Filling the unfillable void


Thoughts of my daughter and a second child By Brendan O'Shaughnessy

photo courtesy of Brendan O'Shaughnessy Writer Brendan O'Shaughnessy finds his heart expands along with his growing family.

My 16-month-old daughter has a clear goal and a plan to achieve it. She hasn't articulated her goal, that's true. She doesn't say much outside of Mama, Dada and uh-oh. What more is there for a toddler?

But every time we play in the front yard of our house, she heads straight for the middle of the street. There's a sewer cover there with four holes in it, and Maeve is determined to fill it up to the top with small rocks.

She sits there and drops in one pebble at a time while I make sure no cars come down our quiet street. I know, I shouldn't let her play in the street. But she's so intense about it. She is very patient, and she peers into the dark hole every few rocks to gauge her progress even though she can't see a thing down there.

As a parent about to have a second child, I can't help but see the ritual as a metaphor. Just when I thought I couldn't give any more to child rearing, along comes another to tag team my wife and I. An old basketball friend in the same familial situation said it's like going from zone defense to man-to-man. But millions of people have two, four, 10 kids even, and manage to spread love to them all.

Yes, that makes us parents to the sewer that can't be filled. But so often we feel we serve as sewers; when we are handed empty wrappers and food rinds at inopportune times; when we scoop half-eaten Cheerios that have been hiding in the creases of the car seat for weeks, or when we dig a pinky nail in a nostril to snare a hefty booger like it's a prize berry.

Worries flood our quiet moments as they did before Maeve was born, but this time it's different. Instead of "What do we do with this thing?"' it's a fear based on the known.

Will we have enough energy for Maeve after staying up all night with a crying infant? Are we ready to give up the few moments of respite we now enjoy while the other parent keeps Maeve from dancing on the coffee table?

Clearly it can be done. We are the unfillable void. Funny, I thought it would be easier the second time around. I'm afraid to ask if it could get scarier.

A week after Maeve was born, my entire family came to our small Lincoln Park apartment. While they all jabbered downstairs, my wife Laurel sat in bed with our daughter and sobbed. She was struggling with breastfeeding and afraid Maeve was starving. I was running the stairs and failing miserably at helping her and staving off the family.

Now, I tick off all the reasons two will be more than the sum of its parts. I can only imagine the stairs scene will repeat itself, especially since every moment since Maeve's birth has seemed more chaotic than the last.

There are weekend days when the two-hour time slot of Maeve's nap seems a precious gift. Can I still squeeze life's necessary tasks into that window with another child? I'm not certain time can be stretched into a thinner cable without snapping altogether.

And how will Maeve react to competition? I can't imagine she won't feel inexpressible jealousy and occasional rage. How can I simply explain, "Don't worry, we love you just as much as before bringing home this creature that takes up our entire attention that used to be devoted solely to you?"

I pledge that I won't let her down. But what about our soon-to-be boy? What parents don't wonder if they can love a second child just as much when they haven't even met him? It all seems unreasonable but there's often no logic to worry.

On the street, Maeve drops in another pebble and nods at me. I remember my other favorite ritual.

Every night, the routine I must follow to put her to bed begins at 7:45 and moves toward the climax with the complexity of an advanced geometry proof. The music and shades comes first, then I change her diaper.

Lately, she's taken to nodding at me when I do certain maneuvers, like the circular wipe or the baby powder shake. It reminds me of my bartending days, when I would bob my head vigorously while asking customers, "Would you like another?" The affirmative nod, experienced drink-slingers called it, and it worked every time. There's not a lot of that affirmation as a parent, and it's nice.

Then we sit down to read a few books. I get the "uh-oh" if I skip a page. Maeve first puts the stuffed animals to bed, then takes her place and waits for me to place the blanket. She's not too picky about the order but all the parts must be in place for sleep to follow. When I close the door, I often get a hug from Laurel. It's not a thanks, it's more like, "Hi, I know you've been home for hours, but I never really saw you until now."

I can't bear the thought of losing these precious rituals in the sweep of more responsibilities. But I think Maeve can easily adapt to a new ritual, one that encompasses the whole family. It's me who is having trouble.

In times like these, I see another meaning in filling the sewer with pebbles. I imagine Maeve and I switch places, and I drop pebbles of food, love and wisdom into the boundless void that is my daughter. I try to fill it to the top, but the flood can't be dammed. It's a river running to the ocean. I peer into the darkness and take a leap of faith, one small stone at a time.

Brendan O'Shaughnessy is the father of a toddler girl and newborn boy and a political reporter who recently moved to Indianapolis. He wrote this as he waited for his baby boy to be born.



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