing mud-covered pyjamas. Startled, he collects the girls and takes them inside, where he sees toys strewn across the floor and stairs and little chocolate handprints all over the walls. He finds his wife lying in bed. 'Are you okay? What happened?' he asks. 'You know how you asked me what it is I do all day? Well, today I didn't do it,' she replies.

Seraphic said...

Ha! Toys and handprints! He obviously hadn't been in the kitchen yet.

PolishTraveler said...

This post made me have flashbacks to my pre-teen years when I was the only one in the family who could get my 8-year younger siblings through difficulties such as the evening routine of bathtime and bedtime. I loved doing it although at times I was resentful for being always chosen for the honorary backseat in between two screaming car seats ;) It did help me to learn how to care for children in a practical manner and I'm sure gave me an appreciation for just how difficult parents' work can be.

And there is something about taking care of younger siblings that leaves an indelible bond between you which lasts until much later - which is definitely my case. Now that I'm nearing 30 and they are in their early 20s it means a lot to me that they still want to confide in their older sister :)

Elspeth said...

Aww this is a great post! I have four children aged seven and under and the sleepless nights definitely get better the more you have! I also have very happy memories of caring for my baby sister when she was little. She's 25 now and helps out with my little ones!