'But I don't have time!" pleads my 14-year-old daughter when I remind her that today is her turn to walk the dog. "Tough. Do it anyway," is what I mean to say. Instead, as my current parenting style has degenerated from firm but flexible to limp yet ineffectual, I skulk off to the kitchen, where I reflect on my own high school relationship with time.
I, too, was constantly exhausted in high school. I'm still proud, in fact, of having learned during those years to sleep while standing up.
Although I can be honest with my children about my past sexual experience, I can't seem to come clean about my history of poor time management. Perhaps this is because I realize that sexual relationships come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of success; whereas I still hope for perfection in my children's abilities to plan well.
"Finish your homework first. Then you can talk on the phone," I sternly direct. Oh, right, like I ever did that myself. "If you can break that project down into separate tasks, it won't be so overwhelming." My hard-charging high school self always meant to budget my time sensibly, but I balked at prudent behavior, possibly in the belief that it would make me less attractive to boys. Thirty-five years later, my true love secure in a 19-year-old marriage, I still seem to believe that sensible decision-making and a life of excitement can't coexist. But shouldn't I keep pulling for my children to do better than I did? Isn't each generation supposed to improve on the last?
Meanwhile, as my children get older and wrestle with more activities and less time, I have been drowning in surplus hours. Once the children are out of school, if I'm not furiously driving everyone around in circles, I'm standing in the middle of the living room, wondering what to do next. Unable to leave the premises because my children may be home any minute, or they may need homework help, or just because I don't want them to be alone, I'm frequently stuck at home with nothing to do.
Those are the worst times-when everyone is either busy or gone, and it's just me and the house. The walls stare at me disapprovingly; I glare back resentfully. I learned early from my musician mother that housecleaning is for the small-minded. So I try to ignore the house's incessant chatter by revising to-do lists and moving things around, as I wonder how long I may actually have before I'm ambushed by another domestic crisis. My therapist seems to believe that my episodes of jittery boredom are the perfect opportunity to deepen my self-knowledge, and that my desperate lunging toward activity is the hallmark of an anxious soul. I keep trying to point out to her that people in their 50s realize their time is going to run out at some point, and that anxiety is therefore an appropriate response, and furthermore if I had known she was going to take this attitude, I wouldn't have given up drinking.
Tick, tick, tick. What first? Then what? It's the hardest challenge I face, to order my days in ways that please both myself and my world. I still struggle with time, pleading, pummeling and trying to trick it into behaving like I want it to. My hope for my children is that they learn to make friends with time, with all its inexorable demands and opportunities. Tick, tick, tick ... ka-boom!
Kristin Gehring is the calendar editor for Wednesday Journal, the parent company of Chicago Parent, and is the mother of three kids.