What is the perfect age gap between children?

I have often seen that question asked in various parenting forums. For those of us who have experienced loss and/or secondary infertility, sometimes the age gap between our living children was not something we had control over.

In this article, I talk about how our family navigated the challenges of having a 5.5-year age gap between our oldest and youngest children. In particular, how a game with roots in the 17th century became a lifeline for all of us.

Pinball? Really? Why Pinball?

My parents talked for years about purchasing a pinball machine. With the advent of eBay, that dream finally became a reality while I was in college. I discovered the unparalleled rush of playing a 1970’s era electromechanical pinball machine. With literal bangs, dings, and the clack of the number reels turning over.

Melanie playing pinball in 2008

Not an electromechnical machine, but still a favorite – me playing Williams’ 1989 classic, Bad Cats in 2008 – Author’s Personal Collection/Melanie Peffer

Pinball is a game you can’t win. It always ends the same way: draining the ball. For many, this adds to the appeal. Each game is completely different. Plus, the focus is on having fun along the way, rather than worrying about winning or losing. Arguably, it’s a metaphor for life. As Jim Morrison of the Doors said, “No one gets out of here alive.” Inevitably, we will all die – but we can have lots of fun in the meantime!

So how does pinball relate to parenting after loss?

One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced since the arrival of my double rainbow, Jasper, was how to navigate the age gap. How do we keep an infant and school aged child happy at the same time without losing our minds?

Felix, our oldest and a rainbow baby himself was just finishing kindergarten when Jasper was born. Like most kindergartners, Felix was full of energy and wanted to go-go-go all the time. What do newborns want to do? Nurse, cuddle, and sleep.

To complicate things further, Jasper’s anatomy made it extremely difficult to nurse effectively, leading to even more time spent nursing, pumping, and washing and sterilizing pump parts. Cue the small voice saying “uuuuggghhhhhh can we go to the park NOW?” It was a big ask to wait around so often, even for the most patient of five-year-olds.

We needed to identify activities that would keep everyone happy and serve as an outlet for us too! Enter: pinball!

Finding Balance at the Pinball Arcade

We live in Colorado and are fortunate to have a wide variety of pinball focused arcades on our doorstep. Although we’ve played off and on over the years, we discovered the arcades with free play pinball during the end of my pregnancy.

Melanie and her son playing air hockey when she was 38-weeks pregnant - navigating big age gaps while parenting after loss

Air hockey was included in free play too! Here I am 38w pregnant playing with my oldest child, Felix – Author’s Personal Collection/Melanie Peffer

During free play, we would pay a nominal fee ($5-$15, depending on location) to play unlimited pinball for a few hours. It was an activity that was fun for everyone, and attainable to me as my pregnancy advanced and I grew more physically awkward and uncomfortable.

Once my double rainbow, Jasper, arrived we found that pinball continued to be an excellent outlet for the family, and served as an activity to keep everyone happy.

Felix was old enough to play on his own. Since it was free play pinball, there was no need to worry about budgeting quarters either! He would happily play pinball on his own for hours. The baby on the other than would be perfectly content to snooze through all the racket of the pinball arcade in his carrier, soaking up the Mama snuggles, while Mama (and Dad) enjoyed a chance to zone out for a while.

Meeting the challenges of parenting after loss

So much is written and discussed in online forums about getting pregnant or staying pregnant after loss that sometimes it’s easy to overlook the ultimate goal: parenting after loss.

Parenting after loss brings its own unique challenges. In our case, one of the hardest challenges to navigate was finding strategies for getting everyone’s mental and physical needs met with two living children separated in time by their two angel siblings.

Melanie playing pinball with her newborn in a baby carrier - navigating big age gaps while parenting after loss

Me entering my initials after getting a high score, all with a sleeping baby in tow – Author’s Personal Collection/Melanie Peffer

Looking back now on the fourth trimester, pinball was a lifeline in so many ways. It was a constant activity in a season where everything changes. It gave my oldest a chance to be a big kid, while the baby could be snuggled. It was an activity I could enjoy with both of my boys simultaneously instead of having to choose between the two.

It was an escape for my husband and I to think about something besides diapers, breastmilk, and naps. Pinball was also a chance for us to connect post baby. We could cheer each other on or challenge each other to see who could get the highest score on a machine. Talking about strategies or new machines gave us a chance to connect over something not related to reproduction and caring for the kids.

Did we want a 5.5 year age gap between kids? Definitely not. In my naïve pre-pregnancy loss world, I thought we would have three kids, each two years apart, and be done having kids by our mid 30s. But, the world doesn’t work that way. Instead, I am navigating the joys and challenges of a big age gap. And playing lots of pinball along the way.

How have you navigated large age gaps? Tell me about it on Instagram, @biologyeverywherebook.

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