Until a few days ago, I was convinced that Nate, our youngest of four children, got the short stick in life. Any time and money for extracurricular activities is earmarked for the big kids. Getting the two older kids to real music lessons means no baby music classes for two-a-half-year-old Nate. Studio gymnastics for the middle two means no “tumblers” at the baby gym for Nate. Nate only wears hand-me-downs from his older brother and cousins. To call his crib used is a massive understatement. Barely hanging on is more like it. And his board books look equally chewed and dilapidated.
With three siblings ahead of him, it always seems like Nate is last on the list. Sure, for the first year his needs came first such as stopping everything so I could feed him or change a diaper. And it’s true that at two-and-a-half, Nate’s afternoon nap and early bed time still influences our family’s schedule. However, other than getting his basic sleep necessities protected, I was struggling to think of any benefits whatsoever to being the youngest child in our house.
Then something important occurred to me while I sat in the living room happily watching Nate push his Matchbox cars down a twisty plastic Fisher Price ramp. I’m enjoying Nate’s toddlerhood more than I did with the other kids. “Sit,” Nate had said to me a moment earlier, pointing to the couch. He wanted me to simply stay there while he played, and I obliged in a way I never did when the other kids were his age. I wasn’t bored, and I didn’t worry about what he would do once he got tired of the cars. I felt relaxed and amused by my son. One of the five of us is often his audience. It’s no wonder that the youngest in big families is stereotypically the life of the party and the big personality.
I also take pleasure in Nate’s toddlerhood because Nate will be the last toddler I raise. I savor his shenanigans and attributes in a way I didn’t with any of his siblings. I’m not anxious to potty train him, move him to a bed, or stop buying him footed pajamas. In hindsight, I hurried Sam, Rebecca, and Elissa through those stages because there was always another baby coming. When all three of them were Nate’s age, I was either at the end of a pregnancy or taking care of a newborn. The last months of my pregnancies were punctuated by back pain and heartburn that woke me all night long. The first months of newborn care were equal parts sweetness and exhaustion mixed with hormone-induced depression. Nate gets the benefit of having siblings without living through the upheaval of adding to our family.
Considering Nate’s life in relation to the stage of motherhood I’m in now, I think the advantages of being the youngest might outweigh the drawbacks. Yes, his books are a little munched on, but Nate has an experienced, confident mom. I know how to take care of my needs alongside my kids’ needs and my husband’s. I’m less likely to let others push me around, which means I stand up for what’s best for Nate, too. If we need to leave somewhere early because Nate is too tired to participate, I’m not sheepish and worried about offending family and friends the way I was when motherhood was new. Likewise, I don’t let Nate push me around either. He has the broadest palate in our household, for example, because he’s the only one I didn’t treat like a restaurant patron who could dictate his chosen meal. My life is not ruled by worries of Nate throwing a tantrum. After ten years in the game, I know it does not serve a child to have his mother cowering in fear of what he might do next. He will throw tantrums, and we’ll both survive.
More than anything, I let Nate’s toddler ways amuse me because I’m keenly aware how quickly this stage ends, how quickly all the stages end. As I sat watching Nate push his cars on the ramp, I considered how the bouncy seat and play mat used to sit in that very spot. Through the years, in other corners of the living room, we’ve had a baby swing in full use then the Exersaucer. For ten years, off and on, my husband and I have moved those infant items in and out until we eventually donated them to another family. Before long, the cars, trains, and Duplex Legos will go, too.
This is what the last child gets. He gets a mom who knows how quickly years pass, and a mom who is less desperate to check stages and ages off a list. He gets a mom who opens her eyes and lets him stay who he is in this slice of time because she knows that once these moments are gone, they’ll only be photographs, memories, and nostalgia. For now, at least, this is our life together, the six of us. I want to stay a part of it. Finally, I will not wish the time away.