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parenting: an escape room you can never escape
great for teambuilding!
You jolt awake in a groggy haze. It is dark and a baby is crying.
It is 343am and your baby is crying and crying and CRYING you’re up and you’re confused didn’t you just do this? Doesn’t matter cause it started again your wife looks at you bleary eyed so you say “I got it.”
Tiptoe over to the bassinet and pick up The Bundle aka The Child aka Your Angel Joy Light Moon Stars who is, at this point, screaming like his life depends on it because, well, it sort of does.
Stumble out of the room and trip over a "The Happiest Baby On The Block" book. That wasn’t there an hour ago was it? Walking into the living room you panic - should you have grabbed the book? There might be a clue in there. Can’t turn back though, time is running out time is always running out.
Escape Room (noun) - an experience in which people are locked in an enclosed space requiring them to solve a series of puzzles using secret clues before time runs out.
Parenting (noun) - an experience in which people are locked in an enclosed space requiring them to solve a series of puzzles using secret clues before time runs out.
You’re currently in the Put Baby To Sleep room where ‘getting out’ means getting the baby back to sleep and ‘before time runs out’ means either the baby dies or you do, whichever comes first. Having solved this room on three separate occasions already tonight, you know the space well, but remember - no two solutions are ever the same. Good luck!
First you try burping him - it worked last time, why wouldn’t it work now? A few solid pats on back, a big ol’ burp and he should be back to sleep no problem. Right?
Wrong. Not this time. This time the burping just makes him more agitated more crying more everything.
Your wife opens the bedroom door - she is awake. There's tension between the two of you after yesterday's Breastfeeding Escape Room. The baby refused to drink both breast milk and formula so she tried to give him water until you googled "how much water to give a newborn" and learned that water could poison a baby. At least that’s what the results seemed to say in your sleep deprived state.
You pass off the baby and go look for clues, for a side challenge to solve, to still make yourself useful somehow or maybe punch a pillow when you remember the instructions given at the beginning of every escape room: “Everything you need will be easily accessible in the room; you do NOT need to break anything, climb through the ceiling, tear down the wallpaper, etc. If you are using force, you are doing it wrong.”
You're starving and, even though it feels shameful to feed yourself when the baby is crying, you make a lil tortilla and turkey wrap. Much like your baby, you too are visibly falling apart and, unlike your wife, you are unable to delay satisfying these needs for even a second. You worry this will make your wife consider doing the escape room with someone else, but this is not a helpful thought so you focus again on the baby who your wife is currently shushing, trying to soothe, comforting in his little swaddle and - wait. That's it!
The swaddle - maybe its wrapped too tight? Or maybe when you swaddled him up for bedtime, you left a big tube of diaper cream inside his onesie which is a real thing that happened a few days ago like you actually you unswaddled the baby and there in between his legs was a big ol tube of Aquafor.
Gently grab the baby from your wife, place him onto the changing table, and unswaddle the swaddle. Dang it, no Aquafor.
Check the diaper itself which can only be reached by first unbuttoning the onesie aka one of the hardest puzzles in the entire room. It seems easy, just a few buttons on either side of his little body but NO. For some reason the creators have made buttoning it back up IMPOSSIBLE like defusing a bomb by cutting the right wires except in this case all the wires’ are the same color and are just dumb little snap buttons.
Give up on remembering how the onesie works and open the diaper to see what your nose has already foretold - shit. Baby shit which according to the doctors is best described as “greenish-black, tarry, sticky poop that resembles motor oil.” Half joking but half seriously consider using the motor oil poop to fuel your out-of-gas car and escape this room for good but remember that you’d then forever be stuck in the Endless Shame Room so decide to stay. Hoorah!
But this is good - you’ve seen this before, this is easy and you know what to do: just clean the tar poo up and put on a new diap-oh wait, this isn’t a normal poop this is what you've heard of from other parents' escape rooms is a very special add-on experience called The Blowout™ where he shat out the back of the diaper and all over his back and clothes and, wait a second, your hands are covered in shit too. People pay real money for escape rooms!
What you’re going through at this point can be best described as a near death experience. Which is also exactly how the baby feels.
Take a deep breath and remember - you got this. You are confident and loving and - yep, he just started pissing all over you.
Parenting: a series of escape rooms you can never escape.
This is your life now, stumbling in a sleep deprived stupor from escape room to escape room back to the first room again. Since he's a newborn, the rooms are still fairly simple: Put Baby To Sleep, Wake Baby Up, Make Sure Baby Is Still Breathing, etc.
Even when it doesn't seem like you are in an escape room, you are. You hear crying when there is no crying. You smell poop when there is no poop. You are Pavlov's parent, unable to fully relax for even a second without thinking, fearing, obsessing over the many rooms you may be in at this very second.
What about date night, you wonder - this is true freedom is it not? Nay, because all you can think about is the baby. How is he doing is he sleeping is the babysitter going to lose him at the supermarket or harvest his organs or?
Not to mention the ritualistic practice of looking through his photos omg he is so cute and so good especially when he is far away from us. The irony is not lost on you both, the two prisoners set free who beg for a swift return to their entrapment.
Then Something Different Happens
The newborn becomes a toddler as you bounce from rooms as varied as Sleep Training to Make Sure The Babysitter Thinks You’re Cool to Befriend The Other Parents At The Playground to Potty Training to Get Off A Daycare Waitlist. He’s about a year old now, and all of a sudden something altogether different happens.
There you are, halfway through the Time for Solid Foods room - he’s refused all foods, escaped his high chair, and is now running around the kitchen screaming and falling and screaming and then all of a sudden: he plops down on his butt.
He plops and starts scooting his way inch by inch toward the door. He started the scooting recently after realizing it’s easier to exit the side door into the yard if he scoots toward the edge first. Now he scoots everywhere.
What’s wild about this moment is how far away from the door he is when he plops down. We’re talking like three feet minimum which means he won’t get to the door for a solid six minutes.
There you are, watching him scoot scoot scooting, slow and steady, when you forget yourself entirely, lost in a trance - there is no escaping this dumb dumb, ridiculous, perfect thing. You capture footage of the scoot:
These moments start to happen more and more. You’ll be stressing through a Don’t Walk Into The Street And Die room and he’ll start stomping through a little puddle, in and out, giggling and screaming like a psycho, overjoyed and begging not to go because look dad: puddle.
Or when, right in the middle of a particularly bad Slamming His Head Against Stuff To See If You React room, he will all of a sudden give you a kiss. Like a full mwah sound lips making contact with your cheek kiss and you scream “did you just give me a kiss” and he gives your wife one too and it makes all the pain of the rooms melt away. What the fuck does it matter that your life in shambles when your child has given you an actual kiss?
A strange feeling starts to creep in, hazy yet bright: despite yourself and all that is logical in the world, you realize that maybe you don’t want to escape? Maybe you’re starting to love the room? Maybe being stuck here in this room is the best thing that’s ever happened to you?
What is family if not this - a series of escape rooms you no longer wish to escape.
You remember that escape rooms are an actual thing that people pay actual money to attend. Escape rooms are a 900 million dollar a year business. Why subject yourself to a timed test of panic, stress and often horror? Because people want to feel things, even if they are hard and scary and nearly impossible.
It makes sense, you realize, that you must feel the impossible horrors of sleep deprivation for months so you may then be cleansed in the holy water of the scoot.
You try to think of a game that best describes these moments - an opposite to the escape room - but none come. Because these little explosions of joy do not feel like a game - quite the opposite, actually. These brief interludes feel infinite, psychedelic even, and much like a great trip, you have trouble finding the words. It is no coincidence, you think, that babies seem like they are on an acid trip that never ends.
Games are played to win, but not this. The goal here is simpler: to keep the game going. To keep playing.1
Slow Down There Pal
These realizations, while great and sweet like healthy honey, are still the exception to the rule. Most of the time, like 98% of the time, you’re still trudging through escape rooms, one after the other after the next.
Take today, for example, as you find yourself in an Impossible Mode room. The setup is insane- you, your wife, and your baby all have COVID. You all try to sleep but there’s thunderstorms all night which makes your dog Robert lose his shit and when you send him outside to pee he almost gets attacked by a skunk. The skunk’s smell fills your house as you realize Robert has pooped on the floor and is now ALSO SCOOTING ACROSS THE FLOOR WHICH IS A TRULY COSMIC JOKE. You clean up his poop and sleep for an hour, tops, until the next day when LA is hot as balls (95 degrees) and your AC stops working and remember, you still all have COVID.
Things are still insane tonight when, as you’re putting him down to sleep, he yawns. And this yawn is the cutest sound you have ever heard - so high pitched and quiet like a baby dinosaur’s whisper scream emanating from his little body in the most perfect tenor, a melody tuned perfectly to create inside of you a sense of ease, of peace, of infinity.
You walk back into the bedroom in peace and try to sleep when you hear your wife yawn in the exact same way and you realize that these yawns are everywhere, all the time, you’ve just been missing them, too busy trying to ‘beat the room’ whatever that means. You then yawn yourself and hot dog listen to that - your yawn sounds that way too. Have all yawns sounded this cool before and you just didn’t ever realize?
Right at that moment you pledge to spend less time in the escape rooms and more time in the infinite, less time in the - wait.
He’s crying again. Wailing. Thrashing and - yep, he just threw up like a college freshman after his first keg stand except the keg is full of Vitamin D Whole Milk. You rush back into his room which reeks of milky vom and, having forgotten all the great wonderful stuff you just realized, once more, try to escape the room.
ADDENDUM: What you don’t notice
There’s one more thing. A little something that you won’t realize until it’s far too late: according to doctors and scientists alike, it is at the precise moment when you stop trying to escape that your child will begin their escape from the room.
Though it may not be obvious for another ten or so years, your son’s mind and body have begun to conspire in leaving the room that is your household and charging out into that brief part of life where one is beholden to nothing, to nobody, the world a wide expanse of rolling hills and music festivals, improv classes and first dances (are the kids still grinding? Actually don't worry about it best you don’t know.)
The room stays the same, the person trying to escape changes. In other words, you are no longer the hero of the story.
So what part will you play? At best you become one of those escape room support characters dressed like a zombie that pop out of a hidden wall in the escape room and freak you out / give you clues. At worst you are the villain the room’s central lore is built around:
(Cryptkeeper from Tales from the Crypt voice) “you’ve been trapped in this room for 18 years and these people have made you feel so good and so loved that you might never want to leave. Escape the room at all costs!”
No matter what path you take, your child won’t be happy about it. Remember how mad you got at your parents? Yea it’ll be like that but worse because it’s about you. This process of individuation always ends the same - the kid escapes and yet he does not escape. Because of your parental clawing and fighting and begging and screaming for them to stay, the child will forever stay tethered to you and the room that is your family aka the family room (heh).
So he will enter the world still playing by your rules, your fears, the little picadillos that make you you. But if you’re lucky, and you will be, he will also be able to see the infinite game of life a little easier, a little more often. And that, too, is because of you.
Who knows, maybe he will even write an essay all about it as a way to express what is too hard to say directly - that when you always told him “you’ll only understand when you have kids” you weren’t talking about spilling coke on the carpet or wearing a coat even though its warm or gargling with Listerine for when you have a cold which makes no sense2 but about something else entirely.
About the infinite, that revolving door of family, escaping and staying and escaping a new and, since that essay may start to sound a lil too heady, he will end the essay with something simpler, a message right back to you that says: I love you, and I understand.
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You may perhaps even realize too that your obsession with winning the finite games of life - work, status, money, etc - is the very reason why you’ve been trying to understand this entire process of childrearing as a series of escape rooms in the first place. As if they are something to win, to beat, to escape, to free yourself from. But who would ever want to free themselves from the puddle dance? (also big ups to James Carses’ book Finite and Infinite Games for this model of thinking about games).
Since you know that your mom will contest this claim, prepare receipts to show that she is wrong aka Listerine’s own website that says “LISTERINE® mouthwash is only intended to be used to help prevent common oral health problems like bad breath, plaque, cavities, gingivitis and tooth stains. LISTERINE® mouthwash is not intended to be gargled in the throat, but rather, swished in the mouth.”