A Parent Learns To Stop, and Sift the Gravel

Everyone knows that supermoms juggle their time differently than when they were only career-oriented. And it was no surprise that my son became my first priority. I never guessed, though, that my son's view of the world would completely change my own.

As a too-busy professor and consultant, I bought time by hiring people to clean my home or organize my office, and sold it to other people who sought my professional expertise in organizational functioning. I managed my time efficiently, chatting on the phone while washing the dishes (the news on in the background), or running a computer program while conducting a telephone interview and handing materials for yet another project to an assistant.

Not having enough time to do the too-many things we think need to be done is very chic in my professional circles. Even vacation time should be efficiently planned: Conference locations dictated our vacation plans.

After Jared's birth, I joined the wave of professionals who leave successful workplace careers for parenting careers. Suddenly, I wasn't juggling work and home. But I still treated baby time as I had work time, squeezing more into a day than was possible. I'd rush to social dates, the supermarket, and Kindermusik, pulling Jared against his will away from his contemplation of the gravel in our driveway or his exploration of how balls bounce. I'd feel guilty about being late if I let him play "too long" before I bundled him into the car. Rushing was the way of life I knew. The idea of doing less felt wrong, as though I wasn't being productive.

But my son doesn't understand rushing to do something else. "Why not stay here and do this?" his disconsolate shrieks ask. He doesn't know about "in a few minutes," "later," or "tomorrow." "Wait" is a word he's beginning to recognize, but he likes it about as much as "no" and "nap time." Delayed gratification is not rewarding for him, no matter his parents' career-oriented philosophies.

At work, I had accepted my colleagues' world view of what was important. As a mother, I needed to accept my new little colleague's world view. His tea parties and excavations are his work. There is pleasure in merely watching him, but I have also found a whole new world right outside my door by following his lead.

How many ways can you sort gravel? Size, weight, and color are easy. What about jaggedness, or where it came from - top step or bottom? What about by whether you've seen it before? There is so much more to see and know about the world than my limited professional focus provided.

In the past, I would never deny a student a few extra minutes to help her understand an assignment because I was rushing to a sale on rutabagas. Why would I be any less respectful of my own son? In my professional life, I'd occasionally be late for appointments because meetings with colleagues or students ran long. The explanation was sufficient apology; it was understood that such latenesses were common, unavoidable.

Why should I now, as a mom, feel obliged to apologize contritely for being late because my son and I were investigating gravel? (Besides, my son often has deeper insights into his gravel than some of my colleagues had on their pet subjects.)

I AM no longer ashamed when Jared and I are sometimes late. Instead, I describe my lessons from a truly expert observer; how we compared yellow and red autumn leaves, slowly, thoroughly, thoughtfully shredding them to bits in the process. I learn about the world from him more gladly than from books. I don't need to fit him into my world anymore. I like visiting his.

Time remains a precious commodity, but now the emphasis is on the precious, not the commodity. I wouldn't sell those minutes I share with Jared to any bidder. My son showed me how little I saw while being paid to be an expert observer.

I'll return to the workplace. Now that Jared's reminded me of the possibilities, my new career won't be as narrowly focused as my old one.

Meanwhile, every once in a while, someone wants to walk with my son and me to stop and sift the gravel.

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