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The Drama of the Second Child

Poor Maxine. Somehow she makes it into newsprint and pixels so much less often than Josie does. I’m nuts about her, I swear, but because I’ve already been through all her developmental stages once, I think they make less interesting copy. (For instance, I was entranced when baby Josie pretended to pluck and eat little bits of fur off the cat. But when Max did it, zzz. Now I believe that infantile feline-mock-pluckage is a common baby grooming behavior, probably an evolutionarily significant throwback to nutritive lice-noshing.) Anyway, to be brutal: Maxine’s growth is not news, whereas Josie is perpetually finding novel and fascinating ways to annoy me.

So today, let us sing a song of the less-dwelled-on younger sibling. I love her quizzical eyebrows and her huge hugs. I marvel at how even-keeled she is, how she needs so little incentive to be happy, even in mid-tantrum. (All you have to do is say, “Hey Max, wanna give Yoyo a kitty treat?” She stops mid-scream and goes running gleefully for the package of Milky Flake-Ums.) She’s a top-notch cuddler. Where Josie was always super-busy — reading, building, climbing, socializing with the entire planet (she’d hand books to strangers on the subway and order, “Read to me”) — Max is a snuggly mama’s girl. She’s constantly climbing into my lap, stroking my arm, telling me, “You look boootiful in dat dress.” (I should really rent her out for parties.) I have to remain hyper-alert when removing the tray from her high chair, because the minute it’s gone, whether I’m ready or not, she launches into my arms, a luscious little projectile.

Which is not to say she’s not a manipulative little troublemaker. A couple of months ago, she deliberately ripped a lift-the-flap book and announced with a gleam in her eye, “Now I need tape!” (Tape is the meth of the toddler world.) I said, “We don’t rip books. I’m going to tape it, not you.” Begging and whining ensued, until I told her, “I’m not going to reward you with tape for ripping a book!” Max gave me the wide, innocent eyes and said, “I’m only a baby!”

I joke that she’s my Jewier child. She’s got the wild, Einsteinian ’fro. She loves pickles, capers and olives even more than her sister does. (She puts pitted olives on every finger and does a sort of Fosse-like jazz-hands number she calls “Ollie Fingers.”) She can eat a half-pound of Russ & Daughters smoked salmon in a sitting; I’ve taken to buying her packages of Acme smoked fish so I don’t have to spend her entire college tuition on fine Gaspé. Last summer, wearing a tee with the “Aladdin Sane” album cover on it, she kept referring to the musician pictured as “David Bubbe.”

She’s her own person. She loves jokes. At 15 months, she wanted to hear “Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb” over and over. I’d read, “Hand picks an…” and she’d yell, “Apple!” And then I’d read the next line: “Hand picks a…” and she’d yell, “Apple!” again. (The actual text is “Hand picks an apple/Hand picks a plum,” which Max knew full well.) Mock-frustrated, I’d yell, “Not apple! Plum!” and she’d dissolve in giggles. At 17 months, she changed the game. I’d say, “Hand picks an…” and she’d yell, “Apple!” and then I’d say, “Hand picks a…” and she’d scream, “Nose!” Hilarity ensued.

But in general, books aren’t her thing. At storytime in the library, she rolls on the floor like Teri Garr in the hay cart in “Young Frankenstein.” She’s a girl of action. She hates to wait. When confronted with a slow elevator, she bellows, “Come on, Evvellator! I don’t have all day!” Dragging her stroller into the middle of the living room, buckling herself in, she urges her babysitter Rita, “I’m ready! I’m buckled! Let’s go to Pumpkins!” (That would be Tompkins, as in Tompkins Square Park playground.)

And of course, she wants to do whatever Josie’s doing. If Josie’s using big-girl scissors, Max wants them. The safety scissors are vile unto her sight. Whatever song Josie’s singing is the song Max wants to sing. She often regales us with the traditional wedding song she’s (sort of) picked up from Josie: “Here comes the bride… here comes the broom!” Josie’s learning sign language in school, so Maxine waves her little fingers around importantly. When Josie’s playing with stickers, Max needs them. Just the stickers on Josie’s paper and in her hand, you understand. All other stickers are rotten, bad stickers. When Josie got Magic Markers as a gift, Max was done with crayons. Sadly, this means that between baths, Maxine looks like a walking Cy Twombly painting. Lately, she’s taken to grabbing whatever Josie’s playing with and running away at top speed while yelling, “No fighting, guys!” Nice try, kid.

But she can be generous too. She offers everyone her food. “Share? Want to twy?” She recently asked if she could share her breakfast with me and with her stuffed bear. I took the proffered spoonful of yogurt; Maxine then turned to bear. But it was not to be. “He has no mouth,” she reported sadly.

She loves the social niceties. She introduces herself to the Fed Ex guy and the plumber. “I’m Max. Dat my sister Jojo. Dis is Bear. What’s your name?” If she drops something, she flutters her hands like a neurasthenic Victorian heroine and dithers, “Oh dear, oh dear!” She says thank you for everything, constantly, without being reminded. And so enthusiastically! If she asks if she can wear the brown shoes and I say sure, she gasps, “Oh, thank you, mama! Thank you!” We recently left a baby naming and she turned at the door and called to our hosts, “Goodbye! Thank you for saving us!” (She meant “Thank you for having us,” but she’s right. Babies do save us.)

And she’s my baby. When Josie was her age, she seemed so much bigger and older than Max does to me now. Three years ago at this time, Josie was in the middle of toilet training; I haven’t even started training Max. And why would I? She’s just a baby! Her terrible two moments don’t faze me as much as Josie’s did. She’s just a baby! The awareness that I’m probably done with childbearing makes me cling even more to her babydom.

Besides, how can I get too upset with her when her storms blow over so quickly? Her default setting is delight. Josie’s is focused, laser-sharp intensity. Both are fine ways to be. Is Maxine a more relaxed kid because I’m a more relaxed parent the second time around? Maybe. But I also know my two kids were born with wildly different personalities. I could see it when they were each a day old and learning to nurse. Josie thrashed and screamed in frustration until she passed out. Maxine’s lower lip quivered, and then she tried again. But eventually, they both learned.

It’s the strangest thing for someone like me, an inveterate ranker, a keeper of lists. How do you love two people so much and so differently? But there’s a children’s book called “I Love You the Purplest” that expresses it perfectly. Like the mom in that story, I have one child I love the bluest and another I love the reddest. And asking me who I love more is like asking whether I prefer my respiratory system or my circulatory system. It’s kind of hard to imagine life without both. Ptui, ptui.

Write to Marjorie at [email protected].

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