I've had an email from a sweet mama yearning to find connection with her children. She parented the first in an empathetic style with wildly positive results for all. But now that there are two kids... well it doesn't seem to come as easily. She feels she's just going through the motions and coming up short. She described a typical interaction at her house:
Ella is building some amazing elaborate lego house. Harper sees this, thinks it looks so cool and heads over to touch it and taste it and figure it out. Ella screams and cries when her building gets touched.
Me: Ella! I know that's so disappointing...
Ella: No! Don't talk to me about that right now!
Me: But I want to talk about what you're feeling!
Ella: Harper touched my building! Make him stop! Fix it!
At this point, Harper starts climbing on me, pushing Ella out of the way, pulling down my shirt to nurse and also starts screaming. She amps up her screaming because she's just been pushed off my lap. I'm so so sad and exasperated at this point that the next part of the conversation goes like this:
Me (yelling, now): Ella, I told you if you want to build stuff Harper can't touch, you have to put it up high! He's curious!
Ella: Mom! That's not fair! Much more crying and screaming.
Then I hand Harper a toy and start cleaning the kitchen or something just to get my mind off how sad I am that I don't have unlimited time with either of them. I've been trying so hard to keep things even. To give Harper all the things we gave to Ella when she was his age and to treat Ella the same as we did before Harper was born. It's not working though. I'm exhausted when I wake up and I feel as though both kids are left at the end of the day wanting more of me.
Crap. That's my first reaction because I can just hear the emotions behind the words.
- Loss of hope.
The scenario sounds hard, so very hard. But my second reaction is one of optimism. It is possible to parent two children (or three or four) with empathy, and to find, and relish, connection with each. So where to start?
Let's start here with the "what do I do?" part of the scenario.
1. Still the panic.
When the tower crumbles get to the scene as quick as possible. Stop the "offender" from further changing the structure, not because he is wrong for exploring the tower but because you want Ella to be able to hear you, to sort out her feelings and to find a solution, and she will not be able to do any of that while in a state of panic about the tower.
2. Communicate to Harper.
Use words and sign language (the sign for "talk" is a wide open hand turned sideways and tapped on your chin) to explain why you are restraining him from touching the tower. "I'm going to hold you a moment and talk with Ella about the legos."
3. Communicate to Ella.
Use a loving face and explain to Ella that if Harper wants to nurse you're going to let him because that will give the two of you an opportunity to talk things through. Restrain Harper from kicking her. "I love you and I'm going to help you. Let's let Harper nurse because that will distract him from the tower and give me a chance to work this out with you. Here, let's make room right next to me so I can put my arm around you."
Talk yourself down from panicking (as the two voices are raised and things are looking bad) by using self-empathy. "Shit this is hard. I'm ready to lose my top. I'm so frustrated." Let these words create a smidgen of emotional space for yourself so that you don't end up lending your own raised voice and haggard emotions to the pile.
Play dumb. Act as though you don't know what the problem is so that Ella can tell you all about how hard she worked on the tower and how sad she is that it has changed shape and how tired she is of Harper touching the stuff she's working on. If the conversation goes there let her describe how sucky it is to have a little brother. Don't judge. Just listen.
6. Provide Information.
"It's important to you to build safely, but it doesn't seem as though the tower is safe down here. Harper sees a really cool, colorful thing and he wants to check it out. He's so little that right now the way he checks things out is with his hands and that changes the shape of your tower."
"What do we do?"
After empathy and with the perspective that you are all on the same team (no one is wrong or right), children find solutions quite easily. Wait to see what they come up with. Once completely heard through empathy Ella may not be attached to the tower at all. She may come up with a new idea. She may even want to find a game that includes her brother.
1. Look for opportunity.
Instead of getting things done while both children are happy use that time to amp up connection with one of the children. Even if Ella is happily reading a book and doesn't need you, and if Harper is asleep or doing something else, use that moment to connect with Ella. Sit with her, read to her, listen to her, just tune-in completely.
When my kids are occupied I like to scurry around and clean things and try to get out from under the always growing pile, and it is really hard not to do this. But it sounds like connection is at the top of the wish list, so perhaps the to-do list should take a back seat. It might help to keep in mind the time frame. For the next two years or so your children will need you to be very hands-on, which definitely sounds like an eternity, but in the spectrum of their lives it is quite short. So for two more years you will have a messier house and life than you like, but you will also have a lot of connection. And no regrets.
2. Set reasonable goals.
Keeping a lego tower completely intact? Not reasonable.
Maintaining connection even though the tower tumbles? Definitely within reason.
Giving Harper all the things you gave to Ella when she was his age and treating Ella the same as you did before Harper was born? Not reasonable.
Giving Harper and Ella an incredible amount of love and connection in a variety of ways? Absolutely reasonable.
3. Set an intention.
Set an intention for the day without getting too tight about how that intention is going to come to life. It seems that some of your sadness is that the ways you are able to connect with your two children don't match the way that you were able to connect with Ella when she was a solo child. Perhaps it makes more sense to intend to connect and gratefully accept the ways that connection pops up instead of deciding that it only counts if it comes in a certain package.
Decide to make the purpose of the day about connection and watch as opportunities to connect rise up. If connection is your intention then you are lucky because any instance is an opportunity; spilled milk, scratched knee, funny jokes, or surprise rain.
4. Build trust with Ella.
Responding with empathy, choosing a same team stance, refraining from blame, and everything else mentioned above will build trust with Ella. She needs to know that she's important and loved, that she's just as important and loved as Harper even though you don't hold her and nurse her to the same degree. She will come to know that she is loved and important because you care about her thoughts and feelings, her towers and ideas.
When she wants you to be in one place doing one thing and Harper wants you to be in a different place doing a different thing, go back to "What do we do?". This will drive home the point that they both are important, their desires are important, and that together as a team you will find a way to meet everyone's needs.
Even Larger Scope
1. Check your level of guilt.
Really. Forgive yourself. You are not harming either child by having birthed the other. You have plenty of love to go around and with each day it grows bigger.
2. Rewrite your story.
The current story is as you described above. Two children simply cannot be parented with a satisfying level of empathy and connection. You do not want this to be true. The more you tell this story to your neighbors, friends, husband, and to yourself the deeper it will sink into your reality and the more true it will become for you. You have a different story in mind as to how you'd like your family to unfold and if you want it to become more of your reality you'll have to start noticing it now. You already have a huge jump start. The final part of your letter said this:
The whole reason this style of parenting appealed to me was because of the connection it seemed to foster. I see it "working" in lots of other ways; the kids don't fight often and are really sweet to one another, they are both kind to other kids and communicate their needs really clearly, they are both so sensitive to others' feelings. But...
The more you notice and appreciate and languish in thoughts like this, the more your family vision will come to life. The only part I would edit is the "but" there at the end. A good rule of thumb would be to stop short any time you are about to add a "but" to your sentences. For instance: "The kids had a really great day, laughing and playing together. It was so fun to see but I just wish every day could more like that instead of the squabbling we usually see." Stop your thoughts and words before you get to the "but". Notice what you like and turn your thoughts from that which you do not.
Go ahead and trust that everything you want is possible.