First-time parents are the cutest, aren’t they? I sure was. With my first baby, I was the typical newbie to the world of motherhood. I worried about his every move, every minute of sleep (or no sleep), and how long he nursed and on which side. He was perfectly swaddled for every nap and bedtime and slept within inches of me for months. All poops, pees, and rashes were carefully diagnosed, inspected, discussed in graphic detail with my husband, in front of other people. Was this normal? What color was it? Was it runny or solid or somewhere in between?

And then, as he grew into a toddler and eventually entered kindergarten, my helicoptering really didn’t wane. I remember one morning rushing a water bottle to school because he forgot it at home. A water bottle. I can remember the front office manager’s face when I explained my reason for such a frenzied rush into the building. And I can probably guess what was going through her mind. 

I’m sure she had seen lots of parents just like me over the years—first timers. Naive. Worried. Thinking their kids would perish into dust without access to constant hydration all day long. Every breath, every moment I was awake (and asleep) was consumed with making sure that little boy was warm enough or cold enough or had a full belly or a good snack or enough sleep or wasn’t scared or had friends or knew his letters and how to wipe his butt and tie his shoes. 

Now, five years later, my third child is in kindergarten. And when I think of the type of parent I am to him, in comparison to my first, it sometimes looks like they had two different mothers.

My third child almost never brings a water bottle to school because he kept losing them. Shockingly, he has lived to tell the tale. 

And he even forgot his entire lunch the other day. Did I bring it to school for him? Nope. He ordered hot lunch instead that day, whether he liked the choices or not. 

When #3 has a belly ache, I often ask myself when was the last time he pooped? What has he eaten today? Because I honestly have no idea. 

The thing is, I don’t love my third baby any less than kids #1 or #2. I’m just more seasoned. That green, newbie mom of 10 years ago has learned a thing or two. Like, for example, my kids are tougher than I thought. And by letting them go a day without gloves, for example, and having cold hands, I’m teaching them to be more responsible and pack appropriately for the weather. And if my son really does want to have a water bottle on his desk, he needs to remember to fill one up and bring it home. Or else he can just use the water fountain like kids did for generations and turned out just fine. 

But I sometimes worry that my 3rd child will find out all that I did for his older siblings and think I do love him less—when, in actually, I just know that he can do more. (Also, by child #3, I ran out of hands and arms, so there’s that too.)

Mostly, however, it’s just the learning curve of motherhood that’s brought me to where I am today. I am sure that today, I do more for my 10-year-old (my oldest) than I’ll do for my last when he turns 10. Because by then, I’ll know what 10-year-olds can actually handle. My first pancake kid, my guinea pig child, the one who teaches me how to be a parent at each new stage, gets a mom who doesn’t quite know the drill yet. 

My last child gets a mom with a couple rodeos under her belt. He gets a mom who might be a few minutes late to pick him up, but who knows he’ll be fine waiting at the front door of school after basketball practice.

My first child had a mom who made herself close to crazy with worry about his nutrition—he had to have a cup of milk, protein, and a vegetable at dinner every night! 

#3? Well, between his older sister’s gymnastics and his older brother’s tennis lessons and his basketball games, that kid is lucky if I toss a few chicken nuggets at him in the backseat. 

My first (and probably second) were never allowed to go out in the winter without a coat, hat, gloves, boots, back-up gloves . . . 

#3 often hops in the car in a just a hoodie on a 30-degree day. And his mom says, “Meh. Whatever,” hops in the driver’s seat and pulls out of the driveway.  

I followed my first child to the top of the playground and encircled him in an endless safety net, always free of danger and the potential for bumps and bruises.

#3 tore across my yard on a dirt bike the other day. I didn’t bat an eye. 

#1 had a strict bedtime. Lights were out at eight on the dot. Screen exposure was limited to Thomas the Train and Paw Patrol. And he may have had one cookie for a sugary snack—only after eating a complete dinner. And only between the hours of 5:00-6:30 so the sugar wouldn’t “keep him up”.

My third watched Transformers (rated PG-13) last Friday night until 10 p.m. and fell asleep covered in Skittles.

Do I not care about his nutrition? Or his overall health and need for sleep? Or his exposure to the occasional swear word? Of course I do. I just know that if he does stay up past 8:00 once in a while, and if he does have more sugar than I deem necessary, that he’ll be OK. The PG-13 movies? Well, that’s just the product of being the third kid.

So yeah, nowadays when my kids go tearing across the street to catch the bus, sometimes my five-year-old has a hat. Sometimes not. Sometimes I helped him pick out his clothes. Sometimes I have no idea what concoction of pants and shirt he’s wearing. Sometimes he brushes his teeth for two full minutes and flosses. Other times I wince at his breath when he kisses me goodbye.

I know that he’s OK. He’s the toughest of my kids. After never having a real bedtime and taking all of his naps in the car or at the park and breastfeeding in the back seat most of the time, he’s the least high-maintenance. 

I don’t stress if he doesn’t eat his dinner. Or if he’s overdue for a bath (sorry, teachers). Or if he forgets an extra layer and it’s chilly out. 

I’ve seen that child deal with being a little hungry, stinky, tired, and cold. And he usually (not always, because kids, but more often that not) happily plays right through it, eventually falling asleep on the couch or in the car, and gets carried up to bed by mom or dad. 

Dear third child, it’s not that I love you less. I love you just as much as your siblings. (Sometimes a tiny bit more because you’re my baby. Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone.) I’m proud of the little boy you’re becoming. Because of parenting your brother and sister, I know that you can handle things. I know you’ll be OK if you have to face a challenge. And now that I’m a mom who’s a bit more seasoned, I know that the world won’t end if you haven’t eaten a vegetable in a few days. (But because I love you so much, I’ll probably keep trying.)

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Karen Johnson

Karen Johnson is a free-lance writer who is known on social media as The 21st Century SAHM. She is assistant editor at Sammiches and Psych Meds, writes for sites such as Scary Mommy and Her View From Home, and has work featured in several anthologies. Follow Karen on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/21stcenturysahm/, Twitter https://twitter.com/21stcenturysahm , and Instagram https://www.instagram.com/the21stcenturysahm/