Her brother’s keeper

Probably the best compliment I’ve been given lately is being told I look like my daughter. Or she looks like me. Either way, I like it. She has my eyes and, lucky for her, her father’s nose. Someone recently commented on how lovely her hair looked, with its amber highlights, and asked me if they were natural. Of course they are. She’s five.

Before I had Annabelle, I’d always wanted a girl, so I could buy dolls and play dress-up. Someone to shop with me. There’s a little bit of irony there. I wanted a girl so I’d have someone to shop with, but because I have two young children most of the shopping I do now involves replenishing our supply of soymilk and chicken nuggets. Not exactly retail therapy.

But even though I always wanted a daughter, Annabelle came about in no small part because of her brother, who needed a sibling. Some kids probably don’t need one, but I thought Oliver did.

It became apparent early in Oliver’s life that he did not like to be alone. He needed the company of another more than the average human, but it could not be just any other and it could not be a roomful of strangers. It had to be someone familiar.

One of the first things we learned about Oliver after he was born was that we couldn’t put him down. We took turns, Dan and I, one of us holding Oliver while the other slept, for the first two months of his life. I held him while Dan was at work and when Dan slept, so I am reasonably certain that I held him the most, although my husband might contest that point. I also nursed him. Every other weekend my mom would visit and hold him while we both slept or tried to sleep.

By the time Oliver was three months old, we discovered that we could put him down in his crib and he would sleep for several hours at a time. That was when I restarted doing things that most people do every day, like bathing, getting dressed, and going to the bathroom. Even though he slept in his crib by then, he was still very sensitive. When he’d get worked up, we’d take him into the bathroom, turn out the lights, turn on the fan for white noise, and bounce up and down, shushing in his ear, and patting his back, until he calmed down. If that didn’t work to calm Oliver’s nerves, sometimes the sound of the vacuum cleaner did. When he was five months old, if I had to go somewhere with Oliver, I would take the Dustbuster with me to calm him down in the event of emergency.

I think he was about that age when I decided to get a haircut. I left the house for one hour. When I returned, my husband ran outside as I got out of the car.

“I’m so glad you’re back,” he said, ushering me inside, where my mother was in the rocking chair trying to soothe a frantic Oliver.

When Oliver was two, I weaned him from nursing, joined a playgroup, and slowly started to feel human again. Oliver wasn’t the most social toddler. He would go to playdates, but preferred that I always stay within eyesight. He and I slept in the same bed every night, my husband alone in the grownup bed across the hall. Our family was like a triangle, with Oliver at the apex. What we needed, I thought, was to become a square.

When I told Dan I wanted a second child, I was thinking that two children would even out our family. Without another, I thought, Oliver and I might end up sleeping in the same bed for years to come, and he might never leave my side at the playground, which would eventually be more of a hindrance to his social development than mine.

Dan agreed that Oliver, like any two-year-old, was becoming increasingly opinionated, assertive, and more self-centered, at least at home. In public, he still clung to me, his only opinion being that I should not leave. Surely having to share the attention of adults and our family resources would make him less inclined to be self-absorbed, we assumed. And surely having a sibling with him on the playground would make him less fearful of strangers.

I pitched the idea of a foster child. While I wanted a fourth wheel in our family, I was afraid of having another postpartum hemorrhage like I did right after Oliver was born. It was the closest I’d ever come to dying, and I didn’t want to go through it again. I also didn’t think I’d mind skipping infancy all together. Yes, there were precious moments, but I’d really started to enjoy life during the toddler years. Why not just fast-forward to that part, I asked Dan. If things worked out with a foster child, we could adopt.

But he wasn’t so sure. He thought the emotional turmoil we’d experience with a foster child would likely outweigh any benefit I’d have from avoiding another near-death experience in labor and delivery and the complete abdication of self that goes along with mothering a newborn.

With the ball in my court, I decided I should push my luck with just one more pregnancy, labor and infant-rearing. All along, I hoped for a girl, but told myself it would be OK if it was a boy. Two boys wouldn’t be the worst thing ever, I thought, but I knew I wouldn’t try again for a girl. I never saw myself as someone strong enough to parent three children.

When I was five or six months pregnant, we had to see a specialist because of a dark spot on an ultrasound. We talked about amniocentesis and lots of what-ifs. Dan said he thought he saw something indicating the baby was a boy. I lay there despondent in a paper dress. Not only was I starting straight down the barrel of having a special-needs child, but it would not be the girl I had hoped for.

Then the doctor came in and told us it was all wrong. The baby probably did not have a heart defect. There was little chance of a serious disability. And it was a girl.

A girl.

I didn’t cry until I was alone that night. Until then, I hadn’t let myself think too much about choices I didn’t want to make. But it was OK now, because all that was over.

So then we had to choose a name. Oliver wanted her to be Ariel, after his favorite Disney character. Dan and I were leaning toward Annabelle.

“If you name her Annabelle, she’ll be a crybaby and she’ll be my slave,” Oliver said.

We did it anyway. When three-year-old Oliver walked into the hospital room to see his newborn sister, the first thing he said when he looked up at me was, “Are you still my mother?”

I don’t know if he knew then that I’d had Annabelle as much for him as for myself.

Yet in those hours of my labor with Annabelle, I felt the strongest longing to be at home in bed with Oliver, where I felt safe. As I entered the dark tunnel that is labor not knowing what complications were in store, I experienced the anxiety of being separated from him. The feeling was deeper then and more acute than it had been in the months before Annabelle was born, when I’d had the good sense to enjoy the time I had alone with Oliver, knowing our family dynamic was about to change forever.

Now that they are five and eight, I would say that having a sibling has been a good thing for Oliver. At the playground, friends remark how he depends on Annabelle and rarely ventures off without her. He’s the cautious one; she’s the reckless independent. They make a pretty good team for a boy and girl three years apart, most of the time. Of course, they also fight over petty things and take each other for granted.

Annabelle, who has never known any life other than having to share everything, adores her older brother. When he and Dan are gone camping, she insists on playing in his room, sleeping in his bed, even wearing his pajamas. This drives Oliver crazy because he’s very particular about HIS things. As the oldest of three, I can relate, but I have to think that part of Annabelle’s fascination with Oliver’s things comes from her love for him and not just a selfish urge to get at his stuff when he’s not looking.

Dan calls her our little happy-go-lucky girl. Of all our family members, she’s the one who really knows how to enjoy life. I envy that, and sometimes I think I’d be more well-adjusted if I’d been the second-born. When I look at Annabelle, I often wonder if I’ll spend the rest of my life wishing I was more like my daughter. If I do, I know that makes me lucky.