The Case for Siblings: Why Having a Baby Is Good for Your Other Kids

[This post originally ran at Faith and Family Live in 2010, when I was pregnant with #8. I’m on my way to Virginia for the Summer Soiree at Mary’s Shelter! If you have a prayer to spare, maybe send up one that my ears don’t get too plugged up on the plane? It’s hard to talk into a microphone when your ears are plugged up! Usually I take Sudafed, but this is a no go for this stage of the pregnancy. And also please pray that I don’t cry on stage for any reason. I don’t even know why I would, but pregnancy increases my cryability about 900%. Most of all, please pray for a successful fundraiser for this wonderful organization that helps so many women and children. Thanks!]


Lucy holding baby

One of the best parts of being pregnant with my eighth child was that I never woke up in the middle of the night, panicking: “How can I do this to [current youngest child]?”

True, I woke up for a thousand other reasons, most of them involving my internal organs. But it was a huge relief to finally realize that having a new baby is not bad for the current baby.

How I used to fret about this! The whole nine months, I would worry about how we would all get along, how the soon-to-be-supplanted youngest would adapt, and even whether I could love the new baby as much as I loved my firstborn. (I did.)

But everyone else seems to think that a new baby is bad for the other kids. Dozens of times, I’ve had strangers peer around my enormous belly to coo at the toddler, “Aww … now you won’t get to be the baby anymore.”

Thanks, lady. Thanks for informing my child that she’s suffering. Luckily, she doesn’t know what you’re talking about—and neither do you.

Here is what really happens when we have a new baby at our house:

First are the immediate benefits: my mother reads them books until she goes hoarse. My husband fills the house with steak and ice cream and and blurts out things like, “Pick out any toy you want, kids!”

Then they get to visit me at the hospital, which has an elevator, and the nurses stuff them with popsicles and muffins, and everyone raves over how well-behaved they are.

Of course it’s not all sunshine and buttercups. With childbirth, I magically transform from a third trimester exhausted zombie into—ta dah!—a postpartum exhausted zombie. Instead of having no lap to sit on, I have an extremely tender abdomen, and I’m constantly nursing the infant who DOESN’T WANT YOU TO SIT ON HER, OH MY GOSH, GET OFF, GET OFF!

Still, everyone loves the new baby, everyone is amazed and enchanted, and they all want to help. The girls want to pet her, and the boys want to guard and protect her. (If that’s a sexist statement, then life is sexist, because that’s what happens.)

“Look at her little tiny feet, feel her silky hair! Ohh, Mama, I can feel her heart beating on the top of her head.”

Then follows the second week, when the toddler suddenly realizes that the baby is … staying. In this week, everyone is crying, everyone has a rash, everything we own is wet and smelly, and if I had the mental wherewithal, I would be able to form a complete thought such as, “Another baby? What were we thinking?”

This stage lasts for about five weeks, actually.

But then the 6-week marks comes. At six weeks, no one can remember life before baby. She smiles, she’s trying to figure out how to laugh, her belly button is no longer scary, and she clearly likes us. The older kids can hold her while I shower, and the younger ones have figured out how to sit next to the baby without sitting on the baby, so we can all read Katy No-Pockets together for the 923rd time.

Yes, sometimes they feel left out or envious. But more often, they fight over who gets to hold her. The middle kids discover that they can be allies, rather than rivals. The youngest one relinquishes Family Baby status with visible relief, and starts to pursue a more exciting goal: being one of the gang. She generally has a language explosion a few weeks after the new baby is born. And if you want to see a proud, pleased and confident toddler, tell her, “Uh-oh, the baby is crying!” and watch her pop a pacifier in the baby’s mouth. Hero!

And she still gets to be a baby—just not the baby. I still rock her and sing “Baby Beluga.” Or one of the older kids will rock her and sing “Baby Beluga,” and that’s good, too. Because one day, I won’t be here, and the kids will only have each other. They are getting used to caring for each other, and care engenders love.

My seven siblings and I email regularly, visit when we can, pray for each other, nudge each other to go to the doctor, recommend books and movies, proofread each other’s writing, understand each other’s sense of humor, and share the same childhood memories, good and bad.

A woman once told me that she’d decided not to have a second child, because she “couldn’t do that” to her son. Couldn’t do what? Live? Love someone, and be loved? My parents gave me seven allies in a hard world. Change and loss will happen anyway—better to have the good company of brothers and sisters when it happens to you.

I have a job for you, baby.

Not the little guy who just kicked me for the first time, that I could feel, just yesterday (yay!). I mean the other one, the one I lost. I wrote about how hard it was not to have a body to bury. You want to be able to take care of your children with your own hands, but I couldn’t do that, and it hurt.

Now, as the months have gone by and the pain of loss has receded, I still find myself bewildered about what to do with the baby’s soul.

When I found out I was pregnant last time, I prayed for the baby’s protection constantly, and turned him over to God. So I have a strong hope that, whenever it was that he left us, he was already baptized through our desire and intention to do so, and he went straight into the arms of his loving Papa in heaven. This is a good thing! I am not worried.  I love him, but God loves him more.

But, what to do when I pray for my all children, one by one? I was never sure when I got to this child. It didn’t feel right to pray for him. Even though I know no prayer is wasted, it seemed like asking for something that was already given.

And I know that many parents pray to their lost unborn babies, and that seemed reasonable, but felt odd, too. Probably this shows that I have a poor understanding of the saints in heaven, but praying to him felt like turning him into a spiritual being, which made him foreign, elevated beyond the family, not really our kid; and at the same time, it felt like too much to ask of such a little guy. I’m not going to tell my five-year-old when Daddy is having a hard time at work or Mama is worried about school; so why would I spill the beans to a seven-week-old fetus, even if he is enjoying the Beatific Vision? I know, I’m over thinking it, but it just felt weird!

But yesterday, it came to me: Baby, you pray for the new baby. You two hold hands and be good to each other. Take care of each other while Mama is taking care of the rest of them. Aha! Everybody needs a job. We are at our best when we know what we are here for.