Is there an ideal age gap between having children? Experts say there is, but sometimes Mother Nature can take the decision out of your hands.
It seems impossible that any parent could ever forget the full, hacking horror of changing nappies (fortunately the human brain resets at around age three, so that none of us can recall the full horror of actually crapping in one ourselves).
Yet this is just one of the unexpected dangers of leaving a largish gap between your first and second children.
After being forced, at least partly by that fickle cow Mother Nature, to wait four-and-a-half years between my first-born son and my ‘Oh My God I’ve Got A … Daughter’, I had genuinely forgotten most of what I’d forced myself to learn about nappies.
Not to mention how to put a change table together, how to get the side of the cot down with a nifty swing of your hip, and just how eye-bleedingly awful it is to go without sleep for weeks on end.
Of course, as shocking as this whole second-baby thing was for me, it was nothing compared to the way it rocked the world of our son.
He had been loving the only-child lifestyle, and was suddenly faced not only with the disappointment of not getting the brother he was sure he’d ordered, but with a tiny, tempestuous screaming machine in the room next to his.
The way that your first child reacts to their younger sibling, and whether they’ll be a help or a hindrance with the whole parenting process the second time around, is largely influenced by that age gap.
No.2 might not arrive on demand
My wife and I were probably not unusual in thinking that, because we’d conceived so quickly the first time around (I’m referring to the number of weeks, not minutes), it would be just as easy when we decided to go again.
But the second time was not the charm, and we really did struggle with the idea that we might not, after all, be able to have children on demand. Or possibly have a second at all.
After more than a year of trying, we went to the fertility specialist who told us that what usually happened was that she would have a chat to people about their options, and that once all the worrying was taken out of their hands and placed in hers, they’d fall pregnant immediately.
But just in case, she decided we should test my sperm, a medical procedure I really can’t recommend highly enough. A quiet room, a fridge filled with beer, a comfy couch, a television loaded with many entertaining channels and a helpfully undemanding specimen jar.
I could have stayed in there for weeks, but someone finally banged on the door and told me it was time to leave (after eight hours).
Sure enough, before those test results even came back, we were pregnant with the second.
I must admit there have been times, considering that we’ll have one child starting high school while the other is still in her very junior primary years, when we’ve wondered how much easier life might have been if the process had been quicker.
But for the most part, we’re okay with the gap we’ve got and it does have its advantages (see below).
What the experts reckon
In terms of health implications, a gap of between 18 and 23 months between the arrival your last child and conceiving the next one is ideal, according to Dr Warren Cann from the Parenting Research Centre.
“There can be health complications for both mother and baby where the interval between birth and conception is very short, and also when it is very long … five years or more,” Cann tells practicalparenting.com.au.
“What we don’t know is whether or not that is because of the physical impact of having a baby, or if it is more caused by the social problems, like stress or poverty.”
Cann, a psychologist, says that age gaps of between two and four years produce the worst sibling rivalry, while if the gap is longer than five years, or less than 18 months, you’re likely to see fewer problems with jealousy.
His advice, which makes a lot of sense, is that in an ideal world you would wait until you feel you can cope with what you have before you start adding to your parenting load.
What also seems obvious is that the closer your children are in age, the harder your life is going to be in those early years. One baby is hard, two babies is … exponentially harder.
A slightly older child can, at least in theory, be helpful when you have a baby in the house, once they get used to the idea that you are no longer able to respond to their every demand.
The pay-off of those early years of suffering is that you get it all out of the way in one go, and don’t give yourself a chance to forget how to do all that baby stuff.
How does it impact on the first born?
Having a longer gap, as we did, certainly means the first child is very aware that a sibling is coming, and it can be a hugely sweet experience to see them talking to their unborn brother or sister through Mum’s tummy, or feeling their kicks.
The actual shock of the arrival is, however, something they’re also old enough to react quite badly to. A tiny toddler is probably surprised every day to see another baby in the house, whereas our son was quite angry about it, at least at first.
The first time he heard his sister scream, in the birthing suite, on day one, the look on his face was sheer terror, and he wouldn’t take his hands off his ears, or come out from behind the couch, for some time.
He did get used to her, of course, and then grew to taking great pride in her, helping to push her pram, feed her, teach her to walk — pretty much anything but changing her nappies.
The four-years-plus gap also seems to have worked well for us in terms of sibling rivalry, but they are only six and 11 so there’s still plenty of time for it to go pear shaped.
Our daughter thinks of Big Brother as a constant playmate and they love each other dearly in a way that beautifully baffles me, as someone who was brought up an only child.
The benefits of him being able to look out for her at school, and pick her up when she falls at any time, are also wonderful. And her maturity and educational level seems only to benefit from having an older brother constantly questioning everything while she listens.
I honestly find it hard to imagine that they could get on any better than they do if they were closer together in age, but perhaps they would. I am, however, very happy that the gap isn’t any bigger than it is.
The downsides of falling into the gap
It’s all in the maths, really. For now, they get on fine and aren’t greatly annoyed by each other’s friends. But when our first reaches his teen years and his sister is still in the very child-like world of primary school, I fear some schisms developing.
And then there’s the whole finish-line problem. If I do the math on the first one finishing school, getting his licence, getting the hell out of my house, that’s one thing, but his sister doing the same seems an awfully long way off.
When I see other parents who’ve got one baby and another one about to arrive, I must admit I look carefully into their eyes to search for signs of insanity. But I can imagine that having two kids aged 14 and 16 in the house might well be easier than having one aged 14 and the other just nine.
A good friend asked me, in all seriousness, if I’d consider having a third, and I have to say that I could not. That six-year gap, for me, would be just too much. Plus I’ve thrown out the change table and all the nappies. Thank god.