When I became pregnant with my first child, I was absolutely ecstatic. And then, I realized that with the exception of a regular babysitting gig when I was 10, I had no idea how to raise a baby, or even really how to act around one. I am an only child of two only children; I was the only child on either side of the family until I was 16, when I acquired a cousin, but he lived nearly 400 miles away from me; not many opportunities for interaction there. My husband has a brother three years younger and a sister ten years younger, but wasn't particularly involved in the maintenance aspects of their raising. We were shooting from the hip where parenting was concerned.
My older boy, Rowan, was just past two years old when I got pregnant again. And because I am a research geek, I hit the books, trying to figure out how to appropriately involve him in what was about to happen. The popular literature is disappointing. The assumption is that you immediately have school-age (and school-attending) children, who will naturally exist in a state of conflict. There's plenty out there on conflict management. But why, I wondered, does there have to be conflict at all?
So again, we started doing what seemed right at the time. With many apologies offered out into the ether that, if we were blowing it somehow, at least we'd be able to say in all sincerity to our son, that we'd done our very best with the very best of intentions, and here, let us help pay for your therapy...
Pregnancy hit me hard the second time. My exhaustion level was high, and I spent a huge amount of time being unable to even consider moving off the couch. So I'd pop in a video, or put a stack of books next to us, and we'd hang out. Usually, though, he'd want information about what was happening. He'd put his hands on my belly to feel his baby move. It was always "his" baby, in his mind and in his language, and I think there's something important there, a very definite sense of ownership and of connection, like his toys, his pillow, his baby. He'd talk to my belly, about toys and the games they'd play when the baby came out.
A huge part of our decision to home birth revolved around the idea that Rowan was an integral part of what was happening, not just a detail to be staved off until the main event was over. And hospitals will not allow a toddler to hang out in the rooms. We did not want Rowan being shoved aside for a few days, separated from me completely, and then greeted with an interloper who would by necessity get more of my attention than he would. So we decided to see what would happen if he was allowed to be part of what was happening, as a natural participant in all things that concern the family.
When I was in labor, Rowan would put his hands on my belly, feel the contraction, and yell right along with me, helping, and then toddle off to do something else interesting. It was awesome. He was right there with me, cheering me on, telling me I could do it. And once the baby came, Rowan helped his papa cut the cord, all the while being utterly respectful where it was called for, quiet when necessary, and jubilant when appropriate. I would not have expected that; it was like, well, like he was just part of what was happening, and therefore, totally tuned in.
We do elimination communication, and Rowan often knew the baby had to go before I did, he translated for his baby brother all the time, talked to him and with him, brought toys and drinks of water for me when I was nursing... in short, my older boy learned how to nurture, how to slow down for a little one, how to encourage them to interact and play, in a way that adults simply cannot. Rowan inspired Kestrel to roll over, and laid there on the floor or the bed with him for the hours it took, rolling over, and over, and over, for days. And when Kestrel finally rolled over, Rowan nearly burst with pride. And rightly so. He'd figured out how to inspire his baby.
Rowan is five now, and Kestrel is two. And I'm expecting their baby sibling. Rowan told me I was pregnant before I told him; I'm still not quite sure how he did that. But he has taken it upon himself to show Kestrel how the business of being a big brother is done. He's gotten out the kiddy sling, and is showing Kestrel how to "wear" one of their baby dolls. The doll is also getting taken to potty regularly, and sometimes, special treats get shared with her too. Mostly, she gets put to bed a lot, or played catch with.
So in the middle of this, because Rowan is five, I am being asked when I am putting him in preschool. Because I need a break, because I need my own time, because he needs to do worksheets and arts and crafts, because preschool is critical for socialization, right?
In a healthy, functioning system, kids are supposed to learn what parenting looks like when they're little, with their siblings. Not as adults, frantically realizing that they have no idea, and they're about to have a trial by fire, as I did. Children learn how to nurture by doing it, and they get that opportunity by being at home with their siblings when they are tiny, and being fully participatory in the nurturing process. By being absolutely involved in the nurture of the family, they are learning how to create nurture in the families they will go on to have in the future.
There is not a preschool in the world where they can learn that. It's one of those lessons that has to be integral to the environment, and there's simply no way that any school, no matter how fantastic, can ever provide that.
I could cut Rowan out, but I'd also be cutting Kestrel out of what he could learn from Rowan, and I'd be cutting the new baby out from what he or she could be inspired to by the two of them. I cannot imagine that there is anything happening in preschool that is anywhere near as important as that torch being passed between the children. There will be plenty of time for them to learn to interact with their peers, but pregnancy, infancy, and toddlerhood are gone in a flash, never to be reclaimed, and with them, the opportunity to learn to be a family together.
Laureen is a writer, a professional editor, a scuba instructor, a beginning sailor, a traveler, and an obsessive researcher who's chiefly focused on, and delighted with, her husband Jason and her sons Rowan and Kestrel. She's a lifelong Californian, which lends a very distinctive spin to both her ideas and her politics, and she's discovered, in her peregrinations, that the world is far smaller yet far more fascinating than anyone gives it credit for being. She holds forth her opinions on that in her blog, The Elemental Mom