The sight of a large, creamy envelope in our mailbox used to fill me with a small thrill of anticipation. Whose wedding or bar mitzvah would we soon be attending? Which rarely seen friends and family would I encounter? If I had any misgivings at all, they were likely to focus on that classic of women’s dilemmas: what in the world was I going to wear?

These days I open the mailbox gingerly, almost hoping not to see those large missives. It’s not that I’ve become antisocial, or suddenly hate parties, or feel numb towards other people’s joyous occasions. It’s just that in my newly configured family, any celebration that takes me away from home has acquired an entirely new meaning—another abandonment of our thirteen-year-old daughter.

I open the mailbox gingerly, almost hoping not to see those large missivesWe used to be a large, vibrant family. Our five children, several years apart in age, were full of spirit and ever ready for fun. The phones rang nonstop, the doorbell pealed, and the house was filled with playmates, laundry and a pantry that always ran low. Then, over the course of a very few years, we were, thank G‑d, blessed with many happy events. Our three oldest daughters got married in quick succession, one eventually moving to a nearby town, the others settling further away. New sons-in-law joined the family, and sweet rambunctious grandchildren soon followed. They often grace our Shabbat table, and holidays are still hectic and crazy and wonderful. But come into our home on a weekday, and you can almost hear a hollow echo ringing through the house. It’s been compounded this year, because our only son has gone off to Israel to study.

Please don’t get me wrong. We are so grateful for our many blessings. And I am crazy about our youngest daughter. I don’t know what I’d do without her. She is cute and sharp, warm and interesting. She is a study in adolescence, trying on new personas every day and impressing us with her ever-developing maturity in both intellect and self. But it’s been a long time since I’ve been the parent of an only child, and suddenly I find myself once again in that role, albeit in a very different way. Issues I never thought about have come abruptly to the fore.

How do I make life interesting enough for a child who just recently grew up in a bustling household, with siblings just a few steps away if she happened to be looking for company? How do I replace the special love and attention her siblings had always showered upon her, which was her natural birthright as the youngest child? Of course, they still adore her, but they’re busier with their own families, and it’s just not the same. How do I make best use of the extra time (and money) I now have available to spend with her, but avoid the pitfalls of overindulgence? How do we orchestrate our social life without making her feel neglected?

This last challenge is the one that is most concrete, and makes its way into our life on a weekly basis. She’s at an age too old for a babysitter, and yet a bit too young to leave alone. I have no doubt that, if there were a younger sibling for her to look after, she’d be fine on her own. But in our suburban home, where you can hear every rustle of the leaves and the creaking of the furnace, being alone at age thirteen at 10 PM is no great picnic. So we’ve adopted some new strategies. We’ve become more selective in the events we attend. Dinners have been shunted to the side, at least for me, if the guest of honor is not a personal friend. I explain our new circumstances to good friends who are hosting parlor meetings or dinners, and most understand. Sometimes only one of us attends an event, or we go for a shorter time. Often she’ll sleep over at a friend’s, or they’ll come to us. But there’s a limit to how many times you can do that to a child, especially on a weekday night. And as much as we’d like to be selective, there’s often a compelling reason for attending the event. So as I prepare to go out, along with my cell phone and evening bag, I carry a big dose of guilt.

There’s a limit to how many times you can do that to a chilI try to make up for it by spending special time with her. We often play games at night, word games like Scrabble or Scattergories or computerized crossword puzzles. She knows I like those kinds of games, and I think she’s beginning to enjoy the challenge of them as well. We spend time together reviewing difficult Torah questions, tackling math problems, proofreading essays she’s written—something I didn’t do much of with my older children after the early grades. And that’s truly been an enormous pleasure for me and, I think, for her. I don’t merely mean the wonderful grades she’s bringing home; most likely that’s due to her burgeoning maturity. But I do like to think that some of my enthusiasm for intellectual pursuits has rubbed off on her, and that she truly gets a kick out of it. It’s an experience we share together, one I doubt we would have had if I were distracted by a busier household.

Being the only child at home has yielded some other benefits. Thursday nights, you can sometimes find us at the local mall shopping for clothes. “On a weekday night??” my older kids ask incredulously when they finally track us down on my cell phone. “You never did that with us,” they tell me with a hint of “what kind of bad parenting is this?” in their voices. Is it bad parenting, I sometimes wonder. Am I substituting material things for the more precious pleasure of sibling companionship? But these are trips we really do enjoy. In addition to the goods, we just have fun being together. I’m aware enough to know we need to limit this kind of activity; so far, I think we’re striking a good balance.

Many rules have pretty much fallen by the wayside. Bedtime curfew—what’s that? When our married children call home at 10 PM, they’re often surprised to hear their younger sister pick up the phone. They laughingly remind me of how compulsive I was about their bedtimes when they were her age. Am I merely being lazy, have I run out of steam? Somehow, it just doesn’t seem as important anymore.

My husband has been an active partner in bringing new energy into our life with our daughter. She’s the only one around he gets to tease, so he does it often, and though she’ll roll her eyes, you know she just loves it. They have a wonderful, close relationship, and every now and then she comes to sit on his lap. I can’t recall my older children still doing that at her age, but it fills me with so much pleasure when I see it. I notice him taking special pains when choosing the Torah material he says at our Shabbat table. He strives to find explanations that will be meaningful to her, ones she can easily understand and from which she can draw a life’s lesson. I see our daughter purposefully joining him in activities she knows he enjoys (let’s just say this involves a ball and a hoop and a lot of running around) just so she can spend more time with him. He’s amended his schedule so he gets home ahead of me on days that I work, and that’s given them more special time together.

Our older children have pitched in, too. Although she’s too busy in her teenage life to make much time for them, they make sure to carve out space for her. Sometimes they call just to speak with her. These days they are helping her make a decision about which high school to attend, giving her the benefit of their own experiences. The younger ones will still occasionally wrangle with her (verbally, that is), thereby not depriving her of the allegedly wonderful experience of sibling rivalry.

From her perspective, we know she thinks of us as older parents, much more ancient than her peers’. We feel it, too, especially when we attend parent-teacher meetings or, strangely enough, when we’re with friends who’ve already married off all of their children. We know she is sometimes embarrassed by our age. She seems amused when I tell her that once I was the youngest of all the class parents. And that I really am a very young grandmother. Deep down, I think she may even regard us as kind of cool (my husband would hate that word).

Some experiences bring our new configuration into sharp reliefSome experiences bring our new configuration into sharp relief. Recently we planned a family vacation—my husband, our daughter and I—and it took a great deal of convincing to persuade her to join us. We toyed with the idea of taking one of her friends along, but were reluctant to give up our privacy. Afraid of feeling like a third wheel, she loaded up on books and electronic games and lots of grin-and-bear-it attitude. I can’t say that we didn’t feel some trepidation, too. Somehow, things worked out. We made a conscious effort to tailor our conversation to her interests, and we spent a good deal of quality time playing games together and enjoying the beautiful sun. It didn’t have the exact flavor of previous vacations, but it was wonderful in its own way.

And that outlook, I think, is key if we want to do this thing right. Life has changed, and our five-kids-two-parents nuclear family is a thing of the past. Old tried-and-true formulas need to be shelved, to be replaced with fresh new ways of parenting. It’s an opportunity to grow, to learn more about ourselves and stretch our wings.

Lucky her, I sometimes think, maybe this only-child deal is not so bad after all. She’s gotten to see a slice of life most of her friends have yet to encounter. She knows all about schools and first-date nerves, and how to plan a wedding and arrange events. She has honed her nurturing instincts with her nieces and nephew, and she has learned up-close about how young couples relate.

So as we muddle our way through this new adventure, now some one and a half years later, I think we’ve begun to feel comfortable. While life is definitely quieter, we’ve learned to relax and enjoy it. Certainly, many challenges lie ahead, but I feel greater confidence that we’ll figure it out together and have a good time doing so. We’re all three of us on this journey together, and so far it’s been a great ride!