Some of the most helpful books on parenting I’ve ever read are those by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I felt so much more equipped to deal with my children’s negative emotions and behaviour after reading books like How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk and How to Talk so Kids will Learn. When I found out that I was expecting my second child, I bought their Siblings Without Rivalry. I wasn’t disappointed.
In the second chapter, the authors have an exercise in which you need to rate your emotional response to the following scenario:
Imagine that your spouse puts an arm around you and says, “Honey, I love you so much, and you’re so wonderful that I’ve decided to have another wife just like you.
When the new wife finally arrives, you see that she’s very young and kind of cute. When the three of you are out together, people say hello to you politely, but exclaim ecstatically over the newcomer. “Isn’t she adorable? Hello, sweetheart … You are precious!” Then they turn to you and ask, “How do you like the new wife?”
The new wife needs clothing. Your husband goes into your closet, takes some of your sweaters and pants and gives them to her. When you protest, he points out that since you’ve put on a little weight, your clothes are too tight on you and they’ll fit her perfectly.
Don’t you just hate her sometimes?
The new wife is maturing rapidly. Every day she seems smarter and more competent. One afternoon as you’re struggling to figure out the directions on the new computer your husband bought you, she bursts into the room and says, “Ooh, can I use it? I know how?”
One just feels your fists clench right along with your teeth, don’t you?
When you tell her she can’t use it, she runs crying to your husband. Moments later she returns with him. Her face is tear-stained and he has his arm around her. He says to you, “What would be the harm in letting her have a turn? Why can’t you share?”
I think you get the picture. Of course I’m not suggesting that you should have only one child (not at all, I have five!). Please don’t feel guilty about wanting more children – or about either your older child or the new baby. As I said to a newly delivered second-time mom just this morning, motherhood is a guilt-ridden occupation. We feel sad for the older child that he’ll no longer have our undivided attention and we feel equally guilty about not devoting enough attention to the little one either. Siblings truly are gifts to one another if the relationships are handled lovingly and there are many benefits as well as drawbacks to each and every position in the family, whether you’re the oldest, the youngest or the middle child. Guilt doesn’t help you or your kids. It doesn’t improve the quality of your lives at all. It’s such an unproductive emotion – such a waste of valuable energy. Don’t indulge in it. Every time you feel guilty, see if the guilt has something to teach you – if it comes with a lesson, with a way in which you can improve what you are doing. If it does, change your behaviour or attitude. If it doesn’t, don’t allow the guilt another second of rent-free space in your already overburdened mind. Your kids will cope, as long as you love them and show it to them as often as possible. They’ll probably even like each other – at least some of the time!
So, what can you do to make the birth of a new baby less traumatic for your older child? Here are some tips:
- Many parents ask what the ideal age gap is. Experts have different opinions about this, but I generally just tell the parents that the age gap between their kids is the perfect one. After all, that’s their reality. In my opinion, there are pros and cons to all age gaps. If you have your kids close together, it might be tough on you in the beginning and the older child may not have as much time to be a baby and the sole focus of your attention. On the other hand, you’ll have kids so close in age that they’ll be interested in the same games and you’ll be able to read them the same book at bedtime. Having them further apart may make that first year easier on all of you, but your kids might not have as much in common at first.
- Expect your older child to be excited about the baby and adapt to the changes well. If you expect a smooth transition, that’s what you’ll get. If you expect jealousy and tantrums, ditto. This is what psychologists call a self-fulfilling prophesy, and I promise you it’s very real. Your child picks up on your fears and expectations, and act accordingly.
- Prepare your child during pregnancy. Read books together with stories about new babies, show your child pictures of babies, take him along to your scans and let him feel the baby kick. Look through his own baby pictures and tell him stories about when he was little. Make a big song and dance about how much your older child can do that baby isn’t able to. Take breastfeeding: talk to your older child about everything he can eat and drink, while Baby is so small that he can only have breastmilk.
- Get your child a gift from the baby. A great idea is a doll of his/her own that to take care of while Mom is busy with Baby. Place this gift next to Baby when he sees her for the first time. You might also want to make sure that the new baby is lying somewhere else than in Mom/Dad’s arms for that first meeting. Of course this isn’t possible at a home birth – especially when the older child is very involved in the birth – but in hospital (which is already a strange, somewhat scary environment) putting Baby in a bassinet for the first meeting might be wise.
- Let your child be Mommy’s little helper as often as he likes. This makes him feel important, like he is making a contribution. But don’t burden him with so much childcare responsibilities that he feels resentful.
- Have a special stash of new toys and books that are only taken out when the baby is breastfeeding. This way, your child will look forward to feeding times and you can even give him special attention by reading to him while Baby is drinking.
- Spend special alone-time with your older child when Baby is asleep.
- Accept the fact that your older child will have more of Dad for a while. Don’t fall into the trap of always caring for the baby while Dad looks after the older one, but don’t feel guilty about the fact that they will bond on a deeper level than before either.
- Accept that your older child may very well regress a bit in certain areas. Take it in your stride and don’t make a big deal out of it. Also try not to attribute all challenging behaviour to the new baby. With my youngest child, Dominic, I realised that 3-year olds often pretend to be babies, for instance. Had he just gained a new brother or sister, I’d assume that he was having trouble coping. Because he was my last, though, I realised that his ‘regression’ was simply make-believe. It wasn’t an indication of sibling rivalry. Even Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!
- No matter how young your child is, reflect his feelings and teach him feeling words. If he says he wishes the baby would go away, don’t deny his feelings and tell him he doesn’t really mean that. Of course he does. Instead, teach him to put his feelings into words. “You feel sad that the baby is taking up a lot of Mommy’s time.” Then give him a way to cope with his feelings, for instance, “Would you like to draw a sad picture?” Or, “Would you like to jump on the trampoline until you feel better?”
The first weeks with a new baby in the house can be hard – on you and on your older child. Do you have any other tips you’d like to share on making the transition smooter? Please post a comment so other parents can benefit from your wisdom.