Practicing with Children

We Are In This Together

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by Bromleigh McCleneghan

One night this spring, I faced the long evening commute to meet my husband and two daughters at the local elementary school for Open House. Our second grader, Fiona, showed off art projects and her science report on the Sea Turtle; our preschooler, Calliope, visited the kindergarten room to meet the teacher and get acclimated. I, hugely pregnant, attempted not to knock over other children as I picked my way through narrow classroom aisles and crowded hallways. Teachers and other parents alike acknowledged my belly with sympathetic glances. When are you due? Not for another few weeks, I lamented.

In fact, while driving to the school earlier, I’d called Josh to offer my ETA and to mention that I’d been having some contractions. Well, hurry home then. If you miss Open House, Fiona will be furious.

We returned from Open House, finally got the excited girls to sleep, and turned in early. Around midnight, my water broke. Our third daughter was born just four hours later.

The night before Callie was born, the night before a scheduled induction, we had dinner with my mom. It was an oddly melancholy affair. I’m so excited, Mom said, but I’m also sad for Fee. This is the last night she’ll be your only baby, the center of your attention.

When our two girls woke up on this recent morning, they encountered my mother asleep on our couch. Where are Mom and Dad? They took the news of our middle-of-the-night abandonment rather well. They were all smiles about the arrival of their new baby, and they loved her name, though it had not appeared among the suggestions offered by either of them.

Fiona hasn’t been the center of our attention in years. Callie was born having to share us, having to carve out her own way of being in the world. Still, their excitement abated by the evening, when they said goodnight to me at the hospital and headed home for bed. Calliope wept, tears in her huge eyes: I want to stay here with you, Mama!

Less than twenty four hours after her debut, and well before gaining any control of her muscles, Baby Henrietta was already stepping on toes.

Josh was great with the girls, of course – they got to have a slumber party in the parents’ bed. But that tearful moment impressed upon me that we needed to bemindful about how we spoke about the baby, about what this addition to our family would mean for our daughters.

My dear friend and colleague Lee Hull Moses wrote about learning to share in families in our book Hopes and Fears. How as our families grow – in numbers of people and in size of their members – there is less personal space, less private time.

With a new baby, this has become obvious once more. I sometimes have less attention, and admittedly less patience, for my big girls these days. For the foreseeable future, our decisions and our family schedule will both be impacted by this new arrival in noticeable ways.

I am not the only one to notice these changes. After a recent orthodontist consult, Fiona asked to look around the neighboring toy shop, and I acquiesced after reminding her that we wouldn’t be purchasing anything and that we would need to leave when the baby woke up because it would be time for her to eat. Ten or fifteen minutes of happy browsing and occasional requests passed before Hattie awakened.

Time to go! Fiona was clearly irritated: mad I wouldn’t buy her anything, mad this intruder was interrupting. We got back to the car and as she passed the baby’s car seat on the way to her booster, she angrily admonished her crying sister: “Hush!”

I confess to telling her I thought she was acting selfish: wanting her sister to postpone a needed meal so that she could continue browsing. That caught her attention: she does not want to be selfish. But I don’t want to guilt or shame her into acceptance of this new person, at least not with any regularity. Rather, I want us to learn to share with the assurance that we all belong to each other and that there is always enough, an abundance even, of the things we really need.

The day my middle sister was born, I walked the senior pastor of our church down to the hospital nursery and pointed out little Whitney. This, I said proudly, is the first baby we’ve ever had! This story is told often at our house, a silly thing about a girl used to being surrounded by adults. What I love, though, what I want for my girls, is the assumption that the new baby, who takes time and attention and care, does not belong to mom or parents alone. This is our baby, and we are all in this together: invested in her care and well-being as she will one day be in ours. We are a family; no one need vie for a privileged place.

In some families, there are favorites. In many families, there are real limitations on needed resources. To be a youngest child throughout history has generally been to be the recipient of a really raw deal. But one of the ways I practice my faith, one of the ways I try to manifest our identity as a Christian family, is to live into the promise of Jesus’s feeding of the five thousand. When it comes to something we really need – in this case, love and care – there is always enough. Enough to share and enough left over. I want my kids to know that love grows to meet our family’s needs and to fill our lives.

Sharing isn’t always easy. There are times it makes us cry for our own losses, or frustrated with the convenience of life together. But it is good, good, to be together. And when my big girls hold their sister, or make her coo and smile, they know this assurance for themselves, and my heart grows very full.

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