The spacing game

May 02,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Last night, while dozing and resting with the kids during their respective bedtime routines (rituals), I realized yet another one of the many marvelous things about being a parent: It must be the only job (vocation? state-of-being?) where you can spend a solid 10 minutes with one child at bath time discussing the virtues of various body parts and, 45 minutes later when that child has drifted off to sleep, spend 20 minutes in a darkened room with the older child discussing evolution, the possibility of life in outer space, and the Big Bang theory.

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Not long ago I overheard a preschool playground conversation between two mothers (overheard playground conversations fall into two categories--either completely boring and nauseating, or juicy and compelling). One mother, who was thinking about just how to space child #2 (her current child is 18 months old), asked the other what she thought about the whole issue of child spacing. The mother didn't really want to embark upon child #2 at this time, yet she was feeling strangely obligated to uphold some predetermined plans regarding the spacing of their children. I have trouble understanding this line of thinking. I believe that, ultimately, sticking to some predetermined plan about how to space your kids even when you don't feel, deep down, that you are ready yet for the second (or the third or the fourth), places undue stress and pressure on everybody. Even if you go into marriage firmly believing you want two children, you may well change your mind as time goes on. When I was 18, I thought I wanted four kids: two girls and two boys (how I imagined I'd get THAT to work out so well, I don't know). But when I did get married, at 26, I had trimmed that down to a child.

Scott and I never consciously sat down to think about how to space our kids at all. There was a time, as I've written before, when we thought about just having L., and we tried out the sound of the words "only child," and were happy with the fit. We purchased our first home, somewhat foolishly, with the idea of being a family of three. We hadn't set out to have just one child, just as we hadn't told ourselves before heading into parenthood that we would have two or three or even four. One just seemed right for a while and then, suddenly, like a bolt from above, it was no longer right for us. Scott came back from a walk with Willa one evening and had thoughts of another baby in his mind, and I, just as suddenly and with amazement, found that I had much more room in my heart than I once thought I had. It seemed just as natural then -- at that moment -- to imagine having two children, as it had years before to imagine having one. It became our new reality, and we wanted it badly, with both our hearts and our minds.

Last night's bath-time/bedtime conversations made me think about how much I love having the three and a half years between our children. Sometimes it can seem maddening, as we straddle both their worlds constantly, but I enjoy having the chance to move from my son's more complicated seven-year-old world into T.'s charming and simpler one, and then back again; to be smitten by both the complexity of his thought processes and language use, and the charm of T.'s golden, simpler world, all magic, and her language, tumbling out of her, filled with side-stepped r's and w's placed always where they shouldn't be.