We always knew we wanted three kids. We imagined our kids would be close enough in age that they could be pals and schoolmates. Instead, our kids were far enough apart that my friends thought I failed a course in family planning—or they assumed we had fertility issues. Our youngest is five-and-a-half years behind our middle kid, and eight years younger than our eldest.
In total, this means I spent 16 years in elementary school—as a parent. Students graduated, teachers retired, the administration changed and I was still trudging to the same drop-off and pickup every day.
At one point, my three kids were in high school, middle school and early elementary school. This age spread seemed like an eternity to most of my mom friends.
“What were you thinking?” they’d say with a snicker. To them, our youngest looked like the proverbial accident. The truth is, it took a full five years to catch our breath and adjust after having our second. Having two kids turned out to be a much bigger challenge than we’d expected because our second child struggled socially and emotionally, and needed tons of extra attention and support. By the time we felt we could actually handle a third, five years had passed.
Still, I understood why those friends were amused by our configuration. They knew there were tricky things about the age range, and it would have been easier if we had quit before the third child. At our house, there was little to interest everyone at once. We couldn’t all watch the same movie or read the same books at bedtime, and family game night invariably disintegrated when the baby swept important pieces off the board or tried to snack on Scrabble tiles. One child wanted the playground while the other planned an evening at a nightclub. My teenager announced her first boyfriend while the youngest wiggled her first loose tooth. The boy in the middle held his own against waves of dress-up and makeup with his sisters.
What's the best age gap between kids?Then there was the thorough exhaustion that accumulated between children. Of course, we were sleep deprived from year after year of waking up to breastfeed, calm nightmares and treat fevers. But now we also had late nights helping with homework and midnight pickups from weekend parties. Let’s face it, we didn’t run around the playground with our third the way we did with the others. We were content to sit on a park bench and watch.
There also was something a little lonely about having our third child after our friends were long finished building their families. Her late arrival meant I was still attending playdates and field trips to the pumpkin patch while many of my mom friends were beginning second careers, seeking masters degrees, moving on and starting to focus on themselves again. Part of me felt left behind.
Friends I hadn’t seen in a while always asked, “Are you writing?” They figured I’ve been mothering for 15 years already, I must have had time to write. The truth was, I didn’t write much. I’d been a school board trustee, a soccer coach, a chauffeur, a social organizer, a chauffeur, a fundraiser, family historian and photographer, chauffeur, accountant, general contractor and chauffeur, but no, I hadn’t written much. Every year I’d think, “This is the year I start to write” and every year I was wrong.
Meanwhile, the parents of my children’s friends kept getting younger. And groovier. I was Veteran Mom. I’d nod politely while other parents would fret over whether Sadie would ever read, or gossip about who didn’t get invited to which birthday party. The first time around, I was in the thick of these conversations; with my third child, I tried not to offer unsolicited advice for fear of sounding like an old warhorse.
I already had my own answers to the frequently asked questions: What to do about allowance? (One dollar per week per grade. With monetary gifts, have your children divide the money in three: one third to save, one third for charity and one third to spend as they like.) What do you tell your five-year-old when he or she asks about sex? (Answer them honestly, but keep details to a minimum. You know they have heard enough when they cover their ears and say “Yuck.”)
“How old is your oldest?” newer parents would ask. “Wow,” they’d respond slowly, wide-eyed, as if they couldn’t believe I had survived the intervening years.
Don’t get me wrong: there are benefits to having children so far apart. The oldest could eventually babysit for the youngest. I schemed she’d one day get her licence and become the new chauffeur, driving her baby sister to ballet, soccer, and playdates—but I didn’t, ultimately, take advantage of this potential perk.
I suspected that deep down, my friends, already mothers of teenagers, felt pangs of jealousy when I announced I was pregnant again. Although a new baby in any of their lives would have thrown them, they all remembered the miraculous tiny weight of a newborn in their arms. The memory of that new baby smell rendered some of them temporarily broody enough to venture discussions with their husbands about having more children. (The husbands told them to snap out of it.)
Perhaps we were willing to have a third baby because enough time had passed that we didn’t quite remember how hard it was. We didn’t picture how, at nearly 40 and 42, it would be a new level of gruelling to be up all night with a baby, that potty-training would be nearly impossible while running the older ones to soccer, that we would need to endure so many more years of tantrums, whining and Barbies.
We only knew that our family wasn’t finished. We decided that if I could get pregnant, then it was meant to be. And when our third finally did arrive, everything felt right. For a little while, the new baby kept all of us younger in spirit. She allowed us all to play, be silly and focus on our intimate family unit for just a little longer.
When our last kid finally reached school age, my friends laughed with pity at the idea that I would slog again through the same demanding elementary school rituals—the same fundraisers and field trips and friendship dramas. The same politics, just with younger faces attached. I groaned and went along. But I also sensed their envy—a wistfulness for a time that, in retrospect, had passed too quickly.
After all, we were now at a stage when our parents were falling ill, and best friends were divorcing or even dying young, and the simplicity and boredom of the playground was something to long for. As my friends’ teen children pushed them away, I still had a small hand that actually sought mine, and held on as if it would never let go. On some days it seemed as if I would never graduate from elementary school, but that little hand kept me warm and reminded me that it was totally worth sitting through kindergarten orientation—yet again. I’d say that if all we ever need to know we learned in kindergarten, I was very well educated indeed.