By Janine Kovac
My twins were born fifteen weeks before their due date and spent three months in the newborn intensive care unit. Those months were sad and scary and unpredictable. And yet, ironically, living in crisis mode helped me live in the present moment.
Sticking to a routine helped me embrace the present, as did focusing on effort rather than achievement. But the real clincher came when the boys were three weeks old. That’s when they were finally strong enough for me to hold them. Twice a day my husband and I would hunker down into one of the NICU’s rocking chairs and we’d each hold a twin, even though he was still hooked up to his ventilator and heart monitor. As any new parent knows, holding a sleeping baby on your chest is like a peaceful meditation. To me it was better—since it was one of the few activities in my day that made me feel like the mother of a newborn.
When our boys were finally cleared to go home, they were plump and miraculously healthy. Ironically, the healthier the boys grew, the easier it was for me to drift away from living in the present. By the time the twins were eight months old, our family life was back to “normal”—hectic, frazzled, and stressed out from our own “busyness.”
It was this post on Quality Family Time —in particular, Christine’s questions at the end—that started me thinking about the metaphors I use when I think about time. Metaphors are more than flowery language; they’re also a kind of shorthand that shapes our assumptions and conclusions. Sometimes we choose a metaphor that doesn’t exactly fit the concept.
Take time for example. We talk about time as a resource: we hope to spend time wisely instead of wasting our time. We live on borrowed time or have stolen moments. For me, time was a container. I was looking to fill my day. An empty schedule made me feel anxious, as if I weren’t using my time efficiently. With every new task I had to do I’d ask, “Can I fit it in?” as if my day were like a suitcase that I was trying to stuff with extra pairs of jeans.
As I tried to fit more and more events into the day, I’d often over-schedule the family. I’d misjudge how long it actually takes for a four-year-old to dress herself or how long it takes to get twins into the car, which meant that I was often late and that made me testy and anxious. Paradoxically, planning fewer activities into my day made me anxious, too. After all, a full container is better utilized than a half-empty one. Rationalizing with this metaphor, it seems that if time is a resource and a day is a container, fuller is better; more activities seem more productive than scheduling fewer activities.
Of course the research, such as the study cited in Christine’s post, has concluded the opposite. It’s quality, not quantity. But before I could embrace the idea of valuing quality over quantity, I had to let go of my misleading container metaphor. I started to notice just how often I used the phrase “fit it in” when planning my day, as in, “If I do the dishes now, maybe I can fit in a yoga class before I pick up the kids.” Or, “If we hurry on Saturday, we can fit in some time at the playground after ballet class.”
When I consciously discarded the “container” metaphor, it was easier to pare down the number of activities and errands I planned for the day. I became a better judge of how long it actually takes to go to the grocery store or get the kids ready for bed. And because I had fewer activities I’d actually be on time.
Then, instead of worrying about time, I started thinking about timing. For example, my daughter’s bedtime routine used to consist of begging, cajoling, and scolding on my part with much dawdling, defiance, and tears on the part of my daughter. But I noticed that after dinner, my daughter would regularly wander off to play in her room. When she played by herself, she’d alternate between moments of intense focus (during which she’d get very agitated if interrupted) and moments in which her attention could be diverted.
Instead of looking at the clock to decide when it was time to get into pajamas, I looked at my daughter’s self-play. When she was absorbed and focused, I’d leave her alone. A few minutes later when her attention started to wane, I’d remind her to get ready for bed. Observing these aspects of my daughter’s behavior helped me preempt misbehavior rather than react to it.
When I time it right, she’ll actually get ready for bed by herself after the first reminder—which leaves us plenty of time to curl up together, read a couple of books, and say our prayers before she drifts off to sleep as I rub her back. No tears, no whining, no struggle. And as any parent knows, watching a sleeping child is like a peaceful meditation. Maybe even better.