Adapted from the introduction to Beyond One: Growing A Family And Getting A Life, Jennifer Hull's Award-Winning Book On Having A Second Child
I’m an unlikely candidate for mothering more than one child. Growing up, I seldom played with dolls. I avoided babysitting and turned down a job as a camp counselor. As an adult, I did six months of therapy before deciding to have my first daughter, Isabelle. I was thrilled about my first baby. But when she was nine months old and a friend asked whether I wanted another child, I answered, “Absolutely not!” After months of sleep deprivation and diaper duty, I couldn’t imagine how I’d preserve my sanity, much less a sense of self, with two.
A few generations ago, my response might have shocked. One-child families were relatively rare, singletons an oddity. Today, though, factors such as women’s high participation in the workforce and the availability of birth control have made having a second child much less automatic. Once unusual, single-child families are now the fastest-growing family unit in America.
The trend toward later childbearing explains some of this shift. However, some women are also doing what was once unthinkable: choosing to have only one child. And there is good reason. A smaller family means less laundry, more mobility, lower expenses, and less responsibility. It’s easier to work and have time for your spouse with one. Furthermore, despite the popular belief that only children end up spoiled and lonely, studies find that they do fine.
Stopping with one, I’d be in good company. Half of the women in my baby group stopped after one. Many accomplished women have been mothers of singletons, including Margaret Mead, Hilary Rodham Clinton, Sigourney Weaver, and some of my favorite writers.
In contrast, a glance at my bookshelves seemed to reveal that having two or more kids is a recipe for disaster. Mother-of-four Tillie Olsen penned one of the most depressing, if stunning, books on motherhood’s toll on creativity with Silences. Betty Friedan got so frustrated staying home with three that she launched a revolution. Sylvia Plath had two toddlers when she put her head in the oven. Alice Walker’s words rang in my ears: “With one, you can move. With more than one, you’re a sitting duck.”
So I was set on one as Isabelle approached her first birthday. No one in my family was pressuring me to produce more, least of all my husband, who by then had lived with the bitch in the house for almost a year. Anyway, except for her lousy sleep habits, Isabelle was perfect. Why push our luck?
Deciding to Have a Second Child
Then Isabelle turned one, I got some help, a bit more sleep, and caught the second-baby bug. Bill wasn’t so sure about having another, vividly recalling the hysterical, exhausted woman who’d thrown a pot at his head during Isabelle’s first week. Why go backwards, he asked, when our toddler hadn’t even gotten through potty training? And what about all those logical arguments for having one?
I might have quoted Pascal, who said: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” For having another child is an emotional affair. But my husband is a law professor, so I made my case. I explained that the ratio of one child to two, three, and sometimes more adults felt lopsided. I wanted to see kids tumbling on the grass together. I wanted to hear another pair of tiny feet padding down the hall. It’s a dice roll. Jimmy Carter got Billy. Abel got Cain. Yet I wanted Isabelle to have a sibling, knowing how much I value mine. Most of all, I thought having another child would be fun.
My serious academic could not relate. Fun still seemed a distant prospect with one child, much less two. Bill loves and respects his sister, but they were not particularly close growing up. Since Isabelle’s birth, he’d been teaching classes by the seat of his pants. Bill also knew that with a second we’d have the same deal we’d had with our first: shared parenting. And this time, he knew what that meant.
Women usually get their way on family size. Still, I was surprised when Bill agreed that it was time to try for a second child. Fun-filled visions of a family of four? Well, no, he explained. It hadn’t been that. Bill had decided that, in the long run, children would be one of his greatest legacies, worth any short-term sacrifice. It was an argument I hadn’t even considered.
Expecting the Second Baby
And so we made the leap, and not long after, I sat balancing our toddler to one side of my large belly, reading Angelina’s Baby Sister. As I read to Isabelle, however, I remained distracted by concerns of my own. These were not the questions of my first pregnancy—about pacifiers and sleep schedules. Of course, I worried about managing two, but most of my questions were more personal and profound. I now knew that children change your life. Who, I wondered, would I be beyond one—not just as a mother, but as a woman, writer, wife, and friend?
Now an experienced parent, I felt confident caring for a child. Yet I also knew what that really meant. Would I be able to address my own needs once outnumbered by little people? Could I love two? Our parenting partnership had been key in my decision to have a second child. Would fifty-fifty function with a bigger family?
My first had cured me of any illusions of churning out magazine articles with a baby sleeping by my side, and I already had help. However, I’d discovered from Isabelle both the benefits and the perils of working at home. How would I juggle writing with another child?
And what about my personal life? Would I ever have coffee with a friend again or see a movie? What about my weight and that big number on the scale? Would I ever fit into my jeans again? Feel attractive? Have time for—or even want to have—sex?
Second Child Issues
Back then, I felt like a worrywart. Now I see how legitimate my concerns were. While most research has focused on the first child’s effect on family life, those who have examined the second’s have found its impact in some ways more life changing and difficult. For the couples profiled in Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift, the second child provoked a crisis, especially for mothers, as husbands failed to share the extra load. Studying twenty-five dual-career couples with two small children, anthropologist Rebecca Upton found many parents overwhelmed by family life. Nearly 27 percent of the mothers and 17 percent of the fathers were so stressed that they were offered counseling in Robert Stewart’s research on the impact of the second child on 41 American couples.
The arrival of a second child often brings a critical change in family roles. For men, it’s a time for increased family involvement. Women, though, often face significant work-family conflicts. As Upton’s study notes, while most paid professional women return to full-time work after the first child, more than half change to part-time employment or take a leave after the second. These changes make for a critical marital crossroads: studies find the birth of a second child commences the most difficult year in a marriage.
Yet most adult parenting books are for first-time mothers or address children’s needs solely; pregnancy alone takes up an entire bookstore shelf. However, my main interest in my second pregnancy was finishing it; I couldn’t get myself to even open What to Expect When You’re Expecting. A magazine editor sent me a long article about bathing a toddler and a baby together. Up to my ears in bath bubbles already, I couldn’t read it. The few guides that did discuss having a second child focused on the pregnancy and first few months. I knew, from my first, that the early days would be challenging. Yet when would things get easier?
When the general parenting guides do turn their attention to a second child, they focus so much on sibling rivalry that it sounds like the firstborn is having the baby. Though they offered me some good second-child tips, their perspective seemed negative and narrow. Most of my friends’ kids got along fine, and studies find that the vast majority of siblings value their relationship considerably, both as older children and as adults. Why, then, so many scary stories about sibling strife? And why did the books present lists of things to do to make up to the first for having a second, as if it were some great crime?
Life with two, I knew, would be busier than ever. However, the parenting tomes only added to my to-do list. Mom, as a human being with needs of her own, was barely mentioned. Dad, who common sense suggested would be more essential than ever, was often nowhere to be found. And as for the relationship between them? Even the memoirs dared not touch what studies indicated should be of great concern: the marital tie. Go to dinner with any mother, and husbands are the main course. On marriage, however, mommy writers are generally mum.
I wanted to remain close to my firstborn but wasn’t planning to make her a special illustrated book or borrow a baby for us to practice together as the guides suggested. Presumably, other real-life mothers don’t have time for these things either, or if they do, the activities don’t help. Research shows a deterioration in the relationship between the older sibling and the mother after a second child’s birth. How could I preserve closeness with Isabelle after the baby arrived?
I needed a friend who could answer these questions. But most Mommy-and-me groups are for first-timers and my mother-of-two friends were too busy to socialize. During the brief exchanges we did have at the park, they contradicted one another. Two kids, it seemed, were anywhere from one and a half to ten times the work. And I couldn’t get myself to ask whether they still had sex with their husbands or had battered their mates with any kitchenware.
So instead, I watched from afar as they dashed after their little ones, busier than any chief executive I ever interviewed while reporting at The Wall Street Journal.
Watching, I wondered.
Who were they?
And who would I be, beyond one?