My youngest daughter, Charlotte, just started nursery school. She attends the same school my twins did, who are six years older than she is. When the twins started, I was grateful for the phase-in period, where caregivers had to stay in the back of the room for the first few sessions, all of which were shorter than the full 2 hour 45 minutes. I was not sure they were ready to be dropped off – it seemed like a big transition for them and for me.
This time around, when I got the phase-in schedule for Charlotte, I wondered aloud to my husband why we could not just drop her off for the whole session the first day. He reminded me of how grateful I had been with the twins in 2007, and that she is actually three months younger than they were when they started. But even he, as the primary caregiver, is willing to drop her off much more readily than he was the twins.
This third child seems to benefit from our experience and also maybe suffer a bit. It’s a strange brew of impatience and wisdom and jaded parenting. It’s been called Third Child Syndrome, this brew. Parents describe forgetting to make baby books and clothing their kid in hand me downs. I think the upsides are pretty big. My toddler is adored – she has two sisters to dote on her that those two sisters did not have.
I may dote on her more too, but in a different way than with the twins. I am a less nervous parent now – hence my willingness to leave her to fend for herself at a nursery school with kids and teachers she has never met.
I am sure Second Child Syndrome exists too. But that third child, when the children outnumber the parents, changes the dynamic significantly.
I was exposed to Sixth Child Syndrome growing up, so I should have been prepared for this change in philosophy. The gulf between my youngest sister and me, the oldest, is over 14 years. My mother loves to tell me that when I was a toddler, she only bought me organic foods. Everything that went into my mouth was sterilized. With the youngest? “That Oreo fell on the floor? You can eat it.”
Sixth Child Syndrome was definitely apparent for my mom in that milestone of milestones, potty training. My youngest sister was pretty old not to be potty trained; even I, a self-absorbed 17-year-old, knew that. She was over three-and-a-half years old and changing her own pull-ups.
I asked my mom about it many years later, when my own potty training anxiety set in. As the twins passed their third birthday, I saw all the kids in their nursery school class potty trained but them. How could my mom not be concerned? With each kid, she said she grew more relaxed about it. She knew it would happen. We were all potty trained before kindergarten. And I am pretty sure my third kid will be too, even if she wears diapers a little longer than is socially acceptable. But there will be less stress.
I see other parents with their first baby, nervous to take her outside, recording and analyzing her every move, and feel a little smug at my Third Child Syndrome. I remembered how I was able to take my two-week-old to the outdoor ice skating rink in the middle of the winter to see the older kids skate, nursing her under a blanket while hunting for gloves in the skating bag. She was happy.
But then that jadedness creeps in. Sure, it was great when Charlotte took her first few steps, but was it as great as seeing it the first time when the twins did it? I am not sure.
Third Child Syndrome manifests itself in Charlotte’s naps too. She had a schedule, but it was relatively fluid, compared to the twins. Her nap has now disappeared, prompted in part by the addition of her toddler bed in the twins’ room. She falls asleep at random times now, sometimes subject to the others’ activities.
I wonder how much of the Third Child Syndrome is my lack of willingness to invest as much time or energy to worry all over again, due in part to the increasing scarcity of time and energy. Are there things I should be worrying about that get sucked into all the things I feel like I can disregard, patting myself on the back for being a non-obsessive mother?
I see another syndrome in there too, mixing it up. It’s Last Child Syndrome. The knowledge that this is most likely my last chance to experience these moments of toddlerhood infuses each of them with more meaning. I held her a little tighter during our last breastfeeds, and I stretched those out into her early toddlerhood, knowing this would be it.
I feel more confident that Charlotte will do fine with less interaction from me. She will not be damaged if we don’t read Goodnight Moon again and again. At the same time, I want to sit with her and read it, and savor her giggle at Goodnight Nobody. I just have to make sure the twins have finished their homework first.
When I returned to the nursery school my twins left years ago to take Charlotte for her first day, it felt surreal. The classroom looked the same but I was so different. I sat in the back of the room for her first session, just an hour, and did work. She played with the puzzles and the kitchen (a set up we had for her sisters but not her – we have no space now). She sang and danced as if I was not there. When it was over, she trotted towards me, a big grin on her face. She took my hand. “My ‘chool was fun,” she said. And at that moment, she was not my first, second, third or last kid. She was my only one.