I remember talking to another mom during the delirious, exhausting period when my son was a newborn. “There’s no schedule,” I said of my 2-month-old son’s sleep habits, like someone confessing a dark secret. “None.”
When I went online late at night to figure out how to get my baby to sleep better, I came across articles that described daily routines for 5- and 6-week-old babies, complete with set times to eat, nap and play. My son and I must be misfits, I thought. I spent the day appeasing Nate’s urgent cries and couldn’t come close to discerning a pattern out of his hour-to-hour needs. Maybe other mothers could create a quiet, orderly environment for their newborns; I felt like I was putting out fires.
Five years and another kid later, I’m smart enough to know that schedules for newborns are a joke, and that most tiny babies are inconstant, unsettled creatures.
But I also know why I fell into the trap of believing that I was doing it wrong. One of the hardest things about becoming a parent is relinquishing control of your day-to-day life to the needs of another person. That’s true when you come home early every night to accommodate your toddler’s bedtime, and that’s true when you stay home from work to take care of your sick 6-year-old. But it’s most pronounced when your child is a newborn, because the demands are so constant that you can’t even control where and when you go to sleep or if you have time for a shower or a meal. This can’t be right, I thought to myself.
Luckily, change was also my friend. Just a few months after I made my guilty mom confession, Nate had matured beyond the newborn blob phase and, like magic, went to bed at the same time every night and napped at predictable hours during the day. This routine gave me time to eat, sleep and sit down with my husband (and a glass of wine) in the evening, and I protected it fiercely. On the weekends, we went out for a few hours at a time, then came home for naptime; bath, books and bedtime were choreographed nightly like a ballet.
The truth is that once children grow into routines, they thrive on them. Give a toddler a good night’s sleep and a filling breakfast and there’s every chance she’ll be her bright, inquisitive, playful self. Skip her nap or forget the snacks at home and you’re looking at a meltdown-filled afternoon. As a parent, you have every incentive to maintain an ordered schedule above all else.
But if routines make life bearable as a parent, they can also make it stultifying. For an adult, it becomes deadening to do the same thing every day, whereas change is so likely to turn young kids into cranky monsters that family vacations often become exercises in regret. As a parent, you’re constantly pulled between maintaining routine for the happiness of your family and interrupting it for your own sanity.
It’s a dilemma I’ve been thinking about lately.
My family has gone through a lot of changes, having moved twice in the last year and a half. I’ve put work into setting up new routines that work for us, and I finally feel that we have a weekly schedule that balances work, school, activities and child care in a way that keeps everyone more or less happy.
But even as I’ve built up this routine, I’ve also been getting ready to break it. Right now, largely due to our moves, I’m the primary caregiver in our family and work part time as a freelance writer. But I’m taking steps to move work back to the front burner.
Even though I believe that being a working mom will be the best choice for my family, it’s been disconcerting to try to simultaneously make our lives work as they’re now organized and take steps that will cause us to have to upend our routines entirely.
That contradiction has at times given me pause as I pursue my next steps.
But the truth is that even as much as children love routines, their patterns are constantly changing as they grow older and move through new phases of childhood. Adapting to that is part of the persistent imbalance of being a parent. I have faith that even if our family seesaws a bit in the coming year, children and parents alike will regain their firm footing.