“Our four year old daughter was already well established at her nursery school when our baby son was born. We hoped this would help her deal with her new brother. However, she seems to manage no better than a 2 year old. Whenever I am feeding the baby she demands attention or manages to fall over or break something. My sister had her second child when the first was only just two and we hoped that by waiting the extra two years it would be easier. We are both worn out trying to do the best”.
Mr and Mrs J.K.
As parents or would-be parents we may have many good reasons for wanting two or more children. Rather surprisingly, we may expect our children to agree with them. “Only children get spoiled” or “only children are lonely” is a refrain we often repeat when in the process of turning our one-and-only child into a sibling. In fact, only children are under-represented in child guidance clinics. Perhaps as grown-up siblings we cannot help repeating through childbearing an ordeal we were forced to undergo as children . Of course siblings can end up enjoying important relationships and benefiting from each other. This does not happen in every case though.
For many children there is no logic in adding to the family. At best it is a meaningless duplication, an aberrant act of procreative delinquency by otherwise reasonable parents. At worst it is a devastating act of betrayal. If you are really loveable and loving why should your parents need another child? Family albums and anecdotes are full of older children either deteriorating into pale shadows of their former selves, becoming aggressive or regressed, or turning into miniature parents under a principle of “If you can’t beat them, join them”.
The attempt to deal with feelings of being displaced by becoming the little parent can sometimes be misconstrued. “Oh Mary doesn’t mind about the baby at all, she just loves her. She can’t do enough for her” smiles one mother, whilst Mary desperately tries to pretend she is the real parent, fetching and carrying everything the baby needs. However, Mary gets rewarded by her family for dealing with her despair in that way whilst Andrew, who pushes his brother over and says “Can we put him out for the dustman to take away” might not gain such sympathy. However, both children are trying in their different way to deal with a major transformation of their universe.
One child, looking intently at his new rival, decides it must be baby behaviour that is wanted. He too can be a baby if that will make his parents get rid of the newcomer. He can wet his nappies, only drink from a bottle, and give up speaking proper sentences. He cannot believe his new growing independence is what is desired in the face of this pampered newcomer. Another child, perhaps, like the J.K.’s 4 year old, fights for her previous position and for attention. The sight of the new baby being fed is particularly painful. It stirs up the memory of the older child’s babyhood experience, a unique closeness to the mother. In the animal kingdom this is also a painful sight. Being deprived of the feeding mother could mean starvation.
Perhaps before Mrs J.K. feeds the baby she can have planned something for the older child to do. Perhaps her husband can be of special help here in spending time with the older one. There is no way that distress could or should be done away with though. If we think of the processes that follow a bereavement it can help us feel in touch with the displaced firstborn. The firstborn has lost his position, his particular relationship. Anger and despair follow this loss. Sometimes this is turned against the unfortunate baby making parents punitive; sometimes this is turned against the self leading to a deterioration in development. With good enough handling it will settle but never disappear.
If we look into an infant school, a junior school or a secondary school playground, we will see sibling rivalries re-enacted with classmates. The original pain of “Who is loved most?” is transformed into a host of other measurements, who is biggest, strongest, prettiest, cleverest. Where a child has a learning disabled sibling it can turn into “who is illest?” Within the class, the competing claims made for the teacher’s attention made Anna Freud note the way home rivalries were re-enacted at school.
Let us look at an older setting, a staffroom in a higher education establishment. Two senior staff members in their forties and fifties are having a heated discussion. Fragments of their conversation can be heard at the other end of the room. “If he thinks he can just appear and have things go his way after all the years I have put in”… “Hasn’t he heard of reinventing the wheel?” “As if we haven’t got enough on our plate without having to settle him in.” The discussion was about a new staff member who had recently been appointed. Feelings about the new baby reappear at every age. Sometimes they are clearly linked, as with the example above, sometimes they are hidden in such issues as the new idea, the new job, the new home, the new school.
How can parents make this process less painful? Understanding that the new arrival will be a source of pain as well as pleasure for their existing children is the first step. Some children’s books that show the new baby in a mixed light can be helpful here. Pictures of the new baby knocking over the toddler’s tower of blocks can be easier to bear than a never-ending diet of “Isn’t it wonderful, we’re all going to have a baby”. The toddler is not going to have a baby. He is not biologically capable. It is the parents who are. Separate time for the older one while the youngest is sleeping can also help together with the sympathy of both parents for what the oldest is feeling.
What can make it harder? If the parents did not experience a feeling that their sibling rivalry was manageable when they were children they can find it harder having two or more dependent beings asking for something at the same time. These parents manage best at one-to-one relationships with their children. So long as they understand that they are angry and exhausted because of their own difficulty something more hopeful will be transmitted to their children. If a parent is particularly identified with their own experience of having been a second born they might feel less sympathetic to the hurt oldest one and vice versa.
Sibling rivalry reappears at each developmental stage. Just as the oldest child gets used to a sleeping baby, the baby starts sitting up. Then the baby talks and walks. Each new change from the youngest restirs up the original feelings of displacement and this can continue through all the stages of life, though with pleasure and love added when the process is more understood.
Where negative feelings between siblings show no signs of lessening it may be that help is needed.