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Why I’ve Become a Different Parent as I’ve Gotten Older

It sometimes causes conflict among my older and younger kids, but I’ve worked to balance the change.

When my now 21-year-old daughter Cate was in fifth grade, the swine flu hit the United States. We all succumbed, and I used the best remedies that I knew to help everyone get better. There was a lot of herbal tea (the dried furry leaves of a nasty plant my mother used called mullein — mixed with honey and lemon, hold the whiskey); tons of Vick’s VapoRub for their chests, backs and necks; and ibuprofen for the fevers. It was the same stuff that my mom used, and I just used it on my brood — then ages 13, 11, 9 and 6 — because it was the only thing I knew to make them better.

But when I told Cate this year that I was stocked and ready for the coronavirus, she was not impressed. I had strayed from those old healing methods. The tea they always whined about being gross, and the rub that allegedly burned their noses, was now what she and the other kids expected me to have on hand for the pandemic. This despite the years of knowledge and education that have informed me of better remedies. It opened the door for an ongoing argument in our household. You see, Cate has five siblings in all, with two, Quinn and Connor, born 15 and 17 years after her. And the way I parent my 4- and 6-year-olds is the subject of interesting discussions in our house (and on the family chat thread, as only Charlie and the little ones live here full time).

Chloe, my oldest, is usually the first to tell me how the younger kids are absolute terrors. “You don’t even spank them! You did us,” she said to me a few months ago after watching me break up a fight between the younger ones.

“OK, that’s a good thing, right?” I answered, knowing that was not what she meant.

“No! That’s why these two are running all over the place and tearing up the house.”

“You all were the same little wild kids at this age. The spankings did nothing but stress us all out.”

“I’m just saying, the old Mom wouldn’t put up with this.” At that moment, Quinn came into the room with every shade of my new eye shadow palette on her face. “That.”

We laughed. “Yeah,” I said, “this really would’ve made your old Mom hit the roof.”

She had a point. I had Chloe when I was 16 and Cate at 18. By 20, I was raising four kids while my husband worked two jobs to support us. I was also a college student getting a degree that went on hold when our family needed extra money. I was stressed out.

My husband and I started by leaning on what our parents and our friends’ parents did well. We quickly realized the kids were more responsive to other, creative forms of discipline. For example, when we found that Chloe was letting her grades slip in middle school and talking back to teachers, grounding her was not enough. She spent the summer learning about Emmett Till, making her even more outspoken but much more interested in her studies.

As they got older, I learned more about raising kids, and that meant dropping some of the generational baggage. This included taking the time to research instead of acting on emotional information I received from other family and online. It also meant removing blanket rules for every kid.

Another prominent change was in our finances. By the time Quinn’s fourth birthday came around, I had a master’s degree and had gone on to become a professor and a journalist. Their father owned a transport business. The things we bought the younger kids became a point of contention for the older siblings. It came to a head on Quinn’s birthday when I told everyone that Quinn and I were spending the day at the American Girl Store in Chicago. We were going to have brunch with the dolls and then do some shopping. Not everyone was excited to hear this.

There was a squabble in the family chat thread about the extravagance of the birthday “date.” Smoothing out that drama became an important lesson for me in minding that gap between the younger kids and older ones. You see, my older kids had a broke teen mom who had some very creative ways to celebrate birthdays. Connor and Quinn’s mom, however, could afford to upgrade those traditions to a bougie tea for dolls on Michigan Avenue. But they all received attention and love from me, and that’s all that mattered.

No matter how often I quell their grievances, my older kids still look over my shoulder, ready to call me out if I don’t balance their adult needs (the bonding time and advisory role we assume for our adult kids) with the needs of their much younger siblings. However, I think we have reached a point where, as long as I acknowledge that, yes, I am a different parent, the complaints are just light teasing.

Oh, and yes. This year, I did get that smelly rub for Cate, my second oldest, as we planned for this new pandemic. While Quinn and Connor’s mom knows the rub doesn’t do much for the severe respiratory infection that the coronavirus causes, Chloe-Cate-Kara-and-Charlie’s mom knows that the strong eucalyptus smell would put Cate at ease if she did become sick.

That’s the thing about minding the gap: Sometimes the comfort of memory is what makes the balance work.

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