Gordon Ramsay and his wife Tana recently announced they’re expecting a baby. Mazeltov! I’m not one for celebrity tittle-tattle, but this story caught my eye because their four older children are aged between 21 and 17.
Now Tana hardly needs unsolicited parenting advice from a stranger. Nonetheless, I wish her good luck, because I know a bit about raising children with a large age gap.
My first child was born in 1997. My next two children, twin girls, arrived 14 years later. Essentially, I had just about reached the finishing line with my son, when I found myself right back at the beginning with my daughters.
A large age gap has its advantages. For starters, I was glad to have a mature young person around to help with the odd bit of childcare. (And which 15-year-old boy wouldn’t jump at the chance to interrupt his GCSE revision to mix a bottle of formula?)
But there were challenges too. Firstly, I was a significantly older mum. Having already raised one child, I figured I’d easily be able to do it again. Not so. Staying up all night with a colicky baby in my early 20s was a breeze. Doing it a few months shy of 40 almost broke me.
To compound matters, my friends had moved on to a less frenetic stage of parenting. While they enjoyed babysitter-free Saturday nights out followed by long Sunday morning lie ins, I was on a self-imposed 8pm curfew before the juggernaut of the 5.30 am wake-up scream hit.
Of course, our friends cooed and aahed at our gorgeous babies, snuggling in their Moses basket. But when the visit was over they would skip away, desperate to return to their own, adult, children and their living rooms free of baby clutter.
Oh! The baby clutter! You would not believe how much new stuff was invented in the 14 years since my son was born. Naturally, I ditched all his baby gear long ago, so we had to start again from scratch.
I expected to saunter through the John Lewis baby department like a smug expert, glibly pointing at essentials. Instead, I was met with gadgets and gizmos that hadn’t existed first time round. Electric bottle warmers. Video baby monitors. Movement-sensitive cot mobiles. It was bewildering.
But the new baby gear was nothing compared to the shock of social media. In 1997 I bought a copy of Parenting for Dummies, called my mum in an emergency and, for everything else, I’d wing it. There was no Mumsnet. No Facebook groups. If he had a rash, I took him to the GP. I wouldn’t feel pressured into posting a photo on Babies Babies Babies so that Sharon in Bushey could sell me some home-made cream made out of aloe vera.
The same goes for activities. In 1997, I walked him in the park on sunny days, and stuck him under a baby gym when it rained. But by 2011 the pressure was on. If your kids didn’t have a place at Baby Beethoven by the time they were six months old, their entire academic careers might be in jeopardy.
A large age gap between kids inevitably brings with it an equally large age gap between yourself and the other parents. Calculating this gap never ends well. A recent conversation with a mum at the school gate revealed that she was nearer my son’s age than mine. We were discussing our weekend plans. (I had an afternoon tea for a friend’s 50th; she went to Ibiza for her friend’s 30th.)
When he comes home from university, their eyes light up the minute he walks into the house. They hang on his every word with an awe that borders on hero-worship. Elvis has entered the building.
He’s not their parent, but he’s not quite their playmate either. He’s a wise ally, a trusted confidante, a sympathetic role model.
And while technology, and my stamina, might have changed, the truth is, parenting is essentially the same. As luck would have it, my son started university the very same week that my daughters started primary school. On the Monday, I dropped him at his halls of residence; on the Tuesday, I held their hands as they walked into reception.
And as I drove away on both days, I found myself weeping and worrying about the exact same things. I hope they settle in. I hope they make friends. I hope they’ll be OK. Because despite the fatigue and the dizzying new technology, 14 years on, your children are still your children.