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Riding the Train

I have a confession to make: I don't miss having a baby.  When other moms of older kids sigh wistfully over their lost babies, I smile and nod sympathetically, but secretly I'm thinking to myself, "thank God that's over!"  While they're waxing rhapsodic over tiny fingers and toes, I'm contemplating the joys of uninterrupted sleep and children who can feed themselves.

During the time when I was desperately trying to get pregnant with our first baby, a friend asked me if I was sure I wanted a child and not just a baby.  This is a fair question, given the way infants are romanticized.  In popular culture, motherhood is primarily associated with babies, as if you lose some of your mothering cachet once your children are weaned and toilet trained.  Mothers of small children are sentimentalized, but once your kids are in school, you revert back to ordinary mortal status.

Mothers are supposed to weep when they send their children to kindergarten, but I had a song in my heart when my older kids started elementary school.  Part of my unequivocal joy at having older children is no doubt the result of having three children in nine years.  I spent most of the last decade pregnant and nursing, and for nine years straight we had at least one child in diapers.   I defy anyone to maintain the soft-focus glow of a Johnson's Baby Shampoo commercial after all that.

In a family with multiple children, everyone is constrained by what the youngest member is capable of.  With our first two children, as soon as we got a kid to preschool age, we had another baby, in effect starting over with late night feedings and colic.  Meals, vacations and home décor were all dictated by the needs of an infant, despite the fact that the rest of the family was capable of sitting quietly in a restaurant, going camping, or not peeing on the couch.  Alec turned three in August, and this is the first time we've had a child this age that we didn't also have an infant.  Finally, progress!  

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There are still many things that the older kids can do that Alec can't, but we've already reached some milestones.  On family movie night, Alec can stay up and watch the movie with the rest of us; when the kids are swimming, I can sit on the edge while they all paddle around instead of hovering anxiously in the pool; trips to museums are fun for everyone, and we don't have to leave early because "the baby" is getting fussy.  All sorts of possibilities are beginning to present themselves to us -- family game nights, bike rides, camping trips -- all the things that babies and young toddlers put the kibosh on.

Parenting older children brings its own set of challenges; the biggest one right now is coordinating everyone's schedules.  We joke that the other soccer and scout parents probably think we're divorced, since our divide and conquer approach to three kids' social schedules ensures that we're never in the same place at the same time.  Older children are easier than infants in many ways (it's surprisingly easy to discipline a child who understands what "I'll throw away all your Halloween candy" means) and more difficult in others (they ask harder questions, and once they get too big to pick up and put in their rooms, you have to get creative about consequences).  But while parenting is still an important part of my life, raising older children is undeniably less all-consuming than parenting infants and toddlers.  Sylvia Plath's description of pregnancy as boarding "the train there's no getting off," always resonated with me; pregnancy and the early years of motherhood are overwhelming and relentless.  But it turns out there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

The biggest difference for me is that my relationship with my older kids is a two-way street.  Babies, no matter how cuddly and sweet, are basically attention vampires.  They suck you dry, and the most they give back is an (admittedly heartwarming) gummy grin.  At the time, that was more than enough, but in retrospect, I think I'll take thought-provoking conversations, help with the chores, and being told that I'm the best mom ever (even when it's an obvious ploy to finagle an extra ration of Halloween candy).

Older children are people, with their own personalities, quirks, and dreams.  A friend once described having a baby as "inviting a stranger to come live with you for eighteen years."  This is absolutely true, but the reality of it is blunted at first.  Infants are sweet little lumps of potential and it's easy to project our own ideas of what they'll be onto them.  But as children get older, their personalities reify.  The one you pegged as an artist decides he'd rather play baseball and the ballerina insists on painting the pink walls of her room black and joining a neo-punk Goth band.  This process can be disconcerting, infuriating, even scary -- how can someone who came out of your body be so different from what you expected?  It can also be fascinating and exhilarating.  My expectations for my children were so narrow; I could never have guessed at what complex and engaging people they would become.  I can't wait to see where they go from here.
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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