I’m not sure when it happened, but playpens went out of style. I know I rolled around in one when I was an infant (there are plenty of photos) but at some point either someone injured themselves or it collapsed on a child and there went all the playpens. Today we have Pack ‘n Plays, which aren’t really the same thing. For one, they’re much smaller and they don’t have the fun jail-like bars for the baby to practice pulling up on. Today’s mesh sides are hard to see through and a little claustrophobic, but they’re all we have. (Unless you want to invest in a very expensive moveable gate system that seems like it would take forever to put together—and where the heck do you store it?)
My son is a toddler now. That means that if you turn your back on him for sixty seconds he will have eaten hand cream, taken off his diaper, peed on the dog, and tossed all the wine bottles from the wine cabinet on the floor. I can’t take my eyes off of him. Anyone who homeschools knows you need your eyes focused on teaching and not on the small Tasmanian Devil creature destroying everything in his path. I tried gating him in a “safe-room” to play. He stood at the gate and screamed (or screeched, in what I imagine is exactly the way a terrifying pterodactyl would sound right before grabbing you for dinner). So my only other option was the Pack ‘n Play.
I moved it into the room I was in and plopped him in it with his toys, some pillows, and a bottle and went about my business. He didn’t like it, although the screaming wasn’t as bad as the gated room scenario, so I ignored it. Pretty soon he was sitting and playing with toys and having the time of his life in there and I could go into the basement and change the laundry without worrying that he was going to pull a dresser over on his head or drown in the toilet. (And no, I do not put locks on the toilet. Can you imagine fumbling with that at 2 a.m.? Just, no.)
But a strange thing happened when I came “out” about my love of the playpen on social media. My friends split into two camps: “playpen moms” and “free range moms.” The free-rangers thought it was TERRIBLE that I would put my kid in a playpen and said I should let him out immediately, as if his being in there was akin to letting him lick a subway seat! This is stifling, they said. He needs room, they said. The playpen moms raised a glass and toasted another mom joining their ranks. (My mother, by the way, is the original playpen mom. She’s got my back.)
I agree that toddlers need to roam and climb and all that stuff, but that can’t be all the time when Mama is teaching or cooking on a very hot stove or doing laundry. Toddlers are always—and I mean ALWAYS—trying to find new and inventive ways to kill themselves. (The other day I opened a 400-degree oven to take something out and my son, who had been clear across the house, launched himself at it like he was diving into a pool. I had to clothesline him with my right arm while I slammed it shut with my left. And then he sobbed because I wouldn’t cook him for dinner.) They are completely psychotic. They need a safe-zone. And no matter how well you baby proof your house, there are still dangers all around.
In a matter of a day and a half my son was happy and safe and playing on his own in his playpen whenever I needed him to, nowhere near a 400-degree oven. He asks to go in it now and likes his cozy spot that’s just for him.
So to you free-rangers out there, I admire your guts, but I’m sticking with my playpen strategy until the suicidal stage has passed.