As parents of twins, my husband and I were routinely amazed by the site of infants, snuggled in car seats while their parents sat in a restaurant…at 9pm…long after baby bedtime! “How do they do it?” we’d wonder. Generally, the baby in question would be sleeping happily while mom and dad got a nice meal and time out of the house. Wow, talk about bliss! This seemed like an utterly impossible thing for us to try with infant twins.
Perhaps it had to do with our kid’s temperaments. Ours did not snooze in their car seat unless it was in a car and moving. Ours were not calm stroller-babies nor contented carseat-kids. Ours did not stay in blissful slumber when moved from a car seat to a crib. Perhaps there was also the issue of two babies, not one, with a resulting adult to infant ratio of 1:1 as opposed to a more reasonable two adults to one infant. If you have two parents and your infant wakes up, then one parent can tend the baby while the other parent eats. However, if you have two fussy babies then you need two parents to tend them… and no one gets to eat!
This is why so many parents find that the arrival of baby number two is far more difficult than they expected. You might have been getting along ok by tossing the football-baby back and forth as you meandered thru your family of three weekend. But once the adult to child ratio changes…all bets are off! Now, you find yourself with vocal beasties all on different schedules with different needs. Divide and conquer no longer means that one adult is getting a rest. Instead, it means that no adults are getting a rest. At this point parents only get a reprieve from duty when one or both kids nap. Thus, you may find yourself in a slavish dedication to your children’s sleep schedule. This, among other things, can force you to rotate your adult lives around their needs.
To some degree this is normal with young infants. But…there are all those babies sleeping in car seats or strollers… as families and parents continue with their own activities. Do you subvert your life to conform to the needs of your child’s life? Do you stay home for dinner to put your kids to bed on-time and in-crib? Or do you cart them along for a dinner out and fold your child’s schedule around your own?
Ultimately, I think it is much healthier for both kids and adults if the child is folded into the adult life. The other way around puts too much pressure on the child to be all things in the family. And parents who loose connection to their life interests and industry and spouse, suffer greatly for the loss. That’s not good for anyone.
So, how do you fold your child into your adult life? Frankly, this can be very hard in America. It is especially hard to do this with twins or more than one young child. You see, not all babies respond with rational understanding when you attempt to mess with their schedule. In fact, some babies get down right pissed off if you change their schedule. Yet, to maintain some adult life, you need to have some time dedicated to adult things. That often means you need to have helpers for the babies. However, in our culture, grandparents, aunties, and uncles are frequently scattered over great distances…and busy with their own lives.
It does take a village to raise a child. The village of extended family. The village of childcare providers. The village of adult friends. The village that watches out for your kids when they play in the cornfield, school yard, or skate park. The village that drops of meals and mows the lawns of families with newborns. The village that assumes…universally assumes…that everyone goes home on time to be with family, to have a life outside of work. Unfortunately, this village is mostly gone…evaporated into the mist like Brigadoon.
The next question then becomes: How do we live within our current society and keep a healthy balance that allows our kids to live as kids and parents to live as parents? As a parent, how do you maintain some adult life while raising babies in an environment that makes so little allowance for their existence? I suspect there are sub cultures within our country that may be better at this child-life vs adult-life balance. Some communities have successfully maintained stronger bonds within extended families and friends. They may have much to teach us about living with a healthier balance between adult, child, and family needs. I suspect they make choices about where they live and how they spend time that keep them physically closer and more involved with family. If you place a higher priority on Sunday extended family dinner than you do on soccer practice then you are more likely to maintain family and community connections that can become a web of support.
Another problem that tends to force parents to turn their life around the needs of their kids is the physical environment in which we now live. In the past, four year old children could roam the back yard and nearby neighborhood or fields with older kids. But there are no more neighborhood kids nor many corn fields to run thru. Even in the suburbs houses are so close together that everyone fences for privacy. This means that wandering children are pushed to the street. Where I grew up there were no fences. Suburban homes defined their spaces with plants, and kids cut thru the back and side yards of friendly neighbors to reach friends or streams or playgrounds. Today the fencing of yards and fear of crime have eaten away at the spaces of childhood.
Despite the fact that the crime rate today is lower than it’s been in a very long time, parental fear for children is high. Many people worry that a child who is out of their sight for even brief periods is in grave danger of abduction. However, this is simply out of proportion to reality.
The truth is that abduction by a non-custodial parent is fairly common. Stranger abduction, however, is vanishingly rare. Which is why it hits the news so hard when it does occur. It’s scary and unusual so the media goes over it again and again. This big news coverage distorts the reality of its rareness and leaves parents anxious and fearful for their children.
Perhaps, you’re old enough to remember all those milk cartons with pictures of missing children on them? Again, the vast majority of those were kids taken by a parent in a custody dispute or were kids who had run away from home. Compared to today the violent crime rate was much, much higher when I was a child. Yet, I walked to and from school by myself from the age of seven. Without fear. By ten years old, I wandered neighborhood paths thru winding woods for miles. Many parents today will not even let their kids wander a well off neighborhood or bike paths.
Our suburbs with their fenced off back yards are empty of children after school and on summer days. Rather than letting kids explore their free time, explore their neighborhood, explore nearby friendships, they will instead be signed up for one round of adult supervised activities after another. Often parents discover that if they want their children to have the chance to play with other kids, it has to be arranged in some way by an adult.
So, we sign them up for soccer and karate and dance class… because that’s where you find the other kids. Even play dates often involve kids who live far apart. If a child is going to hang out with a friend it often requires complex parental navigation, orchestration, and transportation. Children who can go next door and knock to see if Jane can come out to play are fortunate indeed. The fact is that many of our kids can no longer find other kids to play with in their neighborhood.
One of the consequences of this is that the early parenting phase of intense involvement and sacrifice of parental life continues much, much longer than it did in the past. The real answer to this problem is to change society so that it better meets our children’s needs and our own parental needs. But, to build that we have to first believe we lowly workers are worthy. That our children’s lives are worthy of a kinder world.
Many western cultures allow parents more time and flexibility outside work. This can make the work-family balancing act more successful for families. If other countries can do this then why don’t we? There is an unspoken fear that focusing on quality of life for our families will result in lower productivity for our economy. Ironically, however, when governments create support systems for families it frees the parents to remain in the work force.
So, I have no quick answer for you about how to not rotate your adult life around the needs of your kids. If you can, live close to family. If you can, put your foot down at work and insist on leaving on time. If you can, block all work email and calls in the evening and weekend. If you can, look for a home where there are no fences and kids are safe to run around. If you can, get to know your neighbors all up and down your street. If you can, keep your kids out of too many after school activities and encourage other families to create free time in their kid’s days. If you can, build a community of supportive friends. If you can’t do these things…well, do the best you can to attend to your personal adult life…and vote for people who will make these things possible for your children when they are parents.