As summer drags on, and my duties as “cruise-ship director” cease to make the time pass for my family without complaint, our collective nerves begin to fray. The earlier grandiose hopes of packing fun-filled educational experiences into weeks of family bonding have been thrown to the wayside. They have, instead, been replaced by so many hours of exposure to My Little Pony and Power Puff Girls that I feel quite certain my daughter’s eyes are bleeding from overuse. And when I ask her as much, just to check in and maintain the pretense that I am a responsible adult, her glare says it all. It reads a familiar stew of disdain and annoyance. Almost as though her break in activity caused a new form of ocular sign language to emerge, and with it, her eyes send the words: “Silence, old woman, and leave me to the addiction that you have forced upon me!”
But it wasn’t always this way. In summers prior to this one, television was virtually non-existent. Instead of succumbing to its lustrous glow, we spent time absorbing real life in places such as parks, the zoo, and a variety of museums. We picnicked, we swam, we hiked. And on the rare days that we stayed at home, we filled our time with activities of substance. We learned about many things – the constellations, the history of rock and roll, the names of Egyptian Pharaohs. Summer used to be about exploring. Questioning the world and being challenged by it. And, most importantly, having fun and spending endless hours basking in each other’s company.
What changed the landscape of this year has been the fact that I swam from the placid sea of mothering one child to the coarse and murky waters of caring for two. With a new baby in the house, there is not a great surplus of energy on my part. Whatever I have left over after nightly nursing sessions and my sleep-deprived stupor, I tend to save up for remembering where I put my car keys or how to boil water for our Pasta Roni. In other words, I just don’t have a lot to give at this point in my life. So, it makes it hard to be creative. Or educational. Or even nurturing. Thus, instead of being any of those three things, I have taken the easy road and have given her complete control to watch as much T.V. as she wanted. I knew from the first instant that it was wrong – and that it was a world from which she might never return. But, upon the genesis of this change, I was honestly too tired to care.
It sounds horrible to say it out loud. I do care. I have always cared. It’s just that being deliriously fatigued – to the level that all new mothers are – is like being tortured. And, while some moms can still keep their shit together, other moms tend to “break” quite easily. Before having kids, I always liked to think of myself as being tough; however, after the extensive hazing my son has decided to make me endure, I now know that such thoughts were merely illusions. I am not strong. I am, in fact, quite weak. Without sleep, I readily roll over to any demands and allow all of the lawless things that go against my better judgment. Candy for breakfast? Why not. Wearing pajamas all day? Of course – that’s what Momma does! A daily marathon of cartoons? Heck yes. I honestly wouldn’t have any other summer plans for my daughter. I mean, I could have signed her up for camps and activities, but that would have involved me having to put on clothes to drive her there. So much for that…
I tried to justify it in my mind. I first told myself that it was just a “film festival.” A special event that she deserved for being such a patient big sister. So, I tried to make it a significant moment. I
popped popcorn. Let her choose the movies. Pretended it was a rare occasion that would only be revisited from time to time – an event that would be savored and enjoyed rather than a daily happening which would be used to merely kill the hours between daybreak and nightfall. I had only the best intentions in mind. After all, I didn’t want her to be bored or feel abandoned during the times I would have to feed, diaper, and care for her baby brother. I figured, with the T.V. amusing her, she wouldn’t even know I was in the other room.
Remarkably quickly, though, this crutch has become our new standard of living. Just the mention of turning the T.V. off now sends my daughter into tears, akin to how reasonable people might respond to the idea of losing their home, their spouse or a major organ. She just can’t deal with its loss. Not anymore. Not after so long. Experts say it takes two weeks to break a bad habit and four weeks to make a new life. What they fail to mention, regarding the reverse situation, is that it can only take a couple of days to make a bad addiction stick. Yes, it is so easy to begin something terrible yet so very difficult to make it stop.
I should know. I have been battling with my son’s simultaneous addiction to my breasts. Not that nursing a baby is foul or subversive. It truly is the most natural act of human-kind. So natural, in fact, that it’s one of the few remnants left which remind us of our honest-to-goodness mammalian nature. But, with that said, it has come to the point where doctors, both real and otherwise, agree that he no longer needs to quench his motherly thirst at night – meaning: he should be sleeping through the night without waking for food. So, we’ve come upon a Catch-22, it seems. His nightly-feeding schedule has lead to such severe sleep-deprivation in me that I have stopped monitoring the daily content of my daughter’s hobbies. Her daily hobbies have come to include only one activity: television. Thus, if my son did not wake in the night, I would get the ample sleep needed to properly entertain my daughter so that she would not be a cartoon-addict. And all would be right with the world again. The question is how do we all get off of this very bad and seemingly endless merry-go-round?
In my quest to find answers, I do what I do best: read books. I scour the shelves for tales written by this sleep-trainer and that baby-whisperer. I inhale the booming words of doctors and sleep pathologists, pediatricians and nannies, even mothers, grandmothers and concerned “aunts.” I ask friends what they did. I glance through message boards and MSN articles. I search everywhere for this holy grail to appear.
But, honestly, after weeks and weeks of trying new tactics to no avail, I am beside myself with anguish. I feel that, not only will I never again have the energy to pick up my hairbrush and make myself look decent again, but I will never, ever regain what seems to have become lost between my daughter and I. I start to believe that our relationship will be irreparably altered, having mutated into something stereotypically bad. With each deepening breath from her many cartoon overlords, I feel as though I have lost her to the television cult. Possibly forever. And that my presence has been drowned out from her mind, overtaken instead by the voices of SpongeBob and one of the malevolent Disney Princesses.
This isn’t really true, of course. I know that once I am given a nap and allowed to catch up on some personal time. Grandparents are helpful in this arena. After I have had an afternoon to myself, I start to calmly reevaluate our situation. My son is five months old. Despite what other people say, what other children have done or what I might want him to do, it is not really so unusual that he still wakes me in the night. It will continue as long as it needs to. As long as it is supposed to. And that’s all there is to it. No book has a solution beyond that. So, I have to deal with it and catch sleep when I can.
But, as for my daughter, if I really want this summer to be more productive and memorable for her, I need to do one thing: be present. I realize that in years past, what she really responded to was my being there for her. Hugging her. Laughing with her. What we did and where we went was just something to fade into the backdrop of a memory. Our relationship thrived because of our happiness together. Sleepless or not, we can recapture that here, there or anywhere. Over rattles and burp cloths or beneath a sea of diapers. I know that she won’t care if it was like last year. And chances are, next year will be different in still another way. But, if we can just forget about standards and stop trying to be picture perfect, maybe we will have what matters most – pure joy.
So, I decide that we will spend time together, doing whatever we can, whenever we can. When he naps, we can play dress-up. When I have to feed him (in isolation, since he is so finicky and easily distracted), she can play with her dolls until I can rendezvous with her when he’s done. I have so many new ideas about how to take the television out of most days. There’s just one thing stopping me from enacting my new and exciting plan for the summer: her glare when I try to turn off the tube. Those eyes speak to me again and they’re not happy. And now my son is crying. It’s time to nurse him, again. So, being decisive rather than weak, I decide I’ll tell her all about it later. After all, one more episode of The Care Bears won’t hurt anyone.