Second Time Mother Guilt – The Emotional Toil of Welcoming a Second Baby

The following is an excerpt from my ‘The Second Baby Book’:

One of the toughest things about becoming a mother for the first time, is learning to cope with feeling guilty. We feel guilty if we don’t ‘love every minute’ (nobody does by the way!), we feel guilty if we lose our temper, we feel guilty when we desperately need a break away from our children, we feel guilty about parenting choices we  make, or those that were made for us and we feel guilty about not doing enough self-care. We just can’t win. Physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation aside, the guilt must be one of the worst things about new motherhood. First-time mother guilt is hard, really hard. The second time around, you have the same guilt you had the first time around and so much more. The good news is though, that it is normal. You’re not alone. Knowing this helped me to feel so much better. It didn’t lift the guilt any quicker but taking away the nagging doubt of “is there something wrong with me for feeling like this all the time?” made it much easier to cope with.

Let’s take a  look at some of the most common feelings of guilt that second-time mothers feel and ultimately – how to move forwards.

second mum

Guilt from Turning Firstborn’s World Upside Down
We’ve already spoken about feeling guilty because of the disruption another baby brings to your firstborn’s life in previous chapters, but I wanted to bring it up again. Sadly, those feelings of guilt commonly increase when the new baby arrives. For some, the new wave of guilt hits the minute you leave your firstborn to give birth to your new baby. For others, it doesn’t hit until a few weeks, or even months, down the line. I have never met a mother who didn’t feel guilty about changing her firstborn’s world though.

When Your Firstborn Suddenly Seems Huge
I remember the sense of shock I felt when I first held my second baby for the first time. My babies are huge (ten and eleven pounders), but he felt so very tiny. Realising how tiny he was made me cry, because it reminded me that my firstborn was not a baby any more. My older son, even though he was only fifteen months old, felt huge. Suddenly it felt like I had missed a chunk of his life somehow. The feel of a tiny new baby in my arms made me mourn a little for the baby that my firstborn once was and in turn, that made me reminisce about the early days as a brand-new mother, just myself, my firstborn son and my husband. Which made me realise that our little family of three no longer existed. I thought I was insane for mourning my firstborn’s babyhood, when he was alive and well and a thriving toddler, until I spoke to more second-time mothers and realised that many had felt like I had
felt too. The feeling didn’t last for long, because life as a family of four quickly becomes the new normal. I also spent several hours looking at my firstborn’s baby photos, looking for similarities and differences between him and his new brother, which helped to allay my craving for my firstborn as a baby.

Guilt from Not Having the Time to Bond with the Baby
The first few weeks, or even months, of life with a baby and a toddler felt very much focussed on my older son. We went to his playgroups, met with his friends and went for days out to entertain him. The day revolved around my firstborn’s mealtimes and nap times, while my second born either slept on me in a sling or slept in his Moses basket in our living room, in between some snatched time for breastfeeds. Once my firstborn had gone to bed, I would pick up my new baby for what felt like the first time that day. Of course, I had picked him up several times in the day, but those holds felt very functional; a quick feed, a quick nappy change and so on. I didn’t feel like I had any time in the daytime to just cuddle him and get to know him. I felt so guilty, that I was somehow depriving him of my full attention and inhibiting bonding in some way. The truth was, he was very settled, calm, well-fed, clean and content, but I felt like I should be giving him more. I felt sad that I wasn’t going to any baby groups with my new son, instead he was being dragged along to toddler music classes and the like. I finally felt the guilt ease a little, when I booked us into baby massage classes at around six weeks. My older son spent a few hours with a childminder (who he loved, which helped to ease any potential guilt there) and I could finally spend time one-to-one focusing solely on my new baby. Baby massage added to this experience, as we spent an hour each week looking into each other’s eyes and releasing lots of oxytocin with the skin to skin touch. I would recommend that you don’t worry about going to any baby classes or groups with the new baby, but if you can, try to get to a baby massage class or two. It really does help with bonding and feeling less guilty about the time they spend strapped on your chest in a carrier, or rather ignored in a crib.

Guilt from Giving Attention to the Baby in Front of Your Firstborn
While I felt guilty for not spending enough quality time bonding with my new baby, the irony was, if I did manage to do this, then I immediately felt guilty for doing so in front of my firstborn. This is so common amongst second-time mothers I have spoken with. So many tell me that they feel guilty for holding and cuddling their new baby if their older child is in the same room. They worry about upsetting their older child’s feelings, or somehow making them feel less loved. Thankfully, this feeling wore off quite quickly, entirely of its own accord, as it does with most mothers. Until it did, I took solace in the night feeds. Night feeds, when my firstborn was safely tucked up asleep, felt like our stolen secret. An illicit affair in a way. As exhausted as I was, I would savour the quiet and still night to hold and cuddle and gaze at my new baby as he fed, safe in the knowledge that my firstborn was fast asleep and not witness to my display of love towards another. My second baby slept through the night freakishly early, at around four months old, and I still remember how sad I was to lose our special time together. It was an ironic feeling, considering I had been ecstatic when my firstborn had started to sleep through the night. I found myself wishing that he would wake again.

Guilt for Not Doing the Same with Your New Baby as You Did with Your First
One form of guilt that lasted for a long time (and still hasn’t completely gone if I’m honest), is the inability to do with your second-born what you did with your first baby. My first baby had homemade organic, steamed vegetables for weaning. My second-born was weaned on family leftovers and more jars of baby food than I’d care to admit. My firstborn had beautiful, immaculate clothing, bought specially for him. My second born’s wardrobe was predominantly hand-me-downs, as was most of the equipment he used and toys he played with. During my first pregnancy I lovingly filled in a baby diary and journal. I could tell you exactly when my son said his first word and took his first step. I can’t actually tell you what my second-baby’s first word was, let alone when he said it and I only know when he began walking, because we took him to get some first walker shoes fitted the next day and
the shoe shop took a photograph and dated it. I spent hours reading to my firstborn, teaching him baby sign language, singing with him and going to every baby group possible. Most pertinent though was the wall of professional baby photos we had had taken when our firstborn was three months old. They cost the equivalent of a foreign holiday (we justified their purchase by our absence of a holiday that year). They hung, pride of place, in beautiful frames in our living room. My second born had a couple of photos in cheap supermarket photo frames. We didn’t have the same disposable income, the inclination or the space to repeat the ridiculously overpriced photo package again. The only saving grace as my second son gets older and asks where all his baby photos are, is that I have barely any of his younger brother and none at all of his sister, our fourth born. Sometimes I still feel a little guilty over not giving my children the same in their babyhood, but in my more rational moments, I really don’t think it matters. Aside from the lack of photographs, the only person who remembers ‘life before two children’ is me. My second born didn’t know what he had missed and certainly didn’t suffer because of it. In wistful moments I remind myself that it really doesn’t matter, not to them anyway.

Breastfeeding Guilt
One thing that I come across a lot amongst second-time mothers is breastfeeding guilt. They feel guilty if they didn’t manage to breastfeed with their first baby but were successful the second time around. Or they feel guilty if they breastfed their first, but didn’t manage to feed their second-born, or fed for differing lengths. Finally, they feel guilty for feeling the need to wean their firstborn, either during pregnancy, or shortly after their firstborn arrives if they had planned to tandem feed but found it didn’t work out for them. There is no doubt that breastfeeding is the norm for our species and optimum for health, however that doesn’t mean that formula milk is the devil. Our society needs to invest more in breastfeeding, in better support, better knowledge amongst health-care professionals and better provision for tongue tie spotting and division. If your breastfeeding journey didn’t work out how you had hoped, whether it was with your first or second baby, or perhaps both, it’s so important that you realise that you didn’t fail at anything. If anybody failed it was those that should have supported you better, or your government for not properly investing in breastfeeding services. Know that you did your best with the best that you had at the time. Try to be at peace with the knowledge that you did what you could, and you gave, or are giving, your very best to your baby. I have breastfed my own children for hugely varying lengths, from six weeks, to five years. None of them, as teenagers, have the faintest interest in how they were fed as a baby. Any time I spent beating myself up about the different ways they were fed has had no impact on how they feel about me, or their upbringing.

Guilt from Feeling You’re Not Quite Meeting Anybody’s Needs
Too many mothers feel as if they are failing. If you look at mothering as an occupation, a job, I suspect that we would be the harshest critics at any work appraisal, harsher on ourselves than those in any other occupation. The truth is, if you’re reading this book, I’m pretty sure that you’re a fantastic mother. Even if you feel like the total opposite now. I remember the days when my baby and toddler cried in unison. There were a few when I joined them too. I remember the days when I went to bed, with a messy house and a frozen pizza hastily thrown in the over, thinking “I’m just no good at this, I’m barely surviving”. But survive we did, we made it through the day, the next day and the next. All in one piece. My mantra on the bad days became “nobody died, everybody survived”. Keeping us all alive and healthy became my baseline. If I had a good day I would give myself a virtual high five and feel like Supermum. Gradually, the good days became more and more. Although, a decade and a half later, I think my ratio is probably still only seventy-percent Supermum days and thirty percent survival days. But, I’ve become less of a self-critic. I realise that I’m doing my best and that’s good enough. In the early days, I’d really recommend having a “nobody died, everybody survived” mentality. Don’t even aim for seventy-percent good days. See them as a positive and unexpected extra when they happen. It’s OK to just aim for survival!

Steps to Overcome the Guilt
  • Recognise that what you are feeling is common and normal, you’re not alone!
  • Accept your feelings. Allow them to exist. Don’t feel wrong for feeling this way
  • Be kind to yourself. Remember, it’s OK if all you did today was survive.
  • Remind yourself that images of family life you see on the internet, or even in real-life, are just snippets. Well-edited snippets if they’re on social media. You’re seeing other families at their best. Don’t compare your worst to their best!
  • Try to find just five or ten minutes per day to unwind. I don’t mean taking time away from your children (unless you want to!), but time to just sit and focus on breathing, listening to a mindfulness recording or similar, just to unload your head a little each day.
  • Talk to other second-time mothers. Hearing others share their gritty feelings can help you to feel less alone and more sane
  • Don’t feel the need to be Supermum. Taking care of a child and a new baby is enough. It’s OK if your house is messy and you’re eating frozen meals. It’s also OK to use the television as a babysitter!
  • Do talk with your health visitor or doctor if you feel that your feelings are become hard for you to handle, or if you feel that you are developing anxiety or depression.
The Second Baby Book is available as an e-book, paperback and audio book:
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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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