I jokingly tell people frequently that large sibling age gaps are one of the best kept secrets of family planning. You only get the joke, though, if you realize that we didn’t actually plan it this way. The great irony of family “planning” is that we can’t, not any of us, know what the future holds. It’s a gamble, a cliched leap of faith, and if our “plan” works out, we pat ourselves on the back for being so clever. But, for those of us on Plan B, or so, we know that the truth is a whole lot messier. If you have the exact number of children you wanted, spaced apart like you wanted them to be, it wasn’t your good planning that made it happen that way.
I read an article the other day, something about studies indicate the most stressful, the most challenging, increase in family size is from two to three children. Hmm. When I was pregnant with Ulysses (two whole years ago! whoa!) I thought we’d avoid stereotypical birth order dynamics. I wasn’t pulling Pollyanna expectations out of my backside: it truly was a breeze to add number two. He was a cherub from birth. My pregnancy with him was a cakewalk. He was born at home easily, all ten plus pounds of him. I threw him in a sling and took him wherever I needed to take his big sister. Adding a new baby to the mix was as easy as anything. And I looked forward to a similar scenario while we were expecting number three.
But, you know. It wasn’t easy. I couldn’t simply bring the baby to the older children’s activities; the baby had so many appointments right from the start and the older children had to adapt to his schedule. A mere three months after his traumatic birth, Ulysses had his first open heart surgery. That kind of thing throws a wrench into the works of any machine. Although, to be fair to the wonder baby, the machine was more complicated, too. Every child is born into a different family, even if they have the same exact parents, in the same exact home, as their siblings.
Now my first boy, that cherubic bear cub, is seven and sandwiched between a teenager (need I say more?) and a surprising baby with special needs. He is the least squeaky wheel.
When he was about two, he started calling himself Worker Boy. He introduced himself as Worker Boy, insisted I do the same, and refused to answer to anything else. He has always been a boy with a job to do and a mind set on finishing it. He called himself Worker Boy for years. (hello, friends reading along! remember Worker Boy?) While the snappy name eventually faded, I think it continues to describe his demeanor well. He has always been solid and dependable, a rock. I have said before, without humor, that I want to be like him when I grow up. His wisdom would be something to admire in an adult, but is a remarkable trait for child. He is a long, deep thinker, observant and insightful. Book-ended by more dramatic siblings on either side, though, he could get overlooked. I worry about that. Which is to say, I don’t let it happen. All the wheels in this house get oiled, whether they request it by squeaking or not!
I go into his room before I go to bed, to switch off his lamp. His dad reads to him every night before bed. I am the daytime read aloud-er, but the husband reads at bedtime. They’re reading the Boxcar Children series now. When the husband says goodnight, he presses play on the boombox on the desk; the boy falls asleep listening to whichever of his favorite books he has in the player that day (Trumpet of the Swan? The Hobbit? The Horse and His Boy? a Redwall book? we’ve amassed a decent collection of audiobooks and he knows them all well and listens to them constantly like familiar, lulling friends).
By the time I walk back there, several hours later, the story has stopped playing. It’s quiet. His good cat is always on guard at the foot of the bed. And even when I’m in a hurry, maybe the baby’s crying across the hall, maybe the kettle’s whistling in the kitchen for that one last cup of tea, I think for a second about him, and our day together. Did I give him enough?
Family planning might (if you’re lucky), grant you a certain size of family. But you can’t plan circumstances. You can’t plan personalities. My family isn’t quite the shape I set out for it to be. I thought, when we started this family journey, I’d be at the helm of a large crew, feisty and bookish. But three children, spaced widely apart, is less organized than a crew. Their interests and abilities are far apart. I am always pulled in wildly different directions. But we can, and did, plan what kind of family we wanted to be. And that’s not a luck thing, that’s a choice. We choose to be a family who want to know each other. I want to know my kids. I choose to know them when they’re little so that I will know them when they’re big. And if they don’t come to me, that’s not their job. I go to them. My seven year old, my middle child, my worker boy, might spend so much of his time in his quiet thoughts, that I could shrug my shoulders and say, eh, he knows where to find me. But it is never the job of a child to do the work of building this relationship. I go to him. I seek him out, I plop next to him on the couch and squeeze him, I tell him I love him every day. I don’t want him to assume that he’s loved. I want him to know it undoubtedly.
I like to see what he’s left out on his desk. He is serious about his drawing work, his head bent over such tiny, detailed pictures. He leaves them arranged just-so, unfinished, but ready to get back at it tomorrow.