May 3, 2011 at 12:38 PM ET
I recently registered one child for high school; the other for pre-school.
My days are a mix of basketball games, some at a middle school gym and others on a Little Tikes hoop. One minute, I advise on teen romance and math questions, the next, I encourage tentative first steps and sing the ABCs. I watch “Glee” with my oldest; “Caillou” with my little ones.
My family is a little unusual – I have a 14-year-old and a 14-month old, with a 2½-year-old sandwiched in between. Parenting all three requires some serious multi-tasking. It also provides a personal window into the young mom versus older mom debate. Is it better to have kids in your 20s, when you have lots of energy, or in your 30s or 40s, when you’re more settled?
I can tell you from experience: Being a mom is difficult, exhausting and rewarding, regardless of your age. For me, youth meant more energy and fitting into my pre-pregnancy jeans a lot quicker. But age brought me greater patience and the awareness that I needed to savor the fleeting moments with my children.
When I was in my early 20s, I had some serious stamina – I attended college and juggled jobs, internships and friendships. Amidst it all was a little girl who tagged along with me everywhere. I read parenting books but I didn’t obsess over parenting decisions. As a single mother in school, I was just too busy. We played at the park and went to the library, but much of what I remember of those years is feeling like I was constantly juggling all the demands on my time.
Her peers’ parents were friendly, but I never felt like I belonged. My fellow moms were much older and had “grown-up” lives so unlike mine. My friends my age were living the young, single life, with kids and family far down the line.
Fast forward a decade. I’m still juggling, but the balls in the air are much different. Now, I stress about work deadlines and what to cook for dinner, just like in my younger days, but it’s with the security of a mortgage, a hometown, a husband and a job. I’m no longer the youngest mom at playgroup. I was able to slow down my career and become a freelance writer to spend more time with all three, time that I longed for when my oldest was a little girl.
Still, children affect your career no matter what rung of the ladder you’re on. Then, I worried about how to land that first job and put in the long hours required while remaining an involved parent. Now, I relish the hours with my children while wondering how much the time away from a full-time office will set me back.
As I’ve matured, I’ve also become a more neurotic parent. I obsess about development and parenting much more than I did. My oldest daughter has become a mature, independent and self-reliant kid, and I wonder now if it’s because she didn’t have me hovering. Then, I dropped her off at full-time day care, knowing it was my only option. Now, I second-guess myself when my little boy cries as I leave him for an hour at a toddler class.
With a huge gap between my oldest and the younger ones, I worried that the sibling relationships wouldn’t be strong. Would my oldest daughter always feel like part of a separate family? But I’ve been surprised by how beautifully special their relationships are, and how our family has somehow blended into a cohesive whole. The younger two worship their older sister, and my oldest has discovered how amazing loving a little brother and sister can be. Experts have told me that a small age gap doesn’t ensure a tight relationship; personality is a much bigger indicator.
I have to be on the constant lookout, though, that none are shortchanged. What to do when my oldest wants me at her basketball game, but the toddler is cranky and needs a nap? I often must rely on friends to transport her when the younger ones are tucked in for the night. And our house often features the kind of chaos that can be wearing on a moody teen.
Now my former single friends have children of their own, and they often tease me that they wish they had a 14-year-old in the house too, because the extra set of hands is such a boon.
We will face some more challenges in the years ahead with our group of widely spaced children, as we decide at which restaurant to dine, where to vacation, and what movies to watch. But those are the fun kind of struggles. What I really worry about is the absence our family will feel when my oldest heads to college in just four short years, and she will have an 8-year-old brother and 7-year-old sister missing her terribly at home. We will still be in the midst of T-ball and dance lessons while the oldest member of our family starts to forge her own independent path.
We’ll deal with that monumental shift in our family dynamic when the time comes, I guess. In the meantime, I have to go wrestle my preschooler away from his sister’s iPod.
Alexa Aguilar is a freelance writer based in the Chicago suburbs. She writes a parenting column that appears monthly in the Chicago Tribune.