My firstborn came into the world on her due date after a textbook pregnancy, screaming perfunctorily to show all was well with her brand new little lungs, before settling alone into her hospital bassinet and sleeping long, peaceful stretches with her tiny arms resting languidly above her head.
My second born had to be coaxed from the womb, days late, with medical assistance and a team of midwives checking her blood sugar levels every few hours (I'd had a difficult pregnancy with gestational diabetes among other things).
For days on end (it felt like) she cried until, at the suggestion of a friend, I gave up on trying to lay her down and just held her, round the clock, on my chest, shielding her from the world.
Their wildly contrasting personalities couldn't have been clearer right from birth—and yet, as the months chased each other by I didn't get it.
I wish now that I could get back the hours I spent comparing the littlest to the firstborn, wracking my brain over why she wouldn't sleep, why she was sick so often, why things that made my eldest laugh would make her cry (and vice versa), why she struggled so with teething when the first had sailed through it without missing a beat...
Why she wanted to be on me, next to me, touching me All. The. Time… Why she seemed to need so much more of me.
One morning after a particularly sleepless night, I watched my two daughters together in a shaft of sunlight on my bedroom rug, the eldest making funny faces to get the littlest giggle, and it hit me: their experiences of this life so far had been so completely different.
I don't know what the answer is to the "nature or nurture" question, but this I do know: my daughters showed me who they were from the moment they were born.
And I know this too: when my first came into this world, she had me all to herself. We had nowhere to go and nothing to do but be with each other. Our days drifted by, punctuated by nap time and nursing and walks in the stroller.
The second was born into an already-chaotic little family with noise and a toddler's needs to meet and playgroups to get to and play dates to host and a mother whose nerves were fraying around the edges with the weight of it all.
How could I possibly expect them to behave in the same way when the circumstances surrounding them were so very, very different?
And then I realized the secret I'm about to tell you (although you probably know it by now too).
Parenting is so much more fun, so much more rewarding—so much easier!—when we let go of our expectations of how they're "supposed" to be, and start getting to know them for who they really are.
The greatest privilege of parenting is getting to know—to really know—these little people whose lives have been entrusted to us for safekeeping. They're not miniature versions of us, nor are they carbon copies of each other. They are their own unique beings, and when we let them be, everyone is happier.
It shouldn't have taken me so long to realize something so obvious, but in the haze of new motherhood, I was simply trying to survive—and parenting my second the same way I did my first seemed the fairest and most logical way to go. But, although we were surviving, none of us were thriving.
My youngest didn't need more of me—she needed different things from me. I needed to love them in different ways. And so, I did.
Now, two years later, my love for them is equal but not the same.
To my eldest, love is freedom. Love is a safe place to jump off from, to run, to explore, and to come back to with stories about what she discovered. Love is a listening ear and a willingness to go on adventures.
I imagine a future where I'll love her—and parent her—from afar more often than not, and I understand that for her the words, "Mama, come and swim with me" are her way of saying "I love you." Me diving into the water is my way of saying it back.
To my youngest, love is closeness, love is contact. Her safe place is right here in my arms, the place she always comes back to, defaults to, even though her instinct to follow her big sister is strong. Her very first sentence was "Mommy, I miss you", which she says now even when I'm only on the other side of the room. My "I love you" in return is to stop what I'm doing and pull her onto my lap.
I wouldn't change a thing about either of them. They have taught me that love comes in all shapes and sizes and sometimes in ways I wouldn't expect.
I can't wait for a future where they keep teaching me new ways to say I love you.