I’m the mom of a gorgeous 10-month-old daughter and my husband and I are thinking about adding a second child to our family. The problem is that I’ll be 42 in June, so we don’t have a lot of time to think.
My daughter is very extroverted, very social. She loves other kids and I think it would be great for her to have a full-time playmate right here at home. I have a sister and I LOVED growing up with her. She’s always been my best friend and she still is. I don’t know what I would do without her!
But I’m also anxious because I know that it’s not a guarantee that they will be best buds. My husband also has a sister and he couldn’t care less if she’s even alive. They never had anything in common growing up and he was actually surprised to find out that I enjoy hanging out with my sister and that I want to talk to her more than once or twice a year.
I guess I’m wondering if it is a good idea to have another baby, or how I can make sure my kids don’t end up hating each other. What’s the best way for my husband and I to set our kids up for a successful sibling relationship?
Mom of One
Dear Mom of One,
The best way to set yourselves up for what you call “a successful sibling relationship” is to broaden the scope of what you think of as “a successful sibling relationship.”
It sounds like you’re hoping your daughter and her sister or brother will spend their childhoods intertwined in respectful, stimulating play. As they get older, they’ll grow from playmates into true friends, sharing midnight whispers, secret treasures. When your daughter goes away to college, she’ll drain her whole texting plan keeping up to date on what’s going on with her sibling and, a week after perfectly executing your 103rd birthday party, the two of them will sit side by side at your funeral, holding hands and looking deeply into each other’s eyes saying, “At least we have each other. At least we’ve always had each other.”
OK, sure. That sounds lovely and I’m sure everyone would really enjoy that. But your anxiety tells me that you already know it doesn’t always work out like that. And what if it doesn’t? What if your next child is an introvert who doesn’t like playing the games your daughter does? What if they don’t pal around at all? What if, instead, they just sort of coolly tolerate each other until they’re grown and gone? Would that be a failure?
Or what if they don’t even tolerate each other. What if they can’t stand each other? What if they fight often? Perpetually disagree? What if you have to divide Thanksgiving into half-days because each refuses to eat turkey in the presence of the other? Is that a failure? Whose failure is it? Does it mean you failed? Or that your children did? Or is it a failure of your whole family? When you take a narrow view of “success,” you leave a lot of room for “failure.”
The thing is, we all use these possessive phrases, “my children,” “my daughter,” but our children do not belong to us; they’re their own people. At some point they start to have their own lives, or at least that’s the goal, right, Mom of One? And a big part of this new child’s life will be his own preferences and dispreferences, among which may well be a dispreference for your daughter’s company. It’s hard to imagine anyone not falling instantly in love with our children, I know, shining angels that they are, but you must admit it’s possible.
I’m absolutely not trying to tell you that you should or shouldn’t have another baby, and anyone who does try to make that decision for you is an idiot. I’m simply saying that if you do have another baby, you shouldn’t bring her into the world with a job to do. She shouldn’t be stamped, pre-conception, with an occupation. She shouldn’t just be your daughter’s playmate or potential best friend. She should be your daughter.
I’m also suggesting that the sibling relationship that emerges might not fall in line with your best-case scenario, but that needn’t mean it isn’t a “success.” You describe your husband’s relationship with his sister as something you absolutely would not want, but on the spectrum of family dysfunction, a kind of tepid indifference doesn’t sound so bad (Remember Cain and Abel?). Have you ever asked your husband how he feels about his relationship with his sister? Maybe it isn’t a source of sadness for him, but a neutral fact about his life: He and his sister aren’t close. Maybe that’s not really a problem at all.
Maybe “successful siblings relationships” come in many flavors. Your children, should you choose to go back for round two, might share spaces or secrets or a special intimate bond, or none of the above. But they will share a few things, guaranteed. They will share memories and genes and the love of two parents who wanted them both madly and without expectations, just as they are.
Good luck, Mom.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of “Why We Never Talk About Sugar.” Her work has appeared widely in print and online. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com or follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch