Relationships can be hard work to maintain, and this week I knew I needed to work on one of mine. The toddler, 18 days ago, became a big sister. I know it’s been 18 days because I’m counting the scratches on her cot walls.
She’s coping very well with the seismic change that shook her tiny universe. She shows her new brother off to her friends, styles his hair (with fish finger grease), plays him music (loudly, as he tries to sleep) and helps change his nappy (dripping water from saturated cotton wool balls over his face).
She’s very happy with her new sibling 90% of the time, but the other 10% is trickier, and often involves toddler dive bombing.
Finding the balance
I’m acutely aware of how my shifting focus, low energy levels and occupied lap must be affecting our little girl. Virtually all ‘positive parenting’ approaches place huge emphasis on building and maintaining a strong connection with your child. My connection with the baby is certainly strong. He’s happily propping up the 24-hour milk bar and, other than a toddler armed to the teeth with stickers and hair clips, he has little to worry about.
I know that, soon enough, these two small people will co-exist in my heart quite peacefully; but right now the tugs on my heart strings are coming from different directions, and I know I haven’t quite got the balance right.
Effective connection times
I recently re-read one of my favourite parenting books: ‘Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids’ by Dr. Laura Markham of Aha Parenting (there is also a UK version of the book, although I quite enjoy the exotic American lingo).
– daily ‘special time’ with each child (10-20 minutes at a set time, in which the parent and child take it in turns to choose the activity)
– connecting before and after separations (childcare, naps etc.) or disconnections (cooking dinner, doing admin, shopping etc.).
And this is great advice. But I didn’t want to announce ‘special time’ and then have to renege when the baby’s nappy exploded.
I began focusing on the separation/disconnection times: being the one to go to her as she first wakes, trying to put the baby down during key toddler transition times and abandoning cooking altogether in favour of defrosting (I’m enjoying the full freezer, following the mindful cooking phase).
Connecting and problem solving
This all helped, but the needs of the baby and sheer exhaustion prevented any consistency. Added to this, my planned moments of connection often turned into fire fighting.
Whilst the toddler takes real delight in cuddling and talking to the baby, sometimes she prefers to throw shoes at his head. And it tends to be during those instants when we used to snuggle up together, like first thing in the morning or after her nap, when she’s most upset by this small imposter and tells us both to ‘go away’.
We get to the snuggles eventually, but it takes a bit of time and talking to get there.
The 5-1 ratio
A study quoted in ‘Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids’ recommends ‘five positive interactions for every negative one’ as the secret to a happy marriage (Markham, Laura. Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids. New York: Penguin. 2012). Markham suggests that this guideline could be effective for every relationship.
Between the toddler’s frustrations and the occasions when my, usually calm, voice acquires a sharper edge, our 5-1 ratio could use a little boost. And, if I’m brutally honest, I know that at times I have retreated towards the uncomplicated warmth of the baby. My weary, emotional mind is as reassured by those adoring little eyes as it is shaken by the raw emotions of the toddler.
Recognising connection opportunities
I realised that, during busy family phases when routines are hard to maintain, every moment together is a chance to build connection. I just needed to be open to opportunities, and responsive to my daughter’s cues and invitations to connect, even if these occur at inconvenient times.
This brought to mind another quote:
‘You don’t have to do anything special to build a relationship with your child. The good – and bad – news is that every interaction creates the relationship.’
(Markham, Laura. Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids. New York: Penguin. 2012)
I begin to make my morning coffee a little earlier and a lot stronger, and endeavour to make my communication and interaction with the toddler as mindful as possible, giving her my full attention whenever I can.
This mindful approach helps because:
– I’m more attuned to her mood, and more likely to recognise and respond to the emotions behind her words or actions.
– I remember how much I love hanging out with her; enjoying her funny expressions and off-piste ways of thinking. I realise that, so far, my time with both children has been spent in ‘high alert’ mode i.e. waiting for something to go wrong. I decide to chill out a bit and try and enjoy it. At least until something does go wrong.
– She laps up my attention. Being truly listened to is a gift, and whilst I can’t be there exclusively for her anymore, I can try to be truly ‘there’ when I am there (bear with me; I haven’t had much sleep).
Building connection throughout the day
Once I’ve tuned back into my daughter, I begin to spot more chances for a squeeze, a tickle or an impromptu game. When she comes to check on me in the shower (a daily ritual), instead of humouring her with a ‘hello’ and wondering if I’ll ever be able to wash or pee in private again, I make some smiley faces on the shower door and launch into a few verses of ‘If you’re happy and you know it’. Sleep deprivation does strange things to a person, but the toddler thought it was all brilliant fun.
When we walk to the play centre I make a point of stopping and pointing things out to her along the way, and a game out of trying to catch our shadows. I involve her more in housework and baby-related tasks, so we feel like more of a team.
We still have fractious moments, a lot of fractious moments, but we’re both benefiting from a little extra connection, in whatever haphazard form it takes. And although it all takes a little more effort, I feel lighter and brighter as a result.
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And check out the excellent resources from Aha Parenting and Dr. Laura Markham here.