- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003

Things are getting easier at Mitch and Lisa Kuipers’ house. They are down from three children in diapers to two. All the bottles have been replaced by sippy cups. The oldest child even goes to preschool a few hours a week. All three — thankfully — sleep through the night.

The Kuipers, who live in South Riding, Va., are the parents of Taitumn, Greer and Dechlan, ages 3, 2 and 1, respectively. A little more than a year separates each child, so Mrs. Kuipers, 32, has barely had a moment to reflect since Tatiumn, who is prancing around the living room in a tutu and glamour heels, was born.

“In some ways, I think it is easier to have your children close together,” says Mrs. Kuipers, a registered-nurse-turned-stay-at-home mom, “but sometimes I say, ‘What were we thinking? What exactly was the positive part of this?’ But now I can see the benefits more and more as each week goes by.”

Having two children in less than two years has pros and cons, says Ann Douglas, author of 24 parenting books and the mother of four children. Ms. Douglas’ first three children, now teenagers, were born at 19-month intervals.

“There are advantages,” she says. “Closely spaced kids do end up having a lot in common. They can do things en masse, like play together or go to the zoo together. The downside is the sheer exhaustion. I really underestimated that with three kids in 3 years.”

For Nishi Langhorne of Clifton, it is not the exhaustion of having two sons age 2 and younger. Don’t get her wrong, she is tired. But the waking up at night combined with the pressure of “always being on” is the toughest part, says Mrs. Langhorne, the mother of Ajay, who turned 2 on Nov. 19, and Neal, 6 months.

“I think the hardest part has been going two years without enough sleep,” says Mrs. Langhorne, 27, a former high school English teacher who tutors part time. “Even [medical] residents get a break from being on call. The first three months were probably the hardest. When babies are that age, they are so vulnerable. No matter how many kids you have, it is still scary to have a baby that age. But I think things are finally getting easier. Ajay can entertain himself for a few minutes. Neal can hold his own bottle. I can see how it will be in a year when Neal can do what Ajay is doing.”

Thinking ahead

The next day actually begins the night before at Mrs. Kuipers’ house. That’s when she puts away the day’s toys, gets out the plates for breakfast, fills milk cups, takes a shower, organizes and plans. She tries to get all the cleaning and prepping out of the way by 8 p.m. so she and her husband can have time together.

“Many people might not care,” Mrs. Kuipers says, “but I need to go to bed knowing the laundry was finished.”

Mr. Kuipers, a 39-year-old engineer, says having everything “pretty structured” is a way to keep the family running with three young children.

“I grew up with three brothers and a sister,” he says. “I love kids. As long as we are on a pretty decent schedule, it works well for us.”

In the morning, after the children are up, fed and dressed, Mrs. Kuipers starts making dinner “so things aren’t crazy at 4 p.m.” The day is the typical blend of play groups, preschool, errands, crafts and naps. Mrs. Kuipers says organization is the key to fitting it all in without meltdowns.

“I have to just make decisions,” she says. “Otherwise, I would be stuck in my house my whole life. I just need to say, ‘I am going to go to Target, but it is going to take me the whole morning.’ There is no running out for 10 minutes.”

The strategy to shopping with three children this young is containment, she says. That means putting Taitumn and Greer in the big part of the shopping cart and Dechlan in the seat and putting the groceries wherever they fit.

At home, Mrs. Kuipers is organized by having one centrally located changing table. She also keeps each child’s milk and water cups on a different shelf in the refrigerator. That way, they can reach for them, and she isn’t stuck washing 14 cups and lids every night.

Mrs. Langhorne has a changing table in her living-room-turned-playroom. There is no other furniture in the space, just boxes of balls and bears, a plastic slide, cars, shape sorters and a bouncy seat. She is changing Neal there while Ajay looks through bright cards with letters and numbers to find his favorite, No. 12.

“I decided to just make this a toy room,” Mrs. Langhorne says. “Then I won’t get stressed out about toys everywhere.”

Actually, it is a pretty stress-free day at the Langhornes’ house. The boys are doing what Mrs. Langhorne calls “tag-team napping.” Neal takes a morning nap; Ajay gets up. Neal takes another nap, then Ajay goes down in the afternoon. At the moment, Neal is finishing his morning nap while Ajay is happily playing with his beloved trucks and watching a “Baby Einstein” video.

“I tried to get them on the same schedule, but Neal was just too young,” Mrs. Langhorne says. “I know a couple people with twins, and some say that is easier because they are doing everything at the same time. Right now, Neal went to bed as soon as Ajay woke up. In some ways, this is easier and peaceful with one sleeping.”

During the night, neither boy was so peaceful, she says. The family was returning from a weekend spent with Mrs. Langhorne’s family near Pittsburgh. Ideally, the boys would have slept through most of the four-hour ride, but it didn’t work out like that. Neal was overtired and began to cry. To keep him quiet so he wouldn’t wake Ajay, Mrs. Langhorne fed him a bottle. Then Neal was overfed and needed to be burped, which made him cry more.

“He just wanted to be out of the seat,” Mrs. Langhorne says. “Then Ajay wakes up and realizes my parents aren’t there and freaks out. We stopped, and I tried to change his diaper, but he only wanted Daddy. We got home, and I wanted to put him in the shower, but he ran naked and screaming down the hall.

“Yesterday was a bad day,” she says with a sigh.

Things to consider

Sometimes back-to-back children are a welcome surprise. Just as often, though, they are planned.

That is because there is no universal recommendation on how much space to put between each child. Some psychologists say three years may be optimum because 3 is an age when a child is gaining a sense of independence.

However, Pat Keating, manager of perinatal education programs at Holy Cross Hospital in Kensington, says it is a very personal decision.

“It just depends on the individuals,” she says. “From the parents’ point of view, particularly if they are starting their family later, it might just be to get it over with. From the kids’ point of view, three years might be ideal, but it might not be the most convenient.”

Ms. Douglas says couples who are considering having children close together should understand that no two children are alike. Baby No. 1 might be an angel. Baby No. 2 might show up with a whole other personality.

“Temperament is such a wild card,” she says. “You might luck out the first time, then get Dennis the Menace next time around. You have to realize some of it is beyond your control.”

That is exactly the situation the Kuipers experienced. Taitumn was an easy baby; Greer followed 16 months later with a case of colic that meant she cried 12 hours a day for four months.

“They are not the same by any means, even today,” Mrs. Kuipers says. “Greer has a dry sense of humor. She is a handful. In a way, it is refreshing.”

Mrs. Kuipers says she felt the guilt typical of second-time mothers when she was expecting Greer. By the time Dechlan, an easygoing child like his sister Taitumn, was born 14 months ago, she was more confident.

“I didn’t feel guilty,” she says. “I knew you could love more than one.”

Parents considering having children close together should keep in mind their level of patience and how much they are willing to compromise, says Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and author of the book “The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood.”

Ms. Kendall-Tackett says moms are under a lot of pressure these days. Not giving in to it is one of the keys to handling two or more young ones.

“A lot of mothers have very unfeasible role models,” she says. “I mean, Martha Stewart doesn’t have two little kids. You have to be willing to let some of the house stuff go. You can even simplify the holidays.”

Another key: finding other moms with young children who are accepting and supportive, Ms. Kendall-Tackett says.

“Supportive is the key,” she says. “Spending time with other mothers can be more stressful if you feel you are not measuring up.”

Mrs. Langhorne and Mrs. Kuipers both say having time for themselves has been important in dealing with day-to-day stress. Mrs. Langhorne says her 10 hours a week tutoring high school students is a great escape. She also is starting a business making and selling jewelry.

Mr. and Mrs. Kuipers’ parents live nearby, so the couple get away for evenings out and occasional overnight trips without the children.

“I don’t think I could do this without [getting away],” Mrs. Kuipers says.

Dawn Ceol of Haymarket says that getting up at 4:30 a.m. to train for the Marine Corps Marathon kept her sane when three of her four children, daughter Jillian and twin sons Alex and Ben, were born within 18 months of one another.

“I made sure that time belonged to me,” Mrs. Ceol says. “The key is a really involved husband.”

Now that Mrs. Ceol’s children are 5, 4 and 2, she has had some time to reflect on the early years. The funny thing is, she says, it is all kind of a blur now. She does remember a time when she changed dozens of diapers a day and how she color-coded each child’s cups and plates to keep tabs on what they were eating and to slow down the spread of germs.

“I guess it is a blur for everyone,” Mrs. Ceol says. Both she and her husband, Ed, are the oldest of five children, so they knew they wanted a big family.

“Younger moms who are thinking of having a third child ask me what it was like,” says Mrs. Ceol, 39. “I tell them it is nuts, but you are nuts already. It’s always going to be a little insane in my house, but there are moments of pure amazement when I see how well they play together now. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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