The other night, I slapped down some dinner for my 16-year-old daughter, ran through her evening plans — homework, picking up her scattered clothing, returning a collection of dirty cups to the kitchen — and bolted out the door to meet my wife and friends, leaving my girl alone with some Indian food and the dog. Rushing down Henry Street, it occurred to me how different her life is from her sister’s and that birth order really makes a huge difference in my children’s lives.
My older daughter, now in college, got three years of undivided parental attention starting at birth while my high-school sophomore gets her three years now, as a teenager.
When they were infants and toddlers, I was a doting parent, expert diaper changer, in charge of first one, and then both girls’ daily adventures. I was ever-present and totally focused on being their dad. More importantly, they didn’t know any better and wanted my company all the time.
Now, with one kid gone and the sweet smell of freedom in the air, I’m anticipating my younger daughter’s departure, relishing her adolescent independence and focusing more on my own life and goals. Likewise, she is less interested in having the parental searchlight shining on her. She wants to be with friends, watching movies and shows without me, going places on her own.
When I ask if she minds that I’m not going to be home one evening, she almost always says it is fine, if she can order Chinese. We’re both happy, right?
Sometimes, though, a little voice tells me that I’m ignoring her. That I am being selfish and shirking my duties. As my daughters aged and spent more time in school and activities, I found things to fill my time, got involved in the community, took on outside responsibilities. I stopped worrying about leaving my girls alone while I walked the dog, parked the car, or ran to the store, figuring two teenagers can certainly make do for an hour.
Now that her big sister is gone, I feel guilty my little girl often has to fend for herself. Of course, she is really not so little and can text or call me whenever she needs to, but that is not the same as my being there.
She probably gets something out of this arrangement, like a greater sense of independence and an enhanced freedom from parental oversight. She may even enjoy the evenings she has at home, unburdened by the random banter of her old man and my insistent questions about school and her friends.
I have to accept that her childhood is different from her sister’s. I want to think that different doesn’t mean worse in some way, that my younger daughter won’t spend her adulthood in a therapist’s office lamenting her father’s neglect nor that I will overcompensate and spoil her rotten, through permissiveness or gifts.
It occurs to me, on another evening as I’m heading out to a meeting, making sure she knows to practice her piano and finish her history paper, that she is the baby in the family, and there is just no getting around that fact, whatever the consequences.