Q: I am a mom of a 4-year-old son and am pregnant with twin girls. My husband and I are so excited, but I can't help feeling guilty and overwhelmed when I think of my son. Once these twins arrive, we are really going to have our hands full, and I worry that I'm not going to have enough time with my son. We don't have any family in the area, and our budget is tight enough that we can't afford a nanny. How can we make sure our son doesn't feel abandoned? People suggest that we include him in helping with the babies, but I worry that he's going to just feel like we're putting him to work, and that the new babies are the priority, which of course isn't true. Help!
A: Congratulations on your growing family! These are exciting, busy and joyful times, so above all , we need to keep it simple.
To begin, you used the word “abandoned,” and I want to assure you that your son is not going to feel abandoned. Is this going to be a huge change for him? Absolutely. There is no way around it, so the first lesson is this: Expect a good deal of upset. The developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld once said something that I think of every day: The more room you give a feeling, the less space it takes up. This means that your job is not to make your 4-year-old happy or keep him from experiencing negative feelings. Rather, the mind-set is that we are going to expect a transition, which can come with frustration, outbursts and tears.
There will be frustration because of less attention: “Why isn’t Mommy taking me to the park? Why is Mommy always holding the babies?” This feeling may result in anger, and then move to tears about what cannot be changed (the babies are here). Every human goes through this. How frustrated will your son be when the babies are born? We don’t know. How helpful will he want to be when they are home? We don’t know. (Though 4-year-olds often love to help, as long as you don’t get too bossy.) The only aspects you can know are that this will be a big transition, and that (this is really important) humans are great at adapting. Your whole family can adapt to this; just stay open to the big emotions.
What else can you do to smooth this transition? I know that you don’t have family in the area and that a nanny is out of the budget, but this is a time to get creative. Religious groups, parent groups, twin groups, neighbors, school parents — all of these people want to help you. You aren’t asking for the world, just people to hold babies for an hour. I can guarantee you that once you ask, people will fall over themselves to hold a baby or two.
Here is why you need this: special time with your son.
When these people are holding the babies, you can plan some one-on-one time with your son. Do not think this means anything elaborate. You will be too tired to plan much, so just think of this as scheduled time to get on the floor and play with him. If you have the energy and he wants to play sports? Great! But simply playing for 15 minutes, making strong eye contact, smiling and relaxing will go a long way in filling his connection cup, even just once a week.
When we look at the developmental characteristics of a 4-year-old, although they can be opinionated and stubborn, the average 4-year-old longs to do significant work and feel important. When given some freedom of choice, they can truly rise to the occasion of being helpful and sweet. I wouldn’t expect it all of the time, but I would not assume that if you ask him to help with the babies, you are overly burdening him. In fact, there is a natural alpha energy in many 4-year-olds, meaning your son may feel naturally inclined to help, to be a big brother and show his sisters how this family runs. And by all means, let him assume that role. But if you catch yourself constantly bossing him around or if he begins to push back, you may be asking too much of him. Just stay aware.
Finally, keep reminding yourself of this: It will not stay like this forever. Soon, the girls will get older (then the fighting will begin), your son will be in school full time, etc. And because of this ever-changing landscape, asking for support is critical. Any or all support will allow time for you to connect to your son and most importantly, yourself.
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