For How Many Seconds, Exactly, Can You Leave Your Baby Alone?

Illustration for article titled For How Many Seconds, Exactly, Can You Leave Your Baby Alone?

One of the more horrifying things I read while extremely pregnant was not the description of the abdominal muscle wall separation that can happen at the end of your gestation, but rather a Facebook message from a high school friend describing a typical day in her life with a 6-month-old.


To wit:

Logistically, our work day goes like this: He has to be at work at 6AM, so we both get up at 5AM so that I have time to take a shower before he leaves (so that he can be on Baby Watch in case she wakes up). He goes on to work, and I get housework done...unload the dishwasher, do laundry, wash bottles, feed the cats, stuff like that, and also finish getting ready for work. Baby usually wakes up around 6:30, so I'll change her and feed her, and if I still have housework to do I'll lug her around with me from room to room and put her in her swing or play gym thing.

Then I play with her until we leave (around 8) and take her to his parents and get to work by 8:30. He gets off at 3, so he picks her up and brings her home and tries to get her to take a nap. I get home around 5:30, and if she's not asleep, I play with her while he cooks dinner. Then we take turns playing with her while the other one eats, or if we get REALLY lucky she will mellow out in her swing and we can eat together.

Then he will play with her while I clean up the dinner mess and get her bath stuff together, then we both give her a bath. After the bath, we alternate nights giving her a bottle and putting her to bed while the other one cleans up the bath mess. By that point it's usually 8:30 or 9, so I get in bed and read for a bit and then I go to sleep. On weekend days we take turns letting each other sleep in.

Sure, reading her email now — when it pretty much mirrors my actual life — is about as heart-poundingly "so what" as an iTunes software update, but then, still easily two months away from giving birth, I read it to my husband in a kind of slow-motion confusion like it was some kind of crazy talk mega buzz-harsher. The conversation that followed was about as mature as two stoners discussing the concept of having to, like, work.

"Naaaaaah," we razzed. "That's just, like, THEIR baby and stuff. And like, you don't have to, like — it's not, like, EVERY SECOND. I mean, like, it IS, right? But, you know, you can still, like, DO STUFF for, like, a SECOND, right?"

Guess who has two thumbs and never hung around kids her whole life? This gal. If only someone had stepped in with a wet sock in hand for a bit of the what-for.

Yes, I knew I'd change diapers and lose sleep, and there'd be messy feeding times and lots of crying — I'm not a total wildebeest — but while totally obvious in retrospect, it doesn't quite sink in with complete gravity until it's happening to you that you will probably never have consecutive seconds of free time ever again. Or at least for the first few years of the baby's life.


For some people, those first few years can't end soon enough. In last weekend's Times, Gina Bellafante asked whether Manhattan single mother Xiao Xu Wu, who was arrested after she slipped out of her Connecticut hotel room on a recent Tuesday to hit the slots while her 5-year-old son napped, is as egregious as everyone seems to reflexively think.

Yes, you can't leave a kid alone, even for a second — every idiot knows that. But then you become a parent and you find yourself in a bona fide seconds deficit. Suddenly, you're constantly assessing which seconds are OK seconds to leave your kid alone and which seconds are not OK seconds. Need to take a shower before work? OK seconds. In a rush at the grocery store? Not OK seconds.


Luckily, nothing terrible happened to the casino kid during the alleged 3,600 seconds he was unsupervised. Somewhat hilariously, he awoke from the nap, then called the police to calmly let them know he was by himself and watching a little TV.

Bellafante makes the solid point here that one person's idea of a reasonable solution when it comes to child supervision is clearly another's raving lunacy, since in New York, there are parents who use baby monitors on the reg to visit neighbors across the hall while their little one sleeps, even taking the devices as far away as two city blocks to have a glass of wine at a neighborhood bar.


But that's not exactly the same thing as locking up an unmonitored, napping kid to hit the jack black table with no apparent contingency plan. Who knows what Wu was really thinking — it sounds like she was just trying to make a buck. But it's hard to believe anyone's picture-perfect parenting image involves spending an afternoon explaining Texas Hold Em to a kindergartner.

Nonetheless, we all know the cultural subtext behind cautionary tales like this one: There are good mothers and bad mothers, and whatever lies in between is, like, waaayy too many hard thoughts to figure out, dude.


But of course, the truth lies somewhere in between. I know a funny, caring mother who took a quick shower one afternoon only to realize upon getting out that her 4-year-old had let herself out the front door and run down the street to play with friends. The kid was fine, the mother was shaken up, and yes, grabbing a quick shower is no one-hour gambling spree, but the universe doesn't care what the seconds are for.

We mock helicopter parenting, but where do we draw the line here? What if it was your 7-year-old letting himself into his own house after school for two hours, while waiting for you to get home from work? Letting your 9-year-old take the subway by himself? Leaving a 2-year old to play in her room while you dash down to check on the laundry in the common area of your apartment? What if you run up the street for 8 minutes for coffee while your 10-month old naps?


I can say with unassailable authority that many inexperienced parents (ahem, me) find that they are probably not really prepared for exactly how many seconds of their time a baby takes up the first few years of its life. The answer is all of them. It takes up all of the seconds. I think this is more of a logistical issue than a moral one.

It's also a relative one. I have a partner to help me parent, contribute money, time and judgment calls to our enterprise. Therefore, I have someone to help me cope with the loss of seconds. Someone to help me get them back. I don't know how people figure this stuff out when any of the pieces of that puzzle are missing. It's hard enough when they are all in place.


And that's not a pity thing, it's a reality thing. We continue to expect mothers, single or otherwise, to have boundless, selfless attention trained on their children no matter what, juggle a career, a personal weight loss goal, a beauty regimen and still feel like sucking a dick every now and then. Did I forget to ask you how good of a friend you've been lately now that you're a mom? You've been missing some pretty important primetime TV, too, come to think of it.

I'm not a casino mom apologist or anything — although Wu sounds more desperate to me than malicious, and is therefore somewhat sympathetic to me. I just understand about the seconds. But one thing I do know is that parenting is an endless series of tiny little judgments that are all about measuring risk, and that the second you step foot inside this labyrinth, you must immediately surrender the coveted aerial view. Also, I suspect that a 5-year-old probably has a killer poker face. Just sayin'.


Tracy Moore is a writer living in Los Angeles. She knows when to fold ‘em.

Photo illustration by Jim Cooke, photos by Photography Perspectives - Jeff Smith and Zurijeta/ Shutterstock



This reminds me of something that happened a few weeks ago. I went to the bathroom in a coffee place, there were a few stalls and in front of one stall was a stroller with a small baby in it. Just when I had pulled my pants down, I heard the other woman having trouble unlocking the door, and then she started to scream: is there anyone here, I can't get out! And I was like, wait a second, I have to hike up my pants and then I come and help you. And she was panicking and screaming for her baby, and I was trying to calm her down, your baby is fine, she is still in her stroller, she is not crying. By the time I was out of my stall, she had managed to unlock hers, and was crying inconsolably. She was quite young, and I was just rubbing her back that everything was alright, and she had done nothing unsafe. I felt so sorry for her! I was almost in tears myself.