Our parents did it. Our parents’ friends all did it. The Royal family routinely do it. Having your children two years apart always seemed like a good idea. A close age gap means they get to grow up together, have the same friends, share toys…
Sixteen months into being a mother to two, I can now enjoy more glorious highs. Yesterday, without any prompting, our three year old greeted his little brother after nursery with “I missed you, baby chap,” and a little kiss. My favourite sight of the week was the younger sitting fully clothed on the potty, fully absorbed in a dinosaur book, just like his big brother. However, before time and pride totally cloud my memory, I can say with recent experience, that the first year was so much harder than I ever imagined it could be. Really, bitterly hard.
Our parents can only remember the good times. “My eldest used to bring me the nappies and wipes,” my in-laws told me. “Your brothers were always the best of friends,” my parents reminisced. These sugar-dusted images swirled around the back of my mind as my husband would return from work to find me a broken human, surviving on sugar and cold tea. Still standing, but only just.
There have been times when all three of us have been crying, feeding off each other’s misery. It was hard to define what the matter was; it was all just really really hard.
I felt for my eldest, who delighted in all, too young to understand. His mummy’s growing belly housed his baby brother and it probably all seemed okay. Everyone talked about how exciting life could be with a loyal companion to play and explore with. Yet, his anxiety was already clear. Any time a well-meaning relative would come to give me a rest, he’d cling onto me for dear life. Only my arms would do. After the birth, coming home again, my heart was already torn. I wanted to lie with my new baby, skin to skin, without interruption. But I also wanted to comfort my eldest, just twenty two months, to dance with him and make him laugh. That was the first day I experienced his anger. A wooden jigsaw piece launched at my face. He was silent but breaking inside. ‘What have we done?’, I thought. My husband and visiting family worked hard to distract him with adventures galore, so I could rest and feed and feed. Looking back, I probably needed more time with our toddler. More time with just Mummy and cub.
What made it all possible for me was that my husband, a teacher, was at the start of his six weeks’ summer holiday. He and I were a magnificent team of feeding, changing nappies and cuddling. He and our eldest became inseparable. We even moved house, to a new town that summer. Our eldest started at a local nursery, a luxury to give me time with the tiny one, we thought. We managed it all and the first six weeks of being a family of four was actually very lovely, stitches and mastitis aside.
And then my husband went back to work. Everything fell apart. Our two year old had “lost his Mummy” to this little baby and now his beloved Papa had disappeared and “gone to work”, not to appear again until bath time. Nursery drop offs became so traumatic that I decided not to persevere. Night terrors began. Tantrums intensified. “Keep him close,” my mum advised: the best advice I could’ve had. I’ve kept him close ever since; it’s become my mantra for every meltdown, sleepless night and heartbreak.
What saved me was the ability to wrap the tiny one to me, and even now he is not-so little. He had my scent, warmth and around-the-clock access to the milk bar. My arms were still free for cuddling up with a book, jigsaws and painting. The TV saved me too. I’d been nervous about the effects of screen time, but without childcare or regular help, CBeebies was our nanny. A nanny that could conveniently pop in when there was a baby to feed and change, or food to prepare. Convenience food became our best friend, keeping hunger at bay with cereal bars and freezer meals. Standards dropped to survival. But we survived. Any spare cash was spent on paying for a cleaner to do a weekly clean. Within minutes of her departure, the house was a mess again, but it was sanitary. The washing machine was constantly on “quick cycle” and the microwave housed a permanent sorry sight of forgotten tea. The hardest times were soothing a tantrum while trying to breastfeed; dealing with night terrors in our toddler’s room while feeding the baby; potty training at the same time our youngest learnt to crawl (rookie error); allowing space for our eldest to carefully construct his Duplo masterpieces while acknowledging that the youngest is learning through destruction. Imagine the domestic bliss.
Yet I look at my boys now, rosy-cheeked and sparkly-eyed, chasing each other around the house, or bumping each other on the see-saw, or naked cuddle-wrestling pre-bath-time, and I’m already forgetting the eldest’s initial apathy and then far worse, the primal aggressive possession of his territory. All very normal behaviour but still deeply troubling to any parent experiencing it for the first time. And it’s probably better to forget. To look forward. To keep empathising, nurturing and cuddling. They are both little, both vulnerable, both wonderfully gentle and zealous; they are both individual people, too.
And after all, it takes a village, or a palace, to raise a family. Perhaps there’s no such thing as an ideal age gap. Is there?