Second Born

Simpler days, when coats fit well and all was good.

We are at a standoff, my youngest daughter and I, its players each dependent upon weather and weariness and which will simply give out first. It is a battle of wills, but also of pragmatism, each of us locked into our idea of the way it has to be, and neither inclined to change our minds. We are quite exhausted by now, quite wrung out, but not worn out – and therein lies the crux of the problem.

She doesn’t want to wear the coat.

Bright snowy white with starbursts of colour; a cheerfully-lined interior the hue of ripe watermelon flesh, and a hood that extends into a crescendo of cuteness – a bent peak and a small pom, that, when worn jauntily atop a small head, gives the acute appearance of pixie-ness.

My older daughter wore this coat lovingly for two years, bursting from the doors of the classroom in all her gnomish glory, into the snowy, windy, wet schoolgrounds, cozy and warm, month after month. She smiled sweetly at the exclamations her coat invited; let all manner of gloved hand pat the snowy pom resting atop her bent-hooded head; enjoyed thoroughly the originality of her ensemble, a rainbow above the dismal backdrop of the long, long winter.

My younger daughter, soon to turn six, does not want to be a rainbow among the clouds. She wants nothing to do with gnomes or pixies or peaked caps and watermelon hues. She does not want to walk through the schoolyard a burst of confetti in the gray morning light when surely there is nothing yet to celebrate at such an ungodly hour, having been rousted from her cozy lair beneath the blankets on the couch.

She doesn’t want to wear the coat that her older sister loved and wore for two years. She hates the coat, won’t wear it. The coat, unlike my patience, is not yet worn out.

I am not unsympathetic to her point of view. As the second born herself, my child’s mother remembers the injustice of a wardrobe comprised 70% of hand-me-downs; recalls the sting of knowing that whatever suited her sister will one day land in her drawer, whether it suits the future wearer or not. She remembers that it is not always fair to be relegated a carbon copy of an older sister a year or two later; version two receiving goods now faded but not enough for the bin; worn but not enough to be freed from the small humiliation of being clothed and shod nearly entirely in seconds.

But to explain to my small child that this is not punitive; that the measure is one of practicality and good housekeeping and fiscal responsibility, is no balm to her chaffed countenance. She does not understand – or, more accurately, does not care – that the coat is still good, and that good coats cost money; too much money to cast away because of something as fleeting and immaterial as personal style.
Unless … it is not the style that my daughter objects to, but the shackling of her personality to that of her elder sibling’s.

Perhaps my daughter, not yet six, is already so cognitively aware of her position in the family and the dynamics adherent to birth order that she simply will not allow us to cast her into a predetermined role, that of baby, yes, but also, in a purely existential way, of shadow. Perhaps she is asserting her strength of character and refusal to be second to anyone or any thing, from the womb to the closet to her position later in life, assuring us that she will lead, that she will not accept the seconds that life may offer – that she will fight against the oppression of the hand-me-down, allowing her parents to move into their golden years secure in the knowledge that their children – both of them – will always be strong, be independent, fight for the top, regardless of the predestined arrangement from whence they came. Perhaps her parents are raising the next generation of Emma Goldmans and Simone de Beauvoirs and Tina Feys. Perhaps her mother must begin to see this act of refusal as the revolution it is, lead by a diminutive trailblazer with tousled hair and a steely resolve. Her mother’s heart swells.

Her mother's heart deflates. No. It is a simple act of assertion. She hates the coat and refuses to put it on.

Is it because you feel like your needs as an individual are not being met, her mother asks?

No. The coat is ugly.

Is it because you would rather march through the untested wilds of the dark, unknown forest than trot happily along a path that others have used and proved unchallenging, her mother asks?

No. The coat is yucky and she won’t wear it. 

And so we stand, my daughter and me, unable to budge from this battle being waged on all psychological fronts. She, believing her mother to be mean and unwielding, and me, understanding finally that I am dealing with a child more fashionista despot than disadvantaged revolutionary.

But my bright-eyed, tow-headed, clever, stubborn child can not yet anticipate that I have, in my quiver, the only arrow I need as it is guaranteed to sail blithely onto its mark, and soon.

Winter is coming, and there is no other coat. Even she of the icy will cannot melt the ice that appears soon on the window sash.

The temperature is dropping, and soon this argument will be dropped as well, and  tucked away, by me into a scrapbook of memories to be brought out of the cupboard later in life, over a cup of coffee and punctuated by laughter and admiration. She of course, will store this battle first in the suitcase of bitterness and injustice that each child fills until they are about 22 years old, at which time the resentments dry up and turn to dust and we breathe them back in as wisdom and understanding and maybe just a little bit of guilt that means she’ll bring the good biscuits when she comes to join me for that coffee.

Because my dear, it’s good to learn that in Canada, in November, whether you are the first, the second, the fourth or the tenth; whether the coat is ugly or beautiful, new or old, one you love or one you hate, eventually, it’s going to be put on, zipped up, worn out.

(Mother) nature always wins.