Thursday, August 13, 2009

Two Brothers

When I realized I was pregnant again, I figured I had nine months to adjust to the news and the new reality—and that Henry, then about two-and-a-half, who we planned to tell much later in the game, would have lots of time, too. I figured he really wouldn’t have to start dealing—whatever that was going to mean—until the new guy was born. Wrong.

We told him when I was about five months pregnant, the same night we made the phone call to friends and family. He seemed vaguely interested. We weren’t even sure if he absorbed the information, frankly, and speculated that we might have to tell him a few times before he got it. Wrong again.

When we picked him up from school the next day, Janet, one of his teachers, with whom Henry shares a lot of confidences, said: “I hear Henry is going to be a big brother.” Henry ignored us, and went right on playing Legos with a couple of the other kids. The next day, when we picked him up from gym babysitting, the sitters there said: “We hear Henry is going to have a little brother.”

Clearly, he took it in. And it became equally clear that, though we were trying to talk up big brotherhood as a thing that would involve superior capacity and lots of teaching-baby-stuff, poor Henry was anxious. Very anxious.

We had only recently started him on three full days of pre-school, which he’d been adjusting to very nicely. But suddenly, drop off became more agonizing than in the days when he’d started, almost a year earlier. He clung to me, he cried, he had to be pried off of us.

When we went to pick him up at the end of the day, he was fine, not ready to leave. The teachers assured us that he “got over” his separation anxiety within minutes. And they told us something else interesting: They see this all the time with soon-to-be older siblings.

Some, they said, breezed along the full nine months, oblivious, or happily anticipating their new sibling, only to freak out when the new one arrived. Others, like poor Henry, got anxious about what it all meant beforehand. Those kids actually do better after the new arrival, the teachers said.

I guess Henry has inherited my defensive strategy of anticipating the worst. On the positive side, I hope it means he’s okay when baby #2 arrives. On the negative, I hate, really hate, to see him stressed out and not know how to help.

I sort of threw up my hands awhile ago, and decided that I couldn’t anticipate or solve whatever was coming my way come November, so that the best stay-sane strategy was just not to think too far ahead. It’s worked for me, thankfully. But how do I help an almost three-year-old do the same?

One of my friends, in response to some of my how-do-you-handle-two? questions referred to me as the biggest sibling expert he knew. But that’s not really true. I’m really good at getting sibling loss, sadly. But as to what it means to have one, and how to raise them? Clueless.

And on one final note, I was telling Paul the other day that, when I thought of having a sibling, my thoughts were good—my brother was already present in the world when I arrived, and I thought he was the coolest thing ever, despite his sometimes ambivalence toward me. He used to say, with a meaningful glance at me: “My life was perfect for three-and-a-half-years.” (You can guess the age difference between us.)

But those were the thoughts of a younger sibling. Youngest sibling. I never really got it. Never saw my arrival from Ted’s point of view. Now I’m seeing it through Henry.


mrjumbo said...

My brother (whose wife is due about three days ago) has integrated his son into the whole process of expecting a sister. Sol has gone along for ultrasounds, and then he'll come home and (spontaneously) use his toys to do an ultrasound on Curious George. Franklin has picked some kind of gift for Sol's sister to give him as soon as she arrives. I'm not sure what other steps he's taken, but Franklin's the kind of guy who thinks about these things. A lot of it is guesswork for him, because he was the youngest. My older brother was only one who knew what it was like to be the first child.

Yesterday at brunch I had a great time chatting about this with some old family friends (who have three). We talked about how much more relaxed parents are with almost any children after the first. With the first, you have no idea what to expect, so you read all the books and do all your homework and have everything ready. Franklin talks about the bag of supplies he and Jess had ready for the hospital run a month before Sol was due, and he says for the baby sister, maybe they have a pair of sneakers and a paperback novel in the trunk. Val's husband Paul talked about how with their first, they would carry around a Ziploc bag of sterilized pacifiers, and when the kid dropped one, they'd put it in the "to wash" bag and take out a fresh one. By Kid #3, if a pacifier dropped on the ground, they'd pick it up, brush off whatever crud was on it, and stick it back in the kid's mouth. The later kids don't get the same set of parents the first kid had. For better or for worse, and I'm sure it's a little of both.

Sol turned three about a month ago. (They're down in Alexandria, Virginia.) You can follow Franklin's notes about the day-to-day of expecting a new baby on He's the kind of guy who believes in sharing knowledge online, and learning from what others have tried.

Elizabeth said...

this is so cool, and thoughtful--thanks for posting it! i'll check out your brother's blog, too. we haven't brought henry to the doctor with us yet, but it's a good idea.