The joys - and challenges - of having children born years apart

On for young and old: Deb Herdman with her children Alex, Tyler and Jessica.

On for young and old: Deb Herdman with her children Alex, Tyler and Jessica. Photo: Thom Rigney

Knowing exactly when your family is "complete" can be complicated. Plans change, children grow and the unexpected happens. Years after swearing your youngest child will be your last, you may find yourself embracing the idea of having another little bundle.

Having a baby when your children are older benefits the whole family, says clinical psychologist Dr Lara Winten. The baby benefits from having more experienced parents, as well as older siblings who act as "extra role models".

"All these factors can result in a highly intellectually stimulating home environment for the youngest child," says Dr Winten. Meanwhile, older children learn "important developmental constructs" such as increased responsibility and nurturing skills.

Kristie Hardy's older children with baby Teddy.

Kristie Hardy's older children with baby Teddy. Photo: Thom Rigney

But, says Dr Winten, it's mum and dad who probably benefit most. When parents have a baby after a long gap they re-enter parenting with greater maturity, more realistic expectations and a stronger sense of self. They're less likely to sweat the small stuff and more likely to savour the experience. So, Dr Winten notes, parenting the second time around becomes "a more enjoyable and less self-critical experience".

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Sunday Life spoke to three mothers about the joys - and challenges - of having children born years apart.

Age gap: 23 years from oldest to youngest

Tara O'Connell with Jacob and Alexander.

Tara O'Connell with Jacob and Alexander. Photo: Thom Rigney

Deb Herdman, 53, from Bendigo

Children: Jessica, 31, Alex, 29, and Tyler, 8

After having two children in her early 20s, Deb Herdman was "absolutely certain" her family was complete. But when daughter Jessica unexpectedly moved out of home at age 16, Deb couldn't bear the thought of an empty nest. "I had this strong urge, a gut feeling, to have another baby."

Deb wasn't sure her husband would share those feelings. "Bruce was driving one day and I said, 'Let's have another baby.' He almost ran off the road! His answer was an emphatic 'No way.' " By the time they reached their destination, however, he was warming to the idea.

It took five years (and a miscarriage) before baby Tyler was born and Deb, by then 46, couldn't have been happier. "My family was delighted," she recalls. "Some friends thought I was totally insane, but I had more women saying they wished they'd had another child later on."

Deb relished having a baby in the house again. "Words cannot describe how fantastic it was," she says. While that meant having to master the singular skill of parenting older kids and a baby simultaneously, she made the transition fairly seamlessly. As she explains, "Small children issues are a whole lot less complex than young adult issues."

That said, it wasn't all smooth sailing. Tyler never slept well. But instead of letting that stress her, as she would have in the past, Deb simply cuddled him more. ("Actually," she confesses, "I loved it.") Besides, she says, "As an older mum I was much better at asking for help."

There was also more help available. Daughter Jessica moved home again just before Tyler was born and did everything from buying baby clothes to rocking him to sleep - which she did to Guns N' Roses. ("My choice would have been something classical," Deb laments.)

While Deb says there are downfalls to having a baby later in life - being mistaken for her son's grandmother "doesn't sit well" - she credits her life wisdom for her ability to cherish each parenting phase.

"I remember I couldn't wait for the other two to get past certain years, but that's not the case this time. Tyler just turned eight and it makes me almost cry to think how soon he will be grown up."

Deb is also grateful for the gift of perspective. "Kids grow up so fast and when you're parenting you don't really get that. I've been able to reflect on that and then experience parenting all over again. It's like revisiting youth again with an 'all-grown-up' mindset."

What my older self would tell my younger self about parenting

Don't be in a hurry to make your kids grow up; let them go at their own pace. Drink in every age and phase because it will soon pass and be lost forever.

Age gap: 11 years from oldest to youngest

Tara O'Connell, 43, from Newcastle

Children: Jacob, 14, and Alexander, 3

Tara O'Connell says that having two children more than a decade apart was more a result of circumstance than planning. After her first marriage ended, it took "years" for her to remarry and want another child. Consequently, Tara has pretty much had the chance to parent an "only child" twice.

"I had the time and opportunity to experience things with Jacob when he was little that I possibly couldn't have done with more children," she says.

Tara was concerned how Jacob, after being an only child for so long, would handle the leap to big brother. When she told him she was pregnant, "he responded like a lot of 11-year-old boys would," she says. " 'Oh, okay,' was the depth of the initial conversation."

She needn't have worried; Jacob and Alexander formed a close bond immediately. While Jacob "adores" his baby brother, Alexander "idolises" him. And jealousy's never been an issue.

In fact, from that perspective, the age difference has been a blessing. "Jacob's at that age where Mum is a bit embarrassing. He doesn't need me by his side," Tara notes. "He is always off with the other children playing soccer in the park, or metal-detecting for Australian relics." It's an independence which can "lead to tears from time to time" from Alexander, who gets upset that he's not allowed to do everything his big brother can. Yet Jacob's independence means Tara has plenty of one-on-one time with Alexander.

While both boys have had lots of individual attention, that's where the similarities in Tara's parenting style ends. When Tara had Jacob she was working, studying and had an active social life. "I was much more 'structured/rigid' then ... as I was quite time-poor," she says. Life was all about routine and rules, she adds: "Jacob didn't actually eat anything 'unhealthy' until he was three."

Tara now works from home and has the kind of freedom and flexibility she used to crave. She's relaxed her views on food ("Alexander gets a treat every day"), as well as her need for structure. "These days the routine has gone out the window and instead we try to just enjoy each day [and] make the most out of our family time."

While Tara didn't plan such a large age difference, she believes it's been the perfect gap for her and her family. "Having kids closer in age would definitely have been more stressful for me," she says.

"I can honestly say that if I had the chance to go back and do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing."

What my older self would tell my younger self about parenting

Relax. Be present. Be mindful. Everything else can wait but the children are growing up so fast. It's important to prioritise and cherish the time with them.

Age gap: 15 years from oldest to youngest

Kristie Hardy, 41, from Sydney

Children: Jack, 19, Josh, 16, Grace, 11, and Teddy, 4

"Having a large age gap is both a blessing and a curse," says Kristie Hardy. "We have a 19-year-old at uni, partying and socialising, and a four-year-old who is toilet training and throwing tantrums.

I don't know who's harder work; I worry about them both equally."

Kristie never intended to have such a large age difference. She describes her son Teddy as a "wonderful surprise", adding that her family was shocked when they found out she was pregnant. "My two teenage boys were not impressed at the thought of a baby - and that their parents still had sex!"

Parenting a newborn plus three older children was tricky, Kristie admits. "There was a lot of stopping on the side of the road to feed the baby as I was driving to and from sports activities. Then I put Teddy on a bottle and the kids sat in the back of the car and took turns bottle feeding him for me."

Though he's no longer a baby, the "big kids" still dote on Teddy. "When Jack's mates come over, Ted's always down in the middle of them, giving them all high fives. They all love him."

While Teddy loves being included, Kristie worries that he's "going to be the worst of them" as he alternates between being the centre of attention and taking advantage of when she's distracted. "When I'm talking to an older child ... he'll sneak off to the corner to eat ice-cream," she sighs.

Such antics don't bother her as much as they once would have - Kristie says she is "more chilled" and better at focusing on the positives, and her house "is full of love". That said, she admits thinking about the future can be daunting. "You sit there and go, 'One's doing his HSC next year and one's only just starting school. That's so many packed lunches I've got to go.' "

Her friends also rub it in. "They say, 'Oh my god, [when my kids graduate school next year] I'm going to be so carefree and you're just back to square one.' " But Kristie doesn't see "square one" as a bad thing. "I think I would be very bored if they all up and left."

What my older self would tell my younger self about parenting

It gets easier; it gets better. Take time to enjoy the roller coaster ride - because it is up and down. It's not easy all the time, but just enjoy the ride.