Surviving the first trimester of my second pregnancy felt like a victory. Once I’d moved beyond the debilitating weeks of exhaustion and nausea, the financial panic, the learning curve of how to manage a two year old while feeling like a dishrag, I was certain the worst was over. At least until the agony of childbirth itself. The golden weeks of my second trimester assured me I was right. I felt calm and strong, and as I immersed myself in work, writing and fielding the tantrums of the terrible twos, it was often easy to forget I was even pregnant. But as my due date rapidly approaches, I’ve become painfully aware that my days as a mother of one are numbered. This time around, the new-baby excitement is delivered with a crippling dose of apprehension and tremendous sense of loss. Pregnant for the second time, I’m worried about my first child.
The anxiety surrounding the coming of a second child is generally framed in a language of abundance. There will be more chaos, more tears, more cleaning and caring to do every minute of the day, and certainly more love. But fear of being over-taxed isn’t what keeps me awake at night; it’s the panic that descends when I think about my beautiful, vibrant relationship with my first daughter being torn apart.
My desire to compensate for this impending loss is fierce. I’ve put more time into creating special memories with my first-born. I’ve allowed a bed-sharing revival. I’ve even caught myself checking to make sure she’s breathing during naps. Part of it is hormonal. In The Atlantic’s “What Happens to a Woman’s Brain When She Becomes a Mother,” Adrienne LaFrance writes about the neurological changes that occur during pregnancy. Pulling from the work of several neurologists, LaFrance confirms that “before a woman gives birth, pregnancy tinkers with the very structure of her brain … Activity increases in regions that control empathy, anxiety, and social interaction.” The changes are designed to attract us to our new babies. “Those maternal feelings of overwhelming love, fierce protectiveness, and constant worry begin with reactions in the brain,” writes LaFrance.
Katie Yodice, mother of two feisty gingers in Suffolk County, New York, remembers feeling 'terrible that Eva was losing her crown.'
Neurologists say it is “unclear” whether a mother’s brain ever reverts back to its pre-partum state. So even mothers who aren’t physically expecting a child may be prone to these bouts of what Ambika,* preparing to welcome her second child by way of adoption, calls “extreme sentimentality.”
She elaborates: “It’s similar to the hyper-awareness I felt before having my first son of it being the end of an era. I’m very conscious of the fact that this is a precious time in my family, and I’m focused on appreciating every moment, as every moment feels like it might be a ‘last’ of its kind.”
Yes, even the most mundane activities, like helping my toddler put on her socks or coercing her to brush her teeth, will never be the same again. While Ambika feels pretty confident that she’ll be the one to suffer most from this nostalgia, other moms (myself included), also feel weighed down by guilt.
Katie Yodice, mother of two feisty gingers in Suffolk County, New York, remembers feeling “terrible that Eva was losing her crown.” Despite her excitement about gifting her first daughter with a sister, she was overwhelmed with worry. “I felt terrible being tired all the time, unable to pick Eva up, having to divide my love and affection.”
I know my son will love having a sibling, but when I think about being away from him in the hospital, and the incredible hit he’ll endure upon realizing how different things are, I feel sooooo bad.
This parceling out of energy and attention begins during pregnancy, which makes it especially hard. After all, your firstborn is here, and if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that you love this child and want to give them the world. It hurts to say no because your back hurts, or you’re exhausted. Brooklyn mom Rachel Shukan, who is expecting her second child this winter, echoes this sentiment. “I feel So. Much. Guilt. I know my son will love having a sibling, but when I think about being away from him in the hospital, and the incredible hit he’ll endure upon realizing how different things are, I feel sooooo bad. Like sick to my stomach bad. He’s so little and naive and full of opinions and feelings. He doesn’t even like it when one of his friends sits in my lap ‘No! That’s MY mommy!’ So I'm just nervous and guilty and a mess.”
Me too. Even though my daughter is more excited than anyone else about her sister’s arrival, showering my stomach in kisses and bites of mac and cheese, and even though I do believe a sibling is the greatest gift I can give her, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m about to ruin her happy little world. She’s going to be gravely disappointed when I bring home a baby who can’t do anything but nurse and cry. And angry, hurt and confused. At 2 and-a-half, she’s barely able to manage complex emotions, let alone understand them.
Kate Rope, author of Strong As A Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy, and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood: The Only Guide to Taking Care of YOU! and an advisor for the Georgia chapter of Postpartum Support International, assures me that all these emotions are normal. It is going to be a difficult transition for your first child, she agrees, and quickly offers, “But having a second child is an opportunity for you both to grow emotionally.”
Of course she’s right. All children eventually learn that they are not the center of the universe, making them more flexible, resilient, and compassionate little humans. Coming to grips with this hard truth by way of acquiring a built-in best friend isn’t such a bad way to go. And I have to admit, not jumping every time my daughter whines is probably a good thing for both of us.
“The challenge,” Rope continues, “is to not tell a story about what it will be like for your first child to have a sibling.”
Projecting my own feelings and ideas onto my child is one of my guiltiest pleasures. It feels like the most natural thing in the world. But what if I entertained a wider range of possibilities? What if my daughter doesn’t think her baby sister is boring and wrinkled and strange? What if she’s excited to become more independent, and can function just fine without mommy-on-demand? What if I’m the one who’s terrified and unready?
What if I don’t love my second child as much as I love my first?
I feel terrible and inadequate even entertaining such a fear, but sometimes I’m sure I don’t have it in me: not the love, not the energy, not the selflessness. Even late in my third trimester, when I feel my baby kicking and shifting and see her little face clearly on the ultrasound screen, the idea of giving her what I’ve given my first daughter feels completely out of reach. My heart soared when Shukan confessed she felt the same. “I can’t imagine loving another baby as much as I love my son. Or being lucky enough to have a second little sparkler.”
Rather than shame me for voicing such a fear, Rope promises, “Your love will grow big enough to go all the places it needs to go.”
It is important to “acknowledge and validate” all these emotions, agrees Dr. Venus Mahmoodi of the Seleni Institute, which offers therapy and support programs for women and families struggling with reproductive and perinatal issues. “They’re very common, especially worry and guilt. And they’re telling you something,” she says, explaining that allowing yourself to question whether or not you will be a good enough mother to properly care for two children is a crucial step in figuring out how to manage these anxieties, especially once that second child does arrive.
Dr. Mahmoodi offers some very simple, very sage advice: “Be absolutely present with your first child.” Regardless of how old your first child is, they are going to need more interaction, or, as Dr. Mahmoodi so eloquently put it, “more of you.”
And the truth is that you will have less time to spend with them. So when you are together, be fully engaged. Even if it’s only 10 minutes of time, make sure those 10 minutes are free of distraction. Have someone else tend to the needs of your newborn, and resist glancing at your phone.
This really got to the root of my fear. Compared to the complex demands of my toddler, my newborn’s needs will be fairly simple. They’re also familiar territory. I can anticipate the breastfeeding struggles and sleep regressions, but not what my older daughter will need to make a healthy adjustment. She will forever be leading me into the unknown, strange new worlds where I’m bound to make strange new mistakes. And this two-child family is the most daunting journey yet.
Saying 'My hands are busy' instead of 'I’m busy' can make all the difference to your big little one.
Rope has some brilliant and practical ways to make the ride a little less bumpy. The first gem of wisdom comes from her doula: after you give birth, make the space to have a reunion with your older child, without the baby in the room. If possible, let them accompany an adult and “bring” the baby to you, giving them their first taste of big sibling responsibility.
I’ve never spent a night away from my toddler, and even though it’s inevitable and probably healthy for me to grow her tolerance for time apart at this point, it makes me cringe to think of her waking up and wondering why I’m not there. Planning to set aside even a handful of minutes to reconnect is a soothing reminder that change doesn’t necessarily equal loss.
And be aware of your language, Rope advises. Saying “My hands are busy” instead of “I’m busy” can make all the difference to your big little one. And to you.
One of the most exciting aspects of my baby becoming a child has been her growing ability to have conversations. While it’s still a rather rudimentary meeting of the minds, beginning to understand how my older child thinks and feels is fascinating, and an element of our relationship that will flourish even when I have a baby in my arms.
Another of Rope’s tricks is having a “Big Sibling Guest Book” for your older child to manage during new baby visits. Guests can write a message (or stick a sticker) exclusively for the older sibling, reminding them that they’re still important.
Something I’m particularly worried about is how my toddler is going to react to the demands of newborn feeding. Whether you’re breastfeeding or bottle feeding, you’re sitting in a chair for hours every day with another child in your arms. I can already see the fiery rage lighting up my daughter’s eyes, and it scares me. Rope suggests having a special bag of quiet time activities for your older child that is opened only during feeding time. They should be activities they can do sitting beside you, allowing them to feel like part of a circle. You can also allow your older child to request their own “baby time” whenever they want, she offers. If immediate cuddling isn’t possible, you can set aside time for them to cash in on it later.
There will still be snags.
“Life won’t look or feel exactly as you want it to,” Dr. Mahmoodi says, and reminds me how important flexibility is. Rather than striving for the ideal, she advises, strive for the “tolerable.” Learn to let certain things go. The world won’t end if you don’t do the dishes, or leave the bed unmade. But it might feel like it’s about to implode if you don’t take a much-needed nap with your newborn.
It is crucial for all moms, whether they have one or two or 20 children, to prioritize self-care. I know this. Most women will probably nod in agreement. Yes, we all know. The problem is actually doing it.
Self-care will become increasingly important and feel increasingly impossible with the birth of a second child. But no mother can give endlessly without taking the time to recharge. So rally support, take breaks from your children. Eat. Sleep. Take a walk. Soak your feet. And, as Kate Rope reminds me, remember that you don’t have to be everything for your children.
They only need one you.
*First-name used to protect her identity through adoption proceedings.
After a very frustrating first birth experience, this Deaf mother wanted a change. Will the help of two Deaf doulas give the quality communication and birth experience this mom wants and deserves? Watch Episode Four of Romper's Doula Diaries, Season Two, below, and visit Bustle Digital Group's YouTube page for more episodes.