Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The first waffle

Many years ago, when my children were small, we attended a weekend family retreat. The children went off to work on craft projects with their leaders while the adults gathered for a presentation on parenting.

The guest speaker took us through the roles each child assumes in the family, according to their birth order. "Ordinal positioning," he called it.

He described the oldest child by comparing them to the first waffle.

When you make waffles, the first one is often "experimental" as you determine that the waffle iron is exactly the right temperature and you've poured exactly the right amount of batter into it; that you have opened the cover in exactly the right time for the waffle to be completely done without over or under-cooking.

Then your confidence builds with each waffle that follows, the speaker continued. He suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that perhaps we should just discard that first waffle.

I am the oldest of six children. That first waffle.

The first waffle.
Far from perfect.
The responsibility is great and the challenge daunting for the parents of a first-born. It will continue to be daunting as they try to determine just what this child needs, just how to respond, just how far they can go, just how much freedom to allow. And you worry that they won't be just perfect.

Because that is what you expect with your first child:  perfection.

After all, they are a reflection on you.

And then comes Child #2. You relax a bit. The first child seems to be doing okay. And with Child #3, you relax even more, as the first two have done nicely. You loosen your grip. Things just come naturally. All is well.

Besides, you don't have time to focus all of your energy on one child, as you did before.

But much continues to be expected from that first child.

The waffles that follow come so much easier, but that first waffle is still a bit too crisp around the edges, a bit undone in the center. You keep pushing to make it better and better, more and more perfect.

That is the plight of the first child. I should know. I lived it. Much was expected. I was the example for my four sisters and brother. They were watching me. Comparing everything to me.

But oh, the joys the first child experiences!  I got those, too.

Me with Mom and Dad
The first high school graduation
Having your parents delight in all your firsts, because you go through them first. The first words, first steps, the first to board the school bus. The first to read, the first to graduate, the first wedding, the first grandchild.

It is a privilege to be the first-born, despite having to suffer through the anxieties and over-protectiveness of your doting parents. 

And yes, there is responsibility.

When my father died nine years ago, I was an emotional wreck. I helped my mother carry out funeral plans, but I was not the one looked to by others for strength, because Mom was there.

I cried through the entire service, and though I had written a eulogy, I could barely deliver it. My sister, Christine, had to come forward to help me read it.

I didn't understand how my mother could be so calmly singing "What A Friend We Have in Jesus," listening to the minister so intently, greeting people with sincere gratitude for coming, graciously accepting my father's flag at the cemetery.

But when my mother passed last month, I was a tower of strength. I was able to make decisions, carry out funeral arrangements, notify friends and relatives, sing robustly throughout the service, confidently deliver the eulogy without written notes, direct others through the burial and the luncheon that followed.

All without a tear. I felt like a cement block.

Why?  Because I am the oldest and it was expected. Training since the day I was born to take over, and I was prepared.

It was a privilege that I felt deep inside my heart. My sisters and brother looked to me, as the oldest. The first-born. A place of honor. I was ready.

When we knew we were losing our mother at the hospital, and were gathered together as a family, my sister, Edie, turned to me and said softly, "Carol, will you be our Mom, now?"

No request has ever been made of me that has touched me so deeply.

The only feeling that tops it is the overwhelming awe I felt with the birth of my own first-born. I hope I have prepared her well without expecting perfection, knowing I probably did just that.

The retreat speaker all those years ago may have been thought-provoking.

But I will never discard a first waffle.