You’ve just found out the exciting news: You’re expecting a baby!
This is great news for you and your husband, but what about your children and stepchildren? Will it be a joyous celebration of your new blended family, or will it simply mix things up?
According to Elizabeth Church, associate professor at Memorial University in St. Johns, Canada, stepmother and author of Stepping Lightly (Harper Collins, Fall 2003), the reaction will vary depending on the individual child.
“Do not expect existing children will react with the same joy as you feel,” says Church. “The news of a pregnancy can be scary to children. They may be afraid of being supplanted or ignored once the new baby arrives.” With some thoughtful preparation and realistic expectations, a new baby can solidify a family.
Breaking the News
“We told the kids right away that I was pregnant,” says Nancy Kotowitz of Westfield, Mass. The Kotowitzs arranged to have her children and her husband’s children present when they made the announcement.
Ron Deal, marriage and family therapist and author of The Smart Step-Family: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (Bethany House, 2002), agrees with Kotowitz. “In general, you want to tell the children as quickly as you can,” he says. “You don’t want the children to hear the news from someone else.”
Younger children typically have less difficulty accepting the news because they bond easier with people, whether it be stepparents, stepsiblings or in this case, a new baby. Older children usually take a bit longer to bond with new people, and their initial reaction may not be entirely positive. Teens, on the other hand, often are caught up in their own lives, so they may feel neutral about the new baby.
For new stepmom Nina Sims of Richmond, Va., the pregnancy announcement was a positive experience for her 8-year-old stepdaughter. “Once finding out about the baby, we bought her a very special picture frame,” says Sims. “Inside the frame was a special message to her saying, ‘I can’t wait for my big sister to play with me and teach me all that she knows,’ signed by the baby.”
A negative reaction may be hard to swallow. As exciting as this time is for you and your husband, it may not be as exciting for your children or stepchildren.
“It may help to accept that it is often difficult for children to adjust to the news,” says Church. “It may also help stepmothers if they don’t take their stepchildren’s reactions personally.” Deal adds that it’s important not to pre-judge or panic if the news is not well received. “A negative reaction from the children is an indication of their loss and that for them, something’s changing,” he says.
If jealousy arises, remember it is simply an indicator of fear. In a child’s eyes, he believes he will lose his place in the family. Reassure that he is still a very special person in the family. Quality one-on-one time will drive the point home. Consider the nine months a blessing. Use it to bond with your stepchildren and to reassure your biological children of their place in the family.
Deal recommends using the “our baby” language as opposed to “my baby” or “Mom’s baby” when talking to your children. This will help further the bond between the children and the new baby.
Use the “our baby” approach when you’re involving the kids with your pregnancy. For instance, you may ask the children what they think “our baby” would like in the nursery. Almost all hospitals offer a siblings program to help children learn more about your pregnancy and what to expect during delivery and your hospital stay.
Sims is keeping her stepdaughter involved in her pregnancy. “She is helping us house hunt and wants to help pick the room that will be the baby’s nursery along with paint colors, furniture and accessories,” she says. “She is also involved in helping us chose names for our new addition.”
Other fun activities that will ease the transition of the baby’s arrival include having the children create their own scrapbook, journal or even home movie for the baby. Ignite their creativity by suggesting the siblings read or tell a favorite story or funny joke. Older children can use a camcorder and film the siblings giving “interviews” about what their family life is all about. The more you get your children and stepchildren involved, the more secure and happy they will feel about the baby.
Using the nine months before the baby is born to nurture your other children will pay off in the end. Sheila Owens, a Falls Church, Va. stepmom, previously lived in New York City. Every other weekend was spent driving to Virginia where her husband’s two sons lived. While Owens loves her stepsons, the twice-monthly trips were not something she looked forward to, especially during the pregnancy.
“It wasn’t easy making this commute twice a month while working full time,” says Owens. After the baby was born, they kept the twice-monthly visitation schedule because the boys expressed so much interest in getting to know their new brother. Now that they all live in Virginia and they all see each other frequently, Owens is thankful they made the commitment to see the boys on a regular basis.
“Even though I would have enjoyed some peaceful weekends in New York, my son has brought me closer to my stepsons and even brought more peace between me and my husband’s ex-wife. A positive experience overall,” says Owens.
The first hospital visit to see the new baby is another good opportunity to express your love for all the children in your family. Presents from their new little brother or sister will help ease any anxiety they may feel.
In addition to a new toy, T-shirts and charm bracelets that include “big sister” or “big brother” logos are always good bets. Older children may appreciate gifts that are specifically for them, like a CD they’ve been asking for or a new sweater. You may also like to include the children by having them pick out gifts to give to the new baby.
When the baby arrives home, Deal offers another tip to ease any anxiety the children may have. “Let Dad carry the baby into the house and allow Mom to greet the other children first,” says Deal.
Because Mom’s attention will typically be focused on caring for the new baby, this will give her the chance to give some extra hugs and reinforce her love for the stepchildren and biological children. Children need to know that they are still special and loved and won’t be forgotten when the new baby comes into their life.