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What Having a Second Child Does to Your Marriage, Finances, and Family Dynamic

When families welcome a second child into their world, they often welcome some unexpected surprises.

Most new parents have been asked many, many times when they’ll be having a second child. Such intrusiveness is common in part because, statistically, OAD (read: “one and done”) families are in the minority. In fact, the number of children Americans consider “ideal” for families has risen in recent years, from 2.5 kids in 2007 to three or more in 2018, according to a Gallup poll. As three is considered the magic number for four in 10 Americans, and because stigmas about only children linger, a lot of people assume parents with one child haven’t yet completed their families.

Of course, it’s not just societal pressure. Parents who grew up with siblings might want their kid to have a sister or brother, too. Now that they’re seasoned parenting pros, why not have another? Siblings always have someone to play with, and they can look out for each other as they grow up. 

Those upsides might bear out in real life. But they also might not. Expectation doesn’t always dovetail with reality, and having a second child has a unique and much bigger impact on finances, marriage, and the family dynamic than a lot of people realize. 

“A second child is two and a half or three times more difficult than the first,” estimates licensed clinical social worker and father of two Andrew Aaron. “Whereas the third is equivalent to only half a child more difficult than having two. So it is a big deal and it is challenging.”

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In broad terms, here’s what having a second child does to the 

How Having a Second Child Effects Finances

The average cost of raising a child (from birth to age 17) in the U.S. is more than $233,000, according to the most recent Department of Agriculture figures. And that doesn’t include the cost of college. This accounts for why many millennial parents (59 percent) underestimate the cost of raising children, according to a recent Bank of America survey, and why 21 percent reported that debt was keeping them from starting or growing a family. 

The good news is that you needn’t double the USDA amount to calculate the cost of a second child, because generally, second children don’t cost as much as first children do. Analyzing government data, statistician Heather Krause concluded that parents were less satisfied with their financial situation after having their first child, but that the second child didn’t pack the same wallop to the wallet. The greatest portion of parents, in fact, experienced no change in satisfaction with their money situation after having a second child. Of the parents who did report feeling differently about their finances after a second baby, however, significantly more women (53 percent) were less happy regarding finances than were men (18 percent). 

The theory is that housing and food costs of either one- or two-child households are more or less the same, and younger kids can use their older siblings’ stroller, high chairs, clothes and toys. Schools and camps usually offer discounts for multiple children, which makes second children less expensive than first children. The key phrase here though, is “less” expensive

You don’t keep car seats forever, and they expire if safety regulations change, notes Racine Henry, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist (and mother). If years have passed since your first child was born, you probably got rid of your stroller. Even if parents get a little break on tuition for multiple children at camp or private school, kids still need individual uniforms, lessons or gear, depending on their activities. 

And that’s just the little stuff. If a second child means you need to move to a bigger house or get a bigger car, the cost of that second child can tick upward quite a bit. 

But as much as we hear how common it is to fight about money, don’t panic if your relationship is generally strong, says Indiana psychologist and sex therapist (and father of three) John Petersen, PsyD.

“Money matters cause stress but after a certain point, it’s symbolic,” he says. “How much conflict there is in a marriage doesn’t correlate at all with happiness or divorce. Couples don’t come into therapy because of particular conflicts, they come in because of how they manage conflict. It’s how it unfolds and how you engage in conflict that’s the best single predictor of divorce.”

How a Having Second Child Affects a Marriage

Looking at the FiveThirtyEight analysis again, Krause found that more than half of men were less satisfied with their partners after having a child and that drop in satisfaction was roughly the same for men after having a second child. Only around 10 percent said they were happier after having a second kid, compared with more than 30 percent of women. Fewer women than men said they were less satisfied with the relationship after the second baby. 

“I work with lots of couples who, a decade or two later, point to the birth of their second child as the event that caused the disconnection that knocked them off track,” Aaron says. “And they were never able to get it back.” 

The first child is a bit of a novelty, Aaron says. It’s a whole different phase of life that’s exciting and, hopefully, brings spouses closer together. The second baby affects the relationship differently, and if there are cracks already, having another child to care for can fracture the relationship.

With one child, your time is split between your child and your partner. But when another one comes along, splitting time and attention gets more complicated, which is why second children tend to disrupt marriages more than third or fourth kids do, Henry says. 

“It’s such a big transition going from one to two. It isn’t that it’s harder, but it’s the first time you’ve had multiple children,” she says.

Couples struggling to raise two kids can fall into a stereotypical but familiar pattern. Mothers focus on mothering and if Dad grows resentful because he doesn’t feel he’s getting enough attention, he might distance himself. This causes Mom to focus even more attention on the children, sometimes to the point that she starts talking to her partner as if he’s another child, Aaron says. If Dad withdraws from the children as well, Mom might try to compensate to make up for the love and attention the kids aren’t getting from their other parent, making her load even heavier and her resentment toward him increase. Dad might, often by necessity, take care of the older child while Mom has the infant, which can help fortify the wall between parents as well. Parents might cope with the added stress in dysfunctional ways, such as affairs or drug or alcohol misuse.

In many families, the stress also is compounded once kids start school, says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “The strain on parents, and moms in particular, to become chauffeurs to their kids’ various extracurricular activities is enormous and can stress the marital relationship. This is especially true if one partner wanted a second child while the other did not.”

The disconnect between expectations and reality frequently causes conflict, Henry says. But it helps to focus on being proactive about the relationship.

“It’s not about bottles and laundry, it’s about accountability. We can talk to death in therapy about what will happen or how they’ll do things differently, but I try to focus couples more on how they’re going to hold each other accountable,” she says. “‘How are we going to have these conversations? How are we going to remind each other what we need from each other once these moments arise?”

Two-thirds of conflict in marriage is perpetual, meaning the same stuff comes up again and again, Petersen adds. Taking time to be intentional in the marriage can help. 

“A basic thing I find most helpful for parents is a connecting ritual,” Petersen says. “Take 10 minutes a night to just focus on each other. Finding even 10 minutes together can be very difficult, and if the marriage isn’t thriving, you might want to turn away from the marriage to just rest. But if you can remind yourself, ‘This is about you and me, and let’s nurture that,’ everybody benefits.”

How Having a Second Child Changes The Family Dynamic

Most of us know someone who hasn’t spoken to a sibling in years. So clearly, having the same parents is no guarantee two people will be lifelong pals. There are ways parents can help keep jealousy and resentment between siblings to a minimum, but the obligation to foster lifelong harmony can be overwhelming when you’re still tackling practical matters such as which kid to chase when they run off in separate directions. 

“We have a thick photo album of our first child, but only a couple pages of the second child,” Aaron admits. “We were so overwhelmed at that point that taking photos dropped low on the priority list.”

Before the second kid comes along, many parents worry they won’t love their second children as much as they love their first one, Henry says. Once the baby arrives, the worry shifts more to whether they’re neglecting the first kid because the baby, naturally, needs more from them. Other fears come up, too, Henry says, like worrying, “Will I like this person? Will they get along with each other?”

There’s no question that it’s a lot, on practical as well as emotional levels, Aaron says. Once the baby is sleeping, the time and attention you could take for yourself or your partner now likely shifts to the older child. You’re not only caring for two children but dealing with what might be complicated issues of jealousy and hurt feelings between them, all while you’re more exhausted than ever.

“I don’t want to paint too dark a picture, but it’s tough,” Aaron says. “Especially with two parents who work; they never get a break. Little kids are 24-7, you come home from work to job No. 2.”

Something that helps ease the transition is to help your older child secure his or her place in the family. Every child finds a unique position in a family, and it’s always relative to the other sibling, Petersen says. 

“Even good events are stressful events. So it’s important to prep older siblings who will be figuring out, ‘What is my role now?’” Petersen says. “And sometimes parents are floored by how different their children are. They might feel like they don’t know what to do because this new child isn’t following the script.”

When conflict between kids arise, parents often are quick to intervene, which is a mistake, Petersen continues. Instead of first questioning and punishing your older child for upsetting the younger one, for example, go to the younger child to comfort them and talk to the older child about it later, in private. 

“Parents generally get over-involved in sibling conflict, which makes it worse,” he says. “Parents become the nuclear option, and kids keep score of who gets punished most.”

Once your second child is born, help position your older child as the older sibling and affirm his or her role in the family.  

“When the younger one is gazing at or pursuing the older child, point out to your child, ‘Oh, she’s really looking up to you; she’s studying you. I think she admires you. You make her laugh in a way I can’t,’” Petersen advises.

One thing you can be sure of as parents is that you’ll never quite know what’s going to happen. 

“My wife and I joke that if we had our younger daughter first, we never would’ve had a second child,” Aaron says. “Two children can be very different, and it can be hard. But there are joys and it can be wonderful, too.”