A cagey solution to a high-energy problem

Pregnant with my second child, I wondered how I would protect a newborn from my rambunctious, king-of-the-roost, 2-year-old son, Colin. I expected him to be jealous, resentful, and impatient when a sibling arrived on the scene. I knew I couldn't watch the baby every moment, so I worried.

"Use that playpen I bought you two years ago," my mother begged. "You've got to protect the baby from this little wildman."

Colin flew past us with a Tarzan yell and landed in a karate crouch in the center of the rug. "With all that energy...?" She sighed. "Use the playpen, please."

"But I don't like playpens," I protested. "They look like cages."

"Just set it up, at least. You have to do something," she pleaded as her grandson, wielding a Star Wars light saber, raced the cat to the back door.

Reluctantly, I dragged the unused playpen from the attic, pulled out the sides of the mesh-and-aluminum contraption, folded down the collapsible flooring, and washed the plastic-covered cushion. I pushed the playpen into a corner of the family room and tried to ignore it.

When the baby arrived, a putty-nosed six-pounder with fingernails the size of sequins, she looked even smaller when her tough-guy big brother approached for the first time. And he looked absolutely huge.

"Watch out ...," cautioned my mother, as Colin galloped into my bedroom.

"Careful, son ...," my husband said.

"Come see her," I said. "Her name's Jill."

I held the baby down for him to look, and as I lifted the corner of the receiving blanket, a sunbeam caught her full in the face. Frowning within the folds of quilts, she wrinkled her nose and began to cry.

Colin lunged forward with his hand extended.

"Be gentle," I said. He stopped and looked at me. Then he stretched out his hand again - to shield her eyes from the sun.

The protectiveness he demonstrated that day continued. As Jill grew, Colin entertained her for long stretches of time, putting on a one-man circus act while I hummed in the kitchen, fixing dinner uninterrupted. Wherever I situated the baby, Colin appeared with a few toys and settled beside her, hoping for a giggle or (best of all) baby applause complete with kicking, drooling, and back-arching. She was a tireless and appreciative audience of one.

I began using the unused playpen for storage. Each evening I'd swoop through the house, picking up blocks, music boxes, stuffed animals, and metal cars. Then I'd dump them all in the playpen.

Months later, Jill began crawling. Colin looked at me in dismay as she inched closer to his half-completed wooden puzzle. His glance said it all: Red alert! Red alert!

Suddenly, Colin couldn't get anything done without Jill interfering. He'd build a tower of blocks, and she'd crawl forward and demolish it. He'd use colored markers to create a masterpiece, and she'd zoom over to suck the (nontoxic) pens, grinning at him with purple lips and tongue as he ran to me in frustration.

When he developed a passion for Legos, all those zillions of candy-colored pieces proved irresistible to her. Colin saw her coming his way. He stood up and screamed, "No, Jill! You can't play! They're not baby toys!" She just lowered her head and charged forward faster.

Desperate, he gathered handfuls of Legos and tossed them into a bright-yellow storage tub. He climbed to the sixth step on the stairway and thought he was safe. But within a week, Jill's climbing abilities improved, and she began crawling up the steps toward him.

Colin's patience snapped. Hyperventilating and clenching his fists, he jumped to his feet and looked frantically around the room. He looked up the stairs, out the window, beneath the dining-room table - and then his eyes lit upon the playpen.

Grabbing the tub of Legos, he zipped past his sister and lowered the blocks to the cluttered floor of the playpen. Then he vaulted over the side with the grace of an Olympian and began tossing stuffed animals, cars, music boxes, and wooden blocks onto the rug. Humming to himself, he sat down and began constructing an intricate blue-and-yellow totem pole with swinging arms and a mysterious pulley on its head.

Jill crawled to the playpen and hauled herself upright. Like a towel hung out to dry, she swayed on unsteady legs in an imaginary breeze as her hands flapped inches above her brother's head. She whined and moaned and begged, mumbling her wish to please, please, please be allowed into that marvelous cage.

"Well!" my mother exclaimed when she came to visit. "It's just the opposite of what I intended, with the baby on the outside begging to get in. You modern mothers surely do things differently than we did in my day. I must say, though, it seems to be working quite well."

"Mmm," I purred, as if I'd thought of it myself.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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