So, readers, I’m pregnant! Third trimester. Boy. Current physical state: Low and slow. I’m excited, a little overwhelmed and feeling all the feelings.
Upon hearing the news of our new bundle-to-be, many friends have wanted to know how my five-year-old daughter has been responding. “Maggie must be so thrilled!” they exclaim. To which I reply, “… Eh.”
The kid has never wanted a sibling in an intense way. Sure, she’s felt left out at times when all of her school friends tell stories about their babies, referring to their tiny brothers and sisters at home, but she’s a perceptive kid and fully understands what a sweet gig it is to be the sole receiver of her parents’ attention (and at least 80 per cent of their online purchases).
When she found out she would soon have a baby brother, she was at first sceptical. “Are you true?” she asked.
And then she became distraught.
At various moments over the past six months, she’s exploded with specific anxieties she’s been having.
“When I’m at kindergarten, you’re going to have so much fun with the baby without me.” (Um, “fun” isn’t how I’d describe taking care of a newborn.)
“All my baby videos will be replaced with the new baby!” (No way.)
“When we watch scary movies, the baby will get to sit on your lap and Daddy will say I’m too big for his lap and I will get NO LAP!” (Probably true.)
“When I move away to college, the baby will get to stay home and play with you!” (And he’ll hate it.)
Clearly, she’s thought about this a whole lot.
My husband and I have tried to alleviate her fears. We’ve read all the books at the library about becoming a big sibling and how she’s going to rock the new role. We’re giving her a journal to document the baby’s milestones. And we’ve been talking about how we’ll still have special solo time, and how we love her so much and that will never change.
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But as I watch her grapple with her feelings, I’m realising that the biggest thing I can do to help her is this: Let her hate the baby. Or resent him. Or feel whatever she wants to feel about this new person who will inevitably shake up her world.
“Most of us expect some jealousy when a new sibling arrives, but we still insist on a basic level of love,” writes early childhood expert Heather Shumaker in her book It’s OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids. When we hear our kids expressing volatile emotions about a new sibling, she explains that our instinct may be to say something like, “Deep down, you love him.”
This is not helpful. Because maybe they don’t — at least not yet. “Brothers and sisters will discover affection in their own time,” she writes. “You can’t force love, so don’t demand it. Don’t even expect it. Doing so can make your child feel inadequate and possibly afraid of losing your love.”
Sure, you’ll want to show your love to everyone in the family, she suggests, but don’t expect the big brother or sister to mirror your feelings. Instead, clarify the problem (“You’re feeling mad and wish he’d go away”) and let your kids express themselves in non-violent ways, such as by drawing a picture or writing an angry note.
“It’s far better for a child to say, ‘I hate my brother’ than to pretend affection,” Shumaker explains.
I’ve appreciated this reminder as I watch Maggie navigate this big life transition. I tell her that it’s OK to be upset or uncertain or sad — I am, too, sometimes. It’s been an ongoing conversation.
And recently, she’s been changing.
I’m seeing glimpses of her warming up to the whole situation every day. Once, when I picked her up from school, she handed me the art projects she made that day, as she always does. She had created some lanterns out of paper bags (or maybe they were octopus arm cuffs, I wasn’t quite sure). “This one’s for you,” she said. “This one’s for Daddy.” And then she gave me the last one.
“This one’s for baby brother.”
And then at night, when we’re snuggled together in her bed, she’s started to talk to the baby, slipping under my night muumuu (don’t ask) and whispering, “Baby, does it stink in there?” And then she’ll giggle. I see the beginning of an alliance and I am filled with both joy and fear.
I may not know what their relationship will look like, and I don’t need to. I am just happy to witness it unfold.