When my daughter was a few months old, I came up with a line about when my husband and I would have a second child: "I want Sylvia to be old enough to pay attention when I say, 'Wait right here while I change the baby's diaper.'?" Four years old seemed about right.
But by the time Sylvia was 2, I was hearing something else from my husband, Aron. "Did you see how nicely so-and-so and so-and-so were playing together?" he'd say after spending time with close-in-age siblings. "If we wait until she's four, we'll be out of this" (at which he'd gesture to the pull-up diapers piled next to the potty and the mac and cheese cemented on the high-chair straps) "and it'll be hard to come back. Really hard."
So Lena was born three years and three months after Sylvia. And, of course, we're thrilled with the spacing, since we now can't imagine our girls any other way. And yet I still wonder: Would Sylvia's difficult threes have been so difficult if Lena had been born later? Would Lena's nap habits be more predictable if she'd been born sooner, when Sylvia was still napping?
Figuring the answers I wanted could only come from other parents, I went looking for the lowdown from moms in the thick of raising sibs in the three most common splits.
Two Under 2
This is what some parents call, with dread, "two in diapers," and it comes with barely imaginable logistical nightmares: How do you put a 4-month-old and a 20-month-old to bed at the same time -- when your partner is working late? How can you afford simultaneous daycares, music lessons -- college educations? It's a slog, no doubt, but many of these moms are personally motivated to tackle it. They want to replicate the tight bonds they have with their brothers or sisters, or create the sib closeness they didn't experience.
The stinker about this age difference is that you may feel like you had a pregnancy-free break of about five minutes. "I was slammed with first-trimester exhaustion just as my eighteen-month-old decided she loved to run and climb," says Jessica Rosenberg of Santa Clara, CA, who is now the mom of two girls, ages 3 1/2 years and 18 months. "I decided I was insane!" Once moms come home from the hospital, some toddlers are uninterested in the new babies, to the point of forgetting they exist. But others notice -- a lot. New Yorker Laurie Gerber, whose daughters are now 6 and 4, recalls that her oldest's emotional reaction to having a little sister swung from one extreme to the other. "Sometimes it was intensely negative, like saying that she hated her," she says. "Sometimes very positive, with lovely little whispers in her ear and wanting to hug her."
The Marriage Factor
Charmaine Tang of Dallas, whose kids, Tyler and Charlotte, are 2 years and 9 months, cautions that the toll of sleep deprivation can be steep. "Being so tired can make us not want to get a sitter to go out or end up snapping at each other over trivial things," she says. But as any soldier will tell you, tight bonds are forged in foxholes: Most moms we talked to said that if anything, the chaos has brought them closer to their spouses.
What Moms Love
With kids close in age, moms are able to plan family activities -- camping, biking, skiing -- sooner, without having to wait years until the youngest child is ready to participate. And there's an appealing light at the end of the tunnel. "I liked the idea that once diapers were over, they'd be over -- that the exhausting part would end in a short time, while my husband and I were still young," says Gerber.
What Moms Don't Love
See "logistical nightmares," mentioned earlier. With a big-sib toddler bouncing off the walls, you can forget about quiet snuggle time with your infant. And there are just no good answers for how to soothe both kids at the same time. Yet, says Rosenberg, "hands down, the hardest thing is the lack of sleep. Our baby didn't sleep through the night until she was sixteen months old. That in itself was a challenge, but when the two-year-old would wake up because of nightmares, needing to pee, a cold, or anything, I didn't have any reserves left to be a comforting, patient mommy -- especially when I had to go to work in the morning."
Somehow, moms do make it through those trying times, even while flying solo. It's all about thinking strategically. Rosenberg learned to nurse number 2 in the sling, leaving her hands free to make dinner for number 1. Tang's made a science of bathtime, stowing a swing tub-side so Charlotte will be safe while Tyler gets soaped up and rinsed. And Gerber says, counterintuitively, that her 6- and 4-year-old are easier to manage if there's only one parent around -- so "divide and conquer" is not always the right move. "I'm not busy trying to split up tasks between Will and me, and since I'm doing everything, the kids expect less attention."
Three Years Apart
Here, you get the best and worst of the extremes: The kids will probably overlap in school and be close enough in age to be involved in each other's activities, schools, and friendships -- but not close enough that they'll be able to play or share friends like real compadres. And three years' difference might be just enough to avoid the fierce, head-to-head matches seen in a closer spacing -- but your older child won't be mature enough to hold off on "you're doing it wrong" comments to his little brother.
While a 2- to 3-year-old can certainly anticipate the birth of a little brother or sister, not everything is 100 percent understood. Anne Halsey of Chicago said that her 3-year-old daughter was so interested in her baby brother that she was upset to find out that she wasn't able to nurse him herself. "Several of those early occasions ended up in crying episodes," says Halsey. "We had to give her a doll as a substitute, and she'd 'nurse' the doll while I fed the baby." Tisha Black of Searcy, AR, had a similar experience with her kids, ages 6, 3, and 5 months. "If anything, sometimes our bigger kids have wanted to help too much," she says. "When our youngest came along, our middle tried feeding her Goldfish snacks when she was only a few weeks old!"
The Marriage Factor
A three-year gap can allow you a little long-lost couple time between kids, but it can also feel like a long stretch of baby days. "I've been pregnant or nursing for almost six of the past nine years," says Maya Packard of Charlotte, NC, who has girls ages 8, 5, and 1. "There have been periods when I've felt rested enough and attractive enough to have a good sex life with my husband, but it's been a challenge."
What Moms Love
Many older kids are ready to grab the "big sib" mantle and run with it. And Packard says she loves that she's been able to enjoy each child individually. "By the time each baby came along, the older one was in preschool at least part-time, so I could really just focus on the baby at least for some of the day," she says. "Also, because their ages are so disparate, I don't compare them very much. I appreciate their separate stages of childhood."
What Moms Don't Love
Your first child is old enough to make comparisons, but not mature enough to understand that babies need more of your care. The little ones, meanwhile, may grow to envy their big sib's activities and independence. Moms say that the activity gap can seem insurmountable at first -- after all, what do a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old have in common? And the challenges of the situation can begin to wear thin. "We've been scheduling around naps, childproofing the house, and cleaning food up off the floor five times a day for a long time now," says Packard.
Finding activities both kids enjoy gets easier as they age. "Now that Liam is old enough, we sometimes set up a craft -- ice-pop sticks with glue, pom-poms, and googly eyes are a big favorite -- or a puzzle they can work on together in the kitchen while I cook," says Sarah Dolven of Leverett, MA, who has a 3 1/2- and a 7-year-old. To help a younger sib deal with jealousy over what big kids can do, moms say it helps to plan special activities, anything that reminds them that they're not just less-developed versions of their big sibs but cool kids in their own right.
Four Years or More
This split has significant benefits: a first child who can entertain herself and talk through feelings; an opportunity to focus on the younger child and avoid the financial hit of two kids in daycare or college at the same time. But it can also mean sibs who are less involved with each other, and a back-and-forth sensation as you adjust from "big kid" issues back to newborn living.
With your first child relatively independent, you may have the space to recapture that first-pregnancy feeling. "My twins were in kindergarten all day, so I really could enjoy my belly," says Amy Frishberg of Scarsdale, NY, who has 11-year-old twins, plus a 5- and a 4-year-old. Newborns aren't likely to faze older kids; if anything, they're psyched to have a new little sib, and too busy in their own lives to get in the way of your baby bonding. "I expected Ava to resent Adam or the changes to our schedule," says Allison Chapman of Columbus, OH, whose daughter was 4 when her little brother made his firs -- appearance. "But she's always been super sweet -- helping to feed him and even change him. I really don't understand her fascination with poopy diapers!"
The Marriage Factor
You might be getting used to the relative ease of caring for an older kid -- and sleep, glorious sleep, with all of its perks for married life -- when you find yourself back in Newborn Zone. That can be rough on a relationship, but at least you know what you're getting into. what moms love No question, the biggest "pro" moms listed was seeing just how loving older kids can be with younger ones. "Anaia could quiet Luca in the car and soothe him to sleep when she was only eight," says Annie Baum-Stein of Philadelphia, of her now 13- and 4-year-old kids. "I worry sometimes that we're not meeting her needs because we need to pay more attention to her little brother. But lately, as a young teen, she loves how distracted we are!"
What Moms Don't Love
No way around it, more years of your life will be devoted to the most hands-on period of parenthood. "I see other families who had two or three kids close together and they're moving into the phase where the kids are off with their friends," says Susan Eliot of Jamaica Plain, MA, mom to boys ages 10, 6, and 1. "Sometimes I wish that was me." And yes, moms do worry about whether their kids will be a big part of each other's lives.
Moms say that, with a little forethought, there are ways to encourage closeness between widely spaced kids. "We talk to our boys about what they were like at each others' ages," says Eliot. "We show them pictures of themselves when they were babies." Remembering those days can help older kids find more patience and empathy for their younger sibs' annoying habits. Frishberg, the mom of four kids, says function follows form with her brood -- and that, ultimately, learning how to relate to your sibs is all a part of growing up. "Sometimes three kids need to tag along for one child's activity, but I don't think there's anything wrong with that," she says. "Everyone has his or her turn. And I've seen my kids learn patience and cooperation from that experience."
Emily Bloch lives in western Massachusetts and writes for magazines, including Real Simple, Self, and More.