What one-kid-only parents miss by not having a second.
Even before my son, Emile, was born, I started having a recurring nightmare in which I suddenly realize that I’ve forgotten I have a pet. I open a door to a room in my childhood home, a room that I somehow never noticed before, only to find my pet has starved to death. And it’s my fault. This disturbingly appropriate anxiety dream shouldn’t have been that surprising, though, as nothing gives a person anxiety quite like their first child.
The second one, I imagine, must be a comparable breeze. But I’ll only ever be able to imagine, as three years into parenthood my wife and I remain a staunchly proud only-child family. But this decision means we’ll miss out on the opportunity to be not-freaked-out parents to a baby.
Toddlers are generally less scary because they can actually tell you what they want, or need—not to mention that after the first year or so, you get a pretty good handle on how to parent as a verb rather than a noun.
But from the moment you bring your first (or only) baby home from the hospital, you are pretty much terrified. You have no idea what you’re doing and no amount of research can prepare you for the magnitude of trying to keep this life you’ve created alive.
Giraffes can walk within an hour of being born, but human babies don’t even get neck muscles for three months—and it’s quite a while after that before most can roll over, much less crawl or take a step. This extreme dependence is intensely nerve-wracking the first time around, because you just don’t have any idea how much or how little every decision you make matters. Whereas, for a sequel, you know what to expect, what not to worry about, and you can make educated decisions based on what did or didn’t work on the first kid.
Our new-parent paranoia spiked before Emile made it out of the womb. My wife Carrie went way past her due date, getting induced and then enduring hours of painful, go-nowhere labour with an ineffective epidural before a new doctor finally came on shift the next morning and called for a C-section. Then Emile was born not breathing, albeit briefly. They weren’t discharged from Mount Sinai for five days, and I barely left the maternity ward.
Amidst this, the nurses pressured us hard to give E formula even though we’d decided to breastfeed exclusively. If we’d not been so freaked by the entire experience, or knew more about babies and lactation, we would have been strong enough to tell them to back off. Instead we did what we were told and then felt terrible about it. Neither would’ve happened on a second child.
Once we got E home, he cried. A lot. But most babies cry a lot. You can try probiotics to aid with digestion, which may or may not work. Regardless, their crying is not your fault. We didn’t understand that, so we blamed ourselves, assuming we were doing something wrong. But nope: it’s just babies.
I’d also be way less stressed about the lack of newborn neck muscles. As it was, I was very nervous holding our little bobblehead for those first three months. Be careful, of course, but new babies are tougher than new parents realize, and I missed moments because I was so scared.
As the weeks went on, we worried about every little thing—like whether or not to use a soother, and if it made us parental failures. After way too much deliberation, we did use one, which calmed E a lot during those brutal early months. But we also made an in-hindsight perfect decision to ditch it, cold-turkey, at seven months. In fact, we did it at the same time we sleep-trained him, so he barely noticed. So if you and your kid could both use some comfort, go ahead and ignore the Internet moms claiming you’re evil (not just for soothers but for pretty much everything else, too). But also maybe try and get rid of it before they’re old enough to ask you not to.
What new parents don’t realize is that almost everything you’re going insane about doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme. Kids are amazingly resilient, and as long as you’re a loving, well-meaning, and present parent, you don’t need to beat yourself up about everything. If your kid gets a ray of sun on them, they won’t catch fire like a vampire. If you put them in a playpen for a short stint, they won’t become a career criminal. If you teach them how to go to sleep via a Ferber-type method, they won’t become sociopaths. You honestly don’t need to check if they’re breathing every hour, and should probably hire a babysitter and get the hell out of the house without them more.
The bar-none best parenting advice I ever read was from a pediatrician who said that almost all new-parent worries are micro but that kids are macro. So whatever helps keeps you sane in that first year is what you should do. The parenting experience is epic, and there’s nothing you can do to make it less so—but epic doesn’t have to equal a pressure cooker.
Preverbal babies are basically empaths, so keeping calm will keep your baby calm, too. This is an environment second children and repeat parents get to enjoy, but first-run ones deserve a chance to chill out, too.
Oh, and if you still need reassurance that you are, in fact, a capable parent, just watch a few episodes of Teen Mom for comparison.