I’ve spent my children’s childhoods trying to remember to offer them “Take your time,” like a gift wrapped in leisure and ease. What I wouldn’t give for the grace of Alicia Keys.
I come by my impatience honestly. In our New York apartment building, my dad could become irritated in the span of time between shutting the door and pressing the elevator button. I’ve spent my first two decades as a parent trying to recover from it.
When my kids were little, the days could sometimes be so weirdly frantic and boring that I could hardly stay inside my own skin. Playing Candy Land with a person who weeps over Queen Frostine, jiggles their leg around because they have to pee and also takes an eerily long time to draw a card, while calendar pages fly off the wall and your whole life is sucked into a Molasses Swamp, might best evoke this terrible existential combination.
I rushed my kids from the car to the pool, from the pool to the locker room, from the locker room to the car. I can remember the sound of their little flip-flops at the bottoms of their tiny legs, worriedly slapping the cement. I can remember trying to breathe more slowly. “It’s just swim lessons,” I would say to myself, like a mantra. “We’re not exactly driving an ambulance here.”
It’s just Uno, bedtime, school, fried clams.
If you don’t chronically rush your kids, then you won’t need to train yourself to say “Take your time” to them. But I did need to — and did learn to, too. I tried to remember to say it whenever anyone looked hurried or panicky: a little person trying to buckle their belt in a cramped bathroom stall; another little person agonizing over a dollar’s worth of penny candy and then watching the taffy-pull machine like taffy was the whole afternoon stretching away into an elastic nothing. “Take your time, my love.”
It got so much easier as the kids got older. Life with small children has that popcorn-in-a-popper feeling — everything bursting at once — but later it slows down to the point where you can actually turn the burner off because it’s all pretty much popped, just the odd kernel still flowering open here or there. The to-ing and fro-ing has diminished. The Salvador Dali painting of clocks that melted onto everything and are crawling with ants no longer feels like your life’s most accurate surrealist emblem. Time with the kids feels more precious than strained.
My children are now 17 and 20, and even now I can say “Take your time” and watch their shoulders drop: when my daughter, a new driver, is apologizing for her worried adjusting of her side mirrors; when my son is grating mozzarella for me and the rest of the lasagna components are already laid out on the counter.
The pandemic has made this both easier — with fewer things to rush off on — and achier, since the time of having these grown people in the house is dwindling away. Sourdough starter, pandemic gardens, coronavirus vaccines — we have had our eyes on the prize of late, and the prize has been long in coming. Maybe this is an opportunity for taking our time. Maybe we can reap a little slowdown from this season.
But please don’t let me add “Take your time” to your endless parental to-do list, which may include overseeing your children’s education while simultaneously working from home and watching the clock hands fly or stand maddeningly still. Or both. But if you can say it to your kids? It will make you breathe easier, and one day they’ll say it back to you. You’ll ask for help with your iPhone, and you’ll say: “Hang on. I’m sorry. It’s just this. Wait.” And your 20-year-old son will say slowly, vibingly: “It’s okay, Mama. Take your time.”
And it will be like love on a platter, held out to you for seconds.
Catherine Newman is the author of “How to Be a Person.”