I’ve always avoided using the word ‘only’ when referring to the number of children in a family (I do slip up at times and I’m so sorry). Only one child, only two kids, only three…. it sounds so minimizing. When you have a child, whether it be one or twelve, you’re a parent. And that changes everything.
Ever since Xander left on his mission and Hans left for college, people have been asking me, “So what’s it like with only two kids?”
Here’s what I’ve learned: some things are very, very different– like the amount of food we buy or having enough seats in the car– but other things are much the same. Parenting is a bottomless well of need. A engaged parent investing in strong relationships will always have plenty to do. I used to be really annoyed by the phrase ‘numbers don’t matter.’ When you’re buckling kids into carseats, buying two grocery carts of food (not to mention booking airline tickets) numbers matter a LOT, but I now understand the spirit of that phrase. We can choose to be involved/checked out parents of one kid or eight. It’s similar to working from home or at an office– you can be home and really not be there, just as you can be away and still connect with kids.
Still, it’s been interesting to reflect on parenting six kids at home vs. two.
The other day I went to one of Gabe’s Troubadour (barbershop group) Christmas performances. They trek around to several elementary schools and rest homes spreading holiday cheer. I sat by some of the other mothers, clapped after each number and marveled at their abilities. While I was humming along to “Silent Night” I realized I hadn’t attended a single one of these concerts when Stefan and Hans were in Troubadours. Sure, I went to the high school concert, but for all these others, they were on their own.
Ben and Mary often trade notes on the differences in their childhood. When Ben was in 8th grade he babysat five younger siblings and changed diapers on a daily basis. He was often embarrassed to bring friends over because his younger siblings climbed all over them, begged to wrestle and interrupted every conversation. Now we purposely nurture friendships with younger families just to get babies in the house.
For the first few months after Hans and Xander left, it was hard to see any differences. I still have six kids and they run in and out of the house regularly, but as we’ve settled into some sort of routine here’s what I’ve noticed:
- JUST REMEMBERING FACES– the other day I was at the high school and talked to a mom I’d met a dozen times before. She didn’t seem to remember me. I was a little surprised since our kids run in the same circles, do the same activities and we’ve served on committees together. Then, I recalled myself when Ben was a junior in high school (the same age her oldest child is now)– I was rushing between five different schools, frantically trying to keep little kids safe, picked up on time and fed (always failing and faking it on some level). I couldn’t remember any of the names of the moms I worked with at the high school. It was nothing personal; my brain was simply out of room. These days, I can actually remember people. It’s lovely.
- THE MESS– oh my, the mess. I might feel differently if Hans had just left on his mission instead of Xander. While Hans is naturally tidy, Xander is the messiest person on the planet. We used to just stand back in wonder watching how the house went from tidy to tidal wave within minutes of his arrival home (and I’m talking about this summer, not when he was five). So… just like everything else– it just depends on the kid. Still, you can remind two kids to put their stuff away. When you’re reminding a half-dozen kids, you end up just being a nag.
- FOOD. By far the most stunning change with four of us at home is the decrease in food purchased/eaten. We used to go through 21 gallons of milk a week. Now we’re down to 4 (almost all Gabe). One trip to the store can fill our fridge/pantry for the week (though I’m not organized enough to only go once a week and the salad greens go bad). A carton of ice cream actually sat in our freezer for a month. It gets tricky when the older kids come for dinner on weekends because we need to think about buying more food. And I hate to confess this, but it often just doesn’t feel worth the effort to make dinner for four people (hiding my face in shame). Gabe and Mary are happy as long as we have chicken pot pies (Gabe) and Corn Chex (Mary) in the house. Also, we could go out to dinner without breaking the bank, but as the youngest kids in a big family, Gabe and Mary don’t really like eating out. They always want to be home.
- ALL THE LITTLE DETAILS OF LIFE. Wow, I am getting so much better at calling the orthodontist, organizing the junk drawer, turning in forms on time. When Ben and Stefan were in braces we missed as many appointments as we actually attended, but with Gabe and Mary we made it to every appointment (or called ahead and rescheduled). I was a hyper-organized person before Gabe was born (almost OCD) and that part of me just died. I like the less-rigid version of myself much better– but it’s nice to be a little more efficient and polite.
- TRANSPORTATION/TRAVEL. OK, every parent needs a big vehicle just for carpools (and Mary plays the cello). But we can jump in Erik’s pickup truck for church and rumor has it that four airline tickets cost less than eight. I’ve also heard you can fit four people in a cab (we’ve never ridden in one). But old habits die hard. We sat down to book a trip over President’s Day weekend and realized we’d all rather stay home.
- VOLUNTEERING I’ve done what I can over the years (never to the level of Martha Jackson), but these days, volunteering at the school is a little more fun. I’m not searching for babysitters or leaving a huge mess at home. When Gabe performed in two plays this fall (another post) I did photos and video for both and actually delivered the files on time (still embarrassed about the year I didn’t get the video for the play done until the last week of school). We’ve also been able to mentor a refugee family. And while I always wanted to do that with everyone home, it’s tricky enough coordinating five schedules to meet once a week. Every week, it’s so hard to find the time to go, and every week we’re so glad we did.
OK, I’m going to stop there. I had five more items on my list but it started feeling self-congratulatory and possibly offensive. While I am thrilled to be a little more pulled together (finally!), I’m also mourning my children growing up. It makes me feel better to say, “We’re still really busy!” “We’re nowhere near empty-nesters!” I still wish we’d had one more baby, but I’m slowly getting over that loss. Here’s the truth– I never planned to be a mother. I never thought I’d love it so much and be so good at it. Oh I know, it’s taboo to say you’re good at mothering, but I am. And I’m afraid I’ll never be good at anything else.
So let’s leave it here. Two kids. It’s a lot. They need rides and food, a place for their friends, help with homework, jokes and conversation and so many hugs.
And I plan to enjoy every day.