At least that’s how it went down in our apartment when we brought our second son home. While we dealt with sleep deprivation, round-the-clock nursing and the daily logistics of learning to manage two kids, my husband and I also developed laser instincts for stepping in when we heard our wild-haired 27-month-old running in the direction of the bassinet, no doubt to poke the baby’s eye out.
All sorts of regression and acting out during scary new-sibling time is super common for toddlers, from aggression to potty-training relapses to night wakings. We had a little of the latter, a lot of the former and a sudden outpouring of tears during drop-off at our son’s (normally beloved) part-time day care. But he wasn’t the only one affected. Family roles were overturned. After the birth, my husband — who, thankfully, had a decent paternity leave — became our toddler’s designated playmate and caretaker, and I started to feel sidelined, unable to play in the pool or go for long walks with the boys.
Suddenly, Dada was the one he called for when he woke up after nap time, and who he wanted to hold him, read to him and play with him. I felt invisible, unless I was nursing the baby in front of him, at which point he’d go for his brother’s face and I’d have to scold him: Gentle, gentle. In my postpartum haze, tears were shed on more than one occasion, some for what I felt was a seismic shift in my previously air-tight relationship with my firstborn son.
But there was something we still shared a passion for, and it remained mostly under my domain: food.
Whether by nature or nurture, he’s always approached food with enthusiasm. We regularly drag him to restaurants in our diverse neck of Queens, where he demands “I want it!” without fail when the food hits the table, be it Greek-style grilled octopus or Tibetan momos. When we travel, he’s right there with us, sampling the local cuisine. At home, if I can’t lure him away from his trucks at dinnertime by telling him what he’s eating, I’ll show him his bowl, and he’ll come running. When I ask if he wants to taste something new, more often than not he says yes. This is something I admit I care far too much about. Even more than a kid who dutifully eats all his veggies, I’ll take an adventurous eater.
After the baby’s birth, my older guy seemed to have gotten hungrier, and even more agreeable about eating. This made life easier for everyone, of course — mealtimes went smoothly and quickly, with no tantrums and no bribing with bites of gelato. And it encouraged me to get back in the kitchen much faster than I did last time post-birth. He helped me with one of the first things I made, while my sleepy 2-week-old napped: banana-oat cookies. My toddler mashed the bananas in a bowl on the floor and helped me scoop the mixture onto a cookie sheet. It was a messy undertaking, but completely worth it when I saw his excitement when the timer dinged, indicating our cookies were done.
Buoyed, I looked for more ideas. The time of year coincided with our farmers market’s summer bounty, so we had melon-and-feta salads, tomatoes on toast, corn on the cob, quick-pickled string beans, fresh peaches and berries. His usual favorites of pasta pesto, pan-fried hake with broccoli couscous and souped-up rice-and-beans were joined by corn farro risotto and spaghetti puttanesca, both of which I was inspired to make after seeing how much he enjoyed them at local restaurants. On a whim I made him onigiri, Japanese-style rice balls with fish, and that quickly joined our regular lunch rotation. But it was my blueberry buttermilk pancakes that elicited his highest praise: “Tastes like ice cream!”
It seemed an odd time in life, in the weeks following the birth of a second child, to suddenly feel motivated to bake bread and make roasted-beet hummus, but there I was, pureeing chickpeas. As I struggled to balance two sleep schedules, work part time and keep the peace in our crazy new normal, cooking for myself and the family didn’t feel like a chore. Rather, it was an outlet where I could be productive, creative and fully (though temporarily) in control — particularly in regards to my toddler. With the right dish, I could fill his belly with good food and light up his face with that thousand-watt smile. We could reconnect, if only for a short while.
Over time, things began to mellow; by the three-month mark, outright aggression was replaced by affection — if sometimes misguided — and “I love my baby brother” became a common refrain. A new routine emerged, anchored by meals and snacks. Every morning before my toddler went to his new nursery school, we sat on the couch together and ate overnight oats or yogurt with granola while I nursed his little brother. In the afternoons we shared walnuts and string cheese at the playground, the baby wrapped on my chest. And in the early evenings before my husband came home from work, while the wee one snoozed or played in his bouncy seat, my older guy was more drawn to the kitchen, curious what I was making.
“Up, up, can I go up, please?” he’d plead. Soon he was spending a good 45 minutes in there with me: mixing something, adding ingredients to the food processor, or playing with flour for mini-pizzas. He wanted to taste everything that went into anything — raw onions, basil leaves, mustard seeds — as he wielded a big wooden spoon and got into the kitchen’s nooks and crannies, making a mess. “What’s that? What’s that?” he asked incessantly, pointing to any item within sight, from cinnamon sticks to prenatal vitamins, inadvertently knocking both over. It was enough to drive a person crazy. But whenever he asked, up he went — right on the counter at eye level, where I could steal plenty of kisses between our tastes of food.
Laura Siciliano-Rosen is the cofounder of the food-travel website Eat Your World. She lives with her husband and two boys in Queens, New York.
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