Everyone warned me that expanding our family from three to four would be hard. And, as a prepared mom, I did all the things. I got the double stroller; I read my 2.5 year-old son like, five books on the subject of becoming a big brother; and I arranged for the grandparents to help out in the weeks after the birth. I mean, many millions of people have more than one kid. How hard could it be?!
HARD. Really hard. Props to all the moms of even more than two! You must know some kind of magic I don’t yet.
Surprisingly, the transition was easy in some ways. For example, I wondered how I could ever love anyone with the ferocity and selflessness that I love my son. But sure enough, my heart expanded with ease to make room for our sweet little girl. And unlike the first time, I actually (kind of) knew what I was doing this time. I could change a diaper, give an A+ newborn bath, and breastfeed without much thought. I remembered all the insecurities and questions I had as a first-time mom, but they didn’t consume me.
What I didn’t expect was just how hard it was going to be for my little man to adjust to having a little sister . . . and how much his big feelings would trigger big feelings in me. More than once I shed a tear and thought, “Did I just break my first baby?!”
In my mommy fantasy world, my son would want to be my little helper, fetching clean diapers and playing quietly while I nursed the new baby. Of course, that fantasy was squashed in the last trimester of my pregnancy when my toddler began shifting from Mr. Independence to Mr. I-Want-Mommy-All-The-Time, and I will defend my right to snuggle her 24/7. Even though he couldn’t really know what was about to happen, he knew something was up.
When she finally arrived, my generally sweet boy with a mild wild streak somehow transformed into a 42-pound, jealous piranha overnight. The biting! Especially at school, where I soon came to expect a stack of incident reports or a call midway through the day. But that’s not all, toss in toy throwing and death-defying acts every time I sat down to nurse. Add a hearty helping of emotional meltdowns and yelling, “Don’t feed him!” (we’re still working on the use of him vs. her), and you had my typical day as a new mother of two. I won’t even touch the sleep regressions, you know . . . you know.
In my sleep deprived state, I found myself getting irritated with him. But more so, my heart was breaking for my first born. I felt responsible and guilty for how he felt. While he talks up a storm about Thomas the Train, he’s only just beginning to be able to express his emotions. He doesn’t yet have the self-awareness or emotional vocabulary to say, “Mommy, I’m scared. Mommy, I’m confused. Mommy, I need your attention. And Mommy, I need to know that I’m still an important part of this family.” But underlying the sounds of chomping teeth and crashing toys, that’s exactly what he was saying.
As a psychologist and as a mom, I know there’s an urge during times of great misbehavior to get more stern, more firm, and to withdraw affection because a child is “just attention seeking,” or, “just acting out.” But I try to remember that it’s completely normal for children to seek attention and reassurance when they’re experiencing big scary feelings. In fact, it’s completely normal for adults to do the same thing. Giving reassurance when a child is experiencing challenging emotions doesn’t reward bad behavior. Rather, giving reassurance to a child who is communicating in any way that he or she needs it can actually help calm and regulate wild emotions and behaviors.
And, it’s this realization has helped guide us through the storm of new siblinghood. Here’s what’s helped us:
Mommy dates. I started taking my son on “Mommy Dates” where, for a few hours, Daddy or Grandma watches his sister, and he has my undivided attention doing something special like getting frozen yogurt or going to the park. I don’t make these dates contingent on good behavior. Rather, his “bad behavior” only means to me that he needs them even more.
Talking about feelings. Having Mommy and Daddy’s undivided attention split overnight would naturally result in feelings of loss, anger, jealousy, and sadness. But show me a 2-year-old (or 32-year-old) with the capacity to reliably say, “I’m feeling really jealous and confused right now and that makes me sad. May I please have a hug?” To help him learn, we regularly reflect to our son what we think he might be feeling. For example, after he throws a toy when I sit down to nurse, I’ve started saying, “Wow, buddy, looks like you might be feeling mad. It’s okay to feel mad, but it’s not okay to throw.”
Highlight the good behaviors like crazy! The only thing more rewarding than negative attention is positive attention. We have been trying to catch every little positive behavior and reward the pants off it with high fives, hugs, and a “Great job, buddy!” so that there are clear ways for him to obtain positive attention.
Did your older kiddos have trouble adjusting to new siblings?! Tell us what helped you!