“Parenting doesn’t start when you have a child. It already started when you were a child.” When journalist Lynn Berger found out she was pregnant with her second child, she realized there weren’t any books combining research on family structures and sibling dynamics with anecdotes about having multiple children, so she wrote Second Thoughts: On Having and Being a Second Child. Lynn joined Zibby to discuss her findings and how her own experience raising two kids shaped the book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lynn. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your book, Second Thoughts: On Having and Being a Second Child.

Lynn Berger: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s a pleasure. I think this is my first podcast with someone in the Netherlands, I have to say.

Lynn: I’m glad to be your first on something.

Zibby: Although, my future mother-in-law who just is engaged to my husband’s dad, she is also from the Netherlands, so I get your accent around us very often, just in case you were wondering. Anyway, Second Thoughts: On Having and Being a Second Child, tell listeners, what made you decide to do this? I know you write about it in the book and how your quest for knowledge and research and debunking some myths about second children got you on your way. Tell us the full story, please.

Lynn: Second Thoughts is a work of nonfiction about what it means to have a child for the second time and also what it means to be a second child. The reason I wrote it or how it came about is that, I’m a journalist. I’ve also been in academia for a long time. I’m writer. It’s what I do. First and foremost, I’m a reader. I love reading. I always have. I often find it helpful to go to the literature to help make sense of whatever it is that’s going on in my life. When I became a mother for the first time, I read everything I could find about the transitions of parenthood, about taking care of babies, fiction, nonfiction, self-help, literature, you name it. I found it really helpful just to use that to think through this transformative experience. Then fast-forward a couple of years. I’m pregnant again. I had all these new questions. If that first experience of becoming a parent was transformative, then what does it mean to have that experience again? Also, what will it mean for our daughter to become a big sister, for our future son to be a second child? I figured, I’ll just go and read up on it. Then I couldn’t find anything. I found a couple of really practical and helpful parenting manuals on preventing sibling rivalry, but they were very hands-on. I could find stacks and stacks of academic papers by sociologists, economists, psychologists about the influence that siblings have on each other, about family formation, about the history of family life. What I couldn’t find was a book that would synthesize all of that in a way that was accessible and open and curious, but also just personal and nice to read. I really wanted to read a book like that. Then I thought, if I want something like that, surely there must be other parents who are expecting a second child who would like to read something like that as well. I ended up writing it myself.

Zibby: Sort an accidental book. You might as well use all the research. I have to say, you accomplished that, exactly what you set out to do because I love how you interwove all your own stories and how most chapters begin with some anecdote from your own life or your child or the development. I feel like I was with you on your journey from finding out when you got pregnant to dealing with your son and worrying, perhaps, about the different developmental timelines, which every parent of multiple kids has worried about. I am going to just say that. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m going to make that assumption. It’s not just prescriptive. It’s a narrative. It made it really fun to read. I actually never really had a second child because I had twins to start with. I loved how you talked about the assumption that everybody thinks you’re having — not everybody. Many people feel they’re having the second child to benefit the first child. Yet it can also be the worst thing ever for the first child. You had some quote, you said, “The assumption, for instance, that a child is better off with a brother or sister than without, but also that with the arrival of the second, we were not just giving our first child something, we were taking something away as well. And there was the assumption that our second who would never experience the exclusivity of which we were about to deprive the first would start out with a one-to-zero disadvantage, second place, consolation prize, runner-up.”

Lynn: Aw, yeah, I felt really bad for our second child before he was even born. It’s a strange thing. When you ask people why they decided to become parents, the answers are so varied. It goes from, I was just really curious. I always saw myself as a parent. I just really wanted to know what it was like. It’s just nature. Then when you ask people, why did they have a second child? almost always, the answer is, so that the first one would have a sibling. It was the same for us. Then when I was pregnant with the second child, I was like, but wait a minute, why do we believe it’s good for kids to have siblings? What about all these horror stories about sibling rivalry and competition? When did we come to think that this is so important?

Zibby: You even had a study that I’d love you to describe a little more that showed how your sibling relationship was as a child affects the parenting and how you make your children get along later. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Lynn: That was a wonderful study. It’s by Laurie Kramer who’s a developmental psychologist in the US. She interviewed mothers of two children. They themselves had also been part of a two-child family. She asked the mothers to reflect on their own sibling relationship. Some of them said it was all warm and lovely and fine. Some of the mothers said more difficult memories. They had fought a lot. There had been a lot of rivalry. Then she looked at the children of those mothers and how they were around each other. She noticed that if the mother had had a good sibling relationship herself, then her children, their relationship was often less warm, less intimate, and had more arguments in it than the relationship of siblings whose mothers had bad memories of their own sibling experience. She realized that if your own sibling experience has been, in whatever which ways, fraught, then you as a mother will try really hard to make the relationship between your children a good one. You will help them to work through conflict and so on rather than assuming that it’s all going to be fine because it was fine for you. I found it really amazing. It was one of those moments where it clicked. Oh, yeah, parenting doesn’t start when you have a child. It already started when you were a child.

Zibby: Wow, so I was doomed to be the parent that I am today.

Lynn: Is that right?

Zibby: I don’t know. Maybe so. What was the upshot of your research? Did you find anything that really shocked you about what the benefits were of having second children?

Lynn: I would say that the findings in the science are pretty nuanced, as social science findings often are. It turns out that our having a sibling can be really beneficial in a lot of ways. Siblings can influence each other’s mental developmental, cognitive development, moral development. Having a sibling also provides a training ground for having arguments and working them out without just losing the other person right away. Also, having a warm sibling relationship, it’s like a buffer in times of stress. For instance, when parents get a divorce, if the sibling relationship is fairly strong, then the kids often end up doing better than when the sibling relationship is not as good. On the other hand, when sibling relationships are not warm and intimate, they can also go together with rather bad effects for the kids in question. They can have more mental problems, more behavioral problems. It could go either way. Also, sibling relationships can be really good training grounds for delinquent behaviors. It makes sense. A bigger sibling can be an example for the good, but also for the bad. Then there were also a couple of things that really surprised me. They had to do, for instance, with birth order.

I had always assumed that since — I have a younger sister — that since I was the oldest, that sort of explained the fact that I was quite conscientious, a little bit neurotic. I always worked really hard in school, whereas my sister was the more the social, outgoing rebel. I was sure this is because of our birth order. I also thought it was sort of advantageous for me to be the firstborn because it’s just better to be the striving type A personality. I’m sure people disagree with that. Looking back, I think it’s a bit of a strange assessment, but that’s what I thought. Then we were about to have a second child. Then I was like, but is that true? Does birth order really determine personality? I started reading up on the history — it’s quite old, this idea — and the most recent findings. They basically say there is no evidence that birth order shapes personality even though so many of us believe that it does. What it does determine for a lot of people, it does have an effect on other things than personality including height and likelihood of allergies, but also things like IQ and test scores in school. Where you’re placed in the family line does have an effect on you, just not on personality, but on other things.

Zibby: Sorry for the sirens. I don’t know what’s going on outside my window. I don’t even want to go over there and look. Sorry about that. I could even barely hear you, so I hope listeners can hear you because that was so interesting. I’m a first child too. I share your personality type and I shared your assumptions for a long time. I find, usually, an immediate common bond, shorthand with other first children. You just kind of get that mentality. I’ve actually come to believe I think third children really have won the jackpot. I think third children are so well-adjusted relative to the other two. Like you point out in your book, your parenting for each subsequent child is what dictates so much of the development. It’s not the fact that first children are less prone to allergies. It’s the fact that you’re so much more laid back about what you let the second children even do. Anecdotally, it seems like birth order does play a role.

Lynn: Yeah, it does. I feel the same. Everyone is like, but surely it must be true. I read this one scientist who compared it to horoscopes where once you believe that with a certain astrological sign come certain behaviors, that’s what you recognize in other people. You sort of filter out everything that’s contrary to your assumptions. What also plays a role is that firstborns are often assigned different roles than secondborn. They might be asked, can you look after your brother? Could you please help me? You’re the oldest one. They might behave differently, but that behavior is not necessarily an expression of their personality. It’s an expression of the role they’ve been given. It’s hard to disentangle behavior from personality. I still find it so fascinating.

Zibby: What is your astrological sign? How closely does it jive with who you are?

Lynn: This is where the fact that I’m not a native English speaker comes in because I don’t know the English word for my astrological sign.

Zibby: When is your birthday?

Lynn: It’s April 26th. It’s the end of April.

Zibby: Oh, it’s coming up. Happy birthday. Exciting.

Lynn: Thank you. What does that make me? Taurus.

Zibby: What are the typical…?

Lynn: They’re meant to be stubborn. I do recognize that.

Zibby: That’s funny. Maybe I should start asking every guest what their astrological sign is. I could do my own study, actually. I could see if it’s really true, my sample audience here. Awesome. How are your kids getting along now?

Lynn: I think they’re getting along fine for siblings. Their relationship is pretty warm. My daughter is now seven and a half. My son is four and a half. They fight, but I think it’s perfectly within reason and definitely a lot less than I used to fight with my sister. The things I can really see that I also read about in the research is that the oldest one is really training the youngest one. He’s always looking up to his sister and sort of copying her and trying to do the things she does. The other way around, she obviously doesn’t do that with him. She’s the teacher. He’s the student.

Zibby: I have that exact same thing with my little guys. I have a seven-and-a-half-year-old and a six-year-old. This morning he woke up and immediately went to the bathroom right next to us, in the bathroom obviously, but he didn’t close the door all the way. Before they even said hello to each other, my seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter was like, “You didn’t shut the door,” and then pushed the door. I went over to her. I was like, “How would you like it if you woke up and the person who you looked up to most in the world was rude to you before you could even go to the bathroom and say good morning? What kind of day does that set you up to have? Would you like that if you walked over to me and I immediately was rude to you? No. You would probably then turn around and be rude to someone else, and the whole world would be a worse place. Just because it’s him, that doesn’t mean you can do that.” I think she was finally like, okay, okay.

Lynn: Aw. It’s true. The relationship is so uneven, especially when they’re young. There’s always this age gap. That also means a gap in power, in knowledge, in manipulative skills. It’s really dramatic.

Zibby: It would be like always being in class with someone who’s two or three grades ahead of you. In everything you do, you’d always feel like you were behind. I was young for my grade, and I felt behind just by a couple months. Oh, well, so much for second children. We don’t have to worry about them, I guess.

Lynn: They’ll be fine. In the end, they’ll all be fine.

Zibby: Wait, you mentioned at the beginning that you loved to read and that you’ve always loved to read. What kind of things do you love to read? What genre? What authors, even? When do you like to read?

Lynn: It’s all over the place. I’m really into the literary essayists. Actually, I quote some of them in the book, so for instance, Rachel Cusk who wrote this beautiful book about becoming a mother, Zadie Smith, Leslie Jamison, all the US and UK female essayists who . Then I also just love novels. I’m happy with a nineteen-century novel. I’m happy with one that just came out. I usually read at night, so before sleep. I also read during the day, but that’s for work because I’m a journalist. I will read academic papers about family formation and stuff like that.

Zibby: Tell me more about your journalist work.

Lynn: I write for The Correspondent, which is an online journalism platform based in Amsterdam. I cover care, not just healthcare, but care in general, so also informal care like the care that parents give the children or that one might give to friends. My working thesis is that without care, society wouldn’t exist. We can’t live without people taking care of us and us taking other people. It’s incredibly fundamental and incredibly unappreciated. Professional caretakers often don’t make a lot of money. Parents have to squeeze care in between work, basically. I’m trying to figure out, what is it about care that makes it so important and yet so invisible? What would we need in order to take proper care?

Zibby: I love that. Is that your next book?

Lynn: Yeah.

Zibby: Okay, good.

Lynn: Stay tuned.

Zibby: Stay tuned. That sounds great, and such an important message. I feel like if anything, this past year has highlighted the need for that, especially when so many supports were ripped out from underneath so many people.

Lynn: It does feel timely, which for a journalist is always nice.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Lynn: What was really helpful for me in writing this book, which was my first book, was telling myself that I was writing a book and not the book. It didn’t have to include everything I had ever thought of. That made it really easy to make choices about what should and shouldn’t go in. As for the practical, everyday writing, I had been doing research and making notes from the moment I was pregnant with my second child, basically. Then at some point, I took some time off to really sit down and write it. Every week, I would just type up random disjointed paragraphs. Then at the end of the week, I would send them to my editor who didn’t read them and also didn’t reply to them but who still, because of this arrangement, made me feel like I was being held accountable. It was a really good motivation to just write something down every week. Then after a couple of months, I went back into my mail, found all those dispatches, printed them out, and arranged them. What emerged was not a book, but something that could become a book. It felt like it had written itself in bits and pieces rather than through concentrated hours and hours of writing. It really depends on what kind of writer you are, but for me, that was really helpful.

Zibby: That’s great. This is such a random question. How did your family end up in Amsterdam? How did you end up there?

Lynn: I was born here. I studied in , which is in the south of the country. Then I went to New York for a PhD and then met my partner while I was back in Amsterdam on summer break. Then he moved to New York with me. We had a blast and then figured that if we wanted to have children, we may prefer to have them close to our family, so we moved back. I’ve been back here ever since.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. I’m always so interested in how people end up all over the world. Anyway, random, as I said. Lynn, thank you so much. This has been really interesting. Your book was really interesting. Literally, I feel like you did a service for everyone else. You could’ve easily left all that information on your desk and tucked away. Instead, you decided to share it. That’s great. Now so many people can benefit, anybody who’s thinking of having a second child. I also just found this to be a very interesting birth order — I’m not about to have a child, but I found this super fascinating. This really applies to lots and lots of people.

Lynn: Thank you.

Zibby: Take care. Maybe I’ll see you in Amsterdam sometime.

Lynn: That would be lovely. Have a lovely day.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Lynn: Bye.


Second Thoughts by Lynn Berger

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