MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
“There’s going to be a baby”
A brief history of jealousy
During the spring in which I’m pregnant with my son, my father presents my daughter with a picture book. There’s Going to Be a Baby, it’s called, by John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury. The story begins when the main character, a little boy, is told by his mother that she has a baby in her tummy. The pages that follow depict the fantasies spun in his mind, fantasies about what will happen once the second child is there.
In one of these fantasies, the baby is a chef, turning the kitchen into a total mess; in another, the baby appears as a banker, literally throwing money around. When the baby features as a zookeeper, chaos ensues.
“Can’t you tell the baby to go away?” the little boy wants to know. “We don’t really need him, do we?”
Night after night, I read the book to my daughter. I try to gauge whether her feelings are as mixed as those of the protagonist, but she’s not giving much away. Her interest is drawn to the mother’s patterned dress, the large ice-cream sundae served to the little boy at a café, and the various names of the animals at the zoo. As far as I can tell, the main message has passed her by; it’s just the details that have hit home.
I wonder about the intended readership for this book. Who, exactly, needs preparing—and what for?
* * *
It might be one of my earliest memories: my little sister, suddenly there. I had just turned three at the time and was convinced, somehow, that my parents were wrong about her name.
Thinking back to her arrival, it’s that apprehension that has most remained with me, the certainty that she was really called something else, and that it wasn’t in my power to correct the mistake.
In the years that followed, my sister and I mostly argued—constantly, relentlessly, to the point of physical violence, tooth and nail.
“Your characters clashed,” is the way my mother puts it now.
“You found me irritating,” my sister says.
Or maybe I was just jealous.
* * *
The first biblical murder—that of Abel, by Cain—is the result of sibling rivalry. Many of Shakespeare’s plots revolve around envious brothers and sisters. And in the big book of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, from which I regularly read to my daughter, jealousy between children of the same family is a recurrent theme.
It’s an astonishing paradox: while we believe growing up with a brother or sister to be a good thing for a child, we’ve also, for centuries, been telling stories about the ways siblings can make each other’s lives miserable.
“For a long time I regarded my little sister as an intruder,” wrote US author Helen Keller in 1903. “I knew that I had ceased to be my mother’s only darling, and the thought filled me with jealousy.” In her autobiography, Keller describes the time when, in a fit of rage, she overturned the cradle, little sister and all: “The baby might have been killed had my mother not caught her as she fell.”1
“A fat, monstrous creature had suddenly acquired the main role,” wrote director Ingmar Bergman as he recalled the birth of his younger sister. Little Ingmar failed in his attempt to strangle the baby—his autobiography throws up a vivid image of the time he climbed onto a chair to get at her cradle, but slipped and fell to the floor.2
A friend who, like me, is the eldest in her family, tells me about an old video recording in which her younger sister, just learning to walk, proudly clambers up off the kitchen floor and wobbles toward the camera—only to be brutally thumped on the head by my friend’s clenched fist.
Can’t you tell the baby to go away? We don’t really need him, do we?
* * *
Prior to my second pregnancy, it seemed to me that the expansion of our family held only advantages for my daughter. I kept thinking of my sister and myself: of how no one has such an intimate understanding of where I come from as she does, how there’s no one with whom it’s so easy to compare notes on my parents as with her, and how lovely it is to be known, and to know someone, in that way.
I had wanted my daughter to have the same thing: an ally. But now, with spring coming to an end and that ally about to emerge, my thoughts begin to reach further back. Specifically, to our childhood. And it’s there that the image becomes much less appealing, because our childhood fighting didn’t come to an end until I left home for college, the ravages of a decade and a half of sibling warfare smoldering in my wake.
What made me think a second child was such an unequivocally good idea?
In the evenings, my daughter asleep, I click my way through a pastel-tinted online parenting forum, followed by similarly pastel-tinted parenting websites and mothering blogs. It’s easy to get lost here, in this Wonderland, where the tone switches with astonishing ease from reassuring to alarmist and back. “You will feel worse than you did the first time around,” I read, for example, in a list of “Ten Things No One Tells You About Having a Second Baby,” and, “the same things that sucked before will suck again.” Yet I’m also told not to panic, because “you will be 110 percent more chill about everything.”3
My son gently kicks me from inside. I stroke the bump as I read on.
Online, I soon notice, second children are often presented as a potential problem: they put even more pressure on their already tired parents, throw family routines into disarray, and above all they provoke a series of reactions, some desirable, some less so, in their elder sibling.
I’m reading all this because I want to know more about my second child. But what there is to read is mainly concerned with my first child: with what I can expect of her when the second one arrives. The outlook varies from a profound lack of interest to extreme anxiety, and from bed-wetting to outright jealousy, Keller and Bergman style.
Obediently, I bookmark the many recommendations on how to deal with the imminent threat. Hounded by adverts, I then order various parenting books to be sent from across the ocean.
Siblings Without Rivalry.
The Second Baby Survival Guide.
Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.
Such telling titles. It’s as if rivalry and fighting are the norm, and deviation possible only with great effort. As if there’s a good chance the second baby will stifle our family, as if it’s going to be a struggle for survival when he arrives.
My partner, who’s more levelheaded than me, and who remembers a predominantly peaceful childhood with not one but two sisters, raises his eyebrows when the books arrive. How much more, he wonders, is all that extra literature supposed to teach us? I tell him I find it calming, the same information, formulated slightly differently each time. Apocalyptic, but clearly presented, and full of practical tips.
I like to think, I tell him, that a universal guide to the arrival of a second child exists somewhere, a primordial instruction manual for the months ahead.
There’s advice, for instance, on preparing our daughter in good time for what’s coming. We can do this by talking about the baby like he’s a “real person,” and by reading to her from books like There’s Going to Be a Baby.
We have to make it clear to her, I repeat to my partner, that the arrival of a second child doesn’t mean she’s loved any less, and above all we have to let her know that nothing is being taken away from her.
We can start by showing her photos of when she herself was a newborn, so she knows that she, too, drank milk out of a breast once; that she, too, used to bathe in a tiny tub, supported by big hands.
My partner nods, benevolently.
* * *
Presents are always a good idea, I read somewhere. I wouldn’t want to make things too easy on myself, so one sweltering late-spring afternoon I visit a frenzied toy shop on a bustling street. I navigate toward the pink section, in search of a baby doll we can give my daughter on behalf of her little brother, a gift to break the ice when he gets here.
The one I go for is small, with innocent eyes and a soft little hat on its head.
A cheeky little peace offering.
Standing at the counter I suddenly become aware of myself, pregnant and perspiring, attempting to extinguish a conflict that hasn’t even presented itself yet.
Later, much later, I’ll find the doll, naked and missing its hat, abandoned lifeless at the bottom of a toy basket. I’ll remember that it barely interested my daughter in the first place, that she found her little brother far more exciting. It will become clear to me that the gift said a lot about me and my expectations, and very little about my children.
I’ll ask myself how justified it was, my fear of jealousy.
But all that has yet to come to pass. Right now, summer is fast approaching. We need to find a new crib, there are hand-me-down onesies to wash, a cradle to assemble. And in between all those activities, I continue to read up on jealousy.
* * *
Immediately after William Darwin was born, his father began to make notes. It was 1839, and, besides being a brand-new father, Charles Darwin was also a scientist, with an inordinate interest in the expression of emotions.
In the first week Darwin noted that “various reflex actions, namely sneezing, hickuping, yawning, stretching, and of course sucking and screaming” were “well performed” by baby William. On the seventh day he conducted a new experiment: he touched William’s foot with a piece of paper. The baby pulled his leg up and curled his tiny toes—“like a much older child when tickled.”
After six weeks, Darwin detected a proper laugh from his son for the first time. At four months, it was clear that William could experience rage. His entire head would turn bright red when he was displeased. The baby was six months and eleven days old when his nurse pretended to cry: William promptly pulled a “melancholy face, with the corners of his mouth well depressed”—an unmistakable sign of empathy, in his father’s view. And when William was fifteen months old, and his little sister Annie was born, Charles discovered, while weighing his second child in front of his first, that his son could also be jealous: “Jealousy,” he noted, “was plainly exhibited.” (He omitted to record precisely how it looked, this exhibition of envy.)
Many years later, when Darwin published his notes in the journal Mind, he added that William’s expression of jealousy at fifteen months came relatively late. “When tried in a sufficient manner,” he suggested, infant jealousy could probably be elicited much earlier.4
* * *
Darwin was right, I learn when studying a weighty academic tome helpfully titled Handbook of Jealousy. Scientists have yet to agree upon what, exactly, jealousy is—emotion or cognition, or rather a state encompassing several emotions at the same time, including rage, fear, and sadness.5 What is known is that jealousy flares up when we’re afraid of losing something or someone to another person.
In that sense it’s useful, evolutionary psychologists say: jealousy spurs us on to combat the threat of unfaithfulness, or to put a stop to it once it has started.6 That’s handy if you want to keep your lover to yourself, but also for babies and small children who want to hold on to their parents’ attention when a sibling arrives. Early this century, psychologists performed a study in which they arranged for babies of just six months to watch while their mothers held lifelike baby dolls: the babies sulked, frowned, and cried. If the mothers held a book instead of a doll, the little participants reacted with considerably less agitation.7
None of this is surprising, I suppose. As far back as the third century AD, Augustine described a baby who couldn’t yet talk, but who was clearly “livid as it watched another infant at the breast” of its mother. “Who,” Augustine added rhetorically, “is ignorant of this?”8
What is new, Handbook of Jealousy tells me, is the bad rap jealousy is subjected to these days. In the Middle Ages, jealousy was associated with the defense of one’s honor, and in that sense was positively regarded. It was also long seen as a natural expression of love and devotion. Darwin, for one, classified little William’s jealousy as a sign of affection.
* * *
This remained the case for a long time. For his contribution to Handbook of Jealousy, historian Peter Stearns consulted old US handbooks, letters, and magazines and concluded that until the nineteenth century, jealousy between siblings simply wasn’t something parents worried about.
It hadn’t occurred to me that fear of jealousy might be a historical phenomenon, something that didn’t arise until a certain time, a certain place. The advice I incant to my partner and myself relates to a threat that one hundred and fifty years ago was not even recognized as such.
The turning point, Stearns writes, came at the end of the nineteenth century. That’s when jealousy lost its positive connotations, when it no longer fitted into an ideal vision of civilized adults, who were now expected to repress their impulses.
And because self-control could not be instilled early enough, jealousy between young siblings transformed from something at which parents shrugged their shoulders into a serious problem.9
* * *
Take Sigmund Freud. He didn’t waste a great many words on sibling relations, as he was primarily interested in the bond between parents and children. But what little he did say on the topic was devastating enough: in The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899, Freud noted that “hostile feelings towards brothers and sisters” must take up a substantial proportion of childhood dreams.10
He later observed that a child “put into second place by the birth of a brother or sister … does not easily forgive … this loss of place”: they become “embittered,” an emotion that forms “the basis of a permanent estrangement.”11
Freud’s Austrian disciple (and later dissenter) Alfred Adler believed the arrival of a sibling to be a traumatic event for a child. The first was “dethroned” by the second, and siblings would compete for their parents’ attention and approval throughout their childhood.12
In the early-twentieth-century United States, rivalry had grown to be such an important topic in child-raising books and magazines, Stearns reports, that one could in fact speak of a widespread “sibling rivalry scare.” Parents were advised to nip it in the bud as soon as possible if they didn’t want their children to harm one another—or, at least as bad, grow up to be unstable adults.13
Even the generally mild-mannered Dr. Benjamin Spock, the bestselling child-rearing expert, cautioned, in the mid-twentieth century, that sibling jealousy should be promptly dealt with. Jealousy, he felt, was incompatible with real love, and could even get in the way of “normal” social relations. Clearly, then, there was every reason to eliminate the malignant condition in childhood.
* * *
So here’s the irony: just as jealousy between children from the same family was becoming a phenomenon to be feared, those very families actually began to shrink. In many industrialized countries, the end of the nineteenth century saw the “demographic transition” take hold: child mortality rates declined and, not long afterward, so did the average number of children per family.
Evolutionary biologists have no trouble explaining this transition. If your children have a better chance of surviving and reproducing, you don’t need to have as many to ensure that your genes get passed on to the next generation. Moreover, the fewer children you have, the more time and resources you will be able to “invest” in each of them.14
It may be, as Stearns speculates, that children had a greater need for parental attention precisely because they had fewer brothers and sisters to play with, and that this automatically increased the rivalry between them. (In the Dutch magazine De Vrouw, a parenting advice columnist named Nelleke Bakker remarked as early as 1899 that “bickering” was probably most fierce “in families with only two children, because the children are constantly forced to endure one another’s company.” A “third element,” she added, might serve as a lightning rod.15)
But above all, the growing attention on, and fear of, jealousy between siblings was part of a new understanding of parenting—one that had arisen in the wake of the demographic transition. Now that illness and premature death no longer formed the main source of parental worry, children’s psychological development and well-being became paramount. From then on, the reference book Vijf eeuwen opvoeden in Nederland (Five centuries of raising children in the Netherlands) informs me, parents wanted “to be able to give care and attention to each child individually.” This, too, was one of the reasons for the shrinking family: ample care and attention “are more easily given when there are only a small number” of children.16
Parents thus suddenly found themselves responsible for the inner lives of their offspring. And for advice on the matter, they went for the first time not only to grandmom or grandad or the neighbors, but also to a relatively new figure in the child-rearing world: the independent expert. A new group of professionals—pediatricians, child psychologists, and developmental psychologists—possessed knowledge that parents lacked, or thought they lacked.
On the ways in which parents were to combat jealousy, these experts were unanimous. Their methods don’t differ all that much from the advice I’m offered today by parenting websites, forums, and guidebooks—this collection of incantations that I can now reproduce without effort:
Acknowledge that the first child doesn’t have to be outright enthusiastic about the impending upheaval.
Tell grandmoms, grandads, and other visitors soon after the birth that they should pay particular attention to the eldest.
And if the first child still exhibits jealousy when the second child is born, don’t punish them for it—extinguish the emotion with all the love and understanding you can muster.17
* * *
Of course, the fact that in the twentieth century child-rearing experts began to hand out advice doesn’t mean that parents have actually taken that advice to heart. Even so, it seems to me that if anything, all this hand-wringing about rivalry and jealousy has left parents feeling more disempowered than self-assured. In fact, the underlying message, that we’re inflicting something on our children when we reproduce for the second time, is enough to make us feel guilty and slightly at fault.
Fortunately, a later generation of researchers would set out to put into perspective the doom scenarios of Freud, Adler, and others peddling an outsized fear of jealousy. I’d like to figure out precisely how they did this, if only to assuage my own nagging sense of guilt—but it’s the end of August, and I’ve almost reached my due date.
Bad is stronger than good
On the birth of the second child and the resilience of the first
My son is born during a heat wave. At home, like his sister just over two and a half years earlier, and on the same sofa. This time I’m lying the other way around, though, as this midwife is left-handed.
The contractions have been going on for hours when she knocks on our window, sometime after midnight, a blond angel with a doctor’s bag under her arm. They go on for hours more, those contractions; only when my daughter, who is still asleep, is picked up bright and early by my sister-in-law does dilation really get going. (My sister-in-law gives me a thumbs-up as they walk out the door; I groan in response.)
The sun is already up when he enters the world at last. Blue, screaming, slippery.
“You’ve got a nephew,” I tell my sister when I call her not much later.
She cries; so do I.
“Is he beautiful?” she asks.
I look at the swollen, angry head on my chest, eyes tightly closed, mouth wide open.
“I have no idea,” I say. “I can’t see properly.”
* * *
When my daughter comes home later that afternoon, my partner and I make sure neither of us is holding her little brother. That’s better, I’ve read on a parenting website, if we want to prevent jealousy.
Instead, he’s lying on his back in the crib. Tiny eyes closed, tiny arms up, total surrender. Someone has dressed him in a tiny vest and tiny trousers, with a tiny hat on top, but that can’t hide the fact that he seems to have come from another planet, a different species. He’s not yet entirely human, not yet entirely ours.
The three of us bend down over the little sleeping intruder. My partner and I observe our daughter. How she looks at him, her prolonged, silent fascination. Then she turns to me and asks me to lift my shirt. She feels my slack but still rounded belly, a belly that hasn’t yet realized it’s empty now. She nods in satisfaction.
“Yep,” she says, “your belly’s gone.”
* * *
In the days that follow we scrutinize her for signs of jealousy, of a traumatic dethronement, of the start of that “permanent estrangement” Freud talked about.
There’s the time she wets herself on the sofa while I’m feeding her little brother.
There’s the time in the playground: I thought he might sleep a bit longer, but he wakes up and cries for milk. I interrupt our game to give him some, to which she responds by hanging from my hair, all twenty-six pounds of her.
But the outbursts of rage, the sleep problems, the wild envy—we’re ready for them, but they fail to materialize. This doesn’t change in the weeks that follow, weeks in which it must dawn on her that the baby isn’t going to go away. That he’ll stay, whether we really need him or not.
* * *
It’s not until autumn, when the first feverish days of my son’s existence are far behind us, the sleepless nights have died down a little, and my daughter still hasn’t turned on us, that I begin to question the vision I had before his arrival. Maybe jealousy isn’t as universal and inevitable as I feared—or in any case, for our family, not nearly so devastating.
Maybe the last word on the matter has yet to be said.
In the afternoons, when my daughter is at daycare, my son asleep in the crib, I go back online. This time I ignore the parenting forums with their lists of precautions and visit the more serious regions of the internet—databases of academic articles, university research pages. As it turns out, in the past four decades (more or less from the moment that two became the norm) a growing number of psychologists, anthropologists, and developmental psychologists have discovered that sibling relationships are worth investigating.
Brothers and sisters are as ancient as humanity, of course, and most social sciences have existed since the nineteenth century, so forty years really isn’t very long at all. Especially if you consider that around 80 to 90 percent of the world’s population has at least one sibling, and that siblings, when they are little, often spend more time with each other than with anyone else.1
But academia was so preoccupied with the influence of parents on their children that the rest of the family was long overlooked.2 Whenever siblings did feature in psychological theory, they did so either as an afterthought or as the cause of trouble—of envy, dethronement, the stuff of nightmares.
Perhaps it was the desire for a new take, a fresh look, that motivated a new generation of psychologists to more rigorously test what had, meanwhile, become generally accepted truths. They sought to find out whether parents really were all-important in a child’s life, or whether other family members might matter too; and they didn’t feel comfortable taking the destructive nature of sibling rivalry at face value. Enthusiasm about Sigmund Freud’s ideas began to wane in the 1970s; this too might have allowed for a more encompassing vision to arise. Either way, there is now a small but growing field that one might call “sibling science.”
The findings of these researchers have been reported in academic journals and textbooks, in a language I had not previously connected with parenthood. I learn, for instance, about “parental resource dilution” when a family has more than one child; the way parents “invest” in their progeny; and the “outcomes” of those investments.
But what I do recognize is the longing to grasp by the wings the ways in which our choices affect our children, to pin them down and place them under a magnifying glass. Because the insight you stand to gain seems to offer certainty, the promise of predictability, and hence control.
And perhaps also, because I somehow believe in the possibility, if I do my very best to understand it all, of getting it right as a parent.
* * *
It was a British developmental psychologist named Judy Dunn who, at the end of the 1970s, was one of the first to make sibling relationships the focus of her research. She began with the much-feared origin of trouble: the arrival of a second child.
Dunn approached forty-one families who had a second child on the way, visiting them just before the birth and several times afterward and filling notebooks with her observations. One of the things that most stood out for her was that firstborn children suddenly had to deal with a good deal less attention from their parents—and in particular with less positive, patient, and sympathetic attention.3 In addition to a little brother or sister, elder children also had to withstand more rebukes and fewer touchy-feely moments.
Tell me about it, I think when I read Dunn’s findings. In the early days and weeks of my son’s existence, one image kept coming back to me. It was the image of a bird’s nest, wide-open chicks’ beaks sticking out, harassed father and mother bird frantically flying back and forth to fill their little mouths.
My daughter and son each had their own needs, and their rhythms were completely out of sync. The time went tortuously slowly, and yet there never seemed to be enough of it: I found myself in a constant hurry, in search of moments I could steal from the baby to give to his sister and vice versa.
* * *
The scene that has stayed with me the most from those early weeks plays out on a muggy day in early autumn. I’m dizzy with sleep deprivation and feverish from incipient mastitis, my son is crying on the back seat, and my daughter is refusing to get into her car seat.
A couple of weeks earlier, I know for certain, I would have been better rested and calmer, more understanding. I would have been more tolerant of the procrastination. But not today. She screams, struggles, and with greater force than is warranted, I shove her into her car seat. It’s not inconceivable that I squeeze her little arm just a little too long.
Shame follows immediately. (It’s an emotion that, like guilt, may well be an inherent part of parenthood, a state that demands sacrifices we’re not always prepared to make—and not only awakens in us an unprecedented capacity for love and care, but also confronts us time and again with the most impatient, most curmudgeonly and irascible side of ourselves.)
* * *
For most children, Dunn writes, the arrival of a second child is a big transition—in part due to that sudden reduction in parental attention. That transition, like other big changes, can be stressful, and in response to that stress young children may develop sleep problems and tantrums.4 They can turn whiny or anxious, or exhibit regressive behavior—suddenly go back to crawling or wetting the bed, for example, the kinds of behavior that the parenting websites warn of as well.
Such regressions can be explained in various ways, I read in a book by the Dutch child psychiatrist Frits Boer, who worked with Dunn in the 1990s. The simplest explanation is that the transition just takes a great deal of energy—adults, too, “behave more childishly” when they’re tired, as Boer observes.
According to a different, more biological explanation, the regression is intended to retain parental attention: I’m not as independent as I look, says the toddler who suddenly goes back to babbling like a baby; don’t forget about me!
The third explanation, which I love the most, holds that “the eldest child, by imitating the youngest, can better identify with the youngest.” There’s no exhaustion or jealousy at the root of it, just an attempt at identification: “This way,” Boer writes, “it’s easier for him to give the youngest child a place in his emotional life.”5
Whichever explanation is right—and it seems likely each of them is, in a way, right—they’re all more layered and nuanced than the doom-and-gloom scenarios raised by the theorists of the nineteenth century. Those scenarios, after all, had been heavy on dethronement, all-consuming jealousy, and trauma that lasted a lifetime. The light cast by modern-day sibling scientists is much more gentle, and hopeful too.
Because, what’s more, Dunn saw in her research that far from all children were plagued by sleep problems, tantrums, or regression. In the majority of cases, such issues were temporary or never arose at all. The idea that the arrival of a second child necessarily means the irreparable dethronement of the first, that hate and envy toward the little invader are all-important, turns out to be primarily just that: an idea.6
* * *
Another memory from the beginning. We’re sitting in the window seat, my son and daughter and I; he’s lying on my thighs, where his entire being fits.
She’s sitting next to me; outside, driving rain colors the water in the canal a strange shade of yellow. Both of us are gazing at her little brother. Then she says, with the intonation of surprised satisfaction she must have picked up from visitors in the past few days, “He’s really dark, isn’t he?”
It’s as if the arrival of the second child hasn’t so much dethroned her as catapulted her into a different world with which to identify herself: the world of grown-ups tasked with caring for the baby, examining and categorizing him.
* * *
Most children are between two and three years old when a little sibling comes along. Developmentally, that’s precisely the moment when they tend to be at their most aggressive, least obedient, and most demanding.7 In order to find out what the arrival of a second child does to a firstborn who is in the tantrum phase anyway, ideally you would study that child for a while beforehand, and for a good while afterward.
That’s precisely what Brenda Volling of the University of Michigan has been doing for several years now. She’s the director of the Family Transitions Study, in which 241 families are followed to map out how a first child reacts to the birth of a second, how that reaction influences the relationship between the two children, and how families adjust to the new situation.
As far as I can tell, it’s the most extensive empirical study so far of the arrival of a second child—and of what Volling calls the “transition to siblinghood.” But even if 241 families is a big group for one research team, it’s very small for humanity, and the findings aren’t necessarily representative of all families.8 Nevertheless, I find the conclusion of her research reassuring: when it comes to the claim that the arrival of a sibling causes children lifelong trauma, Volling found no evidence at all. The vast majority of children in the study were doing pretty much fine beforehand, and although some did exhibit certain behavioral problems around the birth of their brother or sister—aggression, in particular, could increase substantially—most of them were back to their old selves after four months.
Four months! On the scale of a human lifetime, that’s nothing.
It’s also worth noting that, for some children, emotional and behavioral problems actually decreased, probably due to the simple fact that they got older. Like Judy Dunn, Volling concludes that all-consuming jealousy is rare, if it exists at all.
* * *
It occurs to me that what’s true of drugs and medicine might be true of jealousy as well: it all comes down to dosage. In small quantities it’s not that bad, and in the absence of other cause for concern, it’s nothing to be scared of.
But the shadow cast by Freud, with his focus on pathological developments, still influences our ideas about the transition to siblinghood, Brenda Volling writes in a 2017 monograph. The titles of the parenting books I acquired in the run-up to the arrival of our second child say it all. The result, Volling observes, is that many parents worry about what they’re doing to their firstborn and that mothers often approach the arrival of a second child with trepidation. Which is a shame, since most children are a good deal more resilient than we think.9
* * *
I can see it in my daughter. The way she adapts to the new situation, the interrupted mealtimes, the tired parents, the feeding of the baby, which always takes priority over everything else. The way she sometimes grumbles, but is always quick to bounce back. The way she’s so satisfied with the solution I’ve picked up from one of the books: when you need to feed the baby, just put your toddler in front of the TV.
It’s a compromise, but it works.
Her Netflix addiction is off to a flying start.
I see how happy she is with the little gifts visitors bring her—they probably read that recommendation somewhere too. A couple of weeks earlier I’d mentioned to friends that no, we did not have a box full of pink dressing-up clothes—so stereotypical!—and lo and behold, her first princess dress arrives, a synthetic pink tulle creation, complete with shocking-pink plastic earrings, a magic wand, and a crown.
Dressed up as an explosion of pixie dust, she bends over her brother as he sleeps on the sofa or in the crib, strokes his head, says he’s sweet, when visitors ask, and then continues with her game.
I can see my daughter’s ability to adapt and to cope, but evidently I was unable to foresee it.
Perhaps that’s because I was navigating with my own experience, my own childhood for a compass. And in doing so, I managed to reduce all the possible reasons why my sister and I fought so fiercely all those years—from clashing aspirations and characters to straightforward irritations—to one single cause: jealousy. A hundred and fifty years of parental advice, from Sigmund Freud to Siblings Without Rivalry, made no attempt to dissuade me of that explanation.
It’s also possible, it occurs to me after reading Volling’s work, that the parental sense of responsibility is in fact predicated upon vulnerable children—be they first- or second-born. Or rather, upon the idea that children are vulnerable, anything but resilient. And that that notion, which arises, of course, from fear, not only determines how you treat your children but also what you expect of them.
* * *
At the beginning of this century, an international band of psychologists published an article titled “Bad Is Stronger Than Good.” Having done the rounds of the psychological literature, the authors concluded that a lot more had been written on negative psychological events, states, and development than on what might work out well in a person’s life.
From an evolutionary perspective, the finding was easy to explain: in order to survive, it’s more important to be alert to danger than to find out how to become even happier. Better to remember that you need to jump away when a car rushes headlong toward you than that it can feel great to take a few deep breaths as soon as you get outside on an early spring day.
That’s why negative events, such as losing friends or money or being criticized, affect most people more than making friends, winning money, or receiving compliments, as experiment after experiment has shown.10 Bad has a bigger impact on us than good.
That’s why psychologists have long been more interested in the issues that upset us than the things that make our lives worth living. (Although the new research area of “positive psychology” has begun to change that.) That may also be why many parents expecting a second child focus most on what might go wrong between the first and the second. And why scary scenarios on dethronement and jealousy, originating in the nineteenth century, still make more of an impression on our views than the more nuanced findings of recent researchers.
And that’s probably also why I read There’s Going to Be a Baby so many times to my daughter. To prepare her for an event whose consequences no one could predict, but for which I expected the worst, just to be on the safe side.
Copyright © 2020 by Lynn Berger