Introducing a newborn to an only child isn’t easy. When expanding the family from one child to two, parents should consider a number of things, including how to prepare their first child and how to maintain a positive equilibrium at home. To gain perspective on the best way to approach a second birth, beijingkids spoke with three Beijing families as well as Vista Medical Center.
The optimal age difference for the first and second child is three years, according to Joanne Rhodes, a licensed clinical social worker and counselor at Vista Medical Center. Rhodes is referring to developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s model of human being’s eight stages of development. In Erikson’s model, the early stages are as follows: from birth to 18 months of age is a basic trust vs. mistrust stage. From 18 months to 3 years old is when children develop autonomy and self-esteem. Stage four, which lasts from ages 3 to 5, can be described as our “play age,” which is why Rhodes suggests a three-year age difference. She goes on to explain that this is when children begin copying adults around them and take initiative in creative play situations. Around this age, children ask a lot of “why” questions and develop a sense of identity and power.
Three years might be the optimal age difference, but life doesn’t always go as planned. Rhodes goes on to say, “What’s optimal is sort of cultural and so undetermined.” In general, she recommends an age span that gives parents sufficient time with the first child and still allows the siblings to be close. In the end, a lot depends on the personality and temperament of the child.
Flora Angel and her husband Steve, who hail from the US, have two sons: 9-year-old Steven and 14-month-old Alex. When Steven was 5, they decided they wanted a second child, but felt the timing wasn’t right. Not wanting to divide their attention between two children too early, they waited until Steven was a little older and the family more financially stable. Steven and Alex ended up being eight years apart, which Flora finds to be a wonderful age span. She is able to spend the majority of her day with Alex while Steven is at school; and then spends some time with Steven when he arrives home.
Career-driven Ashley Liu and Mike Gagnon had their first child after their computer graphics business, Mindwalk Studios, took off. After landing The Simpsons as a client, they finally felt their business was on track and it was time to start a family. Liu advises other potential parents to do the same: “Start a business in your early 30s and the business will be mature and give you flexibility [later]when you have kids. My friends back in Canada, who have kids, are struggling with a full-time job; whereas I am managing a company and I’m spending a lot time with my kids.”
Almost four years after their daughter Sophie was born, Liu and Gagnon had their son Max. They had discussed having a second child, but the decision was made following the death of Mike’s mother. Liu and Gagnon realized how difficult it would be for an only child to handle both grieving and post-mortem affairs. As morbid as it is to think about, Liu explains, “There’s the process of grieving, but there’s also the practical things, like getting a death certificate, and if you’re the only one that’s running around, it’s really hard.”
Of course, there is no perfect age difference and a lot depends on the personality of your first child, but most parents would advise against having siblings too close in age. Children too close in age are more likely to have sibling rivalry, and in the beginning stages, it can be a handful caring for two babies at the same time.
Besides age span and career, other factors to consider when adding to the family include the parents’ biological age. “You should try to have children before age 35, because statistics show that at that point, your chances of having a developmentally challenged child increases,” advises Rhodes. It may also be more difficult to conceive in later years.
Doctors, in China especially, strongly advise against later-in-life pregnancies, so mothers over the age of 35 should be prepared for some scrutiny. Mother of two, Alison Thompson was 32 when her son Milo was born and is 38 years old as she welcomes her second child. As she describes it, “[Doctors here] seem very paranoid about it, [pushing to]have all these tests, because there might be something wrong. It’s quite a negative vibe. I found that quite disturbing.”
Regardless of warnings against births at a late age, many couples choose to start a family later in life. Liu, who had Max at age 39, even feels her second pregnancy was better than her first – possibly in part to having a wonderful doctor at American-Sino Hospital. Any fears they had about complications dissipated. And Angel, who was 33 during her second pregnancy, feels having a child later in life makes her feel younger. She explains, “It keeps me on my toes. I don’t feel my age half the time, because I’m crawling on the floor with a 14-month-old. It keeps me energized.”
Introductions and Preparation
When and how you tell your first child about the new addition to the family is all up to you. In preparation of sharing the news, consider your child’s age and personality. If your child has trouble expressing emotions in words, Rhodes encourages parents to offer a non-verbal creative outlet, such as drawing or using puppets. Most importantly, give them the opportunity to be involved and then leave the extent of that involvement up to them. Rhodes suggests waiting for the child to take the initiative and if interested, bring him or her to doctor appointments.
Given that her son was 7 at the time, mother Flora told Steven right away when showing him a positive at-home pregnancy test. He later accompanied her to doctor
Five-year-old Milo Thompson was told 12 weeks into the pregnancy, when his mother showed him a photo of the ultrasound. Given her age, the pregnancy was classified as high risk, so Thompson and her husband waited 12 weeks until they told anyone, as is the standard in the UK, their home country.
Ashley Liu included her young daughter in the family discussion leading up to her second pregnancy. That way, Sophie was not surprised when her mother became pregnant. Now, she lets Sophie hand her a diaper or two, but is wary about giving her too many motherly responsibilities. Liu explains, “She does do it at her own accord, but we don’t want her turning into a mother figure at a young age. She needs to have a life.”
Most parents are fearful of competition for attention between the siblings, but Steven took to his younger brother quickly and the two boys have had no jealousy issues. When asked about his younger brother, Steven remarks, “I enjoy being with him. It’s one of my best experiences. [I look forward to] him doing things I’m able to do, like climb a tree.”
At 9 years old, Steven understands his baby brother requires more attention and the parents actively make sure neither boy feels left out. On a regular basis, she and her husband have what they refer to as “split duties,” making sure both children receive separate individual attention. “Any sense of jealousy and abandonment gets pushed to the side when they know they are as equally wanted as the other child,” reminds Angel.
In anticipation of “territorial fighting,” Thompson got Milo to sort his toys into toys he can keep, toys to give to the baby and toys they can share. “So he’s still a part of things and he’s still got some control,” explains Thompson. Given his interest in pretend play, Milo also has his own “baby” that he wraps in a diaper and puts to sleep in a cot they built.
For Liu, Sophie and Max’s four-year span is perfect. “If it were less, it would be harder on us. Right now, Sophie is not very jealous and she’ll help out. She loves her brother and hopefully they’ll have a great friendship as they grow up,” expresses Liu. As the due date for her second child approached, Liu planned for a dollhouse to be shipped to China for 4-year-old Sophie. Preparing gifts for the older child, as the baby receives gifts, helps the older child feel included and not forgotten.
To help relieve the stress of taking care of two children, parents should consider hiring an ayi just for the baby. While they did not have an ayi for their first child, having a full-time, live-in ayi for their second child gives Liu plenty of time to spend with Sophie. Max won’t remember the early years, but since Sophie will, it’s important to prove that she does not come second to the baby. For instance, if they’re reading a book together and Max cries, Liu lets the ayi tend to him while she carries on with Sophie. When story time is over, if Max is still crying, Liu sees to him.
Rhodes warns parents not to make any comparisons, positive or negative. She advises, “Make each child feel unique, because he or she is.” While this advice rings true, it is often hard to remember when you’re expecting the second time around. As Liu puts it, “In your mind, the first one is so perfect, that you just want another one of the first one. I’m not sure what’s in store and I think their personalities are going to determine that. And so far, so good.”