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My wife, J, is 8.5 months pregnant. She insists that the 0.5 matters when you’re the one carrying the baby, and I believe her. (Then again, as anyone who has lived with a pregnant woman knows, believing/agreeing with her are imperative to everyone’s survival; yes, I’m aware that most of my readers are current or former pregnant moms!)
Both of us have always wanted kids, plural. We’ve held on to that desire, despite my infertility and despite the physical, emotional, and financial demands of J getting pregnant the first time; our fertility doctor still refers to S, our daughter, as a “miracle baby.” We couldn’t agree more.
Like a lot of life decisions, our visions of the future—what we want as much as what we don’t want—play their part. As the youngest of six close siblings, J couldn’t imagine S not having a brother or sister. As a pseudo-only child growing up (don’t ask), I’ve yearned for a sibling who shares my family history. Plus, we’re both in our 40s—well into them in my case (J says she’s not yet well into hers and I believe her)—and we know that, no matter how we slice it, S will be relatively young when we die. While a sibling won’t prevent that, we imagine that sharing that loss will be helpful.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that S and her brother (yes, we’re having a boy) will get along. The focus on sibling rivalry in a lot of parenting books suggest they might not. Yet, we’re optimistic and prefer to believe those studies that indicate that, by their mid-teens and adulthood, if not sooner, most people really value their sibling relationships.
It’s not as if we didn’t talk about the real or imagined downsides of having a second child before J got pregnant again. We discussed: exponentially increased (not just doubled) childcare demands, expanded household tasks (e.g., more laundry!), even less alone time for us individually and as a couple, increased financial demands, more pressure on work-family balance, higher stress on our relationship, and so on.
As a coach who specializes in helping couples stay connected after kids arrive, I’m keenly aware of research on this topic and the fact that most new parents report a major decline in relationship happiness after the birth of their first child.
Interestingly, studies focus overwhelmingly on new parents, leaving the impact of subsequent children mostly to speculation, which often goes something like this: Though we haven’t studied the effect of additional children on relationship satisfaction, we anticipate it’s even stronger (meaning, worse) than with the first.
Those few studies that have looked at the impact of more than one child (e.g., by Arlie Hochschild or Rebecca Upton) reinforce the claim that >1 child = yikes! Specifically, as Jennifer Bingham Hull, author of Beyond One, notes:
The birth of a second child commences the most difficult year in a marriage.
Individual happiness, too, seems to suffer, at least for moms (not sure if that means double-trouble with two moms). According to Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociologist at University of Pennsylvania, our first baby positively enhances individual happiness for mothers and fathers (especially if dad’s first baby is a boy), while a second child has a negative impact on moms’ individual happiness (and a neutral effect on dads).
Given all of this, plus research that suggests moms’ relationships with their first-born deteriorate after they have a second child, why would we, informed parents and spouses devoted to relationship happiness, still have another child? How did we weigh these compelling negatives against possible positives?
In truth, we didn’t, insofar as life decisions like whether or not to have a 2nd or 3rd or 10th child are leaps of faith (unless, of course, faith is what compels us to have kids).
After all, how can we fully evaluate pros & cons when the outcomes are so unknown?
We won’t truly know how much a second child impacts our relationship satisfaction—negatively or positively—until after our son’s here; we won’t know if our son and daughter build a lifelong connection as siblings until they’re older; we won’t ever really know if our relationship with our daughter suffers due to the birth of our son, given that we won’t be able to gauge how she would have fared developmentally during that same period without his presence….
We’re willing to take these risks because we believe the perceived benefits outweigh perceived downsides. We’re also willing to leap because we’re committed to mitigating at least some risks, like relationship stress by, for example, booking regular date nights as quickly as possible after our son is born.
One of the things I always discuss with expecting couples is the presumption that, no matter how many friends we’ve seen experience relationship trouble after the birth of a child, most of us assume our experience with our spouse will be different.
No doubt, my wife and I are guilty of that, too. But there’s something else at work for us and for all couples who take time to better understand their own desires for growing their families, and the potential risks in doing so:
We’re going into this with our eyes, not just our hearts, wide open.
Our expectations of what might occur include risks, as well as benefits. Studies by family life researchers, Philip and Carolyn Cowan, suggest that pre-baby expectations—yes, for new parents—are 1 of the top 3 factors affecting a couple’s satisfaction levels after they have a child. In other words, the transition to parenthood is more challenging for those with inaccurate or unrealistic pre-baby expectations.
Hopefully, having somewhat realistic expectations of the impact of a second child will also ease our transition to becoming parents for the second time. At the very least, we hope our perspective will if not lessen the challenges of having another kid, then, allow us to navigate them with some degree of grace, and the knowledge that we’ve chosen our family, risks and all, whole-heartedly. That alone warrants our joy and gratitude.