The Strange Ways Having Children Changes Parents’ Perception Of Time

A minute lasts a minute. You can compare fathers’ minutes with mothers’ minutes, you can count up the minutes that children cost altogether, and you can look at where parents get those minutes from.

But that tells us nothing about how such a minute feels. Time perception is more slippery, harder to capture in statistics and lists than its objective duration. Nevertheless, the way children transform how time feels is at least as fundamental. And that’s what I want to know: How do we experience time, as parents? And to what extent does that experience change when a second child comes along? 

How time changes when you have children.

“With children,” a friend remarked a couple of years ago, “days are long and years are short.” It was summer then, and we were in New York; our first child was one and a half, and our second not yet born. We were walking along the Hudson, my friend, my partner, and I, while our daughter slept in the stroller.

I already knew then what she meant, and now, years later, with a second child, I understand it even better. 

For at least half a century, social scientists have been trying to map out what parenthood does to parents. How it affects their well-being, for instance: their relationship, their work. And parents, when asked about the most important change that having a child brings, always talk about one thing in particular: time.

“New fathers and mothers,” a psychologist wrote in the early 1980s when taking stock of research into the transition to parenthood, “report that sleep time, television time, communication time, sex time, and even bathroom time are all in short supply, thanks to their newborns. Paradoxically, they also say that they are more often bored.”

Parents are short on time, and yet they have too much of it. In other words, days are long and years are short.

It’s what neuropsychologists call the “classic time paradox.” How you perceive time depends very much on the moment. In a “prospective” assessment of time, you estimate the duration of an event while it’s still in progress. A “retrospective” assessment is made afterward—and very different processes come into play in the two different modes.

Take feeding a baby, for example: It lasts forever when you’re doing it (prospective). The same goes for repeatedly reading the same book to a child or going through the motions between dinner and bedtime. The actions are repetitive and predictable; there is little that’s new, so boredom can strike at any moment—and days are long.

But if you look back later (retrospective), there often isn’t much you remember from such episodes. As a result, the entirety melts away, reduced to almost nothing. Details don’t stick, and years are short. 

The first time shift: newborns.

Newborn babies, with their idiosyncratic rhythms, tend to throw their parents’ time perception completely out of whack. Not only do they render meaningless the difference between day and night; they change the contours of time, depriving it of continuity.

“The days with the baby felt long, but there was nothing expansive about them,” observes the narrator of Jenny Offill’s novel Dept. of Speculation: “Caring for her required me to repeat a series of tasks that had the peculiar quality of seeming both urgent and tedious. They cut the day up into little scraps.” Time is no longer a stream the course of which you can adjust yourself but becomes something that feels simultaneously imposed from outside and taken from you. 

Even after those first, sleepless weeks, time tends to remain fragmented and somewhat dispossessed. “The children were small and enthralling,” the main character of Anna Enquist’s Counterpoint recalls, looking back on the early years with her two children: “At any moment she had to…be ready to leap up to get a drink, something to read to them, answer a question.”

Two children, I now know, each fragment your time in their own way. When my son had just been born, his rhythm constantly clashed with that of his elder sister. The chaos of that early beginning has now died down, but there are still days that I spend with them where I feel like a ridiculous puppet, controlled by not one, but two, puppet masters. Dictatorial, sardonic puppet masters they are, who swing me back and forth, and sometimes pull me in two directions at once. The effect then, too, is that time moves agonizingly slowly, yet there’s also never enough of it. 

In the novel Faces in the Crowd, by Valeria Luiselli, the narrator observes that novelists always say that novels “need a sustained breath.” She has two children: “They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is—has to be—in short bursts. I’m short of breath.” (Properly inhaling and exhaling once takes around three seconds, the neuropsychologist Marc Wittmann reports in Felt Time. Coincidentally or not, two to three seconds is also approximately the length of time for which most of us perceive “now”—the duration of a “moment.” And, researchers have discovered, it’s also the length of sounds exchanged by mothers and babies.)

“These are the intense years,” my partner and I regularly tell each other. “It’ll get easier later on.” What we mean by “easier” is that we hope our children will take up less and less of our time. Or, in any case, that they won’t always require this endless routine, will stop hacking our time into pieces. 

“Those darling children who eat all my time,” Zadie Smith once wrote. That’s how I experience it as well, especially now that I have two. More often than I’d like, I have the paradoxical feeling that those people I’ve intentionally brought into the world, and who are so dear to me, for whom I’d give my life, are the very people out to take something that’s “mine.”

How to actively shift your perception of time.

For centuries, the passage of time was something you noticed by the work you’d done, the changing seasons, the position of the sun. Then along came clocks, and time became standardized; we began to count it. Since then, time has often been thought of as a currency: It’s ours, we can spend, waste, or invest it; we can keep it to ourselves or give it away—and it can be taken from us. 

But since our second child arrived, that metaphor has increasingly struck me as misguided. Although I can quite often choose how I spend my time—where I focus my attention at a given moment, where I go or who I’m with—at least as often, I have no say in it at all. That’s because two unpredictable factors—small children—have burrowed their way into my life, and in all their innocence have dictated to me how I spend my time. Their wishes, their pace, and their need for repetition largely determine what we do with our time as a family and how I feel about it. 

In her book Valuing Children, the American economist Nancy Folbre proposes that we conceive of the relationship between parents and children not in terms of the “investments” that parents make in their offspring but of the “commitments” they have made to them. I read this one Friday afternoon in the university library; my partner’s home with the children so I can stay until closing time.

And though such a concept seems blindingly obvious to me, at the same time it sounds pleasantly refreshing. I suppose it’s because the work of economists and sociologists and evolutionary biologists often strikes me as so calculating. The work of those, I mean, who analyze the relationship between parental time investments and “child outcomes” as if they were talking about production processes, or as if the family were a factory. In goes time, and out come IQs and other test scores. Or who describe the time you spend on your children as a parent as an “opportunity cost.” After all, you could have done something else with that time: made money, for instance.

In light of that view of parents and children, Folbre’s proposal is not only refreshing; it’s almost radical. A commitment, she writes, is a promise that remains binding, even when the expected “return on investment” remains absent. In contrast with an investment, moreover, a commitment brings with it moral duties—duties that you can’t just dispose of if the “results” are disappointing.

In the moments when time ceases to be “mine”—when it no longer feels like an individual possession or a currency—it takes on, for me at least, the nature of that kind of commitment. When I perceive time in that way, I no longer need to be grudging or possessive, no longer need to feel like I’m coming up short.

Instead, we’re defined by the way we’re bound to one another, a collective, entangled and interdependent.

In such moments, I see our relationship as one based on the promise I’ve made, before they were even with us, and without fully understanding what it meant, that this is our time. 

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