I’m raising two boys who were born 12 years apart. We’re an anomaly. You may be surprised to learn that no one I know has ever said, “I’d really like to space my kids out by at least a decade. You know, so I can deal with the terrible twos and puberty at the same time.”
Instead, they’ve aimed for one to four years between kids. Why? They wanted their kids to be schoolmates, or they were worried about being too old to play baseball with their youngest child, or they were determined to have another kid before it seemed too exhausting to go through it all again. I can’t claim the same kind of foresight. The gap between our boys is a natural consequence of being a stepfamily, rather than an intentional choice. And although I wouldn’t change a thing about our family, I understand why people avoid having kids this far apart.
I’ve braved toddler tantrums and teenage rebellion on the same day. When one kid wants me to snuggle, the other wants me to disappear. Our sleepless nights can be the result of an earache or a missed curfew. I’ve been asked to simultaneously check for lice (found ’em!) in the morning and prepare a meal for a team of teenage boys in the afternoon. Thankfully, cocktail hour often falls between the two events.
My husband describes having two kids with such vastly divergent needs, wants and desires, as “parenting in two time zones.” I like to imagine the two boys on opposite coasts as we stand, jet-lagged, in Topeka, Kansas, reminding them to do their homework or eat their vegetables.
To be fair, they are not entirely different. Neither seems to know how to replace the toilet paper roll, pick up his socks, or put all his dishes in the sink. They leave their beds a mess. Both will eat salmon and Caesar salad without complaint, although they prefer pizza.
Their similarities aside, however, 12 years is a huge gap. There is no middle child to act as a bridge between them. No mediator, no playmate, no stepping-stone to prepare us for the next stage. Although we hope we’re learning lessons now that will help us as the younger one grows up, I bet the distance between them means we’ll forget what the older was like at a given age before his baby brother gets there.
I like to imagine the two boys on opposite coasts as we stand, jet-lagged, in Topeka, Kansas, reminding them to do their homework or eat their vegetables.
I’ll be grateful if we learn something from this first pass through parenting, but I’m currently focused on surviving the contradictions and contrasts of the here and now. Older is cramming for his econ final, while Younger is trying to determine how much allowance he needs to save to buy Pokémon cards. We’ve pulled out It’s Amazing to teach the little one about sex, hoping at the same time that his brother is being sexually responsible. Older is grossed out by his little brother’s inability to aim properly at the toilet; Younger has the same response to girls. We limit how much juice Younger drinks, but Older’s beer consumption at college is another story. Older is thrilled to be living in a dorm. Younger has promised he’ll live with me forever, a prospect I find both charming and horrifying.
Their age difference has stretched my juggling skills. I’ve tried and failed to coordinate schedules when one kid goes to bed at 7:30 and the other doesn’t wake up until noon. Family dinners were a Rockwellian dream for years because Older wouldn’t get home from practice until 7 when Younger was brushing his teeth for bed. We gave up on family movie night, unable to please a teenager and a boy whose only options were G-rated films.
Vacation planning nearly broke me. Absent thousands of dollars to visit amazing resorts that offer activities for everyone from infants to the elderly, it’s been surprisingly hard to plan holidays everyone can enjoy. If we’re lucky enough to find a workable destination, we spend our vacation Balkanized as one parent takes the little one to the playground and the other does a more mature (and dare I say, fun) activity with his big brother. For a few years, we just stayed home.
But those are the struggles, and there are plenty of advantages. Our boys almost never fight because they don’t compete for the resources at the root of most sibling disputes. Older always gets to stay up later and doesn’t care if his little brother gets the last cupcake. Younger’s toys are his own, and no one ever destroys his Playmobil creations, except me when I trip over them in the middle of the night. Now that our oldest is in his teens, I have an extra set of capable hands to help when I need a babysitter. Older takes time to teach Younger how to play lacrosse, and he’s become a great role model, except for the dirty socks thing.
Did I mention the built-in babysitter?
The challenges are fading, though. As the boys have grown up, things have gotten easier. Recently, they’ve discovered a shared love of sporting events and board games, although Older’s patience is often tested by Younger’s enthusiasm and flagrant cheating. They can be surprisingly tender with each other, and as Younger grows, I expect their shared interests will too. We’ve reached a sort of equilibrium, perhaps sooner than my friends whose children are closer in age will. It makes me think maybe we got it right after all.
One of these days, we might even be able to take a vacation together. Just as long as we pick one coast or the other.