siblings at births: on why Noah was there

At age five, our first child Noah attended our second child’s birth. Since then, several people have asked (often in open bafflement): why?

I realize that most families send any older children to spend the birthing time at a relative or friend’s house (something we simply didn’t have locally available anyway!). I also know that some families having homebirths with children in the house hope any older siblings will happen to sleep through the event. So it strikes some folks as odd that we went out of our way to have Noah around, actually waking him in the middle of the night to witness Simon’s appearance on the scene.

The short answer? Noah really, really wanted to be there. It was important to him. The only fear or concern he ever voiced about the birth was that he might miss it. He’s been fascinated by childbirth since age three, he knew a lot about it before I was even pregnant, and he felt that the birth was a significant family event that–as a family member–he should participate in. After all, he thinks of Simon as “our baby,” our family’s baby.

The other side of Noah’s presence at the birth is that I wanted him there, too. While I was pregnant, I felt sad to the point of teary when I was reading birth stories and got to the part where older siblings head to Grandpa’s house or whatever. At a gut level, it felt strange and wrong to imagine such an intimate and dramatic family change happening with Noah outside our circle, to imagine sending him away. (And, again, on a practical level: where on Earth would we have sent him?)

Of course, there were lots of little factors as well. When Simon was born, Noah was nearly six years old. I don’t know what I would have wanted if he’d been significantly younger–even if he had wanted to be there. A five-year-old can understand how labor works and that you’re busy or need space or quiet; a two-year-old might need more or not understand as much. (Or maybe not. Maybe it depends on the child, too.) Another issue is that Noah reacts well in ordinary life when I’m stressed out, in pain, or … how shall I say this? … losing my shit for whatever reason. He’s definitely used to me cursing! So ‘honoring Noah’s wishes’ didn’t seem super-likely to equal ‘exposing him to a high-stress situation’ or ‘letting him get in over his head.’ It also mattered that we were planning a home birth. It would have been harder on me to have Noah around and harder to help him have a good experience if I’d needed or preferred to birth in a hospital, since he wouldn’t have had all his stuff, his bed, room to play freely, our refrigerator, etc.

But I only articulated any of this after people started asking. The reality is that we never talked or thought about whether Noah was invited to the birth: it was obvious to all three of us that he’d likely be there. Of course we emphasized that it would be absolutely fine for him to leave if he wanted, and we made sure he had a dedicated caregiver who could go with whatever he wanted and needed in the moment. Still, the default image in all our minds was of everybody together at the birth. Instead of will Noah be around?, the central sibling-at-birth question for our family was: how can we get Noah good support for this experience?

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  1. Posted 13 March 2013 at 4:29 PM | Permalink

    I was one of the (bemusedly) baffled. I appreciated your answering, then and now! I guess it never occurred to me to have my oldest attend my second birth because I don’t have a “Noah” – I had my Jack, 2 years old, could not yet speak (it was about then we put him in speech therapy for his verbal delay), sensory sensitive and incapable of processing major sensory stimuli, susceptible to my distress. We didn’t have anywhere for him to go either, as we’d just moved to the area for me to attend law school, so I asked the only other woman in law school who had children to take him for us. That formed the basis of a long-term friendship, actually! (Truly, he would have absolutely hated every minute, and been so confused, and would have caused me further distress which would have caused him distress which would have ended up in a Distress Spiral of epic proportions.)

    And I had to have #2 at the hospital, because in most states in the South, it is essentially illegal for a midwife to attend a home birth. I wasn’t comfortable having a baby at home without a midwife. I was lucky to find the one hospital (awful and disorganized though it was) in driving distance that would allow midwives to attend births there. Crummy state of affairs, down here.

  2. Posted 13 March 2013 at 4:50 PM | Permalink

    We’re planning a homebirth for our second (we also planned a homebirth for our first, but I had to transfer). Our oldest, Oz, will be two and a half when the new baby comes. At this point, four months away, I don’t think Oz would handle birth well. The last time I labored, I needed my partner to be very present, and Oz still needs a tremendous amount of adult attention. I suspect that he would be distressed by the gravity of birth, and the unavailability of his mother, and cling to my partner. If he were older, and he wanted to be present, no question — he would be.

    We are very fortunate to have close, close friends whose daughter is the same age as Oz (born a week apart). I nanny their daughter, and she and Oz spend 30 or so hours together a week. He knows and loves her parents better than he knows his own grandparents, and the plan is for them to be on Oz duty while I’m in labor. I’m comfortable having one of them over while I’m birthing, so Oz may be home, with one of them taking care of him. If he needs to be elsewhere, for whatever reason, they can take him elsewhere.

    So we’ll see. Oz still doesn’t sleep through the night, or without a parent present. I don’t know what that will mean for me being in labor (and, frankly, I’m freaking out about having a newborn when I still have a toddler waking up several times a night). The best we can do is have as many adults as possible who he trusts be present to help walk him through this. We’re preparing him as much as we can. He knows that there’s a baby in Mama’s belly, and that the baby will “share milk with Oz,” (my milk dried up but dude still nurses at bedtime), but this is a good reminder that we need to start talking with him about birth. I really appreciate your words about Simon’s birth being a family event, and Noah (as a member of your family) being an important part of that; it’s a good reminder to start thinking about how to make this a family event that Oz is part of, as much as that is appropriate for his developmental age and his personality.

  3. Lara
    Posted 14 March 2013 at 7:46 AM | Permalink

    Noah seems like a tremendously mature and self-possessed kid. He is lucky he had the personal resources to be able to be present, with you and for you, at Simon’s birth. I think people are surprised because most kids, even at that age, can’t really handle “Mommy is busy” in general, and certainly not for hours on end. Heck, if I try to work while my husband puts my almost-6-yr-old to bed, there’s a whining, sometimes, crying, tantrum. I can’t talk on the phone unless I hide. My older one might have been able to do it at age 6. He could now, at age 8, if he wanted to. Though he is sensitive to my pain, and I would have a hard time dealing with labor if I could tell he was trying to help me feel better, and wanting me to be out of pain. For my kids, it would be stressful all around, I think. (Totally theoretical question, though!)

    • Molly
      Posted 14 March 2013 at 7:59 AM | Permalink

      I should perhaps also mention that Noah is ridiculously enthusiastic about getting adult friends’ attention/time–surely in large part because we have zero family and very few friends anywhere near our state, so it’s a very rare treat. He was over the moon about getting to play with Mel (the midwife/doula we hired to stay with him throughout the labor and do whatever he needed). Indeed, he was hoping I’d have a long labor so he’d get adequate Lego time with her :) So, leaving boring old me and Eric to our business during long stretches of labor was fine by him … and by the time I was in transition and pushing, he was totally part of the middle-of-the-night watchful silence of birth somehow.

      What is it with children and phones?!?

  4. Posted 14 March 2013 at 9:33 PM | Permalink

    I can see both sides here – and I think it’s one of these cases where you know your child and your own needs during and after birth and make that decision. With that said, I also think that because birth has become hyper-medicalized in our culture and the norm is to involve very few members of the family (besides mama and partner if she has one), but to include many, many strangers as professionals and experts – young children are an obvious, “what? why?” response. Mainstream birth culture hardly has any time for the women actually giving birth – I can’t imagine them making space for kids (I could also talk about how kid-impatient our culture overall is – but I digress)
    I was lucky to witnesses the birth of my niece (one month prior to giving birth to my own son), and during that time I was the care taker of my nephew (then a little over 4 years old). He did amazing. Most of the time it was just a regular day because my sister went about her daily activity – even going out to lunch! When things got intense – I watched a movie with him – when the midwife came over (it was a home birth) he checked out all the stuff she brought- and went back to the movie (funny side note, the midwife gave him a clementine. When asked if he wanted to eat it now- he said he would wait until after the baby was born to have it. I thought to myself, “It might be a long wait, kid” low and behold my niece was born about 20 minutes later). We were called up when she was pushing – he sat in my arms (and covered his ears – you know how kids do when it’s intense) and I whispered to him, “Mama is working SO hard to get the baby out – but she is okay”. He did great afterwards all joy. So, it can be great and amazing for kids of various ages – he was also fully prepared and had been going to the midwife appointments regularly etc, etc.
    With THAT said, if we decide to have another child (my son is now 3), I am not sure if we’d have him there or not. I think we’d have to see where we were all at as a family, but I am happy that this is an option for us to ponder over and access when/if the time comes.
    I do believe that by engaging in these conversations we’re helping to pave the path to shift our culture for more families to consider children at birth (as an option as normal)- let’s keep this kind of conversation going!

  5. A'Llyn
    Posted 16 March 2013 at 9:25 PM | Permalink

    Noah sounds so awesome! I love that it’s your baby as a family, his too. So cool.

    I was present at the birth of my first sister when I was 2 1/2, although I have only the vaguest memory of it. I don’t remember being scared, more just curious. I think my parents (it was unassisted childbirth, just my mom working and my dad catching the baby) probably told me the baby was coming and that there would be a lot of noise but that it was OK, so I should just stay out of the way. I think there was moaning, my mom was in the living room, and then my dad was holding a baby and washing her with warm water over the stove. That’s about all I have of it.

    I was also there for my other three sisters, born when I was 4 1/2, 7, and 11, although I slept through Kid Number 4 (I was kind of peeved that they didn’t wake us up, but I suppose they were busy–I woke up when she cried).

    It absolutely depends on the kid and the family, but in the right circumstances, being there for a birth is amazing. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of my sisters…and I’m still kind of sorry I wasn’t awake for Number 4.

  6. Posted 24 March 2013 at 5:41 PM | Permalink

    As a previous Jessica (nice name!) mentioned I think it has a lot to do with how birth has evolved in our culture. My oldest was 3 when I became pregnant and we decided to take Bradley classes. Our Bradley teacher touched on the idea of siblings being at the birth (I believe there is an old Bradley book on the topic) and we all loved the idea. Unfortunately we lost that child at 26 wks GA and probably owing to how death has evolved in our culture I did not have my older daughter meet her brother after his stillbirth. To this day 15+ yrs later I regretted that decision. The next pregnancy by daughter was going to be just over five at the time of birth and again we planned for her to attend. It was a hospital birth and I went in to have cervidil to soften my cervix, while my dd was with grandma and ended up with a precipitous labor and a baby less than 3 hrs later so she missed the entire thing. Next baby was a planned homebirth and we had dd(7) and ds(2) who were going to be in attendance. This baby decided to make an early entrance (the others had been “late”) so I missed all of labor and didn’t identify that the baby was coming *now* until I started to feel her had. Both kids were across the hall playing (we’d asked dd to play with ds because I thought I “wasn’t feeling well”) and in the madness to call the midwife and catch the baby we didn’t get them called into the bedroom so my poor oldest dd had now missed the birth of 3 siblings. Next baby we had dd(10), ds(5), and dd(3). Bound and determine that they would all be there we called them into the room when I got into the tub (about 45 min before the baby was born). I have wonderful memories of them sitting on the bed and chatting to each other about what was going on and the noises I was making. As a pp mentioned it really was more curiosity than anything else and while there may have been mild concern there was no fear. Last baby we had dd(13), ds(8), dd(6), and ds (3). Same plan… we called them up when I got in the tub, about 45 min before the baby emerged. This time ds (3) was asleep and didn’t wake up to join the others but they all watched and took picture of the event (their assigned job if they chose to accept it). DS(3) woke up shortly after his sister was born and remembers following the hose running from the bathroom into our living room and the birth tub and then seeing his sister. :) for our family we also choose not to have anyone there specifically for the children. I really prefer to be pretty much alone during the labor/birth process — usually having the midwife arrive as I’m beginning to push — so the thought of having someone else there was challenging for me. If the kids have memories they are good or neutral. My oldest daughter is now 19 and doesn’t see birth as a medical event at all, thinking it’s a little silly that the majority of babies are birthed in hospitals for no specific reason LOL

    • Molly
      Posted 24 March 2013 at 8:03 PM | Permalink

      Thank you for sharing your story! It certainly shows that births really do go every-which-way.

      I’m glad your oldest daughter made it to some births eventually–Noah would have been *so bummed* if it hadn’t worked out for him to be there … and this was our last, so no ‘do-over’s on this one.

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