There have been plenty of times when I've felt guilt as a mom. Guilt for not doing enough for my kids, guilt for doing too much for my kids, and guilt about parenting decisions I try and thoughtfully make. But when I separate out which guilt I feel for which child and why I'm feeling it, one thing at the forefront of my mind is that I gave my eldest way too much responsibility over her younger sibling. Not only did this lead to frustration from me when things wouldn't go as planned, but to frustration and self-esteem issues for her when she inevitably wouldn't live up to my too high expectations of a young child.
Putting this responsibility on my daughter was entirely unfair. He's my child, my responsibility. Not hers.
When our second child was born, our firstborn slid right into the role of big sister. It was fun to watch, and she was wonderful with him. So wonderful, in fact, that I felt comfortable allowing her to help with a lot of things related to newborn care. She'd help with diaper changes by handing me clean diapers, she'd go to his crib when he cried, and help rinse the soap off him in the bathtub. As he got older and began to do more, I found myself telling her to watch him on the changing table as I washed my hands in the next room, or keep him distracted so he wouldn't come near the hot stove while I cooked dinner. She was happy to oblige and play "little mommy," but one day I realized some of the things that seemed harmless for me to ask of her were beginning to be a little too much for a 4-year-old.
Slowly, I began to notice that my frustration with her for making him scream when I asked her to keep him quiet for a minute, or letting him eat a crayon while she colored as I prepped dinner, was misplaced. I should have been frustrated with myself. Toddlers scream and toddlers eat weird things sometimes, whether their mother is watching them or not. Putting this responsibility on my daughter was entirely unfair. He's my child, my responsibility. Not hers. And how bad must she have be feeling about herself every time she failed to meet an expectation I set for her? She must have thought that she was always doing something wrong. And realizing how my requests were making her feel like a failure made me really sad.
As a toddler, our second child was all over the place: climbing on everything, exploring every nook and cranny in the house, and opening and closing cabinets and drawers. It was exhausting trying to keep up with him. I don't know what took me so long to realize that if it was so difficult for me to keep up with him and keep him out of harm's way, it was completely unrealistic of me to expect my older child to do the same. When I asked her to make sure he didn't get into anything while I went to the bathroom down the hall (with the door open, just in case), and he climbed up on the couch only to fall off and bonk his head under her watch, I felt terrible for both of them. She immediately called, "I'm sorry, Mommy!" When I came running, she was helping him up off the ground, looking so defeated. She felt like it was her fault he fell and hurt himself (he was fine, by the way), and she was distraught. My initial reaction went from anger with her for "letting" him fall to anger with myself for telling her to watch him.
She can still help me in a lot of ways, and I allow her to because she wants to. She's a caring little girl by nature and loves being a big sister. I started working on what I'd ask of her, and since then, both of us are feeling a lot less frustrated. I don't get mad at her for things she "fails" at because I'm not asking her to act as another me when I leave the room. That isn't and shouldn't be her responsibility. They're mine. Her job is to just be a kid.