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The Right Way to Space Siblings (For You)

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When my daughter was a few months old, I came up with a line about when my husband and I would have a second child: "I want Sylvia to be old enough to pay attention when I say, 'Wait right here while I change the baby's diaper.'?" Four years old seemed about right.

But by the time Sylvia was 2, I was hearing something else from my husband, Aron. "Did you see how nicely so-and-so and so-and-so were playing together?" he'd say after spending time with close-in-age siblings. "If we wait until she's four, we'll be out of this" (at which he'd gesture to the pull-up diapers piled next to the potty and the mac and cheese cemented on the high-chair straps) "and it'll be hard to come back. Really hard."

So Lena was born three years and three months after Sylvia. And, of course, we're thrilled with the spacing, since we now can't imagine our girls any other way. And yet I still wonder: Would Sylvia's difficult threes have been so difficult if Lena had been born later? Would Lena's nap habits be more predictable if she'd been born sooner, when Sylvia was still napping?

Figuring the answers I wanted could only come from other parents, I went looking for the lowdown from moms in the thick of raising sibs in the three most common splits.

Two Under 2

This is what some parents call, with dread, "two in diapers," and it comes with barely imaginable logistical nightmares: How do you put a 4-month-old and a 20-month-old to bed at the same time -- when your partner is working late? How can you afford simultaneous daycares, music lessons -- college educations? It's a slog, no doubt, but many of these moms are personally motivated to tackle it. They want to replicate the tight bonds they have with their brothers or sisters, or create the sib closeness they didn't experience.

First Days
The stinker about this age difference is that you may feel like you had a pregnancy-free break of about five minutes. "I was slammed with first-trimester exhaustion just as my eighteen-month-old decided she loved to run and climb," says Jessica Rosenberg of Santa Clara, CA, who is now the mom of two girls, ages 3 1/2 years and 18 months. "I decided I was insane!" Once moms come home from the hospital, some toddlers are uninterested in the new babies, to the point of forgetting they exist. But others notice -- a lot. New Yorker Laurie Gerber, whose daughters are now 6 and 4, recalls that her oldest's emotional reaction to having a little sister swung from one extreme to the other. "Sometimes it was intensely negative, like saying that she hated her," she says. "Sometimes very positive, with lovely little whispers in her ear and wanting to hug her."


The Marriage Factor
Charmaine Tang of Dallas, whose kids, Tyler and Charlotte, are 2 years and 9 months, cautions that the toll of sleep deprivation can be steep. "Being so tired can make us not want to get a sitter to go out or end up snapping at each other over trivial things," she says. But as any soldier will tell you, tight bonds are forged in foxholes: Most moms we talked to said that if anything, the chaos has brought them closer to their spouses.

What Moms Love
With kids close in age, moms are able to plan family activities -- camping, biking, skiing -- sooner, without having to wait years until the youngest child is ready to participate. And there's an appealing light at the end of the tunnel. "I liked the idea that once diapers were over, they'd be over -- that the exhausting part would end in a short time, while my husband and I were still young," says Gerber.

What Moms Don't Love
See "logistical nightmares," mentioned earlier. With a big-sib toddler bouncing off the walls, you can forget about quiet snuggle time with your infant. And there are just no good answers for how to soothe both kids at the same time. Yet, says Rosenberg, "hands down, the hardest thing is the lack of sleep. Our baby didn't sleep through the night until she was sixteen months old. That in itself was a challenge, but when the two-year-old would wake up because of nightmares, needing to pee, a cold, or anything, I didn't have any reserves left to be a comforting, patient mommy -- especially when I had to go to work in the morning."

Split Tips
Somehow, moms do make it through those trying times, even while flying solo. It's all about thinking strategically. Rosenberg learned to nurse number 2 in the sling, leaving her hands free to make dinner for number 1. Tang's made a science of bathtime, stowing a swing tub-side so Charlotte will be safe while Tyler gets soaped up and rinsed. And Gerber says, counterintuitively, that her 6- and 4-year-old are easier to manage if there's only one parent around -- so "divide and conquer" is not always the right move. "I'm not busy trying to split up tasks between Will and me, and since I'm doing everything, the kids expect less attention."

 

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