By Keri BertinoNov 22, 2019
Photo: Jason Block
My four-year-old son screamed—a piercing shriek that echoed in my heart. It seemed directed at me: calibrated not only to express, but also to punish.
My offence? I’d just shuffled out of bed after nursing our two-month-old girl. Starving and parched in the primal way of a new nursing mother, I’d handed the baby to my husband, put the kettle on for tea. My son asked if I’d play with him. I said I’d love to, right after I ate.
He screamed, collapsed, wheeled on the floor, kicked a chair. My husband took the baby to our bedroom. We were learning the drill.
This had happened the day before, when I’d needed to use the bathroom after a trip to the park, and the day before that, when I’d wanted to change into pajamas.
We’d seen (and expected) outbursts in the nine weeks since my daughter was born, but they were growing in frequency and intensity like an alarm system.
After three straight days of battle, I was exhausted and staving off tears of my own. Underlying my joy in this new sweet baby, in our beautiful family now complete, was a deep streak of grief: that I didn’t know how to help my son; that I was failing him by not making him feel safe or loved enough; that our new baby was getting short shrift and exposure to stress.
The fact of my son’s jealousy wasn’t a surprise, but the intensity of it was. Well, maybe the fact of it was, a little. I’d done everything I could to make sure it wouldn’t be like this. In view of my own adult relationship with my sister, with its occasional flare-ups rooted in childhood jealousies, I was determined to help my children see each other as both uniquely loved and on the same team. In the first weeks of pregnancy, I’d read Siblings Without Rivalry and a dozen articles, variations on a theme: “5 Ways to Prepare Your First Born for a Sibling” and “8 Tips To Prevent New Baby Jealousy.”
It felt like we were starting from strong footing. My son had asked again and again for a little brother or sister. We were careful to share the news with him that “we’re going to have a new baby in the family,” instead of “you’re going to be a big brother”—framing the change as something in all our lives, not as a new identity for him. I stiffened every time a well-meaning family member asked, “Are you going to take good care of your new baby sister?” and always followed up to let him know his job was to be a kid, and the grown-ups would keep taking care of him and the new baby.
I followed the articles’ advice and bought a present for him from the baby, to gift when he met her in the hospital. When I tried to prepare him for how breastfeeding would occupy my hands for long stretches, and invited him to brainstorm what we could do together during those times, he was utterly unfazed.
“That’s okay—Monkey’s a baby, too. We can feed our babies together.” He pulled up his shirt and brought his beloved stuffed monkey to nurse at his chest.
“Hey, La Leche League!” my husband said, and raised a solidarity fist.
At first, it seemed my plan was working. In the hospital, my son tiptoed to his sister’s plexiglass bassinet and sang, “You Are My Sunshine.” I cried happy tears, and a warmth filled my chest that told me everything was going to be okay.
In those early weeks, we made plenty of time to talk about feelings, about things being “different” or “hard,” about “big changes” and “needing attention.” We staked out solo time with our son each day. My children’s relationship was blossoming; my son doted on the baby, and loved to coo, “Hi, Willa. It’s me! Your big brother!” He was consistently sweet to his little sister.
But to me? Well.
The same night as the breakfast outburst, when I sat down for dinner, another tantrum. He hurled a metal toy car across the room in my direction—it missed me, but scared us all. He collapsed into wails.
I felt at a loss. We’d invited him to talk, to snuggle, to take deep breaths. We’d told him how much we loved him. We’d given him space, we’d held him close. We’d set firm and gentle boundaries. Still he bellowed. It felt like nothing was working. And it didn’t escape my attention that the tantrums descended when I tried to attend to my own basic needs. I’d expected some hostility toward the new baby, but I hadn’t imagined he’d be so angry with me.
It suddenly occurred to me that in all our talks about feelings, I’d left out an essential word. “Are you feeling jealous?” I said.
My son got quiet and stared—I had his attention.
From the green-eyed monster to the seven deadly sins, our culture agrees that jealousy—and its fraternal twin, envy—is not a good look. To call someone jealous is to hurl an accusation, with the adult baggage of paranoia, insecurity and violence.
So I’d kept this word away from my son. But now it seemed a truth I hadn’t allowed to be voiced.
“Do you know what jealous means?” He shrugged uncertainly. “It can mean feeling bad because there’s someone in the way of someone you love. Is that how you feel?” He nodded.
I pulled him close. “I understand why you feel jealous. You have every right to be jealous. It’s okay,” I said, and felt guilt and shame lift from both our shoulders. I’d avoided the j-word as too toxic to speak, but now that I’d said it, I wanted to repeat it until it lost its power. “You can always let us know if you’re feeling jealous. We can help.”
I offered him language: I feel jealous. I need some time with you alone. Can we read a book, just the two of us? Can we spend some time without the baby?
The rest of the night was bliss. All four of us played in the living room. My son was his sweet, chatty self, but he sometimes stopped to say things like, "I think I need to snuggle," and we’d cozy on the couch. I’d been so focused on preventing jealousy that it hadn’t occurred to me to embrace it—to welcome it as the most normal, natural thing.
When I told my best friend about our breakthrough over text that night, her advice was for me to make space to grieve. The next day, a bitterly cold afternoon, I walked through our neighborhood, pushing the stroller as the baby slept. I bought myself hot chocolate and let myself cry. I understood: I was feeling jealous.
I was jealous of the simplicity of those early weeks with my first baby. I remembered those sweet, hazy winter afternoons on our rumpled bed, the three of us gazing at each other with wonder. Things were so much more complicated this time, the quiet cozy moments with our daughter so much scarcer. And since I knew it wasn’t my son’s fault, I had blamed myself.
But jealousy is a natural feeling, not a flaw—in children, and in adults. Its presence means that worlds have changed, not that love has failed.
My son’s tantrums didn’t end immediately, but after our conversation they began to fade. On the scatterplot of parenting, there are no straight progressions—but it feels like the hardest part of this adjustment is now long behind us. Naming the green-eyed elephant in the room voiced what we needed to acknowledge, and needed to grieve, to understand each other and ourselves.