The Battle for Consistency in Parenting
I wasn’t there for two consecutive days to put my son to bed – so the nanny did. He didn’t fuss much. She has her bedtime routine, holding and rocking him. It works for him.
But it doesn’t work for me.
The third day, when I was back at my station for the bedtime routine, there was a full-on mutiny. Howling, shoving, kicking… one blow to my ear left it ringing for a bit. He was sleepy as all hell, so much so that his eyes wouldn’t remain open, but he refused to go through our routine. He wanted to be picked up and rocked to sleep. Cuddling, sweet talking, even letting him howl it out made no difference. After almost an hour, I gave in and picked him up. Within seconds, he was out.
It was a gut-wrenching hour, and I blamed myself over and over for the two days I was away. It was important work, but, after being punished, I had to question whether it was worth the break in his elaborate routine. I had dug into the depths of my education in psychology to work out something that would eventually enable him to fall asleep independently and sleep through the night without feeling alone and without needing the cuddling and the rocking. And it had been going well until those two days.
A toddler does not understand or forgive exceptions. I know this.
Yet, exceptions abound in his world. Often it means sitting untethered on a chair in a restaurant instead of on a high chair like at home, or he travels without a car seat every other day, thanks to Delhi’s recent odd-even road rationing. Other times, social norms keep us from consistency in parenting, for example, when insisting on a car seat. If a car seat means not being able to accommodate just one more person, or having to take multiple cars for a close destination, it feels self-indulgent and not “Indian” to insist.
The problem is in my head, too. As determined as I was that my son would sleep in his cot, I brought him into our bed the first time he had a cold. I could not shake the belief that he must have caught the chill from laying cold and alone in the crib.
Caught somewhere between a rock and a hard place — the fight to create and maintain structures and inculcate good habits and the battle against a howling child or social conditioning – it’s tempting to just let it be. It is hard and exhausting to be on-point, all the time. To ensure exceptions are rare, to have the patience for the revolt that follows when they do occur. It is hard to swim against the cultural tide and my own instinct. It killed me to let him cry-it-out when I tried to sleep train my son a year back. Hardly anyone I knew was doing it, and many, I am sure, would have been aghast to know that I had gone through with it.
Perhaps a reason why it didn’t work was because, in the absence of a support system, I couldn’t bring myself to stick to the required rigor. I didn’t know people who could assure me that letting my child howl in a room alone wouldn’t turn him into a mother-hating psychopath or who would tell me that, every so often, a sleep-trained child will regress a little, if only to test me, and that I shouldn’t give up, because the testing phase will pass. Instead, they tell me that they have no problems — their kids sleep when they want to sleep, are happy eating what they want to eat as they run around the house or in a restaurant. Many of my peers don’t fret about discipline and structure; they let kids just be. In time, the children will grow up to learn to eat and sleep on their own.
It is a perspective I understand and it is certainly tempting — if only I could buy into it fully and learn to let go a little. But it wouldn’t be authentic to who I am as a parent. I value the structure and the independence that I am trying to instill through consistency in parenting. I am filled with pride when I see that my son sits, for the most part calmly, at his playschool’s cafeteria table to eat on his own (however messily). I know that my efforts are paying off.
So now I look for the elusive Holy Grail — the middle ground, where structure meets cultural exceptions and maternal instincts meet toddler compliance. Now, bedtime is where I experiment with a hybrid approach.
In a house that buzzes with activity well past the child’s bedtime, it is silly to expect the child to want to be alone in a room to sleep. In a culture where beautiful lullabies abound in so many languages, it makes no sense to expect the child to sleep in silence. So I stay with my son until he falls asleep, with music playing in the background, or maybe me, singing. But he sleeps on his own, without being rocked or patted. And because he sleeps on my bed, when he wakes at night, he is not anxious and falls back to sleep on his own.
Coming at the end of two sleep-deprived years, this feels like a major achievement, not a compromise, of my approach. In time, in what will feel like excruciatingly small and tedious steps, I hope to transition him to his own bed, in his own room, to sleep on his own without needing me at all, consistently.