Monday, July 14, 2014

Rediscovering quantity time

It's an old question: quality vs quantity time? When it comes to parenting, the people whose lives allow for quantity tend to argue in favor of quantity, while the people with less quantity argue for the importance of quality. Which is not to say of course, that you can't have quality while also having quantity. In any case, in the Mommy wars, its one of those false dichotomies likely to provoke a melee of defensiveness and self-righteousness.

I started my life as a parent with six months of quantity time. I took 8 weeks off, but then worked part-time, mostly from home. My daughter and I were together almost all 168 hours of the week. We marinated in each other. We stared into each other's eyes for long stretches. Most of the time, neither of us was fully clothed. I was engaged in elaborate procedures to increase my milk supply, so I was either nursing or pumping or nursing-then-pumping every 2-3 hours around the clock, and my daughter was never more than three feet away from me. There was no day or night, just a repeated cycle of hunger, contact, cooing and shushing, punctuated by the pchika-pchika-pchika of my loyal pump. I tried to work when I could. 

Then I started residency and parenting changed completely. Now the demands of my job were absolute, predictable down to the hour for an entire year in advance. I had to be fully available at work and so my partner took over the job of being fully available at home. My daughter started day care and began to adhere to a more consistent bedtime. Instead of working when I could, I had to parent when I could. Many days I had only half an hour or an hour with her before bedtime and I learned to make these minutes gleam with high octane focused attention. Then there were golden weekends, unexpected early days, vacations, and continued nighttime awakenings, which killed me but also kept me going. We cuddled as much as possible. When people lamented to me on behalf of my daughter about my demanding schedule and how little time I was able to spend with her (frequent occurrence), I gently told them how proud I was of the quality of our relationship despite these constraints. I didn't exercise, travel, or buy a new pair of shoes for two straight years but with what time I had, I parented with my whole heart. 

Now I'm a third-year and it's not feast or famine anymore. I can eat breakfast with my family, put in a solid work day, then eat dinner with my family. And weekends are back (sometimes). The timing of this detente is coinciding with a leap on the part of my now two-and-a-half year old towards more independence and awareness and conversational ability. To celebrate, I took her on a road trip to see her grandmother in Vermont. We were in the car for fourteen hours in total and I gained a new appreciation for the things that quantity time can give you that quality time cannot. There was a period of twenty minutes in which she screamed "Mommy, I want to poop in the potty!" at top volume and I thought I was going to lose my mind. Then I figured out a tickling game we could play while driving and the car was filled with both of our giggles. We slid from mutual frustration to laughter to boredom to song to negotiation then back to boredom then back to jokes. It's not that these transitions don't happen over shorter stretches but with 72 uninterrupted hours ahead of us, I didn't feel pressured to make every moment fun. I didn't feel pressured to entertain E. We were just inhabiting time together, without bedtime or daycare drop-off or a specific activity to get to. E asked lots of ontological questions like "Mommy, who is your Daddy?" and "Where are all these cars going?" When we stopped for lunch, she laid out her chicken nuggets and french fries in a perfect straight line and said in a matter-of-fact voice, "Nuggets and sauce is my favorite. What's your favorite?" It felt like we were on an epic date, complete with some long silences and surprising moments of synergy and a sense of time without limit.

Like most of the issues in the Mommy wars, there is no one right truth for anyone and on average the truth is somewhere in the middle. The truth also changes. Parenting with limited time taught me mindfulness and focus and priorities. It made me a better parent. Now I'm looking forward to spending longer stretches of less goal-oriented time with E. I'm hoping to build a life in which quality is the focus both at work and at home, with enough long weekends and road trips and lazy vacations in remote places to marinate in timeless time together.

11 comments:

  1. Whenever I read your words I feel like I am looking at a beautiful piece of art. Sorry if that's too much or goopy, but it's the truth. Your writing is amazing.

    Having said the gush, I empathize with this so much. I am learning at ages 9 and 11 to set boundaries with my kids now that I have so much time with them and energy in a stable relationship to do so. I was the mom who let my toddler make a huge mess while I smiled and watched because, well, she was having fun and I spent so little time with her I did not want to spend it disciplining her. We all do this, but more so when we are overworking, and myself much so as a single parent.

    When I took a parenting class recently they said 10 minutes a day spent with your child noticing without gushing what they are doing is enough. Say it out loud they said don't think it. "You are laying out your chicken nuggets in a straight line." They thrill with the attention that is matter of fact with no pressure to be perfect the next time. I am sure you get all this in your training; I didn't in pathology.

    But there are all different philosophies on parenting as you said and you have to find what works for you and your family. At 40, I'm finally getting there. And at 45 I'm sure that I will look back to now and see all the room for improvement with new experience and wisdom. And here's the evil trick - they change and you have to adapt. Seems intuitive but it's a hard lesson when you are so emotionally tied to your own.

    I'm off next week and looking forward to a trip with just me and kids to visit family and marinate in timelessness, as you say. Summers are hard for me when they are gone half the time (as I am sure dad feels too) so I wallow lazily in time spent off with them.

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, Gizabeth! I totally identify with what you are saying about being a little softer on discipline in the setting of working a lot. I'm lucky because my little lady is pretty well behaved. If it were otherwise, I would have had to get more honest. It's always good to hear your perspective as someone who is farther along in the process -- and good to remember that everything changes. Enjoy your trip!

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    2. Change is good but hard. I miss your E days/my C and J days. Enjoy her every moment. Thanks you I plan to. Travel is easier when you don't have to be so hands on - when you find yourself searching for moments to plug in instead of moments to check out.

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  2. love this. really really love this.

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    1. Thanks, Dr. Mom! Glad you enjoyed it!

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  3. I read your posts and think, "Oh my God I cannot think of worse torture than to spend 7 consecutive hours in the car with my 2 year old." Then I feel like a defective woman because apparently I'm supposed to enjoy that. When we spoke several months back, this was the sort of thing I was alluding to.

    I am glad that you seem happier with your own work-life balance, though.

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    1. ha ha, I agree with you OMDG! This post was absolutely beautiful and I so appreciate the sentiment, but 7 hours alone in the car with a 2 year old? (its completely possible that your 2 year old is vastly different from my 2 year old, which makes the whole comparison moot)

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    2. I think I would rather do a 14h overnight shift than spend 7 hours in the car with D... but I may be a little crazy... and our kids may be completely different.

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    3. Haha -- my girl is pretty chill but there were definitely trying moments. And it wasn't straight through. We stopped a lot and did things like have picnics on small strips of grass at rest stops and spend ten minutes at the beach playground in Westport, CT. The novelty kept her interested. I wouldn't want to do it every weekend -- or really more than once a year, but it was fun. There are all sorts of things that other people say and do that make me feel defective (like when my coworkers talk about how they're paying extra on their student loans or other parents at E's day care make goodie bags for all the kids on their child's birthday) but in the end, everyone's different and none of us is defective.

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