Two Under Two? No Problem! The Real Difficulties of Welcoming a Second Child

As a certain princess entered the world today my email and phone has been buzzing with media requests for comments on what it’s like to raise two under two. Over the last two weeks I’ve contributed to numerous pieces exploring the issue of welcoming a second child into the family, from the mother’s perspective, from the father’s perspective (especially in terms of how long he should take in paternity leave) and lastly from the new big brother or sister’s perspective.

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.

two under two, new baby, second baby, coping with two

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.

two under two, new baby, second baby, coping with twoThis 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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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
This entry was posted in Babies, Mothering, Toddlers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Two Under Two? No Problem! The Real Difficulties of Welcoming a Second Child

  1. blissfullyinformed says:

    My first 2 are almost exactly 2 years apart, just over. Then the 2nd and 3rd are 7 years apart. The 3rd and 4th are just under a year apart! I didn’t really experience a lot of guilt when the 2nd was born. She was such a laid-back baby that she slept great, took consistent naps, played happily in her bouncer, etc. It was far harder when the 3rd was born and my 2nd went from being the baby to the middle child. Especially since the 3rd had colic, and then I got pregnant again right away. What resonates most with me in this post is the “no choice but to let one cry” part. That is my life story with my 3rd and 4th! I hate that more than anything. Especially since my husband is now a trucker and gone most of the time. I feel I can never give them each enough. But intellectually, I know I give them each my all. It’s very hard though, the guilt is very real!

  2. Lois Wattis says:

    What a wonderfully honest review of the mother’s emotional journey! I had three under 4. I do not recommend it but we all survived. I look back at those times and my regret is that I tried so hard to maintain an orderly and sometimes clean house.

  3. Carie says:

    Oh this resonates so much! I found the jump from 1-2 so much harder than 2-3 which has been a piece of cake in comparison. By the time Pip arrived last summer I’d already worked out how to prioritise, how to split myself in two and how to not feel guilty about it – although the bit about him spending half the day strapped to me sounds very familiar – it’s his happy place and he gets lots and lots of kisses so I don’t think it’s too bad a lot as far as he’s concerned!

  4. rs says:

    Thank you. I so needed this. My first 2 are 15 months apart and are now 1 and 2 years old. Such an enormous blessing. Oh the guilt though about needing to let one cry, as well as the other things you wrote. Please continue to write more about 2 under 2!

  5. Hana says:

    Thank you for this post. This is really what I’ve been needing to hear, nobody ever wanted to talk about this or say it this honestly. I have one child. After 12 years of trying he is a very precious child and I’m so very afraid of losing our very special bond. What you said above has been what I have been wondering about and was afraid of. Every time I asked someone how it was like to have another child, they simply said “Oh, you’ll love them just the same.” I know I would, but I needed to know I’m not the only one who has these fears. I’m much more open to the idea of having another child because you’ve said them out loud for me.

  6. Oxytocinaddict says:

    Thank you! At last, some insights about having baby #2 from an AP perspective. As a blissfully happy mother of 1, with thoughts, dreams and nightmares about having more, it seems nobody is writing about the practicalities from a gentle parenting perspective. More please!!

  7. suzi says:

    Ah this is beautiful. I don’t have small gaps, there are nearly 4 years between 1+2, but I went through many feelings the same. I remember looking at my firstborn curled up asleep on the sofa, and thinking, you’re never going to be so small again. And I was right, she didnt. I felt like I was rocking her little world, so much guilt for loving another, for the changes, for everything.
    as they grow now though, it was totaly worth it, but that emotional transition was so very hard.

  8. Aliscia poxon says:

    Thank you for this post it really helps I’m 9 weeks pregnant with my second child and have a little boy who’s 7 months old although I will find it hard with 2 children under 2 but reading from what you say makes me believe that I can handle the 2 children. But I don’t think I will have any jealously between them as he has he’s cousins to play with and we go to a mum and baby group every 2 weeks when I’m able to attend and not feeling ill or exhausted….

  9. LauraS says:

    I have two boys, 1 is 2 and a half, 2 just one month old. I absolutely adore 1, he is the light of my life. I remember seeing him for the first time and just the feeling I had in that very moment, the overwhelming love for him. While pregnant with 2 I often asked myself if loving another child was even possible. The first few days after giving birth to 2 where very hard on me, there was guilt everywhere I looked. I feel like I took something away from 1, I feel we are disconnected. On the other hand, I am still waiting to have the same moment with 2, which I guess it’s a no show. Maybe love comes differently with each child. I love 2 immensely but i still miss my old life with 1. Thank you for showing me I am not the only one feeling guilty for always having to choose between my kids. Sometimes I wish I could grow two more arms to hold them both. My solution is patience and I always repeat to myself: just be here now!

  10. mary says:

    Thank you! I really wish people did speak about this topic- I am going through second child guilt so badly with my 23 month old and 6 and a half month old and you were able put into words exactly how I am feeling! Thank you for making me realize I am not alone! This is just what I needed this week, today, at this minute. x x

  11. mary says:

    And also thank you for the sentence ‘you have no choice but to leave one to cry’ – this is something which causes me extreme stress and guilt, especially in the gentle parenting community, as I try to practice those principles and his makes me feel like a failure! I also like the sentbe w that follows ‘too many times you cry too’ – also very true for me! 😉

  12. Rebecca says:

    This is literally my life right now! A 23mo & a 3mo and every single example in this article is my life every day! It’s a grief. But an overwhelming abundance of happiness and love too. The grieving is hard… As is the look In My toddlers eyes. Good to hear it gets better!

  13. mitchellcarter0127 says:

    Thank you! I really wish people did speak about this topic- I am going through second child guilt so badly with my 23 month old and 6 and a half month old and you were able put into words exactly how I am feeling

  14. This is just what I needed to read this morning. I have a 2 and a half year old and a 3 month old and I feel exactly this way. Thank you so much for making me feel normal! This is a wonderful article. Xxx

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