Saturday, November 7, 2015

Practically Wasting My Time

I just wasted two hours trying to get my baby to nap. The eye-rubbing and whining started at 10am. She's just now fallen asleep. It's noon. 

There are days when I waste my time slicing avocado and tomatoes for baby, only for her to spend half an hour flicking it all onto the floor. And evenings when I waste 10 minutes reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear to her on the potty, only for her to stand up and gleefully pee on the bath mat. 

When you're a parent, time gets weird. It takes on a value somewhere between gold and paper towels: it's extremely precious, yet you find yourself throwing away massive amounts of it, every day. If I added up all those little minutes of feeding, pottying, and putting baby to sleep, would I be horrified to know what I could have done with my life instead? I could have learned fluent Chinese! Invented a portable water-desalination system! Funded girls' education worldwide!

Then, thinking about time as a parent gets philosophical. What about all those other ways to legitimately waste time, without kids? Like taking two years to create a smartphone app that flops irreparably upon release. Or completing a law degree only to graduate during a recession and have to work at Subway. And many adults I know openly admit that they are wasting their lives away in soul-killing cubicle jobs.

To help me answer my question, I thought of examples of people I know who are, in my eyes, really wasting their lives away. One 35-year-old woman has been coddled by her parents her entire life and has never had to work. She's currently in her thirteenth year of a Master's program in literature, has never had a relationship, and now believes that she is too old -- and too afraid -- to take a vacation alone for the first time in her life. 

And one man dropped out of college, after which his parents continued to fund a string of wobbly business ideas based on his premise that college dropouts are supposed to be more successful than degree holders. Today he's 42, has lost his zip for startups, and is working part-time for a friend's company for $20 an hour. He otherwise lives off his wife's wealthy family. His life isn't shabby, but ask him any career-related questions and you get a potent dose of silent treatment, plus a great view up his nostrils.

To me, these cases have something in common: A future pain (break away from coddling parents, finish a degree, accept your chronological age) was avoided, only to prolong a present pain. Facing psychological discomfort is part of learning and growing. If we avoid this, we don't mature. We remain in the same unexperienced, puerile state that we were in before we approached the challenge. That, to me, feels like a true waste of time. 

It might be a character thing, a personal decision, or the result of social expectations. But a meaningful life requires deep soul-searching to identify what you really want, to doggedly pursue it, and to own the pain that you will inevitably encounter. Otherwise, the narrative of your life becomes a string of excuses of why it was better not to have done things. 

Where would that put me on the spectrum of a meaningful life, while I go crazy spending all day with a little person? Well, if I use responsibility as a measuring stick, then raising a child conscientiously would put me (and other parents) pretty high. But I'm not patting myself on the back yet; the journey of parenthood never ends, and I can still fail.

Is this something I really wanted? Yes. I am voluntarily watching the fistful of oatmeal hit the kitchen floor. Am I accepting the pain that comes with this? Yes, pain is inextricably woven into a mom's daily life: surviving on two hours of sleep, being hungry but having no hands free to feed myself, having back pain but being unable to put down the fussy and sick baby, and having no time to poop.

Yup. It's pretty darned uncomfortable. But by far, the most painful part of raising a baby -- for an achievement-oriented person like myself -- is watching that precious time blow away in the wind, all while baby-centric tasks finish in slow motion. I have lived my entire life goal-by-goal, reaping the benefits of discipline that clarified my thoughts. But today... goals? Pfuah! Getting anything done? Fuggedaboutit. 

So to make lemonade out of lemons, I have to see this for what it really is: a meditation. An exercise in letting go. Without sufficient sleep or headspace for my own thoughts, I'm trapped in the present moment because I can't even remember what I was planning on doing today (past and future, gone). I could mindfully observe my monkey-brain chattering its doubts to me, but even better, I've already been listening to my toddler babble "Bwah bwah" since daybreak. Which numbs my mind until it is an empty vessel, like the potty that she walked away from before tinkling on the floor. 

In a Zen way, it hurts to be forced into this meditative state at the expense of all the things that I envisioned myself doing as an adult. Writing a book, or even a blog post. Honing my illustration skills. Collaborating with creative people. Educating myself in the arts and sciences. Making a difference in the world, outside my apartment. Reading a book.

None of that will get done in the next year. 

But then, in the total absence of the thoughts and ambitions that have defined me forever, I am reduced to this: a loving presence for a little person. Twenty-six pounds of babbling baby demands me to interact with her, sing to her, put her to sleep, the way that humans have done since the beginning of time. She's hardwired to know what she needs to become the best person she can be. And I'm hardwired to not neglect her.

Getting the best out of these first years means that I will save time later when my daughter is healthy, potty-trained, and well-socialized. No investment is foolproof, but all parents hope that their children grow up to lead independent, productive lives. And the gift of time is all we can pay into their futures.

I'll wait. I cringe inside a little whenever I see my time fly out the window, barely used. But I'll put up with the pain. It's a good waste of time.

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