Must children alter their lives to accommodate their parents’ needs and schedules or do parents adjust theirs to meet the needs of their children? Perhaps it’s a natural shift that parents make. We no longer want or need to stay out late every weekend or do what we did when we were single. But what happens when one parent is stuck in the mindset of not budging? I’ve been pondering this a lot lately. Since the birth of my son six and a half years ago, I have heard different viewpoints from so many people, including relatives and in-laws. Some say it’s crucial to stick to a schedule and make sure your children always get enough sleep. Others say: “I’m not changing my life one bit. I’ll keep doing what I’ve always done and if I can’t get a sitter, my children will just tag along with me.”
Now let me say this up front—I don’t think there is a conclusively right or wrong approach. Perhaps the danger is when one approach is too strictly adhered to? I have friends who have never, ever had a date since their children were born. Seriously, in six years, they have never hired a sitter. Yes, their children are always in bed by 7:30 p.m., but really, at what price?
And then, I have seen the exact opposite. When living in Manhattan, I remember how strange it was to see a woman breastfeeding a small baby at a huge Soho loft party where the dance music was excruciating loud. I was in my mid-twenties then, but I recall thinking, “wow, that’s a really odd scene” when I looked across the room and saw one woman breastfeeding and at the other end of the room, a couple was grinding out a nasty dance on the dance floor.
Now that my husband and I live in London and travel a lot, we are exposed to many parenting philosophies. The French and Spanish tend to let their children stay up very late. This is just the culture and even most restaurants don’t open up for dinner until after 9 p.m. But I often wonder how these children get enough sleep as schools still start fairly early.
Last weekend, my son and I tagged along with Jay to Paris as he had to work there on Monday. We ended up getting a sitter for Saturday night and as Jay and I sat outside at a bistro sipping drinks at 11 p.m., we watched two very young children ride their scooters past us. C’est la vie. After five years of going to France, we know that now. But it was really painful visiting when my son was younger and we were less wise. When my son was barely one, we went to southern France and had to navigate late restaurant dinners and very long days filled with sight seeing without any help. Having to tell my in-laws that I needed to go home so my baby could nap did NOT go over well. In fact, it seemed like I was being a bad mother for wanting to do so.
Both my husband and some other family members come from the camp that children must adapt to your needs and your life. Yet, it’s easy to take this approach when you aren’t the one who has to deal with the meltdowns, tantrums, and the restlessness that comes from dragging a child around and not catering to his needs. It’s taken me many years to figure out that I was often manipulated into taking my son places and staying up very late or skipping naps because the people pushing for these things weren’t penalized. I would inevitably be the one who left the restaurants and shushed the baby. I’d be the one up all hours because he was over-sleepy and wired and couldn’t rest.
When my son was three, one trip to France was really difficult. Dinners were arranged every evening after 9 p.m. One night, we were at a restaurant outside with a playground nearby and sand and I just let my son play in the sand. When he started to keel over or cry, I felt horrible and tried to soothe him and ended up going back to the car and sitting with him while he slept—not able to enjoy my meal. I was told by everyone there: “This is just the way it is done. We don’t do dinner early and staying up late won’t kill him.”
But I ask you, isn’t this a tad selfish? What’s wrong with having a family dinner at home or hiring a sitter? Just because family wants to “see” your child doesn’t mean you or your child has to be penalized. I am getting wiser. But it’s taken a while.
Surprisingly, I still find myself in predicaments here in London as most of my husband’s friends don’t have children. So often we have to navigate the last-minute invites. These are always pitched: “Bring William if you can’t get a sitter! We love him, he’s so cute!” So, Jay gets mad at me if I protest and say our son needs his sleep. But it always ends badly. For instance, we were invited to a barbeque on a Sunday. It was supposed to start at 6:30 or 7 p.m. Of course it didn’t. We found ourselves waiting for food until 9 p.m. and I left with a hungry child (and was hungry myself). I ran home, quickly arranged a meal and put William to sleep while my husband stayed until 11 p.m. If I don’t go, Jay fears that it will reflect poorly on me—that they may think I don’t like them.
Again, my husband sees nothing wrong with these scenarios because, well, he stays and then doesn’t have to deal with our son’s needs later. I’ve already decided that I won’t be going again if I don’t have time to hire a sitter. And if my husband feels the need to go alone, so be it. My sanity is more important.
Perhaps I am insane for “altering my life for my child” as some may see it—but perhaps I have just moved on. The question is, when will my husband?
This past weekend in Paris, during a hunt for a proper market as well as the Pompidou museum, our son was dragged all over the city for hours. His legs hurt and he was whining and starting to cry. (To save money, we weren’t taking cabs.) The next day was a bit of a fight as I was determined to go to EuroDisney. I knew they’d have fun and I just wanted to do something for our son, especially after our dog died earlier—a long story that I may feel up to writing about later. My husband fought it tooth and nail. He wanted to go to the Picasso museum instead. Luckily, I won the battle and do you know what? They had a marvelous time! The two them had sorely needed playtime and bonded while shooting martians with Buzz Lightyear and climbing the Swiss Family Robinson tree house. We didn’t have to battle long lines or Florida heat and the two of them loved every minute of it. This big shift in my husband’s plans—from the Picasso Museum to EuroDisney—will be appreciated and remembered for a long time to come. Hooray for baby steps!