Ten years ago, when I was still working as a librarian, I had a memorable lunch with a colleague. She was older than I, close to retirement age, and her two children were grown and long out of the house. Ethan was nine at the time, and my friend casually pointed out, as I bit into my thick sandwich, that his years of living with me were likely half over.
"Assuming he'll go away for college," she said.
The fresh veggies and hummus that had tasted delicious a moment earlier now seemed like mud in my mouth. I carefully swallowed and took a sip of my iced tea.
"Yeah, I suppose you're right," I choked out. What I wanted to do was cry.
I pictured Ethan, whose dimpled hands still liked to hold toy cars and action figures and rest, open-palmed, on my knee, as we read together at night. In a few hours, I'd meet him in front of his school and, as we walked home, he'd talk to me in his sweet raspy voice, rolled drawings poking out of his Yu-Gi-Oh! backpack. I'd do my best to pay full attention, to live in that precise moment. This time we have is half over, I'd think. Don't miss any of it. And as though I could converse with time itself, I'd add, slow down. But I existed in a strange taffy-like element I now think of as Parenting Time, a phase of life that, while containing plenty of days slowed by rain, fever, or my being the sole member of the Ethan Entertainment Committee, nonetheless zipped by as if on turbo charge.
For me, that is. The years zipped by for me. Though I've never asked Ethan to describe the pace of life from his perspective, I've watched him hurry toward independence from the time he was very small. In fact, he hated the confines of babyhood, which, as a new mother, I had no way to understand while we slogged through our difficult first months together. All I knew was that he was always crying, impossible to please. I assumed this meant I was inept at caring for him. But then, at eight months, when he learned to zoom across the floor in a loud, slapping crawl, he could barely contain his glee. Walking pleased him even more, and nine years later, around the time I had that sobering conversation with my colleague, I gave him permission to walk on his own from school to the library where I worked. There was only one small street he had to traverse, with the help of a crossing guard, and as I watched him make that brief journey from my place at an upstairs window, I could see he was in his element. His gait confident and purposeful, his eyes bright. Clearly, he loved that he had my trust, loved that moment of being on his own and striding forward in his life. Once again I was reminded of how quickly time moves, and that letting him go was high on my list of duties as his mother.
My father, at 80, told me that when he looked in the mirror all he saw was the guy he'd always known himself to be, but when he came across himself in photographs, he thought, "Who is that old man?" So far, the self I see in pictures hasn't altered to the point where I feel shocked in that way. But what does shock me is the sight of the young man who walks in my door on his breaks from college, throws his duffle bag on my little boy's bed, then bends down low to give me a hug.
What is it about Parenting Time, a period in our lives when we're always busy, often overwhelmed, and, admittedly, sometimes bored, that makes the years seem to evaporate like mist? While my boy, a sophomore now, rushes ahead in conversation with plans for the following year, for graduate school, for the time when school is behind him completely, why do I look up at him feeling dizzy and stunned by the fact that we're already where we are?
Maybe our sense of time is affected by the fact that we always have to work to keep up with our kids. That just when we think we understand who our children are and that we have a handle on their needs, everything changes and we have to learn our little ones—or not-so-little ones—all over again.
Or perhaps it's that parenting thrusts us into a mindset of constant nostalgia, sometimes for the person we were at our child's age, sometimes for who that child was a month, a year, or a decade ago.
It could also have to do with the fact that we're never so outwardly focused as we are when we're busy being someone's mother. Hours move differently when we're not so steeped in ourselves.
But if I were to find myself across a table from a younger mother right now, one who is at that halfway mark I found myself at a decade—or was it five minutes?—ago, I'd probably tell her that it's simply love that puts our lives on warp speed. We get to spend a finite number of days with these amazing, rapidly evolving people before they go off on their own, so that even when they're driving us crazy and we long for just a moment to ourselves, another voice is also at work inside us. Stay here, it says. Right here. Right now.