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Our friend B was the one who came to our five-month-old daughter Juni’s rescue. He scooped her up and put her on his shoulder, rocking her back and forth until her crying slowed. “They just left you here,” he said.
We did. We left the baby screaming in the middle of the living room floor. I mean, we had things to do. My wife was loading the car. I had been holding Juni, but I had to go to the bathroom — not pee-your-pants bad, but, close enough. Since I didn’t put her on a high surface and there were no sharp objects or open fires within a 15-foot radius (also, spoiler: she can’t yet crawl), I figured, she’d be fine.
Are we neglectful parents? Are we jerks? At the very least, we might be jerks.
“The second kid always gets screwed,” said B, and in a lot of ways, he’s right. There’s the obvious: when you go from having one child to having two, you don’t get 24 extra hours a day in which to focus all your attention on (and try to recover from) the new arrival. Our second kid will never get the same amount of time we gave to our first. And it’s hard for me not to feel guilty about that.
When our older daughter EJ was Juni’s age, I read to her incessantly, everything from kid’s books to full-length novels. She heard more literature in her first six months of life than most adults hear in their last five decades. She knew the rhythms of my voice intimately. I think all that one-on-one reading time has helped EJ, not only because she has an extensive vocabulary and a great sense of metaphor for a 3-year-old (she recently called me into the bathroom, pointed at the toilet and said “look, my butt and vagina made a pretty flower!”), but also because she and I are tight. We’re buddies. And yet because of her, I haven’t been able to give that same amount of undivided attention to her little sister. Therefore, I can’t help but worry that I won’t share as close of a bond with my second daughter.
If I was someone other than me, reading this essay, this is the point at which I might think: well, if you want to be close with your second kid, you should probably stop leaving her crying on the floor. Fair enough. But here’s the thing: there are a million schools of thought on babies and crying (thanks, internet), and while one study might tell you that picking up your crying child as quickly as possible will turn him into a more independent toddler, the next will give you the green light on letting him “cry it out” for short intervals before swooping in to comfort him. So what do you do? You pick and choose what you listen to as a parent, and you do whatever works best for your family.
As for me, now that I have a second child, I know this much about parenting: I’m better at it. My wife and I both are. We’re more confident. Yes, that means we’re not going to freak out and immediately pick the baby up every single time she starts crying. Don’t get me wrong; we’re not going to neglect her either. The important part of the statement is this: we’re not going to freak out. That’s where I think our second kid wins. She might wait — and wail — for an additional 30 seconds before we go get her, but when we do pick her up, our bodies aren’t so often tensed with anxiety and fear the way I know they were with our first-born. Babies can feel when their parents are stressed out, and it makes them stressed out too.
Here’s another interesting bonus about having two kids, obvious as it may be to all the seasoned parents of the world: the older sibling, when she’s not having a meltdown and/or threatening to use her toy power drill on the younger one, can help take care of the younger one.
Our oldest doesn’t always lend a hand, and we don’t expect her to. Early on, my wife was wise to emphasize that we have to be careful not to tell EJ that she has to help out with Juni, because we don’t want her to grow up to resent the task, or worse, to resent her little sister. But we’re trying hard to teach her empathy, and so when EJ does help out, whether it’s by handing me a diaper of her own free will, or talking to her crying sister when one of us has our hands full with dinner and we simply cannot break free to pick her up — it’s glorious. Big sis is a rockstar at making up stories and songs, and when she drops one of those beats on her little sister, you should see Juni’s eyes light up. Her toothless smile, her dimples, those sparkling eyes as she watches her older sister swaying in her face like Stevie Wonder — all of it gets imprinted on my memory, and I cherish it.
Here’s an understatement: it’s a hell of a challenge, parenting. For us, making the jump from one kid to two has been wild. I’m just now emerging from the fog of the early months of Juni’s life, enough that I’m able to attempt to analyze what happened — and what is still happening — in the whirlwind of our little family. I don’t yet have a bottom line, or some great piece of advice to share. But I’ll try to give one to myself anyway, if for nothing else, to serve as a placeholder for this moment.
Pick the crying baby up off the floor, eventually. Pick the toddler up too. You’re probably already dizzy, so just spin them around a few times, check to make sure they’re smiling, and hope for the best.
Jason Basa Nemec’s writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Fatherly, Kenyon Review Online, Meridian, Slice, and various other publications. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Portland, Oregon.
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