Parents ponder when to have the next baby By Kiran Ansari • photos by Frank Pinc
My brother has just beaten me at Scrabble. Again. When he was born, I was old enough to change his diaper. Now, at 12, he is old enough to depose me as the family's reigning Scrabble champ.
I am the oldest of three siblings. My sister is five years younger; my brother is 10 years her junior. Yet the wide age gaps never bothered us. Our parents chose to spread out our births so they could shower us with undivided attention. They wouldn't have had it any other way.
But when my son was 19 months old and the center of our universe, my husband and I often wondered whether it was time for the next baby. We were asking the same question many parents ask: Should we have another child now, so they'll be close in age? Or should we wait to ensure each child has our undivided attention?
There are valid arguments in favor of each. Parents who choose to wait-we'll call them the GAP group-advocate a gap of three or more years between children. In contrast, parents who don't want to wait-we'll call them the ASAP group-choose to have their next baby within two years of the first.
Opting for a GAP
The arguments for those who choose a GAP family-which means children should be three years or more apart- include:
• Quality over quantity. Given finite resources, GAP parents find it easier to bond with one child at a time rather than spend most of their energy sorting out squabbles and choosing whom to attend to first. These parents fear they will do little more than chauffeur kids to and from baseball practice and ballet lessons. Instead, by spreading out the children, they hope they'll be able to stay and watch the soccer practice, volunteer to help with the cookie drive or simply spend quality time bonding with baby.
Wendy Mertes, coordinator of early childhood education at Harper College in Palatine, says about three years between siblings is ideal. "This way, when the new baby arrives, the older child has had his time. He is old enough not to be deprived of infant-year bonding, yet he is young enough to still be in the same world as the new baby."
• Time to recover. This applies particularly to mothers who want to let their minds and bodies recover from the hormonal havoc of pregnancy and childbirth before becoming pregnant again. Moms get the chance to lose at least some of the pregnancy weight before it piles up and they forget that all jeans do not have elastic waistbands. And it gives both moms and dads a chance to enjoy some uninterrupted sleep before the 2 a.m. feedings start again.
Kari Schweinberg of Schaumburg chose to wait until her older son started preschool before she tried for her next baby. "I didn't want two cribs and two kids in diapers at one time. I wanted him to be potty-trained, off the bottle and in his own bed before the new baby arrived," she says. "Because I was able to devote enough time to my older child, he was not at all jealous of his baby brother. Instead, at 4, he was able to help me out a little and enjoyed having the company."
Going the ASAP route
Many mothers put together the most adorable scrapbook for their first born. From the ultrasound pictures to the fancy birth announcement, they document every detail from the first tooth to the first words-until they become pregnant again. Suddenly, morning sickness, doctor visits and swollen ankles make scrapbooks a distant memory.
But ASAP parents-those who opt to have subsequent children as soon as possible make a strong case for their choice:
• One stretch and you're done. ASAP parents prefer to do all the feeding, burping and changing in one shot rather than repeating the whole cycle every couple of years. These moms say they would rather continue to lug around a Tigger diaper bag than switch to a chic mini-purse, only to have to switch back in a few years. Dads say they would like to complete their family while they're still used to the sleepless nights and safety-locked toilet.
"My husband and I knew we wanted two kids, so we started trying for our next baby when our older daughter was just 10 months old. Perhaps I was being selfish, but I wanted to get over with sterilizing bottles and emptying the Diaper Genie once and for all," says Zainab Khan of St. Charles. "At 3 and 5, my daughters are the sunshine of my life, and I feel my family is complete. I have to admit that the journey has been mentally exhausting, but now that the girls are old enough not to need me constantly, I can focus on my career."
Mertes says choosing to have children close together is a good option for parents who prefer to have one adult leave the work force for a single stretch while the kids are younger. "If a parent is devoting time to the children by being there, then the siblings can bond with one another and with their parents," she says, noting that the choice doesn't work for everyone. "Every family today cannot afford that."
• Short-term financial benefits. From saving money on childcare to buying diapers in bulk, having children who are close in age can be cheaper. For example, a sitter might charge only slightly more to care for a second or third child in the same home. Everything from clothes to toys to cribs can be shared or handed down from child to child. GAP parents short on storage space, meanwhile, might give away the baby things only to face the financial strain of buying it all again when they have their next child.
The initial savings evaporate once the kids grow into sophisticated mini-consumers with high-priced wish lists. ("But he got a Game Cube! I want one, too!") And it gets expensive when both children need bikes and braces at the same time. "There will be new drivers all at once and then further down the road, the biggest hurdle of them all-college tuition-may offset all the monetary gains of double strollers and bunk beds when they were younger," Mertes notes.
• Built-in play dates. Sibling rivalry cannot be underestimated. It can be very rough. But the flipside to the pillow fights and TV channel squabbles is that siblings close in age make for ready playmates. In the best of all worlds, they can be best friends who share and compromise more than kids who are the center of attention in their families.
Ayesha Siddiqui of Schaumburg grew up with a brother just a year older. She says they share an exceptional bond. From sharing a room to sharing secrets, she wouldn't have had it any other way. But she also sees the benefits for children raised in a GAP family. "By having large gaps between our children we provide them with adult companionship," says the mom of one daughter who plans to wait awhile before having another child. "We read to them and take them to the park, but, in effect, we are depriving them of company their own age that might not be able to read Dr. Seuss to them but will be able to read their mind and crawl under the dining table with them."
With four grown kids, ASAP parent, Maureen Schlais of La Grange has no regrets. "While the kids were growing up, we couldn't afford expensive lessons and after-school activities, so they gave each other company at home," she says. Jessica, her oldest, was like a second mother to her siblings and, even though there were bouts of sibling rivalry, they all grew up together. "I wanted to have kids when I was young so that I could enjoy my grandchildren. Looking back, I would have had three more if I could," she says.
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