There's a bowl at my place on the kitchen island. There's cereal in that bowl. That's my cereal in that bowl. That was the last of my cereal in that bowl? Where's my milk?
My three-year old's list of reasons to move to Australia has been growing since Mother's Day, when my husband's teenage brother came to live with us for three months. If the date didn't clue me in to the change our family was experiencing, my son's response should have. He requested "baby cups." He interrupted laundry, cooking, and cleaning with outstretched arms and calls to "Get me! Get me!" Then he forgot he'd been sleeping through the night for over three years and started waking us up two to three times a night. He screamed, hit, and bit at the tiniest of provocations. He asked to go back in my tummy. Meanwhile, our work and our intimacy suffered as my husband and I regressed into the sleep-deprived, desperate yelling of younger parenthood.
With rare exception, parents have months to prepare their children for a new sibling. But in this case, we couldn't prepare him for this arrangement because we weren't prepared. In our week-long scramble to rearrange work commitments and sleeping quarters, we forgot to tell our son we were bringing home a new child. But that was only the first of many ways we failed.
I hadn't counted on the fight over every item in the guest room closet. When we moved in, that's where we stashed the changing table pad, baby bath, gates, outlet covers, travel crib, play mats...all the things we no longer needed but imagined that short-term visitors with kids might use. We figured that a three-month long houseguest probably needed a place to hang clothes and stash dirty laundry, so all these things went to the basement. My son dragged the baby bath up to the playroom, where he tried to fill it with water from the baby cups. He must have gone back for the baby toys after that, because during one of our increasingly-frequent midnight re-tucks I stepped on a Sophie.
In retrospect, we probably shouldn't have pushed ahead with nighttime potty training. Our son had been making great progress, in spite of our training, so we hated to halt his momentum. But he soon halted it for us: most mornings we were greeted with puddles deposited between our bedroom and the coffeemaker.
Under no circumstances should we have decided this was the time for a big kid bed. The crib-turned-toddler-bed was cramped, and the big kid bed our son had recently commented on was on a spectacular sale. But it probably would have been wiser to buy and store it along with the rest of the stuff in the basement. And while it was great to have a third set of hands to set up the new furniture, perhaps we shouldn't have let his uncle take apart the toddler bed, which probably sent the wrong message about my son's eviction.
Above all, I should have managed expectations. I should have told my son that he would be waking up differently each day (earlier, and to a loud alarm on the other side of the wall). I should have explained that his uncle wouldn't be able to play with him all the time, because he would be going to work every day. I should have assumed that he would have questions about the arrangement, and given him time to ask those questions. We all should have talked about sharing. My son should have been more prepared to share cereal. It's good to share. We can always buy more cereal. But we also should have explained to his uncle that if there's a three year old in the house, you probably need to keep an eye on the level of the Lucky Charms. And that it's poor form to eat the last bowl in front of him.
The University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital offers useful suggestions to help a child adjust to a new sibling. We unintentionally failed at many of them. Tell your child about the baby before telling others? Oops. Don't potty train? Oops. Don't get a big kid bed? Oops. Manage expectations about sharing? Oops.
We failed at preparing our child for the arrival of a new sibling, but once we understood what was happening we helped him find ways to adjust.
Listening. Mott's advice is to acknowledge your child's feelings and take them seriously. We have focused on helping our child find the language to describe how he's feeling, both by reading about emotions and identifying our own emotions out loud.
Babying. Mott recommends going ahead and treating your child like a baby if that's what he's looking for, which "may help stave off regression in areas that are less acceptable to you." We recently had a "baby day," in which we unpacked all of his old bottles, pacifiers, bibs, baby blankets from their temporary basement storage. We watched videos of his first feeble cries, crawls, and steps.
Kid-ing. In addition to letting kids be little when they need to be, Mott recommends stressing the benefits of being a bigger child. We've gone one step further by pushing our kid to try things that we might initially have thought were too big for him, like unloading the dishwasher or using knives or walking ahead of us in the park. Giving him these bigger responsibilities and opportunities, we think, is helping give him a sense of accomplishment and independence.
Loving. In my frustration about how this transition has affected me (less writing time, somehow more than double my usual cleaning, having to wear a bra around the house), I lost sight of rule #1 of helping your kids navigate a big change: remind them that your love for them hasn't changed. While I've avoided outward commentary about my frustrations, they're certainly reflected in my sleep-deprived, less-creatively-fulfilled shuffling through the day. I'm combating this with more "I love you"s and "I'm proud of you"s, more bedtime hugs and spontaneous snuggles. And, of course, by restocking the Lucky Charms.
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