When my oldest daughter turned two years old, I decided to introduce her to juice. After avoiding it at every turn because of its damaging effects to her teeth and behavior (as I had read in many books), I made the choice to give her apple juice. But to assuage my fears, I diluted it with water. If we went out to eat I asked waiters to give her half water and half juice; I would squirt water and a juice box together and into her sippy cup they would go. I felt proud of my ability to monitor her juice intake, to give her a treat, yet keep it healthy at the same time.
I can laugh now 4 kids later at my focus and determination at the time. Now with 2 girls and twin boys under 2, it isn’t the juice that’s being diluted. It’s my parenting. With each child that I had under my belt, things have become watered down. From the juice boxes my twins drank at 8 months, to the extra free time my girls have on their own, to the relaxed expectations for dressing or TV watching. I am certainly more relaxed in what I expect of my children and of myself. But also my ability to be an active parent for each child equally is diluted. It’s a game of picking and choosing, compromising and giving in. It’s fragmented and imperfect, and it’s difficult to feel whole.
Most of the time I feel my version of diluted parenting will be helpful to my children. I tell myself often, “the lessons they will learn from this juggling act, will help them to navigate real life.” But will it truly? I’m never sure. With 4 kids, not everyone can get individual attention, and as much as I’d like to I won’t be privy to every detail of their childhood lives. I spend nights awake feeling guilty about this.
When the twins were born I remember struggling to be on top of everything each child had from the homework to gymnastics to breastfeeding. It was exhausting. I felt like Gumby stretched out yet still unable to meet their needs, forget about my husband’s, no real regard for my own. And even then my parenting was diluted; I can’t remember what I made the girls for dinner, I never signed the boys up for any baby classes, I washed their bottles without soap.
I remember the first field trips I missed for my oldest and my second. I was devastated to not be a part of it and felt certain they would feel neglected. I swallowed my tears though to handle theirs when they came home. Yet, when they arrived, there were no tears, no feelings of neglect or shame. There was excitement to tell me what they did and whose mom went with them. The girls had come to terms with our new reality much faster than I had.
Many things have happened since then–the boys are walking and talking, both girls are in school full time, and we made a very large cross-country move this past summer. And as we’ve done so I’ve learned to grow more comfortable with dilution. That is, when I’m not wondering what will become fodder for their therapy sessions later in life.
Yet there’s a nagging question: when you dilute something you are changing it, making it different; its essential nature no longer is. Because my parenting has become this way, are my children missing out on something essential?
Maybe… but the reason I don’t remember what I made for dinner when the boys were born is because our friends made dinner for us every night. My parents had sleepovers with the girls full of Cheetos and snuggles, all four of the kids spent a weekend with my sister, brother-in-law, and their significant others so my husband and I could attend a wedding. In the morning the girls pull the boys onto their laps and watch Thomas the Train. The answer to my question when I consider these moments seems irrelevant.
This morning my oldest had a school recital. I brought all of the kids with me to watch her. And I was only able to record bits and pieces between the boys throwing cheese bunnies, and my daughter asking for cookies, so that as the last song played I felt sad that another moment had gone by in which I hadn’t been able to be solely focused on her. The boys were out of the stroller and we were kneeling watching her, my hands hugging the boys soft tummies to keep them from moving, her sister’s hands around my neck. One of her brothers saw her on the stage just then, said her nickname “ye-ya” and waved. It was the first time he had said it so clearly, and her face broke into a large genuine smile, she waved back and smiled at all 3 of us crouched down watching her. And I felt in that moment, incredibly whole.