The time we have left
Instead of regretting what’s lost, I want to embrace what’s gained.
For the past year and a half—our daughter’s entire life—Billy and I have split our time between parenting and working.
Our weeks are carefully structured and divided by day. On Mondays, I work while Billy takes care of our daughter; on Tuesdays, he works, and I’m on parenting duty; we follow that same pattern on Wednesdays and Thursdays. On Fridays, I have solo time for the first half of the day, while Billy gets alone time in the afternoon. We often divide our time on Sundays, while Saturdays are reserved for being together as a family.
This arrangement means that Billy and I each get between 20-24 hours of non-parenting time a week. In addition to squeezing work into those hours, that time is also when we get an opportunity to exercise, run errands, go to doctor’s appointments, and maybe, possibly, do something relaxing for ourselves.
In short, that kid-free time is precious—and incredibly limited. And while this schedule ensures an equitable division of parenting, it’s not surprising that one of the recurring arguments that Billy and I have is around whether we get enough time to ourselves.
Although I’m proud of how we’ve managed during the past year and a half, I also recognize how incredibly exhausting and unsustainable it’s been. Twenty hours a week isn’t enough time to get everything done that we need to do. More often than not, I wind up catching up on work during evenings and early mornings. And when I’m not working (i.e. when I could be relaxing), I am usually worrying about all of the work I’m not doing.
But the end is in sight. A few weeks ago, we secured a spot for our daughter in a preschool down the street—a forest-school-inspired day care that she can attend once she turns 2. That means we'll muddle through our parenting-working arrangement for exactly six more months.
The time between now and then feels long and short all at once.
Most parents who enroll their children in day care will tell you the same thing: it’s a relief, but a bittersweet one. It’s great to have someone else take care of your child, but it’s also weird! You can’t help but miss your kid. It makes the time that you do have together feel even more finite.
Now that there’s an end date to our current parent-work situation, I’m craving time to myself much less often. Instead, I’m hungry for more time with my daughter.
So far, I’ve witnessed all of her developmental milestones, big and small. I was there for her first word and first steps. I’ve witnessed her try out new dance moves and test different boundaries. And I’ve been there for the smaller things too—the first time she saw a photo of a cow and said “moo;” the first time she successfully speared a piece of food with a fork; her first experience climbing up and down stairs.
What will I miss when she’s at day care? What will she learn and do on her own, without me?
This past weekend was one filled with friends and family. On Saturday, Billy and I celebrated a friend’s birthday at a backyard tiki party. It was our first successful night out in more than a year and we were giddy with the freedom of it all. The following day, Easter Sunday, we gathered with family for brunch. As the only family member of her generation, our daughter—clad in a blue eyelet dress and rain boots with bunny rabbits—was the star of the show.
The entire weekend was sweet and special. It also made me feel sad. Perhaps because of our recent day care decision, I couldn’t help but think about the passage of time. How many more Easters would we all get to all be together? How many more birthdays will our friend live to celebrate? How many things have Billy and I missed out on by not going out on date nights more often?
This year, our daughter just started to comprehend the idea of hunting for Easter eggs. With a bit of gentle prodding from mom and dad, she’d tentatively reach for a plastic egg and place it in her basket. Next year, I bet she’ll better understand the activity and love it, not needing nearly as much encouragement from us.
At this point, it feels like we have countless egg hunts in our future. In reality, our daughter will grow out of them at some point—when she’s 9, 10, 11? Depressing Math tells me that we have between seven and nine more egg hunts to experience with her.
When you apply that same logic to how long loved ones may live, well—Urban is right—it gets pretty depressing. We tell ourselves that we have countless opportunities to be together. But those opportunities are much more limited than we think.
“Depressing Math reveals a cold truth,” Urban wrote. “While you may not be anywhere near the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time spent with some of the most important people in your life.”
There are so many parts of early parenthood that feel interminable: The sleepless newborn nights, the days filled with mind-numbing toddler tunes, the afternoons of patiently watching your little one go down the slide again and again and again. At the same time, other parts of parenthood seem to rush past at frightening speed. When I look at photos of our daughter from a year ago, I want to scream. How did she grow so much in 12 months? Where did all that time go?!
The perfectionist part of me likes to imagine that I can get the balance of working and parenting just right. Likewise, I daydream that if I spend enough time on my body and mind, I’ll be perfectly refreshed, stress-free, and present when I’m around friends and family. But I never seem to manage that balance I’m looking for.
The more I obsess about getting things just right, the less present I am. The more I calculate how much time is remaining in any given situation, the less I experience in the moment. Sometimes, I worry so much about how to live life successfully that I wind up letting it all pass me by. I spend too much time in my head, and not enough time simply being.
It’s a strange experience to recognize what you will later regret. I know I’ll regret the time I spent worrying instead of living, but I find that it's an incredibly difficult habit to break. Trying to push away fears of time passing away just seems to make those worries even louder.
So now I’m wondering if I can listen to those fears and learn from them.
In her book, On Living, hospice chaplain Kerry Egan writes that, “There is always something to regret, even in a joy-filled life.”
Life is a million choices, and every choice is a choice not to do something else, and so regrets accrue with life. It's inevitable. Thinking through those regrets, though, gives any one of us a chance to think about what we wish had been different. It's a chance to think about what we feel is missing in our lives, what we hope could be different. Most important, even if in just a small way, it's a chance to act on that understanding.
I know how short life can be. I know we’re not guaranteed even the limited amount of time together that we think we have. But there’s no rule that I have to keep living life like I have been lately: in my head, letting regrets pile up.
Urban argues that, while we may not always have countless experiences ahead, we do have countless possibilities. There are so many different ways that we can choose to live our lives and spend our time with others.
“The life we’ll be living 10 years from now will largely be determined not by our past selves but by our present and future selves,” Urban wrote. “If we imagine what we might regret down the road, it’s very much in our hands to do something about it now.”
“This is the good news about being a human,” he continued. “The time we have left with family and friends is not a law of nature like the weeks we have left to live. It’s a function of priorities and decisions.”
Right now, I have six months of time left before our daughter goes to day care. That’s 179 days of her running through the house, making messes, and squealing with delight. I have 26 weeks to take her to the zoo, explore new parks, and play in the backyard. We have 2,000-something waking hours to read books, sing songs, and play peek-a-boo together.
Knowing the amount of time we have left has made me appreciate our days together much more.
After these six months pass, I will have more time. Not with her, but for myself. And while I am incredibly tempted to devote all that time to work—day care bills gotta get paid!—I am also reminding myself to think about what I may later regret. Instead of spending all of that newfound time in front of my laptop, what if I start scheduling lunches with my mom? Or Tuesday morning yoga? Or something else that will nourish my soul and help me find that balance I’ve been desperately grasping for?
I don’t have all the time in the world. But I do get to choose how I spend it.