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.