When I first thought about having a second child, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to love a new baby as much as my first one. One of my friends reassured me (if that’s the right word) by saying, “You won’t have any trouble at all loving the new baby. What will be hard is not killing the older kid for being in your face all the time.” Wiser words were never spoken.
When my second daughter was born shortly before my first daughter, Emma, turned three, I thought I was well prepared for the adjustment. After all, we had done all the “right” things—sibling preparation classes, countless readings of A Baby Sister for Frances, trading in the crib for a “big girl” bed months before, and so on. Besides, as a psychotherapist well-versed in child development, I prided myself on my ability to understand and tolerate what my older child would be going through. However, I neglected to anticipate what I would be experiencing. So it came as a complete surprise when all my preparations, training, good sense, and warm heart barely mattered when the new baby arrived.
Somehow, Emma failed to appreciate our thoughtfulness. A journal entry sums up what life was like then: “It’s a shock to suddenly find myself dreading being around my formerly cherished daughter. She feels abandoned and demonstrates her despair quite unpleasantly, which of course makes me want to stay away from her more, which increases her despair. It feels awful to have tried so hard to make things nice for her, and to be so utterly unappreciated. I know it is not her job to appreciate this, but it still bothers me, and bothers me further that I want it so much from her.”
Gradually I came to realize that in part, all the preparation reflected my wish to banish any negative feelings any of us might have about the new arrival. I had so fervently wished to make everything all right for Emma and our relationship that I denied the major disruption involved in changing from a family of three to a family of four. “If only I am infinitely patient, calm, understanding, and giving (on three hours of sleep a night!),” I unconsciously hoped, “I can make it seem like nothing has changed. I can manage away Emma’s feelings.”
Well, clever girl that she is, Emma wasn’t buying. Of course her life had changed—all of ours had. The hardest change for me was my relationship with her. Emma, who had been the easiest of babies and toddlers, was now enraged, jealous, and depressed. She even had the audacity to act like a two-year-old! At times, so did I. There were days Emma and I matched each other, tantrum for tantrum. I couldn’t believe the hateful feelings I harbored toward this child who had so recently been the apple of my eye. It was the worst failed love affair of my life.
Adding to the heartbreak were other new second-time parents who bragged about how much their first-born loved the new baby. I took small, spiteful comfort in seeing the hidden aggression in others’ stories of too-tight hugs and smothering kisses, yet secretly wondered where I had gone wrong.
But the most difficult thing to bear was that empathy-building exercise all second-time mothers are subjected to. You know, the one that starts out, “Imagine how you would feel if your husband one day announced that he was so pleased with you that he had decided to bring in another wife who would wear all your old clothes, take over your bed, and demand all his attention.” I heard this from so many well-meaning friends that I wanted to scream, “I don’t care how it’s affecting her, how about how it’s affecting me? Imagine how you’d feel if aliens came in the night and snatched your lovely and reverent child from you, leaving a sulky look-alike in her place!”
At times like these, forget about the sibling preparation classes. What we really need are mother preparation classes to steel ourselves for the internal turmoil such a transition precipitates. Sure, it’s tough to take on more than double the workload on less than half the sleep and energy. But those logistical challenges pale next to the eruption in the emotional life between a mother and her first-born child when their mutual adulation society is shattered by baby number two.
I do not mean to suggest that all mothers will experience this change in exactly the same way. Much depends on the temperamental fit with the first-born, the age of the older child when a new baby arrives, and other environmental and personality factors. For many parents, the transition from being a couple to having a first baby is more difficult than the transition from one child to two. And if a first baby has been particularly draining, mothers will probably have experienced ambivalent, negative feelings long before a second child is even on the horizon. Besides, parents of only children also undergo a change in the initial love affair even without an interloper. However, the arrival of a second child almost universally affects the unique emotional bond between mother and first-born. The effect can be subtle or dramatic, but there is no denying its existence when a love affair between two people changes to incorporate a third (remember what it was like with your partner when your first child was born).
As I battled with myself and with Emma after her sister was born, I had plenty of opportunity to ponder the rupture in our relationship. More and more I came to view it as inevitable, for at its heart lay what every mother and child experiences: the loss of the idealized relationship. For some, this puncturing of the fantasy occurs at birth or even before; for others, it arrives with toddlerhood, a time famous for its lurches toward autonomy via negativity. The psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler articulated the theory of child development known as separation-individuation, a process by which the child develops a healthy sense of self and others through gradually separating psychologically from the mother. This is achieved through bursts of independence followed by clinging behavior, and as any parent of a “terrible two” can attest, it is quite a trying period. The most intense phase of the separation-individuation process roughly spans the ages 18 to 36 months—a common time for the birth of a sibling. Adding a second child into the equation is like striking a match to the developmental tinderbox that already exists.
A friend of mine tells her friends who are undecided about having children, “How can you not want kids? They think you’re God.” This becomes less and less true over time. A child who may be having doubts about your perfection anyway will surely decide that you are undeserving of further worship once you introduce a rival. This formerly faithful devotee may lack the vocabulary to declare “God is dead,” but certainly can manage “I hate you, Mommy,” which pretty much amounts to the same thing. It is not easy to endure such a fall from grace. Who wouldn’t find solace in a cute newborn, devoid of attitude, for whom you truly are godlike? That once-unbelievable prediction now makes perfect sense: it really is no trouble loving the new baby, but very hard tolerating the first.
Inevitable and difficult as this rupture may be, it is also a blessing. Weathering the transition provides both mother and child a richer emotional vocabulary and an enhanced capacity to engage in genuine—that is, not idealized—relationships. Out of the maelstrom of Emma’s and my disillusioned love came the treasure of knowing that we would love each other even at our worst. The tumultuous times that we both survived taught me the simplicity and satisfaction of what it means to relate in a wholly authentic way, experiencing and expressing emotions rather than managing them away. Emma and I are no longer in the flush of first love, that delirious time when you cannot tell where one person ends and the other begins. But, as with healthy adult love, the heart does not really break when tested by conflict. True love expands to respect the differences between people and, yes, to let in new love as well.