published in The Gazette June 3, 2001
"Is that Eli? My, he’s gotten big!"
Eli and I have been stopped by an acquaintance on the way out of the elementary school where we've just dropped off Robbie, his big brother, at Kindergarten.
"So do you miss your big brother when he's at school, Eli?"
We’ve heard this question before, and four-year-old Eli reacts the way he always does. He dances around, spinning and jumping, not answering the question.
"Actually, he kind of enjoys it," I finally answer for him.
"It's Just Eli today!" Eli crows, making an especially big jump and pulling on my hand.
It's a Just Eli Day on this Friday morning in spring, and we head home from school with the whole day ahead of us.
"I bet he enjoys having all your attention when Robbie's not there," a friend has said to me. All the parenting books encourage that magical parenting element "quality time." But once Eli and I get home, he pulls off his shoes and goes off to play on his own, not particularly interested in my attention. I briefly consider chasing him down for some quality time, but then let him go. He doesn't seem concerned about quality time; maybe it’s quantity time he wants, or just the chance to hang out at home.
We spend most of this particular Friday morning engaged in our own individual pursuits. Eli chatters to himself while coloring. He draws page after page of crayoned balloons while I clean the kitchen and make a few phone calls. At 10:15, we take a break for a snack--graham crackers and juice box for him, a glass of milk for me.
"I have something for you," Eli says, climbing down from his booster seat. He hands me a folded piece of paper with crayon drawings on it.
"Oh, it’s a picture of balloons!"
"No," says Eli. "It's a CARD! And it says your name on it. M-O-M." Eli looks at me expectantly. As a last-born child who loves to charm, he's already figured out that it's more blessed to give than to receive. The parenting-expert-recommended phrase "good job" doesn’t seem like enough. Eli's waiting for my praise.
It’s beautiful, Eli!" I tell him, and he climbs on my lap for a hug.
After snack, we head to the grocery store. At the store, Eli rides in the cart, occasionally giving his opinion about which fruits to buy ("Strawberries! Kiwi! No grapefruit!") and reminding me that we're out of American cheese. When we pass a table with samples of pizza, he takes a piece and answers the pizza lady who's asked how old he is. “I’m four, but Andrea is just three and a half." I explain that Andrea is a friend at his babysitter's house. As the youngest one in our family, Eli always wants to know everyone's age, and how much older or younger they are than him. It's not something I was ever very interested in, but then again, I'm not the last-born. "How old is she?" he asks me as we leave the pizza lady.
At home again, we put away groceries, have lunch, and then Eli asks me to play the game Cootie with me. Eli wins, which delights him. "You had bad luck today, Mom," he tells me. We then spend some time reading; this and the game probably our only certifiable "quality time" of the day.
Later, we go back to the school to pick up Robbie. When we get home, Robbie turns to Eli. "Let’s go finish those space ships in the basement." "Yeah, the space ships," echoes Eli.
With a brother like Robbie, who fills a room with his energy and resolve, things run more smoothly when you play along and follow orders. I'm glad Eli has learned this tactic for getting along. Sometimes, though, I've wondered if I could do more to encourage Eli's self-confidence on those Just Eli Days.
One Saturday morning while doing chores, I thought I'd try to encourage Eli to take responsibility for cleaning. After all, Robbie'd been helping me with chores since he was old enough to walk--any chore that involved any tool from dust rag to vacuum, seemed like fun to my first-born and made him feel grown-up. I assumed it would be the same for my second son.
So that Saturday, I got a small spray bottle of cleaner and handed it to Eli. Surely spraying stuff on the fridge and oven would be an exciting incentive to be responsible around the house. "Here," I said. "Why don’t you help me clean. You can spray the cleaner on the fridge." “No,” said Eli handing it back. "I don’t want to spray the cleaner." As I stood there, confounded, while Eli walked away, I heard Robbie's voice as he ran in from a distant room of the house: "I’ll spray the cleaner! I’ll spray the cleaner!"
"Maybe that’s just how he is," a friend told me when I related my unsuccessful attempt to give Eli the opportunity to be responsible. "Eli’s different from Robbie. And that’s O.K."
It is O.K. On Just Eli Days, I may not be teaching my youngest son to be more responsible and tidy. I may not be spending much quality time. I guess what I’m doing is learning to be Just Mom with Just Eli. For now, maybe that's enough.