Hung up on time

Our daughter was constantly checking her clock. Ironically, the pandemic brought peace after we took her timepiece away.

Toby Melville/Reuters/File
Cleaners on ropes clamber over one of the faces of the Great Clock, also known as Big Ben, above London’s Houses of Parliament.

Week 1 in the age of the coronavirus, we took away our daughter’s clock.

This was not explicitly virus-related. We had been worrying for some months that our third grader was developing an unhealthy obsession if not with the object, then with time itself. 

It came out in predictable ways. In the middle of our never-ending bedtime process, she’d be just getting drowsy when she would jolt herself upward and swing her head toward the numbers on the clock. She needed to check just how long she’d been lying down, she would explain. 

We’d leave her alone in her room, but soon she would march downstairs in her nightgown, announcing with growing panic that it had been 15 minutes. Thirty minutes. A full hour!

Mornings were no better. I had gotten into my own pattern of squeezing in mama time before the get-ready-for-school rush. I set my alarm to sound before the roosters so I could exercise (while catching up on work-related podcasts), follow up on emails (a never completed task), tidy up the kitchen (we had left dishes because we’d eaten too late), and glance at the paper (never fully read). 

But my daughter’s clock was threatening everything. She was waking herself up earlier and earlier, those evil blue digits encouraging her progress.

She was just an early riser, she protested, when we suggested she should let herself sleep. Besides, she did not want to have to rush in the morning. She wanted to be up before her little sister. (The bathroom was uncontested then, among other benefits.) She wanted time to get ready. She wanted time to read. She wanted us.

Part of me loved seeing her, tangle-haired and sleepy-eyed, padding downstairs to the kitchen, where I had set up my morning office. But I felt my own time disappearing; the emails, school forms, morning news, and to-do lists piled up accusingly in my mind.

But then we received notice that our kids would not be returning to school – at least not in person. And I had an idea. 

We’re going to try something, I told my daughter that morning. 

She looked at me with alarm. (I have a habit of “trying things” – chicken raising, zero waste, tofu – that creates some level of discord in my family.) 

Since there’s no school, I said, we should just get rid of bedtime. 

Her eyes turned into grand saucers. For a moment she could not speak. Then she exploded into squeals. “That is the best idea you’ve ever had!” she shouted, running to tell the news to her little sister.

I went with the moment. 

“And you know,” I added nonchalantly, “since there’s no bedtime, there’s no need for a clock. We’ll just take it out of your room so it doesn’t bother you.”

She stopped her jumping. 

“What?”

The clock, I explained. There was no need for it anymore.

She stared at me, aghast.

“How will I know it’s time to get up? What if I wake up in the middle of the night? What if I am lying awake? What if time is passing and I don’t know it?”

I led her to the sofa and sat down. She crawled onto my lap, an increasingly unwieldy position. She has gotten so big.

You will know when it’s time to wake up, I assured her. You will know when it’s morning because there will be dawn. She did not have to worry because, for a little while, all of those external things – the appointments, the recess bell, the agitated parents demanding why it takes 20 minutes to find socks without “bumps” or how it can possibly be a challenge to locate homework completed in the same spot every single evening – are gone. She had, in the midst of all this strangeness, an opportunity.

She looked at me. Then she nodded.

As with everyone, our life proceeded to change dramatically. It is still changing. There are personal fears, and global ones, to confront. But I have also noticed that, for the first time in as long as I can remember – and perhaps ironically – our daughter has started to sleep, and awaken, without anxiety. 

I have also noticed that we are relearning life as a family. Days feel longer. The unimportant and inconsequential have retreated silently into the sidelines of our existence. Wants are reprioritized. My old nemesis, time, quietly urges me to do those things it once commanded me not to do – of course I have time to call my parents and grandparents, to read that extra story. Life does go on without school, without travel, without that tightly gripped illusion of control over the future.

I took the clock out of our room, as well. I do not miss it.

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