When I first began listening to podcasts a couple years and change ago, I was knee-deep in small children. Like, even more so than now. The twins were two and Nolan was an infant. I began listening to podcasts to have an adult voice in my ears and to liven up my days, which were more full of diapers, snot, and Cheerios than grown-up conversation. I sought out podcasts on motherhood out of desperation for solidarity and maybe a ray of hope that this too, shall pass.
As I listened I began to notice a theme. Or at least a catchphrase. “Three kids under five,” came up frequently, like it was some Holy Grail of Difficulty in parenting. Most of the podcasters were older than me and everyone spoke of that season in tones of reverence. It was the season that buried them, one of the hardest parts of their parenting careers, maybe one of the hardest parts of their lives. Three kids under five was a lot. It was exhausting. It was to be survived.
I looked around at my own life at the time. Three kids in diapers. Three kids who couldn’t put on their own shoes or jackets or socks or mittens. Three kids who were along for the ride as I drove my minivan in circles around the parking lot to find a cart big enough to wheel everyone in the store together. Because two of those kids were too little to walk through the parking lot without a hand to hold, yet one of my arms was burdened with the third in a car seat.
Three kids under three.
Three kids under five sounded pretty good to me. Five years old — or almost? That’s big kid territory right there. Five to me represented independence, some sort of helpfulness, maybe even stability. With three kids under five, at least one of them would be in school part of the day. At a minimum, it implied they were potty trained. Surely Five must be practically able to take care of themselves.
“Three kids under five,” I would think, “Must be nice.”
At the risk of sounding like a complete idiot, I’ll tell you I realized pretty recently that I still have three kids under five. In fact, I’ve had three kids under five for three years. The first year I had three under three. Then three under four. Earlier this year I upgraded at last, officially, to three under five. Before three kids, I had two under any age you could throw at me. Under a year, under a month, under a day. Under five minutes.
I’ve been exhausted lately and annoyed I feel that way. Surely I should feel “better” by now. Whatever that means. Certainly I should feel more energized and less drained. There’s no longer a baby in our house and I’ve been a parent now for how long? The days and even years blur together, as the quantity of small children multiplies the intensity of their years. But then I stop and do the math and realize I don’t even have a five-year old yet, though I’m due to have a couple of them in just two short months.
The truth is, I’m still in that “three under five” season the podcasters spoke of with such exhaustion. I’ve been in it for a long time. And while we’ve introduced some improvements over the years, (Caden and Brooklyn 3.0 learned to put on their own clothes, the 4.0 versions can buckle their own car seats, and glory hallelujah everyone is potty trained), my days continue to be filled with the management of temper tantrums, multiple snacktimes, and the wiping of little bottoms. (They learn this essential life skill eventually, right?)
At first, it was a novelty, having three kids so close together. We drew stares and questions and compliments everywhere we went. Each day was a challenge, a puzzle to figure out, a new adventure to survive. Now, to be perfectly honest, I’m tired of it all. Physically weary, yes. Exhausted from the mental burden of caring for the same three kids day after day. Worn out from always carting three kids from place to place to place. The past few years have been more or less the same scene: me in the minivan with three small kids in car seats and an overstuffed diaper bag.
I’ve been the one at classes, at storytime, at the park, at playdates, at Target, and the drive-thru of the nearest coffee shop with three kids in tow for three freaking years. The novelty has worn off.
My kids love open gym time. The benefit to having three kids in a two-year timespan is how they all enjoy the same activities. They laugh at the same shows, play with the same toys, and here they’re all the same age to tumble around together for a couple of hours. Even better is that they have yet to mind me dressing them in matching shirts. It’s one of the tricks I picked up in the past few years: when doing a headcount I only need to look around the cavernous space for the exact same shirt three times. I think other families use this tactic for Disneyworld. I use it for open gym time on an average Wednesday.
The local school districts throughout our state offer exceptional parent-child classes and weekly playtime events. These have been staple activities in our house. I’m used to having more kids in my lap than anyone else at circle time. Other parents may have three or more kids, but with more traditional age gaps, they only attend with their youngest. I’m so used to dividing myself in three so there’s enough of me to go around the room I hardly notice anymore.
I discovered early on that those enormous minivan-versions of carts at Target (bless them) can hold twin two-year olds, a baby in a carseat, a week’s worth of groceries, and a box of diapers. For the first six months of his life, Nolan lay in his carseat while I piled groceries around him, higher and higher, usually throwing a loaf of bread and a bag of Goldfish on top of him as I ran out of space.
But the kids used to fit better in those enormous carts than they do now. They’ve gotten bigger over the past couple of years, as kids do. On our most recent Target run it felt like I could hardly contain them all in the big red cart. The cart felt heavy, burdensome. I still get stares, but the exclamations and questions over how cute or how old they are have more or less subsided. More frequently now they’re asked when they’re going to start school.
Last week at our parent-child class the teacher told us to put our kids on our laps as we sang a song and bounced them. I looked around the group of a dozen other parents; two had two kids with them, the others had just one. Once upon a time, I would have risen to the challenge, and plopped all three kids, two toddlers and a baby, in my lap. Now, at a collective weight of approximately 109.2 pounds, I listened to that instruction and gave it a hard NOPE. “You guys can sit next to me and bounce yourselves,” I told Caden and Brooklyn. Let me experience having one kid in my lap for once.
Soon enough I’ll have only one kid at open gym time. Then none at all. A staple of the past few years will become a thing of the past, a remember when that they probably won’t remember. I’ll remember, though. I’ll remember taking a headcount every couple of minutes, the few photos I have in their matching shirts where they’re not all a blur, the way they chased each other around and around the cavernous gym pretending to be their favorite characters together — “Catboy!” “Gecko!” “Owlette!” “Let’s go!” — without getting tired.
As the weather has turned colder, I’ve been refocusing my attention in the afternoon, to play with the kids purposefully. We watch a little TV, have a snack, build or bake something, circle up around the table for art time, and often I just watch while they run around the house like crazy people, because, after all, they’re still three kids under five.
When Caden and Brooklyn were younger, I was more intentional with our afternoon time. Mornings were for activities and errands, but the afternoons were ours. I’ve been trying to reset myself back to that time, to that routine. Because, as hard as it is to imagine, we have less than a year of afternoons left before Caden and Brooklyn head off to Kindergarten.
I can’t wait.
Also, I wish it were still three years away.
Can we hold both of these things, simultaneously, and let them be true at the same time?
I’m sick of having three kids under five.
I’m going to miss having three kids under five.