Giving presence to the firstborn

Editor’s note: The post was originally published on Oct. 15, 2008, and it continues to serve as a reminder to parents expecting another baby:

894905_curiousFor several weeks, I’ve been thinking about ways in which I give my children presence. I’ve thought about different ways I spend time with my kids, the talks we’ve shared, the games we’ve played. Time and time again, my thoughts returned to one specific incident:

When I was pregnant with my second child, I wondered, as I think most second-time parents do, about how my first was going to react to having a sibling. Will he be jealous? Welcoming? Will he regress? Am I up to parenting two? How will I cope if he’s resentful?

My husband and I did all we could to prepare him, of course. We talked about the new baby. We read books to him about new baby siblings. I even bought him a baby doll so that he would have a new baby, too. But as he was only 2 and 3 years old during the pregnancy, I didn’t know how much of it he was fully understanding.

My son was 3 years and 4 months when his sister was born. He didn’t seem interested in holding or kissing or hugging the new baby, and I never pressured him to.

Above all else, I wanted to give him permission to not like the baby. I knew it was not in anybody’s best interest to force this new baby on to him, nor to force him to love her.

Of course, new babies take a lot of attention — holding and nursing and changing and admiring. I was always very sensitive to how my son reacted, especially when friends and relatives came bearing gifts and food and cooing over the baby.

Even though my husband was spending a lot of extra time with our son as I was caring for the new baby, I desperately wanted to spend one-on-one time with him, unimpeded by the sling. To that end, we arranged one afternoon for my husband to take the freshly nursed 1-week-old baby into the other room so that I could concentrate fully on my son.

He was so excited to get me all to himself, and I was ecstatic to be spending time with just him.

We were horsing around, being silly and laughing and giggling. A little bit into our game, he got a bit carried away and gleefully threw his shoe across the room.

He knows the rule of no throwing in the house, but to be honest, I knew that his world was turned upside-down in just a week and I didn’t want to press him on it too much. So I said, “Hey, let’s keep the shoes on the floor and find something else we can throw.”

He broke down and just started sobbing, so I pulled him onto my lap. As I rocked him, I cooed, “It’s hard having a baby here, isn’t it?”

He nodded and sobbed some more. “It’s hard to see me carrying her everywhere,” I continued.

“Yes!” he cried. “You should be carrying me around, too!”

When I recounted this exchange with a friend later, I commented that he could have pulled my heart out and stomped on it and done less damage.

However, that incident inspired me to redouble my efforts in connecting to my son, the firstborn. When my husband returned to work after his month-long paternity leave, I unfailingly committed myself to spending at least 30 minutes each day in child-led play with my son while the baby slept. We played whatever he wanted to play. I followed his rules and let him lead completely.

As the baby grew older and could be apart from me for a couple of hours, my son and I would go out to lunch, just the two of us, every other weekend.

As my daughter grew even more and could take a bit of food between nursings, my son and I could take longer dates to the playground, or to a movie, or to the Thomas the Train store in a neighboring town.

I absolutely and thoroughly enjoyed spending this special time with my son, and I often looked forward to the weekend just so I could spend that extra time with him. I have so many memories of our dates and our conversations.

The presence I gave my son during that time paid off in many ways. Most of all, he and his sister have been two-peas-in-a-pod for years. They are extremely close, play together astonishingly well and even choose to sleep together on the weekends. Since I spent so much time with my son during his sister’s baby years, I really don’t believe he’s ever felt the need to compete with his sister for my attentions, which I think helps their relationship and in turn our family.

Don’t blame the baby

cason zarroWhen I am pregnant, I can sleep anywhere, anytime. I’d love to just sleep through the first two-thirds of pregnancy. I could fall asleep on the stairs, on the way to bed. I could even rest up for 12 long hours at night and still be able to take a nice morning nap.

But there was one thing that kept me awake at night, staring at the ceiling: my son’s warm body snuggled next to mine, with his arm draped over my growing belly.

I’d pull him closer to me and think, “What have I done? How is this going to rock his world? What is going to happen to my relationship with him?”

The “what ifs” scrolled through my mind at a dizzying speed. How was I possibly going to be able to handle mothering two children, especially when one would be a needy newborn?

Each of my children have been carefully and loving planned, but the moment that stick turned blue, the excitement was mixed with worry and doubt. I was doing the right thing for our family, right? As my belly grew, I wrestled with that question.

I loved growing up with a sibling and so would my son, I reasoned with myself. Lots of people have two children and somehow make it work, so I will be able to, too. Alongside each of those comforting thoughts, the worrisome thoughts fought for my attention. My sister and I didn’t get along until she moved out. Were we on the cusp of 15 years of fighting?

I started talking to my friends who had multiple children and asking them, how they did it? Often their comfort was well-meaning but not always helpful. I heard, “Oh, it just works out. You’ll be fine,” a lot. But I needed something more concrete. The devil on my shoulder kept saying, “Just because they are fine doesn’t mean you will be!”

With enough digging and prodding, I did eek out some tangible advice from my wonderful friends. Sitting on the beach at a lake near my home, one friend said, “Don’t blame the baby.” Huh? Thankfully she went on to explain what became the most helpful advice I’ve ever gotten about being a mother of more than one.

Don’t blame the baby.

When you are pregnant and sick, don’t blame the baby. Tell your child you just aren’t feeling too well today, but that’s normal for mommies sometimes.

After the baby is born and you need to sit on the sofa and feed your sweet newborn, don’t blame the baby. Tell your child, “I need to sit here for a little bit. Will you pick out a book for me to read to you?”

Blaming the baby encourages your older child to feel jealous. Before that stinkin’ baby came along, Mommy was much more fun!

I had an easy birth with my second child and was so lucky to have both my husband and son in the room — along with many other helping hands! My son was enthralled, mesmerized and inspired…

…for five minutes. After admiring his new brother, he was ready to play. Ready to go back to life as always.

In those first moments and first days, I started to see, to believe, that it was going to be okay. I even started to see a glimpse that it was going to be more than okay. We were embarking on a great new journey together as a family. Bring on the joy!

Like all journeys, we’ve had some unexpected turns, some bumps in the road and some vistas unlike we ever dreamed of seeing. We’ve also come to some crossroads and needed to make decisions.

One unexpected twist in the path to sibling harmony has been in the lack of support we’ve found in children’s books. So many children’s books encourage jealousy and show fighting siblings as the norm. Through careful selection, we’ve managed to present a different world to our boys. With the Boxcar children, Magic Treehouse, Wild Kratts and many others, we’ve been able show our boys a world where siblings support and love each other.

Family is a topic of daily dialog in our home. We talk about families and the place each person has and how important each person is in our family.

None of this insulates us from squabbling between siblings. There are still arguments over Legos and protests of “It’s not fair!” But woven through our family, there is something greater: love.

My boys love each other, through and through, no matter what happens. It has taken a lot of work and conscious effort and trying things to see what works. And now we’re starting on the next chapter in this book of family and have added a little sister to the mix.

When she is nursing and gazing up at me with those big, beautiful baby eyes, I lean in and whisper to her, “You’re so lucky! You have two wonderful brothers who can’t wait to play with you!”

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