This isn’t a tale of being ‘the other mother’, but rather observations in my role as ‘both
mothers’. My wife and I each carried a daughter; I carried our eldest in 2013, and A carried our youngest in 2015/2016. Since the arrival of our youngest daughter, I have found myself experiencing the new role of ‘non-birth mum’ when previously I had not know anything other than being the ‘birth mum’. The different feelings I have had have surprised me a little.
When my wife and I first got together 11 years ago, we knew almost straight away that we both pictured ourselves being pregnant and giving birth to a baby at some point in the future. We were young when we first got together, and so starting a family felt like a distant dream. Although we spoke about it and kept an eye on changes in legislation, we did not seriously start talking about trying for a baby until around the time we got married in 2012.
At the time, it was very important to us to try to make our family in a way that “involved” both of us, so that we would both feel as connected as possible to the baby who might be conceived. After some deliberation we decided that in an ideal world, it would make more sense for me to carry our first child, and for A to carry our second child. A had just started her career in teaching whereas my career was more established, and so financially and career-wise it made more sense for me to take maternity leave. We knew that as I would be carrying the baby, we wanted to use A’s eggs in the fertility treatment so that I could carry a child who would be A’s genetically. We had hoped that this might also help both sides of our family feel more connected to the baby. The grand plan was that we would then reverse this method of creating a family, using my eggs to help A get pregnant, when we were ready to have baby number two. How naive we were.
The treatment was gruelling for A. She responded almost too well to the hormone stimulation and felt like she was walking around with two footballs in the base of her abdomen. Then came the invasive and painful egg retrieval, following which the “footballs” re-filled with fluid and took several weeks to settle. The five day wait to see how many blastocysts we were left with was a tense time, but not as tense as the 10 days we had to wait before doing a pregnancy test. During that time we also had the sting of a rather large fertility treatment bill arriving through our letterbox.
We were lucky, and I conceived on our first round of IVF. I carried our first daughter to term, and when I gave birth felt elated when A’s family remarked upon how like A she looked. I knew that A was desperate to experience pregnancy and hold the baby that was growing inside me, and it was lovely to see them together in the hours and days after delivery.
I breastfed our baby and spent almost every moment with her. Breastfeeding was difficult, and the nights were long. We gradually got into a routine; the night awakenings became less frequent and the feeds quicker. I loved watching her little face whilst I fed her, the look of contentment and relaxation increasing with each minute. To get me through the nights I used to gaze at her, and think about the special time we were sharing together in the darkness, feeling like I was the only one awake in the world. Our bond was strong from the day she was born, and I felt that I could anticipate her needs with ease. This isn’t to say that becoming a mother wasn’t a steep learning curve plagued with exhaustion; it was. But I know that when I look back on my life, those early days and nights with her will always be one of my favourite parts.
Raising our daughter, I didn’t ever feel that her genetic make-up was of importance. I didn’t worry that she didn’t have my nose, or didn’t look like I did as a baby. My family didn’t seem to worry about this either. So when we started talking about trying for a second baby, we didn’t feel the same as we had done before conceiving our first. Knowing the complexity, risks and financial burden of our previous fertility cycle, I had no desire for A to carry a baby who had half my genetic composition. I had come to the conclusion that it wasn’t the genetic origins that helped us feel like a family, but the times we spent together and the love we had for each other. Walks in the park, holidays together, and (very) early mornings in bed were the things that had bonded us to each other. How we had come to be a family seemed to take a back seat.
With this in mind, we hoped that A would carry our second baby and I felt content knowing that I would not be genetically ‘involved’ in the same way that A was with our first. Our second baby took longer to conceive, and the journey was even more of an emotional rollercoaster. When we conceived last summer, we were both filled with feelings of pure joy and a palpable relief. We were so desperate to have two children who could grow up together, and knowing that we were one step closer was incredible.
The pregnancy progressed well and as I watched A grow and change, I had plenty of time to think about the baby who would arrive. I started to wonder about how my place in the family might change as A took on the breastfeeding and night feeds in the same way that I had in 2014. I hoped that she would be able to develop the same bond with the baby as I had done two years previously with our daughter. A had always felt this closeness was, in part, due to the relationship we had formed as a result of breastfeeding.
The labour was long and hard, but A took it in her stride. She found a strength at the end to deliver our daughter under difficult conditions, and whilst exhausted. When they laid our second daughter on A’s chest, skin-to-skin, I could see the bond already forming as they gazed at each other. Due to a lot of hard work and perseverance in those early days, breastfeeding got off to a great start and is still going well three months later.
My role has both changed and stayed the same. My relationship with our eldest has continued to be strong in the way that it always has been. She took to being a big sister like a duck to water and has been gentle and loving. I am still developing a closeness with our little one that has not come as easily as it did the first time round. I had never doubted that I would feel overwhelmed with love at the arrival of our second-born, and luckily this was the case. The emotion of watching A give birth, and finding out the sex of our baby together, was an experience I will never forget. Hearing her cry and watching her settle so quickly on A was absolutely magical, and the rush of love and elation was indescribable.
However in the weeks following her birth, I have had an awareness that following her first few days our bond has not continued in the same strong, growing intenseness that I experienced previously. I have spoken to some mums who have given birth to both of their children, and they have described a similar concern of not feeling as close to their second child as they did to their first for the first few weeks or months. When seen objectively, this is of course a natural emotional response as you do not know the little person who has been developing for nine months in the same way that you know your eldest. Before our youngest arrived, I had had two and a half years with our eldest daughter, whose personality traits I had had the pleasure of studying closely since her first day. Getting to know anyone takes time and although the rush of love was there for our second baby, it will take time to grow and nurture our relationship.
Despite hearing this from friends prior to our baby’s arrival, I still felt very aware of the different feelings I had for our first baby compared to our second. Ignoring the fact that it does of course take time to get to know a new baby, and nurture a relationship with them, there are some key differences that I feel have made our relationship slightly slower to develop.
Firstly, I am not breastfeeding our second child. I spent hours feeding our first child; frequently through the day, and several times every night. Those hours spent gazing at her face, studying every detail from her long lashes to her sweet nose were all part of our bonding. The way she would come off the breast and sleep contentedly in my arms left me with nothing but love and adoration for her. I have not had the same experience with our second daughter. I am in the fortunate position of knowing how inconvenient and time consuming expressing milk can be, and would not want A to feel obliged to do this purely so that I can feed our baby. If the opportunity arises for me to give her expressed milk, I jump at the chance but would never want my wife to express for my benefit. However, just like her big sister our second daughter loves to be carried. We started with a stretchy wrap and have since moved on to the Manduca carrier, and our daughter will fall asleep within seconds when she is being carried in this way. I enjoy feeling her sleeping on me when she’s in the sling, and I love that she feels so safe and content here.
The second difference is very much linked to the first. It is my wife who wakes up every few hours to our second daughter’s cries, and goes to her in the night to provide nourishment and comfort. They spend far more time together just the two of them, whereas the time I spend with her is often shared with her older sister. In addition, when she was two weeks old I returned to work. I am fortunate in that I work part time, and so I have not faced the same difficulty some parents face in spending a full week at work.
I am also very aware that A is doing a great job of getting our baby into a routine, and so I often hear myself asking her “Do you want me to change her?” “Shall I try to get her to sleep?” “Do you think she wants feeding?” and in this sense I do feel like the second parent rather than the decision maker. A is the one who deals with a sleepless night if routine has gone out of the window the previous day, or has to deal with trying to feed a baby who is very fussy at the breast as a result of being too tired. I feel that I am often checking what the right thing to do is to try to make life as easy as possible for A. I think these roles were probably reversed with our eldest daughter.
Our second baby is a very content little girl, and only cries for obvious reasons – hunger, when she needs changing, tiredness, or when she needs a cuddle. I can manage the last three, but not the first one. I know that in three months time we will start weaning her onto solid food and that gradually she will go longer between breastfeeds and become more distractible when she wants milk. She will also show more of her personality, and develop an interest in the world around her. We will see her start to make choices and show preferences, and be able to interact with her to encourage her interests. Our relationship will continue to grow until this point, but I can imagine it really strengthening at this stage.
I have not felt worried about my slower-to-develop relationship with our second daughter. However I have embraced being aware of my feelings and observations, and viewing them as a reminder to ensure I continue to develop our relationship in a different way.
Having experience of being both the birth mother and ‘the other mother’ has felt like quite a unique experience at times. It has been especially significant to have been the birth mother previously, knowing all of the bonding experiences this can bring, and then having a direct comparison two years later. Aside from our two daughters, one of the most wonderful things to have come out of having our family in this way is that A and I now have a much better understanding of how the other one was feeling last time, and how we are both feeling this time in our reversed roles. I feel that we have grown stronger together, and are more appreciative of the role the other has already played, and will continue to play from here onwards. There can’t be many couples who have this experience.