Monday, September 30, 2013

Sibling Bonding and Bonding With Pets

When our first child Avi was 15 months old I became pregnant with our twins. I adored Avi, who had been my constant companion during all that time. We had some serious infertility problems before him and had finally after almost four years been able to conceive. I was excited about having twins now, but my fear of displacing him far outweighed my joy. Would he feel hurt? Would he be jealous? How would I be able to give him the same quality time and one-on-one that we both enjoyed so much? Would I love the twins less? Did I have that much love to spread around? I really worried about what this would do to him. I had no way of knowing how he might react. We had not been around very many other babies so I really didn’t know what he would do with two all at once, all the time. I thought about this a lot. 

I talked about ‘our’ babies. I knew if I was excited about ‘our’ new babies coming, it should rub off on him, right? As I washed the tiny clothes he had long ago outgrown and got the house ready I talked to him about ‘his’ new brothers constantly, and about ‘our’ family. I wanted him to know we were in this together. There would be no ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ in this family.
            He was still nursing but not all the time. He enjoyed his regular snacks and meals but I didn’t want to suddenly wean him either and I still loved cuddling and nursing him to sleep every night. My milk seemed to be drying up on its own but he didn’t appear to think anything of it. I made sure he had plenty of water to drink throughout the day.
We went to The Farm Midwifery School in Tennessee about a month before my due date to have the twins with Ina May Gaskin. (See: "Twin Birth on The Farm" under April stories at this blog). I was put on bed rest as soon as we got to The Farm to try to keep the babies in a little longer as I seemed to be contracting a bit. One of the girls at The Farm offered to take care of Avi the whole time we were there, which was so very much appreciated. He had a blast! He had never seen so many kids in one place at a time and just loved getting to run and play all day long. He usually came back to sleep with me at night but was ready and waiting for Star when she came for him every morning after breakfast.
So when I went into labor one night about 7 p.m. I called one of the midwives and then Star who immediate took my place in bed next to him. Lucky little guy! He loved it. By 9 p.m. the twins and I were tucked into bed getting to know one another. The next day the whole children’s community was very excited: they were to have their Halloween party that night.

I doubt he missed me at all with all the goings on around the community.
The day after that Star brought Avi over to the Tower Road House where we were staying since the birth. He was happy to see me and climbing up next to me immediately noticed the two bundles side by side on the bed. I had room on my lap ready for him so I could cuddle him and not have him think he was suddenly, completely displaced. He touched them and unwrapped and re-wrapped them like little dolls. And they weren’t both boys, either! This was pre-3-D ultrasound era, and since there was no history of twins in either of our families, I figured, according to statistics, that we were most likely to have either identical boys (highest probability) or else fraternal twin boys (the next highest occurrence.) I had two names picked out for boys, too and had not even entertained a thought that I might really be blessed with a girl. We had even been calling them Isaac and Jacob. (Avi is a shortened Hebrew version of Abe or Abraham.) The next likely set would be identical girls, and then fraternal girls and the very last possible mix would be one of each. He was fine with whatever they were. Gender didn’t fit into his world quite yet.

But that all ended the first time he watched me changing their diapers. I undid both diapers so I could put them in a bucket to soak, wash my hands and then diaper them both up again. For the interval when they were both undressed, Avi looked at one and then the other, back and forth. All of a sudden he started yelling at me. “Mama, mama where is it?” I wasn’t sure what was wrong. He ratcheted his voice up a whole decibel and practically screamed at me. He was downright indignant. “Mama, where did you put his penis?” he shouted at me as he pointed to Ruth. His baby was minus a very important part and he simply assumed this was my doing or rather, undoing. Nothing I said was good enough though. It was gone and I needed to put it back. I quickly diapered them back up and cuddled him and told him it would be OK. So much for worrying if he would like them. He was ready to lay down his life for them!

Another time he came running into the kitchen promptly bumping into me in front of the woodstove while calling, “Mama, mama, my very own babies are crying!” as in HEY, YOU! DO SOMETHING AND FAST! So I quickly realized that I needn’t have worried about him feeling displaced and not bonding with ‘his very own babies.’ He is 32 years old as I write this and still calls and checks up on them often daily from wherever he is to wherever they are. The last time I checked he was in New York City and Ruth and Hannah were in Minneapolis. Isaac is usually in Woodstock, New York, though he often travels. Rachel lives in England.
             “Let your children nurture each other” says Janis Keyser, coauthor of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be and parenting educator in the Early Childhood Education Department at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California. She explains, “Strangely enough, geometry comes in handy when you're laying the foundation for sibling harmony. We tend to think of a family as a triangle, with the parents at the top, managing all the children below. Instead, it's more helpful to visualize a circle where all family members have something to contribute.”

            “The idea,” adds Keyser “is to encourage your children to play an active role in a family support system. With practice, they'll become less adversary, more advocate.”
Keyser tells a story from her own life, recalling the time her son, Calvin, accidentally kicked his little sister, Maya, in a moment of 4-year-old exuberance. Keyser managed to refrain from running to comfort her crying infant. Instead, she let Calvin try, and moments later, Maya was smiling at her brother. This allowed Calvin to see himself as a compassionate person rather than a troublemaker, and Maya was able to see her big brother as a caring person.
            Elissa Stein of New York City says that when her son, Jack, was born, she wanted her daughter, Izzy, to feel like he was her baby, too. "I'd say things like, 'Iz, you've got to watch out for our boy.' This fostered a sense of responsibility and commitment to him that I don't think would have been there otherwise. Now that Izzy is 9 and Jack is 6, Stein says they share a close bond that eclipses small squabbles. Izzy recently invited Jack to join her sock-making class, and Jack likes to have her make him breakfast instead of Mom or Dad.”
Keyser continues, “You have lots of opportunities throughout the day to encourage your children to be nurturing: Let your older child read a bedtime story to his little sister or ask your preschooler if she wants to rub her brother's back before naptime. Suggest that your toddler give your older child a kiss when she's crying because she wasn't invited to a party. When one child is having a hard time with a friend or frustrated about having to clean up the train set, you can ask your other child, "How can you help him?" Before you know it, your precarious position at the top of the triangle will be replaced by a more secure one in a balanced family circle.
            Adele Faber, coauthor of the landmark book Siblings Without Rivalry writes, “It's tempting to tell your kids that you love them equally, but the truth is, children don't want to hear that you love them all the same. They want to know you love them uniquely, not equally. I knew one mother who would tell her girls, 'You're my three little bears. I love you all the same.' But that didn't satisfy any of them. Instead, a parent might say something like, "You are my only Amy. In the whole, wide world there is no one like you. No one else has your thoughts, your feelings, your way of doing things. I'm so lucky you were born to me."

            “Also, be careful not to compare,” says Faber. “Nothing breeds resentment like piling on praise at the expense of another child, like, ‘Why can't you dress the way your sister does? She always looks so neat,’ or, ‘Your baby sister has better table manners than you, and you're almost 6!’ Even complimentary comparisons risk stirring up hostility among your children. Your intentions may be good when you tell your toddler, ‘You're such a big boy dressing yourself, not like the baby.’ But the result is that your older child may get so invested in outperforming his sibling that he'll feel threatened when your baby grows into a toddler who can dress herself. Also try to avoid pigeonholing your children into certain roles, such as the Brain, the Beauty, the Energetic One, the Calm One, the Nice One, the Difficult One. Growing children need to experiment with multiple roles. And you risk ensuring that the Troublemaker becomes forever just that and resents the Artist, or whichever sibling whose role he yearns to try.”

I am sure that co-sleeping in our family added to the closeness they had among each other. As soon as a new baby came along, the next youngest ceremoniously ‘graduated’ to the big kids’ bed, leaving his place next to me. The older kids really got into this, welcoming him or her into their realm, making room on their collective futon where they slept stacked sideways, even though it was less than four feet away from Papa’s and my bed. We had a sleeping loft in the upstairs of our house which was just one large open room. In reality this wasn’t all that big a deal, he or she had been playing on that side of the room for as long as they could crawl, often falling asleep over there during bedtime stories. They made the added effort to include the newbie into their elite circle by showing him or her upon their first morning waking on ‘their’ side how they would all silently wiggled out of their damp diapers or training pants and PJs and steal out to the raspberry patch in the fall, or in colder weather sneak downstairs to resume their endless game of little people with their Lincoln Logs and tiny troll creatures until I got up and started the bath, which was also a communal sibling experience.

            Perhaps as a holdover from my own childhood, we insisted that in our house we would never call each other bad names, and I would hold them to this. No one in our family was stupid or dumb; or God forbid, told to “shut up.” We would insist that they kiss and make up – literally—whenever they had offended one or the other. Even when they were older, I wouldn’t budge on this one. What usually happened was they would both get the giggles while I waited for them to embrace and it would break the tension and heal the moment.
            I also insisted that this behavior extend to animals. If they were rough with the dog, I made them say they were sorry and hug him. Once when I found them dismembering a Daddy Long Legs I told them that it hurt and made them say they were sorry and put him/her back where they had found him (not that they could fix him.) They laugh about this now whenever they are together, but the lesson obviously stuck. We also decided early on that we would not allow war toys of any kind. We let their grandparents know this so they wouldn’t buy these for birthdays or holidays.

It worked OK until they got a bit bigger and the neighborhood children started showing up with their guns and warships. I simply told them that our house was in a demilitarized zone and that they could safely deposit their things in our mailbox at the end of the driveway whenever they came over. It worked pretty well until someone’s mom would show up to fetch her child and on the way out they would stop and retrieve their toys from the mailbox. The kid would just explain to the bewildered parent that they weren’t allowed to bring them onto our property and had stored them for safe keeping in the mailbox.
I will never forget the time when Rachel was about 2, she was sitting in her high chair and bracing both feet on the edge of the table and pushed off, which in turn threw her chair with her in it backwards and she hit her head on the iron grating in the kitchen floor. She proceeded to scream and wail though she stopped when I picked her up and held her. But Ruth, who was 4 started sobbing uncontrollably. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “But sh-sh-sh-she is my f-f-f-friend!” And so this bond continues to this day, and I find it interesting that Ruth who is a parent now, has taken bonding with her boys even farther than what we did when I was testing my theories out on them long ago. I find my grandchildren amazingly caring and confident little people.

            Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, “Although your daughter may dread going to her brother’s football games, encouraging support for each other’s interests at a young age will help foster an appreciation for their differences. Make attendance at each other’s sporting events and extracurricular activities a family affair and a regular occurrence. Urge your children to offer words of support and encouragement to each other before big events.

            “Family traditions can lead to fond memories of childhood. Help your children make memories together by prompting them to create traditions or rituals your family will continue. For example, prompt siblings to brainstorm activities they enjoy and encourage them to agree on how a tradition involving those activities will be upheld. Psychologist Mark Sharp notes that family traditions and rituals create a sense of bonding for siblings. “That helps create a shared identity, which helps them feel closer," he says.
“Siblings have opportunities to bond even when work is involved. Instead of having them perform their weekly chores in isolation, prompt your children to team up when cleaning the house. Have them wash the car or rake leaves in the yard together. Give them a goal and a deadline, and they will be forced to work together to accomplish the task. If one prefers to dry, ask the other wash and then have them swap the following week. Co-chores help your children learn how to create a plan together and find a way to reach that goal together, forming a bond of teamwork.
“Siblings may not always be willing to communicate with each other, but if you make daily sharing sessions part of normal activities, communication will occur naturally. Encourage them to communicate and bond by presenting a “talking wand” or object that is reserved for the person speaking. Each child gets a chance to share something about his or her day, but only the person holding the wand can speak. Take turns passing the wand so that your children can express themselves without fear of interruption. Even when an argument occurs, know that your children are still communicating.

“Especially among sisters, it may well be the most significant relationship you'll ever have,” says Dr. Luisa Dillner. “It may just be the longest relationship of your life, and the one that gives you as much grief as pleasure. The sibling bond, long ignored by researchers, is now thought to be one of the most important in our lives. No other peer relationship involves a shared upbringing, shared genes and shared secrets. Studies show the importance as you get older of having friendly siblings for companionship, reminiscences and practical support. Yet there are times when children wish their sister or brother would just disappear. Forever. And in the seesaw of sibling relationships, it is that between sisters that is both the closest and most competitive.”
            Psychologist Robert Williams described it as varying through life: "In childhood, a girl may view her older sister as a rival; when puberty approaches, the sister becomes an admirable guide to the adolescent world; shortly thereafter, when both are receiving boys' attentions, the sister may again become an unwelcome competitor."
            Dillner continues: “The good news seems to be that however much sisters squabble as children, things improve as they get older. This may be because there's less to prove and even less time to prove it in, but it's also linked to no longer needing to compete for your parents' attention. A study in the journal Child Development analyzed interviews with the parents and first- and second-born children in 200 families. It found, as other studies do, that sisters feel closer to their siblings than brothers do, and that the worst ages for bickering are when the oldest child is 13 and the second-born 10. After this, the study concluded, things should get better.

           "Life events often change the dynamics of the sibling relationship. A study of 60 siblings aged between 25 and 89, in the Journal Of Marriage And The Family, found that having children often brought sisters together (though with the risk of competition over their children's achievements), as did adverse events such as divorce and the ill health of parents. Sisters phone and see each other more than other pairs of siblings, and are more likely to help with childcare, though their favorite thing is giving sisterly advice.
          “For my book The Complete Book Of Sisters I interviewed women who mostly spoke of their sisters affectionately, although this was mixed with regret for those who were estranged from their sisters. Sisters who were close said their sister knew them better than anyone, which meant they could hurt them and also support them the most. "My sisters take no prisoners – when we meet, there's a lot of verbal rough and tumble," said one woman in her 40s. "But if I murdered my husband, I know they'd be round, no questions asked, with a bulldozer to bury the body." And all the sisters I spoke to know the two golden rules of sisterhood: never borrow clothes without asking and never go after your sister's bloke.”

    In her book, The Glass Castle: A Memoir, (Scribner2005) Jeannette Walls exemplifies this bond between sisters like I have seldom seen before. Their bond actually saves her siblings from perpetuating the cycle of poverty and the dis-functional life style of their parents. Only in the past decade have I made an effort to reconnect with my own sister, Phebe. I regret that we were estranged for so many years before that. We had just gone on two very different journeys on two different continents and then suddenly, it occurred to me one day that she is in fact my only sister, and that there still might be time to connect and maybe even become close. We are still on two different continents, though we have made the effort to visit each other, and now email almost daily, sharing everything, offering sisterly advice and concern and commenting (even when my opinion is not solicited.)

Bonding and Pets 
Many couples have pets long before they start their families, so that when their first baby comes along, the family cat or dog who imagines they are the center of the universe can actually become angry and jealous of the little intruder. I didn’t realize how real this could be until I was hired as a postpartum doula for a family who had just given birth at a birthing center where I worked a few years ago. Their midwife had warned them and suggested that they take the baby blanket off of their baby as soon as they got home and put it somewhere where the cat could smell it for a while before they introduced baby to him.

            They simply assumed that their old lovable tom wouldn’t be fazed but unfortunately they underestimated him. They didn’t try the blanket trick. They just came home, crawled into their big bed and left the bedroom door open. I arrived about this time and followed them into the bedroom to help them settle in. Kitty came wandering in shortly after that, sniffed around a bit and proceeded to jump up on the bed.
What happened next came so fast I didn’t know how to react. The cat bared his claws and teeth and lunged at the baby’s head and in the same moment, which seemed like slow motion at the time, the mom whacked the cat with her arm, sending him flying across the bed and into the wall. I pushed him out the door in the next second slamming it shut behind him. I had never witnessed anything like it and now I insist that the blanket goes in the house even before the baby and is introduced immediately. This may even need to be done for a couple of days to acclimate your pet. Animals can be very possessive of their owners, but once they are used to the baby, they will usually become quite protective. It just takes time.
STAY TUNED... This and other stories will be appearing the book, Stone Age Babies in a Space Age World: Babies and Bonding in the 21st Century© pending by Stephanie Sorensen 

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