Published first on The Motherload, 6.11.2017
Our parents did it. Our parents' friends all did it. The Royal family routinely do it. Having your children two years apart always seemed like a good idea. They get to grow up together, have the same friends, share toys(!)... Sixteen months into being a mother to two, and I'm now able to see the light. However, I can say with recent experience, that it is so much harder than I ever imagined it could be.
Our parents can only remember the good times. "My eldest (fourteen months older) used to bring me the nappies and wipes," my mother in law told me. "Your brothers were always the best of friends," my mum reminisced. However, in our merry little foursome, my husband usually returns from work to find me a broken human. Still standing, but only just. There's been times when all three of us have been crying, feeding off each other's misery. It was hard to define what the matter was; it was all just really really hard.
My boys, born twenty-two months apart, are now 3 and 16months, and life is already much more manageable. Still exhausting but so much better. The eldest, without direction from me, will greet him after nursery saying, "I missed you baby chap," and this is the best feeling of them all. The youngest wants to be with his brother all the time, copying everything he does. My favourite sight is how the younger sits on the potty, fully clothed, reading the same book, just like his big brother. Time is already starting to cloud my memory, but before it does, I feel it is important to record some of my experiences of mothering two under three. That first year was really really bitterly hard.
I felt for my eldest, still so little, too young to really understand. His mummy's growing belly housed his baby brother and it probably all seemed ok. Everyone talked about how exciting life could be with a loyal companion to play with and explore with. Yet, his anxiety was already clear. Any time a well meaning relative would come to give me a rest, he'd cling onto me for dear life. Only my arms and warmth would do. After the birth and home again within hours, my heart was already torn. I wanted to lie with my new baby, skin to skin, without interruption. But I also wanted to cuddle my eldest, just twenty two months, play games with him and run around in the park. That was the first day I experienced his wrath. A thick wooden jigsaw piece launched at my face. He was silent but breaking inside. What have we done, I thought. My husband and visiting family worked hard to distract him with adventures galore, so I could rest and feed and feed. On his return I'd make sure that tiny one was in his Moses Basket so my arms were completely free for him. Looking back, I probably needed more time with our toddler. More time with just Mummy and cub.
What made it all possible for me was that my husband, a teacher, was at the start of his six weeks of summer holiday. He and I were a magnificent team of feeding, changing nappies and cuddling. He and our eldest became inseparable. We even moved house to a new town that summer. Our eldest started at a local nursery, a luxury to give me time with the tiny one, I thought. We managed it all and the first six weeks of being a family of four was actually ok.
And then my husband went back to work around the time of our eldest's second birthday. Everything fell apart. Our two year old had "lost his Mummy" to this little baby and now his beloved Papa had disappeared and "gone to work" by the time he woke up and didn't appear again until bath time. Nursery drop offs became so traumatic that I decided not to persevere. "Keep him close," my mum advised. The best advice I could've had. I kept him close all the following year and it was my mantra for every meltdown, sleepless night and heartbreak that the year threw at us.
What saved me was the ability to wrap the tiny one to me, even now when he is not so tiny. He had my scent, warmth and around-the-clock access to the milk bar. My arms were still free for cuddling up with a book, jigsaws and painting. The TV saved me too. I'd been nervous about the effects of screen time, but without childcare or regular help, CBeebies was our nanny. A nanny that could conveniently pop in when there was a baby to feed and change, or food to prepare. Convenience food became our best friend, keeping hunger at bay with cereal bars and freezer meals. Standards dropped to survival. But we survived. Any spare cash was spent on paying for a cleaner to do a weekly clean. Within minutes of her departure, the house was a mess again, but it was clean and our home was sanitary again. The washing machine was constantly on "quick cycle" and the microwave housed a permanent sorry sight of forgotten tea. The hardest times have been potty training at the same time our youngest learnt to crawl. We should've planned that better. Recent challenges include allowing space for our toddler to construct his duplo masterpieces while acknowledging that the youngest is learning through destruction. Imagine the domestic bliss.
Yet I look at my boys now, rosy-cheeked and sparkly-eyed, chasing each other around the house, or bumping each other on the see saw, or naked cuddle-wrestling pre-bath-time, and I'm already forgetting the emotional misery of acknowledging the eldest's initial apathy and then even worse, the primal aggressive possession of his territory. All very normal behaviour but still deeply troubling to any parent experiencing it for the first time. And it's probably better to forget. To look forward. To keep empathising, nurturing and cuddling. They are both little, both vulnerable, both wonderfully zealous and they are both individual people, too.
And after all, it takes a village, or a palace to raise a family. Perhaps there's no such thing as an ideal age gap, is there?