Friday, February 1, 2019

Fragmented time

My life as a mom feels like a long succession of fragments, short lumps of time, choppily strung together until a full day has passed. The transitions aren’t always smooth. There are a lot of awkward gaps. It doesn’t look like the average American work day in terms of productivity and time management.

First, there is that odd block of 30 minutes on school mornings where breakfast has been eaten and cleared, routines have been done, and we are essentially just killing time until we need to head out the door (thanks to kids who wake early plus a ridiculously late school start time of nine freaking twenty-five AM). I never quite know what to do with this time. Do I start a chore? Do I assign the kids a chore since their after-school hours are so fleeting and I want them to be contributing? Or do I let them play freely, since they have so few hours to do so? Do I just whisper prayers of thanks for the time and go hide in my room and read? Or should I pay bills or somehow spend time with the kids?

In the brief two-hour period, post-elementary school drop off, I temporarily become a “mother of an only child.” It’s enough time to do something small, but not enough time to venture far from home before we have to get back for lunch before afternoon preschool. Do we do something fun together? Squeeze in a quick playdate? Run errands?

When it’s errands we choose, we face the annoying 40 minute gap between elementary school drop off and the opening of the public library and Costco, two places we seem to need to frequent often. Do we go back home, take off our shoes and throw a load of laundry in the wash before leaving again on our errands? Do we talk the long way home from school and squeeze in a quick bit of exercise? Or do we drive around aimlessly for a little while and then pass the last ten minutes in the parking lot of Costco, grooving to Kidz Bop, so we can “beat the crowds” and be the first ones in the building?

After lunch, three days a week, I have the too-short blip of time, where all three of my offspring are at their respective schools. I can choose to spend this time in one of two ways – either relaxing or focusing on being productive. No matter which option I choose, there never seems to be enough time, and the two hours whiz by, leaving me dissatisfied and feeling as though I squandered my time.  

Next comes the awkward 20-minute chunk between the moment we arrive home from preschool pick up and the moment when we need to begin walking to the elementary school to get the older two. It’s just enough time to run one quick errand (if you take the “run” part literally) or perhaps empty the dishwasher to make the dinner prep hour a little easier.

After school, it’s practically dinnertime, because school gets out so late. But of course, the kids are “starving” and, if they are going to eat a snack, I need them to do it RIGHT THEN so they don’t completely spoil their dinner. So, I force them to bypass any neighborhood kids out enjoying the last hour of daylight and send them bee-lining straight for the table to eat a quick bite.

Then it’s time for homework. The only thing consistent about elementary school homework is that it is assigned with pristine irregularity (when the teacher remembers to put it in the folder), making it nearly impossible to plan anything for these minute-long afternoons.

If all goes as planned, snacks get consumed, homework is checked off (or not), and then the kids inevitably get distracted with some activity and forget that they wanted to go outside, leaving me with about 15 unspoken for minutes before it’s time to start dinner. It’s just enough time to start a chapter, but not finish, begin a board game, but not complete it, fold some of the laundry but not all. It feels vital that I use this time well, yet I lack a good definition of what “well” really means to me.

When I switch gears and focus in on dinner preparation, the kids naturally remember my existence and suddenly require my assistance in accomplishing the three individual tasks each are in the middle of. But by now, my rings are on the window sill and my hands are deep into a bowl of ground beef, massaging dried herbs, garlic and spices into the meat and forming them into meatballs. I exhale loudly, wondering why they couldn’t have possibly needed me earlier, when I had those 15 minutes to spare.

After dinner, we move on to the tasks of washing dishes and making lunches. It’s typically a family affair which means the kitchen gets messier before it gets cleaner, bread crumbs scattering across surfaces and onto the floor, surplus peanut butter gluing only a small percentage of them to the counter. When we have finished, it’s time for the littlest to get ready for bed, but it’s too early for the older too. We didn’t realize how good we had it when they were all small and bedtime was bedtime. Full stop. Now the girls want the times staggered, as they seek out independence and privilege, throwing down their “I’m older than you” cards. I really can’t argue because I know their elementary-aged bodies aren’t as ready for sleep as early the five-year-old’s is. So, now we have this unused 20-30 minutes, where one kid is down, but two aren’t quite ready to go, and we aren’t quite sure what to do with it.

Beyond the intricacies of the average day-to-day, there are also all the variables that shift, depending on what is on the schedule. There is the time spent waiting in the drive-thru line at the pharmacy or the time that passes when one kid has a before-school activity but the other one doesn’t, so you make grooves in the pavement driving the same route to school and back twice, with only 25 minutes in-between. Then there are the hour-long sports practices so close to home, just long enough that it’s hard to sit there and kill an hour, but too short to go home because you’d only have 40 minutes before you had to turn around and drive back again. There’s also all the waiting that happens at appointments, arriving early for check in, as requested, but then winding up with 15 minutes to burn in the waiting room.

My life as a mom feels like one long series of fragments of time (anyone with me on this?!?) And I don’t really know what to do with all these fragments. They make me anxious. I have a deep longing to be present, to fully invest, to start AND to finish, to check things off. It’s hard for me to do any of those things when I only have a 15-minute window. And so rather than trying, I make half-hearted attempts and end up squandering a lot of time.  

I used to think that the answer was to carve out more extended chunks of consecutive time, and I do this when I can, but I’m realizing that my time only seems to be growing more fragmented as the children age. We move from one thing to the next, to the next, with awkward lumps of minutes in-between. This challenge ain’t going anywhere.

So, what does that look like for me to be present and/or make the best use of my time when my moments are so fragmented? How can I invest in the now when I’ve got two or 10 or 60 minutes until it’s time to transition to the next thing? If you read this whole post hoping for some magical, quick-fix answers, sorry! I should have warned you that this was more of a “wondering out loud” sort of essay. I don’t have the answer here but for sure I know I want to quit squandering (which quite possibly is synonymous with “scrolling” – that dang smart phone is going to be the death of me!!)

Most likely the “answer” will involve making amends with my dislike of starting and not finishing. Perhaps the best thing for me to do would be to read a couple sentences of a book and then put it down. Progress is progress, right? And at least I got a second to read! Maybe I should go on more walks around the block. Just because it’s broken up, doesn’t mean it doesn’t “count” as exercise. Or perhaps I should take up tic-tac-toe (it’s fast, I think). Or just spend more time snuggling with whomever in my family happens to be nearest. I really don’t know. I’m sure it looks different for everyone, but I would so love to do a little online groupthink and hear how other moms out there manage their fragmented days. Please and thank you!

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posted by kelsie