Today’s post is from James, a father of three-almost-four who writes (wonderfully) at Things My Children Said. Go and read it! But read this first, because it’s brilliant.
We’re Going To Need A Bigger Boat…
A couple of years back, I started a parenting blog. If I’m being honest, it was established purely as a vanity press, a way of grouping together all the little conversations and observations and snippets I’d compiled over the years. If I’ve made the odd connection (and some good friends) along the way that’s great, but – with occasional exceptions – that’s not why I do it. Purposely writing for an audience is always risky when you’re talking about family, because on some levels it’s just about the most personal, private thing you’ll ever do, and unless you happen to be an expert who’s seen thousands of children and who knows when to be vague and when to be specific, you’re going to run into hot water. This water is usually flavoured with comments that read ‘Who does she think she is, she doesn’t even have children!’ (I’m looking at you, Gina Ford), or ‘Not every parent can breastfeed, you know’, or ‘My mother ate this / drank that / did this and it did me no harm’ (followed by obligatory joke about space bats).
But you know what? There are patterns. Things crop up. There are oddities you notice that seem to tally with what you hear from other parents. And this applies particularly when you make the leap from one child to two (or two to three, or three to four) precisely because your second / third / fourth child is different to the last one. In other words, it’s the differences – however they manifest – that bind us.
So here’s a little something on how it’s going to be different this time around. In honour of my current favourite TV show, I have given them all Big Bang Theory style names.
The Goose Anomaly
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, but you only have one goose amongst your offspring. Your second is a duck. Or a chicken. Or, in some cases, a red squirrel. The point is that it doesn’t matter how you raise them, this child is going to want different things and like different things. This needn’t be a problem as long as you remember to rewrite the rule book. That favourite story that always used to have your little one in hysterics, before he snuggled peacefully in your arms for a thirteen-hour kip? Your second child will throw the book across the other side of the bedroom and stick their fingers up your nose. That special rocking technique the midwife taught you in hospital? Your second child will wriggle and squirm and refuse to play ball. Conversely, when it comes to actually playing ball, they’ll enjoy it far more than your eldest. Yin and yang.
Joshua, for example, was a brilliant traveller. We’d stick him in his car seat and he’d be asleep before the Subaru had left the village. It got to the point where difficulties at nap time could be resolved by strapping him in, backing three feet out of the drive and then pulling forward again, relishing in the blissful silence that followed half an hour of protracted wailing. Daniel, on the other hand, was diabolical. Generally the faster we travelled the more likely he’d be to eventually drop off (we learned, accordingly, to avoid rush hour) but even this was no guarantee, and he’d generally wake again the moment the vehicle came to a stop. We tried everything, but no matter how comfortable we made him every long journey was the same: he would scream and scream and scream until he exhausted himself into unconsciousness, at which point we’d turn the radio back down and pray we didn’t hit a red light.
Unless you’re particularly unlucky (and wind up giving birth to, I don’t know, Benjamin Button) you will get – by and large – a child who finds certain things much easier and other things much harder, and who responds in completely different ways. It’s partly nurture, because you’ll do things differently this time around, anxious as you will be to not repeat the mistakes you made with your eldest, but much of it is nothing more than genetic makeup – it’s simply who they are. And that’s marvellous, really, when you think about it, because it stops us being lazy. That’s the great thing about parenting. We’re always having to adapt.
Do say: “Fine. We’ll find another story. What the heck, there are another three hundred on the shelf, it’s not like I had anything better to do tonight.”
Don’t say: “Listen. Your brother loved this one when he was your age, and SO. WILL. YOU.”
The Anticipation Exposition
This is one specifically for the men.
At a given point, it may be put to you that you are less interested this time around. You’re less engaged with your partner’s second pregnancy than you were with the first. You don’t talk about what sort of father you’re going to make, you’re less inclined to be sympathetic about the fact that none of her clothes fit, and you don’t seem as anxious to get things ready. Even the scans appear to have lost their novelty value, and when was the last time you looked through that list of prospective baby names? Your response, of course, is to say that no, dear, of course you’re interested, but you know what you’re doing now. You’ve been there and done that, and you see no reason to talk about stuff when it’ll by and large be a similar experience.
All of the above may be true. But you know what? You’re going to have to drum up some enthusiasm, and sharpish. Because I know you’ve been here before, but your other half has not. Every pregnancy is different, and while this may not be apparent to you, it sure as hell is to her. Things are going to be different for all of you, and if you don’t process this now – and help her process things herself – you’re going to pay the price later. Chances are she wants to share with you, and if you’ve been quiet about the whole thing, she’ll feel she has to reciprocate, and it will drive a wedge between you. So talk about it. We men get enough (largely deserved) flak for being silent and withdrawn as it is. Don’t allow yourself to become another statistic.
Do say: “Can I get you anything? Cushions? Chocolate? Something to drink? Would you like to talk about your feelings, or did you just want a back rub?”
Don’t say: “Terracotta?“
The Sibling Incursion
Let me tell you in advance: this is a lost cause.
Why? Because however much you justify your decision to have another child – you didn’t want your eldest to be lonely, the financial cost is easier to bear, and what the heck, those baby clothes would only have wound up in a charity shop anyway, the fact remains that – in your eldest son’s / daughter’s eyes – you have consciously made a life decision that will impact on your ability to spend time with them. Things are never going to be the same again. Oh, for sure they’ll have another little playmate to beat to a bloody pulp share their toys with in years to come. You’ve assured them that you’ll love them just as much as the new baby. And yes, they’re going to be the big brother or sister, and that’ll make them feel all grown-up and responsible, right?
Bollocks will it. As far as your child is concerned, they’re now pushed into the role of Older And Sensible One. This means they get the blame for everything, despite your promises to yourself that you’ll try and be fair. It’ll be played out in scenarios involving broken eggs and crayoned walls and the stern admonishments that will always, always, always run along the lines of “You’re the eldest! You should know better! Your sister is only little! WHY DID YOU TELL HER TO DRINK THE BLEACH?!?”. You will be unable to help yourself in these conversations and they will be par for the course. Accept that, like I do.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how much quality time you pencil in to do Something Nice with your oldest child while the baby is napping. That special present ‘from Simon to his big brother’ that you brought along to the hospital for that first visit? Won’t make a blind bit of difference, at least in the short term. Neither will any emotional redress – or if it does, it’ll take years before you see the results. All those comments about how special you both are and how ‘Mummy and Daddy love you both the same’ will ultimately pay in dividends, as will the explicit / borderline-pornographic children’s books about baby-making that you stockpiled throughout that second pregnancy. Do all this. Please do, because in years to come your children will have a decent measure of self-esteem and a healthy, responsible attitude towards sex and relationships. But in the meantime there will still be fighting and jealousy and noses pushed out of joint. Children are as change averse as the adults upon which they model themselves, and if you really think that sort of behaviour is restricted to the kids, just remember what happened in your office the last time they introduced a new seating plan.
But let’s not get off-topic. In a house with a newborn child, we may effectively summarise all this as follows:
“Ooh. Baby Thomas.”
“It is Baby Thomas. He’s just waking up.”
“He is. Isn’t he lovely? Just like you were. And you’re still lovely. You’re a lovely big brother, aren’t you? And we all love Baby Thomas.”
“Ooh. Baby Thomas crying.”
“Well, he BLOODY IS NOW!”
Trust me, things will calm down. Everyone will get used to each other – your cat did, didn’t she? And you’ll have two / three / four adorable children who play nicely together. Just don’t let them near the bleach.
Do say: “Please don’t use your brother as a skateboard. He doesn’t like it.”
Don’t say: “Darling, it’s film night. I’ve shortlisted The Godfather II, The Royal Tennenbaums, and Raging Bull. What do you want to watch?”
The Completion Problem
Oh, that first child was going to be such an adventure. You had such grand plans for a world filled with poster paints and lively Saturday morning adventures. You were going to introduce them to museums and fine art and classic cinema. Yours would be a house of gourmet organic food, lovingly prepared, and children who had constructive, fun-filled routines.
And perhaps you’ve managed that. But it’s more likely that in a couple of years you’ll be waving that first child off, singing ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ –
“What happened to the wonderful adventures
The places I had planned for us to go?
Well, some of that we did, but most we didn’t
And why, I just don’t know.”
I could tell you, Agnetha – it’s because that second child wiped you out. The lifestyle of a millionaire pop star in one of the world’s most successful bands couldn’t have helped, but it’s hard to muster up enough energy to build a cardboard spaceship out of the Amazon boxes that held your family’s Christmas presents when you’ve been up until three a.m. feeding the baby. There is a bell curve somewhere that plots “number of children’ against ‘likelihood of saying sod it and just turning on the TV’, and I don’t think I need to tell you how it projects. (It’s ironic, because more often than not TV isn’t the answer – all you have is three or four children who all want to watch different things.)
Part of it is establishment of a routine. As you claw your way back to what you might consider normality after those first confusing weeks of second-time parenthood it’s very easy to think that this is going to be your life from now on, and that you’ll be forever reduced to a world where the house is perennially messy and you are still in your pyjamas at three in the afternoon (but for some people that’s how it is with one child, so meh). Where oven-ready fish fingers and frozen chips are a quick and easy substitute for homemade goulash with freshly-baked crusty bread on the side. You need to trust me when I reassure you that things will one day be fine once more, and that the recipe books will be back on the kitchen reading stand.
But you might be in a position where you have to settle for less. Where you accept that the lounge will no longer be tidied as regularly as it once was. Where wall scribbling becomes something you have to deal with a little more frequently. Where you might have to slacken off a bit on the cooking, simply because you no longer have the time. Where paintwork gets ruined, crockery gets broken and furniture gets damaged. And where you feel guilty about taking a little time out by sticking the children in front of CBeebies while you have that second cup of coffee. But that’s OK. That’s a natural reaction to parenting. Above all, save something for yourself.
Do say: “Fine, you can have chips.”
Don’t say: “This is a four thousand dollar sofa, upholstered in Italian silk. THIS IS NOT JUST A COUCH!”
The Affection Quantification
I’ve just looked back at what I’ve written, and while I did try and be at least a little tongue-in-cheek, it strikes me that it might come across as rather negative. I fear that at this point you may be panicking, or wondering if I’m exaggerating. And I probably am, to be honest, but let it be known that making the transition from one to more-than-one is complicated on any number of levels. It may not necessarily be difficult, but it will be complicated, and that can throw people. So be on your guard for this extra wrinkle in the bed sheet of your life – the wrinkle that is a single pair of arms when you need at least three to carry two whining children round the shopping centre while handling the bags, or the fight you have to break up while the pasta is in danger of boiling dry on the stove, or the fact that they both want you to do different things with them at precisely the same time in two different rooms – those times you wish that cloning hadn’t stopped with Dolly the Sheep.
The question you will find yourself asking over and over is “Do I have the time for both / all three / all four?” And I am here to tell you that the answer is categorically and unambiguously yes. Because, you see, there are certain practicalities that get solved when your child count goes up. That morning you slept in until after eight and awoke in a panic, fearful that your children had been abducted or worse? That happened because they’d both woken up early and then sat playing together – calmly and peacefully – for an hour and a half. That cup of coffee you’re able to have on a park bench with your smiling partner? That’s because your son and daughter are off playing together on the climbing frame, desperate to outdo each other in contests of daring. Occasionally the friendly rivalry will descend into arguing and hair-pulling and you’re going to have to put down the Thermos and go and break it up. But aren’t bathtimes so much more fun now that there’s more than one of them splashing about, soaking the bathroom carpet and peeing up the wall? Yes, it’s extra work, but don’t you enjoy it more now that you have a larger audience for your singing and jungle animal impressions? Honestly?
I remember two things. The first was a morning three years back when I was rushing around the kitchen trying to sort out breakfast for three boys, all of whom were being loud and silly: Joshua and Thomas on either side, and Daniel in his usual spot, perched at the end. Thomas and Daniel were sharing the conspiratorial grins they sometimes have, and then Josh was joining in and they were all laughing at each other. And in the midst of this I had a sudden flash forward to the same scene, twenty years later, perhaps around a different table in a different house, but the three of them laughing and joking with each other, about totally different things, while their parents mill around making coffee. And it was a wonderful, resonant image, one that has stayed with me ever since, and one that I still go back to when times are difficult.
The second thing was a conversation I had with Emily on a star-crusted evening back in February, driving home from Bristol, the boys asleep in the back of the car. We were talking about the prospect of having a fourth child.
“The funny thing is this,” I said. “Family love isn’t a reservoir that you drain. It replicates. When you’re adding to the pile, you find there’s more love. I used to worry that three would be too many and there wouldn’t be enough of me to go round. But that’s not actually what’s happened. I just keep finding love to spare. So I’m not worried about having to find any more.”
I squeezed her hand. “I say – ” I finished, wanting to give her the reassurance she craved, “– I say we keep trying.”
You know what? I think you’re going to be OK. In fact, I think you’re going to be just fine. We were.