Feature: When Three Becomes Four

Growing your family may take an emotional toll on you and your first born, but you’ll never look back, writes Jessica Jonzen.

On a glorious March morning last year, I took my three-year-old daughter to preschool as usual. The only difference was that I was 41 weeks pregnant and, on that day, Ottilie and I both sensed that everything was going to change.

When I said goodbye, she clung to me and cried deep, angry sobs. I cried, too, and her teacher had to physically pull her from me, something she had never had to do before. Shaken by seeing my daughter so upset, I went for a walk. My labour began an hour later and my son, Zac, was born that night.
We had always wanted a second child and a sibling for our daughter. We had hoped to have another by the time Ottilie was two and a half, but new jobs for my husband and I and a miscarriage meant that wasn’t to be. We veered from worrying a three-and-a-half-year gap would mean our daughter would find it difficult to adapt, to thinking that a slightly larger gap would mean she could help and would have a little more understanding. We talked to her regularly about the new baby, read her books and took her to a scan.

When I noticed her admiring a toy seal in a shop, I surreptitiously bought it as a present from the baby. Rather than rest up with a box set when I went on maternity leave, I exhausted myself with daily trips to museums, parks and soft play centres. The truth was that, as thrilled as I was to be having another baby, I felt a great sadness that our time as a family of three was coming to an end.

Despite the emotional precursor to Zac’s arrival, his birth was a truly euphoric experience. Scooping my son out of the water, I fell immediately, intensely in love. I had worried, as so many parents do, that I wouldn’t be able to love another child as passionately as my first. I laugh to think of that now. The heart’s capacity for maternal love is extraordinary. When Ottilie met her new brother the next morning, pink-cheeked and unsure of herself in the strange surroundings of the hospital, it felt like the beginning of a wonderful new adventure.

But if nothing can prepare you for the birth of your first child then, sure enough, little can prepare you for the maelstrom of emotion your second will bring. BBC newsreader and journalist Kate Silverton spoke for many parents earlier this year when she wrote about the arrival of her second child, Wilbur: “I couldn’t have been prepared for the amount of love I felt for my little boy, having been so overwhelmingly in love with my daughter, Clemency. I wasn’t prepared to feel so protective of him – sometimes even at the expense of my daughter’s feelings. Neither was I prepared for the guilt I would feel at spending my time trying to be the same sort of mother to Wilbur as I was to Clemency.”

For Kate Cooper, a 33-year-old physiotherapist, her first son was not even one when she discovered she was expecting twin boys. “We both felt so worried that Arthur was too young and he should have had more time with just George and me,” she says.
“But when the twins arrived, Arthur kissed both babies on the head and has never been anything but adoring of them. Now I don’t think he remembers life without them – one of the benefits of having them so close in age. The first thing he says when we bring him in from nursery is: ‘Where are my babies?’, so I don’t think we should have worried.”

For Charlotte Stephens, a 32-year-old writer, producer and mother of two girls aged four and two, a second child was never something to worry about: “I knew Darcie would now have a friend for life in her sister. Yes, it was a shift in her daily routine and, as toddlers thrive on familiarity, it took a little while for her to adjust but I tried to normalise the situation, rationalising that this wasn’t the first time anyone had had a sibling and that she’d soon get used to it.” The thing the Stephens did feel guilty about was her tiredness: “But looking back on it, I think Darcie enjoyed the fact I sat down with her a lot more, spending quiet time feeding, watching films, snuggling.”

For Silverton, she and her husband noticed a regression in Clemency’s behaviour once Wilbur came home: “Clemency started to ‘play baby’ – lying on her back with her legs in the air asking me to change her nappy. We found it amusing at first, especially given she had potty trained months earlier. But having a degree in child psychology, I also knew she was going through a natural process that called out for more of our attention.” Clemency also refused to go to nursery and wanted to sleep with her parents more often. “I now realise how it must have felt to her. Her entire world had been turned upside down; she felt that she’d ‘lost’ me and was having a tough time making sense of it all.”

Silverton tackled the issue by including Clemency in everything. Elaine Halligan, London director at The Parent Practice, which coaches parenting skills, says this is an excellent approach.

“First-born children will naturally feel displaced when a new baby arrives. They will need lots of reassurance that they are still loved, and they will need plenty of positive attention and understanding. Without this positive reassurance they are likely to ‘play up’ to get the attention they need,” she says.
“Rather than trying to persuade older children that the arrival of a new sibling is great news, allow them to express their natural feelings of resentment and jealousy. When parents let children know the feelings they are experiencing are okay (even if their actions are not), it’s safe for them to tell us about them.”

As for us, we are now 18 months into life as a family of four and while, of course, it is more hectic than before, my husband and I marvel as we watch the relationship develop between Ottilie and Zac. They adore each other and, although Zac may already love to wind up his big sister, he truly was the best present we could have ever given her: a partner in crime and a friend for life.