Twelve might be the witching hour for some people but for me it was time to haul out of a warm bed and take off to the hospital. I was about to give birth to my second child. This time round I had a pit stop to make. I had to deliver a toddler to his grandparents before I could deliver myself of his brother. I went through a mental check list ending with one child, a giant bag of jelly beans and a well sucked thumb. Luckily the latter was firmly planted in my son’s mouth. I was grateful for that thumb. If it had been a favourite pacifier Murphy’s Law would have dictated I would have had trouble finding it.
It was D’s first ever sleepover and both the jelly beans and the thumb were going to ensure the experience was a success. The jelly beans were a onetime treat, but D’s thumb was his constant companion. He communicated around it, soothed himself to sleep with it and if it fell out of his mouth he would shove it right back without the need of an intermediary. I didn’t have to sterilise D’s thumb or pick it up off the floor and suck it clean. And I didn’t have to frantically backtrack through my day to find his favourite well gummed soother.
It seemed like a great break to a harried young mum until four year old D put his thumb to one side like a hitchhiker so that the portrait photographer could capture the moment. It hit me then that his pacifier sucking contemporaries had kicked their habit cold turkey two years earlier. One day D’s friends were drawing on their soothers as if their lives depended on it and the next it was conveniently lost. My child was sucking on unchecked. Try confiscating a thumb.
I tried. I pulled at it. It came out with a resounding pop then found its way back. I straightened the arm and smoothed it down by his side then watched it moving slowly back into place like the creaking hinge of a closing door. The more I tried, the less I succeeded. My son was going to be a sissy-boy on the first day at school. I knew it. His reputation would follow him through high school and university. He would never rid himself of the label. First impressions are lasting impressions. I panicked.
Friends and family handed out well meaning advice: nail polish the offending digit, sprinkle it with pepper or band aid it.
If he had been younger I might have considered it. But I thought that I’d have a better chance of succeeding with a four year old if I took the path of reason and distraction. I gave D the ‘big boys don’t’ speech; he took the thumb out for a while. It hovered nearby in case of an emergency and was back in place once I’d finished my speech.
While D watched Sesame Street, I peeled an apple, sliced it and placed a plate in his hand. We constructed brick towers and put together countless puzzles. Keeping things positive, I tried to tread the fine line between praise and discourse, between distraction and bribe. I’m all for bribes in small doses and in a good cause. A trip to Luna Park, D, if you can keep your thumb dry for the afternoon. An extra scoop of ice cream, D, with sprinkles on top? Sometimes it worked, sometimes it almost worked. By the time the school year loomed we had almost got it down to the evenings.
On the morning of the day D began school he had lapsed. I didn’t think a last minute lecture was going to be helpful. I said nothing.
When I came to pick D up from school he had a best friend and I’m thankful to report that it wasn’t the thumb. After that first day, it was an on again off again affair for a few months, but only at home and usually when he was tired.
My mother says that the first child is like a guinea pig. The first time mum is on a learning curve. She makes and learns from her mistakes hoping that they aren’t going to be irreversible. I hadn’t yet understood the danger that a thumb represented. Had I done so I would have gladly inserted a pacifier between my second child’s pink gums the moment his thumb started twitching. Had it twitched. Luckily for both of us a soothing tone and a gentle pat on the back did the trick every time, then as now, making the agony of separation unnecessary.