Last week, we explored interruptions in the life of a mommy. This week, because I’m feeling strong enough to address the subject (it’s been a pretty good week), let’s take a good look at what motherhood teaches us about Time.
Before children, Time was my servant. Time bent to my will. Time allowed itself to be organized—by me—into nice, long chunks in which I accomplished big things. The long chunks were vital to my success. For any writing, editing, or syllabus-planning project, I knew I needed at least three hours of uninterrupted Time to make good progress. I have (well, I had) amazing powers of concentration and focus for three to four hours. After more than four hours, I would need to take a break and do some shorter tasks for mental refreshment, such as grading a few papers, planning meetings, attending meetings, making phone calls, reading a few chapters of a novel. Then I could get back to the big tasks.
As a goal-oriented person, I thrived at academic and corporate jobs in which multiple projects needed to be initiated, organized, supervised, and finalized. I was happy and fulfilled. It all made sense. I was successful at managing Time.
After the birth of my first child, Time turned on me. It no longer bent to my will, but rather to the will of a weak and helpless infant who could not read a clock or even tell day from night.
I felt betrayed, confused, lost, ambushed.
To some of you mommies reading this, my reaction may seem perfectly silly. Not all mommies are the same, thank Heaven. There is plenty to adjust to in those first radical days of motherhood. Losing sleep, dealing with leaky (or cracked and bleeding) nipples, or being spit up and pooped and peed upon daily may have been much harder adjustments for some of you. For others, the main problem with Time may have been that you no longer had enough of it to feel properly clean and groomed, or to eat a meal, or to go to Starbucks for a mocha. Or maybe you really wanted Time to stand still and ended up mourning the passing of the toothless grin.
I totally understand if any of these (or some other not listed here) were harder adjustments for you. They did affect me, too, but not traumatically.
For me, Time would never, ever be the same. I could not control it. My son was not a project to be managed and completed by a deadline. I had work to do, certainly, but no amount of planning or organizing or list-making would ever take into account all the variables that had just entered my life. My formerly tidy and organized mind could not make sense of this chaos, not one tiny little bit.
Where had my four-hour chunks of Time gone? Now, I only had lower-case time. I had ten minutes here, forty minutes there, three minutes over there. How could I possibly be productive, get the “big” tasks done?
Don’t ask what “big” tasks I expected to do. I didn’t know then, and have only recently begun to realize because I can be really, really dense about some things, that there are no “big” tasks to do in Stay-at-Home World. Well, not many, at least. Most of the “big” tasks I’ve encountered in the last eight years related to having a child diagnosed with a disability. That was HUGE, but only in the beginning. It’s now a million little things that can easily overwhelm and confuse me, just like everything else in Mommy Time.
In Career-Woman Time, each task is worth a lot because there are not many of them, comparatively speaking. Let’s use my time as a college instructor to illustrate my point. I generally taught four classes each term. There were lots of details to manage in teaching four classes, especially the two quarters during which I taught four different classes at three colleges. But all those details fit into a ten-week quarter. The relationship between the big picture and little details was my responsibility, but I got paid for the big picture, not each tiny little detail.
Mommy Time, in contrast, has no big picture, or only a very fuzzy, long-term picture created by fantasies of meeting your adult son at a classy restaurant for lunch and enjoying lovely grown-up conversation and seeing how nicely he learned his table manners and realizing he’s cutting his own food and dressed himself appropriately without any help from you. Oh, he also picks up the check.
In Mommy Time, each task leading up to that fuzzy, out-of-focus, in-the-distant-future big picture is small and not worth much in and of itself, nor is it always easy to see how each small task benefits the big picture. Nevertheless, the mosaic of hundreds of thousands of small tasks—many of which are repetitive and dull, but entirely necessary—makes up the enormous big picture that is motherhood.
God and moms are in the details.
Many mommies, myself included, fail to appreciate this. We don’t have patience enough to see that the mosaic is a long way from being finished and want it to be coherent here and now, like it was in Career-Woman Time. Because we are conditioned to believe that only the big picture has value, we make the small tiles big in our minds so the big picture is easier for us to see. After all, CEOs make the big bucks, and the McD’s employee who serves up 400 drinks a day makes minimum wage. This paradigm (God, I hate that word, but it works here) is wholly unsuitable for motherhood.
Without realizing it, many women erroneously come to see the big picture in our lives as the daily control of every aspect of home and children right here and right now. Every small task looms large in our imagination. We spend hours cleaning, organizing, shouting, rushing to “get things done.”
And you know what? They never, ever are done.
When we do this, we have no time for ourselves or for hobbies or for friends. We are exhausted and overwhelmed (though some of us can hide it well), and we have a very bleak future because, one day, our children will leave home, and all those small tasks we think are so large will disappear. We will have no purpose in life, no tasks to do, and will feel lost and confused and sad and pointless.
When the mosaic is finished and that glorious lunch with our child happens, we’ll be too busy feeling sorry for ourselves to appreciate the moment. All we see is a chaos of huge tiles that don’t make a pretty picture at all.
I was lucky. I could not maintain even an illusion of control for myself, much less for my children, from the very beginning (I didn’t have big chunks of time, remember?), and this made me feel like a failure, grouchy and irritable.
I am not by nature grouchy and irritable (except when I have PMS, and then it’s not my fault), so I started problem-solving pretty quickly and took up a hobby that became an obsession which conveniently knocked me out of the rut I had created for myself. Now there’s this blog to get me writing again, even though I still don’t have big chunks of time. One day, in the future, if Karen D and Pastor Suzanne have their way, I may become a Stephen Minister. Or I may go back to teaching. Or I may finally write my novel. My point is, I have options, and so do you. I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments.
For now, let’s just say that, though it has taken eight long years, I’m embracing fragmented, small-task Mommy Time as valuable, worthy, and important. I've learned patience, to wait and pray for the big picture of tiny tiles to unfold in its own Time. This patience has, ironically, given me a serious case of mommy ADD, and my days of concentrating for four hours at a time may be gone for good.
But that’s okay. Really. Because one day, Nick and Jack will pick up the check, and I’ll know in that moment those million little tasks were worth it.