I’ve been on the couch for a week. Our daughter, who has about 400 teeth coming through, isn’t sleeping. This in itself isn’t unusual; she has never, in fact, slept.
Although we have been coping remarkably well in this fugue state somewhere between insanity and exhaustion, the dream of a good night’s sleep now taunts us to distraction.
So in a desperate attempt of achieving that dream, I’m on the couch. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Sure, being in a comfortable bed with my wife would be preferable, but these days we have to stay optimistic. It’s like a sleepover!
A lonely sleepover that never ends.
Last night, just after midnight, I sat in the blue light of the TV’s glow playing video games. But for the chronic back-pain and crippling financial anxieties I could be 16 again. I was busy tending to my beloved horse in Red Dead Redemption 2. Cleaning him, brushing his mane, feeding him oatcakes and carrots, you know . . . just like a real horse. It occurred to me then that as a 35-year-old man with two children and a case of sleep-deprivation verging on the clinical, this probably isn’t the best way to be spending my time.
Wasting time when you’re young isn’t a problem. What else are you going to do with it? I have been playing video games almost my entire life. It has been a pleasure and a privilege experiencing the monumental advances in the industry, taking me from the 16-bit thrills of Streets of Rage to swinging through a stunning and fully-realised Manhattan in the latest Spiderman. I genuinely love playing these games. But if I’m being completely honest, and it pains me to say this, they are starting to feel like a waste of time. Again, when you’re young, who cares? Go nuts! You have all the time in the world!
But when you become a parent, that sweet, precious time is in short supply.
The concept of “free time” for a stay-at-home parent is a slippery one. When you are in school, your free time is usually time spent out of school. When you are in work, your free time is usually time spent out of work. But what is free time when you are a stay-at-home parent? Time away from your kids? That doesn’t feel quite right. That sounds like something I’d feel guilty about. How about “personal time”? Ah, personal time. It’s perfect. Fresh, contemporary, with subtle undertones of self-care; personal time is a term we can all get behind.
There are times my wife takes the kids out for an afternoon and I experience this new-fangled personal time. Five hours of blissful emptiness
Nothing says “I desperately need time away from my kids, but I don’t explicitly want to say that because some people will mistakenly take it to mean I don’t like spending time with my kids, which I do, I just need a break” like personal time.
There are times my wife takes the kids out for an afternoon and I experience this new-fangled personal time. Five hours of blissful emptiness stretch out before me. The possibilities are endless. How did I ever take this time (glorious time!) for granted?
I stand in the suddenly silent house, and for a moment I am no longer the parent; I am the teenager left at home for the weekend. Where to start? Tell you what, let’s have a nice cold beer and listen to music. There’s football on at three, so I might stick that on. Hmm . . . the floor really needs a wash. So do the windows, for that matter. I could get started on a nice slow-cook dinner. Then finally start that book? Practise guitar? Before you know it an hour has passed simply pottering. Now, I like pottering as much as the next guy, but I’m running out of time here. I need to do something!
Psychologists have a term for this behaviour: “overchoice”, or “choice overload”. We think we want more choice, but too much choice often cripples our ability to choose.
My relationship with video games now sits at this crossroads between choice and time. On the one hand, I still find them relaxing and entertaining. After a hard day they have the power to reset my brain. On the other, they are entirely unproductive (there it is – the most parenty thing I’ve ever said).
There is something else to consider: do I want my children to play video games? I'm sure they will find their own unique ways to waste time. Perhaps if they see their dad playing video games they'll see it as monumentally uncool and steer well clear. Or maybe when they're older we could have video game nights. Order a pizza, everyone on the couch playing Mario Party. That sounds like a lot of fun.
But for now they are oblivious. I might have another year or two before I decide whether or not to keep up this beautiful folly.
In the meantime, I have just opened a raucous speakeasy in Red Dead Online, and this virtual moonshine isn’t going to serve itself.
God help me.