I keep thinking about how different my experience with this new baby is from the experience I had going from one to two children born 19 months apart.
It was ten years ago but I still remember the pretty blonde mom in our birthing class’s educational video holding her plump baby on her lap with a toddler playing nearby and confessing quietly, “I thought I wouldn’t have enough love for my second child…” Then the mom smiles and kisses her baby, while her toddler wobbles over to give them both a hug, and says, “But as soon as he was born I realized I did!”
Every parenting book reiterates this idea. If you’re pregnant with your second or third child, it’s normal to worry that you won’t have enough love to go around. But don’t worry, the experts all say, you’ll have plenty of love for everyone.
In my case, the experts were wrong.
I never questioned whether I would love our second born as much as our first. A planned pregnancy (we were so delighted with one, why not have another?!), my husband and I knew the day and the time the baby was conceived. As I’ve written about before, we looked forward to the baby’s arrival with the hubris of new parents who have an easy baby and give themselves credit for doing a good job. The blonde mom’s words in the video seemed unfathomable. I loved both my husband and my daughter so keenly that I knew I would have plenty more love for the littlest addition to our family.
The baby, a girl like her older sister, came out with a scrunched up face, a shock of black hair, and a ferocious wail. She was born at home with my husband, midwives, best friend, and her older sister all watching. A few moments after she was born, my toddler, my girl, the child I’d bonded with and nursed for the last year and a half, reached for me from my best friend’s arm, jealous as she saw me cuddle the baby.
I actually tried to hand my husband the squalling newborn—still attached to me by the umbilical cord and not-yet-delivered placenta—so I could comfort her. As the midwives yelled at me to keep holding the baby, I lost all my confidence in my ability to mother two children and love them both. I felt at that moment that the only child I could ever really love was my firstborn.
With such an inauspicious beginning, things got worse. Although Athena gained two pounds in the first seven days (the midwives, astounded, said that only happens with homebirths, and only very rarely), she clamped onto my nipples so tightly that nursing hurt. Instead of the requisite two weeks of sleepiness, Athena seemed to cry all the time. I didn’t know what was wrong. As she grew the only thing that seemed to help her fussing (other than painful nursing) was being carried outside. We lived in Massachusetts, it was March and viciously cold. Hesperus had been a baby who was easy to pacify but I barely knew how to soothe Athena.
One particularly bad night Athena started crying and I couldn’t find the switch on the nightlight, which was attached to a power strip under the bed. In a pique of frustration, I started banging on the wood floor, shouting, “Damn it! Damn it!” Athena cried louder. The noise finally roused my husband, who can sleep through a hurricane.
“You’re scaring the baby,” he said quietly, his voice full of accusation. I cried harder as Athena latched on and quieted down. I knew he was right.
There was nothing wrong with Athena except that she did not like being a baby and she was vocal in her discontent. But there was something wrong with me. The day before I went into labor I was fired from my job by a petty boss who was angry that I took maternity leave. Since the house we lived in was provided by my work and I was the sole breadwinner, all of a sudden our family was facing both a total loss of income and homelessness. My anxiety about the future and our financial state made it that much harder for me to bond with an already high-needs baby. Plus I had spent the last 19 months enjoying Hesperus, sharing experiences, and marveling at her as she grew from a placid baby into a walking, talking, whining (and difficult) toddler, and it was only natural—despite what the books say and the shame of admitting it—that I would have loved my firstborn more.
Athena, who is 8 years old now, has since grown into such a sensitive child that she rescues water logged worms, cries when she sees someone in pain, and intuits if her sister or brother has had a bad day, coming to sit quietly beside them or bringing them a special blanket, pillow, and glass of water.
If anything, I took better care of Athena and was more attentive to her, because I found her so hard to love at first. My shame and embarrassment about our difficult beginning is something I usually keep to myself.
“Tell me about what I was like as a baby,” Athena commands as she soaps herself in the bathtub. Her gray eyes are twinkling with good humor. “I was a little cry-y, right Mommy?!” I tell her how she bawled when she came into the world and fussed and cried for many months afterwards. She throws back her wet head and laughs.
You won’t see a pretty blond mom admit to it in a video but ten years of parenting three–and now four–children has taught me that even though we do our best to care for and protect and nurture our children, there will be times when we don’t love them at all.