Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Two Under Two: How to say, "I still love you"

Sorry I've been quiet. I'm in a colossally bad mood today. Claire's teething, I've been sick for a month, everyone else on the planet has some variant of the flu, too, so we can't go anywhere... Sometimes there just isn't enough Zoloft, you know? If winter doesn't go away soon, I'm not sure if I'll have any mental health left.

Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about helping your older child adjust to a new baby. This is specifically challenging when your older child is under two, as Mary Grace was, when the new baby is born. All of the big sister/big brother classes and many of the books were for older kids. And she was so little, I had a lot of fears that she just would not understand all the changes that were about to rock her little world.

Being myself, I read a lot online. One thing that really stuck with me was this, "Imagine that your husband came home one day and said, 'Honey, I love you so much and I'm so happy with our life together that I went out and got another wife to come live with us, share all your stuff, and share my attention!' and then expected you to be happy about it."


In reality, it wasn't at all like that, so if you're pregnant please disregard everything I just said. You have to remember that kids love other kids more than adults love other adults. It's true. Have you ever seen two kids who just met go off and play like they're best friends? It happens every time we go to the park. I mean, there's a reason why kids don't need Match.com to find friends.

You have to remember that in giving your child a sibling, you really are giving her a gift. Most people enjoy their siblings and have good relationships with them. Even if they're not close, they're usually positive relationships. Although, honestly, I'm thinking of several readers whose siblings are complete pains in the ass... But even if your sibling is a pain in the ass, you wouldn't have wanted to not have them, right? (Megan and Chuck, don't answer that).

Ok, you're just going to have to take it on faith for a while that your kids are going to like each other, for the most part. Because I honestly believe that your attitude goes a long way toward creating your child's attitude (not just about the baby, but about lots of things). If you are constantly saying, "I know you don't like life now that the baby's here, but he's not going anywhere so you're just going to have to cope!" you're going to create a different climate than if you say, "I know this is a big change, but I promise that some day you're going to be best friends." My mom used to guilt the hell out of us (oh, yes, you did!). When we fought she would say, in that voice, "Megan is the only sister you are ever going to have," or "You may be angry at Chuck, but family is family no matter what..." and so on. It worked, and Megan and Chuck and I are very close (closer than most sibling groups I know of, honestly), so I am already giving Mary Grace and Claire the business. Claire is particularly susceptible to the guilt.

If your older child is under two, and you're pregnant, you also have to remember that your older child is going to be much bigger by the time the baby comes. The changes that happen between one and two years old are every bit as profound as the changes that happen from birth to one. It'll be a whole different ballgame, by the time the baby shows up, so don't waste a lot of time worrying about how you're ever going to manage it with two. Especially don't think about this when your older kid is having a bad day. You're just going to stress yourself out. You'll handle it. It'll be fine.

So, what do you do? Well, start when you're pregnant. Talk about the baby in Mommy's tummy. If you're adopting, talk to your older child about how cool it will be to have a new baby in the house, and explain that you're going to be bringing the baby home soon. You don't just want to spring it on the poor kid when you come home from the hospital, or just show up with a baby some random day... Even very small kids can understand that another baby is coming. By the time I was showing, MG was able to point at my tummy when I said, "Where's the baby?"

I think you should wait until you're showing to start talking to the soon-to-be-older-brother or sister about her soon-to-be-born baby sibling. For one thing, you don't want to have to explain miscarriage to a toddler, if, God forbid, something bad happens. For another, 9 months feels like eternity to a kid, why make them wait that long for something really cool like a new baby to show up? Finally, it's a lot more real once you start showing than it is in the abstract, "there's a microscopic baby in there somewhere" days. I think your kiddo is much more likely to understand if there's evidence. Unless you're spending the entire day with your head in the toilet, in which case you might say, "Mommy doesn't feel good right now, but she'll be better soon and then we'll get a baby!"

And if you're spending the entire day with your head in the toilet and chasing a small child, you have my deepest, deepest sympathies.

Our kids share a room, so this wasn't an issue for us, but you definitely want to get the nursery ready ahead of time so that your older child can get used to the changes in your home. In our case, we put MG in a toddler bed (BIG mistake - skip it and get a twin, thank me later) so that Claire could have a crib. If I had it to do over, I think we'd have kept MG in the crib, but anyway... What did I know then? That's why I'm telling you this now that I'm an expert. Ha. Basically, my new theory is, "until the child climbs out of the crib under her own power and hits the floor, she should sleep in the crib." If that means that Claire sleeps in the crib until she's 11, I'm fine with that.

I really liked Dr. Sears' book, What Baby Needs and MG did too, but BJ says it's preachy. If you're not into "attachment parenting" (which is just shorthand for breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby wearing, and that sort of thing) you won't like it. I don't think it matters much what book you read to your toddler, as long as it's positive. You don't want to go with the classic Mommy's Knocked Up and Your Life is Now Over.

Anyway, we read Sears' book over and over and over, to the point where we were hiding it behind the couch because we just couldn't take it anymore, but it worked. (What do you mean you don't hide books behind the couch after you've read them eleventy thousand times?) By the time Claire arrived, MG had a good understanding of what baby needs, including why they cry (she would even guess, "She's hungry," or "She's lonely," if I asked her why Claire was crying. She was often right, too, which I found interesting. Maybe she still understood "newborn"?). I think reading the books (there were others, too. There are thousands on Amazon) really helped to prepare her for her sister.

I also spent some time teaching Mary Grace skills that she would need when the new baby came. I taught her to "practice coming back" to me at the park. I'd let her get 20 feet away (in a safe area, of course), then I'd say, "Hey Mary Grace, practice coming back!" and I'd get down in a squat and put my arms out, as if to hug her, and she would run back to me, laughing. This has been really handy at the store, the mall, the park, in parking lots, and virtually everywhere else. I also praised the heck out of her for staying with me when she did.

I read a tip online that said to teach your child to hold her hand against a spot (draw a circle on the car with the dust, and say, "Keep your hand here!") which has been handy, too, although I don't have to use it often because I get Claire out first, then MG, and then I put MG back in first, and then Claire (because Claire is contained in the cart, the stroller, or the sling, and MG isn't).

Another important skill that she needed to learn before Claire was born was to wait. When she was my only, it wasn't a big deal to do what she wanted me to do when she wanted me to do it. She didn't have to wait for a drink, or a snuggle, or a book, or anything. By adding the simple phrases, "In just a minute," and "Thanks for waiting so patiently!" well before Claire was born, she was already used to waiting and it wasn't so traumatic to have to wait until Mommy was done with Claire before she could have my attention (or a drink or a story or whatever).

One thing we did right (rare with me, so I like to shout it from the rooftops when I do actually do something right) was that we asked MG to be our "big helper" from the beginning. I would let her stand on a little stool and watch when I changed Claire. I would ask her to bring Claire toys and books. She felt involved, and therefore I don't think she felt left out.

When I was pregnant I started singing the Cuppycake song (with slightly modified lyrics*) to Mary Grace. I told her that it was our special song, and that I wouldn't sing it with the baby, it was just ours. True to my word, I haven't ever sung that song to Claire or called her "Cuppycake" (I have called her Mary Claire more than once, but cut me some slack, it's called sleep deprivation). Claire has her own song, now, too, and when she cries, Mary Grace sings it to her. Awwww...

Believe it or not, the sibling rivalry doesn't start right away. There's an adjustment period, with two under two, of a couple weeks, then there's the usual newborn nightmare which lasts about 3 months - but you have that even with a single. After a couple weeks, your toddler won't remember what life was like before the baby came. The real fun starts when the baby starts to move around, take toys, and express herself. Claire can say "mine" at 11 months. If MG takes something from her, Claire will scream, yell, "mine," or sometimes both. We've been really struggling with this lately, and I'll talk about it more next time (because this post is long enough).

As ever, if you have any questions, comments, criticism, suggestions, etc. don't hesitate to leave them in the comments. I LOVE comments.

(This post is dedicated to my aunt Gayle, who had three kids in two years, before she figured out what was causing it!)

*Our lyrics are:
You're my honeybunch, pumpkin,
Noodle oodle oodle,
You're my sweetie pie.
You're my cuppycake gumdrop,
Munchie unchie unchkin,
The apple of my eye.
And I love you so,
And I want you to know,
That I'll always be right here (point to her heart)
And I love to sing you silly silly songs (tickle)
Because you are so dear!


sudakshina said...

Wonderful expression! Thanks
I'm expecting in feb n my elder one ll b 13 months only then. I loved reading ur exerience

sudakshina said...

Wonderful read. Thanks fo Sharing ur experience

Frances said...

After reading the first paragraph, I almost didn't want to read the rest. I thought, "Oh, God. Here's a lady who needs to relax." but then I kept reading and I really believe that our attitudes, a lot of the time, influence our children. It's really a sweet surprise to see how my son interacts with his little brother. As crazy and challenging my days are, witnessing this makes it better.