on the ideal age gap between siblings

There's an internal debate that goes on inside a mother's head following the birth of her first child. Sometimes this debate is moved to a moms group online where thousands of women weigh in with their overly-analytical responses, all of which are wrapped up with paper and pretty little bows and tagged with either The Only Right Answer or Because I Said So.

The debate on when to have a second child is what I mean, of course. The when is the right time? and what is the best age difference? and are only children so bad? that send the internet spiraling, screaming, crashing into balls of I Have All The Answers flames. I mean, maybe before losing Wylie I thought I had all of the answers, too. I just knew I wanted different than what I had, being nearly eleven years older than my only sibling, for Ethan.

This is a debate that shuffles up all different responses on what is universally best. There are the saccharine future-predicting tales of friendship and closeness, sibling soulmates and other halves. There are the promises that your only children will turn into psychopathic killers with complexes and a desire to destroy. There are those who insist children should be at least five years apart as there is a void forever in their hearts if their parents cannot guarantee solo attention at all times. Of course, there are the anecdotes and reflections of the opinion wielders own childhood. You'll read the "I always longed for a sibling" or the "my mother ruined my life by having my sister ten months later" or the "my brother and I hate each other's guts" or the "my sister is my best friend in the world" and you'll think I want that one. That life, right there. That scenario. That situation. Sign me up for that one.

But life doesn't really work that.

As with most baby loss mothers, the naivety is sort of stolen from underneath our feet. We stumble and fall and when it comes time to pick ourselves back up, we realize that you can basically plan nothing. Heck, sometimes you can't even hope for anything. You just sort of have to wake up and shrug your shoulders and take each day as it comes because anything more than that will make you completely crazy, or crazier than you already feel on a daily basis. People will say "the Frozen dolls are sold out at Target, my daughter's life is over" and you will want to hurl scalding hot coffee at their faces and resist the legitimate urge to do so. And that desire to hurl scalding coffee, well, it taps me on the shoulder and gives me a sly little grin whenever these Child Planning conversations find themselves filling up my social media feeds. Maybe before May 12th, I would have been another voice weighing in for Team Anything But What My Parents Did. But now, I scroll through the conversations and try not to read them or too much into them. I was naive once, too. I was giddy once, too. I thought the world was a beautiful, magical place where I could say something would happen and it would. For a long time, it did. And then one day, well, it just didn't anymore.

As I sat in my OB's office next to my husband as we waited for our first prenatal appointment for my pregnancy with Ethan, I noticed a photo frame hanging on the wall. It was given as a thank you to one of the doctors for delivering these four babies, all born four years apart in boy, girl, boy, girl order. "That's what I want," I said to my husband. "Look how perfect. Boy, girl, boy, girl and four years apart. Of course, two and a half years of Ethan's life went by and we decided it was time to have another baby ("oh, he can have a couple of years to grow up with her before he begins school," "oh, I can tot school two children in our little classroom at once," "oh, he wants a sibling just like all of his friends have at this point," "oh, I would love to have another tiny, little baby to care for," "oh, I want them to be best friends like everyone on the internet says their children will") and so we did. But then she died.

My internal debate happens nightly. I realize that I can control nothing. I realize that it doesn't matter what I feel the ideal age gap is because it means nothing and suddenly the only ideal is having a child who survives. Still, I back and forth with myself. Before falling asleep, I give myself a good half hour of "holy shit, I may wind up doing exactly what my parents did" and "no, that's it, we have to try to conceive again right away" and exploring all of the other crevices in between. My children will never be friends, I convince myself. I may never have another child and Ethan will be a future guest on Lock Up, I worry. And did I mention the ol' holy shit, I may wind up doing exactly what my parents did one? Because that one is the headliner every night.


That's my sister. You can't tell anymore, but she's blonde and has blue eyes and a nose ring and a thigh gap and we look nothing alike. She was a hip hop dancer for many years and listens to music that raises my blood pressure and makes me feel like I need to bathe in bleach. We don't like any of the same things. I don't just mean that because of our age difference, but just because we are on opposite sides of the Spectrum Of All The Things. We used to say we were Daria and Quinn until she decided she no longer liked Daria, probably because I do.

I was almost in middle school when she was born. I was busy dealing with periods and backstabbing girl friends and classmates who understood the parts in Grease that just made me feel confused. Still, I loved that little girl. My friends and I begged to babysit for her. We begged to plan her parties. We begged to hang out with her, do her make-up, dress her up, spend every waking moment with her. When I was eighteen and leaving for college, I couldn't let go of her. I sent her a postcard or letter just about every single day that I was gone. I drove home to have lunch with her in her classroom. She'd grab onto my arm and say "this is my big sister" with pride. She was the 12 year old maid of honor in my wedding. She was there the day Ethan was born. And then, eventually, a nearly 30 year old stay-at-home mother and an 18 year old high school senior stopped having any common ground. We weren't friends anymore. Right now, we're not really friends anymore. Our conversations usually include her turning down any plans I try to make or offers I extend. I tell her no, stop that, don't do that, go away and roll my eyes when she speaks in a language that I don't even begin to understand. I still love that not-so-little girl, but we aren't friends right now. In ten years, we will probably be friends again. Maybe even in five years. I realize there comes a time where the divide isn't so wide, where it feels a lot more shallow, but right now it's deep. Right now it's big and wide and lonely and empty and I curse my parents and their excuses as to why they waited so many years to have another child. Right now I need a sibling. Right now I have someone who, for cash, may be willing to watch Ethan long enough for me to pick up take-out at Chipotle.

The thing is, this is my reality now. I don't get to snap my fingers and welcome a baby into my womb and then the world. I don't get to pick and choose and make wishes and have hopes. I'm also coming at life with a perspective of knowing that just because my children are close in age, it doesn't mean they will be friends. It doesn't mean they will like one another. It doesn't mean they'll be close or spend holidays together or have children together and fill my living room on Sundays for family dinners and together time. That, too, is just a dream. Just a hope. Just a daydream. I don't have those anymore.

What I do have is my reality. A reality that is filled with people telling me that one day we will bring home a living baby. A reality that may mean my children are eleven years apart. A reality that may mean one of my children will be eighteen when the other is twenty-nine and maybe it's the twenty-nine year old who still lives at home while the eighteen year old has just traveled Europe and has their sights on a family life in the suburbs. Loss lets you see the gray area that sometimes you miss out on when you're blind to a certain level of pain. It's a level of gray area that these debating mothers on the internet can't really see and, in a way, I envy them. I wish I was as sure of anything as they are of everything that sits just so out of their control.

Tonight, I made a promise to myself to embrace the gray area. To say goodbye to these ideas of perfect and ideal and perfectly planned and in my (not so) humble opinion and to know that whether or not Ethan grows up to be an only child, he won't be on Lock Up. And if he is, it isn't because of his lack of siblings. And if Ethan winds up having siblings born from my own body or through adoption and if they are six years apart or sixteen years apart, all I can do is continue to take each day at a time. To do what I can do. To see things for how they are and not how people on the internet insist they will be. I said goodbye to my dream and my ideal and my perfect, and the best I can do is to rebuild from here and know that there is no perfect. I must grow to love the crumbles and the fault lines and the chipped paint and the brown grass in the proverbial yard. And that's what my parents did, the best with what they had. The best they could do with what life gave them. I don't roll my eyes when my mother recounts her stories of all it took to conceive my sister, the struggles and the appointments and the doctors and the fear. I understand it all now and, in that sense, I am doing just what my parents did: the best I know how.


  1. Thank you. This was beautiful. I also look back on the Me I was last year this time. So sure of how my life would play out. Totally unaware that a month and a half later, it would all be ripped away and that the road afterward would offer little comfort. I miss having opinions about epidurals and cloth diapers and breast-feeding and "cry it out" and all that. I think so often of how much simpler life is for moms and dad who never have to say goodbye. Who never have to wonder, "was that our only chance? Will we only ever be bereaved parents with this empty feeling inside?" I envy it with a passion.

    There is no ideal besides breathing (and hopefully healthy). I hear you.

  2. Another beautiful post, my friend.

    My brother is four years older than I am and we are not close at all. I don't think this has anything to do with the age gap, but rather everything to do with our personalities and how we were raised. Nevertheless, I worry all.the.time - because Kale and Bea are four years apart and I want nothing more than for them to be best friends forever. But, considering all the other shit I worry about as a mother, might as well just add this one to the fire...

  3. My brother and I were 8 years apart....he was more like a father to me at times. He taught me everything and since he passed I miss him dearly. Now I am an only child and my husband is an only child. I feel the exact emotional & mental debate you are talking about. I don't want Mya to be an only child because it is lonely...our extended family is getting so small....but I also think I am not ready to have another child yet, yet I shouldn't be selfish?

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