In each case the questions I have been asked have focussed very much on the practical point of view. “How can parents best prepare their toddler for the arrival of a new baby?”, “how should you introduce the baby to the toddler?”, “how can parents cope with two young children waking at night?”, “how long should the dad take off work?” and “how can parents cope with the exhaustion of a small age gap.”
I duly gave answers to the questions I was asked (see this article for some answers, the others will appear in print shortly in various publications). Intriguingly however not one of the researchers or journalists was interested in my opinions on the emotional transition that the new parents must make, in particular the mother.
I had four children under four years of age, my first and second were both 15 months apart, my third followed 14 months later and my last 2 years after number three. Adding a new baby into the mix of a toddler is exhausting, especially if the firstborn is still sleeping erratically. From the toddler’s perspective adding a new member to the family is a little like your partner bringing home a new boyfriend or girlfriend and trying to assure you that they do not love you any less than when it was just the two of you. Pretty devastating. Tantrums, unpredictable behaviour and regressions in sleep and toileting are fairly inevitable. A lot of understanding and empathy from the parent’s perspective is needed, not just in the first few weeks but several months, even years down the line.
In many ways however, I actually found it fairly easy mothering a newborn and a toddler. I had never made it out of the sleepless nights, so they didn’t come as a shock to me. I was used to toting armfuls of baby paraphernalia, I had never made it out of breastfeeding bras or started wearing dresses again. I had no social life to mourn and my entertainment already consisted largely of Peppa Pig and Thomas the Tank Engine. The new baby spent most of the day snuggled in a sling (invaluable with a small age gap!) and in many ways didn’t impact much on normality with my toddler. I even relished the night feeds with the baby as it afforded me quiet time to bond with him or her. Small age gaps are physically hard work (especially on your body), but can in many ways be easier on the older child in terms of jealously and resentment towards the new baby.
What nobody talks about though, and what journalists appear to have no interest in, is the intense emotional response to birthing a second child. No amount of sleepless nights or draining days compare to the inner turmoil created by the arrival of number two. When my second child arrived the joy was interspersed with immense feelings of guilt and doubt. What had I done? My selfishness and desire to have a second child had ruined my firstborn’s happy existence. Everything we had until that point was gone. Our easy daily routine, the classes we went to, our shared naps, our quiet story time all changed in the space of a few hours. What had I done? Had I made the right decision? It was a decision I often regretted.
When I was pregnant with my second child I dreamt of my two children playing together, being friends for life. I imagined a blissful, Hallmark’esque smiling family of four. Nobody tells you about the guilt though. Nobody tells you about the mourning for your life as a family of three. Nobody tells you about the upheaval your firstborn will go through and how every hour you feel your heart will break for them, wishing for the time when it was just you again, just once more. Wishing you could help them to understand that you love them just as much as before, maybe even a little more now.
….and then there is the baby. The poor sweet baby who you don’t have time to cuddle anywhere near as much as you would like. Even if your toddler is not demanding your attention, or your hands, the guilt you feel at holding your newborn while your toddler is in the same room is like nothing you have ever felt before. The only guilt that surpasses this is that you feel at not holding your newborn as much as you did your firstborn. You snatch golden moments with your newborn when you can. Often though hours can go past until you realise that although your baby has been strapped to your chest or at your breast all day that you have barely noticed them, let alone had time to connect with them, talk to them or consciously feel their body against yours. The guilt increases even more.
The classes you took your firstborn to don’t happen with your second. The playdates focus more on the baby tagging along on a toddler outing. The new baby memory book never makes it out of the wrapper in stark, mocking contrast to the neatly filled in journal you kept first time around. The wall full of professional photos of your firstborn is accompanied by two or three home snaps of your second. The lovingly prepared 100% organic home cooked food you fed your firstborn is reluctantly replaced by more ready-made meals than you would care to admit.
You feel like you are not meeting either child’s needs. Your baby cries when you are cleaning your toddler’s grazed knee and mopping their tears. You have no choice but to leave one to cry. Your toddler cries just as you have calmed your firstborn enough to get them to feed. You have no choice but to leave one to cry. Too many times you cry too. What have you done? You have destroyed your toddler’s life and your baby deserves better. You cry some more, your children cry with you.
This is the truly hard part of welcoming a second child. No amount of sleepless nights, constant nappy changing, tantrum taming or sheer physical exhaustion comes close. Is this unique to ‘two under two’? I don’t think so.
The good news is that in time the guilt fades. It may take months, or even years (the latter is true for me) but the first time your children hug, or hold each other’s hands. The first time they share a secret joke together that you’re not in on, when they look into each other’s eyes smiling and let out big belly laughs. The first time they play together and don’t want you to join in. The first time they curl up to sleep together and beg to be allowed to sleep in the same bed. These are the times that make it worth it. These are the times when you begin to realise that maybe you haven’t ruined their lives after all, but given them something better – a friend for life. The guilt fades as the memories build.
As a mother of four, no transition was harder for me than going from one to two children. Two to three? easy in comparison, three to four? a breeze. I just wish somebody had warned me beforehand about ‘second child guilt’. Why is it so unspoken of in our society? Why won’t you read about it in the flurry of ‘second baby’ or ‘two under two’ articles about to hit the shelves, air waves and internet?
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