I’ve been thinking a lot about clocks lately, in part because my son had to make a model of Tock the Dog from The Phantom Tollbooth for school, and in part because I have had many days lately where I feel like I’m running out of time. Or just running. Until I have no choice but to be horizontal.
This week I told my son a bedtime story about clocks. Here is how it went:
Once upon a time, there was a boy who had two clocks in his room. One had numbers on it and it helped him see what time it was. The other had no numbers on it and it helped him see the moments and experiences he’d had without a concern for time. He spent a moment each day thinking about what these two clocks meant to him, including which one made him feel happier. He realized at the end of the day that it was the moments clock that mattered and made him happier, because when his mommy’s tired eyes looked lovingly at him while she rubbed his back, it didn’t matter whether the moment lasted three seconds or three minutes. It happened, and that’s all that mattered. At the end of the day, a moment of love was infinitely better than hours of anything else. Plus, having his mommy stare at him for three minutes would just seem creepy.
Now, lest you think I crafted this story in order to assuage any guilt at my increased absence from home life because of a busy work schedule, remember that this is a boy who understands metacognition and metacommunication as they are happening better than most eleven-year-olds. If he knew I was trying to explain away something he saw as a problem, he’d call me on it. And he didn’t call me on it. He knows I don’t feel guilty. He knows that he benefits from me finding my work rewarding, and yes, sometimes he wishes I was around more. But this wasn’t about guilt.
He knows me. That’s the beauty of eleven-year-olds. They still like bedtime stories, but they start to have grown-up eyes and hearts and brains.
If I were to create a word cloud of all of my college and grad school family sociology research notes from the 1990s, I suspect the biggest words in the cloud would be “quality time.” So many research articles and public debates about the benefits of quality time for parents whose paid work lives decreased their quantity of time with kids crossed my desk. A lot of it was about helping households with parents in the paid workforce manage work and family responsibilities in a way that didn’t make the problem any worse. Or add guilt to a situation that they couldn’t control. At the time I was reading these articles, I was heading into a profession that would allow me the privilege of affording child care and some control over the content and hours of my paid work. But the impetus for the research was to point out that structural forces were at play that, for parents at all income levels but maybe especially low income parents, time was limited. This needed to be shown in order to combat arguments that parents were doing a bad job. And when I was reading them, I figured that the other impetus for the research was to redefine the ways we measured “doing a good job” for parents.
The reports said, in a nutshell: It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a bunch of hours each day to spend with your children. What matters is that the time you spend is high quality. Stop feeling guilty about having to go to work.
Well, guess what? Recent research shows us that parents are actually spending more time with their kids than when I took all those feverish notes twenty years ago, across all income groups. But here’s the most interesting part: the story told in this new research is that more time means parents are doing a better job. “Doing a good job” is still measured in numbers. Not in moments. So, in light of past research suggesting that moments may matter more than time, parents ended up adding time. And researchers who’ve uncovered this are assuring parents not to feel guilty because the amount of time is increasing.
Might this be a troubling outcome? What if we didn’t use the clock with numbers on it to evaluate our parenting? What if we used the moments clock? The one without numbers.
Of course I recognize the need for clocks. I love being on time. I also want to acknowledge that eleven-year-olds can struggle with the moment v. time thing, evidenced this morning by my son’s failure to catch his school bus because he got wrapped up in the moment of playing with his new phone rather than looking at the clock. 7:43 a.m. is not a moment. It’s when he has to be at the corner to catch the bus. The driver will not wait for a boy having a moment with his distractable phone.
At the end of the day, here’s what matters: I don’t remember how long memorable moments take. I remember them as moments. When I look back on this troubled time in our world, I will remember looking into my son’s eyes with sadness about some local tragedies, extended family struggles, horrific deaths in the world, seemingly insurmountable conflicts between groups, culture wars. I won’t remember how long we will have looked at each other. But I will remember the moment of shared sadness and shared compassion that can never be measured with time. It doesn’t matter that we have talked about what to make of our own and the world’s sadness for two hours. It matters that we talked about sadness.
And, at the end of the day, I still do not feel guilty. Not for a moment.