8 things dads can do to avoid ‘second baby syndrome’

Older and wiser, Ben Smithurst lays down eight things he’ll do differently second time around.


Shitty sequels are a fact of life. You roll into the cinema hoping for a Godfather Part II only to abandon your popcorn 20 minutes into a Speed 2: Cruise Control or Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

In sport, it’s called second-year syndrome — one year you’re Ewan McGrady, slicing up the NSWRL with the 1991 Rothman’s Medal around your neck, the next, you’re playing reserve grade in Lidcombe. In the US, it’s called a sophomore slump; in music, it’s the second-album syndrome.

“Ask any multi-million-selling artist the secret of their appeal and they’ll admit they haven’t the faintest idea,” mused Guardian reviewer, Dorian Lynskey, in 2003, on the occasion of The Strokes’ difficult second album.

“That can be fairly terrifying when it comes to making the sequel. How can you repeat a trick when you don’t even know what the trick was?”

With child number two set to drop before Christmas, the prospect of ‘second baby syndrome’ had me stressed.

My first sprog was an instant classic. Released to huge critical acclaim, he’s been riding high on the ARIA charts of parental pride for two years.

But could we back it up, or would pressure, internal bickering and unnecessary sitar solos destroy the band? Would the real father turn out to be Milli Vanilli or something, I don’t know, metaphors only go so far.

Except that now I’m not stressed. And I think that stress, not being too laissez-faire, is ultimately the killer.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned from Kid A that I’m confident will fire Kid B down the path to success.

1. Eat as much dirt as you want, bud — it’s cheaper than vaccines

When child number one arrived, I spent untold energy trying to stop him hoovering up stuff he found in the park, like sticks or used gum or centipedes.

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But now that he’s two, even at home, the five-second rule has blown out by hours, if not days.

I’m not overly stressed if he bangs down a sultana he finds in the footwell, and anyway, “exposure to microbes prevalent in the great outdoors will establish a stronger, more robust immune system in young people”, according to University of Chicago Professor Jack Gilbert.

“Rescue a dog, let them eat food off the floor, play in the soil, dirt is good!”

So kid one will live till he’s 100, and kid two will live so long that future archaeologists will just ask him what happened to things.

2. Speaking of vaccines, he’s fully immunised and not even slightly autistic

So I don’t need to worry about that either, and he’s not even slightly on the spectrum. Any oddball anti-vaxxers can sound off if they like in the comments section, but I was always going to give him the jab. And don’t take my word for it. There are a pile of studies out there that show there’s no connection between the two.

3. Electronic babysitters are a godsend

“Oh, you let your kids watch TV? That’s … cool. Tara and I feel that, for us, it’s a little bit lazy parenting.” F*ck you and also f*ck Tara, mister wife’s-work-colleague’s-husband-that-I’m-stuck-beside-at-a-work-do.

I’d rather lose a kidney than lose the 15 minutes of peace I get to spend on the toilet without the kid kicking the door that Play School on iView gives me.

I used to feel guilty about this, but now I’m copacetic. Kid number one is thriving, and he always picks the arched window, the window of kings.

4. Books: burn them all

Obviously, I’m not seriously suggesting some sort of proto-Hitler Youth Säuberung fire, but if all the Nazis had done was aim their pyrotechnics at the child-raising section of Dymocks then tiny moustaches would still be cool.

This is not to question the wisdom of Steve Biddulph and his acolytes, but I’ve got a pile of dead and pulped trees with their names on and I’ve read exactly none of them. And this time around, I know it doesn’t matter, because I now know that wisdom, like knowledge of trigonometry, to be superfluous.

5. I’m cool with big piles of laundry

First time around, when the house looked like that fast-fashion hummock they constructed in Martin Place for the ABC’s War on Waste, I felt shame. My wife felt more.

This stressed out the kid, and my beloved, and we regularly surveyed our dumpster explosion of a house with depression. But now I know that parenthood is imperfect, and parents are too, and I’m not interested in competing. I’d rather play with the kid than fold shirts. Just make cubbies out of the shirt piles.

6. In fact, I look like a big pile of laundry

When I was a kid, I thought my old man, a ham-handed prop forward, was a sort of titan. And pre-kid, I was fitness conscious like a Backyard Blitz-era Jamie Durie, because I wanted him to look at me — a much smaller man — with the same adoring eyes.

But now I look fat, like a modern Jamie Durie, and I don’t care, because the gym is too much of an imposition when my day is filled with child duties. And my boy still thinks I am a sort of modern He-Man, because I am … compared to him. Let it go, Men’s Health boy.

7. Slow down, buddy

So I spend ages first-time around marking my boy’s development path against his peers, willing him to crawl, to walk, to speak his first words. And all that stuff is important, but you’re so busy looking all around you, worrying he’s behind the eight-ball, that you miss what’s happening in front of you.

This time, I am actually looking forward to having a non-crawling sprog, whom I can leave in one place and come back and get later.

8. I’m already dead

Okay, so I’ve said this before but people say Mount Everest is the world’s tallest mountain all the time and that’s no less true. As the character of Captain Ronald Speirs told a novice soldier in Spielberg’s Band of Brothers (Speirs was a real person who actually existed): “The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function.”

Only I’m not literally dead, I just know that I’ll now have two kids shitting on me, dragging a new sort of ebola home from pre-school every second fortnight and screaming in unison. And I’ll be alright. New parenthood is like being on a rollercoaster that takes regular but unexpected detours through hell.

If you just stay on the ride, you’ll eventually be okay. Or, to put it another way, I don’t think second baby syndrome as much like trying to record a second album as it is like touring the songs live. The longer you’ve done it, the better you get. And the less you need to freak out when a groupie says she’s pregnant.


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