My firstborn loved her newborn baby sister. LOVED. I couldn’t blame her: The baby was tiny, precious perfection. Her fingernails were like miniature seashells, translucent and round. Her arms and legs were curled up into her body, still downy, and her feet were wrinkled and purplish. She seemed so small and fragile and feather-light next to the giant, noisy, calamitous two-year-old who loved her so dearly.
And just like that, as the baby books had warned, the love that had focused entirely on my firstborn doubled to encompass the new baby. Love is magic like that—its growth potential is unlimited. My patience and attention, though? Not so much. Very much finite. A limited resource. So, when the toddler pelted into a room to show me something, just as a milk-drunk newborn had dropped off to sleep in my weary arms? My jangled nerves leapt to stop the attack.
“No, no, no! Shh. Softly, softly, please. The baby’s sleeping. You can’t climb up right now. How about here, beside me? Gently. Not so loud. Sit here, beside me, just slowly. No, no, no! Hands off! YOU CAN’T TOUCH HER EYE!”
Too late. The baby’s eyelid peeled back like the flap on the How Many Bugs in a Box? book as the toddler peered in to see if the baby was still in there somewhere.
Toddler, please leave the baby alone (this phase of life, in a nutshell). I love you. You’re wonderful. My precious firstborn. Mommy’s big girl. Please get the hell off the bed and away from me and the tiny sleeping baby, for the love of all that is holy, before I smother you with this pillow or leave imprints of my fingernails in the soft flesh of your arm as I pry you away from the precious second-born.
I was an enlightened mother. I loved both of my daughters dearly. I felt a lot of sympathy for the firstborn, usurped and hushed. I read all the advice. I complained gently about the noisy baby who interrupted our bedtime books—so unfair!—and let others take care of the baby whenever possible so I could have toddler time, like the good old days. I maintained our routine. I allowed her to try breastfeeding again—sure, give it a try!—and tried not to hush or scold.
In short, I anticipated jealousy and was ready for my big girl to want more time with me and resent my divided attention. And jealous she was—but not of my time with the baby but of baby’s time with me. She wanted to spend time with the baby. Why did I always get to sleep with her? Why couldn’t she change the diaper? She was ready to bathe and feed and burp her sister. And, oh boy, the headlocks—I mean, hugs.
So, I stole my time with the baby. Early in the morning, before waking, and late at night, after toddlers are in bed, the baby and I bonded. I was so hungry for time alone with the baby and the uninterrupted snuggles I’d had with my firstborn that we co-slept for nearly a year. I poured my love into her when we were alone and shared it as evenly as possible when her big sister joined us.
For the most part, it was lovely. My toddler, a gentle soul who wasn’t particularly rambunctious, would happily plug the soother back in when the baby popped it out and run to fetch whatever nipple cream or diaper I needed. She hated to hear the baby cry and leapt to respond faster than I did. But she also woke the baby up to play with her, just as we’d settled in for a long car ride—I’m pretty sure I scolded her meanly through clenched teeth that time—and climbed up onto my bed to see the baby just as I’d nursed her, changed her and put her back to sleep after a feeding at dawn.
And then there were the near misses. While at my parents’ house, I returned from the shower impossibly early one morning to find the toddler in the Pack ’n Play with the three-week-old. She somehow climbed onto my bed beside the playpen and lowered herself into it, luckily without stepping on the baby’s trachea. Because she didn’t want the baby to be alone. So sweet! But do it again and teddy gets it, you hear me?
We all survived. Since then, the toddler has grown up, and her early adoration of her sister has faded. They bicker constantly now, like, well, siblings. She is more than happy to leave her alone, except when bored or irritable, in which case she would prefer that her sister be miserable and tormented—and she has just the trick to accomplish that.
Feast or famine. Too much love, and later not enough. The push and pull of my girls started the minute they met, toddler and baby, big girl and little girl. Take care of her. Leave her alone. Visit me together in the old folks’ home. But for now? Leave your sister alone!
This article was originally published online in June 2019.