When I discovered I was pregnant with my second child, my daughter was two months shy of 2. The pregnancy was a pleasant surprise, but a surprise nonetheless, and I hadn’t considered the question of how or when I should tell my toddler that she had a baby sister or brother on the way. So I just told her. Part of me knew it was irresponsible — I was barely halfway through my first trimester, and having miscarried once before, I was well aware of how precarious those first few weeks really are. But it seemed impossible to keep a secret of such magnitude from the person with whom I spend most of my time, who is attached to my hip, quite literally, day in, day out.
I’d told my partner, my immediate family and close friends, so it seemed only natural to tell my daughter, too. This impulse to tell her went deeper than simply wanting to share my excitement, although that was certainly part of it. I also wanted my daughter to understand why I was feeling tired and sick so much of the time, why I couldn’t carry her as much I used to, why I didn’t have the energy to take her to the park every morning, why she was no longer allowed to tackle me and climb me like a mountain. If I failed to explain this to her, I feared my child would begin to harbor nebulous anxieties, worries she is far too young to articulate but certainly not too young to feel.
If something did happen, I reasoned, I would handle it. I didn’t spend too much time worrying over what I would tell my daughter. She is not yet 2, still young enough to accept simple answers without asking why, to trust that everything is going to be OK because she’s never known life to not be OK.
I’m the first child, too, and remember quite well the day my sister came home.
I lucked out. I crossed the line into the second trimester with no glitches. But that hasn’t stopped me from questioning whether or not I made the right choice in telling my toddler I was pregnant. My mom insists that it was a mistake, and blames the recent surge in my daughter’s clinginess quotient entirely on her awareness of the fact that she’s about to be usurped from her throne at the center of the world, but I’m not sure I agree. Yes, my daughter understands that there is a baby coming into our lives, but can she conceptualize the implications of this event without having experienced anything even remotely like it before? Probably not. The incredible depth of her toddler narcissism makes me willing to wager that she can’t even begin to conceive of a universe in which she does not reign supreme. And from the conversations I’ve had with other moms, having meltdowns when it’s time for mom to disappear into the shower is pretty standard behavior at this age. Even if I’m wrong, and she is extra clingy due to her sibling’s pending arrival, I’m not sure it’s the worst thing in the world. These are the last few months it’s just me and my girl. Better she clings now, when she has my full attention, than later, when my attention is permanently fractured.
While I know there will be jealousy and anger in the future — I’m the first child, too, and remember quite well the day my sister came home — right now, my daughter is excited more than anything that a baby is coming. She loves to lift up my shirt and rest her head on my belly, talk to the baby and give it kisses. It is the most incredible feeling in the world. Last week, she broke a cookie in half, balanced one piece on my stomach, and said she was sharing with the baby. She’s always asking to see it, and sometimes gets frustrated and demands, “Take it out. Take it out.” She wants to play with the baby, she tells me, and frequently declares that she wants to feed it macaroni. This curiosity and delight, and the impatience too, assure me that telling my daughter was the right choice.
Preparing my toddler is helping me prepare for what feels like the impossible: mothering a newborn and a 2-year-old.
As the weeks march on, I’m increasingly glad that I have this time to prepare my daughter for the major changes ahead, and to carve out a new role for her in the family structure. We talk a lot about her being a big girl and a helper, and I’ve been giving her more responsibilities. Doing grown-up jobs, like helping unpack groceries and clean up spills, makes her glow. I’ve also introduced the concept of big girl privileges, like getting to paint her toe nails and drink (decaffeinated) tea in the morning, explicitly narrating that these are things babies are not allowed to do. Needless to say, this has been a tremendous success. Another great tool has been Season Two of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which is all about adjusting to life with a new baby in the house. I want to make sure my daughter continues feeling special, and understands that even though her place within the family structure may shift, she will never lose that place, or be demoted to a less important role.
And to be honest, I’m nervous too, and preparing my toddler is helping me prepare for what feels like the impossible: mothering a newborn and a 2-year-old. When I sit down and think about what lies ahead, I start to panic. Where will I find the energy to entertain a toddler when I’m breastfeeding 18 hours a day? And the patience required to deal with terrible-twos tantrums while simultaneously managing a two-month-old with colic? What will happen to the small shards of autonomy I have managed to hang on to as a mother of one? It’s only recently that I’ve felt able to find my stride at work, and I’m not emotionally prepared to become a stay-at-home mom again. Our family is definitely not financially prepared for it. Just thinking about the sleep deprivation makes me sick with dread.
So how has telling my toddler made any of this easier? Well, when I talk about the baby with my daughter, we talk about the joy, the love, the wonder of it all; you know, the important stuff. I experience moments of child-like clarity when all the tired, adult stresses appear as they really are: trivial. My daughter’s funny questions and belly kisses remind me of how fleeting these years are, how precious, how one day I will yearn to feel my children’s tiny bodies crawl into bed and press up next to me at 3 o’clock in the morning. I’m overcome with gratitude.
Sharing my pregnancy with my daughter early on was the right decision for me. It’s deepened our bond, and has acted as a catalyst in our relationship’s evolution. Last night, my daughter interrupted her bedtime story to sit up and declare, “Mama, we best friends.” We certainly are, and there’s no one’s hand I’d rather hold on this journey.