I have a confession to make: I don't miss having a baby. When other moms of older kids sigh wistfully over their lost babies, I smile and nod sympathetically, but secretly I'm thinking to myself, "thank God that's over!" While they're waxing rhapsodic over tiny fingers and toes, I'm contemplating the joys of uninterrupted sleep and children who can feed themselves.
During the time when I was desperately trying to get pregnant with our first baby, a friend asked me if I was sure I wanted a child and not just a baby. This is a fair question, given the way infants are romanticized. In popular culture, motherhood is primarily associated with babies, as if you lose some of your mothering cachet once your children are weaned and toilet trained. Mothers of small children are sentimentalized, but once your kids are in school, you revert back to ordinary mortal status.
Mothers are supposed to weep when they send their children to kindergarten, but I had a song in my heart when my older kids started elementary school. Part of my unequivocal joy at having older children is no doubt the result of having three children in nine years. I spent most of the last decade pregnant and nursing, and for nine years straight we had at least one child in diapers. I defy anyone to maintain the soft-focus glow of a Johnson's Baby Shampoo commercial after all that.
In a family with multiple children, everyone is
constrained by what the youngest member is capable of. With our first
two children, as soon as we got a kid to preschool age, we had another baby,
in effect starting over with late night feedings and colic. Meals,
vacations and home décor were all dictated by the needs of an infant,
despite the fact that the rest of the family was capable of sitting quietly
in a restaurant, going camping, or not peeing on the couch. Alec turned
three in August, and this is the first time we've had a child this age that
we didn't also have an infant. Finally, progress!
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Parenting older children brings its own set of challenges; the biggest one right now is coordinating everyone's schedules. We joke that the other soccer and scout parents probably think we're divorced, since our divide and conquer approach to three kids' social schedules ensures that we're never in the same place at the same time. Older children are easier than infants in many ways (it's surprisingly easy to discipline a child who understands what "I'll throw away all your Halloween candy" means) and more difficult in others (they ask harder questions, and once they get too big to pick up and put in their rooms, you have to get creative about consequences). But while parenting is still an important part of my life, raising older children is undeniably less all-consuming than parenting infants and toddlers. Sylvia Plath's description of pregnancy as boarding "the train there's no getting off," always resonated with me; pregnancy and the early years of motherhood are overwhelming and relentless. But it turns out there's a light at the end of the tunnel.
The biggest difference for me is that my relationship with my older kids is a two-way street. Babies, no matter how cuddly and sweet, are basically attention vampires. They suck you dry, and the most they give back is an (admittedly heartwarming) gummy grin. At the time, that was more than enough, but in retrospect, I think I'll take thought-provoking conversations, help with the chores, and being told that I'm the best mom ever (even when it's an obvious ploy to finagle an extra ration of Halloween candy).
Older children are people, with their own
personalities, quirks, and dreams. A friend once described having a
baby as "inviting a stranger to come live with you for eighteen
years." This is absolutely true, but the reality of it is blunted
at first. Infants are sweet little lumps of potential and it's easy to
project our own ideas of what they'll be onto them. But as children
get older, their personalities reify. The one you pegged as an artist
decides he'd rather play baseball and the ballerina insists on painting the
pink walls of her room black and joining a neo-punk Goth band. This
process can be disconcerting, infuriating, even scary -- how can someone who
came out of your body be so different from what you expected? It can
also be fascinating and exhilarating. My expectations for my children
were so narrow; I could never have guessed at what complex and engaging
people they would become. I can't wait to see where they go from here.
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