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The Biggest Parenting Lesson I Learned During COVID

Time moves too quickly for parents. But during quarantine, for so many like myself, time moves very slowly. I've learned to simply exist in it.

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Everyone says it, of course: It goes by so fast—enjoy it. One moment you’re cutting their umbilical cord, the next thing you know you’re sending them off to college. Parents with children older than my own have been telling (warning?) me of this time-warp ever since I became a parent, speaking half in reverie, vaguely regretful of moments that they might have better savored if only they had only known how quickly it all zips by.

For a while, I did not take these words of wisdom to heart, partially because I did not want to accept the fact that they might be true (I don’t particularly want to blink and wake up in my 50s with an empty nest) and partially because they simply didn’t resonate with my own experience of time as a parent. My days of as a father are long — my two-year old still wakes up at an ungodly hour, and the majority of the time we are together, I am required to be a full-time playmate, jester, chef, personal assistant, event coordinator, safety inspector, and medic. Add a pandemic-induced quarantine to the mix, and I can’t help but find myself checking my phone now and again, hoping the clock might move along faster towards nap time, both of ours.

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Yet tonight I find myself on the verge of tears as I change my toddler’s diaper on his changing table, with his legs now long enough to dangle over the edge. We begin potty training tomorrow, and my sacred task — one of my first and most important as a father — of cleaning up his poop and pee every few hours may soon expire. I’ll probably be able to find meaning in my life despite the fact that the diaper era is drawing to a close, but I’ve found the cliché on my lips, seeking expression: It goes by so fast.

It really does, I suppose, and/or it doesn’t. But however time passes, it seems to do so with an increased sharpness and delirium when compared to my perception of it during my pre-parenting days. I hear the bone-rattling ticking of the climate clock more loudly. I marvel at how quickly my son is changing, and poke around at my hairline and look for wrinkles around my eyes, wondering if I am aging as rapidly as he is growing up. I am paternally wired to fixate on the future, and I spend so much time wondering how things will be for us five, ten, 18 years down the line that sometimes I might as well be in the future. As if stuck in the pinch point of a Chinese finger trap pulled in two directions, I simultaneously want time to speed up and halt forever. I am trying my best to enjoy it, but sometimes this very pressure to appreciate the moment as it passes is its own source of anxiety. Amidst the panic and paradox of time’s preciousness, how can parents maintain their balance in time, rather than wrestle against it?

I’m actually not the person to dispense sage advice on this subject; the fact that I am writing this is evidence that I am still struggling against time, not that I have peacefully inhabited its flow. That said, I’ve found a few things that help.

For example, I think the Buddha is right: Everything changes and withers and blossoms into new forms; nothing lasts as it is. With mortality more on my mind nowadays amidst a health crisis, I have tried to really dive into this impermanence, and I sometimes purposefully imagine that I will be dying tomorrow, which means that every moment I have this day is my last with my son: my last chance to savor our bond, my last chance to give him all the love I have so that he can carry it with him for the rest of his life. So far, I have never died the next day, but I don’t think it’s so ridiculous to imagine that it might happen, since, well, it might, and someday will.

Death and change are naturally occurring phenomena, but I suspect that the fraught sense of time’s fleetingness that I’m discussing also has its origins in a specific socioeconomic system: Many of us just don’t have the time we truly desire to spend with our families because we are so consumed by work. In days before COVID, I had to give my son my worst hours of the day: when I first wake up around 5:00 AM, and during dinner time, when I’ve finished work and my mind is buzzing with lingering stress phantoms. With this in mind, I might have thought to forgive myself for not always sitting like a Zen master basking in the rich depths of the Now.

Under the surreality of COVID-era stay-at-home time, in contrast, not only do I realize the sorry inadequacy of our previous setup, but I’m also more forgiving of myself if I’m not fully enjoying it when I just am not enjoying it, since, for me at this point, there’s plenty of time we have to spend together. The panic of time’s preciousness is dissipating, at least somewhat, simply because we have more of it together. Maybe that’s something I want to hold onto post-COVID-19.

There are many things I do not want to carry over from this pandemic era — not the least of which being the mass death and misery — and I do not want to stay at home forever with a toddler who is trapped indoors too much and given too little real non-Zoom contact with other humans. But I do want to preserve some of the insights afforded by this rupture, in which an upended society reveals its operations more starkly amidst its suspension, and in which I am forced to concede just how little control I have over the imagined futures I tend to dwell in too often. This uncertainty is sometimes a painful feeling, but at least it’s helping me to let go of some of that which I could never control, including the swift, slow, strange passage of time.

Ryan Croken is a writer, educator, and father. He teaches at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is currently working on a book of poems written in the voice of his cat, Zams.