I believe that mothers need at least a year, if not two, between pregnancies to recover from birth. Both the toddler and baby are also shortchanged with closer spacing. Each family is different and with a lot of help and support, along with an understanding of attachment and infant development, it’s possible overcome this challenge. I am colored by my own experience: My oldest two, now teenagers, were born 18 months apart. I would never willingly repeat that experiment, and I am still not sure whether we came out of it okay.
Many Orthodox couples have their first two (or three) very close together. They are reluctant to use birth control at such an early stage, and because they haven’t had experience with toddlers they don’t quite know what’s in store. (Rabbi Maryles discussed some of the halachic issues surrounding birth control.) But young couples are well, young, and most have the energy to run after a toddler (or older baby) all day and wake up with a newborn at night. When there’s a ratio of one child per adult, young babies and slightly older babies can both still get their needs met.
Large, loving, emotionally healthy families are possible because it’s relatively easy to care for a baby while meeting the needs of older children. While you can never give the same amount of attention to two children that you can give to one, different ages require different things and their needs can be balanced. You can nurse a newborn while reading a toddler a story. You can place an infant in a sling while walking an older child to school or helping him in the bathroom. If you have built a good relationship, teenagers will find a way to have those crucial conversations even when life gets hectic. And both older and younger siblings benefit from the relationship. Children learn empathy from seeing their parents respond quickly to a baby’s distress. Older siblings realize that while they are able to wait a bit, helpless babies can’t.
The problem is that the needs of young infants and older infants/toddlers are still very intense. I generally observe the following principle in my own family: The younger the child, the more immediate the need. But there is another school of thought: Get through the baby/toddler stage until the real chinuch (education) begins.
Young babies can’t state their minds. Adults often assume that they don’t notice who holds them or even if they are held at all. Hands-off relationships with babies are acceptable in all segments of our society. “Travel systems,” where the baby’s carseat is strapped into a stroller base, allow the baby to go for hours without being touched. Cribs, playpens, pacifiers and bottles (not to mention Kallah’s bottle-proppers) are tools that create distance between the baby and the rest of the family, and if overused become poor substitutes for social and emotional needs. Babies are human beings and social creatures, and they need to be with people, especially one person who knows them well and tries to understand what they want.
My principle above can’t apply to the age between one and two if a younger baby is in the house. One-year-olds require even more time and energy than babies. They are just starting to learn about themselves and they haven’t gotten around to others yet. Naomi Stadlen, in her brilliant book “What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing,” writes about an 18-month-old who is only beginning to show some signs of empathy toward a playmate in distress. They are learning about their physical surroundings, their bodies, their boundaries, and their language. They require constant supervision, interaction, and physical closeness. Parents must consider the effect of a new pregnancy on a toddler, and whether the arrangements made for him during the mother’s birth and recovery respect his emotional and physical needs.
Mothers also miss out when the birth of a new baby interrupts their intense relationship with a young toddler. Parents benefit from caring for their children; it’s not just a one-way street. And best of all, this type of parenting investment builds security, love, and communication, making child-raising easier in the long run.
Part 2: Fertility and Parenting Styles