Before my twins were born in the fall of 2021, my oldest son, Jackson, and I were just about inseparable. We had become overnight co-workers when the pandemic closed his daycare and I became a remote worker, all while his other mom was spending long hours in nursing school. He was in the young toddler phase where he needed to be attached to a parent’s hip at all times. But when his brother and sister were born three months’ premature, our family got on a merry-go-round that we have yet to get off of — and it’s one that has put considerable distance between Jackson and me.
Most families with older kids go through a rocky period when welcoming a new addition, and we felt that in spades as we added two medically complex preemies in NICUs across two states to our family. Once we all finally settled in at home, trying to close the distance that new babies naturally created between us and Jackson has been one of our biggest challenges. We try to break out board games if we can get the twins down for a nap at the same time, but that often involves a fair amount of shushing and eventual baby interruptions. Trips to Jackson’s favorite playgrounds don’t have the same verve as before; instead of bouncing with him on the seesaw or diving down the slide after him, I’m usually trying in vain to push a double stroller across wood chips or huffing and puffing behind him carrying two babies.
But earlier this year, I made a resolution to be more present for him. So last month, I followed Ashlee’s lead — who had taken Jackson for an impromptu overnight to Lancaster, just the two of them, last summer — and booked a quick getaway for the two of us to Easton, Pa., to see one of his favorite performers, Blippi (if you know, you know). And it turns out, the lessons I walked away with are lasting much longer than just that one weekend.
Fewer kids means better behavior — for both of us
As a boisterous 4.5-year-old perpetually testing his limits, Jackson is a frequent flier in time out. But on our weekend away, he barely put a toe out of line. Sure, I may have had to tell him to put his PJs on about 12 times while he was absorbed in our pre-bed “Spongebob” watching at the hotel, but for the most part, I was treated to an alert, pleasant, and engaged version of my kid.
During our Olive Garden dinner date, he actually ate more than a few noodles (which is good for him!) and was happily absorbed in the activity books we tag-teamed. When I told him it was time to get out of the hotel pool, he complied without much protesting, and when I clicked off “Spongebob” and replaced it with bedtime books, he eagerly started flipping the pages.
I attribute his stellar behavior to a couple factors. Without two babies on board, he didn’t have to compete for my attention — which can often lead to over-the-top antics that get him into trouble. And the stimulation level was way down. At home, there is almost always either a kid crying in our house, constant mess, distractions, or everything at once. When put outside of that environment, Jackson could be focused and engaged.
And so could I.
Part of Jackson’s pleasantness was likely connected to my own. I’m used to the pressures and stress of dealing with three kids, so having just one — and no work or other household responsibilities — was a piece of cake! I found his energy level to be infectious and not stress-inducing. Instead of the constant “no” refrain I find myself using at home, I was up for getting him the Kit-Kats he was thrilled with during the Blippi show even though it was before dinner. I kicked back and shared a bag of popcorn with him as we watched cartoons well past his bedtime, which I’m usually religious about. And I was just as excited as he was that we found not one but two playgrounds on a morning walk exploring the town, snapping selfies as we climbed to the top of the equipment together.
Ultimately, I was less stressed, so he was less stressed.
Checking my emotional reactivity
That’s not to say there weren’t any bumps at all.
For instance, after the Blippi show let out, we headed back in the cold drizzle to the parking garage for our trip to check into the hotel. However, after circling the level I thought we parked on several times, my car was nowhere to be found. We rode the elevator down, we took the steps up, we zigzagged, we walked outside and back inside — and for 35 minutes, my internal panic slowly built. My car was stolen! Should I find a cop? I was freaking out but trying not to show it since the rain-soaked 4-year-old with me was dragging his feet and nervously clutching my hand asking if we were “going to be lost forever.”
More than once, I knelt down in the middle of the parking garage and tried to assure him it was no big deal, we were just having a little adventure — and then fix my face to make that look real, even though I had myself convinced we’d be hitchhiking back to Willow Grove. Ultimately, on yet another trip outside to get my bearings, I spotted another almost identical lot about a block away where it turns out I was actually parked. In our normal setting, I probably would have been even more frazzled by two more babies, but being solo with him gave me good insight into how much Jackson feeds off my energy — good and bad — and how that’s an opportunity to show him how to handle conflict and challenges.
And one more thing: always remember where you park your car.
Revisiting, not recreating
It’s only been a year-and-a-half since the twins were born, but the routine of being a family of five is so intense that the period when it was only Jackson and us seems like just a memory — because it is. But when we were able to extract ourselves from that crazy merry-go-round, I felt like Jackson and I were able to bring back to life those memories that built the foundation of our relationship: chasing each other on the playground, snuggling in bed reading books and freely following him from adventure to adventure — with both feet in.
Usually, part of my brain is always in baby mode: when Avery needs to be hooked up to her next G tube feed; remembering if I have to change August’s diaper; seeing who’s falling and who’s crying and who else needs my attention. But in a different setting, I was able to recreate the focus I used to have as a parent of just one.
On our stop at the Crayola Factory, I had the bandwidth to actually just watch Jackson play — to appreciate his thought processes as he carefully picked different colors for the masterpiece he made, to watch his hesitation on the museum’s play equipment slowly bloom into confidence, to marvel alongside him at how all of these new adventures just seemed so big. Because as I pledged, I want to remember that Jackson may be my oldest, but he still has so much growing and learning to do — and I’m so grateful to have had this trip to really be present for that.
It was also an opportunity for me to indulge a reality that, as a parent of multiple kids, I feel some guilt acknowledging: There are days I miss our life as a smaller family. It was certainly easier, it was less stressful and it was a time when my oldest and I were building such an amazing bond.
While our weekend trip helped fill a bit of a gap that has been there since we brought the babies into our family, I did realize that I can’t entirely ever again revisit those early days with my oldest because we’re not the same people anymore. He’s almost 5 and in an entirely new phase of childhood, and I’m a much different parent than I was a few years ago — not to mention that expanding our family has changed (and challenged) us all, for the better. I may be nostalgic at times, but the twins helped complete our family and now I can’t imagine the future without them.
However, what this trip did show me is that, while I can’t do anything to recreate that time, what I can do is hop off that merry-go-round every now and again and give my oldest all of my attention so that, together, we can build on that foundation we started making years ago to create new memories.