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Out of Sight

A few years ago, I checked in with a friend who’d been having a tough time with her high-maintenance newborn. “I don’t even eat until after my husband comes home,” I remember her moaning. “Whenever I put the baby down to fix something, he cries.”

In deference to her hormonal hysteria, I refrained from sharing my immediate reaction: So?

As a new mom, I regularly left my daughter to shriek in her bouncy seat while I scarfed down my lunch or took a shower. Occasional neglect seemed like a relatively minor maternal sin, especially since it was the only way I got anything done around the house. Wasn’t it in my daughter’s best interest to ensure our toilets weren’t condemned by the Health Department?

I developed a habit of lolling around bed in the morning, not responding to my daughter’s cries down the hall until they progressed from gentle mewling to outright fury. And in that spirit, I refused to buy a baby monitor.

These days, it seems, there’s no such thing as an off-duty parent. Even when your children are sleeping, you must remain tethered to them by an electronic gadget, one of those modern-parenting must-haves that our own parents somehow survived without.

Initially, my husband and I assumed we’d buy a monitor; that we didn’t have one by the time Clara came home from the hospital was a result of disorganization more than anything else. (We were the parents who neglected to pack a “going home” outfit for our newborn and stared in stunned horror at the nurse when we were being discharged, terrified we’d be sent out the door with a naked baby.)

As the months passed, we realized we didn’t miss having a monitor, and we remained monitor-less even after twin boys arrived a few years later. We live in a two-story, 1950s suburban house. When there’s a real emergency in the kids’ rooms upstairs (e.g. someone’s chubby leg jammed in between the crib rails), the screaming carries to our family room downstairs and we head up to investigate. What we can’t hear is every little whimper and wail, those distracting sounds that can send your heart thumping in she’s-not-sleeping-yet-please-God-go-to-sleep panic.

Studio-apartment-dwellers aside, we’re clearly in the minority with our no-monitor stance. On those rare occasions we hang out with fellow parents in the evening or during afternoon naptime, there’s almost always a monitor lurking on a side table, a reminder that the kids are with us even when they aren’t. The monitor utters a low, steady hiss, a combination of static and indistinguishable baby noises, a distraction that prevents us from ever completely relaxing. In this house, the kid rules, it seems to be saying.

I’m all for checking in on your kids, and I do make several trips upstairs each night to make sure everyone’s okay (or, during those early months, to check that everyone’s still breathing). So maybe I do more schlepping up and down than people who have a monitor. But it’s worth it, and not just because I count it as my daily cardio. For a few precious hours, my husband and I revert to our previous, laid-back selves, rather than haggard parents second-guessing every noise our new masters make.

As the years pass, I’ve gotten more reckless, venturing out to the backyard during naptime. On the off chance the boys woke up early, I wouldn’t hear them, but what’s the worst that could happen? They’re in cribs, in a childproofed room with the door closed. Will there really be any long-term damage if they have to wallow a little longer in a skanky diaper? Possibly, but it’ll be a good ten years or so before they start laying down the guilt trips.

When I get a break from my children, I take it. When I get a break from my children, I take it – not just physically but mentally. I remember watching an Oprah segment about moms in Iceland leaving their bundled-up babies outside in strollers while they gathered inside a cozy caf’ for coffee and chitchat. Did I mention that this was during the winter? In Iceland?

I don’t think I’d ever be that bold – besides, pulling that stunt during a Midwestern January might get me arrested. But I think there’s something to be said about having your kids nearby, yet not too close. For allowing them some space, even when they’re babies. For putting them to bed, and then leaving them alone.

Eight o’clock is the magic hour in my house, the time I tell the kids, who are now six and two, that Mommy stops working. Once they’re in bed, I don’t really care what they do, as long as they’re breathing and eventually sleeping. Without a baby monitor picking up their every twitch, they’re free to do as they like. And, more importantly, so am I.

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