I’m not sure how many teeth my youngest daughter has. Is it eight or ten? I mean, it’s the type of thing that, with my firstborn, I would’ve paid attention to. I would’ve written it down in her baby book, I would’ve sent a million pictures of each shiny white chiclet to her grandmas as they broke through her tender gums. But, this time around, I’m just not keeping track. Obviously, I could count them, but when it comes down to it, I don’t care.
You don’t care? Yep, that’s right. I love that little girl like nobody’s business, but I couldn’t care less how many teeth or how much hair or exactly how many words she has. I actually couldn’t care less about a lot of the small details.
Now, before you write me a strongly-worded email about not playing favorites with my kids or loving one of them less, the memories I’ve overlooked aren’t big things; they’re just tiny little details that don’t seem to matter as much this time around. I care that she is safe and happy and thriving (plus she does have a relatively skimpy baby book that I plan on filling out sometime before she enters college). More importantly, I would argue that my minor forgetfulness proves my improved parenting prowess, my hard-earned second-time parent nonchalance.
I’m confident the same is true for all you second- (or third- or fourth-) timers out there. Sure, we’re too preoccupied to notice a lot of things, but that level of reduced obsession also helps us let it go when it comes to the more annoying parts of parenthood that are only “solved” through patience — things like sleepless nights and spit-up-stained clothes. We don’t get so caught up in mini milestones or challenges. We care more about the big picture. We also know that loving all our kids well doesn’t mean loving them with calculated equality.
My love for my two girls is different — not more or less, just different. They have their own temperaments and their own love languages. One of them needs tickles and laughter and loud most of the time. The other needs quiet and secure and cozy. They have their own preferences. One loves everything ballet and pink. The other loves soccer balls and dirt. Most importantly, they have their own parenting needs. One is rowdy and bull-headed. The other is opinionated but anxious.
A lot of parents I meet worry about how they’ll love or parent their kids equally when their second baby arrives, about how they’ll extend the same level of energy they gave their first child to another boy or girl. They wonder if they have it in them – if they could ever love another human being so intensely.
I completely understand. Sure, my firstborn was a colicky disaster the first three months of her life and she made it impossible for me to get a good night’s sleep for her first year, but, before her sister arrived, she was my whole world (of course, along with my partner — he’s pretty cool, too).
I asked my friend, a seasoned mom herself, how she made room in her heart when she had her second baby.
“I remember the day I brought Lilly home from the hospital. Her big brother Jack was looking over at her and he made some gesture toward her. It was a sudden move with his arm and, in my sleepless state, I thought that he might injure her, that for whatever reason he might hit her or that he was being aggressive towards her. It was a split-moment feeling that I had, probably due to high levels of postpartum hormones and low levels of emotional reserves, and definitely not based in reality,” she said.
“I felt myself instinctively protecting my baby, jerking her away from my son, crouching over her so that he couldn’t get to her. And, I also got, for one split moment, really angry at him. The mama bear in me came out that day. I’d had that protective feeling billions of times for him throughout his short life — when another child said something unkind at school, when he injured himself playing at the park – but I hadn’t thought it was possible until that incident to protect another person like that. That was the moment that I realized I could love two people with the same level of raw intensity at once.“
I learned exactly what she meant with my own kids when that protective feeling kicked in for my second baby postpartum in some maternal instinct moment. I’ve been over the moon for her ever since. Still, as she grows up and becomes more developed, it’s tempting to see second-time parenting as an exercise in missed documentation and attention.
It’s the same for all multi-kid families. We’re busy once we have two and we feel worried that our second (or third or fourth) kid will, eventually, feel slighted by us. It’s hard to not constantly compare what we’re doing for one child versus the other. We could try to give exactly the same level of attention and time, to assure that everything is fair. But, if we are constantly aiming to make everything we do with or for our kids perfectly equal, we miss out on the things that make them feel sincerely valued and cared for. We also end up pretty tired from all that math.
Thank goodness there is an upside to divided attention, complicated sibling relationships and a little bit of forgetfulness: you have that secret sauce of experience, building your confidence as you move through each stage of parenting, as you problem-solve around each issue that comes up.
You may feel, like I do sometimes, like loving your kids well means loving in perfect measure, but I challenge that notion. Obviously, don’t play favorites, don’t neglect anyone, but do focus less on loving equally, more on loving specifically, fully, with presence. Stop worrying about the baby book so much. Celebrate how you’re stronger, wiser and, yeah, a bit less micro-focused. Your kids don’t need your equality as much as they need your individualized, real, uncalculated love.