Mother Time

We have lots of some kinds of time, little of others -- which is why people who live outside this zone, including many politicians, don't understand our lives.

By Jennifer Bingham Hull
Published February 26, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

| Time used to be my ally, something I understood so well that I never thought about how it worked. I checked off tasks in my Franklin Planner. My life unfolded in neat blocks defined by where I lived, who I dated, what jobs I had. There were the schoolyears; the years spent living in Los Angeles, New York and Nicaragua. There was the year I dated my husband, the two years we lived together before getting married, the year and a half trying to get pregnant. Then, last January, Isabelle arrived, and Mother Time.
Isabelle obliterated the world of the Franklin Planner with one loud yelp. Since then I've often felt like a sailor whose trusty compass suddenly points every direction but north. A year later, the hours are reemerging in somewhat recognizable form. But they will never look the same again.

My first hint of this seismic change came two nights after Isabelle's birtha s I carried her around the hospital room at 4 a.m. while she craned her head back to examine the shadows on the ceiling. All this exploration, I felt, could be better done during the day, but Isabelle howled every time I returned her to the bassinet. I knew babies eat at night. What was shockingto discover was all the other things they like to do after hours. Reading the baby books, I discovered that infants come with no internal instructions about time; they can't differentiate night from day. The basic concept Ihad used to navigate life did not exist in Isabelle's world. I was supposed to teach her about time, specifically about sleep time.
This my husband and I tried vainly to do for six months. We had "quiettime" before "bedtime," both of which she greeted with a bright baby grin. I spent hours with Isabelle between midnight and 6 a.m. -- time not even scheduled by Franklin. After six months of around-the-clock nursing,sleeping in the bed with the baby, sleeping on the couch by the babyand singing, rocking and slinging the baby (over my husband's shoulder in a baby carrier), we finally gave in to the sleep authorities and let her cryit out for three nights. She quickly became an eight-hour-a-night girl, butthose first months convinced me that bedtime is an artificial construct, as are many of our rituals. Why eat breakfast in the morning when you can enjoy scrambled eggs and toast at 3 a.m. while watching old movies oncable? Napping throughout the day -- what a concept! Eating "on demand" --what a life! Had I been able to live on Isabelle time I would have thrived those first six months. Instead, I felt like a traveler on the red-eye,suspended between two time zones, adjusted to neither.

Mothers often complain that they "don't have time." But once Isabelle began sleeping through the night and I had a chance to think coherently, I realized that this isn't true. Mothers have lots of some kinds of time, and little of others. Mother Time is both abundant and scarce, which is whynobody who lives outside this zone, including many politicians, understands our lives. A friend with a 9-to-5 job recently related how jealous she is of my hours spent strolling with Isabelle. Long leisurely walks aren't something she has time to take. My days look like one long decadent vacation to her. The hours pass and I am still in the garden watching Isabelle explore a patch of grass, the demands of the Franklin Planner luxuriously suspended. I live in the present moment, largely because she won't allow me to do anything else.

What I lack is "predictable time," all those hours time management experts suggest you schedule for things that cannot be done with one hand and halfa brain. It's predictable time that allows for creative projects, those moments taken for yourself that keep you sane. I don't mind changing diapers. What bugs me is that I am constantly drinking my coffee cold, that little oasis of time for java and the New York Times now interrupted by baby needs. When I do get time it comes so unexpectedly -- the baby sleeps an extra hour, my husband suddenly takes her on a walk -- that I am totally unprepared and rush around like a madwoman trying to spend a credit I now will soon expire but not sure when, a state also not given toc oncentration or contemplation.

As a result, my marriage has become one long negotiation over time. Anothernew mother put it aptly, "The only time you have for yourself is the time your partner gives you" -- or that you pay for. My husband and I are no longer just lovers and confidants, we're shift workers, and that's what sustains us these days. Having both cut back on work to be with Isabelle, we trade her back and forth for equal blocks of time. On difficult days I've called for paybacks of 20 minutes. This sounds crass but it's actually quite liberating because it ensures each of us thatrarest of commodities, predictable time. Aren't most mothers keeping track anyway? Forget diamonds and rubies. Hours and minutes are the most valuable gifts my husband can give me now.

This is especially true given how fleeting time now seems. Life used to pass in large blocks: another birthday, another Christmas, another newyear. On a daily basis its passing barely caught my attention. Now time zips by under my nose, leaving me grasping for yesterday's child. Today the infant who could barely hold her head up stands swaying on the edge of toddlerhood, the baby disappearing before my eyes. Isabelle marks my life like a bookend. When Isabelle is 40 I will be 80. My babywoman throws my mortality in my face every day.

I'm sure it won't always be so intense. New mothers are obsessed creatures. And things are changing. A nanny now comes afternoons and I write or go to the gym. I've begun to check tasks off in my Franklin Planner again. I even sleep eight hours a night.

But then at 2 a.m. I'll hear something. I tiptoe into Isabelle's room, searching in the dark for that tiny infant with whom I watched the moon, that crazy creature who scoffed at the world's schedule.

But that tiny baby and sweet sliver of baby time are gone.

Jennifer Bingham Hull

Jennifer Bingham Hull is a Miami writer who reports on women's issues and international affairs.

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