Firstborn cuts paths for brothers

Posted Jan. 02, 2011, at 7:58 p.m.

Several weeks ago, in response to a column about a particular Sears advertisement, a reader suggested that I mostly — and unfairly — write about my oldest son, Ford, 10. This reader should take a ticket and get in line behind my other children, Owen, 8, and Lindell, 3, to file his grievance.

Granted, Owen and Lindell are more likely to complain about who gets more cookies or a bigger present (the only thing they don’t want me to make even is the amount of green beans they each get) than what I write about. Still, I have limited patience for the whole fairness thing. Therefore, the file-your-grievances-here line moves rather slowly. In fact, with multiple children, the line is a lot like my e-mail in box — it’s never empty.

Of course, this reader’s comment is nothing new. Several times a year, in response to various columns, readers write to tell me that I favor Ford. This is a relief to Dustin because it means that people have forgotten all the columns about him. I remind these readers that I do write about Lindell (anyone remember when Lindell announced at Christmas that his friend Preston needed help “wiping his butt”?) and that Owen, after the whole waffle-flopper incident, requested that I never put his name in print again. He has since retracted his request, but I’m still gun-shy.

There is some truth to these readers’ accusations. Columns about Ford number are second only to columns about Dustin having another Clark Griswald moment. But this doesn’t mean that I favor Ford more than I favor my other children. It means that his experiences are more novel and interesting.

Here’s why:

Ford, like all firstborn children, is a human weed whacker. He is walking through the dense woods of growing up, and overgrown limbs (learning experiences) and weeds (life lessons) are smacking him in the face. He can’t see far in front of him because there are only more and more weeds and limbs. He knows these will also whip him in the face as he passes by, clearing a path.

Owen, like all second-born children, is crouched behind Ford and grimacing every time he hears a limb snap or his older brother moan in agony. His hands are on Ford’s waist, and he leans his body this way and that, daring to look, then retreating to the safety of Ford’s back. But mostly, Owen is thankful for a cleared walkway. He has never had to weed-whack. Ford’s face is marked by all the obstacles he has forced out of the way; Owen’s face has seldom met a twig that didn’t hit his brother’s face first.

You can see this when they are getting ready for school in the morning. While I am scolding Ford for losing his gloves and hat (again), Owen slinks away to find his own. Soon he is completely dressed and waiting on the front porch, undoubtedly making mental notes about where to keep his winter gear in the future so that he will never lose them.

You also can see it when Ford comes home from school with new information about what is and is not cool. Ford has to learn these things as they hit him in the face. Not only does Owen have the benefit of advance notice, but his path has been cleared, too.

Lindell is so far removed from the weed whacker, he is simply drafting. He does not know that there ever were limbs and weeds. Sometimes this is to his detriment. The path, unexpectedly, has regrown partially in between him and Owen. This is what makes Lindell more like Ford than Owen.

But there is another side to this. As Ford is clearing the way, his experiences are new for me, too. Parents talk about this a lot, only in different language: the diminishing scrapbooks and birthday extravaganzas. These are mere symptoms of a larger issue. It’s not that the second and third children are less loved, it’s that the experiences of the second and third are less dramatic (less snapping, less scarring, less weed whacking) and therefore less notable.

I cried the whole week before Ford turned 10 years old. I wrote a column about it, too. In two years, when Owen turns 10, or in 7 years when Lindell does, the experience will not be as brutal. I may or may not feel compelled to write a column about it.

Of course, there also are life’s little surprises, things that don’t follow the order of first, second and third. I know that Ford’s first word was dog (spoken as “God”), and Owen’s first word was probably “car” (spoken like a Mainer: “cah”), but even though Lindell is last, and theoretically his first word should be somewhat less memorable, I know, because it devastated me so much, that his was “SpongeBob.” He had veered from the path. In fact, it could be argued that Ford and Owen had led him there.

Which leads me to wonder, where were the park rangers when all this SpongeBob-watching was happening? Most likely, they were tired.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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