My 3-year-old sat on the floor in front of her baby brother’s walker and played with a rattle that hung from the tray. Her hands moved around the toy expertly twisting the rings around the base. Her brother watched her face with a gentle mix of admiration and curiosity. He smiled as he reached his chubby arm across the yellow plastic tray that housed a red steering wheel and gently touched his sister’s face. She stopped playing and looked at him, and then turned to look at me.
“He touched my face,” she said.
“That’s because he loves you. You’re his big sister,” I told her and then flashed her a wink.
She looked back at her baby brother and a quiet smile slowly appeared on her face.
Six and a half months ago we were sitting in the hospital room with this same baby. She was holding him swaddled in a white hospital blanket. She wore that same serious but calm look while she studied his newborn features. Then she bent to kiss his nose.
After we had brought him home from the hospital, things were different. She didn’t want anything to do with the baby. In fact, she didn’t want the baby on her, near her, or around her. She’d get up and move away from him even if it meant leaving the room. She’d push him away, scowl at us, and watch only from a distance. Her mannerisms changed completely. She stopped being independent. She stopped smiling. She stopped talking. She stopped using the potty. She started screaming, yelling, throwing dramatic tantrums over nothing, not listening, not doing anything on her own.
I had no idea how to handle this. When I gave birth to her, her sister was only 18-months-old. She didn’t care about the baby, so there was no regression to deal with. I hadn’t thought of this. I hadn’t prepared for it. Week after week, it was an exhausting battle as I desperately tried to bridge the gap between the baby and her—as well as the gap between her and myself. I encouraged her to help me with the baby, sit with us, hold him, play with him, help feed him, kiss his nose as she once had done.
I continued to struggle with her while I bounced from one child to the next like a pinball. I unsuccessfully tried to divide myself three ways. I cried. I threw my face into pillows where I stifled frustrated screams. I felt guilty. I felt bad. I felt frustrated. There was no way I could individually give everyone an equal amount of time. I tried so hard to make sure my youngest daughter got the most time I could give her. But my efforts failed, and she continued to act out. As a result, I grew impatient. I lashed out. I fought back tears. I was at a loss, and I was exhausted.
One afternoon, I came downstairs and saw her sitting in the baby swing that used to be hers—when she was three years younger and about 12 pounds lighter. She sat quietly in the tiny seat with a pacifier in her mouth. The hem of her purple sundress lay crooked across her knees. Her legs were now long enough to touch the floor, and she gently swung side to side, rocking herself while her toes lightly grazed the carpet.
My heart ached for her.
While I was scrambling around adjusting to a new baby and trying to teach myself how to juggle three little ones, my youngest daughter was trying to figure out her place—no longer a baby, but not quite a “big girl.” How scary and confusing it all must have felt for her—the fear of being replaced, the fear of being forgotten, not knowing what any of it meant.
Side to side, her little toes pushed her as she sat content staring at the wall and nursing a pacifier that wasn’t hers.
She wasn’t a baby anymore, and she knew it. She was now a little sister and a big sister at the same time, sandwiched right in the middle. Her little world had been rocked much more than mine. I may have had to go back to sleepless nights and around-the-clock feedings, but I knew it would eventually level out, for me. How could I explain that it would all be OK to someone who wasn’t old enough to understand?
Sometime in the thick of the four-month fog, I sat tired and weary with my daughter in her pediatrician’s office for a wellness checkup. I stared blankly at the white tissue paper on the exam table while she leaned against one of my legs and quietly played with the zipper on my jacket. The doctor reviewed her growth chart and then stopped mid-sentence.
“You know,” she said. “No one knows when a toddler has been upstaged better than a toddler. Give her until your baby is about 6-months-old to settle into her new role. She’ll come around.”
And she did, about six and a half months after her brother was born, while she sat on the floor quietly playing with that rattle.
Again, my son reached his chubby hand out and gently touched her cheek with his fingertips. He smiled at her and bounced in his seat. She sat proudly looking back at him with the same quiet smile as before. Her ringlets shone in the late-afternoon sunlight making her hair look like a bed of spun gold. For the first time, I saw the little girl my baby had grown into. My heart ached, but this time it was for me, for how quickly time was passing.
She looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back at her, and she shrugged her shoulders, held them up, and giggled. Then, she gently got on her knees, put her hand on his cheeks, and kissed his nose.
One of those most valuable pieces of parenting advice anyone gave to me was that every difficult stage in early parenting is temporary. I have remembered this to power through teething, sleepless nights, fevers, colic, and tantrums. I was positive this regression would be the exception; that our life was going to stay in this complicated, unbalanced flow forever; that I would never be able to smooth everything over for everyone.
But, it was temporary, and the frustration and exhaustion turned into an understanding and appreciation for my daughter and her situation. Once we hit that six-month mark, things slowly changed. It wasn’t over night—not even close—but these days, she’s doing just fine. We’re back on track with milestones, and though she doesn’t always engage with her baby brother, she does acknowledge him. Sometimes, she even puts her arms around him and kisses him.