After a reader wrote in about her husband messaging women online after the birth of their second child, a few readers asked why the time immediately following the birth of the second child is usually so hard on marriages. This is a known low point for many marriage. To be honest, I don't often see couples in counseling who only have one child. When I do, these couples have problems that are more deep seated and long standing. Problems that arise mainly from stress, distance, exhaustion, and resentment over division of labor of childcare and housework are usually the domain of couples with two or more children.
Why? Because having an only child is probably easier on your marriage (although harder on the kid, sometimes). You get to hand off parenting, the baby stage only happens once, you get your sex drive and your body back and never lose it again in another pregnancy, you're more likely to stay working if you're a working mom and keep that part of your identity, and so forth. Research even shows that mothers with more than one child are less happy than mothers with only children, probably for all the reasons I just stated.
So, now that you, parent of two kids, feel relieved and less alone in the struggles you had in this critical period (and you parents of one child are reaffirmed in your decision to stop at one), here are 10 reasons why this period is especially risky for a marriage, from my observations as a couples counselor and a mom of three:
1. Dad has to step up.
With the first baby, a dad who isn't that "into babies" can get by with a couple diaper changes here and there, especially if his wife is very hands-on (or obsessive) and/or has her own mom/mother-in-law around all the time. However, with baby #2, Dad must truly step up to the plate, and often ends up parenting the toddler or older child while mom is with the baby. No matter how enthusiastically Dad takes to his new role (and some men welcome and greatly value their increased responsibility), this is often a major change, taking some of the mother's identity away as the primary caretaker of the older child. This change means that the couple may fight over: how dad parents, whether he is parenting up to her standard, and the transition, from his perspective, of never getting any breaks from the kids anymore. To which the mom will often say, "I never get any breaks either so screw you!" You can see how this degenerates rapidly.
2. No more "cute couple plus baby."
Two parents plus two kids equals a lot of people. You two just don't feel like a couple anymore, it's more like Mom and Dad, which is a new and unromantic identity. No longer can this adorable couple just put their adorable baby in an Ergo and go to the farmer's market, and hold hands and kiss. Taking two kids to the farmer's market is such a disaster that you start ordering Peapod. Screw eating local.
3. The older child is probably a toddler now.
Toddlers suck at the best of times, but even more if they get much less attention, are jealous of the baby, and have many routine changes (because mom is too tired to keep the old schedule in order and dad is taking over and doing things his way).
4. Mom's sex drive is 100 percent gone.
Maybe she could keep it together with one kid, but once she's parenting a toddler plus a newborn during the day, nursing or feeding a baby all night, and also still has all the baby weight, there is no way she is feeling it. Not only is she feeling fat, but nursing can eliminate sex drive hormonally, and her resentment toward her husband for whatever he's doing wrong with the toddler is not helping anything.
5. The couple now is less likely to use babysitters or go out.
A family member may have volunteered to watch one baby, but watching a baby and a toddler together is much harder. Also, the parents are less likely to use a paid sitter (although they should; read this!), because they are more worried about finances, and they may also feel guilty leaving the toddler when he's having difficulty adjusting to the birth of his sibling. Not to mention that they doubt that a sitter could successfully watch both kids, since you, the parents, can barely do it.
6. The novelty has worn off.
Yeah, you love the second baby, but it's not the same feeling of novelty and honeymoon stage bliss as with the first. So you're not running on new-love endorphins, but on exhaustion, guilt, resentment, fatigue, and bad body image. A little less blissful.
7. You have no time for anything.
Basically, any minute when the baby is asleep is a minute when you feel you should either be with the toddler or doing your laundry, which has quadrupled. Since it's not new and exciting anymore that you have a baby, you get a lot less help from parents and in-laws, too, plus, by now, your siblings may be having their first babies and your parents are all into that, since that's a cute first baby, not a second baby that comes as a package deal with a snot covered jealous toddler.
8. Dad is now #3.
With one baby, sometimes that baby goes to sleep and then mom's attention is back on him. But now, when the baby goes to sleep, mom's attention is on the toddler. If she is working too, then her career (which has now suffered through two maternity leaves and multiple days she has to take off whenever the older child has gotten sick) may be #3, and Dad is #4. Either way, he misses being #1. This is also increasingly evident in reverse; the more involved dads gets, the more they also prioritize the kids over romance. I especially observe this in older dads who are really focused on their kids, and then their wives get jealous too, but wives are less likely to admit this.
9. Everything requires more organization.
And guess who usually fills this role? You got it, Mom. And since she's also nursing, irritable, and feeling guilty over her neglected toddler, she may forget some of the stuff on her schedule, which makes her feel incompetent as well. Often she lashes out at her husband, asking why he never looks at the goddamn calendar, and things devolve from there.
Now that you have two kids, you start realizing that it's twice the money for preschool, daycare, sports, lessons, and one day, college! Often this is a major source of anxiety. I mean, you knew two kids would be expensive, but it's not till you see that little face and start paying co-pays up the wazoo for twice as many doctor's visits that you realize the extent of your financial ruin.
Once the dust settles, around when baby #2 is 6 months, some of these issues may resolve themselves. But if you still find yourself fighting, feeling that you don't know or love your partner, and feeling extremely resentful, it would be a good time to see a couples counselor.
So, if you're struggling after baby #2, do the following:
1. Wait till 6 months before you make any rash decisions, like that you don't love each other anymore.
2. Start having sex again, even if you're not feeling it.
3. Start trying to do nice things again for your spouse, even if it feels fake at first.
4. Start doing date nights, or even stay at home date nights if that's all you can swing right now, emotionally and/or financially.
6. Accept that your life has changed, and work together as a team to come up with some practical compromises and ways to make your lives better (e.g., weekly sitter, mother's helpers, therapy, scheduling sex, not criticizing one another's parenting, housekeeper twice a month, grocery delivery, ordering in more, designated alone time for socializing/working out for each parent, and so forth).
Hopefully, you and your spouse can weather this tough time. Many lunatics even go on to have a third baby! Crazy, I tell you. Anyway, until we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says The Third Was So Much Easier It's Not Even Funny, Because You Just Stop Caring About Most Things.
This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Pre-order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family.