One night I was picking up a kid from a friend's house, a tidy ranch inhabited by the friend, his parents, and his one sibling. Two of my other boys had also had plans that evening, so there were just four of us around our dinner table. It was very different: lots of empty space in the conversation. I've never been a person who minds having space in the conversation, but dinners for seven aren't like that. We laugh. We pun. We riff. We think aloud. We say, "Excuse me, I am changing the subject right now," and feign indignation when someone says, "Well, I am changing it back." Everybody talks, but there's an approximation of turn-taking. It's a heady blend of order and chaos.
I love it. (Well, 90% of the time I love it.) So when I picked up my son at his friend's house and I mentioned how different things had been that night at dinner, the end of the sentence in my mind was "...because things were so quiet and slow-moving and BOY do I love it when my big noisy family is all together." The friend's mom finished the sentence for me, though; she said, "...because the kids got some individualized attention?"
Probably my mouth clapped shut, as I deliberately did not say, "My kids DO get individualized attention TYVM." I don't remember exactly what neutral thing I ended up saying in a neutral voice, but it was something along the lines of "Oh, we have a lot of fun when everybody's together." Since then, though, my attitude about this mom has not been neutral. My son will say, "We're playing games at E's house on Friday, Mom," and I'll instantly think, "Oh, the house where they think you're INVISIBLE because your family is TOO BIG??" I have been pushing back against this attitude, but it keeps oozing its way to the surface, like a noxious bubble of hydrogen sulfide bubbling up from a lava pit and bursting in a mephitic cloud of resentment and defensiveness. They're a nice family; she's a nice woman. I'm sure she didn't mean to hurt my feelings.
Recently she came up in conversation; my son mentioned that she grew up as one of 12 children. And inside the overheated lava pit of my psyche a little voice said "...oh." Maybe that exchange wasn't about me. (I know! Such a crazy idea!) Maybe she's got her own large-family baggage that has nothing to do with us. Maybe I don't need to feel defensive every time I see her -- perhaps I could relax it to every other time. (I know! Another crazy idea!)
It is hard to keep the balls in the air when there are 5 kids and two full-time jobs in the picture. This spring I discovered that my quietest kid, the boy least likely to complain, had been wearing outdated glasses for a year. The lab had made a significant grinding error, resulting in a useless pair of lenses. But when he told me that the new glasses seemed off and gave him headaches, I said, "Sometimes that happens with new glasses. Give it a week and let me know if they're still bothering you." In the throes of adjusting to bifocals, I thought I knew whereof I spoke. Quietly, he went back to wearing his old glasses. The new ones sat in his room until his next eye appointment, a year later. [brief pause for a moment of self-flagellation]
This spurred me to re-do the dining room whiteboard. At the top it says, "What do you need?" and there is space for each kid to leave me notes. So far this system is working really well. The entries have mostly been things like "socks" and "trumpet lessons." No one is writing "more individualized attention," or at least not yet.