We used to talk all the time about how easy a baby The Button was, about how she never cried without a reason. Even now, strangers remark on how outgoing and happy she seems to always be. And really, for the most part, most of the time, she is. But let there be no doubt that, as her third birthday creeps closer and closer, she is most definitely a full-fledged toddler, with full-fledged toddler emotions and full-fledged toddler tantrums.
These mostly come out when she’s frustrated about something (and probably tired at the same time)—she can’t do something she wants to do, can’t decide if she wants help or doesn’t want help, something isn’t happening or doesn’t turn out the way she expects it to and can’t explain it to anyone else. It’s understandable. And so, down on the floor she’ll go, or maybe she’ll hit a chair in frustration, and she’ll cry, and scream, repeating the same syllables over and over, the pitch getting higher and higher.
And I do my best to calm her, comfort her, help her, redirect her. But sometimes, I just can’t, and it seems that, like today, her frustration-related tantrums and need for attention happen just as I’m trying to cook dinner, with my hands covered in meat or something hot needing stirring on the stove. And poor thing, she just doesn’t get my just-a-minutes. And why should she, really?
This is yet another instance in which the difference between raising a first child and a second child is underscored, the unearned inequality of treatment of the second child who did nothing to deserved such inequitable treatment. When The Pumpkin was a baby and I was at home with her, her mother wouldn’t get home until 7:30. I’d start cooking dinner between 5:30 and 6:30, and so as to occupy her while I was in the kitchen, I’d feed her in front of the t.v. Later, when I was working outside the home and la dra. changed jobs, she had both of us home to juggle dinner prep and toddler entertainment.
But things have evolved differently with The Button. With la dra. getting home around 5:30, I usually start dinner between 4:00 and 4:30. Once we get home from picking The Pumpkin up from school, the afternoon’s packed with her doing her homework and me checking and helping her. By the time she’s done and off to doing whatever she wants (mostly) independently (like today, when she read a whole Magic Tree House book in an hour in the playroom), it’s time to get cooking. I don’t turn on the t.v., which had been The Pumpkin’s dinner-prep-time babysitter, for The Button, in part because I know if I do, her big sister will just sit there too, and I don’t want that. So I turn on the stereo and let The Button dance around to Recess Monkey or Elizabeth Mitchell, and I try to get dinner on the table.
The Button’s always been very busy and independent, moving around the house without a care and finding toys and stuff with which to amuse herself. But lately, she’s been demanding more and more attention. She wants to play dress up—”Help me, Daddy!” She wants to read a book—”How about this one? Again!” And I try to give her as much attention as I can, because she deserves it, but I also want to get dinner done and not burn anything. And so I find myself telling her, “Just a minute, honey,” more than I’d like, more than I should. Saying, “What’s wrong, sweetie?” to her screeches of frustration in the next room where she’s trying to put on another costume that won’t stay put, when I know already exactly what’s wrong, that she needs help and I’m not giving it to her. And I know I sound selfish and neglectful and begrudging.
I’m an only child. I never had any experience on any side of this before. And it seems to me that the second child is made to live life around other people’s schedules and other people’s priorities, through no fault of their own, whether they like it or not. And it’s not fair. And some part of her toddler brain knows it’s not fair. And so, the crying and the screaming and the flailing.
And so I try to wash my hands and turn down the flame as fast as I can, scoop her up and help her in or out of her second or fourth layer of costume and read her the same book for the thirteenth time that afternoon. Because she’s my baby, and I’m her daddy, and along with getting the family dinner cooked and ferrying her big sister to and from school and deciphering second grade math, that’s my job.