I’m Still Mourning The End Of The Only-Child Days

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 

When he was 4 years old, my first son became obsessed with marble mazes. He had several sets: an expensive wooden one, a flimsy plastic one, one he’d gotten as a hand-me-down from a friend and a few more. He could spend hours watching YouTube videos of people setting up mazes—the different routes, angles, drop-offs. His eyes would dart around hypnotically as he watched the marble weave its way down, around and through. He watched without blinking. He was obsessed.

That time was long ago, it seems. He’s 8 ½ now. Gone are the days of endless play, just him and me, cocooned together at home, playing marbles, watching YouTube, doing whatever we damn well pleased. Now his days are filled with school, friends, homework, swim lessons. And though I have made an effort not to overschedule him, his free time is never what it once was.

More importantly, now he has a little brother to share my attention with, and although my husband and I do our best to carve out chunks of quality one-on-one time with him, it’s not the same.

I was recently in his room, cleaning. It was quiet, and I felt like I could absorb something of his essence there, surrounded by all of his things. That’s when I saw it: his collection of empty paper towel and toilet paper holders, arranged in size order on his windowsill. He had been asking us to save them so that he could construct a giant marble-maze sometime soon. I had saved them for him, as he’d asked, without really thinking about it. But when I saw them there, in the stillness of his empty room, neatly arranged and waiting, I wanted to cry.

I felt a pang of sentimentality for those old days of early childhood play, and wondered where the years had gone. I wanted them back.

But then I was pushed back into our present life, and my first thought was: How on earth would we find the time to help him build this elaborate marble maze? Constructing such a thing would require hours, extra materials, some physics lessons, and—knowing our perfectionist son—quite a few tears. But what complicated things most was that his 2-year-old brother would have to be out of the picture to make it possible for us to work on it with him. Given our busy and complicated lives, that possibility seemed pretty remote.

We waited five years to have a second child. We only wanted two children to begin with, and we were young, so we had the luxury to wait. My husband and I both have five-year gaps between ourselves and our younger siblings, and it seemed to work out well; we remember playing with our siblings, teaching them new things, and not dealing with too much fighting or sibling drama.

Finances were also an issue in our decision-making process. When the Great Recession hit, my husband got a pay cut, and several of his part-time gigs were cut. Soon after, his job was cut altogether, and he began to look for new work. It just never seemed like the right moment to add another child to the mix.

But it was more than that. Much more. There was a magic we had when it was just the three of us. My husband and I are first-borns—intense, passionate, creative, focused—just like our first-born son. To say we gave our son a lot of attention then would be an understatement: We gave him everything. He was precocious, highly intelligent, and we soaked it up. We wrote books with him, taught him to read, multiply, divide. We taught him U.S. and world history, read every great children’s novel together. We did art, science and history projects.

We had to will ourselves into having a second child. I knew we couldn’t wait too much longer, and I knew I would regret it if we didn’t have another child. But I have a confession to make: I had not one ounce of baby craving. I was doing it out of allegiance to a plan, and to ward off any future regret.

Our first son took 18 long months to conceive. So when it came time to conceive our second child, we expected a similar drawn-out time frame, which gave us comfort. But our second son was conceived on the first try. I was shocked and panicked—for most of the pregnancy really. Of course I wanted our new baby, but I felt so protective of our first son, and of the change that I knew was coming, that I couldn’t quite settle into the idea for quite some time.

You probably know how the story goes. As soon as my second child was born, looking at me with his giant, searching eyes, I fell head-over-heels in love. Every fear that I had about having a second child washed away. Really, since that moment, I have felt nothing but love and connection with my second son.

But I was right about something: It never was the same with my first child. Sure, I still have a strong bond with him. I make sure to spend one-on-one time with him as much as possible. Each night, I lie down with him before bed, and as soon as the lights go out, it’s just him and me, like we always were. We cuddle (though not nearly as much as we used to), he tells me the highlights of his day—school happenings, his hopes, his fears, his rambling thoughts about whatever video game he is currently obsessed with (I try my best to pay attention, but it’s hard!).

He and my younger son have the bond that I hoped for. Yes, they fight often enough (he had to put those toilet paper and paper towel rolls on a very high shelf so his little brother wouldn’t co-opt them), but they also play together beautifully, rolling around on the bed together, chasing each other on the playground. I see my older son take on a parental role with him sometimes, teaching him new things, protecting him from falling down the stairs, taking his hand as we cross the street.

But I am still mourning the loss of our long days together, of the way I could focus solely on him, whether he was with me or not. It was like a love affair that quickly ended. I will forever have a tiny scar from that heartbreak.

I don’t think it was the wrong decision to have a second child. Most of the time, we seem to strike a healthy balance and can give our children equal attention. And I know for sure that if I only had one child, I would regret it. I always knew I wanted two, and I’m sure at some point, the baby fever would have gotten to me. In fact, although I don’t think we’ll have any more children, I have had some recent moments of baby craving—far more than when my first son was the age my second son is now.

Summer’s coming soon, and we will finally have more time to tackle the kinds of projects my son and I used to do together. By then, he will have saved up enough toilet paper and paper towel tubes to construct his maze. Once the marble maze is complete (I see it attached to the wall above his bed, but he may have other plans), I’m sure he’ll invite his little brother inside, and show him where to launch the marble. They will both watch with wide eyes as it careens down, and all around. And maybe he will take his brother’s hand, guide it to the right spot, and let him catch the marble as it makes its final exit.

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