“He loves his new baby sister” enthused my work colleague about his little boy, “he’s not jealous at all, he’s always hugging and kissing her, he’s so good”
Great so, the upcoming birth of my second child was bound to lead to exactly the same kind of loveliness. I wasn’t just basing this assumption on one colleague’s positive experience – many people with two small children had regaled me with similar tales of sibling bonding. And anyway, we’d bought a doll to give Clara after the birth of her new brother or sister, so how could it go wrong?
Oh it went wrong. It was by far the most challenging, difficult parenting experience that I’ve gone through since becoming a mother. I don’t know if everybody was fibbing or if my family was just the unfortunate exception to the rosy-sibling-lovefest rule, but it was grim.
Clara was twenty months old when Emmie was born, so really, still a baby herself. And she didn’t know what to think about this interloper, this cuckoo who arrived into our house one day and didn’t leave. Clara wanted my attention – of course she did – and she was shy and anxious around her new baby sister. We tried to take photos of the two together but Emmie was two months old before Clara plucked up the confidence to sit near her sister for long enough to pose. It sounds ridiculous – it felt ridiculous at the time. And it felt stressful and frustrating and very different to the picture that I had imagined. It stretched my patience and my fledgling parenting skills to the limit. And beyond.
I remember my husband being away for the weekend when Emmie was nine weeks old – Clara cried for an hour non-stop one of the evenings, then Emmie started to cry, then I started to cry. And I wasn’t as patient as I should have been. And Clara was still not two years old. I wish I could have better understood that she was still a baby, that she was lost and confused and needed me. But I saw her as the “big girl” and was sometimes impatient with her when she had tantrums, when she threw food on the floor, when she cried and pulled at me to pick her up while I was feeding the baby. I was impatient; I could have and should have done better.
I don’t think I’m an instinctively good parent. I think some people are, and some less so. I think I’m a try-hard good parent – I know the parent I want to be, I’m aware of my own failings and limitations, I worry about mistakes and work hard to avoid making the same mistakes again. But I lack the ability to just sit back and go with the flow, to avoid raising my voice or losing my patience. I would love to be that parent but I know I never will be. Instead I am doing the next best thing – I’m trying to be better. I’m looking for tools to help me to be better – a little bit of fake it till you make it.
One such tool was a decision I made when Emmie was tiny and Clara was not yet two: I would parent like someone was watching. As though I was under scrutiny and would be taken to task for getting it wrong. I know this sounds odd, and I’m sure many will read and think “not for me”. It sounds contrived, unnatural. But for me it works. I don’t think about it consciously, and I don’t do it all the time – it’s just a subconscious habit that I got into. Perhaps it’s just another name for an internal control button, visualised in my case as a watcher. And if it means that even half of the times that I’m about to lose my cool, I don’t, then it’s working.
It didn’t work tonight when two out of three dinner plates and their contents ended up on the floor – a dinner that I had spent two hours cooking (more fool me). But I did feel bad, I did apologise, I did get everyone back to the table for a replacement dinner of banana and yogurt, and I did resolve to try harder.
Another parenting tool in a similar vein: smiling at my kids. I read somewhere that we should try to smile at our children more often – walk into a room, see your child, and smile at her so that that’s the first thing she sees when she looks up. I was surprised at how often I wasn’t smiling at my kids but I resolved to try harder. My success was hit and miss, until one evening when I walked into the girls’ room to find Clara smiling sheepishly up at me. “What?” I said, in a suspicious tone. “Mum, I’m just smiling at you – you should smile at your kids…” she replied, looking downcast.
Immediately I felt horrible, and put to shame by this wise little person. I pulled her into a hug and promised myself to do better – and this time it worked. I’ve finally reached a point where I remember to do this at least more often than not – I’ve trained myself to smile at my kids (except when the dinner ends up on the floor). Again it sounds contrived, but it’s not – I practiced something, then mastered it so that it became second nature. My kids are happier, I’m happier – it worked. The watchers are happy too I think.
So have hope, any of you who are not yet parents and wondering if you have a natural instinct for it – I think it’s possible to be a good parent without having the innate patience and inbuilt maternal tendencies that we see in others around us. Being aware of your own shortcomings and willing to keep trying count for a lot. At least I hope so, or my kids are screwed.