About seven months pregnant with my second child, I was going through my first son’s old baby clothes, sorting the newborn onesies and bodysuits into bins during one of my bursts of third trimester nesting energy.
I was marveling at the size of infant socks, at the idea that they had ever fit my almost 2-year-old’s giant feet, which I could currently hear slapping up and down the hallway. But then I remembered how they’d never really fit: baby socks have a propensity for always being too big until they’re suddenly too small – the heel stretched awkwardly across the arch of a wiggly foot (that is, if you don’t lose half of a pair in the grocery store first).
And then the thought of how big my first son was – how he’d turned into a toddler somewhere between the mornings I was throwing up and the nights I was resting a bowl of ice cream on my non-existent lap – made me burst into tears. And I wondered when on earth I’d become such a cliché: the pregnant lady crying over baby clothes. This was my second child, so wasn’t I supposed to be more put together about the realities of life’s changes?
Getting Pregnant Again Filled Me with Unexpected Emotions
But, in many ways, I felt even more ill-equipped than I had during my first pregnancy. Preparing to give birth in 2020, during the first months of the pandemic, offered its own set of challenges. But I’d been feeling this way ever since my husband and I had watched the second line turn pink, both of us laughing as he held our very clueless 15 month old. It wasn’t as if we hadn’t wanted this pregnancy; we knew we wanted to give our son a sibling. But now it was really happening and there were so many things I hadn’t considered.
For example, it really sucks to have morning sickness while a non-verbal toddler tries to tell you what they want: not that, no why don’t you understand me, clearly this is the end of the world and I will show that in the only way I know how: screaming and making you hold me, and don’t you dare sit your exhausted body down while holding me, do you not understand that this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me?
But even more than the physical strain, there’s a certain emotional toll that comes with having a second child. Perhaps because I knew how much life changes with the addition of one child, I was afraid of what it would mean to add a second into the mix. I was also sad that I would no longer be able to devote all my attention to my first. At first, being the good conflict-avoider I am, I ignored these feelings, or rather, shamed those feelings into submission: I was supposed to be happy about this child. I was a second child, after all, and not only did I know my parents loved my older brother and me equally, I was also pretty sure I was the best thing to ever happen to them (and if that’s an exaggeration, I’m also the middle child, so excuse me for finding ways to cope).
But, no surprise, my suppressed feelings of fear and sadness resurfaced as I knelt beside a heap of infant onesies and admitted that it wasn’t just third-trimester congestion making my eyes water. Because the baby socks, the memories of my son blowing out his diaper in this particular outfit, reminded me that yes, he was growing up, and part of that growing up had already occurred, seemingly without my notice, without my singular focus. I’d been there, of course, but I was distracted by whether or not I should eat the deli meat I was craving and was it normal to feel Braxton-Hicks this early and why was I so much more nauseous with this baby than I had been with my first?
No longer would my first son be my only focus. I wouldn’t be just his Mama anymore. And that change was breaking my heart.
Wasn’t I failing him, in some ways, when I didn’t go to him when he cried at night, sending my husband instead, because getting out of bed at 3 a.m. was just getting too hard? Hadn’t I failed him, when, desperately needing a shower to ward off my morning sickness, I plopped him in front of the Wiggles, only to have him pounding on the bathroom door halfway through washing my hair because the way that particular Wiggle sings “No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” is actually (get this) really scary? Wasn’t I going to fail him when the baby came and I wouldn’t be able to carry him or pick him up out of his crib by myself, not at least for a few weeks? When I would have to teach him, No, Mama can’t play with you right now because there is another person who needs her more, even though it isn’t fair, because you were first, I know, you were the first tiny human to make me a mother and teach me the power – the draining, thrilling, terrifying, sweeping power – of this kind of love.
No longer would my first son’s growth and change and wonderment at the world be my only focus. I would not be just his Mama anymore. And, if I was being totally honest with myself, that change was breaking my heart.
In the same breath, I felt guilty that the child I was carrying, his little brother, was not singularly a source of joy. Wasn’t it unfair that I didn’t have the same excitement to meet him as I had with my first? I didn’t doubt I would love him, but rather worried that my love for him would take something away from my first. I wondered how he would fit into our family, feared that it would be a difficult transition.
Being Needed in a New Way
Flash forward less than three months.
My first son turned two just two weeks after my second was born. Because we were still in the middle of the pandemic and sleep-deprived, we had a tiny birthday party consisting only of his grandparents, but by his level of excitement, you would have thought we’d rented out Chuckie Cheese. He greeted each grandparent with “Happy Birthday!” as they came through the door. Holding the newborn, I watched my toddler’s little lips trembling with the words to the Happy Birthday song as we sang to him and encouraged him to blow out the two tiny candles on top of his chocolate truck cake. He blew them out in one breath and proudly clapped his hands with everyone. Afterward, nursing the baby while my husband tucked the big boy in bed, I watched the video I’d taken of the moment, and found myself fighting the feeling that he was two and further than he’d ever been from the baby I’d once carried and nursed too.
I was still there for him, perhaps not as intimately as when he was an infant, but in that nodding, you’re-okay way.
But as I watched him waiting patiently for us to finish singing, I realized he was looking right at me, his big blue eyes meeting mine for confirmation, reassurance. Registering my presence, even if I wasn’t the one beside him, or holding him on my lap, or even the one lighting his candles, because the baby was asleep in the crook of my arm. And it was the sort of thing that should have been obvious but that my postpartum brain needed to see on video at least 12 times – my baby, big boy, firstborn, still needed me. And, more importantly, I was still there for him, perhaps not as dynamically or intimately as when he was an infant, but in that nodding, you’re-okay, you-got-this, I’m-still-here, letting-you-go way that I knew would continue to grow and change as he did. In that kind of love I would have had to learn even if I had never had another baby. Because to parent is to let your child go, to teach your child how to let you go in turn.
Love for Two
The transition to two children was, in fact, harder even than I’d feared. Postpartum depression and anxiety, a pandemic, infant tongue-tie, and the terrible twos all had their toll. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that sometimes – when we finally got one kid to sleep and the other one started crying that he had a bad dream – sometimes I wondered what on earth we were thinking when we thought two kids would be a good idea. Perhaps if I’d allowed myself to voice more of my fears, the transition to two children would have been a little easier. So many of my feelings were tied up in the fear of the unknown, of change. But I am learning that parenthood – marriage, life itself – is not about knowing what the future will hold but admitting that we can only take it one very small, sometimes painfully stumbling step at a time.
If I could go back to pregnant-me crying over mismatched newborn socks, I would tell her it's okay to cry. That she wasn’t a crazy, hormonal pregnant lady. Her fears and uncertainties were valid. It was hard, and it would be hard. The only thing that wasn’t valid was her fear that she was a bad mom, that she was going to harm either child in her love for the other.
I was surprised to discover that the love I felt for my second was different from the love I felt for my first.
I love my second child as fiercely as I love my first. But when he was born, I was surprised to discover that the love I felt for him was different from the love I felt for my first. He was a different person – full of his own opinions and quirks and oh-my-gosh dimples – and so my love for him was different. And, wonderfully – miraculously if you judged by all my previous fears – that love took nothing away from my first child.
Now, out of the turmoil of his first year, I can admit that having a second child was the best thing we ever did, for our family, for our son. No surprise, dressing two little boys in matching Halloween costumes and Christmas pajamas is pretty adorable. And even though he was and is exhausting, our second baby has only made our marriage stronger, has made us better parents because it helped us teach our sons patience and selflessness and how to love.
There's plenty of squabbling, plenty of “don’t stab your brother with that stick, please.” But watching your first son fall in love with his brother even though “sometimes…sometimes he takes my toys,” watching them hug for no reason in the middle of the kitchen, watching your second child acquire the word “too” at 18 months because whatever big brother is doing he wants to do it too – all of it is worth every good cry along the way.
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