Every year since she was old enough to understand the concept of time, my eldest child—who now is 7—has asked to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. Every year, I say yes. And every year, I am lying.
Starting as soon as she goes to bed on Dec. 30 and continuing throughout the following day, I start moving all the clocks forward, little by little. I had to get stealthier once she learned to tell time, but I still do it, and by 8:55 p.m. on New Year’s Eve every visible clock in the house is either hidden or set to 11:55 p.m.
“It’s time!” I yell, and she and her younger brother run to the television, where I have put on either the live Times Square countdown on CNN (we live in California) or one of the many fake New Year’s countdowns that Netflix graciously provides to perfidious parents.
We count down from 10. We scream, toot horns, and hug. My daughter says something like “I stayed up so late!” and I say something like “I know! I can’t believe it!” And then I put my children to bed, my husband and I pour ourselves a drink, and we sit on the couch and talk to each other like adults for three hours, until it is actually midnight.
It’s great! Everyone wins. We ring in the new year as a family, my husband and I get quiet time together, and for days into the new year, my eldest goes around boasting about how late she stayed up, and I smile and think to myself: Ha.
Of course I realize this is outright fraud. It’s a manipulative distortion of a child’s reality. It’s almost literally an example of gaslighting, just substituting digital clocks for lamps.
But, hear me out: Three hundred and sixty-four days a year—365, in leap years—I try my best to live by the principle that children are more likely to grow into adults capable of honesty and compassion if they are raised with the same. That means being ready with age-appropriate but factual answers when they look up over their Cheerios before school to ask where babies come from. It means listening when they have a hard day or are frightened by something they’ve heard on the news. It’s making them feel safe in the moment, while also doing the necessary work of helping them understand that the world can be a complicated place.
And it’s fucking exhausting. It doesn’t make it easier that my eldest has the soul of a real estate mogul, and has never met a limit she won’t at least try to negotiate, every single time she encounters it. She hates going to bed. She’s also beginning to realize that her parents’ knowledge is shockingly finite, and thus is constantly probing for weak spots to try to figure out how much we don’t know. She makes up riddles until she finds one that stumps us, quizzes us during dinner prep or toddler wrangling until we stumble on our words. A family is a kid’s world, and they need to know exactly how strong the system is and how safe they can trust it to keep them.
The other day I was sorting laundry when she asked, “Have you ever thought about inflatable pants?” I had to admit that I hadn’t, and she gave me this look. It’s a look I know I’m going to see a lot more of in the next few years, a look that is both triumphant (inflatable pants would be awesome) and disgusted (inflatable pants would be awesome, and you haven’t even bothered to think about them?) and a little anxious (what else are you overlooking?).
This, I find, is one of the hardest parts of being a parent. However many questions you answer, there will always be one that you can’t. Inflatable pants don’t even exist yet (for humans) and she’s already unimpressed that I don’t know about them.
So yeah. I need those three extra hours at the end of the year. I need them because I’m tired, and I need them because the questions are going to get harder from here. And I need them so that when I see that withering look, I can remember the times she was a little girl boasting “See? I CAN stay up til midnight!” as I tucked her into bed at 9:15 p.m.
And I will smile, and I’ll think: Ha.