Parenting by the clock, but learning how to live in the moment

clock against pink and blue background

By Fiona Leary Boucher

I live my life by the clock. I look at my watch, the clock over the sink in the kitchen, my smartphone, the dashboard on my computer. Every minute is scheduled.

It didn’t use to be this way. Before I returned to the workplace, time was a benevolent and forgiving guide for getting through the day. Of course I looked at the clock, but it offered an approximation of structure. The school bus came at 8:20. If my older son missed it, I could drive him without consequence. I picked up my younger son at 1:00. If he wanted to play on the playground, we could stay for fifteen minutes or we could stay an hour. Bedtime—oh sweet, blessed, long-awaited bedtime—was at 8:00, but until that hour, it didn’t matter how long we read books or how long it took to make dinner. Now if something takes too long, it means we’re late for something else.

Living by the clock means that my children are too: getting dressed occurs between 8:00 and 8:10, the first “put-on-your-shoes!” is at 8:12, the fifth is at 8:13. The goodbye kiss for one child is at 8:18 and the drive to preschool for the other begins at 8:22. By the time I drop him off at 8:35, drive to work at 8:40, park my car at 8:52, and get to my desk at 9:00, my heart is beating as fast as if I were running on a treadmill.

At work, instead of managing my family’s schedule, I get to relax and be managed by Outlook. Directed by chimes, flashing icons, and pop-up messages. The relief is stunning, but it still takes a good hour to calm down from a morning of timekeeping. At 5:00 I start gearing up for the evening at home, trying to part with unfinished business, answer the emails that should not be left overnight, and—if I’m really organized—set my to-dos for the next day. I race out of the office at 5:30, sprint to the parking lot, and rush through traffic so I can be home in time for dinner at 6:00, when everyone is hungry and cranky and wants to talk about their day at the same time. If I am lucky and my husband has not yet put dinner on the table, I might be able to change out of my dry-clean-only clothes before eating.

There are some positives of abiding by the clock. I am learning to be efficient, I am learning to be punctual. Before my children were born, my friends had a name for my particular sense of time: the “Fiona 15,” because I was always fifteen minutes late to everything. I used to smile and tell them, “haste makes waste.” Now, my children are learning the importance of knowing that the world will not stop for them and they shouldn’t expect it to.

But this frenetic pace has its downsides. While I appreciate the time I have with my children, I cannot fully immerse myself in the experience. If there is time for a game of Battleship in the morning, I have one eye on the peg grid and the other on the clock because I have to get ready for work. If there is time for a puzzle after dinner, I think about the dishes that need washing or the lunches that need packing or the laundry that needs folding.

It feels like there is little time for patience, for softness and gentle tones, to help with an unanticipated shoelace knot, to pull a coat-sleeve right-side out. Patience occurs during the too-brief unscheduled moments of the day, at bedtime for instance, when I read and cuddle and sing lullabies. Though even that has a cap, because my children need their sleep and I need a time when I don’t have to take care of anyone, answer to anyone, or be responsible to anyone but myself.

Most disconcertingly, it also feels like there is little time to parent. One day, my oldest son disparagingly called me “Woman” when I asked him to get dressed before school. I was shocked, angry, disappointed. As a feminist had I failed to teach him about misogyny, as a parent had I failed to teach him about respect? But in the moment there was no time to address any of this except through parental-guilt-inducing threats and ultimatums. The school bus was coming.

Later that day, when I was calm and we were alone and riding in the car—even travel-time must be used productively—I explained the effect his words had on me.

“Mom, I don’t want to be that kind of person,” he said.

And then I realized that I hadn’t failed as a parent, as a mother. As with all things that are hard to learn, he needed reminding. It takes time to teach something properly, and patience while the student is learning. Perhaps it was time I learned to be patient with myself, too.

Life lessons cannot be scheduled.

I cannot change the fact that we have to do certain things at certain times and in certain places, but if I remember that life is happening between those moments, perhaps I won’t be thinking so much about what I have to do and where I have to be in the next one.

Sometimes more experienced parents say to me, “Time goes by fast. Enjoy every minute!” I smile and nod while inside I cringe because frankly there are many minutes of parenting that are just not enjoyable. But I do understand that this frantic, intense, sometimes miserable, sometimes joyful period of life is fleeting. Maybe I won’t enjoy every minute, but I will try to enjoy more of them, and remember that other parenting adage, “this too shall pass.”

Fiona Leary Boucher lives and writes in Connecticut. She is the mother of two lovely and very rascally boys.

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