How many times a day do I hear that? The emails, the phone calls, the sign-ups and RSVPs. The list of “just-a-minute” requests that I cannot fulfill never ends.
No, I tell my son. We don’t have time tonight: There is homework to do, quizzes to sign, instruments to practice, small hands and feet to wash — and somewhere in there, I need to provide a meal.
“But it doesn’t have to be this way,” a thousand helpful Internet advisers tell me. There are shortcuts. It’s not that there isn’t enough time, they say, it’s that I’m not effectively using the time I have.
You see, I’m squandering. I sleep. I exercise. I read long news articles. I am a terrible thief, stealing time from myself. It’s the way I know how to be in the world, and I’m resistant to learning new routines. But we are living in the age of productivity, where humans, like machines, can be hacked to improve their performance. If only I were more receptive to expert feedback, I could morph into Me 2.0. I could be doing much more, more quickly.
For example, I should set the table for breakfast every night before I go to bed. That one sounds simple. But setting the table requires clean bowls, which requires emptying the dishwasher and filling it again, and while I’m there, I might as well scrub the crusty pots soaking in the sink, because it’s gross to just let them sit there, and what kind of mother am I? And it will, of course, take only a minute.
So now it has been 15 minutes — time that I should have spent answering emails or folding laundry or sleeping. Those 15 minutes have to come from somewhere. Do I take them from my morning workout? Do I skip the workout altogether the next day, accepting that I’ll be cranky by noon? Or do I get up and go running anyway, knowing that if I don’t, that 15 minutes will take the form of delayed response time throughout the day, as my mind takes longer to produce a coherent thought?
Let’s try another one. What if I batch-cooked dinners on the weekends for the week ahead? Wouldn’t that make sense? Or at the very least, I could cut up fruit and vegetables in advance, so that when my kids ask for a snack I can toss them a container full of fruit, instead of an individually wrapped energy bar (which, let’s be honest, is really nothing more than a dressed-up cookie). If I spend an hour or two cooking, or simply chopping, on Sunday, though, I don’t get any work done. So I have to stay up late, and again must choose between sleep and exercise. As if I didn’t already feel like a time glutton for presuming I could have both.
Modern parenting, often accomplished while working full-time, and without help from extended family, is maddening enough without the added pressure of being constantly told that if only you were more efficient, you could have a clean shirt and your kids could have Instagram-worthy bento boxes for lunch. I’m sure if I were willing to make the commitment, there are plenty of life hacks that would improve things around our house. I could, for example, devise a Pinterest-worthy system to organize the boots and coats that clog the entryway. Or lay out everyone’s clothes the night before. Or prepare healthful foods in advance.
But I often can’t think ahead. Sometimes I can hardly think at all because I am so overwhelmed, and what I really want is not for someone with a nicer-looking life than mine to share their efficiency secrets, but for a fellow bedraggled parent to tell me, “I know. It’s all too much.” Sometimes I do not want an action plan or concrete steps toward self-improvement. I simply long for the time-sucking luxury of my frustrations being heard.
There are days when I say yes to my kids’ small requests — looking at the toys, stopping for ice cream, watching a train pass — because I am too tired to say no, and other days when I purposefully veer us off course. I want them to experience time as not only something for which to plan, but something to savor, in all its decadence.
Marie Holmes is a mother and freelance writer. She lives in New York with her partner and two children.