i love you both unequally

Nobody tells you that the hardest thing about having a new baby is kicking the old baby out of the nest of your heart.

Published June 18, 1997 6:32PM (EDT)

every pregnant woman awaiting the birth of a second child steels herself for the onslaught to come. Two kids are more than twice as much work, the common wisdom goes, and alongside the hopeful mental images we allow ourselves of enchanted, careful older siblings cuddling "their" babies are the scary pictures of wailing arguments over disputed toys, dinner times disrupted by imagined slights and the logistical nightmare of schlepping six bags of groceries, a stroller (with sleeping child) and a car seat (with hungry infant) from the garage a block and a half away to your apartment three flights up -- in the rain.

"It's hard," warn our two-plus children friends, and you can see the evidence of how hard it is in the dark circles under their eyes. But why is it that nobody tells you that the hardest part of having more than one child is kicking your older, light-of-your-life, beloved child out of the nest of your heart to make room for a baby?

For reasons obscured by time (perhaps prompted by the familiar question, "Who do you love more -- me, the older kid, or the baby?"), my mother once told me that, as the pregnant mother of a toddler, she couldn't imagine how she could love another baby as much as she loved her firstborn. "But then you were born, and I loved you just as wildly as I loved Billy. And later, when I was pregnant with John, I worried again -- how could I have enough love for three? But John arrived, and it seemed that my heart just expanded to make room for him."

I suppose it's true that we have an infinite capacity for love, certainly where our children are concerned. But I question whether we have an infinite capacity for the type of passionate, consuming, distilled essence of love that one feels for a baby. The love I felt for my newborn son -- that deep, visceral bond, as vivid and tender as heartbreak -- was a feeling I retained for nearly eight years. Then his sister arrived and broke the bank of my heretofore ever-expandable heart.

In the months prior to my new baby's birth, I spent a lot of time thinking about my old baby. Not only was I wistful for the happy seven years I'd spent in undivided loyalty to my one and only child, I was also worried about how a new baby would affect Zachary's life and his place in our family. Zachary was the fruit of my failed first marriage; my new baby would be his half-sister, technically. Since he was 2, Zachary has shuttled every few days between my home and his father's. He doesn't remember his life before his stepfather was in it, and he calls both of the fathers in his life Daddy. As enthusiastically as Zachary had campaigned for a little brother or sister, once he had one, I wondered, would he really be happy? Even when that baby got to stay home with Mom all the time, and he was still shuttling back and forth between houses? Would he feel jealous when his stepfather doted on the baby?

In the weeks just prior to baby Celeste's arrival, all three of Zachary's parents quietly plotted to make his transition into brotherhood as secure and untroubled as we could. As summer's meter ran low and the annual parade of day camps ended, before the start of second grade and the arrival of his little sister, Zachary and I even went away for a week together at the family retreat in the Sierra foothills. It was the week of the Perseid meteor shower, and we planned to sleep on the back porch of the big log cabin and watch the stars fall over our heads. We would walk the creekside trail with our lunches and spend afternoons at the lake, swimming and reading "The Chronicles of Narnia" and trying, dogged despite years of failure, to catch a frog.

Perhaps in part because of the unexpected and painful end of my relationship with his dad, Zachary and I have always been very close. Even too close -- or so I sometimes worried, especially during the black year when Zachary was a moody, tyrannical, unappealing 3-year-old. But that phase passed, and I was left with a whimsical, cuddly dreamer whose company I relished.

In fact, shortly after Zachary was born, I realized that, through some mysterious alchemy, he had taken over my memories. Zelig-like, he appeared throughout my past. Though he wasn't born until I was in my late 20s, I seemed to remember carrying him to the podium as I collected my high school diploma. I could almost remember holding him by one hand while holding a plastic cup of beer in the other at a college fraternity party. And wasn't that Zachary in his stroller on the family vacation to a Florida alligator farm when I was 12? No doubt my memory confusion was due to the exhaustion of sudden single motherhood, but his ever presence in the movie of my life made its point obvious -- I could not imagine myself before him or beyond him. Neither could I imagine, truly, how it might be possible for me to love another child as hopelessly and effortlessly. As desired as this second baby was, I felt a little sorry for her.

So Celeste was born, but only after a difficult seven-week preamble set into motion by premature labor. Though drugs and bed rest stopped the early labor, my instincts moved inexorably forward, and I could focus on nothing but the Force of Motherhood. I reminded myself of a friend's pet rabbit, who inexplicably plucked out all of the fur on her chest one morning and then -- surprise! -- gave birth. Ten minutes before Celeste's arrival, I looked up at the clock between pushes and realized that Zachary's school was about to let out for the day. To everyone's amazement, including my own, I barked at my husband to call his parents and the school, so that Zachary could be ushered in as soon as the baby was born. Gary hesitated, so I handed him the receiver. Not for a minute -- not even on Pitocin -- could I forget my sweet boy. Celeste was born at 3:27 p.m., school got out at 3:30 and Zachary walked into the room to meet his sister a few minutes later.

The transition into a fierce, uncontrollable, feral instinct to Protect The Infant crept noiselessly upon me over the first few days of Celeste's life. Two days of wonderment and bliss gave way as a heat wave burned off my postnatal euphoria. My breasts grew hard as melons, and Zachary's hovering over his focusless, moonfaced sister grew increasingly irritating and oppressive. Everything Zachary did infuriated me. To my horror, I realized that the "thing" I was protecting my newborn from was the huge, dirty, graceless creature my older child had become overnight. He receded in my heart, becoming a cypher for my older child instead of Zachary, my first baby, my little love, and he spun away from me like a figure waving just beyond my focus in the reflection of a mirror. Meanwhile, Celeste (beautiful, delicate, peaceful Celeste) took up more and more space in my psyche, noiselessly demanding to be reckoned with, inflating exponentially, like the balloon of Bart Simpson in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

No one who has been through the experience can deny that the first weeks after childbirth are emotionally charged and hormonally merciless. Even as it was happening, as I gravitated helplessly toward my newborn and felt a gap widening between me and my eager, confused little boy, I knew we were part of an organic transformation not controllable by emotion or intellect. It was the will of the body -- my body -- that I focus my attention on the survival of my baby. And yet, sitting across the dinner table from my son, listening to his chatter while I nursed his infant sister, I often felt the urge to gather him up and beg, "Don't go!" though I knew that I was the one who was going.

"I love you both equally" -- the age-old answer sputtered by querulous, stammering parents to their querulous, suspicious children -- is a myth we would like to believe. But it's simply not possible to love any two humans equally -- to do so would defy the nature of humanness in all its individuality. I wouldn't even want to love my children equally if that meant without regard for their uniqueness, without discretion, a sort of blanket love policy that didn't itemize their gifts and quirks and weak spots. And yet, until my second child was born, I would have been furious had anyone suggested that I might love my first child less.

As much as it saddens me, the truth is that my heart did not simply "expand" to accommodate my second child. Though I do, unequivocally, love both of my children deeply, it is also true that I have been more connected to my baby than to my son since the baby's birth. The baby needs that connection, I tell myself; babies require the most passionate, most thorough love we are capable of. I also tell myself that, for eight years, I've been in the honeymoon phase -- the baby phase -- of my emotional relationship with my son. With Celeste's birth, we entered the realistic phase.

Which isn't to say that my love for my son is now finite. Like anything vital, it changes. And grows. And perhaps this change, which feels like such a loss, is also necessary and healthy. Perhaps we are now forging the relationship that will carry us, connected and yet separate, not just loving each other but with enough distance to like each other, into Zachary's adulthood. That's a comforting thought, but one with a cool breeze blowing through it, since the payoff seems so very far away.

On the final night of my week alone with Zachary last summer, the tattered shreds of cloud that had started to appear in the sky over the last couple of days finally bunched up, obscuring the stars in their flight. It was just as well: Zachary was so tired that I couldn't rouse him from his nest of blankets on the couch, where he was "resting" until, as promised, I woke him for the midnight show overhead. But earlier that day, late in the hot, still afternoon, as the sun dropped below the tree line and cast us and the lake into shadow, in a quiet broken only by the occasional liquid trilling of a grosbeak, we caught a frog. Or rather, we found a tiny frog in the tall grasses at the water's edge.

The length of my thumb and two shades of green, he had glimmering golden eyes and tiger striped legs. Sprinkled over his cool back were black speckles, as if someone had just ground pepper over him. For the longest time he patiently let us examine him, and we touched our fingertips to his creamy belly and watched him breathe. He was new, we decided, too young and confused to be afraid.

But finally he hopped away from our open hands and back to the edge of the lake, where he floated in a pool made by the matted grass. I know I will always remember that day -- not just because, as Zachary whispered triumphantly, we finally captured a frog! or because the next day, back in the city, I went into labor seven weeks early. I'll remember because I carry in my head a picture of Zachary, my firstborn, on his wet belly in the grass, his nose sprinkled with new freckles, his arms impossibly scrawny and pink with sunburn. For one last fleeting moment, he was my baby, my one and only. And then it was time to go.

By Kate Moses

Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Kate Moses

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Children Motherhood