There is no way to take a true picture of time, the blur of hours and motion of minutes. I used to think of myself as a champion keeper of the calendar, expert at knowing as far in advance as possible the precise destiny of every second. This was my kingdom, a place I could control. But then I made a new friend, another mother, with children the same ages as mine, a boy of 8 and girl of 4, who put me to shame. Here was a true maven, a marvel of efficiency in using up time before it even exists. I asked if she would take me on a time tour of her week. She said fine, but in order to do this, I had to make a phone appointment: Thursday morning at 11:05. "Which do you want?" she asked. "A week that's maxed out, or just a week week?"
Be wild, I thought, be a gypsy: Go for broke.
"Maxed out," I said. "Definitely."
So here goes, if not a full portrait of time itself, at least a kind of snapshot of the way some of us live: On a typical maxed-out Monday, my friend wakes up at 6:30. She leaves at 7:45 to bring the children to school. Her son is dropped off at 8 and her daughter at 8:15. She goes to her gym at 8:30, changes, swims until 9 and then aerobicizes until 10. Then she showers, does her hair and dresses for work, having picked out her outfit, stockings and jewelry the night before. From 10:45 to 11 she drives to her therapist, stopping to pick up a muffin (usually something whole-grain) and a bottle of water. The food she eats in the car, the liquid she drinks during therapy. She leaves at 11:50 and arrives at her office at 12:10, making one stop at the florist to pick up her standing weekly order of a $5 bouquet for the office. Because she's a regular customer, the bouquet she gets is usually worth much more. She counts on hitting enough red lights to be able to put on her makeup; she doesn't put it on earlier because she generally cries in therapy. In her job as a therapist, she sees individual patients from 12:30 to 7:30 and then leads a group from 7:30 until 8:45. Meanwhile, her son takes the bus home after school and is met by a sitter. Together they pick up his sister at her child care at 4. The sitter helps them pack clothes and their special blankets for the overnight at their father's house. My friend hires good dependable sitters with cars and pays them $8 an hour. (Her top-paying patients pay her $80.) When my friend leaves work on Monday night, she either goes to the grocery store to shop for the week's provisions, or meets someone for dinner. Either way, she is home by 10:30 or 11. Tuesdays are her early day; she gets up at 6 in order to run 4 1/2 miles in 45 minutes, a double loop around a small lake, and still be out of the house by 8. At 8:30 she starts seeing patients, all day, until 5: nine in all, straight through, without a break. Lunch is always a sandwich packed the night before, not just a hunk of bread and slab of meat slapped together but, because she is a gifted cook, usually something inventive, tenderly compiled, say a half-piece of pita bread with munster cheese, sprouts and a dab of gourmet salsa. On Tuesdays at 5:01 she leaves the office in an absolute dash to get to her daughter's day care before it closes. Wednesdays are structured so that she gets a break in the middle of the morning for her weekly manicure. A patient finishes at 9:50; she goes for the appointment from 10 to 10:30 and is back in the office for the next patient at 10:40. This is a recent indulgence. She never used to worry about her nails because she never really worried about her looks at all. She is a tall, slender, beautiful woman with thoughtful blue-gray eyes. When she tries on clothes, almost everything looks great. She is out of her office by 2:30. This is her son's early day for getting out of school, and often he beats her home. He lets himself in with his own key: Usually he is not alone for more than 15 minutes. They then spend from 2:30 until 5 on a special outing, at the arcade, the comic book store or the library. Together they pick up her daughter, and when they get back shortly after 5, she starts dinner, and during the warm months she often mows the lawn, though once in a while, lately, because there is no other time for exercise that day, she leaves the children in front of the TV and does an abbreviated 22-minute jog. There are tenants on the bottom floor of their house, and she does not leave the children unless she is sure the tenants are at home. Because she is never confident that the children ate as well as she would like at their father's on Monday, she likes to insist on a good dinner on Tuesday and Wednesday nights: no pizza, no hot dogs, nothing gobbled on the run. Ideally this is a civilized interlude when they all sit down and eat together, though sometimes the meal degenerates into a pitched battle between the children as to who is going to tell her what first, with her daughter sabotaging her son's conversation by putting her feet on the table and with her son sabotaging her daughter's conversation by opening his mouth to reveal half-eaten food, saying, "Train wreck." The temptation, she says, is "to drink 12 glasses of wine." A standard good dinner might include roast chicken, a fresh vegetable, rice or pasta. After dinner, she bathes the children, helps them with homework and puts them to bed (she calms the children with a book, a board game or some quiet conversation) and then her time to herself begins. From 10 to about 12:30 is for phone calls, correspondence, TV or just sitting in an armchair, zoned out, home, happy enough, cossetted by fatigue.
Sometimes she has trouble sleeping; it was hardest when she and her husband first separated. One or the other of her children woke up every hour. Oddly, the less sleep she gets, the less she needs, and sometimes she is up until 1 in the morning, fussing, cleaning. "You'd think my house would be immaculate."
On Thursdays, she sees five patients from 8:30 to 1:35. At 11:05, she has half an hour free, and unless her husband is out of town, that is their time to talk about the children and also their divorce settlement. They used to talk at night, but she found that when they talked late at night, she felt depleted, snappish, vulnerable. That is why she carved out of her schedule a time during the workday for them to talk, a few sunlit minutes, crisp and efficient. Thursday afternoons, she picks up her children and brings them back to the house, where they are met by a sitter at 3:30. She returns to work by 4:10 in order to meet with two more patients and lead a group that gets out at 7:30. At 5 or so, the children's father picks them up for an overnight. Friday morning, she gets up at 6 and goes for a long run. Fridays are devoted to professional consultations as well as sessions with patients. She finishes up at 6:30. A sitter has met her son when he gets home from school, and as on Mondays, the two of them pick up her daughter. Friday nights are for puttering. Sometimes she will get a home video for her children, and usually Fridays are when she gets to open her mail. Saturday mornings at 7:30, the cleaning woman comes. The minute she arrives, my friend dashes out of the house to go for a quick run in order to be back and showered in time to take her daughter to ballet from 9 to 10. The cleaning woman stays with her son while he plays Nintendo. Every other Saturday, her husband comes at 11 and the children spend the next 24 hours with him. If the children are with their father, she spends the day on errands: dry cleaner, hairdresser, florist again, picking up her own personal bouquet for the house, $7 on a regular weekend, $9 if she's having a dinner party. Sometimes on Saturdays she goes to the Power Pack aerobics class at 4 at the health club, where she pays reduced membership fees because she has agreed to use it only on weekday mornings and weekend afternoons. In the warm months, she loves the beach: all that warmth, just pouring down. She used to read all the time when she was married; she liked that aspect of herself, the part of her that delivered her psyche to a wash of words and imagined the lives of others. But now she is too distracted to read; her life is its own surfeit of plots and subplots. There is no use reading about invented lives when she is spending so much energy reinventing her own. She sometimes thinks that the orgy of reading was really just a way of being alone, and now she is alone enough. Besides, books are filled with unexpected twists and turns, and she feels she cannot take any more emotional surprises. Sometimes, despite her better intentions to have an active, productive Saturday on her own, she is overcome by the absence of her children. She often feels a horrible pang when she sees them disappearing out the front door with their father. It is, she says, as if all the meaning in her life has just walked off.
Sundays are a late day, a luxury of sleep. Sometimes she stays in bed until 8.
On Monday, the week begins anew. At least summer, with its odious, preening spontaneity is finally over. What chaos it is to accommodate vacations, hers, her patients', her soon-to-be-former hus- band's, plus all those camp schedules, and the baseball games, especially the ones that are rained out and must be rescheduled, and then the usual epidemic of potluck picnics and last-minute invitations to someone's cottage for an all-day barbecue. There comes a moment every summer when she finds herself filled with longing for the peace of the school year, when every week she launches the same vessel with its cargo of hours, borne ceaselessly into a maelstrom consoling in its very predictability.
Madeleine Blais, who teaches three university courses a semester, has two children, one husband and no time.