It's Impossible to Give Each of Your Kids Your Full Attention—and That's Okay

I felt incredibly guilty that my younger kids didn't receive my undivided attention like my first did. Then I realized my three children not only have me, but they have each other.

Illustration of woman watching children playing on playground
Photo: Illustration by Anne Bentley

Raising three children under the age of 5, I wished sometimes that each of them were our only one.

When our eldest, Hannah, was an infant, I carried her everywhere in a sling. When she was a toddler, my husband and I did handsprings over her potty accomplishments. When she was a preschooler, we gave every question of hers a thoughtful response. There was nothing more enjoyable than paying attention to Hannah. Having more children, it seemed, could only mean more of a good thing.

Enter our second, Isaac. Hannah had been so easy; subconsciously, I think I assumed he’d be Hannah: The Sequel. But our son had other plans. He arrived with a penis, first of all—totally different equipment—and while he was sweet and snuggly, he had a lot of ear infections, which meant he slept little and cried quite a bit.

My main impediment to bonding with Isaac, however, was that every time we were on the verge of a blissful moment, a demanding little blond girl would interrupt us for a snack, a story, or a tantrum. What had happened to those daily naps our angel used to take? With Isaac in the picture, suddenly Hannah was never tired.

Almost immediately, I felt that Isaac was getting the short end of the stick. And I didn’t have much time to focus on his accomplishments because another little person quickly entered our world.

Benny was born when Isaac was 15 months old. Money was tight and I knew this would be our last child, so I willed myself to slow down and savor his baby days. But savoring was impossible with two pushy toddlers constantly vying for my attention.

A confession I’m loath to admit: Rather than relishing Benny’s toddlerhood, I was so exhausted that I wished it away. Sometimes I counted the days until his third birthday, when he would no longer love interrupting Hannah and Isaac’s cherished hour of television by pressing the remote’s on-off switch faster than you could drum your fingers.

With Hannah, I had often found her “terrible twos” behavior cute and endearing. With Isaac, it was annoying, but I figured that was because I was pregnant and tired. With Benny, my patience level hit rock bottom.

One day, while filling the tub with all the kids in the bathroom, I turned to take off Isaac’s turtleneck. In that split second, Benny jumped into the bath water, fully clothed.

“Benjamin!” I shrieked, dropping an expletive, yanking him out by the arm, and drenching myself.

Benny burst into tears.

“Nice, Mom. Scream at a 1-year-old,” said 6-year-old Hannah.

“I didn’t scream,” I said, defensively. “I raised my voice.”

“Oh no you did not,” she said, patting her brother tenderly. Benny nuzzled against her. Isaac patted him too. I felt like the Wicked Witch of the West.

What had happened to me?

For years I felt guilty about not being able to give our sons the same quality of attention we had given our daughter. Sometimes I daydreamed about the kind of kids our boys might be if we’d spent as much time alone with each of them as we had with Hannah. Certainly, there would have been more interest in books and less whining, crying, pushing, and biting.

And yet, despite the chaos and aggression, our boys still seemed to be growing into smart, loving, generous, funny people. Have you ever seen a 15-month-old lay his head down on his 2 1/2-year-old brother’s chest so that they could suck their thumbs together? Have you ever seen a 2 1/2-year-old share a piece of his favorite apple pie, bite for bite, with his brother, unprompted by adults?

As our kids got older, it became easier for me to find opportunities to be alone with each of them, heading to the neighborhood coffee shop to have a blueberry muffin and hot cocoa. Eventually, I realized that my longing for one-on-one time in their younger years was not so much about them but about me. It was I who had felt robbed of getting to know each of our baby boys as well as I had known our baby girl. It was I who had to give up my preconceived notions of the ingredients that go into making a wonderful child. Whatever attention the boys hadn’t gotten from their father or from me, it turns out, they had gotten from each other or from their sister.

They came out just fine. Better than fine, in fact. And finally, I know that the life and the love we gave them was more than enough.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's February 2020 issue as “Farewell, Mom Guilt.”

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