When I was a kid, I thought it was a little strange when I found out a friend of mine had older siblings that I didn't even know about. They were married already. Later I thought that families that had some kids, a big break, and some more kids seemed inefficient, and I wondered if they could possibly have a close relationship. As a young adult, I had fully intended to have a large, stair step family. I had it all planned out. First two girls, because it's helpful to have a girl first who is interested in helping to take care of the babies that follow, and then another girl because I had wanted a sister all my life and didn't have one. After that we would have about 6 boys, because my teen years made it very clear that there is a shortage of good guys out there and I wanted to help in that department.
Of course, much of that plan changed. Initially, I was lucky to get pregnant just as soon as I wanted to. But we were sure from the beginning of the pregnancy that it was going to be a boy, not the girl I had originally planned. But we were thrilled and felt that this was a good adjustment to the plan. Then when we decided to try for #2, it took an entire year to get pregnant. Our stair steps were going to be a bit further apart than we thought. It also took a long time before #3 came along. It was six years, a complete infertility review, and a miscarriage to get #4 (and our first girl). We were all delighted.
Plans had changed, but I still was determined to have my two girls, and it took 3 1/2 years before we managed to get one more. They will be 4 years apart in school. I was 40 years old, and frankly a bit worn out, but very grateful for each one.
Sometimes I still miss the classic stair-step family idea: kids in at least every other grade at school, signed up in the same activities, live-in friends, going through the same phases one after another, intense chaos but for a few short years, kids lined up without hieght gaps. And I have a little pang of envy when I see a family like that. We just took a family portrait, and I felt extra stress at it having to be a good one because it would probably be the only one of when all our kids were in it and still kids. (Look at the camera, please!)
But I have to confess I also feel a bit of relief when I see how hard it can be to have so many kids close together. There are advantages to spreading things out a little, too. True, I've been changing diapers for more than 17 years (with a 3 year break), but it was just one kid at a time in diapers (most of the time). Of course there is the most enviable and recognized fact that we have live-in babysitters that we use quite regularly. (Though it's a good thing we have 3 of them because they have busier social calendars than we do.)
But my favorite perk of having teenagers and toddlers at the same time is the relationship they have with each other. Take a teenage boy with a chip on his shoulder and ask him anything about his life, and it's a good chance you get a very brief, non-eye-contact answer (or a grunt). Then in walks a two year with butterfly wings on, and all of a sudden Mr. Cold Pricklies is all smiles and warm fuzzies. It's only in her direction, but I can still see the magic happen.
Have you tried to wake up a teenager? In case you have any delusions, they aren't exactly appreciative of your efforts. But a baby sister waking him up? Suddenly the cheery morning light streams in the window.
My #3 son is getting plenty of exercise for his pre-teen angst with the siblings close to him. But everyone once in a while out of the blue (really the transformation is so shocking it's like we've switched to a parallel universe) his countenance softens and he lets out some comment on how cute his littlest sister is, and I can tell he is enamored with her. Maybe it's our particular combination of having older boys and younger girls, but these little sisters do wonders for these crusty teenage boys, and I'm so glad they are the ages they are for their sakes.
We try to go out on dates as a couple regularly, which we feel we have reached the golden age of--time together is so valuable, and we don't have to leave to pick up or take home a sitter. On top of that, we don't have to pay them (in money,anyway). We are less successful but strive to take our kids out on individual dates also. Scheduling seems to be a major barrier in this area, but time alone together seems to be of great importance in building and maintaining good relationships. Now that we have a child with his own driver's license, we occasionally offer to help him take his younger siblings out on dates, too. (By offer, I mean make the suggestion, and by help, I mean schedule it and donate a few dollars for dinner or whatever.)
Our six-year-old came home glowing from her trip to Fazoli's and the park with her big brother, and her brother is talking about what they'll do the next time. Our son who just has his driver's permit has already planned how he is going to take his sister out for frozen yogurt as soon as he gets his license.
Yes, it is hard having kids in so many different stages. When my youngest was born, she turned out to have some special needs that let me sleep less than when my others were newborns. At the same time we had one in the high school marching band. Was I the mom chaperoning on the bus for band trips? Not by a long shot. Did I know his friends? Not really. Now I am teaching my preschooler Joy School and scheduling in college trips at the same time. We have four different "Okay--it's time to go!" times for school in the morning. When to fit in exercise and a shower for myself as well as breakfast and a family prayer?
They also come home from school at all different times. Though this puts a damper on my attempts at special after school snacks (if I made muffins, what time should they come out of the oven?), it does mean that I get to say an individual, "Hi, how was your day?" to each child. Inefficient perhaps, but if I discipline myself to put down what I'm doing and pay attention, it can be profitable. (It also makes the school day shorter, no rest for the weary! Well okay, some, but not enough.)
At-home movie night is a bit more challenging with something animated first, a break for bedtime for the younger ones, and then half of something a little more exciting for the older ones. Our 6 year old never gets her wish for us to go to Chuck E. Cheese, which is totally not fair since we used to take the boys when they were little, but it just doesn't entertain enough family members anymore.
But there's nothing like seeing the heart of a cool teenager . . .
. . . melt. Or at least melt mine.
Of course there are rough moments between them still. Particularly with our youngest son (now 12) and oldest daughter (now 6), who have had constant "STOP STARING AT ME" issues several times a day for months now, it seems.
Perhaps a six year gap is too small . . .