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The Yes/No Game

Before bedtime every night, my younger son asks me if we can play the Yes/No Game to determine what books I will be reading him. This “game” consists entirely of him yelling “yes” or “no” from his top bunk while I read out various titles from his bookshelf.

He doesn’t realize­ — as I am skimming the shelves and shouting names like some sort of wild KidLit Bingo caller — that he’s receiving a curated version of what’s actually on the shelf. Like any wise parent, forced to read the same drivel night after night, I’m only offering up books that I actually want to read.

Some of his favorites are actually great titles, books that I smugly purchased and he actually requests. No Kimchee For Me, Last Stop on Market Street, the Klassen hat trilogy…I will read these books all night, every night. But it’s the impossible read-alouds that haunt my dreams: a book that I’m pretty sure is just a list of all the bad guys from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their weaponry; a choose-your-own adventure multi-plot tome about dragons attending a carnival that never actually ends (the carnival and the book); Where’s Waldo? (how you can actually read this aloud, who knows; ironically the book itself is now “lost” somewhere); and worst of all…National Audubon Society Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: North America.

It’s thick. It’s green. It’s a thousand pages long. It’s a FIELD GUIDE TO REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS.

Perhaps you'd be interested to hear about the eastern glass lizard, which is actually more like a snake. Or maybe you’d just like to look at thirty glossy photos featuring varieties of the common toad. Short paragraph descriptions of creatures accompany dry text about their habitats and geographic locations! Where does it begin and where does it end? How is this not boring? And most importantly, how much of this do I have to read in order for it to qualify as a bedtime story?!

This is not what I signed up for.

As a child, when I fantasized about parenting (what a weird sentence to write, but it’s totally true) I pictured myself tucking my two daughters (Samantha and Victoria, natch) into bed in matching nightgowns. They would listen quietly and adoringly while I read aloud favorites from my childhood, which they too, automatically would love. A Little Princess, Ozma of Oz, Understood Betsy. (#VictorianOrphansJustNotDickens)

It’s a far cry from the scene at bedtime here, which currently involves two boys playing some kind of stuffed animal racing game while wearing underwear on their heads. I’m yelling vague threats about non-brushed teeth, already dreading the evening’s read-aloud choices. How did this happen? I love books! I am a Book Person! A Children’s Book Person, even! I believe that everyone (especially kids) should read whatever they want, even if it’s what I consider garbage! Field guides are not actual garbage, so why can’t I get over this?

Should I feel guilty about hiding books simply because I can’t bear to get through them yet again? (Along with Waldo above, other titles to receive this special treatment include Does It Fart? and anything by Robert McCloskey — SORRY!!!). Or be concerned about my special talent for being able to zone out while reading aloud, thus arriving at the end of a book with no idea of how I got there or what actually happened? (Shout-out to 1995!)

I’m going with: no. I can’t feel bad about having limits. However you shake it, parenting is not what you thought it was going to be. We all generally roll with the punches as best we can. But you are also allowed to say no to a request (or hide the book and say “I can’t find it!”). There are nights we don’t read at all, or by the time I get to my older son I’m so tired and beaten down that I fall asleep in his bed while he’s reading to himself. Sometimes I play them lullabies on my phone so I can go start dinner. Insert shrug emoji here! I’m not detailing these things because I’m proud of them, but I don’t view them as failures either.

On the flip side, there are nights when I have endless patience. And people have brushed their teeth, and are not chasing each other with a spatula, and gotten in bed without being asked five hundred times. These are the nights when the Field Guide doesn’t seem like a burden. It seems fun and funny, and I have to laugh when they correct my inevitable mispronunciation of anole. They are their own people, with their own interests — and as it turns out, that is actually the very best part of all of this.

Sarah Howard Parker

Sarah Howard Parker is a writer and actress living in London. Her writing has appeared on Boston.com and The Awl. She blogs (infrequently) about karaoke at karaokeadvice.tumblr.com.

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