Friday, October 28, 2016

Good News, Bad News

When Carter was first born, Jacob pretty much ignored him completely.  He wanted nothing to do with him, and the couple pictures we have of him holding Carter were very forced and done under protest.  He kept his distance and eventually started acting out badly.  As much as I didn't want to blame it on Carter's arrival as the timing didn't really line up--some of the behavior started before Carter was born, and the worst of it happened many months later--three years later I can see how it probably was the main driver behind much of what happened.   If I could go back in time and redo a few things, you can certainly bet I would.

The good news about the ignoring meant that we didn't have a lot of direct confrontation.  We didn't have the older sibling hitting the baby with toys or trying to hug too violently.  But the bad news is that we often have had parallel existences, where I am with Carter and Craig is with Jacob (or, rarely, vice versa), and we never got to enjoy that sibling love thing that I expected would make me melt.  By the time Carter was mobile (meaning he was a threat to Jacob's toys), the ignoring turned into keeping his distance but expressing a general disdain.  After a year or so of that, we started to get into the confrontation phase, which is where we remained up until recently.  That phase featured bolder rejection and lots of arguing all around.  Jacob became unafraid to express his dislike for his brother, and as he became less afraid to get near him, he started getting a bit physical if given the chance.  Luckily we have been able to minimize the damage and keep them mostly separated, but pretty much every moment they were in proximity to each other was miserable for all of us.

And then, within the last few months, Jacob has begun to make an effort to play with Carter.  He'll invite him to play sports or, more recently, Hot Wheels Football.  He'll engage him at the dinner table, which often leads to loud, potty-talk filled ridiculousness.  They know how to ramp each other up, and I'll be the first to admit it can be mentally exhausting.  Rest assured we still have many moments that hearken back to the confrontation phase, many that directly result from Jacob's efforts to play, but at least he's trying.  That is a HUGE step.

Looking back on the ignoring phase, as disappointing as it was, there are moments where it seems so much easier than what we're dealing with now.  We could divide and conquer, and for the most part the only loud times were when Jacob had a meltdown.  It was misery when that happened, but at least we knew our roles and could soldier on through.  But as the boys have started to spend time together, parenting has gotten ten times harder because I feel like a full-time referee.  I feel like I yell constantly--and half the time it's because they're so loud that they wouldn't hear me otherwise.  Here are the top three downsides of this newly discovered sibling togetherness:

1) They can gang up on us - Before it was one-on-one, one kid vs. one parent, and most of the time that was manageable.  But now they can join forces to make our lives that much more challenging.  Whether it's chasing each other around a store, or convincing their sibling to take their side in a parental stand-off (which in their minds means they win 2-1, assuming one of us is alone), or having twice the manpower to destroy the house, they've discovered they can have a partner in crime to give them better odds against the parents.

2) Exposure to "older" issues - When Jacob was growing up, his only set of bad influences came from daycare.  He'd see challenging kids hitting or talking back, and that was his main source of learning those behaviors.  I suppose he saw it in his older cousins once in a while, but their parents are pretty strict so most of the time that stuff got nipped in the bud pretty quickly--either by their parents or by us as we witnessed it happen and could address it immediately.  But for Carter, he has a built-in big kid to learn beyond-his-age behaviors from.  He can see Jacob try to get physical, or talk back, or do things that aren't necessarily appropriate for a three-year-old (or an eight-year-old, but...).  And because Jacob is his brother and they have the same set of parents, it's obvious that Carter sometimes thinks the rules are the same for him.  Ironically, Jacob thinks Carter gets away with everything, but I'd guess Carter things that Jacob does, too.  So, we spend a lot of time in our house trying to help Carter understand that Jacob's behavior is not something he should be emulating.  Despite our best efforts, Carter is a hitter--both at daycare and at home--when he gets angry.  I have no doubt it's at least partly from watching Jacob, who sometimes attempts to get physical with us, and often gets in a parting shot on Carter when something doesn't go his way.  We've also caught Jacob trying to get Carter to say bad words or questionable phrases.  Potty talk runs rampant in our house despite our best efforts, because both of them crack each other up with it, and in their minds, that reward usually outweighs the punishment.  So keeping Carter sweet and acting his age feels nearly impossible right now. 

3) Germ sharing - It seemed like it was rare for us to end up with a string of sickness in our house during the ignoring phase, as Jacob and Carter never got near each other and wouldn't touch each others' stuff.  Now that they're interacting all the time, I'm just waiting for the illnesses to pass back and forth.  We actually got lucky last year, I think, because we had a pretty uneventful winter, illness-wise.  I think Carter ended up with strep once, and that was about the worst of it.  Of course, we had to deal with Jacob's surgery so I think we paid our dues, but they're even more interactive this year so I'm bracing myself.  Both kids had colds this week, but Carter's seemed much worse so I can't tell if it was a shared one.  It'll happen soon enough, though.

Despite all of this, I know there are upsides to this path we're on. If we can weather the current storm, there could be a great long-term result.  In the short term, we can hope that they learn to play nicely together just to give us a break.  One of the things I remember hearing about having a second kid is that they can play together and keep each other occupied.  That has pretty much never happened in our house, and when it has lately it doesn't last long because someone gets hurt or angry pretty quickly.  But if they can ever get to a point where they can play sports, Legos, or Playmobil together without arguing, Craig and I might find ourselves with hours of extra time.  We can only dream.

I truly hope that through these experiences, if Jacob can get to a place where he can deal with Carter's style of play, that he'll realize Carter is worth keeping around.  We used to hear on a daily basis from Jacob how the only way to make him happy and cooperative was to get rid of Carter.  And every time we'd tell him that's not an option.  Lately I feel like I only hear it once a week or so when Jacob gets mad and goes to extremes to make his point.  He has to blame someone, after all, and there are only three other people in the house.  But if all of this is helping him to realize there's a light at the end of the tunnel and "big kid" Carter might turn out to be fun, that would probably be hugely helpful to regain some sort of household harmony.  And of course, if we can get them to that point, that could be just what they need to set the stage for their future relationship as they grow into adults.  I want them to have a good brotherly relationship someday, since they're all each other has once we're gone.  I see how Craig and his brother are together, and I want our boys to have that unbreakable bond, too.  For the record, my brother and I have almost never had much in common, and while we certainly get along fine as adults, we're not exactly great communicators on a regular basis.  But I feel like we had a challenging age/gender combo, and while Jacob and Carter do have a large age gap, the gender bond seems like someday it should beat all of that out.  So that's why I'm using Craig and his brother as my example.

Anyway, it makes me hopeful that we've seen some progress from Jacob on this front, but we still have a long way to go.  It's still very hard to do anything together as a family without risking some sort of argument or minor physical altercation, but hopefully Jacob will gain more patience and start to understand the importance of having a brother and living as a happy family.  It's not something we can force on him--he has to want it and want to make an effort.  We will always do what we can to help him get there, but it's really up to him.  So, in the meantime, we wait.  We try to do fun family things, we try to facilitate playtime, and we try to remind both kids how much they're loved.  Hopefully someday it all pays off.

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