How to give enough time to your oldest child.

Jordan asks: I’ve recently had my 3rd baby girl and it’s gotten a lot harder to spread my love and attention evenly. I feel I’m failing especially with my oldest. Since then, her dad has not picked her up once. She’s not taking it as hard as I thought, she loves her step dad and her sisters so much. But her sisters are both under 2 and they take every ounce of time and energy I have. I find it so hard to keep the house clean, have 3 meals prepared, and bathe everyone every night by the time everything is done, it’s bed time and I realize I haven’t worked on my oldest daughter school work or read her a story or even played with her. I think about this all the time. The only time I get to spend with her is on the weekends when her sisters go to bed and she stays up late with me. It’s not enough, I’m not doing enough for her and it breaks my heart every day. Not that long ago it was just the two of us for 4 years.

Hi Jordan –


I do apologize for it taking me eight days to get back to you, but I’m sure glad things have improved in my system and it’s not eight months! I’ve had to write nearly 200 people in the last couple of weeks, which adds new meaning to the old term “dog-tired.”


And ironically, that apology is the same one you’re giving to your daughter. I don’t care about you any less than anyone else in my pack, but I had to treat those other letters as more urgent, because they had come first.


The difference is that I only need to apologize to you once about it, while you will likely be apologizing to your daughter a lot.


Oh and there’s another difference: you’re an adult, and I have every reason to believe you’ll fully understand the position I’m in. Whereas your daughter might get a lot more resentful.


And there’s no villain in this story. You’re a loving and caring mom, and she’s just being a kid. (Or one could argue that her dad is the bad guy, as he’s not spending the time with her he should. But she’ll reach a point in her life where she’ll let him know how she feels about that, and make him pay in guilt, I’m sure!)


Of course, there’s no perfect solution to this situation. You can’t be there for her 100% of the time, and she can’t replace what she’d get from you completely either.


There are two things she likely wants deep-down. And they’re opposites. One is to be completely special, have you treat her in a way that’s like no one else. The other is to get equal treatment, exactly the same amount of attention as her sisters. Both of these are, again, impossible to achieve. But what we can do is to try to feed both of these needs in certain ways.


First, I really suggest arranging a regular date with her. Just as I’d suggest you and her stepfather plan a couple’s night out every week or two, it would be great for you and she to have a regular day together. Maybe you two go to a movie, maybe just a restaurant. But it’s a set of regularly scheduled hours when the other girls stay home with their dad or a sitter. Today, this will be good because it will make her feel special and get your attention. But in a few years, this will matter enormously more, as it will give you time for “girl talk,” when you’ll be able to talk about her life in a special way that many parents never get, when she will likely be able to talk openly with you about things like mean girls, cute boys, and what substances kids at school are using. Exactly what parents most want to know about!


Secondly, there’s a quality in you humans that seems to go back throughout history, where first-borns take on leadership roles in their families. Lots of the great family therapists (Alfred Adler, Murray Bowen, for example) have written lots about this. The fact that she’s being so mature and responsible is wonderful – and pretty normal. You can build on this. Giving her ways to be a big sister to those two little brats can do wonders for her self-esteem. When she’s old enough, sure, have her babysit for them (when you and their dad have those fun romantic nights out!), but there are lots of other jobs that can even be better. Like what if she’s their tutor in their schoolwork? What if she’s the one who’s in charge of everyone getting their chores done? Each of these jobs makes her feel special, and closer to you and her adored stepfather – which is what she, I’m sure, wants most.


Of course, this won’t be enough. There will be times when she really resents the girls, and your not being there enough. But this is human nature.


(And not just human – I can become enormously jealous when I see Handsome, my human, playing with or petting another dog, and I treat him really coldly when he hasn’t been paying enough attention to me.   And I don’t feel one bit guilty about it either!)


What will matter in the long run is that doing these things show her that you really care about her. She might not fully see it now, and she almost certainly won’t appreciate it when she’s fifteen, but later, she’ll remember, and it will help define the relationship you two have for the rest of your lives.


A relationship that might be as good, and trusting, and open, and loving as my relationship with Handsome. And there is nothing better than that!
Thanks for being a great, caring mom!



ps: Oh, and while her dad is being so absent, what would also be great is if Mr. Stepfather could also, occasionally, have some alone time with her, or if she could get some time with the two of you. All of these will really help her feel special. Maybe not as special as she really is, but close!



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