One by one they arrived at two-year intervals. First Ethan, then Alex, then Zack. Each baby welcomed with joy until our home overflowed with boys.
Three is plenty we said. Three is more than enough.
Yet something seemed missing. We had room at the table and space in our hearts, and following a five-year gap, an unexpected blessing arrived – our fourth son, Sam. At last our family felt complete.
The years sped by in a blur of busyness. At one time I had kids in elementary, middle and high schools. I lived in our minivan shuttling boys from here to there and back again.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” seasoned parents advised. “One day they’ll all be gone.”
I smiled, and if I had enough energy I nodded. But imagining empty rooms and empty chairs proved too difficult, and when I had time for contemplation, I usually dozed off.
And then one by one at two-year intervals those boys began to leave. Our family of six became a family of four. I no longer have to double recipes to trough-size servings. I don’t drive a minivan. We always have clean towels in the cupboard and milk in the fridge.
Just when I’d adapted to setting the table for four, Zack got a driver’s license, then a job, and a life that doesn’t always revolve around his family.
The other night as we sat down to dinner, Sam said, “Looks like it’s just the three of us again, huh? We probably should get used to it.”
Out of the mouth of babes. Because, of course, he’s right. Zack graduates in June. He’ll be home one more year while he saves up to study abroad, and then, who knows?
From across the table, I watched Sam chatter about his day and gratitude filled my soul.
Honestly, I haven’t always been so thankful.
I had decidedly mixed feelings when we learned a fourth son was on the way. I’d given away everything baby-related except the crib. Finally, potty-training was in the rearview mirror. While I’d enjoyed my years as an at-home mom, I longed to spread my wings a bit.
All of that changed at Sam’s birth when we almost lost him. He spent the first three weeks of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit at Sacred Heart. Any ambivalence I’d had disappeared as I watched him struggle to stay with us.
When at last we brought him home, healthy and whole, I couldn’t imagine our family without him. The joy of watching Sam grow and thrive seemed sweeter for all of us. That sweetness had something to do with his rough start, but more to do with the awareness that his every first was a last for us. His first giggle, first tooth, first word, first steps, marked the last time we’d get to enjoy these baby milestones.
It isn’t always easy to be the youngest of four. I know because it’s my birth order position, too. A certain amount of loneliness is inherent as you watch your older siblings leave. But the benefits can be pretty fabulous.
When my older sons were at home I had to intentionally carve out time to spend alone with them. Undivided attention from Mom can be hard to come by in a busy family. A frozen yogurt run, a jaunt to Manito Park, catching up while driving to and from sports practices became opportunities to connect one-on-one with my sons.
Sam doesn’t have to compete for attention. When Derek and Zack went to the Bob Dylan concert in Seattle, Sam and I had our own fun. I let him pick a movie and he chose a quirky independent film at the Magic Lantern. Afterward, we browsed at Merlyn’s pouring over comic books and novelty items. We ended the evening with a fabulous meal at Ferraro’s.
Parenting seems less stressful the fourth time around, perhaps because our older sons broke us in. All I know is the sometimes painful experience of having children leave the nest one by one has been softened by the one still at home. And I am grateful.