My brother was four years older than I and growing up that seemed like a really huge age difference. We were only in the same school one year, when I was in first grade and he was in fifth. I felt this was less than ideal spacing and wisely planned on having my kids closer in age—between two and three years. For those of you who had your families according to plan—well done and kudos to you. For the rest of us whose family planning may have deviated from the original blueprint, you will understand the trials and tribulations of managing a brood with a larger age gap.
Instead of the targeted two to three years spacing, my sons are each almost five years apart—in case you don’t feel like doing the math, that’s ten years between the oldest and youngest. One of my children’s most common complaints (among their litany of complaints) is that I should have had them closer together. My kids complain even though they are well aware of the reasons they are not closer in age; infant death and miscarriage were two contributing factors. Despite the procreation obstacles, my husband and I persevered and were blessed with three healthy boys. I admit that when the kids were young, it was easier having only one at a time in diapers. I never needed more than one car seat and I never owned a double stroller. I certainly had a lot of time to devote to each child individually and I think that they each benefited from that attention in a lot of ways. Those are some of the pluses of spacing your kids further apart.
However, the age gap has been a challenge in ways I didn’t fully appreciate at the beginning. So many things have changed between my oldest and youngest children and it has been hard for me to keep up. When my oldest was in school, I didn’t have to worry about cyber bullying or sexting. I had to look in his backpack for information from school—back then I only checked my email once a week and there was no parent portal. My oldest son didn’t get a smartphone until he left for college, unlike his youngest brother who got one in middle school. There was no Instagram, Facebook or Snap Chat.
Shielding my youngest son from inappropriate older brother behavior has been another issue. When my oldest son hosted a barbeque for his frat brothers, I walked outside to see my youngest son holding a red Solo cup of his own and participating in their drinking game. The big boys assured me there was only water in the cup and, although it was really nice of them to include him, this was not acceptable. I generally did not allow my older two to watch movies or play video games that were not age appropriate, but with the youngest it became much harder to police what he was being exposed to. Family activities such as choosing a movie when one child was G, one was PG and one was R was another challenge –the Muppets, Toy Story and Despicable Me were among the few movies that worked for everyone. At this point I have mostly given up and am thankful the youngest seems none the worse for having been exposed to things at an earlier age.
Having kids who are ten grades apart also meant having to constantly switch gears. One year I had back to school night for the youngest and oldest on the same night. I heard about naps and chemistry, ABCs and AP courses all within the same hour. It caused a form of parenting whiplash, a condition which became chronic. Three different schools, three different sets of after school activities, and three children in very different stages of development was the norm.
One unexpected benefit of having kids with a large age spread has been that the older boys have become allies in raising their brother. When they are home, they often take him to dinner and activities such as sporting events and the movies. Besides enjoying his company, I often think they relish revisiting their younger years for a few hours. They offer advice, comfort and support to each other in ways my husband and I cannot. One of the highlights at my youngest son’s bar mitzvah reception was each of the older boys giving a toast—the sentiments they expressed to their brother were different, but equally beautiful and heartfelt. A few years ago, I came downstairs to find my middle son tying his younger brother’s tie for the band concert in which they both performed—a rare night for me to have them both on the same stage. And just last month, my oldest son schlepped to the Bronx to watch his youngest brother at a debate tournament—an activity he loved in high school and in which he encouraged his brother to participate.
This may not have been the exact family I envisioned when I was a child and sometimes I feel as if I have been parenting forever, in an endless Groundhog Day kind of loop. But like Bill Murray’s character realizes at the end of the movie, the place where I never thought I wanted to be turned out to be an amazing place after all.