Opinion | The parenthood version of gambling
It is terrifying to realize how little control we have, in parenting and in life. But it is also quite freeing
At 7 every evening, my husband and I feel a simmering thrill. Will the kids be asleep in 30 minutes and leave us with a free evening ahead to read and write and watch television and drink stiff cocktails or are they going to run wild up and down the hall and finally collapse into bed in a flurry of emotion and tears and overstimulation at 10.30pm? There’s no way to know.
This is the parenthood version of gambling. Where will the dice fall? Will we win or lose? Tonight will we celebrate (I use the term loosely to mean will I read a few pages of a book) or will we also collapse into bed moments after our children do? The parenting roulette.
Like many new parents, we build a life based on routine. Routine, routine, routine. We use routine to protect ourselves from all the unknowns.
By 7pm on most nights, dinner is finished, baths are wrapping up and we are cosying the kids up in their pajamas with a stack of books and cups of milk on hand.
But then, a few pages into Horton Hears A Who!, the almost two-year-old will climb off the bed and go running down the hall shrieking in excitement. Why? I do not know. About what? I could not say. The three-year-old follows immediately on her heels.
“I’ll calm her down for bedtime," shouts the three-year-old, immediately doing exactly the opposite. Moments later they are both wrestling in the hallway and then trying to pull their paints off the shelf to set up a painting session. A Montessori-approved home in which they have access to their toys and get to pick what they want to do doesn’t seem like a brilliant idea at bedtime, when you are hoping against hope that they won’t pick the messiest activity on hand.
We can try for routine all we want but routine is, I have learnt, a way to establish a sense of control in a situation where we have almost none. Parenting is difficult and unpredictable and every little thing we do to try and establish a sense of control is an elaborate display of smoke and mirrors.
Planning not to give them sugar until they are 2? Guess what—the grandparents are handing them large bars of chocolate.
Giving them only organic food? They’re still going to lick the slide on the playground and get sick.
No screen time? Joke’s on us, parents. There’s a global pandemic and playschool is on Zoom and an iPad is the only childcare we have. Good luck to us all.
I learn mini-versions of this every time we travel and have flights to catch at 3am, airport food to eat, new city streets to stroll for hours. Bedtimes and diets go for a toss and the kids eat ice cream until their stomachs hurt and we are all fine, happy and exhausted, the parents more exhausted than usual, realizing a holiday is very different than what it was in the pre-parenting years.
But of course for now, there is no travel anyway. There is no letting the kids sit with us on a cobbled sidewalk somewhere while we eat new food late into the night and then carry them back to our Airbnb fast asleep and drop them into bed without brushing their tiny teeth or putting them into matching pajamas.
It is terrifying to realize how little control we have, in parenting and in life. But it is also so freeing. It is so nice to know, at 6pm, that it doesn’t matter if we have a perfectly balanced hot meal on the table. It doesn’t matter if we want to chat with each other and let them watch Peppa Pig while they eat. At bedtime, it doesn’t matter how perfectly we choreographed and controlled the day—if they want to run wild through the house for 3 hours at night, that’s what they are going to do. And it may be exhausting but it’s also delightful and I will chase them around for hours because the one thing I know I definitely cannot control is that some day they will be sullen teenagers who retreat to their bedrooms and stare at their screens.
And of course, the larger metaphor for life in general. Who cares if I waste another 30 minutes on a new episode of 90 Day Fiancé, I’m still going to die some day (I apologize for the unexpectedly dark turn this has taken in the end).
Diksha Basu is the author of The Windfall (Bloomsbury). Her new book, Destination Wedding (Bloomsbury), released on 28 July.