On whether being born first or second affects you later in life

Photo of a baby foot on a beach, with a little of sand on sole of the foot

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. …

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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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