First time parenting is rough. It’s one of those things in life that, even with preparation, leaves you unprepared. I studied early child development while earning my Psychology degree. I read tons of books while pregnant. I drew on my experiences taking care of my younger siblings as a teen. I talked to everyone I knew about parenting strategies.
Despite all of this, what I learned about my daughter, my firstborn, was mostly in retrospect after my second arrived.
This may sound intuitive to some people, but I continually expected my daughter to be so much more capable than she actually was. I pushed her very hard to be able to sit quietly, entertain herself, play well with other children, and get quickly over disappointments and tantrums.
But now, watching my 22-month-old son, I am struck by how little she really was at this age. Now I get it and I am gentler with him (and her) because of it. I better understand how much time it takes to learn to communicate or develop emotional control.
I think part of what made it confusing was her advanced development. She ate with utensils at 10 months old. She spoke in full sentences at 18 months. She could entertain herself for an hour or sometimes more. She appeared so much more mature than she actually was.
I had super high expectations for her in some areas, but I also had very low expectations in other ways.
It wasn’t until I enrolled my son in day care at one year that I realized how much babies could do for themselves. Their goals for that age were self-feeding and self-care. They were consciously teaching this age group things I was still doing for my daughter at three.
Instead of taking the time to empower her to do things for herself, I just did the things for her. I picked out her clothes, dressed her, washed her hands for her, and even fed her if it was too messy.
Now, with two little ones, it’s a lot easier to encourage them to try more things for themselves. I get a lot more resistance from my daughter because I have helped her for so long. She sees my reluctance to help her as me pushing her away.
At the risk of sparking a gender debate, please remember this is just an account of our experience.
My husband and I watched her approach to life and would often comment that she was more like a boy than a girl. She was aggressive and rough, preferring blocks and cars to dolls and stuffed animals. She wanted to run around, jump, and be thrown up in the air.
At age one, we noticed she was incredibly mechanically minded, driven to figure out how things worked. She was fascinated by buckles and latches, manipulating any she could get her hands on.
When our boy arrived, it become obvious how wrong we were. The elements of her that had seemed to be “boyish,” now proved to be characteristics of her unique personality as opposed to being gender related.
Our son does not ever stop moving. Our daughter can sit still for long periods, exploring a book or a puzzle. Our son is rough and tumble in a different way, often getting hurt without even noticing. He climbs everything. It never occurred to our daughter to climb some of the things he’s climbed until she saw him do it.
So often, we watch our son do something that instantly reminds us of the time our daughter did the exact same thing. Their mannerisms are so eerily reminiscent of each other it’s like déjà vu. Yet what I’ve really learned is that they can also be so different, despite being so alike.
Our little man is sweet and sensitive, craving physical closeness. Our daughter is much more independent, preferring physical contact on her own terms. She plays imaginatively, while he is very physical: throwing balls, pushing cars, running, and jumping. She loves to communicate; he is not determined to do so. He tends to get frustrated and gives up easily, while she will persevere until she solves it.
This one hurt for me. I knew from my husband’s experience that sibling relationships aren’t always easy. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened.
Our daughter was two when he was born – a difficult baby, who commanded an extraordinary amount of time and attention. She had been very attached to me up until that time, barely allowing anyone else to do anything for her, even my husband.
The arrival of a new baby broke our bond in a very intense way. Despite our goal of encouraging additional connections in her life, I wish it hadn’t happened in such a drastic manner. Looking back, I’m not sure what else we could have done to ease her transition, short of postponing having another baby.
It took her more than a year to even out and get settled into her new role. Now that our son is almost two, we feel heartened by the beginning of a relationship between them.
These are not lessons you can learn from a book or a more experienced parent. You have to live them and breathe them, and let the experiences change you. I have regrets, but I can’t change the past.
What I can do is learn from these insights, applying them to each new stage as we all grow together.