Our young daughter struggled excitedly to open the package that had come in the mail for her fifth birthday. Tavia pulled out a cuddly stuffed gorilla that read, "Somebody at PSU Loves You." The gift was from her brother, Tarl, away at college. His absence for the birthday celebration is just one of the pitfalls of growing up in a family where a dozen or more years separate oldest and youngest siblings. We've discovered that the blessings far exceed the drawbacks of mixed-ages parenting, but it takes creative parenting when there are teens and toddlers under the same roof.
We knew over a dozen couples with teenage children who, like us, were back on the baby track again. Like Tavia, some of those babies were shocking surprises. Other couples had made a conscious decision to add another child (or two) to a family they'd once thought was complete. And some became instant "tandem" families when second marriages join a family with teens to one with toddlers.
Accepting the news
We didn't immediately embrace the news of a fourth pair of little feet coming to patter about. We had thought middle-of-the-night feedings, toy-littered floors, and spit-up-stained clothes were behind us. We could finally spend a glorious night on the town without having to first make a dozen calls in search of a baby sitter?and now this. I vacillated between depression and amazement until I remembered my childhood dream of raising 12 children and I said, "Okay, thank you, Lord."
My husband's eagerness came a bit more slowly, but when he told our three children about the new baby, his hesitancy turned into acceptance and excitement. We were concerned our teenage son would be embarrassed by my pregnancy, but he later discovered that babies are virtual girl-magnets. We quickly learned that our parenting status had changed since our first three children. Tavia didn't have only two parents, she had five.
Who's the boss?
Although we set firm ground rules, we realized how tempting it is to hand over the parenting role to our capable kids. We avoided that routine because we didn't want our children to grow to resent their little sister. As the kids got older, we paid them to babysit. We tried not to give them the dirty jobs?diapers, cleaning up spills, toy patrol?just because we didn't feel like doing them ourselves. But having a baby in the house brings new, shared responsibilities for everyone. Our kids were usually willing to help, but we made a conscious effort not to give them more than their fair share of responsibility.
One bad apple
Bonus babies have a reputation of being spoiled rotten. Tavia basked in the pampering and overindulgence that three older siblings bring. A baby born into a family with older children can't help but grow accustomed to being entertained every waking moment.
Fortunately, Tavia was born on the first of September, just as the older kids were getting back to school. But the next year when summer ended and her sister and brothers headed back to school, it took a few tearful (her tears and mine) weeks of adjustment before she realized it was possible to play happily by herself.
Another sure spoiler is money. When Tavia was born, our family was more financially stable compared to our earlier years. The temptation was to buy Tavia everything we couldn't offer our first children. Our teenagers still love spending their allowances on treats for their little sister. While it is wonderful to see their generosity, we worry about the repercussions. Sometimes I find myself saying no to a request for candy in the checkout line just to say no. We have kept the birthday and Christmas gifts simple and appropriate for her age so that Tavia is just as thrilled with her new coloring book and crayons as the older kids are with their in-line skates and CD players. She'll get her turn!
On the go
We worried how a tiny baby (and soon-to-be-toddler) would handle a lifestyle that was spent traveling from baseball game to piano recital to play practice to soccer match. We're convinced that Tavia thought we lived in a minivan. We learned that anything an infant can do at home, she can do in a moving vehicle. I watched many ball games from the passenger seat of our van, breastfeeding a contented baby. When she was old enough to toddle, things became trickier. I got exercise chasing her up and down the bleachers. Occasionally we decided it was easier for one of us to stay home with her. That brief time passed quickly and to this day, Tavia is a great little traveler?always ready to hop into the van for another adventure.
Bring on the Grecian Formula
My husband and I will be nearing 60 when Tavia graduates from college. I envy Tavia's energy. Sometimes I have a hard time keeping up with her. But I am thankful for my greater measure of patience in my "old age." I have a deeper appreciation for how quickly time passes and how precious each moment with this little girl is. Every difficult stage is made easier because I've been there before and I know that this stage will soon be a distant memory.
An unexpected benefit of late parenthood is the way it has expanded our friendships. We have things in common with much younger couples, as well as the parents of our teenagers' friends. I think Tavia has kept us young.
The frosting on the cake
Tavia is 10 and we can't imagine our family without her. The wonderful part about Tavia is seeing our other children enjoy her. I see a tenderness in our strapping six-foot-one football player. Our older daughter's creativity blossomed as she told stories and invented activities for her little sister. For our youngest son, Trey, the adjustment was a little rougher. He was displaced as the baby and had to find his own place and grow comfortable with a new identity. But he took special pride in Tavia's early accomplishments. I remember how he would excitedly call me from another room to show off her latest milestone.
Just when the rewards of tandem families are the sweetest, the older kids begin to leave home. It's been a challenge to keep the connections strong and the relationships vital. Our telephone bills have skyrocketed, but it's money well spent. When our oldest son went to college, we got a toll-free line so he could call home. When our daughter left for a university in another state, we got e-mail. It has been great for Tavia to hear their news and share her own several times a week. Whenever I send a package to one of the kids, I try to include one of Tavia's drawings or school papers. When they write back, they often include a note addressed to her.
I look forward to the empty nest years when my husband and I will have more time alone together, when I can clean the house and it will stay that way for more than ten minutes, when we can go out on the town without consulting anybody else's calendar.
But after all is said and done, we'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Deborah Raney is an award-winning author of more than 20 novels. Her first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title. Forever After, second in her new Hanover Falls novels series, will release in June from Howard/Simon & Schuster. Deb and her husband, Ken, are new empty nesters with four grown children and several grandchildren. Visit Deb at deborahraney.com.