I love television. I always have. I love to talk about TV with friends, I love to rewatch shows I haven’t seen in years, and now with services like Hulu and Netflix, I love catching up on shows I missed the first time around. I don’t usually have much time for TV, but while recovering from a C-section this past February, I watched almost the whole 10-year run of “How I Met Your Mother” while caring for my newborn. Hundreds of episodes, probably.
I can’t believe I just told you all that. Because I love TV, but boy, do I feel guilty about it. Whenever I am watching, I always feel that I should be working, or cleaning the house, or exercising, or pre-cooking healthy meals for my family to be pulled out of the freezer at a moment’s notice, or, or, or… you get the idea.
For better and for worse, I have used TV as a method of self-care, distraction, and procrastination for decades. It’s not as destructive as drugs or gambling, I know, but it isn’t exactly virtuous either.
So before I had kids I figured I could spare them the lifelong struggle of avoiding or limiting TV by just never, ever letting them see it. If they never understood the seductive pleasure of zoning out in front of a good TV show, I figured they would find other, more wholesome, better ways to unwind. Maybe they would find the same pleasure in cleaning that I find in “The Cosby Show.”
For the first year of my oldest son’s life, that plan went pretty well. I would cover his eyes when we passed a restaurant with a TV. Once on a flight, I covered our whole row of in-seat TV screens with a blanket (even though they were also turned off) so he wouldn’t see even a moment of television.
Then, right before his 1st birthday, my son had an allergic reaction to an antibiotic and ended up with a week’s worth of painful, migrating red blotches all over his body. It wasn’t a life-threatening situation, but he couldn’t play. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t pretty.
I plunked him on the couch. I turned on Elmo. Of course, he loved it. It distracted him from his discomfort, it entertained him, it delighted him. Maybe it even taught him something, but I doubted it. I felt guilty that he wasn’t using this time in more productive, active, educational ways.
After that, there was a little TV in his life. Twenty minutes of “Sesame Street” or other PBS offerings was how I got ready many mornings, and though it didn’t seem to hurt him, I didn’t feel right about it.
Then, that following summer, when my son was 18 months old, my mother died. It was just one week after I had been in town with him to visit her. Her health hadn’t been good for years, but to me her death felt sudden, mean, overwhelming, and unexpected.
Mourning my mother, a complicated and at times very difficult woman, got me to thinking about the choices we all make, and parenting, and my own childhood. There was some anger, but I also kept thinking about how much happiness my mother and brother and I had shared watching movies we kids were way too young to see, stand-up comedy with way too many bad words for little guys to hear, and reruns of 70s shows like “M*A*S*H*” and “Night Court” and “The Facts of Life.”
The three of us would discuss and debate the merits of and references within a range of TV and movies. My brother and I would act out scenes, memorize dialogue, and entertain our mother with what must have been unintentionally hilarious renditions of, let’s call them, “mature” George Carlin routines. Once I remembered those nights with some shame–so lazy, I thought. Why hadn’t my mother cared enough to do more with us, I judged.
Now, I think of those moments as genuinely joyous ones, and I am grateful that they somehow remain vivid in my mind 30 years later.
The year after my mother died I came to this only-half-joking realization: In my view, it is entirely possible that TV is one of the best, most pleasurable things that humanity has ever created. And if that is true for me, then who am I to keep this pleasure from my kids?
So now, my 3.5-year-old watches some TV. I don’t feel bad about it in the slightest. Losing my mother taught me that, for me, parenting is not just about laying the foundation for the grownups I hope my kids will someday become, it also has to be about helping my kids find all the happiness around them in the world, and appreciate it while we are still here.
I can’t protect them from the cruelty and loss the world surely has in store for them. I can try to expose them to things I value and want for them, but I cannot mold them into the fantasy adult I wish I had become. They are going to have to figure out who they are, and who they wish they were, and most importantly, how to make peace with the gap between those two things, just like the rest of us. If, somehow, “Day of the Diesels” gives my kid 45 minutes of joy in the midst of all this, then, great. As my mother would have said, and as Mel Brooks immortalized in one of her favorites, “Blazing Saddles,”–“Luzem gayen.”
Let it go.