Minding The Gap

By Sarah Muthler

My daughter pedals away from me on the bike she received for her fifth birthday. Her bulky toddler legs have stretched into the slender limbs of a child, and she pumps joyously with them. She is testing how far ahead she can go without reprimand. I have no hope of keeping up. Her baby brother bounces along in our clunky stroller as I stride faster. This wasn’t how I imagined my family — one of my babies bounding into childhood when the other had barely emerged from the womb.

I wanted my children two or three years apart. In accordance with that plan, my husband and I conceived our second baby a few months before our daughter turned 2. Every family that I knew had two or three children with this spacing, and every parenting book and article touted its logic. Endure the early hair-tugging and arm-pinching, and someday, fighting would give way to friendship.

My dream for our family evaporated when our second daughter was stillborn. My girls would not tussle over the same doll until the stitching burst. Nor would they walk hand in hand to the elder’s first day of kindergarten.

Almost as much as I mourned my daughter, I mourned the loss of a sibling for my child. With my ideal family impossible, I constantly cycled through the age-gap math in my head. Wait a year to try again after my C-section. Plus nine months of pregnancy. If everything went perfectly, I would cradle a big belly while my daughter blew out the candles at her fourth birthday party. My children still might play together someday.

At my daughter’s fourth birthday party, I wasn’t even pregnant. Her lean body and clear speech brought anguish instead of delight. She still said “gobbles” for goggles, an error so endearing that I refused to correct it, but that was all that remained of her babyhood. Any sibling would be years behind, too distant to be a playmate. I was taking fertility drugs and researching adoption, but all options seemed too slow, too late. I wondered whether we should quit. Nearly all of our daughter’s friends now had their perfectly spaced younger siblings, and seeing them together, with their matching smiles, made my fragile heart ache.

The month after my daughter’s birthday, I became pregnant. The big sister book that we had from my previous pregnancy remained on a shelf high in my daughter’s closet. Whatever fear I had about my daughter adjusting to her new sibling was dwarfed by my fear that we would lose another baby. After nearly obsessive monitoring and an early delivery, we gratefully welcomed our snuggly, rosy-cheeked son.

A friend brought our daughter to the hospital the day after I had the baby. She walked in slowly, all of her perfectionistic first-born qualities on display. Her mouth was molded into a polite grin, her hands softly cupped as she reached out to stroke her brother’s head. Her bright, nervous eyes looked to us for queues on what was expected of her. She was gentle without being told, quiet without being shushed.

When my son was a few weeks old, I left him alone with his sister for the first time while I went out to our mailbox, a half-block away. By the time I had walked to the mailbox, my skin prickled with paranoia. What if she tried to pick him up? What if she put a blanket over his face? Why had I left them alone? I sprinted — or at least loped very quickly for a post-surgery woman with a lot of baby weight — back to our house and left the door wide open as I charged through.

“What is it, Mommy?” my daughter asked, startled. I looked to the baby, sitting in his bouncer where I had left him, a pacifier now pulsing in his mouth. “He started to cry, so I got his pacifier,” my daughter said.

A few friends — with children closer in age — offered tips on helping my daughter adjust. That advice was of little use in parenting but did teach me the beauty of this awkward age gap. Too old to revert to diapers and babbling, my daughter grasped more tightly to her big-kid role. Her self-sufficiency gave me space to savor my son’s infancy. I could sit down to nuzzle peach-plump baby cheeks and grasp peanut-sized toes just as I had done the first time around. And I would have time to carefully fill my son’s baby book with my looping handwriting just as I had done for his sister.

Having children two or three years apart isn’t perfect. It’s practical. Having children five years apart is neither perfect nor practical. Yet, I find myself embracing this imperfection, looking for all the good things that those parenting books could have said but didn’t. Not least of which is the way my daughter plods into our bedroom when dawn’s pink rays have started to poke beneath the blinds. She steps onto the sideboard, swings a knee into our bed, and says in her raspy morning voice, “Can I see Henry?”

Sarah Muthler is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Motherlode blog and on Seleni.org. She lives in Austin and blogs at www.landofabe.com

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  • Cathy Keller

    My children were also going to be 2-3 years apart. 2+ years of infertility, a failed IVF, a miscarriage, and a successful FET later, my twins are 4.5 years younger than my oldest. I definitely appreciated his self-sufficiency when they were newborns and I was drowning in the stress of taking care of infant twins. Now that they’re 3 and he’s almost 8, it’s cute to see the authority with which he teaches them about whatever he learned in school that day. Our neighbors have two boys who are two years apart, and they’re so close that it makes my heart ache. My oldest will never have quite that relationship with his much younger brothers, but I still think he has benefited from sharing his life wit them.

  • http://parentingworks.weebly.com Sheena

    I understand why you romanticized a 2 year gap, but I’m sure you know by now that this is NOT what parenting experts recommend. In fact, recent research suggests that having at least a 3 year gap results a higher IQ of the older sibling (because they get more one-on-one time with parents and tend to have more quality time, just talking and reading with parents/caregivers). It also seems that gaining a sibling any time between 12 and 24 months old is the most stressful for toddlers, who have a higher tendency to be jealous and emotionally rocked by having to share their parents. It appears that you did get an ideal (which is considered between 3-5 years). Enjoy, Sarah!

  • Skana Gee

    My son was 7 3/4 when my daughter was born. It wasn’t entirely by design, but we were thrilled. It seems like yesterday, but he is 16 now, and she is almost nine. They are not friends in the traditional sense, yet they have a unique and special relationship. It’s not perfect, but no spacing scenario is. I don’t think I was personally cut out to have two preschoolers at the same time … the gap between our kids gave me an amazing chance to reflect and prioritize – and, like you, enjoy those baby days all over again. All the best on your adventure!

  • http://wellreadfish.blogspot.com Jen @ the well read fish

    I am 6 years older than my sister and we are close! I do not think a large age difference is impractical at all. It depends on the family. It could be very helpful in ways that a smaller age difference may not- see: later a babysitter!

  • Nina Marie Vik

    My siblings are 7, 9 and 14 years older than me. Growing up they were my heroes and an extra set of “cool parents”.
    As adults the true joy of older siblings emerge:
    We are together in think and thin in life- and family matters. Divorce, cancer, stroke, sick children of our own, advice when pregnant, help when depressed… We might not have shared a bath when little, but as grow ups we share the struggles and blessings in life. I would not trade for anything in this world!

    So for those of you that think your children misses out on close relationships because of big gaps in their age…

    Wait, and you will be amazed at how close they can get in their adulthood!

  • Bryanna

    Goodness, reading this post was like reading a chapter from my own life. I’m feeling anxious just thinking back a short time to when we were going through those same struggles. Each of my daughters birthdays stung a little more as the life I imagined did not come to fruition.
    Now that I’ve got my 5 1/2 year old and 5 month old I couldn’t imagine it any other way. The way she loves him is so incredibly special for me to watch. And he looks at her like she holds all the answers.
    It’s not perfect; they’ll never share toys or friends, or even go to the same school. But it has ended up being perfect for our family. Looking back I don’t know that I could have handled a 3 year old and a newborn.
    And I appreciate this little boy oh so much after all the struggles to have him.

  • becca

    my kids are 3 years apart and fight like crazy. wish I would’ve had them 5 yrs apart. you’re lucky!

  • jenni

    Thank you for this! I am pregnant with my 2nd, and my firstborn is 5 1/5. Baby brother will be born a few weeks after my son’s 6th birthday. In our case, difficult toddlerhood, cross-country moves, traveling husband and job changes got in the way of trying for a 2nd (for a long time, I wasn’t even sure I wanted a 2nd). My oldest son has turned from a difficult toddler into the most amazing, sweet, loving 5 year old. He’s going to be such a fabulous big brother and helper to Mommy. Juggling family activities that interest both boys will be a challenge, but I’m hoping the age gap will make each one feel special and cut down on some of the sibling rivalry. We can plan all we want, but ultimately, the plan isn’t up to us, it’s up to God and we just have to do the best we can with what He gives us.

  • Michelle

    My youngest daughter (currently age 4) was our surprise blessing and was born when her sister was 12 yrs old and her brothers were 15 and 17. There are pros and cons to any and all age differences and I agree with Jenni who mentions it’s ultimately God’s plan. Don’t count out the possibility that your son and daughter may still be close – I think it’s more of a personality thing instead of numbers game.

    Wonderfully well written article – thank you for sharing.

  • Katie

    Wow, I can really relate to this – my daughters are five years apart, and before the younger one came along I too agonized over the loss of the “perfect” age gap that would ensure that my children would be childhood playmates and lifelong friends. Obviously, what I gained is far better to me than whatever I may have missed out on. My daughters do play together, they are very close,and five years now seems perfect to me. In fact, now that I am expecting number 3 (boy) I feel like the three year age gap between him and my younger girl is too small – I feel like I’m going to have two babies at once and it seems strange! Thank goodness for my 8 year old who can wipe her own rear end and make a sandwich!

    I truly hope that someone who is currently struggling with loss and/or infertility will see this article and the comments, and take some hope from it. Your family will be perfect too.

  • Heather

    It’s so hard when things don’t go as planned. I know all too well. And I’m one of those people that have to have a time to “adjust” when things don’t go as planned. It can sometimes put me into a tailspin. So, when we lost 2 babies, stillborn babies, I had a very hard time ” going with the flow”. But the spacing you have is perfect for you:) It’s hard to think what things would be like without this little spunky firework we have in our family, and those thoughts can be painful too. So sad for what you have lost, and at the same time, so happy for what you have.

    And don’t think they can’t be playmates. My girls are 5 1/2 years apart ) and now, at almost 4, and 9 1/2, they play together all of the time. My older daughter has taught her so much. They dance together, go to the playground together, play games, play dolls, everything. Today, my oldest daughter made the littlest one a lunch of her choice while she sat on the counter dictating what she wanted. They adore each other…..ADORE. They have sleepovers in each others beds on the weekends. And the brother, that was 8 1/2 years older than her when she was born? Putty in her hand……he also does sleepovers with her. Yes, a 12 year old boy plays with his little almost 4 year old sister every day. And really, they are just kids for such a short period of life, they will be siblings forever as adults together.

    Good luck to you and your perfect for you family!

  • Sharon

    Thank you for sharing this. I found it very moving. My own brother is 6 years old than I am and we are very close, especially now as we have our own children. My oldest son and youngest daughter are 5 years apart and I love to see my son be so gentle with her. He adores her.

  • Ericka

    I always knew I wanted a big family and I suppose most people would think the best way to do that is to have stair step children. But, I think God knows what’s best for each of us and I couldn’t imagine having my kids even two or three years apart. There is almost four years between my 1st and 2nd and nearly 5 years between my 2nd and 3rd. We are expecting our 4th this winter right after my 3rd turns 5. I LOVE the spacing of my kiddos! They each got to have so much special attention as babies and toddlers. Believe it or not they are super close and play together (and fight) just like kids closer in age do. I even have a girl, boy, girl scenario (not sure what fourth will be yet) and they are still close. I think it all has to do with family dynamic.

  • joan fitzpatrick

    i also had a stillborn when my son was 3. we were fortunate to have no problems and had a new daughter when he was 4 1/2. he was and still is at 36 and 32 protective of his sister. we even had another son 4 1/2 years later. my two boys are 9 years apart. they are best friends. the younger son was even a groomsman with his older brother in some of my older son’s friends’ weddings. he is everyone’s little brother. there is no perfect age for siblings to predict how close they will be. my 3 kids could not be closer. you will see. there are advantages and disadvantages to all spacing. just look at the advantages and enjoy them!

  • Leah

    While I understand the want for spacing…no matter what the age spacing is of kids, it doesn’t necessarily translate into sibling koombaya. I have a brother that is 2 years older. We grew up together…had that typical spacing and we have absolutely nothing in common. We do not have a close relationship. I think too much emphasis is placed on circumstances. When in reality…personalities will determine harmony between siblings.

  • yakusoku

    Thank you for sharing this. I had wanted my children three years apart for similar reasons, but it did not work out, simply due to family planning and life stressors. Having needed Clomid to have my daughter, I was getting ready to grieve her never having a sibling, when I asked my H to just finally say one way or another whether we were going to have another. He simply said it was “up to God.” Without trying, and having had plenty of opportunity to accidentally get pregnant in the past, we found ourselves expecting another child three months after our daughter will turn six. On the one hand, I know it won’t be the same as a sibling close in age. On the other hand, I have a close relationship with my oldest sister, almost exactly the same age gap, and my daughter is ecstatic to have herlong-held wish for a sibling granted. It will be right for our family, but it helps to hear other parents struggled with the gap.

  • Holly Stafford

    I think life has ways of making sure we aren’t too rigid in our thinking. Having a master plan for kids is sort of impossible since you have no way of knowing who is going to join you! The losses that sometimes marr our preconceived ideas of a ‘perfect family’ work to make the one you get even more precious. I have 6 daughters, there are 18 years from oldest to youngest. Some of these babies were 2 years apart, as close as my breastfeeding body would allow, there are 2 4 year gaps and a 6 year gap as well. While it is true that I tandem nursed several times when the spacing was close, as I believe that can really reduce sibling rivalry,

  • Mary

    I am baffled at mothers who insist on planning. Every child comes when they are supposed to. Some we terminate, some we lose to the horrors of miscarriage and stillbirth, but ultimately, children come when they want to! I am a type B, laid back mother who rolls with the punches but I can assure you that no good has ever come from “careful planning”. Any time you set out to control what the universe hands you it will end in disappointment, I have three children who showed up when they wanted. My oldest is Autistic and has taught us so much, my daughter born 28 months later at home because she chose a homebirth, and my youngest a five-year-old dynamo took hours to be born, my longest and hardest labor. Mothers, we cannot try to control these life experiences! Enjoy the chaos!

  • em

    To be honest, as a mother of a single child of 8 years (no longed-for sibling came to be) I find this over concern regarding specific age gaps hard to read as it seems so far removed from the life you have to accept when not having had a second child at all. In my view, having a sibling is far more than just about your childhood years and playtime together. The relationship they have can be even better in the long term with a larger gap as they enter different stages of their lives at different times the support each other in different ways. I see this with my nieces who have much older half brothers. They get on in a very different way as have not endured years of sibling rivalry and competition which has shaped their relationship. I see a lot of problems in families where they have this 2 year gap that is apparently so wished for. The parents seem frazzled and the kids seem to be always fighting. Also what we have with one child (and I hold on to this as our recompense for not being able to have a second) has been a thorough enjoyment and consciousness of all stages of her childhood and development without being exhausted with 2 very young kids to run after simultaneously. I also think that friends who have a 5 year gap between their children seem less stressed and find it easier to meet both children’s different and specific needs better. Also if you have a boy and a girl this illusion of them playing together through childhood can also be just an illusion. It is easier if they are the same sex. By the time they are 6 they have their own friends and potentially different hobbies or clubs they want to go to so you end up running between the two of them.

  • CC

    Thank you SO much for sharing this. My first child is approaching four and I am finally approaching a place where I can consider having another. The big gap is not what I wanted or planned for either but Major Life Stresses and events, one after the other had hit us hard and this did not warrant another child at the time we thought we would have one or be ready for one. I am so sorry for your loss and while this is not the same as losing a child, I have grieved the loss of the years speeding by without a sibling for my daughter. Thank you, your words have given me comfort.

  • christina

    My younger sister and I are 5 years apart. I remember when she was born how eager I was to have a baby brother but still just as excited when it was a girl instead. With me being so much older, my personality had already been defined but it was able to shine as I helped my mom with diaper changes and handing off bottles of milk. As we got older, there was an awkward phase where I grew out of playing with Barbies and she had just discovered them. I was reluctantly forced to play with her. This phase of “annoying kid sister” lasted about 5 years I guess probably from the age of 5 until she turned 10 and I was 15. By this time, I was mature enough to value, love, respect, and, if needed, defend my little sister. Fast forward 15 years, I’m 30 and my sister is 25 and we are best friends. We do everything together and love each other dearly. I believe with siblings it is all in how you raise them if they come from a household of love it doesn’t matter what the age gap, they’ll find their ways around to being best buddies for a lifetime. So embrace the gap no matter how small or wide????

  • Tricia

    My children are 17, 10 & almost 4. It is super crazy handling all their different needs, especially with ADD/ADHD and learning disabilities thrown in but life adjusts and works out how it should. Every age gap comes with it’s challenges. I personally will have parented a teenager for like 21 yrs straight by the time I’m done…

  • crystal

    I’m sorry for your loss but being close in age hardly guarantees being close in spirit. My husband and his sister are as close in age as is humanly possible and, while they’re certainly good friends in adulthood, they’re weren’t all that close as children. The two year gap has become some sort of odd hallmark of perfect parenting in our generation and that is just silly. Loving families come in all shapes and sizes. It’s sad that we put so much
    pressure on ourselves to do everything ‘according to plan’. I am a big fan of choice but I sometimes wonder how things were for previous generations when children came or didn’t come as fate saw fit. That has it’s own hardships, I’m sure, but it is a mistake to feel as if we parents can control everything – and that sometimes includes the timing of siblings.

  • Beka

    I’m so very sorry for the loss of your second child and for the heartache that loss has brought to you and your family. By way of encouragement … my sister and I are 5 and half years apart. We played together every day as kids and are the closest and best of friends now. The age gap never occurs to either of us. Sure, we fought sometimes, but all siblings do. I had my first child 5 and a half years ago and I’m pregnant with my third now. We lost one, sweet baby inbetween to miscarriage at 12 weeks. Even before the loss, we chose to delay pregnancy due to financial circumstances. A lot of people find our spacing odd and insinuate that my kids won’t play together (which I know to be untrue) But I take comfort in knowing that even if it’s not “perfect”, it’s the story of our family and that love is the same, no matter what your family looks like. All the best to you and your sweet family. ?

  • Sam

    My daughters are 3 years and 10 months apart and they are now 6 and 2 and are absolutely in love with each other. The little one cries for the older one she is at school and the older one indulges in cuddles whenever she gets the opportunity. I never thought it would be like this!