Our family is not in a financial position to take fancy vacations, so this past spring break, we decided to have a “staycation.” And I wanted it to be fabulous.
I told my kids we could go to the local amusement park one day, the city a different day, and each of them could pick a local park to go to. I suggested picnics, sidewalk chalk, mural-making, science experiments.
“What do you want to do?” I asked, trying to sound excited. I mean, I really wanted to make our staycation fun.
“Umm…” my 9-year-old said, “I want one afternoon to play Monopoly with you because you always say you’ll play, but you never do. And I want to spend another day working on that play script Daddy and I started a year ago, but never finished.”
Whoa. I wasn’t expecting that. I mean, as a parent of more than one kid, there is always this lingering feeling that we’re not giving each kid enough one-on-one attention, but I’m not always faced with it head-on like I was in that moment.
I was glad my son was able to voice his needs so clearly and honestly, but it opened up the floodgates for me. I remembered back to when he was 5 and I was pregnant with his little brother. I wanted him to have a sibling, but I was terrified of changing the dynamic we’d always had together. The hours on end of playing games, reading, cooking, drawing pictures — I feared all of it would be gone in one big poof when his brother came along.
The truth is, I was kind of right, and I feel guilt about it to this day. My older son and I still have our special moments together. We make a point to do crafts and science projects together. We bake together. But often, it’s with his little brother tagging along, knocking over the bowl of batter, splattering paint on the picture his big brother had been working on for 20 minutes.
And sometimes I feel like my second child gets a worse deal than my first child did. I stay home with him while his big brother is in school, but it’s a different kind of life than it was when my first son was little. We have to get up at the crack of dawn to take his big brother to school. There are more errands to run, the fridge has to be restocked more often, and I am just generally more exhausted and less fun.
I know I’m not alone in this feeling that almost all parents of more than one kid feel — this never-ending guilt about the fact that they can’t possibly spend enough good, quality time with each of their children.
I don’t regret having more than one child. Though my kids fight at least as much as they play together, I know they are building a bond that will last them a lifetime. And each is learning that the world can’t cater to their every whim and that life is about learning to be flexible, not always getting immediate gratification, and sharing.
And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that I wish I could give each child more. I wish it felt easier to carve out time to truly concentrate on each of my children separately, to delve into projects and conversations with them without feeling constantly distracted by the needs of their sibling.
It sort of breaks my heart into two when I really think about it.
My older son and I did spend an afternoon playing Monopoly together. My husband played superheroes with our little guy for a few hours in the living room, and my older son and I locked ourselves into his little bedroom. I hadn’t played the game in a while, so my son gave me advice on which properties to buy and which avenues to buy houses on. I was impressed with his strategizing and his quick math with our money exchanges.
There was nothing particularly spectacular about the game; it was a simple afternoon we spent together. We laughed about this and that. Our toes touched as we played, and a couple of times he playfully punched me in the arm. As we were finishing up, his little brother started crying for me. It was almost dinnertime, and we were hungry, so we stopped playing.
Before we left the room, I closed my eyes and tried to inhale the moment. I was taken back for a second to that time that seemed like eons ago, when it was just the two of us. The essence of that felt palpable.
I felt a pang of guilt as we started putting the game away. “Sorry we didn’t finish the game,” I said. “It’s OK,” he said, “I pretty much won anyway.” I told him I’d had a great time. I got a sheepish smile back from him, but a genuine “me too,” which he uttered under his breath as he whizzed away, already chatting it up with his dad and brother.
Maybe spending time with my kids has to be this way for now, imperfect, happening in broken, unfinished spurts. I believed my son when he said he’d had a good time, and I saw that he was in a noticeably good mood the rest of the day.
I think — and hope — that what my kids will remember about their childhood will be these moments of fun and connection, and not the ways they were cut short or didn’t happen at all.
I’m going to make a point to spend more afternoons like this with both of my kids. There really is no need for us to do anything spectacular; being together is what matters most. And I’m going to cut myself some slack — a whole lot of slack — for when I feel like I’m failing to spend adequate time with my kids. Even the smallest moments mean the world to my children — are huge to them in fact — and I know I can give them that.
But I know I will always have this nagging feeling that it’s not enough, and I guess that’s just part of what it means to be a parent.