Before my daughter was born, I believed I understood rules. I was sure how I’d act, as a parent, when my child was acting out. I knew, with the great certainty of the uninitiated, what I would do with a kid and what I would not. Now I understand these things, too, but the rules are different; the situations less abstract. The hard and fast and true have been replaced with the practical, the doable and the compromise.
Case in point: Two and half years ago, when my daughter, Orli, was born, my partner, Ian, and I announced to all who mattered that ⎯ per the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics and our own righteous conviction ⎯ Orli would not watch television for the first two years of her life. Or, we said, maybe even four years. Or … who knows! It was better, we’d read, for keeping small ones attentive, for training them for human interaction.
“You think you didn’t watch TV?” laughed my mother. “You watched all of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at two! In your highchair! And didn’t move!” But like vegetarians who profess not to mind when others eat meat (but are quietly pleased that they themselves have chosen not to), we weren’t proselytizers, just a little smug. And the truth is, we did it — just about. Around the time Orli was 20 months, I went to Berlin for a week, and Ian used a few Elmo YouTube videos to get Orli through the harder mornings. Even now, she doesn’t watch television, but we’ve relaxed our ban on screens and videos. (Especially when, at 8 a.m., after having been awake for three hours, we just want to make a cup of coffee). More important, I no longer have any feeling of smugness toward those who schlep DVD players on planes (or even into restaurants or cars, or use them at home, just to get dressed, just to take a shower). “This is what we’ve been told is best…” has ceded to “Do what you need to do.”
Recently, on a family vacation, I had a huge fight with my own parents; the theme was limits. Were we setting enough of them, was the underlying question, as they’d observed us unable to get Orli to sleep. She’d scream and cajole, and we’d cave. By halfway through the trip, we had her going to sleep as normal, but it took days to get to that point. “You don’t see us in our real life,” I hissed childishly, pointing out that we live four hours south of the family and that they don’t see us put her to bed, night after night, sans problems. Nevertheless, privately I worried.
The thing is, something happened after our trip to Spain this summer, when we let Orli — for the first time since the breast-feeding-all-the-time days of infancy — sleep in bed with us. She’s out of a crib, but most hotels we stayed in didn’t have a second bed, let alone a toddler cot. And, after weeks of nestling in comfy duvets between her parents, she never wanted to leave. Why would she? We get to have each other, why should she sleep alone. No number of stuffed animals could replace sleeping between ima and daddy. Now, she goes to sleep on her own, but sometime around 3 a.m. we find ourselves with another (kicking, squirming) character in bed. And we are very tired as a result.
Does that mean we aren’t setting enough structure? Somehow, undermining our sleep and the sanctity of our bed felt worse than the slightly relaxed rules on YouTube videos ⎯ partly because we felt so out of control of the situation. I looked to the AAP, but it has no guidelines on toddlers in beds, only infants. Unscientific conversations with friends and colleagues turned up everything from horror to admissions of similar situations.
In some ways, I liken the problem to our relationship to kashrut: Our home is kosher. But, outside, Ian does what he wants and, as a result, we’ve been relaxed about what Orli eats. But do limits on eating mimic limits on anything else, in terms of ordering our lives? Judaism, in so many ways, is all about the separation between the sacred and the profane. We set all sorts of limits in the way we live, interact, enjoy our lives. Are we somehow failing to do that at night?
The last week of August, when I had Orli alone, was a one-two punch. I had gone to Israel for a solo work week, then, immediately after, Ian left for his own work trip. It was the first time we’d done such a thing, and Orli was, understandably, a bit bewildered. Each afternoon when she and I went to the park after work, Orli ran the bases of the local softball field screaming like a lunatic, “Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” or around the fountain in Dupont Circle. If you’d passed us, you might have seen a red-faced blond throwing herself to the ground, yodeling like Tarzan. “That’s just pure joy,” one mother said to me (though some in Dupont were less amused).
I think part of the answer is finding the equilibrium between that pure, joyous, unadulterated steam-letting and the tug-o’-war that goes on to get us back home and on track for the march through dinner/bath/bed. She’s a lot happier going to sleep having run it out, swung on the monkey bars, screamed with her friends. But we are still searching for the upper hand at home, and we still find ourselves coming up short, giving in, again and again. It’s not clear that this helps her: She’s tired, too, waking up each night, hoping we’ll let her back into our bed. Maybe the answer is limited unlimitedness, our firm presence clear to her, but with boundaries. The last line of a favorite Yehuda Amichai poem, referencing his mother, comes to mind: “Your steps on the stairs/have always stayed in me/never coming nearer and never going away/like heartbeats.
Sarah Wildman writes about the intersection of culture, politics and travel for The New York Times and for the Guardian.