One of the children I work with recently became a big sister. A fortuitous event, for sure. A healthy baby, healthy mother, family growing as wished for and planned. At four-years-old, however, it is an adjustment for the girl who was everyone’s princess till this new arrival emerged to share the spotlight and potentially grab attention as “Most Doted On.”
My young client is a well-loved child. She has parents who are sensitive to the adjustment she is making, and though they may not always be perfect in their expectations, are nonetheless quite more than “Good Enough”–to loosely refer to the Winnicottian term. Her parents understand that their (still young) eldest’s reactions to the baby are complicated: adoration, annoyance, jealousy, wonder, confusion, irritation, worry, happiness, love, rage, loss, delight. They are trying to make her transition into Sister gentle, rewarding, and mild.
This does not mean that she is not also faced with adults (such as the older family member who brought her to sessions in the first few weeks after the birth), who insensitively may say things like: “So how is it to no longer be the little one in the family?” or “So are you going to give your baby sister all your toys?” or “Now that you are a big sister you can’t whine like a baby anymore” or “The baby needs your mommy more than you now, that’s why mommy stays home with the baby every day.” Such adults may be well meaning but clueless. Some I suspect are a bit less clueless and (sadly) possibly aiming to check the child’s reaction to their words. Wishing to assess by her recoil or wide-eyes or frowning whether she is “adjusting” or “reacting,” and to use the little girl’s responses as measure of their own assumptions to how she should feeling. A sort of “Yep, I saw that expression! I KNEW she was actually jealous of the baby!” or “Ah! She may say she’s happy now but wait until she realizes that she is never going to be the baby anymore!”
To them it is as if the child cannot be both happy and envious, loving and irritated, confused and understanding. As if there is not in all adjustments–through any growth and change in life–both loss of one thing and the acquiring of another. As if the presence of sorrow or jealousy invalidates the truth of joy or the honesty of empathetic care.
It makes me wonder, when I hear such sayings, what is being reawakened for these grownups when they see a toddler ‘dethroned’ from baby-status, and what perceptions they have accepted to be facts and so try to make into reality. Sure, siblings may experience many forms of competition and rivalry, but does that mean they have to be either at each other’s throats or ever loving? Does irritation make their care less genuine? Is a toddler’s query of “when is mama taking the baby back to the hospital?” confirmation that the child does not want the sibling, or an expression of momentary (and understandable) exasperation with the change that is difficult to let in fully without friction? Can’t it be both love and envy, both annoyance and deep care?
Thankfully, this little big-sister is proving bigger than the careless comments of some grownups. When I asked her–three months following the addition to her family–how things are at home, now that she is a big sister and all, the four-year-old narrated, tone a’somber: “My baby sister cries a lot and she gives me a headache …” (complete with hand to forehead gesture–this gal’s got some stage life coming up). “She makes a lot of poopy diapers. VERY yucky … and she making mommy tired all the time …” (pause, dramatic sigh …) “daddy reading to me but daddy skips pages!” (enter righteous indignation about here). Then she paused and beamed. “I love my baby sister,” she gushed, beaming at me, eyes all twinkling delight: “I am making her smile! Every time she seeing me she smiles! I am the bestest at it in my WHOLE family in how I make her smile!”
Yep, little one. Big-hearted, wide-souled big sister (and the many such big-brothers!) that you are, you sure know how to make a person smile!