The learning curve with a first child is huge.
Everything is new and raw: chafed nipples and umbilical stumps and sleep deprivation, oh my! But when my second child was born, the surprises kept on coming. Here are some of the things I didn’t expect when I was expecting my second.
While pregnant with my son, I read about each stage of pregnancy obsessively. My copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting was dog-eared and slick with tater-tot grease. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I checked every few months to see what type of fruit she was as big as. Most of my time and energy was spent trying to coerce my toddler son into napping, so I could too.
Likewise, when my son was little, I studiously tracked his milestones to make sure he fell within a typical range. With my daughter, we just amble along. Sometimes I think she’s a genius. Once in awhile, I check to make sure that at two, I shouldn’t expect her to be writing algebra equations. Otherwise, I call it good.
I try not to, but I just can’t help silently comparing my kids. One of my children is sensitive and intense, while the other mostly goes with the flow. Our son didn’t speak until immediately after the speech evaluation we had done when he was two-and-a-half. Our daughter is two and says things like, “I can barely see my boots in this snow!” Our son boasted a full head of banker’s hair by the time he was eight months old; our daughter was mostly bald until she was over a year old.
The comparisons aren’t about good and bad. I try to stifle the comparisons and I never verbalize them in front of my children. But they are my only two children, my smooth-faced little science experiments, and I don’t know how not to compare them.
I have plenty of love for both my children. Love is expansive; like our babies, it appears from almost nothing and multiplies and stretches daily. But attention? Attention doesn’t expand. I never feel I’m able to give each of my children the focus they deserve. I make an effort to have one-on-one time with each of them, but it never feels like quite enough.
How many of you are there? Sometimes, my kids play together and it’s magic. It enables me to switch over the laundry or (more likely) shoot a quick text to a friend. Other times, if both kids are unhappy, it feels like there are 10 of them instead of just two. This seems to especially happen at lunch time, when we are all hungry and grouchy and have already spent several hours together. I feel like a harried mama bird trying to drop worms into all the babies’ mouths, but they each want their worms prepared differently and I can’t get them ready quickly enough and all the baby birds are squawking!
Here’s a secret: many parents do have a favorite child. But who the favorite is changes. Those days when the two-year-old wants me to do the same jungle puzzle 135 times and won’t let me leave the room? Not my favorite. When our son tells me for the very first time, “You’re the worst mom ever!” Not my favorite.
Babies are easy. If you have the misfortune of having an “easy” first child followed by a higher needs second (or third, etc.), you have my condolences, and you can skip right over this section. My first child was a more challenging baby, so when my second slept all the time, went to bed at 6:30 every night and rarely cried, parenting a baby felt like a breeze. I had the benefit of having already navigated breastfeeding, diapering and teething. We had managed to keep our son alive and growing for nearly three years, and I was fairly confident we could take adequate care of our daughter.
And with subsequent children, we have the gift of perspective. The newborn stage, with all its challenges and delights, passes swiftly, and feels even quicker the second time around. The days when they need us around the clock won’t last forever, even when it feels like it will (lunchtime).
When my kids are snuggling together on the couch, it is the best thing ever. It feels like I created my own little idyllic SIMS world, and all is well. Those moments may be brief, but they’re powerful and intoxicating.
Siblings are the people we generally have the longest relationship of our lives with, and though there’s no guarantee that my kids will be friends as well as siblings, the mere possibility is luminous.
When we just had our son, I could imagine raising just one child. I noticed that parenting was getting slightly more manageable as he grew, and I was starting to get some small freedoms back. But did our little family feel complete? When I was honest with myself, it didn’t. It just felt like there was supposed to be one more of us.
Now that our youngest is two, my ovaries do somersaults when I see a newborn baby.
I occasionally wonder what life would be like with a third child. But I’m almost forty. I can’t imagine being outnumbered by our children. And we don’t have any extra bedrooms. But mostly? Our little family feels complete.
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Editor: Cat Beekmans
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