In Defense Of Being A Rigid Parent

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

I am a rigid parent. This comes as a surprise to me, because I’ve always been a pretty chill and flexible person. I’m an easy traveler, someone who can roll with the punches. I’m not fussy. At least, I was these things, in my pre-kid life.

Now, as a mother, I am totally inflexible. My first child was on a schedule from 2-weeks-old, because someone gave us a book that recommended it, and in those desperate, sleep-deprived early days, I would have latched onto any ideology that promised a solution. If you’d told me to invade Poland, I would have said, “okay, if I can go to sleep after.”

To be honest, we couldn’t even stick to the precise schedule—it was more like a framework that we regularly deviated from: He woke up at 6:15 a.m. instead of 7! That means the morning nap will be at 8:15 instead of 9, but let’s push it to 8:25 and then recapture the rest of those minutes in increments throughout the day so we can still stick to 7 p.m. bedtime! In retrospect, it was kind of hysterical, hilarious, and somewhat crazy-making—we couldn’t keep him awake when he wanted to sleep, and vice versa. But we nonetheless tried, every day. The Schedule was our main topic of conversation. As my sister-in-law, a pediatrician, said, “these plans basically give the parents something to do while their kid is naturally developing into a normal sleeper.” But because my son was an excellent sleeper from early on (maybe because of the book, maybe not—he had a calm and easy-going temperament, even from infancy) we gave all the credit to The Schedule.

Because we believed it was working, we got hooked on the whole idea of firm nap times and bedtimes, and while I learned to be less hung up on 10 minutes here or there, I was still very rigid about my son, and then my second son, actually taking the nap, in his crib, at roughly the right time. I wouldn’t schedule anything midday, or I arranged a sitter for him if something was unavoidable. And he went to bed at 7 p.m., give or take a half-hour, same deal. In his crib, at home. No exceptions.

We’re also pretty rigid about traveling. We have two kids who unfailingly puke in the car. For every trip we want to take, we have to weigh the potential fun against the misery of two sick kids and the hour or two of car seat clean-up. We have to weigh the expense of a hotel, plus the fact that none of us ever sleeps well in a hotel. (Our younger son is a middle-of-the-night screamer—he emits a single, desperate howl that wakes us all up in a cold sweat. Then he goes back to sleep and the rest of us lie awake, hearts pounding, for the next hour.) We almost always decide that the trip isn’t worth it.

And we take a lot of flak for it from family members and friends. We get invitations to parties that start at 6 p.m. that we decline, because that’s the dinner/bath/bed routine. We time our travel around the sleep schedule, even if it means missing some things or arriving late. We take very few trips, despite having family that would love to see us more often. When we do travel, we tend to go somewhere and stay there for as long as money and vacation days allow—basically setting up a second residence so we can duplicate our routines without disruption.

This is largely because I know that a trip to, say, Paris, in which I’ll be cleaning up vomit in a taxi, spending a week dealing with a jet-lagged 5-year-old and 2-year-old, and standing in front of the Eiffel Tower mediating a squabble over the rightful owner of a paper clip…well, it just isn’t worth it.

This does bum me out a little. Writing this, I realize that I sound not only rigid but totally unadventurous and dull. I used to love to travel—I went to Europe for the weekend, if I could get a last-minute deal. I took ill-advised road trips in fragile cars. I loved living that way.

But life is choices, and for the moment I choose well-rested kids and a predictable schedule. Spontaneity and adventure aren’t really in the cards for us right now. My dear friend, who has kids a little older, tells me that freedom and flexibility are not far away. “You can travel when they’re past the naps-stroller-diaper-sippy-cup stage,” she said. “You can do things at the last minute without feeling like you’re turning an 18-wheeler around on a narrow road.”

So I’m pinning my hopes on that moment, when I can stop being rigid and start being myself again. Paris with a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old? Sure, if I can get a last-minute deal.

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