The Exquisite Boredom of Vacation With a Toddler

Photo: Blake Fitch/Corbis

My daughter, Zelda, has been out of school for almost two weeks, which means we — her father and I — have full charge of her for 12 hours a day. No work gets done; nothing gets cleaned. I dress in the dark, randomly throwing on the same thing I wore the day before. Of course, I also chose the break to begin reading the addictive novels of Elena Ferrante. I’ve clawed my way through three of them, desperate for hours to myself that I know I have no right to want. I don’t feel guilty about that.

It’s a truth known only to parents that the days on the calendar that the childless look forward to will be, for us, at worst near-disasters, and at best long periods of intense but cherished boredom. Weekends, vacations, and the holidays are, for parents, not days for sleeping in and relaxation, but a deviation from the norm in an arguably worse way: Nannies go to their families for much-deserved time off; day-care centers and schools shut down. This is most deeply felt at the end of the year, when schools are often closed for weeks. Parents — especially parents of the very young, parents with jobs who work hard all year long — find, in their time off, that their adorable and ever-demanding spawn didn’t get the memo about relaxation.

We’re often left with weird options: We can go to that late-night end-of-the-year party, sure, a babysitter can be procured, but tomorrow will still come at 7 a.m., and the little one doesn’t know or care that we stayed out well past midnight. This is why most parents I know, in the earliest years of their child’s life, simply don’t bother much of the time. Hey, let’s cozy up on the couch and chew through a few seasons of Murder, She Wrote in the evening instead. Deal?

There is, of course, an inherent ease to this way of living: no need to dress up, no need to go out and socialize. So if, like me, you were already a homebody to begin with, having a child can become one of life’s greatest excuses.

But still, long stretches of “vacation” or even a three-day weekend can feel a bit grueling. On the one hand, you get to spend more time with your adorable kid, whom you love. On the other, a few days in, especially in winter when going to the playground or just taking a walk involves wrestling with endless layers and equipment, you will find yourself running out of ideas.

A full “off” day with my daughter, who is almost 2, goes something like this: She wakes up around 8 a.m. She gets dressed and toots around in her room adjusting to being awake for a bit. Then she has breakfast, and I get my coffee. We wash up her face and hands, wipe the crumbs off the dog, and I look at the clock — 8:30 a.m. already? We play. She talks to her doll. We sit at her little toddler-size table. She wanders around, telling me “sit!” here or “sit, please!” there. It sounds like “chit, peas.”

I play some music and shoot videos of her being cute until she starts asking for my phone, when I stow it away. We draw or paint. If we paint, that means tarping a huge area, stripping her nearly nude — it’s at least an investment of an hour. I steal another look at the time. If I’m wearing my watch and glance at it, we inevitably kill another ten minutes with Zelda trying to put my watch on her own tiny wrist. It’s 10:30 a.m. We start to think about lunch (also known as my breakfast). We go outside and refill the bird feeders, and then she stands on a stool by the window looking at them, munching on an orange or an apple, speaking words I still don’t understand much of the time. I steam her vegetables or put water on for pasta. She eats around noon, and she sleeps around 12:30 or so. She usually sleeps for about an hour and a half.

While she sleeps, sometimes, I sleep. But during the holiday, I work. Her nap time is the only work time I have every day. I type away, squeezing in as much work as I can. I read my email. I wash my face and put on whatever makeup seems acceptable in case we leave the premises at some point and go into the world. I rush around like a lunatic, knowing there will never be enough time. I pay bills or blog. I listen to the voice-mails I missed during the morning.

When she wakes up, at 1:30 or two, we have just six more hours to kill, having fun and being together. If my husband is here, we share all of these hours, much of it as a team, sometimes not, one of us stealing away for a shower or a bit of work. Occasionally in the evening we resort to turning on the TV for five or ten minutes, which my daughter has deemed “Elmo.” I make dinner, or we go out to dinner, depending on our assessment of her mood. She gets a bath at 7:30, and at eight, we breathe deeply, and she sleeps. The next day is much the same. And the next, and the next, until “vacation” ends. There are variations on this theme: Sometimes we visit friends, or they visit us, or we go to museums.

Does it sound boring? Because it is, and more than that, it’s hard to have almost no time to oneself in the course of a 12-hour day. Doing “not much” can be exhausting. Of course, it is also fascinating, and each day is filled with tiny diamonds. In the past weeks alone Zelda’s vocabulary has tripled; she can say “almonds,” and “stop it,” “orange juice,” and “garbage.” She says “swing swing” to let us know when she wants to go to the playground. She has names for everyone in her small but growing circle of acquaintances. It is joyful to behold, if only you can be in the moment with her.

But there are so many moments! I could never have imagined myself spending hundreds or thousands of hours in such a way: not really doing much of anything. I’ve always been an incredibly busy person. I never used to get bored easily because, when faced with a day of nothing, I filled it by reading or sewing, baking or writing, playing solitaire, organizing my books and papers. Writing letters. Reading magazines.

You can’t really do much of that with a 2-year-old. Oh, she is beginning to master some basic baking techniques; she helps pour batter and stir cake mixes. But these basic activities — the ones I formerly did for “me time” — are now messy social activities. They’re fun, but they’re a different experience altogether from what I was used to.

It’s changing, though, slowly. I see that now, having spent almost two weeks at home with her this holiday. Zelda got, for Christmas, a large wooden train (choo choo) on a play table. She is in love with it, and I have found that some mornings, when she is focused and in a good mood, she will simply be content to know that I am sitting nearby, and is happy to play alone, to talk just to herself for 15 or 20 minutes.

And so, by chance, almost at random, I chose this break, like I said, to begin reading Ferrante’s novels. In the past week, I read for hours after she went to bed, but I also stole time when she was awake. It’s no wonder Ferrante’s novels have become so popular: They are page-turners, and I find myself drawn into them in a way I haven’t since before Zelda was born. I walk around the house, following my daughter, holding the book.

She knows it captures my attention: The other day she came toward me holding the fourth book. It was so heavy she could barely keep it in her hands. Finally, she set it at my feet. “Mama!” she said, pointing at it, the same way she does with my shoes, my coat, and my wallet. She wanted to let me know that she knows this object is mine. “Book,” I said. “Yes,” she said, which from her mouth comes out as “yesh.” She pointed at it again. “Book, Mama.” “I agree!” I said to her, bending down to pick it up. “No!” she squealed, laughing, picking up the book and running away from me. Gotcha. Not the time.

But squeezing my Ferrante or my Making a Murderer in — while she sleeps or plays in the other room with her father — reaffirms that I am, in fact, still part of the outside world: the larger one, not completely disconnected from my species by the distance of a toddler’s beckoning screams of excitement. Sure, most days I’m listening to Raffi, but I am, I remind myself in my stolen moments, still a complete human being even without my daughter, just like everybody else. Being normal is an important thing to hold on to, even if only tenuously.

I can tell those hours with her are to be treasured, that they’re small moments in a lifetime where she will mostly want to be away from me, doing her own thing, the way I sometimes want to be doing my own thing when I am with her. I try to remind myself of that. She is already so independent that she barely lets me help put on her shoes. Soon enough, she won’t want or need my constant, vigilant companionship. She’ll know not to eat her watercolors or dump water on the floor, and she won’t want me to “sit, please” near her every waking moment. Elena Ferrante is just going to have to wait. Until 8 p.m., anyway.