Our neighbours had a baby one stormy night in January. He was born at home, next door to us, some 500 metres from the Aegean Sea, just like his older sister four years earlier. We first met our neighbours when we moved to the area in October, and they told us they had decided to have a second child because they were sure it would be great for their daughter. I remember admiring their certainty. How could they be sure that their daughter would be happy with a younger sibling? Each time I observed the four-year-old, I found her to be (understandably) thrilled when she had her parents’ full attention and (also understandably) annoyed when her mother said she was tired and was going to rest.

Yet was I really observing the girl, or was I trying to confirm my own bias as I watched her behaviour from afar? Was I thinking of myself as a little girl, not even two years old, when I received my younger brother as a gift? The family legend is that I was jealous. Is it a universal family legend? After all, aren’t all firstborns dethroned as the heirs apparent to the family spoils and riches?

Now that I have a son and we’re planning on expanding our family, it’s hard to think about a second child without the first one in mind. How do you avoid comparing a new pregnancy with the first one you ever experienced? How can you give the right amount of time to a newborn if you have a toddler bouncing around and demanding attention. I put this to my neighbour: does love stretch? And if so, do you have enough to spread it to one more child?

These are seemingly inconspicuous but genuinely delicate and intimate questions that Dutch journalist Lynn Berger addresses in her book Second Thoughts – On Having and Being a Second Child, which was out in the United States yesterday. (You can find the UK edition here and the US hardcover here.)

A brief disclaimer first. Lynn was a colleague of mine and has become a friend. She’s also a member of this community, so lucky you! You can ask her questions directly about her work.

Even if you’re not planning on having a second child, or if you don’t have children of your own, you’ll find the material in this book highly relatable. After all, we were all children once, and the order in which we were born may have affected us in ways that we don’t rationally suspect.

I don’t have to think too hard to remember all the popular myths I was exposed to growing up. “If you’re an only child you’re more likely to be spoiled,” was one, and this must have been true because my mum, who had no siblings, always got the chocolates she wanted when she was growing up. “First children are more hard-working and judicious,” they said, “and second children are lazier because they copy from their older siblings.” (This was the dynamic at play at home, between my younger brother and me.) “Middle children are less likely to rebel,” was yet another.

I didn’t question much of this until I met Nacho, my husband, who is the seventh child in his family, and the youngest. I had never met someone my age with such a large family and I was fascinated. Was he spoiled for being number seven, was he left alone a lot? Did he grow up happier because of all the other siblings he had around? Observing Nacho’s family, and the dynamics at play between him and his brothers and sister makes for endless entertainment. With his family, I became an anthropologist on a field trip, observing and asking questions whenever I could. His aunt once asked Nacho when he was five whether he’d rather have more cookies or toys or keep his many siblings. Little Nacho said he’d rather have all his siblings. What a sweet thing to answer, I think. But then I wondered whether his eldest brother would have said the same.

It turns out, writes Lynn Berger, that birth order affects our personalities mainly because of our beliefs. She outlines many findings of birth-order research (for example, that firstborns are more successful or have higher IQs). She then reports on two groundbreaking studies in 2015 that showed “statistically significant but meaningless” differences between children’s personalities based on their birth order. In one of these studies, developmental psychologists Alexander Jensen and Susan McHale studied 388 families with two children. They showed that parents believed their first child was the most successful at school, even when they didn’t get better grades. In which other ways do our expectations as parents and adults affect the lives of children around us? If a parent thinks that a first child will suffer for their dethronement, as many Freudian psychologists still believe, will this belief make them jealous when they have a younger sibling?

I enjoyed Lynn’s book because she asks many questions and is content with not finding definitive answers by the end. She shares her meaningful research without trying to confirm her theories, and she does so by adding poetic details about motherhood and lots of introspection.

Three questions for … Lynn Berger, author of Second Thoughts

IC: I found Second Thoughts full of wisdom, not only for parents but for anyone who has been part of a family unit. Is there one main insight that you’d like readers to take away from your book? If so, what would it be?

LB: Thank you, Irene, for your kind words. What I learned through writing this book – and perhaps everyone knew this already, and I was the only one left in the dark – is that when we become parents, we don’t start with a clean slate. Instead, most of us approach parenthood with all sorts of expectations, hopes and anxieties that are grounded in our own childhoods – and in a way even in the childhoods of our parents, our grandparents, and so on. That’s completely natural, but at the same time, it can make it hard for us to see our children for who they are and to approach them in the way they need to be approached. I hope the book brings this insight across – because I’ve found that, once you become aware of these mechanisms, you can begin to try and see your children more clearly.

IC: You wrote this book when your children were very young. (They are still very young!) What was the personal cost of writing it, and what did you learn as a working mother of two during the process?

LB: Raising children costs time, and writing a book costs time, and since time is a finite resource, these two activities can definitely feel at odds with each other. There have been moments where I felt bad for being with my book rather than with my family – or the other way around. I guess that this conflict, this torn feeling, constitutes the price I paid for writing Second Thoughts.
I did learn to become more flexible, to write in shorter stints than I had before, and to accept that while it’s good to make plans and timelines, you may also have to throw those plans and timelines out the window at any given moment. This is not fun, but it’s not the end of the world either.
Most importantly, I found confirmation that you can’t be a working mother of two without a good support system, which in the case of my partner and me included school, daycare, various babysitters, and grandparents. These are not nice extras: they are the very basics.

IC: You are working on several new projects, but one, in particular, is on a very current topic: care. Is this going to become your next book?

LB: Yes! I’m working on a book about care – both formal and informal – in which I try to figure out why something so fundamental to society is at the same time so undervalued and even neglected, and what might be done to change that. I’ve been meeting with people who are involved in different kinds of care – for their own and other people’s children, for their patients and their colleagues, for animals and for the environment, for things and for the future – examining what, exactly, care looks like for each of them, and asking what they need to take good care. I hope the book will help make the value of care more apparent and enable all of us to create and demand more time and space to carry out the work of care.

Are there other questions you’d like to ask Lynn Berger about her book? She’s a member of this community and happy to answer your questions! You can ask her scrolling to the comment section at the bottom.

A picture with a wooden surface with the two editions of the book Second Thoughts displayed on it.
Photo courtesy of Lynn Berger

What I’ve been reading

Belgian therapist, author and speaker Esther Perel, who is famous for her work on relationships, has written a sweet newsletter about the importance of play that includes some thought-provoking questions at the end for how we, adults, perceive play and can engage in it more actively. She writes about the importance of role play as a tool for therapy and says we should drop our utilitarian view of play to really engage in it fully. “The importance of play doesn’t end when childhood ends. Sure, we can engage in play as adults because it’s healthy, because it releases endorphins, and so on. But that’s kind of like saying that one should have sex because it burns calories,” she writes.

What I’ve been listening to

Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen are doing a podcast together, Renegades: born in the USA, and it’s been insightful to hear them talk about how distorted perceptions of masculinity have affected them. In one of their latest episodes, they tackle fatherhood. The former US president talks about how much his wife Michelle helped him become the present father he wanted to be, and Springsteen admits he apologised to his son Evan who would have been eight or nine, because he had taught him not to show his feelings. “I think I’ve taught you to not need me because I’ve been afraid of what that meant as your father,” says Springsteen. I like that these important conversations on manhood and fatherhood are becoming more visible, and I hope to hear more in the future.

What I’ve been watching

It’s a sweet video that normalises what it means to be a parent working from home. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy was live on CBS with a blur filter on for the background. Something kept popping up on the screen, distorting his screen appearance, and at the prompting of the interviewers Murthy revealed it was his young son, who wanted a hug. It was a sweet moment of parenting, far more improved than the reaction four years ago of Professor Robert Kelly, whom you may know as the BBC dad. Would the media be talking about the incident as nicely if it had been a woman on screen? I’ll leave this up for conversation.

Who’s been inspiring me

I’m curious to find out what this large coalition of researchers in the UK will find out about play during the pandemic. They’re collecting information about all sorts of children’s play to see how the pandemic has affected children’s lives. They’re asking for pictures, videos, sound recordings, drawings or writing to contribute to the research. More information here.

What members are saying

There is an ongoing conversation below my piece on why the first 1,000 days are my life’s mission. “It was a big awakening moment when I started reading your articles and realised that most people who are in positions of leadership and making decisions for our cities and societies are also people who don’t have much contact with children,” writes Marina. “By ignoring children’s perspectives, we’re simply raising kids to do what a small group of ‘grown-ups’ think the future should look like. We’re not allowing society to evolve and improve by default, without imagining a future that takes children into consideration.” She is participating in a neighbourhood effort to reimagine the city she lives in and asks many thought-provoking questions. You are always welcome to add your thoughts, here.

My Greek word of the week

Discovered at the beginning of the 19th century, oxytocin is a hormone that has a lot to do with many reproductive processes, including the contraction of the uterus in childbirth and the letdown of milk. It is also known as the love hormone, although it is actually a double-faced hormone because it can also make us more suspicious. The hormone was named borrowing a concept that came from ancient Greek via Latin and then French: oxytocique, or quickening childbirth, from the ancient Greek ὀξύς (oxús, sharp) and τόκος (tókos, “childbirth”).

What I’m missing out on and would love your help with

As you may have noticed, every week, I add a shout-out to a member of this community who’s helped me edit and improve my newsletter with their comments. So far, there are five people I am rotating on editing duty, but I would love to add more. So if you feel like helping me edit, please give me a shout! When this newsletter grows and I can afford to hire someone, I will have a copy editor on board, but for now, I love the idea of the suggestions and help coming from within the community!

With love and care,

📣 Nabeelah Shabbir, a member of this community, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Amsterdam. Thanks, Nabeelah!

This is not a space to simply comment. This is where you take part in the community.

7 thoughts on “On whether being born first or second affects you later in life

  1. Congratulations Lynn!
    Can’t resist supplying an anecdote of my own. Apparently as a kid I used to pester my parents for a sibling so one day my mom posed a serious question before me: sibling or the biggest piece of fish for lunch everyday? It was an easy choice and that’s how I grew up alone. Kudos to Nacho. What a man.

  2. I’d love to jump in and ask one more question to Lynn.
    I find that becoming a mother has made me reflect more and more about my childhood and about the generations past too. In one of your answers you mention that our expectations, hope and anxieties as parents “are grounded in our own childhoods – and in a way even in the childhoods of our parents, our grandparents, and so on.”
    So I wonder what your thoughts are when it comes to approaching this. Is some sort of introspection and maybe even therapy helpful or necessary to be more open-minded as a parent? Do we need to re-parent ourselves as adults to approach parenting with a cleaner slate?

    1. Good question! I think it depends. I’m of the school that believes that therapy is always a good idea, but some people are naturally reflective and might come to see their parenting as bound-up with the parenting they themselves received quite naturally.

      For me, talking to experts and reading helped to achieve that.

      I know you’ve thought about this idea of re-parenting oneself, but I’m not quite sure I fully understand what it means. Would you like to elucidate?

      1. Lynn, this will be a long answer!
        I’ve probably read about reparenting in some self-help context, and I really liked the term, though I must admit I did not become too acquainted with the theories themselves.
        What I took out of the idea of reparenting oneself is the concept of giving ourselves permission to revisit important elements of our childhood that may hurt us as adults, or simply allow ourselves to do some of the things that – for one reason or another – we were not allowed to do as kids. My simple examples: skipping the rope and eating chips. Potato chips (or crisps) were absolutely banned from my home, even at parties, and I still find it a secret guilty pleasure of mine to eat them when I want to have an enjoyable aperitivo. But I guess skipping the rope is a more poignant example: I was not a very playful girl growing up because I was always thinking big thoughts and reading books. I never learnt how to skip a rope, and I am trying that now.
        I see these forms of reconnecting with our childhood and things we longed for but didn’t get to do as a form of reparenting that can help us accompany our children better.

  3. One more question for Lynn.
    A lot of members emailed me directly about this post to share anecdotes about what they have come to believe to be patterns by observing their lives and those of people around you (and even novels). For example that younger children get more freedom than older ones (and can become more artistic, for example) because parents are more experienced and less stressed. Other members wrote about the correlation between gender and birth order.
    My question is: if we all have fixed ideas of what place in society people will occupy based on their birth order, is that what then creates a self-fulfilling prophecy?

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