My 12-year-old daughter Hayley was not exactly planned. We were pretty young parents and hadn’t even finished growing up yet, ourselves. Subsequently, we had much that we wanted to accomplish before expanding our family. When she was about eight, the baby fever set in – right when I was in the midst of graduate school. Her baby brother Colin was born right before her 9th birthday and about eight weeks before I graduated with my second degree. Starting over with a new baby, despite how well prepared we were this time around, was much more challenging than I anticipated. If I’m being honest, it was a shit show. Even though he was the second kid, this was not like riding a bicycle.
Parenting children with a larger age gap has its own unique set of joys and challenges that you can’t fathom unless you’re living it. You are a veteran mom in some ways, having successfully raised a child into their elementary years or beyond. In other ways, you quickly realize that you still have no idea what the fuck you’re doing. Here are some very raw truths about parenting kids with a larger gap:
- You won’t feel like you’re going from 1 to 2. Your older child will be independent enough to give you more time to focus on the baby, just like a first time mom. You’ll have a quiet house while your oldest is in school and can bribe them to play with the baby while you take a hot shower. Hayley was nine when Colin was born. She had been independently using the bathroom, showering, and getting herself ready for years. She even packed her own lunches and washed her own laundry. The transition to a second child was a very different experience for me than for my friends with two closer in age. In many ways, I felt as though I had two separate families.
- …but in some ways you will. Even though Hayley was very independent, she still needed to be parented. You’ll live through the challenges of maintaining an older child’s busy schedule and extracurriculars with an unpredictable baby in tow. Amidst the chaos of diapers and breastfeeding, I was helping her with math homework and toting her to cheer practice. My life was a constant juggling act calming her colicky brother while reciting spelling words and signing permission slips. Those were the moments when it really hit me – you have two of these things now. You are responsible for two little humans that need you, albeit in very different ways.
- Family outings will be impossible to plan. Do you know what nine year olds like? Going to the movies. Shopping. Paintball. Trampoline parks. Board games. Basically, fun activities that are anything but baby friendly. Do you know what babies like? Pooping, sleeping at inconvenient times, and cluster feeding. As a result, my husband and I often split up and each took a kid, which meant that full family outings were a rarity. Planning around nap schedules and fussiness is tricky and sometimes more trouble than it’s worth. Be prepared to get some serious 1:1 time with each kid separately, but time as a family won’t be quite the same for awhile.
- Vacations are shot, too. I love traveling. When Colin was nine months old, we decided it would be a great idea to take him on a six hour flight to California. Amateur move. Needless to say, it wasn’t a vacation for any of us. Hayley is at the stage where her friends’ Snapchat stories depict all of their magical vacations, laying on beaches and riding elephants in lagoons. It’s not as easy to live that lifestyle with a baby on board (or at all, if we’re being honest), and there aren’t many trips that are fun for infants, tweens, and overtired parents. Your vacations might take a hiatus for a few years.
- Exhaustion will be an understatement. Speaking of being overtired, tweens are emotionally exhausting. There’s the eye rolling, the tears of frustration, the foot stomping, and the friendship drama. There’s the, “I don’t understand this math problem!” issue and the, “Emily told me that my shirt was ugly!” issue. You know what else is exhausting? Newborns. Your body is healing, your breasts are leaking, and you’re running off two hours of sleep and entirely too much caffeine. Couple that with the tween crap and it’s enough to make any sane person lose their shit. You’re trudging through two very different trenches simultaneously. You will be pulled in every direction and be completely brain dead and touched out by the time bedtime rolls around.
- Their bond might be different, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. Colin looks to Hayley as a role model and true authority figure. I’ve often caught Hayley whispering to him that he’s her favorite person in the world. Colin has taught her more about patience and compassion than I ever could as a parent. They still manage to find things in common that they both love, like singing karaoke songs and making silly videos with Snapchat filters. Their bond is pretty rock solid despite those nine years between them. The bond your children share, despite their gap, will be the most amazing thing to witness. You will see your older child’s leadership flourish as they guide their younger sibling, and you will discover the magic that comes from said sibling thinking their big brother or sister is the greatest person in existence.
Sometimes I wonder if waiting too long was a mistake – will they be close as adults? Colin will only be nine when Hayley goes off to college – will he even remember a time with her? The truth is, the struggles and joys of parenting are real and raw with any age gap. Taking that time to achieve my goals was an important piece of my parenting journey and has made me the mother I am today. Whatever the reason for your larger gap, you are giving your kids the lifelong gift (or curse?) of a sibling – whenever it happens to work best for your family.