Walking through the familiar halls of the birth center, I clung to the tiny hand of my one-year-old and headed for the exam room.

Coming in the opposite direction, a mom with a newborn and toddler in tow locked eyes with me. She glanced at my babies – the one who could barely walk, and the one still nestled snugly in my womb. She saw one of my hands resting gently on the crest of my stomach and the other pulled and stretched downward. “Don’t worry,” she smiled softly, “You’ll love them each the same as the other.”

I smiled as the mom hormones rushed through me and I fought to keep the tears from welling in my eyes. How could I possibly love anyone as much as the boy I’d been blessed with last year? How could I open my heart to anyone else? I didn’t know.

It’s not true what they say when you’re pregnant with your second child. Not even a little. You won’t love them both the same. There will be days when one needs you, and the other wants only to push you away. There will be days when one self-assuredly ventures out on his own while the other stays close to your breast. There will be days, long days, many days, filled with yelling and fighting and laughter and tears and sticky sweet snuggles. They will become monsters and firemen, doctors and bad guys, princesses and mommies.

You won’t love them both the same because these two children aren’t the same. You won’t love them both the same because they don’t need you both the same. Don’t be afraid though. You will love them. You will love them fiercely and entirely and with every fiber of your being. And their differences, their quirks and strengths, their faults and follies, will worm their way right into your heart. 

Our first child was planned meticulously. We timed my ovulation and tracked my basal temperature. I knew the estimated due date for every upcoming cycle. I obsessed over the tiniest details. When we got pregnant right away, I did everything by the book. And when we found out it was the boy we’d both secretly hoped for, we were over the moon. He was born in October so I had the whole winter to cuddle that tiny little thing against my breast. The love was easy and simple. He was exactly what I had wanted.

But because he was so perfect and everything worked out the way I’d planned, I blamed myself whenever anything didn’t feel right. When he wouldn’t sleep, or woke up soaking wet, or was sick or injured, I knew it was my fault because I was the one who had planned this all so meticulously. I felt indebted to him for the perfect arrival he’d been, and I worked tirelessly to pay back my debt with love. He’d stuck to his part of the deal. Now it was my turn.   

And then, before he was even a year, before he could walk or talk or sleep through the night, I found myself in the bathroom staring at another positive pregnancy test. But this pregnancy test wasn’t bought months ago, stored carefully at the correct temperature, and taken out ceremoniously on a day circled on the calendar.

Instead, I’d woken that morning with a start. I felt just slightly nauseated, hungover but without having had a sip to drink. Suddenly, jarringly, it occurred to me that my irregular, still-breastfeeding period hadn’t made an appearance in well over a month. I sat up and sent my husband to the store for the pregnancy test that I now threw on the counter. 

“I’m pregnant. I knew it,” I snapped at my husband who was smiling. I was not. I stomped out of the room.

“I’m going to miss my brother’s wedding,” I snapped again. My only sibling had just days earlier finally set a date, and now as I quickly counted the calendar in my head I realized it was days apart from when this baby would arrive.

“And I’m definitely NOT going to spend my own birthday pushing out another kid,” I grumbled when I realized that there was a decent chance that I would.

This was not how I had planned it.

I spent the rest of that week wishing this weren’t happening right now. I wanted another baby, but I wanted him later. It wasn’t supposed to happen now. Unplanned pregnancies were for teenagers and losers. Addicts maybe. Ignorants. Definitely not mostly-happy married couples with mostly-happy babies.

It didn’t take long to adjust to the idea though, and soon I was just as excited about baby #2 as I’d been about my first. When we found out it was another boy, I beamed through tears of joy just imagining my two sons growing up as brothers, a year and a half apart, and best friends.

The pregnancy was harder physically, but easier emotionally. I knew what to expect and this time around, I couldn’t blame myself for anything, as this had not been something I’d planned. I felt such relief at owing no debt, as this hadn’t been my idea.

Even his birth was blissful. When my birthday and due date both came and went without a baby, I downed a few shots of castor oil, put my older son to sleep and caught my baby in the bathtub three hours later. I was completely amazed by him.

Yet somehow I could never shake the knowledge that when I first found out he was coming, I wasn’t filled with love immediately. I didn’t cry tears of joy when I saw those parallel lines on the pregnancy test, and I felt so guilty.

When he got sick just a week after we brought him home, I felt like there was some karmic justice due to me. We spent a week back in our local hospital – just him and me – before the doctors decided he should be transferred to the bigger children’s hospital in the city. He wasn’t dying, or even really that outwardly sick, but the idea that he could be, and that I’d somehow wished him away for even a moment before I’d ever met him, burned inside of me.    

He’s better now, but when I hold him and his tiny hands press against my shoulder blades, his arms and legs clenching his body against mine, I feel how desperately he wants to be with me and I wonder if it’s because I love him back with the same desperation. I yearn for his affection. I savor his quiet moments.

I can never love him hard enough to erase that moment when I wished he wouldn’t be.

He climbs up my body, clawing, all bony nubs and sinew. He clutches around my neck and we squeeze each other just a little too hard. It’s as though we’re each trying to absorb the other into our very selves. My heart aches for him at the most unexpected moments. He’s exactly what I needed, even when I thought we were already perfect without him.   

But my older son’s body melts into mine. He leans into me with the ease of someone who’s been here forever. My arms drape gently, comfortably over his shoulders. The kisses and snuggles are so simple, so easy, so sweet. When he slips into my lap, hands me a book and nuzzles his nose under my chin, it feels just right. He is the perfect fit.

Before I go to bed, I sneak into their rooms to check on them. My older son, his yellow bangs stuck to his forehead in ringlets, his face hot and his breathing heavy. I pull his blanket down and tuck a light sheet around his shoulders. He stirs and rolls over, laying a hand heavily on my shoulder. When I kiss his forehead where the ringlets meet his brow, he quietly blows a kiss back at me, eyes still closed and head unmoving.

In the adjoining room, his brother is curled into a tight ball. At the sound of the door his head pops upright. “Mama,” he sighs blissfully, reaching a hand through the rails of his crib. He clenches my fingers in his balled up fist while I stroke the soft baby hair at the nape of his neck. His face relaxes but his grip is still tight. I use my other hand to pry open his fingers and free mine. I lean in and try to kiss him through the crib rails but I come up just short, getting only a breath of him.

These boys, who’ve stolen my heart. These boys, one sensitive and calculated, the other passionate and fiery. These boys, who’ve always been this way. I could never love them both the same. I could never give to one exactly what I give to the other.

I could never give them each just a half of my heart.