Thing 1 & Thing 2

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Preparing for life with 2+ kids obviously involves more than, say, the practicalities of unearthing your layette and transitioning your toddler to a big bed to free up the crib. A cognitive shift in perspective helped clinical psychologist Tracy relieve herself of the guilt stemming from not doing exactly for her second as she did for her first:

“For parents of two or more children, life can sometimes feel like an episode from The Cat in the Hat. Life does eventually settle down after “Thing 2” comes along, but those early days of adjustment can make you feel like the fish, balancing atop a precarious pile of obligations, chores, and well, your children.
A dad friend recently emailed asking for advice on how to manage the adjustment to two children. He wondered how parents are to provide care to the younger (months old) child, while “chasing after” the older (years old) child. A true dilemma, indeed.

My response first focused on the practicalities. He is transitioning to stay-at-home parenting, as his partner’s career takes off. When there is only one of you, there are really few options. Advice abounds on involving your older child in the care of the baby, the importance of routine, etc. And, I tried my best to offer my take on the practicalities.

But, it struck me that what parents might struggle with in the first year of their second child’s life is something other than the practicalities. Thinking back on how we adjusted, I realized that I had a gigantic epiphany somewhere in my Thing 2’s second year. A cognitive shift occurred, and the result was that I realized that Thing 2 was born into an entirely different family, just by virtue of the fact that he was second-born.

Here’s how my shift went (I found a disheartening dearth of information on this topic online): I distinctly recall my imaginings of interacting with my second baby before he was born. Shockingly, as I look back now, I essentially imagined having a first baby all over again. It wasn’t that I wasn’t aware that I already had a child. In fact, we did a lot to prepare Thing 1 for the baby’s arrival. But, I still imagined being able to do all of the things for my second child that I had done for my first. My older son was never in these mind pictures. The reality was, of course, that he was in the picture, and that I couldn’t do all of the same things over again. I spent much of my time driving myself crazy with guilt that I wasn’t sitting with Thing 2 on my lap, gazing into his chubby face. That I wasn’t ensuring he had enough stimulation, that I wasn’t giving him enough “tummy time,” and instead had him up on the kitchen table strapped into his car seat while I did dishes, or that I put him in the swing…again.

This epiphany came a little late for dealing with the baby daze of his first year. But, I truly believe it would have saved my poor mother’s heart full of sopping, pulsing guilt had it come earlier. Really, as Thing 2 grew into his own little person, I started noticing how different he was from his brother. Today, as a preschooler he is more independent in his play, more imaginative, and “needs” me less in times of busyness than his older brother.

Much of this, I know, is his personality. But, I do think that some of this is because he did not have the experience of having our undivided attention very much, if at all. I could twist myself into a big guilt pretzel over it, but since The Epiphany, I tend to do that a lot less. I realized that he was, in fact, a happy baby, a happy toddler, and will, in all likelihood, grow up to be a happy person.

There’s a whole area of psychology that follows a theory which basically states that birth order will determine much of how one experiences the world, right down to some “tell-tale” personality traits. I’m not much of a subscriber to this theory, although it has some merit. What I hope is coming across here is that if you can’t meet every single cry, coo, or amazing baby feat because you’re busy chasing Thing 1, don’t worry. You don’t need to replicate the same parenting for your second or subsequent children; in fact, it’s likely near impossible. Letting go of thinking you should be doing things the exact same way is freeing, and ultimately I think, a huge part of “adjusting to two.”