The Rookie Parent and the First-Born

Let’s be honest, our first-borns are an experiment. Unless we’ve spent years of our adult lives caring for other peoples’ children before having our own… they are simply an unknown. A mystery. And to add to the confusion, the moment we figure them out – they change. All the firsts these children send our way can be unsettling to say the least. The desired playdates with friends we hardly know, um… what is the protocol for this? Wetting the bed again… weren’t we over this last year? And why on earth doesn’t he crawl yet?!

The unfortunate thing for the first-born is that he or she has to put up with rookie parents at every new milestone. All these things, wanting an allowance out of the blue, suddenly waking in the night asking for food, TEETHING – they can bring out unpredictable behavior. We, the rookies, are caught off guard in this uncharted territory and can occasionally meet them with undesirable responses, because honestly – we’ve never done this before. We simply don’t know all the answers. Any parental lack of confidence may involuntarily masquerade as frustration or impatience, leaving our children feeling misunderstood and us feeling guilty.

My first-born is consistently throwing me for a loop and one of my biggest fears is screwing him up. I love him fiercely, and don’t want to be the reason he seeks therapy or repeatedly chooses the wrong mate. This has driven me to a few things I have found helpful in navigating my first-born… a challenge that seems will continue for many years to come.

One tool I’ve used, obvious as it may be, is age-specific development books. I’m sure there are zillions of quality choices, one example being an old series starting with Your One Year Old by Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D. The books in this series are quick reads (about 100 pages) and chock full of developmental information for each childhood year from one through fourteen. The tone is gracious, acknowledging the uniqueness and variation from child to child while stating the influencing factors at play in the brain and body. From when children take neurological jumps (and what that looks like) to social capability, they seem to cover it all. The thing they have taught me: as unique and special as he is, development and age have everything to do with how my son acts and changes.

Just last winter, when he was eight, he was stuck to me like glue. He was extra sensitive and wanted to do anything possible alone with me. We had special outings regularly – sounds sweet, right? Well, it started to scare me. It seemed that no amount of time was enough – he always wanted more. What if he never desired to venture out and be with friends? What if he wanted to live with me forever, wouldn’t he ultimately be lonely?

After diving into Your 8 Year Old, I learned that eight is a very emotional age. To paraphrase, it is an age that is very influenced by mother, and the mother-child relationship can be very intense. It is important for the mother to make the eight-year old feel valued and loved with words and designated time, while establishing clear boundaries that allow the mother some space. Then, generally at nine, the child will venture off more with friends with the (hopefully) healthy relational foundation he or she has formed at home. Wow, did I feel relieved. Knowing this gave me the freedom to enjoy the time I was able to set aside with my son, set limits, and be confident I wasn’t enabling him to be antisocial.

Other helpful tools are regular playgroups or ECFE. Having young children can be isolating – especially when dealing with new issues regarding the oldest. Playgroups with children the same age can help immensely as parents commiserate and discuss children enduring similar challenges. In Minnesota, we are also fortunate enough to have a birth to five public program called ECFE (Early Childhood Family Education). Once a week parents and children play, and then separate while parents learn from a parent educator and the children stay with a child educator. I cannot tell you what comfort this class has given me while navigating parenthood over the last nine years. To hear that others have dealt with the same issues, and to receive knowledge regarding how children grow – it all leads to more compassion and understanding while alleviating fears.

When my son was eighteen months, I was exhausted. I could not keep up and couldn’t even fathom getting pregnant again. I feared his constant movement would go on forever. But sometime during this phase I received a handout in ECFE that illustrated how quickly a child moves through a room, from station to station, over the span of seven minutes. The ages diagramed ranged from nine months to four years, and made me want to cry happy tears. The lines of movement for nine and twelve months were busy, but the 18 month diagram looked like a spider web. I could just imagine my son rapidly bouncing around from station to station, while I attempted to keep him from whacking his head or dumping out every toy. It looked exactly how I pictured life with him… but the true relief came from the diagrams that followed. They slowed down. Two was less of a jumble, and by the time the child was four there were only two activity stations visited in the seven minutes. Oh thank god. I might survive after all.

My oldest is now nine. There is no ECFE for nine year olds, so when a friend and I found ourselves faced with similar nine-year-old challenges we decided to form a little group. We sent out an e-mail to moms whose first-borns are the same age, and asked if anyone would be interested in forming a support-group of sorts. We now mass e-mail or text with nine-year-old issues that arise. It’s nothing formal, but I’m comforted in knowing I have them to turn to – especially with the approaching junior high and high school years to come.

Perhaps you’re a parent that coasts through the years with unending flexibility, compassion and ease, and for that – I applaud you. But if you face challenges and anxieties surrounding the un-blazed path of the first-born, that generally sensitive soul that first captured your heart, putting a little time into developmental knowledge and support can bring tremendous relief. This being said, we will never have all the answers, and parental mistakes are an excellent opportunity to humbly set an example by apologizing. After all, we are trudging through these murky waters together – the first-born and the rookie parents – and the more connected we stay, the better off we will be.

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