The ups and downs of being the youngest



It was National School Lunch week, and I’d signed up to eat lunch with Anna and her fifth-grade class. I wrote the time on my calendar: Tuesday 11:20 a.m.

“Be there right on time, Mom,” Anna warned. “We only get 20 minutes to eat.”

That Tuesday, I spent the morning catching up on housework. I took a break and picked up the newspaper. The headline of a short article caught my eye: “National School Lunch Week Celebrated.” I looked at my watch, then the calendar. A wave of guilt swept over me. It was 11:30. I had completely forgotten my lunch date with Anna.

I imagined a lunch table packed with moms, dads, and grandparents where Anna, expectantly watching the door, sits alone with her plate of chicken nuggets and carton of chocolate milk.

That afternoon, when I picked her up from school, I was full of apologies. “Anna, I’m so sorry. I forgot!”

“That’s OK, Mom. You can come tomorrow if you want.” The next day, I was there, in plenty of time.

Such is the nature of my relationship with my youngest child. Those moments in parenting that once seemed so earth-shattering to my oldest child and me are definitely more relaxed with Anna.

Had this been Katie’s National School Lunch week, I’d have arranged for her father to leave work and meet us at the cafeteria promptly at 11 a.m. I would have awakened the baby from her morning nap. I would have forced my toddler to change from his Superman pajamas into respectable clothes. All of us would be standing in the lobby like autograph seekers at a PGA tournament waiting for Katie’s class to file by on their way to the cafeteria. Forget a lunch date with Katie? Impossible. It was the highlight of my week.

Then how could I forget lunch with Anna? Am I burned out from having too many kids? Of course not. While I sometimes feel guilty for not having the same enthusiasm for Anna’s school experiences as I did her older sister’s, in many ways, she’s luckier than Katie.

For Katie, I showed up early for every lunch date, honor roll ceremony, Christmas party, and school play. But because I had no regular caregiver for the youngest ones, Katie always had to share my attention with three siblings, who, like all preschoolers, were pretty demanding. Yes, I came to the Christmas party, but I spent half the time at the sink trying to wipe the candy cane goo off the baby’s fingers and out of the pigtails of Katie’s classmate. Yes, I was in the audience at the end-of-year play, but midway through, Charlie absolutely had to use the bathroom. We made it back in time for the curtain call.

While I may not have the same enthusiasm about Anna’s school events, once there, I’m all hers.

Other benefits of being the youngest? Anna has a special relationship with Katie, eight years older. When Katie’s due to come home from college, no one’s more delighted than Anna, who sets to work making her a “welcome” sign. Anticipating Katie’s homecoming is the only time Anna shows any enthusiasm for tidying the bedroom they share.

After her most recent college break, only minutes after Katie left to drive back to school, Anna, her eyes welling with tears, came to me. “I miss Katie already, Mom.”

I will admit there are times when being the youngest is tough. As much as I try to keep them from teasing her, Anna’s two brothers make life hard for her at times. But she does a pretty good job standing up to them. And when her dad and I aren’t around, and she really needs their help, they’re good to her.

When the boys, 12 and 15, are out and about with activities, Anna sometimes gets lonely. But she has the advantage of a quiet place to play or daydream and complete control over the coveted remote.

At school, there’s the mixed blessing of being known to teachers immediately, by virtue of her surname and her resemblance to Katie, Jimmy, and Charlie. The advantage comes when her siblings have been well-liked by a teacher, which, thank goodness, is more often than not. The disadvantage results when the opposite was true.

Another advantage at school? Even though Anna moved up from elementary to middle school this year, finding her way through the halls at her new school is a breeze. Dragged along to attend all her siblings’ ceremonies, parties, and sporting events, she’s been walking those corridors since she was 2.


Mary Hood Hart lives in Sunset Beach, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and four children.