It’s dark and I’m sitting beside the smoldering remnants of sausage fat and cocoa powder. My kids roll around noisily in a tent behind me. I can hear my son try to reason with his younger sister, a bedtime dialogue marked by grunts and half-English. She cries out every now and again, fighting the sleepiness which, by god, must surely win out.
I’ve ventured into Virginia’s George Washington National Forest to go camping with my kids — ages 1 and 3 — and I elect to do this without the help of my wife. She’d started working full time as a nurse several months before, including back-to-back 12-hour shifts every other weekend, while I was working a standard Monday-to-Friday schedule. And so for the first time since my children were born, I was left to solo parent for two days every other week. How hard could it be?
After several weekends, the answer was clear enough — it can be incredibly hard. Set aside the notion of treating time off of work as time “off.” Understand that your days are no longer your own, that time is marked not by numerals on the clock face but by bouts of wakefulness and sleep, of meals, snacks, playdates, shitty diapers, baths, and bedtime stories. Of course, anyone who spends their day as the lone supervisor of small children knows this instinctively, and should probably be awarded a fucking medal. This includes my wife.
So in my naiveté, I decide hastily that on this Saturday in early September, while my wife spends her “days off” from watching the kids working the telemetry floor at the hospital, that the children and I will do something that I enjoy and that perhaps they might get a kick out of as well.
Later that night beside the fire, while we haven’t technically been out of the car for more than five or six hours I realize this is not the purposeful experience I’d imagined. I’ve spent the majority of those hours in a state of frustration as I roll back the tape in my head. I lie in the dirt, push my sleeves down, and stew on all of this — my misguided preparation, my skewed expectations, how little sound is muffled by tent walls. I wonder, What the hell was I thinking?
During my son’s first two months on earth, I read 25 books about taking care of babies and children. I read them on my phone while breastfeeding and on the subway in stolen moments of solitude while my baby napped in his carrier, his fuzzy head an inch from the pages. Brain-damaged by love and exhaustion, I could not make sense of any other kind of book. For someone who has been partway through at least one novel since learning how to read, this was akin to a psychotic break. But when I opened any novel in those early weeks, the words swam on the page. I would stare till they came into focus, force down a few pages and then give up. Where was the baby in this story? Were the people in the story parents? They couldn’t matter to me otherwise.
The only thing worse was when the people in the story were parents, and there was a baby, but it was in some kind of danger. When my son was about 8 weeks old I picked up a novel which has both a stillbirth and the rape of a 6-year-old in its first 30 pages. Half an hour later my husband found me clutching the baby to my chest, silent tears streaming down my cheeks. I’m sure it’s a great book but I’ll never know. I threw it in the garbage can and heaped trash on top so I wouldn’t be tempted to go back in for it, as though it was some kind of enticing yet poisonous cake.
But my appetite for parenting books was infinite; they were the one thing I wanted besides sleep and icy beverages. My addiction, like most addictions, fed on itself. Because the information in each book was both redundant in some of its particulars and wildly contradictory in others, each dose of information required an antidote in the form of the next book.
All of these types of books appealed to me; if it had “baby” or “sleep” in the title, I was in.
The question ofhow to get your child to sleep provided the starkest, most dramatic dichotomy. There were two schools of thought: Either you could let your child cry himself to sleep, or you could comfort him, for hours if necessary, until he finally dozed off. Each camp promised a happy, healthy baby and family if you followed their advice, and ruin—of your health and your marriage on the one hand, and of your baby’s nascent trust in the world on the other—if you didn’t. Are you thinking, as I naively did, “Oh, I’ll just split the difference between these two obviously crazy extremes?” According to these books, avoiding a decision is the only thing worse than choosing the wrong path; intermittent reinforcement will confuse and madden your baby, likely making him even more demanding and teaching him that the world, and you, are not to be trusted.
My granddaughter, Kathy, sprinted down the upstairs hallway of her house, wailing for her mother. But her mother, my 30-year-old daughter, wasn’t home. She and her husband had left Kathy with me while they went to buy a larger car—Baby Number Two was due soon. I’d been on duty about three hours when Kathy realized her parents were really gone, and dashed for their bedroom. She was wearing only a red shirt, having shed her diaper and her britches somewhere. I hadn’t been able to get shoes on her in the first place. I ambled behind her down the dim hall, wondering how I’d deal with this crisis.
I’d already learned not to tell Kathy “no,” except in injurious situations, so I don’t recall doing anything to set her off. But on top of the Terrible Twos, she’s in a mommy phase. And she’ll only nap at day care, so she’s always exhausted on weekends at home. Her parents, Claire and David, had warned me that they had to drive all the way to northern Virginia for the best deal. Their getting back to this southwestern tail of the state meant I’d agreed to tend Kathy, alone, for over 12 hours. Read more…