Last week I met a woman at the drop-in centre with four children: a four-year-old boy, a two-year-old boy and nine-month-old twin girls. Before I could help it, I found myself gasping with something akin to horror when she gave me the rundown – a reaction she’s no doubt become familiar with in the nine months since her girls made their debut.
Upon closer inspection, though, there was nothing even remotely horrifying about it. The woman looked tired, sure, but she was managing. She was upright, dressed and smelled pretty good and her kids were all in one piece. In my book, that was some medal worthy mothering, given the circumstances.
I am always in awe of those who have multiple little people to corral because it’s something I have never had to do. When I had my second baby, my first “baby” was seven years old and when I had my third, number two was almost six. I have never had two in diapers. I’ve never had to contend with tandem nursing, multiple car seats, or even all of my kids crying at the same time – a scenario that more than one of my girlfriends have lamented over a much-needed glass (read: bottle) of wine.
What my husband and I do have to deal with, though, as parents to a 13-year-old, a six-year-old and a nine-month old are the unusual challenges that come with juggling three kids with three very different sets of needs and doing our best to meet all of them at the same time.
We worry about peer pressure, cyber stalkers and drugs – not to mention all of the other adolescent perils that await our oldest kiddo – while simultaneously concerning ourselves with choking hazards, exposed electrical outlets and the million and one other dangers that threaten our littlest guy every day.
Our shopping cart is sometimes a window into our unusual family demographics. A trip to the drugstore invariably includes picking up diapers and deodorant. The cashier’s furrowed brow signals to me that she’s trying to figure things out as she scans the Axe body spray, the Barbie lip balm and the box of Baby Mum Mums. In our world, bum cream and zit cream live side-by-side in the medicine cabinet – right above the Hello Kitty Band-Aids. Teething and the tooth fairy are both on our radar, while visits to the orthodontist are also a regular occurrence (and much pricier than the tooth fairy, I might add).
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of parenting across a vast expanse of ages and stages, though, is that the kids’ interests and activities are so diverse. Gage is old enough that his hockey games are now scheduled quite late on school nights – way too late for me to attend with his younger brother and sister in tow. At age six, Sadie is persona non grata at the drop-in centre as she is one year past the five-and-under age limit. And sitting through any kind of recital, game, or – just last week – high school info session with nine-month-old Shep has proven to be an almost impossible undertaking.
So, while I admire the moms and dads out there who have mastered the art of wiping one kid’s nose while wiping another’s bottom, there is something to be said for our particular brand of multitasking. Most importantly, we have to be vigilant about ensuring that our older kids’ needs don’t get lost in the minute-by-minute needs of our youngest, who is currently in a perpetual state of motion, his destination always the shortest possible route to self-destruction.
The question of the ideal age gap between siblings is one that is constantly being addressed in parenting magazines and even academic journals. There are as many opinions on the subject as there are so-called experts: don’t space them too closely or you’ll run yourself ragged; don’t space them too far apart or they’ll have nothing in common. As if we don’t have enough to figure out when it comes to starting a family – career, age, finances, fertility – now we’re also being told that how we space our kids might have an indelible effect on their character development.
As an only child, I don’t have much personal experience from which to draw any wisdom, but based on my own observations over the years, the question of whether siblings get along or not seems to come down to personality more than age difference or birth order. I know sisters who are 15 years apart and are the best of friends, and brothers with 18 months between them who can’t stand to be in the same room together.
In our case, we thought we would sidestep the teasing, bickering and sibling rivalry that most parents have to deal with thanks to the wide age gaps between our kids. We were wrong. Our dinner table and the back seat of our car play host to just as many sibling battles as any other family’s. But our kids are really close, too, despite the years between them.
Some couples want to get the baby stage over with all at once, whereas Jeff and I seem to be extending our parenting years to the limit. By the time Shep graduates from the sixth grade, we will have clocked a record number of years at the local elementary school. The moment one child was able to get his/her own cereal on Saturday mornings – leaving us to sleep in a little – we started all over again… TWICE! Crazy, eh? Yeah, maybe, but we love it. It wasn’t part of a master plan, but it’s our family and for us it’s just right.
So maybe the secret to the perfect sibling spacing lies not in the pages of a parenting magazine or psychology journal, but instead lives in each and every one of our households.