Firstborn son

Liam discovered a YouTube channel with a seemingly endless series of videos starring Star Wars Lego minifigures (specifically combat sequences featuring clone troopers versus battle droids). The videos are surprisingly well done, with interesting plotlines and camera angles and set design, so I gave him the go-ahead after we previewed one together while discussing the dangers of YouTube and the importance of his not clicking beyond the content published on this channel. We agreed that he would let me know if anything he encountered, advertisement-related or otherwise, left him with questions or made him doubt the appropriateness of what he was seeing. After he’d seen a few episodes, I checked in to take the pulse, and he said that it was all fine aside from the fact that they use the phrase “what the hell” and the word “crap”. I told him that didn’t worry me because I knew he could handle it as long as it didn’t make him feel too uncomfortable and because those words were very mild as far as profanity goes, and we decided that if any other oaths cropped up that gave him pause, he’d let me know. I also noted that I’d prefer that his first experiences with more mature material be within the context of our family so that he’s accurately informed, as a way to avoid misconceptions should he be exposed to the content elsewhere (like, ahem, hearing it from other kids). As he took a step toward the living room, he hesitated, then said, “Mommy? Do you remember when I said “damn it” that time when we lived in our old house?”

I had to think for a few seconds, as this event had to have taken place about six years ago, and then a vague memory swam to the surface. I had a hazy image of Liam coming down the stairs while uttering those words, and then a feeling that was at once nebulous and visceral flooded my mind. “I do remember that, sort of,” I said. “I got mad at you, didn’t I?” He confirmed this, and I felt terrible. “I’m sorry, Liam,” I said. “I don’t know if I’ve apologized for that yet, but I shouldn’t have been angry at you. That certainly was not your fault; in fact, it was probably mine because you were most likely parroting what you’d heard me say at some point. I must have been worried that you’d repeat it at school or something and felt like I needed to impress upon you the importance of NOT saying things like that because you were really too young to be using those words. When you’re that little, you aren’t ready to practice the kind of discernment necessary to understand how and when words like those can fit into dialect, and you need to fill that language acquisition space in your brain with more useful vocabulary to help you express specific ideas. Not until you’ve achieved the kind of fluency that will allow you to say exactly what you’re trying to say in almost all situations does it make sense to add those unnecessary words into the mix. That being said, I really wish I hadn’t acted angry at you that day because you certainly didn’t understand any of this, and you had no frame of reference to inform the moment you said those words. I should have behaved in an opposite way, and I wish I could go back and do it differently.”

I gave him a hug, and he happily retreated to the other room with his iPad peopled with animated Lego versions of automatons from a galaxy far, far away, leaving me to ruminate while applying a dry rub to some pork chops. As a firstborn myself, I know the challenges implicit in leading the pack into life, and I also appreciate the learning curve that new parents have to undertake in their first experience of guiding a new human through his tenderest years. I feel compassion for those parents as well as for my former self, even in that misguided moment at the bottom of the stairs when I reacted with ire instead of grace, when I didn’t have the clarity of experience to impart a healthier method of expression to my consciousness.

In trying the flip the script, I’m seeing this retrospective reconsideration of the “damn it” moment as a kind of gift of redemption. It gave me the experience of admitting to my child that I had made a mistake and apologizing for it, of recognizing that I know things now that I wasn’t aware of at the time. It gave me the opportunity to explain that I lacked understanding and acted poorly as a result, to look my son in the eyes and say “mea culpa” with dignity, to make it clear to him that because he was our first child, we’ve had to figure out a lot throughout his decade of life. I pointed out that, though I was in the wrong that day, I possessed neither the education nor the insight necessary to inform my behavior and so I deserve no self-flagellation. Ignorance isn’t bliss, but it sometimes can confer a kind of innocence.

The burden of the firstborn is real: you are on the front lines of your generation. You are the one blazing the trail of childhood, igniting your parents’ trial by fire that lights their pathway through parenthood. You are, in many cultures, the primary inheritor, be it of title or reputation or responsibility. You are the prototype, the guinea pig, the culture in a petri dish representing the object of examination in the motherhood experiment. You are the teacher of your parents, the one who has to hold their hands while they cross the street between being a person and being a person who is also a mother or a father. The mantle across your shoulders is a weighty one, and though you must be strong to support it, it also imbues you with strength of character. You are born into a leadership role, whether you like it or not, and the power of your influence is both a diamond diadem and crown of thorns. It’s a wand you carry and cross you bear.

I’m really not worried about Liam picking up a swearing habit, partly because he already has a cursing canon of his very own. He’s on the record for exclaiming, “What in the name of Thor!” while shaking his fist on several occasions. He’s uttered “Ka-SHINGA!” and “Moo-SAka!” (homophone of “moussaka” but with emphasis on the second syllable, unlike the Greek pronunciation), which are original coinages, more than a few times. And frequently, as an expression of frustration, he drops the hot phrase “chicken nuggets” despite repeated requests that this annoying epithet be excised from his lexicon aside from when he’s discussing actual pieces of breaded poultry. This is a child who actively resists negative influences, who travels the straight and narrow by choice because it makes him feel safe. Whether this is due to birth order or personality, or both, I don’t know, but I’m glad that he’s the one who came first. If his younger brother had been the older brother, who knows what things would be like over here. This is why, when “chicken nuggets” is interjected into my airspace roughly once every waking hour of my life when Liam is home, I don’t even give a damn.

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