The Wife's Life: DetoursThomas Beller
By Elizabeth Beller
She had picked up umpteen crackers thrown by our son. When the in-flight cartoons froze she met the dismayed squawks of our daughter with good humor. Now the nice flight attendant asked Evangeline a direct question: “Where do you live?”
Evangeline looked beseechingly at me and then my husband.
We prompted her. “New..”
“New Orleans, New York and Southampton!” she yelled, triumphant.
The flight attendant’s eyebrows shot up. We felt the need to explain.
“It’s not like it seems,” we wanted to say.
But nothing is like it seems. When we are in Nola we feel like New Yorkers. When we are in New York we feel like émigrés, or refugees. When we are at the beach we feel like imposters. When in Manhattan we stay with my husband’s mother (this is a whole other column, or rather, several); we sublet our New Orleans place for 4 months to afford a few weeks at the beach.
We are always The Other. As in Alice in Wonderland, we never feel quite the same as the rest of the playing cards. We’re always chasing the white rabbit, and never sure which place is the dream and which is real.
Is this constant change damaging our children? We’ve been told ad nauseam about how kids need stability and a constant schedule to make them feel secure: “Routines make them feel safe and able to focus on one thing at a time! Family mealtime creates stronger bonds! Consistent bedtime forges healthy sleep habits!”
But we live in a family with strong cross currents on the subject of ritual. My husband seems to cherish the evening meal. He wants us all in one place. He likes to cook barbaric grilled concoctions of meat and vegetables and deliver them on multiple platters. He wants to light candles. By the time he has everything the way he wants it, the family is often in a riot of protest and hunger. And has successfully preempted my beloved ritual of getting them to sleep on time.
Evangeline, meanwhile, starts almost every day with the question, “Do I have school today?”
She then requests a rundown of the day’s schedule in a way that suggests that every day is a mystery, and when I list the usual routine (school, playground, bath, dinner, play, bed) she seems personally offended by the banality of the familiar.
“That again!?” she says. “Why can’t we go to a water slide park or get a dog??”
Why indeed? I suppose one could say the fact that she even asks for the day’s schedule stems from her wish for routine. I want to give her that routine. But I also feel that the delight, sense of confidence, and family bonding forged by adventure is invaluable.
Getting a dog would be as well, if I didn’t fear it would result in the premature decline of their mother. No animals who don’t use a toilet will enter our home until everyone else in the family does.
Even Alexander, in his wee person-hood at one years old, has a determination to obstruct routine that is specific in its calculation. Nearly every day, he grabs his pants during morning out-the-door time, or his spoon during dinner, or his toothbrush at bedtime, and baby waddle-hop-sprints with unparalleled glee away from the door, table or sink, pausing at a safe distance to throw us a look of mischievous delight. Detours are his sustenance.
It’s not like we’re at the level of a Brangelina nomadic life. Yet frankly, what’s stopping us there is funds. Arranging the rentals, subletting our place, staying with my mother-in-law, are all a brake on these tendencies. But we go through with it because I feel like travel, breaks in the routine, and exposure to different cultures not only edifies and enriches our lives but also adds dimension, contrast, and subsequently, appreciation for daily life.
In the first year of our daughter’s life, we epitomized chaos. I would say we’ve done fine flying in the face of prescribed routine. Yet other than the fact that we move house several times a year, we are now fairly typical. We always eat together, even if a consistent mealtime is a pipe dream. We have a consistent bedtime routine, even if a consistent time or bed requires an even bigger pipe. The cemented togetherness of the four of us seems to offset the frequent change of scenery.
A good reason to have routines is the chance to break them. And half the fun of breaking routine is going back to it. As Giuseppe di Lampedusa said so succinctly in “The Leopard”, “If we want things to stay as they are, then things will have to change.”
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