My question is about my niece. I am only twenty-four and have no children of my own, but mothering has always been second nature to me. I spend a lot of time with my niece, especially because parenting has proved a bit overwhelming for my sister. This can be a problem sometimes, because even though my sister and I are very close, our childcare techniques are very different. The main issue we have is with the baby’s playpen time, what my sister and bro-in-law call “alone time.” My niece is thirteen months old and not walking yet, but she is talking quite a bit and crawling like crazy. So she is hard to contain if her mom and dad have to do chores around the house, especially because they have a sunken living room that can’t be baby-gated.
I do believe “alone time” is important, and she is FAR from neglected (she was talking when she was nine months old because of how much time my sister puts into reading to her and playing with her), but sometimes my sister will put the baby in her playpen for up to two hours while she cleans the house. I have left the baby alone with her dad while I do errands and when I get home three hours later she is still in the playpen and he is watching TV. She is happily playing by herself, but when she sees me she seems overjoyed that someone is finally saving her by taking her out of the thing!
My question is, am I wrong in thinking multiple hours is too long a span for a thirteen-month-old to be in a playpen? She is developing and needs stimulation, right? – Stressed Auntie
Dear Stressed Auntie,
We too have sat in the bleachers at the parenting circus, pointing at the clowns and their crazy antics. Use the TV as a babysitter? Ha ha. Never! Let a kid sleep in our bed? The horror! We tsked under our breath, and inwardly swore we’d be stricter or nicer or just better when our turn came around. When your big sister is the clown in question, the competitive stakes are especially high. But fact is, auntie, you ain’t walked in those shoes.
Kid care may come naturally to you, and we applaud you on that. Your sister is lucky to have your help. Mothering, however, is something else entirely. Being a mother is much more than just taking care of children. And taking care of children is much more than playing with them and providing “stimulation.” A big part of motherhood, in fact, is figuring out when your kids need you, and when they’re okay on their own, thus giving you time to fulfill the rest of their needs: like, having clean clothes, a clean house in which to play, clean sheets in which to sleep, good food to eat, not to mention a decently-fed, rested and, ideally, stimulated parent to care for them.
While the numbers you quote do read like a pretty big chunk of time for a baby that age to be in a playpen, it does not seem like she’s suffering even slightly from the arrangement. If you’d described her as cranky or bored or zoned out, it might be different. Playing happily after two hours? That’s not a kid who’s hurting for stimulation. That’s a kid who’s making her own fun.
Current parenting trends aside, the way your niece is spending her days is the way babies have been raised in western culture for generations. You think our parents were running flash cards with us at nine months? Uh-uh. It’s only very recently that the idea of focused baby stim has taken off. And though the rage continues, it has more than its fair share of detractors. There’s a hefty backlash brewing, saying that kids who are in constant direct stimulation miss out some other, equally important, kinds of brain development.
It sounds like your sister and husband are providing a healthy dose of attentiveness to balance out the down time. In our experience, babies tend to let their needs be known. If your niece was lacking for attention, she’d probably be crying, or at the very least, whining, which would probably put a crimp in your brother in-law’s TV-watching bliss.
It’s great that your niece is so happy to see you, and she probably does appreciate a different caregiver with a different sensibility. It’s not uncommon for kids to seem extra-enthusiastic around close family members when they visit, bringing focused attention and a new kind of play along with them. But be careful how you process this. Positioning yourself as her savior is setting up a dangerous dynamic. There’s a strong undercurrent in your letter that implies you think your sister’s not handling motherhood as well as you might. Left unchecked, this is the kind of thing that seriously strains family relationships.
Your sister is a different person, in a different place in her life. She’s not raising her baby the way you imagine you might. (If you’re anything like most parents we know, you won’t raise your baby entirely the way you imagine you might, either.) This will not be the last time she makes a parenting choice you disagree with. You describe your sister and her husband as great parents who are doing a great job. We encourage you to let her do her own thing, particularly when the way she’s doing it seems to be working fine for everyone.
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