Recently, one jet-lagged night, when I gave up on sleeping and couldn’t concentrate enough to read anything else, I found a stack of battered Agatha Christie paperbacks and read my way right through “Murder at the Vicarage.” The next night, I read “Death on the Nile.”
A memory was nagging at me as I read, and I don’t mean the vague memory of the plots, which allowed me to solve each mystery almost as effectively as Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot. I realized that I had last binged on Agatha Christie when my children were babies. I could remember hours and hours of sitting in the rocking chair, nursing a baby, and reading through these same paperbacks. They were the perfect addictive narratives for my tired bored brain, keeping me company through the wakeful nights and the bleary days.
Am I trying to tell you that jet lag is a good metaphor for parenting a young child? Well, certainly your body clock is disordered and you find yourself trying to function on a professional adult level while your brain is full of cotton, or you find yourself incredibly frustrated because here you are in your bed and it’s night and you just can’t sleep. But no, what I was thinking about was how grateful I was — and am — to Dame Agatha, and all the other authors who kept me company through those precious, long-gone, irreplaceable, stone-cold boring hours.
It’s a recurring trope that parents find that taking care of a small child can be boring, and they feel profoundly guilty about it. Babies are boring, toddlers are boring, mothers are bored, fathers are bored. Yes, there are those who are naturally gifted and find every moment fascinating, but though I love children and work with children and am immensely grateful for my own, I will admit now, at a safe distance, that for me, taking care of a young child is simultaneously the most fascinating thing in the world and, well, let’s face it, sometimes pretty tedious.
In a recent column arguing for the value of letting children get bored, Pamela Paul argued that boredom can spark creativity, and can help children learn strategies for coping. And you could argue that the daily get-up-in-the-morning-and-face-another day tedium of parenthood can similarly be good for adults, though I’m not sure it necessarily pushes us in creative directions. Too much boredom, of course, can be bad for children. But if coping with a little boredom now and then helps children grow, it probably also helps parents grow into their adult selves.
It is also often true that parents are boring. I know, I’ve been there. Once upon a time, I thought potty training was interesting. I don’t mean as a professional responsibility; it’s still part of my job. As a pediatrician, I often have occasion to discuss the topic, sometimes with very anxious or upset parents, and as with infant sleep patterns and toddler eating habits, I try hard to listen carefully and counsel wisely, and remember that each of these issues plays out differently with every child in every family, which is why mine is such an interesting job.
No, I mean, once upon a time — or actually, thrice upon a time, once with each child — I thought that potty training itself was the most fascinating subject in the world, endlessly worth discussing at adult social occasions (yes, I’m afraid I do mean over dinner). Fortunately, my children were in day care, so I had a peer group of parents who were dealing with children at more or less the same developmental stage, and we could find each other at brunches and potlucks and obsess together. (I’m going to say that I hope I kept some slight sense of perspective and didn’t inflict too much of this on other adults, but I’m sure some were caught in the crossfire, and I thank them for their patience.)
And then, of course, each time, my own child moved on to the next stage, and potty training dropped right off my list of interesting conversation topics.
My older two children went to a cooperative day care center, so once a week, each family was responsible for a morning or afternoon of “worktime.” There you were, at the beck and call of the unfailingly cheerful (and unfailingly engaged) day care teachers, supervising the block corner, or zipping jackets up to go out to the yard, singing the cleanup song, encouraging everyone to finish snack because it was time for the potty trip.
It was a chance to spend an extra couple of hours with my own child and also an opportunity to observe healthy happy children, with all their differences of temperament, exploring a creative environment and interacting with one another as they developed their social skills. I would remind myself of this every time I looked at the clock. And I would feel deeply grateful to the wonderful teachers who created that environment, and deeply grateful that I had a different job to go to (where, admittedly, I spent a good deal of time talking about potty training with parents).
It’s not surprising that many parents experience some sense of boredom in the first few months of their babies’ lives, said Dr. Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist and the co-author of a “What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood,” to be published in April.
“The experience of engaging with a creature all day long who has a limited cognitive capacity — it’s exciting to a baby when you open and close your eyes or smile and frown, it generates a lot of excitement in their brain,” she said. “But in the adult brain, that is not so interesting.”
Parents often feel guilty, she said, and also convinced that if they were only more creative, or if they would only try harder, they would have more fun with their babies, but that is true only up to a point.
I’ve written before about balancing the always important need to pay attention to children and respond to them with the guilty parental need for a little distraction. Nowadays, of course, the distraction often comes in the form of checking a screen, and it’s easy to disapprove.
But is my choice of turning to a stack of Agatha Christie paperbacks a virtuous form of self-care and an admirable coping strategy, while thumbing through Instagram on your cellphone is a self-indulgent timesuck? All I can tell you is that when I mentioned reading mysteries while nursing in an article I wrote, way back then in those predigital days, I got a lot of indignant letters telling me that I should put down the book and bond.
So now that’s often me, and my colleagues, telling you to put away your phones and turn off your screens. And that’s important advice, but it’s also worth acknowledging why we’re all so tempted.
Being the parent of a young child is profoundly moving, and most of us find many moments of bliss, beauty and wonder. But there are lots and lots of other moments in those strange time-warp months and years, which, as the cliché goes, pass so slowly as you live them, and so quickly when you look back on them. So yes, by all means, don’t let yourself off the hook, push yourself to pay attention because the connections you forge with young children are the most important thing in their world, but you do it through the repetitive interactions and often tedious games and those drive-you-crazy songs.
And sometimes every moment will be a heartfelt expression of profound parental love, and sometimes you will be very bored, and the two are not as far apart as you might think.
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