To wait or not to wait

aving recovered from the trauma or blissful experience of labour, lived through countless sleepless nights and settled into whichever biorhythm comes with a new baby, the urge to do it all again may begin to beckon.

After scrutinisation, evaluation and re-evaluation of personal circumstances and perhaps in consideration of the medical profession warnings of potential difficulties to infant, child and maternal health when subsequent pregnancies fall outside of an 18 month to 5 year interval, the “favoured” route is to knock them out as quickly as possible, preferably back-to-back and whilst still on the more fertile side of 33.

According to the Office of National Statistics, there seems some consensus around a significant pattern of the interval between children being relatively brief, with mothers over the last decade tending to wait around three years, particularly between the births of their first and second children. Celebrity mothers such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Mylene Klass, Katie Price, J K Rowling and Holly Willoughby also reflect this pattern.

For those that cannot or do not subscribe to this ideal, the interval between our children will be less timely, more significant and can often prompt raised eyebrows and mouths agape at the very mention of the age difference between our children. I was completely surprised by one parent who remarked that my daughters would never forgive me for the 10 year age difference that exists between them. Admittedly, there have been flamboyant displays of acting out, regression, tantrums and general attention seeking behaviour (and that is just from my husband) and if I survive to tell the tale I may just look that mother up in another ten years.

While the idea of waiting longer than the average may seem extraordinary to some, I think most parents would agree that the challenges of parenthood are particularly testing in the midst of raising siblings. One of my greatest challenges has been trying to provide individual quality time for my oldest daughter who, at the age of 11, is on the cusp of a host of transitional phases that come with transferring to secondary school, navigating through puberty and beyond. Naturally, I would like to foster a relationship between my daughters, a feeling I imagine common to most parents, but this is particularly difficult given that their interests (and I use this term loosely in reference to my 1 year old) are at complete polar opposites.

I have often heard fanciful tales from other parents, including my own mother, about the delights of having more than one child and the solitude of having only one and envisaged having a brood to rival any modern day Brady Bunch. Yet, had someone, anyone… seen fit to tip me off about the aftermath that would accompany the birth of a second baby, I would have prepared myself to batten down the hatches, run for the hills or at the very least bought myself a hard hat.
Being the younger of two, I am no stranger to sibling rivalry and the threat of acting out. My sister and I are nine years apart and were never particularly close as children, not in the sense where we shared playtime or mutual interests. We did have a fleeting moment of sisterly intimacy from 1999 to 2001, by which time I was in my late twenties, when we would meet for the occasional lunch or shopping spree.

When I learned that I was pregnant for the second time, I knew that careful preparation with my daughter would be an essential part of the transition. From a very early stage in my pregnancy, I began to have conversations with my daughter. Some of these were on topics of a practical nature, such as where the new baby would sleep, while others focused around whether (s)he could wear Baby Annabel’s hand-me-downs. Thankfully, my daughter felt able to express her concerns about the prospect of feeling neglected and missing valuable “Mummy” time. As she became more accustomed to the idea of change being for the better and of becoming a role model for the new baby to look up to, her concerns appeared to diminish. Ten months later, however, the idea of a baby sister is very much a reality and the challenges that come with having to juggle the demands of two children with such varying needs is apparent to us all and has led me to wonder whether there is an ideal age difference between siblings?

A friend of mine, mother to a 7 year old, believes there are definite benefits to having children closer together in age, particularly relational and emotional: “they quite commonly have each other as a best friend and all of the hard work and sleep deprivation is relatively concentrated and then over quite quickly”. However, in the absence of any formal research, we are left to rely on the general discussions of parents in work places, playgrounds, coffee shops and parks; it is difficult to establish any firm evidence from this anecdotal material as to whether or not the challenges of parenthood are any greater when there is a significant age difference between children.

What seems apparent to me is that despite the challenges, the practice of waiting five, or more, years to have a subsequent child may not be as unusual generally and perhaps, in light of the current global financial crisis and national socio-economic climate, may even become a developing trend.

With UK childcare costs soaring above the rest of Europe; rising unemployment levels and a housing market that continues to languish in the doldrums of the current global financial crisis, it occurs to me that expanding ones family may be, for some, a luxury they simply cannot afford in the very near future.