Libby Purves, author of the wonderful How Not To Be A Perfect Mother, says that the first few months of having two children are particularly chaotic because of (among other reasons) the differences in their developmental stage with regard to routine; one child in an age group that thrives on a regular, predictable daily routine, and one in an age group for whom body clocks are a thing of the future, who still live what Purves describes as a ‘hippie, freewheeling, unpredictable’ lifestyle.
While I think the first few months after having a baby are going to be chaotic regardless of the existence of any older children, I have to say that I actually found the two different sets of needs much easier to co-ordinate in the first few months. Since Katie had no body clock to tell her that she should be sleeping at any specific times or for any specific lengths of time, and was small enough to drop off easily in my arms and get the naps she needed there, it was fairly straightforward to fit her daily activities in around Jamie’s. I just hauled her round from room to room after him, popping her on the breast when I thought she might be hungry and putting her down on the big beanbag in his room when I needed to change or dress him. (She wasn’t thrilled about that last, but fortunately I’m past the stage of feeling it’s my job to keep a baby happy every minute, and figured she could live with being upset for the time it took me to change one nappy. Incidentally, I have an endearing memory of Jamie dancing round the room on one occasion as Katie howled and I gave my hands a quick post-nappy-change wash, reciting “Oh, you want me to feed you! I will pick you up in a minute!” It took me a moment to realise he was repeating something he’d heard me say to her in similar circumstances.)
Things did get chaotic on the two evenings each week that it was my turn to give Jamie his bath, as I struggled to persuade Katie that she could interrupt her evening feeding marathon for long enough to settle quietly with Barry for a bit and then to persuade Jamie to progress through the teeth-bath-bed routine at speed so that I could get back to Katie before she started screaming to be nursed again; neither child, I might add, was at all happy to go quietly along with plans. And then there were those moments of trying to haul Jamie off things one-handed while holding Katie in the crook of the other arm. But, for the most part, it all seemed reasonably workable. Of course, I’m sure there is a certain rose tint to my glasses as I look back from a safe distance of a few months, and I doubt I was quite so sanguine about it all at the time. Still, even allowing for that… sure, it was difficult, but manageably so. And, of course, since I was also lucky enough to have a baby who was willing to take one long nap a day if fed, swaddled and settled in a darkened room, the lack of body clock came with a huge advantage; since she didn’t mind when she took that nap, I could simply time it for whenever Jamie took his and thereby give myself an opportunity to take one myself. And, my goodness, but that was bliss.
Now, however, balancing their needs is a whole different matter. These days, Katie needs two definite naps plus a reasonably specific bedtime, and she’s too big to sleep comfortably in my arms for any length of time. Nor is she a baby who falls asleep with great ease. Ideally, she needs a period of nursing/cuddling/general settling in a quiet darkened room prior to each of those three sleeps. Especially at bedtime, when she will fight off any suggestions of sleep with vehement howls. There’s also the matter of bathtime; in the first few months I didn’t feel she needed anything more in the way of cleaning than a quick sponge-down of her face and neck every day to get the dried milk off and a once-weekly bath to pick up anything that had been missed, but, these days, I really feel she ought to be getting proper immersion in a body of warm water before going to bed. And, of course, I’m also now supposed to be giving her more in the way of one-to-one interaction than just a few minutes here and there while I feed her or change her nappy; according to Sally Ward’s Baby Talk, I should ideally be spending half an hour of uninterrupted, undistracted time with her a day to chat away to her about whatever she’s doing, and, while I normally dismiss this sort of thing as yet another guilt-inducing gimmick from the Parents Should Be Superbeings movement, there does in this case seem to be some decent-quality evidence that this is markedly beneficial in terms of language, and general, development.
So… what do all the activities mentioned in the above paragraph have in common? None of them are brilliantly compatible with taking care of a very loud and energetic three-year-old who has not yet reached the stage of being able to grasp such concepts as “If you can play by yourself for half an hour while I get Katie to bed, you can have my undivided attention after that”, and who can wreak havoc if left unsupervised for too long. That’s what they all have in common.
I manage. I manage in an endless awkward muddled-together string of tiny copings and makeshifts, but that’s still managing. Katie generally wakes up some time between seven and eight, whereas Jamie stays up to have dinner with us and hence can sleep later; that gives me a chance to fit in a bit of uninterrupted time with her early in the day and maybe even get her down for her first nap before going in to him. At other times he can be distracted with the computer or television. Occasionally, I have to put up with Jamie joining in with Katie’s bathtime (which did get to be slightly less hassle once I thought to instigate a no-climbing-in-the-bath-with-clothes-on rule – at least now he’s easier to dry off once he gets wet). I’ll keep Katie up past the time she really needs to get to bed so that I can try to get Jamie engrossed enough in the CBeebies website that I can feel comfortable about leaving him. I’ll rush her through her bath and take her downstairs to put night clothes on her so that I can check on what he’s doing. I’ll go back and forth between the two of them, Katie crying in her cot and Jamie playing on the computer or running round the living room, dividing myself up, making compromises, a few minutes for one, a few minutes for the other, back and forth, trying not to leave either of them for too long. I bend and wiggle the routine this way and that, trying to make each bit of it fit, each day. I juggle and joggle and jiggle, getting everything in.
It won’t be this way forever. Nothing in parenting is; you get by, you manoeuvre your way through each stage until it’s over, like a person picking his way across a floor so cluttered with toys and Lego bricks that almost no clear space is left. Eventually, Jamie will get old enough that I can routinely leave him on his own for a half hour or so. Eventually, Katie will get old enough for them both to be on the same routine. Eventually – a long time eventually – both of them will be able to put themselves to bed, and I’ll only have to pop in for a goodnight kiss and Parently Chat About The Day. Everything’s eventual, as Stephen King wrote. I get by and get by, until those days come. I make it through this stage, one day, one naptime, one bedtime at a time.