If you believe the books (and don’t we all, at least the first time around), the golden rule of preparing child number one for the arrival of child number two is to not change a thing. Put off potty training, the shift from cot to bed, don’t even mess with the day care arrangements. Simply stated, maintain your first-born’s normal routine at all costs so that he or she can adapt to a new sibling in the most secure state possible. Sound advice, I’m sure. So what did we do four weeks after our second baby arrived? Move to Canada.
It certainly wasn’t my idea. Our son Declan had been born in Scotland and I knew only too well that those first difficult postnatal weeks were in no way enhanced by spending them far away from family, friends and the comforts of home. But this new work opportunity for my husband was too good to refuse and so whilst he went ahead to sort out a house, car and therapist I spent my last trimester packing up our home and waddling around in a state of anxiety wondering how our toddler was going to cope with the triple whammy of new country, new house and new sister.
As it turned out, that imagined trifecta was optimistic. Everything was different. The weather (our first Canadian Christmas Day was -40 degrees Celsius), the food, the culture – even crossing the street was an ordeal, with traffic rushing at us from the wrong direction. Though forewarned, I had no idea that Montreal would be so French, a language in which my proficiency was limited to croissant and Yoplait. And then there was the loss of his beloved grandparents and overworked father, who was only sighted every second weekend… all before a colicky blonde bundle constantly diverting his mother’s attention had been thrown into the mix.
To my great surprise though, Declan adapted beautifully. Nothing seemed to bother him. None of his toys had yet arrived? Not a problem, he’d draw instead. No baked beans, his staple diet? Fine, he’d try a baguette. A playgroup where we didn’t speak the language? Within a week he was singing his nursery rhymes in French. My husband and I breathed a huge sigh of relief at his powers of assimilation and congratulated ourselves on having raised such a Teflon-coated child.
Fast forward three years, with us back in Australia and Declan about to start school. Once again I’d read the books. I knew it was a big transition and to watch out for stress manifesting in weepiness, increased fatigue, poor appetite, maybe mood swings. Despite this I was unconcerned. The school we had chosen was in the next street, very small and known for its excellent pastoral care. Declan was already friendly with over half his class, with whom he had attended preschool, and had fallen for his teacher before the end of the first orientation day. He knew his numbers and letters and was clearly ready to start reading- in fact I confidently predicted to all and sundry that he would be doing so within weeks. Most of all, he’d sailed through the adjustment to Canada. Surely school would be a breeze.
On the surface my expectations appeared well founded. Declan seemed to settle in well. There were no tears or refusals, no signs of trouble, plenty of invitations from friends old and new for parties and play dates. But ten weeks down the track, at the end of term one he still couldn’t read. Not a book, not a sentence, not even the word "the", which we must have gone over every night for at least five weeks.
Beside myself at the possibilities of dyslexia or developmental delay I made an appointment to see his teacher. Declan was doing fine, she reassured me, though at times he did seem a bit anxious. In particular, he often asked her what would be happening next, or where the class would go after recess, or which subject followed maths. How often? I asked. Once? Twice? She shrugged, looking slightly uncomfortable. The actual figure was anything up to thirty or forty times a day.
The next morning I quizzed him gently. Did he like school? Yes. Was his teacher nice? Yes. Was he frightened of anything? A pause. Then he looked at me shyly, as if confessing, and softly said "I get scared when I don’t know which day I have to take my library book. And sometimes when the bell goes at lunch time I feel all twisted in my tummy because I don’t know who will play with me". Further questioning elicited that someone always did, but that wasn’t the point: it was the not knowing. Just like the toddlers described in those baby books I’d read years ago, Declan desperately needed the security of a routine.
It occurred to me that the upheaval wrought by Canada and his new sibling hadn’t bothered him not simply because I’d quickly replaced our old schedule with a new one, but rather because I’d kept him apprised of and accompanied him through the changes every step of the way. Now though he was having to find his own path, and until that was achieved everything else was on hold.
Thankfully, early in term two Declan worked out the timetable and things fell into place. Within a week of being able to confidently inform me that his Show and Tell day was Thursday and Mrs Campbell substituted for his normal teacher on Tuesday afternoons he was reading fluently, racing through the levels, finally able to turn his attention from worrying about what came next to other forms of learning.
I was learning too. That no matter how we prepare ourselves or our children, change is tough. That despite what the books say, anxiety can manifest itself in unexpected ways. That routines and predictability matter even long after naps have been dropped. And that sometimes moving around the corner is harder than going all the way to Canada.