Cradling my newborn should have brought me nothing but joy, right? Shouldn’t I have been content to marvel at the miracle of Holly’s tiny fingers wrapped tightly around mine the night we brought her home from the hospital seven years ago? So why was I a sobbing mess?
Because my firstborn, slumbering in the next room, felt a million miles away. My new preoccupation with the sweet stranger had distanced me almost overnight from my little Noah, my constant companion for more than two years.
I was suffering from the second-baby-blues.
Sure, a firestorm of postpartum hormones had been unleashed in my body, a phenomenon that has been know to wreak havoc on even the steadiest of psyches— particularly vexing with sleep deprivation—but I knew that my heartache couldn’t be explained that simply. I felt stunned by a loss I’d intellectually anticipated, for which I could never have emotionally prepared. I’ve yet to hear more than a whispered acknowledgement of this kind of grief.
I’d heard that my firstborn would suddenly look ‘ginormous’ to me once I had a new baby and figured that our easy routine, spontaneous walks and visits to the library while daddy worked would change some, but I could never have anticipated that the intimacy I enjoyed with my first child would be forever altered. That’s not to say I wasn’t wild about baby Holly, the unwitting interloper I’d just met. I was grieving my first baby.
In his own way, Noah grieved, too.
One afternoon before Holly’s birth, Noah hung out with daddy at work so I could get a nap and finish nesting. Sensing a shake-up, he pulled the office fire alarm and caused a ruckus. The day she was born, Noah locked his father out of the house when he took out the trash, then climbed onto the kitchen counter and squeezed all of the dish soap down the drain while Todd watched helplessly through the kitchen window. The next day, after cuddling his baby sister for the first time, he marched into his playgroup with a swagger and announced "I’m gonna roar my terrible roar," a line from his then-favorite book, Where the Wild Things Are.
People who study child psychology talk about attachment as being the most important task of early childhood; developing skills enabling them to engage and bond with their caretakers assures a child’s survival. When a threat to this attachment is perceived, which classically occurs when a new sibling is introduced into the family system, a child may respond by acting out in attention-seeking ways.
At any age, we unconsciously manage stressful circumstances beyond our control by asserting power and control over the things we can control. When you’re little, that means eating when you feel like it, potty-training when you’re good and ready and running out of the house in your Scooby-Doo skivvies while mommy nurses the baby. That’s not to say that parents shouldn’t continue setting limits and imposing consequences, but a little extra reassurance about an older sibling’s importance to his changing family doesn’t hurt. Sometimes special alone time every week helps siblings (and parents) adjust.
Legendary antics aside, Noah adjusted to his baby sister’s homecoming like a champ. Before she was even born he put his own blanket, which he’d slept with when the crib had been his, into the crib. "For baby Holly," he offered, taking my breath away. Sure enough, precious Holly, whose tuft of platinum hair reminded us of spun gold, quickly became the apple of Noah’s eye. I often spotted him tenderly singing to her when he thought no one else was looking. "Puff the Magic Dragon," he sang, just like daddy sang at bedtime. The line that gets me is "Dragons live forever, not so little boys." If only they could.
As for me, I, too, found Holly irresistible. Loving her did not diminish the grief I felt over losing that magical cocoon Noah and I shared though—until I discovered that all I had to do was let it grow a little bigger.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., has been a clinical member of The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy(AAMFT) since 1995 and is a featured blogger at chicagoparent.com. Contact her at [email protected].
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