By Dara Mathis
Before I became a mother, I promised myself that I would never be the type of parent who let the television “babysit” my kid. How lazy! How neglectful! What a poor example of motherhood! And then real life happened.
Two years after giving birth, I’ve learned enough about parenting to realize I didn’t know what I was talking about. My former attitude about television and children was a direct result of my inexperience. I had never taken care of a small child for an extended period of time before my daughter came into my life.
Confession: I often let my child watch television when I need to get things done.
It didn’t start out that way. At first, I just wanted to introduce her to educational programs, watch her dance and sing. But then I noticed how Bean seemed less rambunctious while the television was on. The opening bars of “Party in My Tummy” from Yo Gabba Gabba immediately would snap her out of any irritable crying jag.
So I started to lean on TV a little more. The day-to-day minutiae of parenthood brings countless moments where you just want peace and quiet. Or, if you cannot have both at the same time, at least peace (because a quiet toddler is a mischievous one).
In this regard, television is magic. It has the ability to hold young children in one spot without the benefit of Velcro, nylon straps, duct tape or wrestling. It’s that bit of freedom–free hands, free legs, free personal space–that has me defaulting to TV when I need to wear a hat other than “mommy” for a few minutes.
We learn to multitask as mothers, but that doesn’t mean we always want to do so. When I cook dinner I let Bean watch a cartoon. Without any distractions, she will focus on the spices crowding the edge of the counter. She is now tall enough to grab anything not pushed back to the wall. So I remind myself to move knives. I make sure to turn the handles of pots and pans away from her curious little grasp. I understand that it is not so much impossible to cook with her underfoot as it is inconvenient.
And television is the epitome of a convenient tool. Sometimes when I come home from work, having picked Bean up from daycare, I desperately need to rest. I put up the baby gate in the doorway and turn on Curious George. Bean will sit next to me on the couch. As long as I can feel her little bum wiggling against my legs, I know it is safe to shut my eyes for a short while.
I use television the most when it is time to tame the kinky coils atop her little head. When she was an infant, I quickly discovered Bean had no patience for getting her hair done. It was enough at first to have a musical toy for her to bang on. Her interest eventually dissipated and she’d start wriggling out of my lap. Nowadays, I have to come much harder than Legos or Leap Frog. For an hour-long detangling and braiding session, I let Netflix play with abandon.
Normally, I ration the amount of television she watches, capping her at an hour. A pang of guilt will hit me and I’ll announce, halfway through a flat twist, “No more TV after this episode.” She has to learn to sit still at some point, right? But the TV is not just to give her patience; it’s for mine, too. After a good five minutes of pressing her into the chair, my indulgent tone gives way to a sharp bark. “Sit down!”
My husband observes me struggling to do her hair without the benefit of her favorite cartoon and remarks that I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. If TV helps, I should use it.
But the possibility of overuse worries me. When the first thing out of her mouth after we get home is, “Mommy, I [want] TV, ” I feel that I have failed to teach her the art of amusing herself without electronic aid. Because it’s not just the television: she also recognizes the iPad and the laptop as devices that bring her Peep and the Big Wide World.
I’ve come a long way from characterizing myself as allowing TV to “babysit” my child (as if motherhood is contingent on being present 100% of your waking moments). But I still want to discourage a dependence on television.
As is ever the case with parenthood, I struggle for balance. Some days I want to use the bathroom in peace without a toddler sticking to me like syrup. Some mornings, I need to be able to put on mascara and not worry that little hands are rubbing toothpaste into the cornrows I spent an hour braiding. Sometimes I want to write in daylight when my mind is not dulled by the fuzzy edges of fatigue. And if letting her watch a TV program or two gives me some much-needed space for self-care, I can live with that.
How do you other moms accomplish the daily tasks that active, small children make difficult?
Dara Mathis is a freelance writer, editor, and poet who lives in Georgia with her husband and daughter. Her writing interrogates the politics of respectability for women, concepts of femininity, motherhood, and the intersection of race and gender. You can catch her tweeting reckless acts of punctuation on Twitter @dtafakari and at daratmathis.wordpress.com.