If you haven’t felt the heart-contracting pain of, literally, ruining your firstborn’s life following the birth of your second one, this article is not for you. If you haven’t cried rivers of guilt for the experiences that you’ve lost and what you had “taken” from the person who had made you a mother – this article is not for you.
But, if you’re struggling with guilt for the real, profound, and existential pain that you’re sure your firstborn is experiencing – this article is for you.
I gave birth to my daughter six days ago. And even though I prepared my son (3.5 years old) for the changes he’s about to experience, and what exactly “this process” is going to be like for him, nothing prepared me for what no one can prepare for; pain. No matter how much you’d like to – you can’t prepare for pain.
A day after my little one, Lia, was born, my mother in law brought Ilay (3.5) to visit us at the hospital. My heart skipped one million beats as Jon and I waited at the entrance. I’ve missed Ilay so much! I imagined his smile and the huge hug he will give me, and I couldn’t wait for that to happen.
Five long minutes later, I saw them coming, and I couldn’t breathe. I knelt and opened my arms, sure Ilay would run to me, but he kept on walking hesitantly. As he neared, he agreed for me to hug him, and showed me the card he made for me at daycare. He smiled, but suddenly it seemed like he was now old. Very old. He was closed and withdrawn. I tried, but I couldn’t hold my tears.
Who Are We?
A few words about Ilay and me: for the past 3.5 years, we were inseparable. Not only physically, but also emotionally. We’re each other’s best friends. Our connection is unbreakable; we know how to speak to each other, and we know how to hear each other’s hearts when words are spoken. We cooperate, work together, live by each other’s needs; we’re a synergy that works. And I’ve worked super hard to build this relationship with him. I battled my demons; I challenged my perceptions. I listened to nothing but my heart when everyone around me wanted to convince me that I’m wrong. But I was right. All along. And I had our relationship to prove it. Not that proving anything to anyone is necessary, but you know, thinking “I told you so” always feels so nice…
But there we were. Just a few days ago. Me and my little one, after the first two nights in his life in which I wasn’t there for him. And something changed. We walked hand in hand back to the hospital to meet the baby he, too, had waited for. While I was going on and on about how much I missed him and couldn’t wait for him to come and hug him, he didn’t say much; just kept walking quietly next to us.
When we eventually walked into my room, he took a look at the baby. “Are we going home now?” he asked. As part of the preparation for him becoming a brother, we bought gifts for him from the baby. I thought I’d defuse the question by gifting him his presents. He unwrapped the first one and asked if we are going home now. He unwrapped the second one and said: “I’m ready to go home now.” He took my hand and started pulling me towards the door. Defusing was no longer possible.
And So they Left
“When you are ready, Daddy will take you home. Mommy and baby need to stay here for another night, just like we spoke, for the doctors to make sure that everything is OK with baby and me”. And he started crying. Asking me to go home with him now and my heart broke into a million little pieces all scattered on the hospital floor around us. Every step someone took crushed these pieces into thin sand of disappointment.
“Take me home, Daddy,” he said; “I want to go now.” And as quickly as they came, they were out. Probably a few more words were spoken, but I couldn’t hear. The child I left at home this last Saturday and the one who came to see me that day were two different people.
He was no longer 3.5 years old, so connected and attached to me. He was older, carrying a yet-to-be-defined burden on his shoulders, the burden of no longer being the only one. The weight of losing the world the way he knew and loved it. The burden of losing certainty, confidence, knowledge of self, and his place in the only family setting he had known. He was lost and lonely for the very first time in his life.
It Happens in So Many Relationships
I’m sure you know how it feels when something in someone you love changes. They don’t look at you the same way they did; their voice is distant; their words are carefully chosen. They’re withdrawn, present but missing, and the inches between you feel like mountains that can’t ever be crossed. All you want is for everything to go back to the way it used to be, but you know that’s no longer possible; you know that the pain is too blinding for them to see through.
And the worst part is that you start believing that this is your fault.
I started blaming myself for his unbearable pain, imagining how I would feel if Jon brought another woman into our house and tended to her in front of me — feeding her, cradling her, loving her — being with her when just yesterday I was the only one. Wouldn’t I want to scream, kick, and leave? Retreat to the one place where I feel safe, even if it had changed for me? I would. I know I would.
You might think this is an exaggeration, but if we take to a little practice of empathy, this is how firstborns feel at the arrival of another child. A change they never asked for, an addition that takes them away from everything they cherished as safe, secure, familiar, and comforting.
They are no longer the only ones. And it hurts.
The Invisible Scars
The human soul highly resembles our skin in its characteristics. The skin is our largest organ. When it’s nurtured and healthy, we don’t even know it is there. We don’t think of it, don’t consider it; we, somewhat, take it for granted. When it’s wounded, on the other hand, the slightest touch sends rays of pain all over our bodies, reminding us of the wound, keeping it alive. The human soul operates in the same way. When it is wounded, every little pain falls on the bare skin of that wound, bruising and injuring it further, making that scar into the epitome of our existence. We’re no longer human beings; we’re walking wounds.
All of us are.
In the last few days, I’ve seen my firstborn’s wound shape and deepen in front of me. Every little word, every slight disappointment, every little pain that used to go by unnoticed just a few days ago is now an exploding volcano of emotions. Where is my smiling, life-loving child? Where are the words of love he’d tell me, ten times a day, each day? Where are my hugs? Where are my kisses? Where is the love? The connection? The attachment?
How can a joy so big be mixed in such grief?
You see, even though I’m a prophet of empathy, when it hurts, I, too, often see no one but me. And when both of us are hurting… Well, someone has to step up and snap out – and that person is me.
My soul tells me it is all my fault, that this is a decision I took, that this is something that I did, and I am to blame for my little one’s pain. My soul mixes my pain, my shattered expectations, and Ilay’s huge feelings into a nasty mold of guilt. It is all on me. The lives we’ve had and the lives we’ve lost, the happiness, the joy, the smiles, the love, I can only blame myself for our new reality.
Step Up Mama
But we said I needed to snap out, to step up, and be the leading adult I know I can be. And this means, first and foremost, changing the tune I play for myself.
What did I tell clients struggling with this sort of guilt? I said to them, let your heart be, make it feel, let it express; otherwise, you’ll drown in the waves of its pain. But at the end of the day, listen to your mind first. Your mind tells you the real story in this case.
What you’ve done is incredible; you have given your firstborn the gift of companionship and friendship, the gift of sharing hearts, and a sharing spirit. You have given them the opportunity to be the most significant influence on someone’s life; you have given them the chance to lead at a very young age.
Yes, this is a change. Yes, it hurts. But what you will make of it, as a family, it is up to you and only you. The story you will tell yourself is the story that will emerge in front of you shortly and in the far future. You are the writer, the composer, and the producer of this show.
What Does it Look Like?
Yesterday, as I was sitting on the couch and feeding Lia, Ilay sat behind me, smacking my head over and over again. He pulled my hair, took my glasses off, and no matter how many times I asked, he just wouldn’t stop. And then I snapped. But it was my heart that snapped, feeding that sam scar under the story I was telling myself. When we believe there is someone “responsible” for our pain – it hurts so much more. And when it’s as – well, that’s a whole new level of pain.
But then I took a deep breath; I reminded myself that no one does anything to hurt anyone else, every. I told myself that everything we do – we do to have our needs met. And I asked myself what can Ilay need. Looking into his soul, the solution was obvious. “Honey, do you want mommy to come and sit next to you?” I asked; he stopped immediately. “Yes! Here, I’ll move the pillow so we can sit together”.
And just like that, when the need behind the behavior was met, the behavior stopped, and we cuddled.
In another instance, when Ilay was sitting on the floor sobbing and saying “why can’t anyone play with me”? I didn’t find the need to face him with the actual truth (we’ve played more together in the last few days than we’ve ever had!!), but I listened to his heart, the loneliness that he was speaking. He couldn’t care about the actual truth – he felt what he felt – and that’s what I addressed. “You’re afraid we won’t have time to play with you? You’re worried Lia will take your place?” I asked. “Yes”, he sobbed. And I hugged him and reassured him.
Will this not happen again just because I reacted with empathy? Of course not. But we’re soothing the pain, together, healing the wound; together.
Day by day.
Listen to Your Guilt
Unlike shame, guilt is often followed by positive changes, as it tells us the story of what we don’t want and leads us to where we want to be. Feel it, analyze it, internalize it, and rewrite it into what you do want to achieve, into the actions you can take and into the words you can say to flip this around and bring love and connection home, stronger than ever, with a new, precious person who will reap the fruits of your efforts.
I can do it. And I will.
I already am.
And you? You can do it, too. I trust you. I do not doubt that you’ll make the most out of these feelings and use them to paint a picture of a bright future for all of you.
(Find and) Empower Your Beneficial Source
Sometimes it’s our emotions we need to listen to; other times, it’s our brain. How do we know? We need to ask ourselves which source gives us what we need; which source meets our needs. Listening to my emotions, to my guilt, could not empower me. All it made me know is more pain. But what’s under the guilt? It is love; pure love. Love for myself, love for my Ilay, love for our lives; and what can fuel this love here, is my brain. That tells me that I have given us all the gift of another person to love and nurture; another person to help paint our lives in beautiful colors we’ve never seen before.
This is an empowering, connecting thought and the path I choose to follow to lead us all to the lives we want to live.
This coming March, I will be launching THE TRIBE, my membership group for mindful mothers and fathers who would like to raise conscious children in compassionate and empathetic families. I will be sharing all my knowledge and experience, taking you step by step on the incredible journey to profound empathy, and teaching you, daily, how to live the beautiful family life that you want to live. Follow the link and join me on this life-changing journey.
And in the meanwhile, join my free life and parenting support group on Facebook; I’d love to meet you 🙂
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Image credit: Janco Felic, Unsplash