Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Really Spaced Out Family!

More than the Republican Debate or Capital Punishment, it is a topic everyone, but everyone, has an opinion on, a fact I discovered when pregnant with Number Two when Number One was aged seven. The burning issue is age difference between children.

"Oooh that's a big age difference!" they exclaimed and then the stories would unfold: "My sister was 20 months younger than me and I was SO jealous..." "I have a grandson who is a middle child and he can't keep up with his big brother and teases his little sister" and "I know this couple with two teenagers and anyway she's pregnant again!"

Only in the last two or three decades have couples enjoyed the luxury of choice about how many children to have and when. In pre-contraception generations, children were commonly spaced about two years apart- allowing nine months for pregnancy, 12 months of breastfeeding (a natural contraception albeit unreliable!) and about three months of luck. No wonder so many older women are amazed by the modern variations of the family.

Psychologists term it family placement or birth order. It was Alfred Adler who first studied birth order and drew some interesting personality profiles: adults who grow up as the Only Child are ambitious and self-assured but reluctant to compete, negotiate and co-operate.

First-borns are high achievers, good bosses and like to uphold the status quo.

The Middle Child is ambivalent about his position in the family and can feel insecure, 'squeezed' or that he 'doesn't fit in' however he will exhibit good social skills and creativity.

The Youngest Child tends to remain 'the baby' throughout life and likes to be taken care of. He or she can also be charming, a show-off or a rebel. The Baby profile explains a lot about both Andrew and myself!

Family circumstances vary. Some women prefer to have their children close so they grow up with playmates and then plan to re-enter the workforce once the last is happily ensconced at school.

Other women who wait until their 30s choose to have them rapid fire before the biological clock winds down while blended families can result in an assortment of children of all ages.

Every combination has pros and cons for both siblings and parents. Being aware of the dynamics, parents can highlight the positives and minimise the negatives.

In my case I opted to resume full-time work when Daniel was three and a half - a time when many parents are considering a second. I wanted to give my career an uninterrupted stint and to consolidate finances so we could afford to finish renovating our little old house and take on a bigger better mortgage (a financial stretch which paid off eventually).

On the emotional front, the thought of starting all over again, having just survived the endless slog of breastfeeding, toilet training and bedtime ordeals, sent my nervous system into a spin. By having a break and becoming human again with romantic dinners, an adult social life and holidays, we would be refreshed and ready to take on the demands of a newborn again.

There are practical bonuses in having an older child around. Daniel acts like a 'mini parent', ever willing to fetch the baby powder or make sure she doesn't roll off the bed when I dash to the phone. We have our own resident baby entertainer and Dan has a fan who will ALWAYS laugh at his antics!

Daniel has reaped the benefit too. Right through the crucial formative years he enjoyed all the perks of the Only Child, tagging along with mum and dad to concerts, dinners and trips away. Mixing with adults developed his intellect, confidence and social skills. He got to bask in the sunshine of parental and grandparental attention lavished solely on him.

And yet, as parents of an Only Child will admit, Numero Uno can't help cruising through life believing he is the Centre of the Universe! Dan's egocentricity took a healthy tumble with the tardy arrival of a sibling. Instantly he has learned sharing, nurturing and responsibility.

However his dethronement occurred at a time of burgeoning independence so there isn't the insecurity, rivalry and jealousy often experienced by the displaced toddler.

And Justine will always have an adoring Big Brother with the protectiveness to match King Kong. Let no bully ever dare kick sand in her face!

Such an age difference is like having an Only Child twice! Each child is an individual in their own right but they enjoy the best of both worlds - all the sweet rewards of the Only Child Syndrome plus mateship with a sister or brother.

The visual contrast between a strapping lad and a tiny baby at times strikes me as funny. And admittedly I sometimes ponder wistfully about the Middle Child who could have been.

But all up, for parents considering a gap of five, six, seven or even more years there is only one major hazard; the constant remarks about the big age difference. I have learned to grin and bear it and enjoy the advantages!

Postscript 2009
When we made the decision to space out our family, we didn’t think ahead. When Daniel left home at 18, Justine was 10 and became an only child at the other end of her growing up (as he had been at the start). A sociable little girl who longed for sisters, she had friends sleeping over every weekend! By the time Justine left home at 20, we had been parenting for 28 years. The long break between babies ended up extending our parenting stint. We might as well have had two more babies in between! Such wisdom in retrospect!

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