I remember the day my first sibling was born. I was 4 years old and was staying with my nan and aunty. I distinctly remember being passed the receiver of the old round dial telephone in the hall and hearing my mum tell me I had a little brother. I recall screaming “Nooooo, I don’t want a Stephan, I want a Stephanie!!!” over and over. As it happens, he was named Jason, but the point was I had decided I wanted a sister and this was no deal!
I can recall with clarity over the first few years of his life, feeling immense feelings of adoration towards him, wanting to hold him, bathe him and care for him. I also remember feeling pretty murderous towards him at times. I remember hating him following me about and pushing him away when he wanted to play.
I was at an age where there was at least some narrative and processing that could help me to make sense of it all.
Ravey was 2 ½ when Roo was born. We had prepared him by reading books aimed at toddlers who are expecting a new addition to the family. We talked about it and he would put his head against my tummy to listen and feel her kick. He seemed pretty excited for the baby to come along, but I knew it would be a really complex experience for him with mixed emotions.
Ravey stayed with my mum whilst I went in to have Roo, and we were back home that evening but decided to keep him at nanny’s overnight to give us one night with bubba to settle. My mum sent us videos of him being told he had a sister and him beaming away.
The next day we planned for my mum to bring Ravey home to meet his sister but the midwife arrived just as they were due. I wanted for their first meeting to be perfect and for Ravey to be supported and the focus. A midwife being present was not ideal so Ravey and grandma were intercepted at the door and their meeting delayed until the midwife left.
The long awaited meet between big brother and little sister was a wonderful moment, which thanks to a friend’s advice we did catch on film. Ravey held Roo and looked lovingly at her and was super chuffed with her in his arms, and then with absolutely no notice, sprung up to go and play requiring quick reflexes to swiftly take the baby away lest she be dashed on the floor. Like a toy that lost its appeal.
It was clear from that moment that in reality Ravey had no real concept of Roo being a real living person that could be hurt or come to harm or at least no understanding of her complete vulnerability and dependence on those around her.
This was one of the difficulties of having a baby when your first is a toddler. The fierce independence and desire to want to “help” and do things with the baby, alongside their lacking awareness of their own strength and understanding of risk. All this mixed in with their intense feelings of love, awe, curiosity and jealousy means that one minute they are smothering the baby in kisses and cuddles and then the hug becomes a squeeze and the next thing the baby’s head is getting crushed in a headlock! I remember feeling I literally couldn’t look away from them or walk away from the baby when Ravey was around, just in case.
That first day of meeting his sister was long and very overwhelming for Ravey. After about half an hour of the initial meeting, he started to show signs of agitation, he kept climbing on me when I was holding the baby, both grandma and dad were trying to distract and entertain him. After I had changed Roo’s nappy on the baby changer he started to climb up it to lay down himself saying “I need a nappy change, I’m the baby”.
He had been potty trained about a month and was no longer in nappies but seeing his sister in that role on what had been HIS changing station was the final straw. He had a full on meltdown screaming and wailing taking his bottoms off to be changed and wanting to lay in the moses basket. He was evidently very distressed and confused. He felt he had been usurped by this new addition. It’s hard enough for parents to adjust and it is so intense for them.
On the whole Ravey coped incredibly well with the changes a new baby brings, but the rivalry and regression came in waves. One day about 3 weeks after Roo was born I was changing her nappy and getting her dressed when I smelt a strong smell of poop. Not newborn baby poo, full on big person poop. Ravey had not long been potty trained and I expected he may have needed to go to the toilet or had had an accident.
I asked if he needed to go and he looked at me and said “I already did”. I looked down at him on the sofa and to my absolute horror he had taken his trousers off and shat on the sofa. To make matters worse he had then proceeded to smear it with his hands. There was shit on the sofa, his legs and his hands and having just been changed, his sister was crying wanting to be fed.
I was stunned and furious. I recall shouting “NOOOOOOO, WHY HAVE YOU DONE THIS?!!!! ” and him looking me square in the face, completely calm and saying “because of Roo”.
This was clear as day a messy protest to show me in no uncertain terms that he was angry and that he also needed and wanted looking after. I remember putting his sister on the floor and marching him into the shower to hose him down, all the while wanting to scream at him but also cry my eyes out.
I was so livid but also heartbroken. The CAMHS nurse in me felt like a failure. I knew what I would advise someone else to do or say but when it came to my own child it was too raw, too close to see through the fury.
Of course I eventually calmed down and we were able to talk it through and move forward together. With great advice and support from my old colleagues who are also now parents. A WhatsApp group of fellow CAMHS professionals turned parents is an amazing resource to have!
It was all part of his grieving process, because for him it was a loss, he would inevitably be caught in a juxtaposition of love and envy. In his eyes she had taken mummy.
Out of necessity Si had to do more of the things for him that historically I had done as I was often busy feeding his sister. Then it became a different kind of hard as he moved from clinginess and competing for my affection and time, to rejecting me.
He wanted daddy to do everything and it was really hard for me emotionally, at a time when my emotions were all over the place and I was tired beyond belief. But I understood it was part of the process for him. That this was also so important for him and Si and allowed both of the children, and both of us as parents to feel validated, wanted and needed.
It’s normal for siblings to have a major wobble, it’s really complicated and difficult for them to process. It is hard but you just need to try and give them as much as you can and include them wherever possible.
I made a conscious effort to try and carve out mummy and Ravey time separate from his sister, although it often was short bits of time between feeds and naps at the beginning. In those early days when I could see the emotional weight of the situation on Ravey I would feel immense feelings of guilt. He would put his head close to hers as she fed and mouth the actions. Sometimes he would try to latch himself or just want to be right on top of me on my lap just as she was falling asleep on me.
I just had to try to hold onto the knowledge that he was trying to make sense of it all and where he fitted in. He needed to understand that she wasn’t a replacement and that would take time. This was not easy, because in reality it was annoying and frustrating at points and I would find myself getting annoyed with him.
Countless days where he would want to play or just cuddle and I would be stuck with Roo cluster feeding and unable to move.
To this day 2 years on I still feel guilt about those times. About allowing myself to get cross, about not being able to do it all.
I often felt a pressure to also get stuff done, and sometimes even the basics like cooking dinner would be unmanageable.
It’s such a cliché but it is like a roller coaster. There are highs and lows and it isn’t linear. You may think everything is fine and then BAM, he would floor me with something he said or did that reminded me that for him it was still raw, it still hurt. I remember him saying to Roo when she was a few months to “get back inside mummy’s tummy”.
Now that Roo is 2 they adore each other. They play and they love spending time together but like any relationship it has its challenges. Rivalry is still there and no doubt always will be.
It was only two weeks ago when our plans to do an activity together during Roos nap, had to be postponed as she wouldn’t sleep. Raveys disappointment turned to sadness and then anger. He said he wanted Roo to “go away and live with another family”. Of course he wouldn’t really want that but there will be times when he will feel like he wants that. We have all been in situations where we have been so furious with the ones we love that we entertain the fantasy of not wanting to be with them anymore or leaving. In those moments we cannot always hold onto the love.
The first sibling often makes all the compromises and sacrifices, they are the one that always has to wait, to come second or that has to “know better”. This is something I acutely remember growing up as the eldest of 3. That the younger sibling was always the one to be heard, to be believed. That I always needed to rise above the situations and I should always know better because I was the eldest. It was my role to placate my siblings and give them what they wanted to keep the peace.
I don’t want the same for Ravey so when I can I try to put him first. When I am able to think without getting caught up in the moment repeating age old scripts, I do my best to listen. To acknowledge how hard it is for him. How frustrating it must be. To let him know his feelings are heard, are understood and are validated, even if I am not always able to change the situation at hand.
If anyone is interested in books to help toddlers understand and process the birth of a sibling, we bought the following ones but there are plenty of choices out there and loads of websites that recommend books. We also got some great ones from our local library:
MY new baby By Rachel Fuller ISBN 978-1846432767 And Waiting for baby By Rachel Fuller ISBN 978-1846432750 My son adored these and although we gave waiting for baby to a friend he still likes to read My New baby even now
There’s a house inside my mummy By Giles Andreae & Vanessa Cabban ISBN 978-1841210681 My partner and I thought this one was a little weird but my son loved it and loads of parents recommend it
Topsy and Tim The New baby By Jean and Gareth Adamson ISBN 978-1409300564