Having a baby for the first time is a lot like boot camp: no sleep, physical extremes, and someone yelling at you regularly. Somehow, though, it feels worth it. So much so that many people decide to have another child. What no one tells you, though, is that the only thing harder than having a first baby is having a second.
It’s easy to feel overconfident going into baby #2. You might think, “But I know what I’m doing this time,” and in many ways, you do. You’re not learning how to change a diaper or soothe a baby to sleep for the first time. However, the balancing act of parenting two children comes with a steep learning curve–one that blindsides many couples and takes a significant toll on their relationship.
I’m speaking from experience. By the time we got pregnant a second time, my husband and I had hit an easy stride in terms of parenting one child. But all of that went out the window when our second arrived.
While it was a given that the baby would wake up in the middle of the night, when our oldest did too, we both ended up sleep-deprived. In those first weeks, neither of us felt confident taking care of both kids solo, so no one ever got a break to recharge. There were more messes, more laundry, and less time to take care of it all. I remember thinking, “What did we just do? Is this our life forever now?”
Fortunately, there’s hope. There are things you can do before your second baby arrives to help ease the transition, as well as actions you can take after the fact to help keep your relationship running smoothly.
Understand what you’re getting into
Elly Taylor, a relationship counselor and the author of Becoming Us, The Couple’s Guide to Parenthood, recommended seeking a realistic preview from friends, family members, or co-workers who have gone before you. “Ask them what their life is really like,” encouraged Taylor. “This can deepen these relationships, and it’s the perfect time to have stronger, wider relationships that can become new avenues of support.” She also pointed out that unrealistic expectations can cause couples to focus on their partner as the problem.
This rings true for me. While I had multiple friends with two children, I never bothered to ask them how they navigated the transition from one to two or what was different about their lives now. The result was that my husband and I spent those first few months after our youngest was born with whiplash from the sheer amount of change we were experiencing.
Taylor also recommended reducing other stresses as much as possible. “So many couples upsize,” she said, “thinking this is ‘preparing’, but upsizing just adds financial stress when couples need it the least.” She recommended simplifying instead. “Babies are tiny. Couples can always upsize later when they really need it.”
As someone who bought a house the week we found out we were pregnant, this struck a chord. There’s nesting, and then there’s renovating a bathroom four weeks before your baby is due. I don’t recommend the latter.
After the baby is born, there are also things you can do to stay connected with your partner instead of drifting apart. Taylor pointed out that when one person stays at home to look after the baby and the other works, their lives can become very different. When this happens, couples can get into competition with each other about who is most stressed, doing more work, or needs more of a break. This can be the beginning of growing apart.
When one person stays at home to look after the baby and the other works, their lives can become very different…couples can get into competition with each other about who is most stressed, doing more work, or needs more of a break.
“Staying connected in simple ways throughout the day (sending a text, asking how the other person is doing, hugging a little longer) is both easiest and best,” said Taylor. “Date nights are too hard.”
My idea of a great Friday night is being in my pajamas by 8 p.m. and asleep by 9 p.m., so I was heartened to hear this advice. And, ultimately, it was small gestures that got my husband and me back on track: a brief cuddle on the couch, 10 minutes of non-kid-related conversation before bed, and telling each other, “You’re doing a great job.”
This means both help with the day-to-day childrearing and domestic responsibilities and also help for your relationship. If you find you and your partner are going around in circles, a therapist or relationship counselor can help. “In most cases,” Taylor said, “couples find it’s not something wrong with either of them but the rut they’ve fallen into in how they relate to each other that’s keeping them both frustrated and stuck. Even just a couple of sessions can help couples avoid common pitfalls.”
As with learning how to do just about anything–driving a car or playing an instrument–figuring out how to parent two children takes practice. This may not be comforting to hear if you’re in the throes of the transition from one to two, but it will get better. You’ll find your way, and then you’ll be the one with all the advice on how to do it.