A second child often gets much less attention than the first. A repeat father wonders if he can make it different for his newborn sonby Sam Leith / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Follow the leader: second children often emulate their older siblings, who resent them
When I had my first child—a daughter, Marlene, now nearly two years old—I hit on what seemed to me an effective metaphor for what was going on. I was moving from a Ptolemaic universe into a Copernican one. Before you have a child, you are the centre of your own universe: everything revolves around you. Parenthood gives you the proper—the Copernican—sense of your marginality. This new thing takes its place, and you are in orbit around it.
I went on to realise—a much more important realisation—that the nature of new parenthood is that you think you’re the first person it’s ever happened to, and there is nothing you can think about it that hasn’t been thought already. A friend to whom I was expounding my theory, said: “Yes, yes, I know someone who calls it ‘a Copernican revolution of the self.’”
Well. The image stands. The first child is a cataclysm: a great reversal. The cliché is that “nothing prepares you for it,” but actually everything prepares you for it, or tries to. When the editors of Sunday supplements seek parenthood columnists they look to new dads or first-time mums. When people tell you their boring stories (which you put up with because there’s a quid pro quo: you get to bore them with yours) they come under the rubric of “becoming a father” or “becoming a mother.”
It’s the second child, actually, that nothing prepares you for. It’s regarded as less of a deal, a repetition, albeit a happy one: more of the same. And yet it isn’t. It’s new in a more profound and less discussed way.
To go back to my initial image, you’re adding another heavenly body to the astrolabe. This is a less dramatic but—it stands to reason—a much more complex transformation. The bonds of love and rivalry, care and dependence that are, in this little universe, the forces of gravity, are now acting on mother and father an…