Beautiful chaos – the transition to a family of four

Now that we are a family of four, I am realizing two very important things:

  1. My love is abundant. It really is possible to love another baby as much as your first, without sacrificing an ounce of what you already give.
  2. That no matter how much you prepare, the transition to a larger family is just that…a transition that comes with a full range of feelings and emotions that you could never have practiced enough for.

Our daughter is nearly five years old. She is brilliant, funny, joyful and perfect in every way. And when I say perfect, she is perfectly human including emotions, love, silliness, and intelligence. But these past 5 weeks have resulted in a change for her and we are struggling. She yells, argues, interrupts, stomps, scolds, pouts, cries, screams, and just in general is pushing buttons whenever she can.

When I was pregnant, she was often asked if she was excited to be a big sister. She would say yes, even with little concept of knowing what it meant, simply upholding the social standard. Of course she was excited to have a baby to play with and call her own. But all of the changes that come with a growing family were impossible for her to fathom or understand in advance. I was worried that setting up her excitement would ultimately result in confusion and disappointment as the reality of our expanding family set in. At the advice of a friend who shared her own conflict with that question, I gave pushback to those who asked. Our daughter can be non-responsive to new people, so I often would respond to them if she wasn’t willing, stating that she will be excited when the baby comes to learn all about being a big sister. I was hoping to give her an out in answering and to reframe the excitement.

Then this baby came, and entered the world in a way that took her mom away for five days in a hospital. And took away my ability to hold her for several weeks. She knew that I was sick and hurt, but didn’t understand why. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the full details. It’s not just scary to hear, but also so hard to say. I know that eventually we will talk about it. First, it feels important to me that I am able to hold my own grief when I share with her. This way she can hear the words and not feel like she needs to hold me, and can instead explore her own feelings and responses.

But, it’s very clear that she already has a response. And, it’s no secret that a perfect little human is not immune to jealously, trauma, and sadness. I can see all of this in her. And she is taking it out on us. She is loving and doting to the baby, jumping at the chance to help them when they cry, acting as our assistant in diaper changing, and asking to hold him all the time. When you think about it, there is no reason to place these feelings on the baby, as they have no reaction to her. But my partner and I do have response, and thus we are getting the brunt of it. We are frustrated, overwhelmed, and sad. It’s hard re-adjusting to a lack of sleep again, crying demands of a newborn, plus the new voice of our daughter which is turned up in volume. That plus a barking dog, it’s pure chaos. We are consumed by this beautiful, joyful, overwhelming, frustrating chaos.

Bedtime is the hardest as this is when she expresses the majority of her emotions. All of the pent up energy from the day, the feelings she has, come out in full force. My partner and I go to bed some nights feeling sad and selfish for even getting mad about it. And I’m sure she goes to bed confused as to her own anger and upset by our responses.

The other day, I read an article called “3 Ways to Avoid a Power Struggle With Your Kids” by Christina Clemer. It suggests three things: 1) not backing them into a corner, 2) not trying to reason, and 3) don’t give the behavior power. We’ve tried this since then and it’s helping, well it helping us to avoid too much conflict. My partner and I have been going to bed more calm and a bit less guilty. In fact, I’d recommend this article to other parents as a place to find some peace and patience as you take on frustrations with our kids. So far, it’s really helping this for us.

But, today I am breaking down the idea of a “power struggle.” Recently, I have begun a personal journey to both understand and enact the vision I hold for power in the world – one with a community of shared power. When it comes to power – as a woman, I am stripped of power; as a white woman, I yield it; as a white woman parent, I enact it daily; and as a 4 year old, my daughter desperately desires it. Instead, I envision a world where we all contribute as humans in our awesomeness, but without any sole source of power. Instead, I wonder if we as humans can live in shared power, uplifting one another’s contributions, voices, life force, while also combining our powers towards a sustainable, thriving, loving world. So the question came to me, can I create this with my daughter?

First, I have been thinking about our current parenting tactics, as they have all been pretty useless during this time of transition…timeouts just lead to a laughing child, taking away things results in her gleefully handing them over, saying no results in a louder no yelled back, and an ask for our personal space results in her physical invasion of it. We’re clearly missing something. So, the other night, I tried something new – working to teach her to speak more to her feelings. In a past exploration of my own anger, I learned that anger is most often a mask for sadness, and often deep sadness. Thus, I asked her why she was mad and she replied, “I don’t know.” So I asked her why she was sad and she said, “I wish it was just the three of us.”

I was both surprised and not by her answer. To date, I’ll admit that I haven’t done much to explore these deep feelings with her. The data in my head about egocentrism and empathy as part of the growth process of kids has had me skip over it. This is simply based on the assumption I made that her brain can’t do all of this yet. But this is not true, her brain takes in all of this. It just can’t process it back out yet. I have been overlooking a key piece of her development. Luckily, parenting has taught me to have humility and to not be afraid to admit when you mess up. As a friend reminded me just yesterday, you can always go back to a conversation by bringing it up again. Kids are forgiving.

Another friend offered some additional insight to this contradiction – what my daughter might be feeling deep in her heart – that there is likely trauma coursing through her body in addition to this sadness. My daughter knew that a baby was coming and was hopeful to participate in the birth process. Instead, she had to stay in a waiting room while we birthed her sibling in an operating room. Then, we were taken from her for 5 days. We were in the hospital, only seeing her during daily visits. I assumed she would ask any questions that came up for her. I assumed that she ignored me because jealously was seeping in. But I didn’t assume that her body and heart inherently knew that we just went through something big and it must have been scary. I didn’t assume that when she looked at me, she saw sickness and weakness when she’s used to seeing strength. I didn’t assume that as I explained that my body needed some healing that she might see me as broken. I didn’t assume that when she looked at my partner, she saw fear and concern in his eyes. As my friend so clearly caused me to see, perhaps, just perhaps, she is mad because we are the adults. We are the ones who keep her safe, teach her strength, and cushion her sadness. And now we are tired, overwhelmed, and filled with our own trauma. As adults, how could we do this to her when she needed us? With the birth of her sibling, her life as she knew it was turning upside down, and she was all alone.

I don’t even know where to start with this new understanding of what she might be going through. And it makes it even harder that we are in a place of transition ourselves.

For right now, we are just focusing on what’s in front of us and working through our interactions as they come. Other parents have shared with us what has worked for them: 1) to set aside intentional one on one time with her, 2) to make sure our time is evenly spent between her and baby, 3) to not judge how she helps with baby, giving encouraging words, and 4) to maintain as much patience as we can muster.

My hope is that we can get to a place where we can start to face healing together. To me that would be shared power. And, if I want to live in a world with shared power, then I need to achieve this in my own home.

In our interactions, I see myself strip her of power, taking all of it. How do I release this notion of taking power? How do I release this notion of needing this power? Who does she really harm when she yells no, or jumps on her bed, or throws her toys? Actually no one, but it’s incredibly frustrating. I am finding myself so annoyed with the little human who brings me life and joy. So among this imbalance, where does the true power lie? Why does it feel like it’s in the center of the room and she and I are clawing at it, trying to keep it for ourselves?

While we continue to battle, we fail to heal. I am not setting the best example by not showing her how to heal and how to face her own sadness. Perhaps, the answer is that we all need to feel together in this house. We joke, but with much truth, that the dog seems to be the only one keeping it together. I look at my partner and I see the grief in his eyes, surrounded by the fatigue. As he hides himself in his coping, I feel disconnected. We haven’t grieved the change to our relationship. I look at my daughter and am ready to pounce on whatever misbehaving comes next. I am sad that our relationship has changed, that I’ve had to make room in our space for another, yet we haven’t grieved. I look at this new baby and I feel sad because I can’t hold them all the time, having to put them down when I eat, feed the dog, or make time with my daughter. Here I was worried about being able to love them both, but instead I am feeling the disconnect in how to consistently share that love. The love is abundant, bountiful, but as a human I am finding more and more that I am unsure of how to consistently express it.

Today I received a message from an old friend reminding me that I showed her what it felt like to be loved. This was so grounding, reminding me that I am centered in love. That inherently, I just know how to do it and others will feel it. That I don’t need to overthink it. This is power, a type of power I hope to hold tight. But this communication also reminded me of the loneliness of new motherhood. This loneliness stems from not talking about all of the emotions of motherhood out loud. In this country, we celebrate new babies – their conception, their growth, their birth, their sex even. I am seeing more and more the loneliness in this approach, this missed chance to celebrate motherhood, parenthood, expansion of the human species. We miss celebration of the beautiful chaos that is parenting.

It makes me think about my survival in this chaos. Why do we not uplift the family journey? Why do we not uplift the power of motherhood, fatherhood, parenthood, siblinghood? It seeps into me that capitalism has hold of us here too, in dressing up our babies in cute clothes, while mom wears the same pair of pants for the 3rd day in a row, skips lunch and breakfast, and then scolds herself for not doing the dishes. As new mothers, we’re expected to be consumed with joy. If we admitted we were sad, overwhelmed, or even angry, we’re set up to look like bad parents, incapable, neglectful even. How can we possibly grieve as a family, when we’re socially expected to be present in joy for all to see? And how can we possibly experience support from our loved ones when it feels inappropriate to share that we’re struggling?

The largest sense of relief I have experienced in the past month and a half is when I admitted to my doula that I was struggling. Just to have her bear witness to this pain lifted a burden. When I reached out to my family of friends to ask for help and advice, another one was lifted. I reached out to folks who I knew didn’t feel the need to “handle” it. They simply let the emotions sit in front of us, acknowledged their presence, and made an offer of support or advice if I invited it. They reminded me of my own capacity, my own wholeness, my courage. They gifted me with their love and support through simply being. They reminded me of my motherhood, that I am a lifegiver, and that all of me is enough.

Some time soon, I am going to explore expressing grief with my daughter. I am realizing that she needs to see mine to know she should make space for her own. I want her to see that grief does not replace joy or love, but simply compliments us as humans to feel a range of emotions. That these emotions are powerful, and that maybe by sharing all of ourselves, we’ll find our way to shared power, both in our hearts and in our home.

*One friend gave the advice to build my village. My village helped me find this voice, to deepen my parenting, and they have held me tight. I feel so grateful to feel so loved and so welcome to be my whole self.

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