A friend once told me about a pretty serious case of envy that she felt for her newborn sister, seven years her junior. She recalls standing in the balcony of her childhood home, when her favorite uncle came to inform her of the little one’s arrival. My friend recalls standing there frozen, not with joy, but with a sense of dread and betrayal. And then she found herself uttering the words that make very little sense to her today, “I don’t want a sister! I will never love her!”. Her stupefied uncle, with not much experience of sibling rivalry in his own little family was at a loss for words. He didn’t know how to comfort his troubled niece, anxious about how her fortress of blissful solitude was going to shatter as soon as the little one was brought home.
You might not have uttered these words for your own siblings, but may have heard of a similar anecdote from the vast universe of your loved ones. Some version of this, in fact, may have or may be happening in your own homes. Well, it’s happening in mine.
Before I had become pregnant with my second baby, I had only in theory heard of sibling rivalry. But lately I have been privy to a deluge of stories, some recalled from memory and others unfolding in the present continuous, even as I type, shared by my pregnant friends, friends with older kids etc.
As kids grow older, they may find certain common ground with their siblings, might form alliances (them versus the parents), might even fall in love with each other and grow old together, supporting each other through their lives. But what about toddlers? What about babies envying other babies?
I am learning this new motherlode of information and experience on the job (of a new parent). You see, I just gave birth to our second child, a beatific baby girl. Our first child is a bright young boy, a little over two years of age. While my belly was incubating this new life (baby girl), our sweet toddler started noticing the expansion of Mumma’s tummy. My partner and I were choosing baby names and settled on one, Norah, and started referring to my baby bump with that name, to try and ease him into this new family arrangement.
Because life with toddlers can be hilarious and heartwarming at the same time, he started calling all bellies Norah. He had a Norah, my chubby friend who was visiting from India also had a Norah. Every human now owned a Norah. Every night before falling asleep, we would kiss Mumma’s Norah goodnight. Even my friend’s Norah was deemed with this gift all through her stay with us. It was all really cute and adorable. For a moment we assumed that we may be the first brilliant parents to have instilled deep love and liking in a toddler’s heart for his soon-expected sibling. Mission accomplished. Crisis averted.
Now that Norah has actually arrived, my toddler is a bit confused. A bit betrayed. He has been a calm, independent and sometimes aloof child (minding his own polite business). He does his own thing, sings and dances around, plays with his puzzles and Legos, gives and receives affection/ hugs/ kisses when he feels like it. No fuss baby, really.
This new addition to the family has sort of alarmed him, I am realizing. Since she has entered our home, she has taken over his bedroom, his cozy sleeping arrangement with his Mumma, amongst many other things. The other day, for the first time I noticed him being somewhat jealous and “taking it out” on Norah. You see, my mother (his Naani) has been with us for a few months and has taken over as chief toddler care officer (CTCO). Our son, Kavish, loves the time he spends with her, he sleeps with her in the second bedroom with much relish and joy. But when he wakes up in the morning, he sees Mumma with the little munchkin stuck to her side, getting breastfed or generally nuzzled and loved.
He suspects foul play. He isn’t happy. He doesn’t remember signing this contract. He is politely resentful. He loves his grandma, but why can’t he enjoy both Mumma and grandma all to himself is what I suspect his little beautiful mind is thinking.
So, the way he “took it out” on Norah, our little cherub, the other day, was by ever so slightly putting his full body weight on her, while she lay on the couch. This act was not aggressive enough to make Norah cry or hurt her in any way. Yet (I mean this is just the beginning, right?). You might think this is too subtle – this act of jealousy. Well, my precious toddler is, in fact, a very subtle human. Dangerously subtle.
We better watch out!
Anyhow, I observed this and thought to myself, “there we go”… I told my partner about it and he & I both were deflated for a moment, our wonderful delusion of having two perfectly in-love children shattered instantly. Wounded, saddened, exhausted, we began laughing our butts off in the realization that we are now meant to be ultra-alert soldiers (even more than before, if that’s possible), standing guard between the two nations of Kavish & Norah. We must double up as diplomats, ambassadors, peace-making middlemen, ensuring world peace in our little family – because at any moment, any time of day or night, a big little subtle war might break out. Someone might bully, someone might get bullied. Just like our country’s politics, right?
Well, in all seriousness, it’s not that serious or dire. We are learning that as long as we treat these two islands of toddler and newborn with immense love and gratitude, they will maintain the peace (well, mostly). Got to be impartial, appreciative, and of course vigilant.
Ultimately, some amount of sibling rivalry is natural and inevitable. It’s wise to learn how to work with it. Here are some of the ways we have found to be useful for our new family:
- Scheduling some alone time each day with our toddler, even if it's just a 15-minute story while the baby is in someone else's arms .
- Remembering to smile when our toddler walks into the room, just as we did before we were so exhausted (it doesn't take much energy to grin and hug/ kiss a little one who may need it)
- Yes, toddlers can be an unreasonable bunch at times, new baby or not. Work with them, without infantilizing them - If he/ she whines that he wants you to pick her up but you're nursing the baby, tell him/ her: "You're sad that I can't pick you up right now. I'm sad too. Come snuggle up next to me and the baby. And when I'm finished, we’ll hug!"
- Practicing affirmations with your toddler, first thing in the morning “I am a happy, confident girl/boy”, “I am loved every day”, “I am a great big sister/ brother” etc. find what lights up your baby and have fun with it!
- Reading preparing-for-sibling books such as I'm a Big Sister (or I'm a Big Brother) by Joanna Cole, Waiting for Baby (New Baby) by Rachel Fuller to/ with them.
- Always being ready to say “I know this is hard. Let’s take a deep breath together”.
- Giving words to our older child's often mixed emotions, e.g. "It looks like you really want to be a baby now too" and then letting them play baby for a while. My toddler and I have tried this: he'd sit on my lap and I'd cradle him, legs spilling over the side of the chair, as he said variations of "Googeegaga" until we both started to laugh. The more I let myself get into it, the funnier it became, which I suspect defused his sadness and helped him move on. He hasn't ask to play baby more than a few times after that.
Welcome to the world of rivalries and everlasting loves. May you only collect stories of subtle (not serious) and often hilarious anecdotes of sibling rivalry in your new family!
Posted by Shruti Mishra
Shruti is the founder of Freshly Moms. She is a graduate from Natural Gourmet Institute, NY and a certified IIN Nutritionist. She has been working with food & nutrition since 8 years and is also a fresh mom herself.