Like many modern couples, my husband and I were in our 30s when we married. Delayed marriage often goes hand in hand with delayed parenthood, and we were no exception. We found ourselves with a dilemma, though. We desired a big family, but we had fewer years with which to make it a reality.
The result? Our oldest child was 4 years old when our fourth baby was born, similar to the parenting trends of earlier centuries, not those of the last 50 or so years. We joined a growing number of "baby bunching" families. Defined as two or more kids in rapid succession, some use the term to describe children 18 (or fewer) months apart while others use the label "two under 2."
The benefits to bunching are many — close-in-age siblings have a playmate and frequently become good friends. Siblings also tend to be on similar developmental timeframes, which means they can enjoy many of the same activities and toys. But as any mom or dad can tell you, infancy and early childhood can be taxing on sleep-deprived parents — especially for a mom who's had to endure the physical rigors of multiple pregnancies and deliveries (or C-sections).
My husband and I have discovered that raising our young children all at once carries unique challenges. Here are some ways that we have not only survived but embraced our stage of parenting:
Organize and anticipate needs
There are certain universal truths we can't escape: a hungry baby will be cranky and a tired toddler will have a meltdown. That's why I've found that taking a few minutes to think through meals, errands and naptimes before the day starts can be a lifesaver. Making that small time investment means we'll be less likely to feed our child a later-than-normal meal or find ourselves at the grocery store inadvertently skipping naptime. (Eventually, close-interval kids can share nap times.)
Set realistic expectations
I confess our sofa is stained and our coffee table scratched. Sometimes I don't get a chance to fold laundry, and we pick outfits straight out of the clean-clothes basket. My husband and I spend plenty of time cooking, cleaning and maintaining the house, but we have come to understand that our home — and lives — won't be "Pinterest perfect" during these busy early years. This outlook helps keep me from seeing the kids as an "obstacle" to getting important things done — because my mind is made up that raising them is my most important work.
When I was pregnant with our first child, a baby girl, I loved looking at pink car seats and strollers. But since we were hoping for a larger family, the practical choice was to purchase gender-neutral items. I'm glad we did: all four of our children, two girls and two boys, have used the same black infant seat and black umbrella stroller.
But we also found that, at times, children close in age can't share the same baby gear. For example, at one point we had three high chairs in our dining room. That's why I'm thankful for garage sales, Facebook buy-sell-trade mommy groups and Craigslist. We purchased used, space-saving high chairs for a fraction of the cost of new ones. After a careful wash, they were good-as-new.
Another trick I've discovered is to rotate toys. I keep a few different sets of toys and switch them out every month or so. I love that it keeps the mess down, and the kids love rediscovering their old toys as "new" toys every few weeks.
Fill each child’s love tank
One temptation I've faced as the parent of close-interval children is to think of them as a group and not as individuals. The natural tendency is to have my children do everything together. But according to Yolanda Brown, a licensed family therapist in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that may contribute to sibling rivalry.
While some bickering is normal, and even healthy, Brown explains, "It helps children establish their own identities and teaches them proper boundaries." But sometimes the competition can indicate that there's a deeper issue at play. The kids might be Mommy- and Daddy-needy. "Kids feel loved when they receive your time," Brown says. "So do your best to spend one-on-one time with each child, allowing that specific child to lead your time together." A 2-year-old may only need 10 minutes of concentrated time a day, Brown says, but by age 5, a child benefits from about 30 to 45 minutes every other day.
A bunch of love lessons
Five years into our parenting journey, I will be the first to admit that it's been challenging at times. But finding little ways to cope with hard days and stressful situations has helped my husband and me manage our responsibilities and raise children who are thriving. While I wasn't the younger bride and mom I once expected to be, God has used the challenges and joys of parenting close-interval children to strengthen my marriage, shape my character and align my husband’s and my priorities as a family with His.