Adjusting to the Parenting Time Warp

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Young kids aren’t tuned in to the clock. Caring for young children might be best described as a sudden burst of slow. This kid-induced slowdown can be disorienting. Our productivity seems to plummet, yet we feel as hurried and exhausted as ever. Parents live in a strange sort of time warp.

In our culture, the belief that time is a limited, precious resource creates intense pressure to accomplish more tasks in less time. “A deep sense of denial sets in, along with the fear that, if we stop, we’ll actually have to feel something — anything — about how insane our lives are,” says recovering speedaholic Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World.

Of course, something has to give. Mental and emotional resources must be replenished or our brains get stuck on high alert. In quiet moments, we wonder if we’re missing the real joys in life as we juggle endless everyday hassles. Social relationships are less satisfying when we’re overwhelmed. A crowded social calendar means you can’t linger because you’re already late for the next event.

Telling time

How we track time depends on our culture, according to social psychologist Bob Levine, professor of psychology at California State University, Fresno, and author of A Geography of Time. In our clock-oriented culture, breakfast is at 6 a.m., lunch is at noon. Punctuality is prized and we seldom lose track of time because we’re checking our watches (or cell phones) all day.

In event-time cultures, activities start when the time feels right and end when they’ve run their course. People’s sense of time is more flexible. Punctuality isn’t expected. Interruptions don’t cause friction because time isn’t compartmentalized on the calendar. Although this may sound like the answer to some parents’ problems, research shows event-time isn’t better, just different.

Coping with kid time

“Because we have been trained on clock time, we impose it on our children at a very early age,” says Tejinder Billing, assistant professor of management at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. New parents may feed infants at three-hour intervals. Some adopt strict sleep-training timetables.

Yet each child marches to the cadence of an internal clock. Some resist any attempt to hurry them up. Others grow anxious when life doesn’t unfold as planned. “Each person has what we call a temporal personality,” Billing says, and these personalities can conflict.

If you love a strict schedule and you’re parenting a laid-back child, you may experience frustration. It seems the faster you go, the slower your child responds. This is just an illusion, Billing says. Studies show a sense of urgency distorts our perception of pace. When you’re late for work, the three minutes it takes to find your daughter’s left shoe feels more like 10. And that increases your impatience.

Some temporal contexts fit individuals’ personalities better than others. Speed-driven parents may find the tempo of baby time almost unbearable. They may miss the adrenalin rush they felt when life moved faster and question their natural nurturing abilities.

Other parents may welcome an infant’s long, frequent naps but be frustrated by preschoolers’ wiggly fidgets during dinner and early wakeup times. They may resist putting kids on a sleep schedule because they don’t want to curtail their own evening activities.

Bottom line: A mismatch between your temporal personality and the time context of parenting can cause stress.

Find the right rhythm

If you’re frustrated with the pace of parenting, “slow down long enough to see the mosaic of your life in its entirety,” Hohlbaum says. “Everyone has an individual tipping point, when too fast is too much or when too slow is too slow.” You have to find your own custom speed. Here are some tips to help you adjust:

  • Be mindful of what you have. Multitasking puts you in a mental state of time starvation, Hohlbaum says. Savor a cup of coffee, tell knock-knock jokes with the kids and kiss your partner for a full 60 seconds. Enjoying the here and now puts you in a mental state of time abundance and inspires gratitude.
  • Establish priorities and stick to them. As demands pop up, ask yourself, “Is this really important?” Hohlbaum says. When we’re pressed for time it’s easy to lose sight of our own needs and values. You have enough time to fulfill your deepest desires when you eliminate less-important tasks.
  • Ditch your to-do list one day a week. Keep account of time spent rather than tasks accomplished, Billing advises. Note how much of your day was invested in cherished relationships, healthy habits and personal growth. An hour and a half spent baking cookies with your kids is more gratifying than completing errands to the post office, the bakery and the dry cleaner. Take a long-term view of productivity.

Rest assured: The pace of parenting is anything but steady. The hours between 4 and 7 p.m. pass too slowly for parents of wound-up preschoolers. The same time flies by for parents of school-age kids who have after-school activities and homework. It’s important to putter to the beat of your own heart once in a while; time seems to expand in response. 

Heidi Smith Luedtke is a personality psychologist and mom of two whose kids keep her busy beyond belief.

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