…he’s going to fill it with urine and leave it on his bedside table.
I knew this vaguely, but now recognize it as a certainty. After a lab exercise in my biology course last week, I brought home a slew of glass test tubes. Normally, we dispose of these at our college, which I always hate to do, but it’s challenging to fully remove every trace of toxic chemical from the tubes, so I am mostly resigned to it. Last week’s experiment, however, involved only yeast, sugar water and some very poor quality moonshine (in the successful experiments). So, I cleaned the tubes and hauled them home.
The next day, I noticed Malcolm had placed a few of the tubes in a glass jar on his nightstand. Most were empty, but one, I noticed, contained the telltale yellow, refractile swirl of urine. “What’s this?” I asked him, knowing already. “An experiment,” Malcolm said quietly, eyes downcast. Asking again, I saw him take in a sharp breath, and his face crumpled. “It’s pee,” he sobbed. “I wanted to be a real scientist and take a sample.” All at once, my vision closed in at the edges, and I was no longer seeing only Malcolm, no longer parenting only Malcolm, but myself too, decades ago. The same weirdness, the same tendency to collect oddities, dead animals, bones and scraps of fur, and that alongside the first-born child’s desperate need not to offend, not to anger, not to disappoint the grown-ups. To always be good. My brain rifled through all the possible responses to this situation, trying to find the correct one. The fact is, I am neither surprised nor upset by a tube of urine on a nightstand, and I handed it to Malcolm saying, “Good scientists clean up their lab space after the experiment is done. So please go wash this and put it back with your lab supplies.” So he did.
I know that there are certain unavoidable things that make first-borns the way they are, and middle children, and babies. I know that birth order is a strong driver of personality–perhaps the strongest. And Malcolm is the first born child of two first borns. That leaves our second son outside our circle, and sometimes we all three look at him with a bewildered mixture of fascination and shock. He’s only three and I have no idea how I will parent him when he’s a teenager. I know that we are unconsciously forming Malcolm into the classic first born and Simon into the classic youngest. But I can’t stop it from happening. So I hope I am at least instilling in Malcolm that it’s ok to do science experiments, and try things without always having approval for them, and that the disapproval of grown-ups is not a soul-crushing event to be seared into his memory. But I remember vividly every teacher or aunt or Girl Scout troop leader who ever reprimanded me since I was four years old, so I know there’s partly no way around it. The best I can do is the best I can do. Try to help Malcolm navigate being a first born, and try to understand Simon somehow. After all, it could very well be the worst Malcolm ever does to keep a scientific specimen. We first borns can be serious, hard-core goody-goodys. Simon, on the other hand, oh, Simon. I cannot begin to imagine the things I will find him collecting over the next 15 years. And only a few are likely to be containable within the walls of a test tube. But I strive. I always strive.