I had a solid grasp of time before I became a parent. I knew how to keep appointments, schedule my day, and meet deadlines. Time was my minion. It was just lying in wait to stage a coup, it turns out.
Once the babies arrived, it was all about the clock: mealtime, bath time, playtime, and blessed, blessed naptime. I had to schedule the day around those things, or we’d all pay the piper. My firstborn thrived on routine. She needed to know what was coming next and counted time in “how many sleeps” before the next activity. The youngest was more of a play-it-by-ear sort. Sleep was to be avoided at all costs lest he miss the party.
Juggling these polar opposites was part of the universe’s scheme to undo me. Toddlers don’t live inside time. This is why you never, ever tell a small child about an event more than five minutes before it happens. Their emotions are volcanic. Anticipation cannot be contained. “When are we seeing Santa? Is it time for Santa? Can it be time for Santa now? Mommy, Santa, Mommy!” If you mention Christmas in casual conversation sometime in October, you will hear about it 157,000 times a day for the next three months.
Minutes mean nothing. Minutes are grains of sand in the hourglass — an hourglass snagged by small, sticky fingers that gets tipped, shaken, and hurled into the wall. You hold up a finger to indicate these minutes while you’re on the phone: Just a minute, honey. While you’re checking out at the grocery store: Hold on a minute, sweetheart. While you’re in the bathroom: For the love of all that’s holy, in a minute!
Once, I was in a long line at the post office waiting to mail six heavy boxes of Christmas presents I’d stacked on the counter. As the line inched forward, I slid the boxes and my squirming toddler along together. She had to go potty, of course, because she absolutely did not have to go before we left home. “Can you wait a minute, punkin?” She sweetly nodded twice and then let go, all over the counter and down the sides onto the floor. It turns out “wait a minute” in toddler-speak means “now.”
Parenting is full of now moments. Our bodies get in on the game at ground zero, and we have nine months of having to eat now, sleep now, go into labor now. Parenting puts us at the mercy of the universe’s clock, which looks more like the ones in a Salvador Dali painting. Babies demand soothing now. Small children want everything right now. From the time they can talk, we hear “Watch me! Are you watching? Look what I can do now!” It’s exhausting. Some days you spend wishing for time to speed up. Bedtime can’t come fast enough. If only they could walk, talk, be out of diapers, be more independent! Some days, the ones you just survive, last forever. Some days, the ones full of rocking and smiles saved just for you, you wish you could freeze-frame.
Parenting is full of delayed moments. Eventually, as they grasp the concept of time, instead of making life easier and more organizable, somehow it backfires into you having to wait. The minutes you desperately wanted them to grant you, they give you in spades — except with the words “five more” tacked on as a prefix. Time for bed! “Five more minutes?” Time for dinner! “Five more minutes! I’m almost to the next level/waiting for this show to end/on the phone/doing my hair/catching a Pokémon.” Some days you spend wishing they’d catch up. Hurry up is an impossible dream. How long can it take a human being to finish a bowl of cereal? Find their shoes? Walk out to the car? For crying out loud, we are going to be late to school/practice/church/life again! Some days, the days you spend in a mad scramble of calendars and agendas, disappear in a dizzy haze of push and pull. You’re Alice’s white rabbit.
Parenting is full of later moments. Teens want everything later. When are you going to take out the trash? “Later.” Have any homework? “I’ll do it later.” When will you be home? “Later.” How about scheduling a college visit? “Can we do that later? Gotta run, mom, I’ll text you later.” Their time becomes more their own and their friends’ and less of it is reserved for you. The “now”s have turned into “whenever”s. It’s rare that they yell for you to “Watch me!” More likely, they prefer privacy and hands-off. Still, you watch the clock with sleepless worry when they’re out late behind the wheel. You bite your tongue and try to wait to be invited to talk about the heartbreak or disappointment they’ve faced. With fewer demands on your time, there’s somehow the backward sense of time speeding by, those hourglass grains slipping through your fingers even as you try to gather them. Time warps: The days are long, but the years are short.
I’m fast approaching the empty nest when I’ll return to being able to schedule my days and minutes sans interruption. Funny thing is, I stopped wearing a watch about a year ago. My oldest turns 20 this week — an age I can’t fathom. All the “now”s, “hurry up”s and “later”s seem like both yesterday and ages ago. Suddenly, I want to pause. Just a minute! Five more minutes? But time, in its own cadence, marches on.