Time blurs together when I’m at home in ways that surprise me. I remember reading years ago about Madeleine L’Engle’s distinctions between chronos and kairos time:
“That time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards, because kairos has nothing to do with chronological time. In kairos we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we’re constantly checking our watches for chronological time…The saint in contemplation…the artist at work is in kairos. The child at play, totally thrown outside herself in the game, be it building a sand castle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos.”
I realized early on in parenting my oldest daughter that going back and forth between work and home was like shifting from chronos to kairos.
I can tell you distinctly what happened in the classes I took and the classes I taught—what I read, who I sat next to, what I learned, what I said—in those early years when my oldest was a baby.
But I cannot tell you many details about my daughter’s early life with certainty; it’s not that I wasn’t paying attention to her. In fact, significantly more of my attention was on her.
It’s just that the things that happened in my job and my work had corners and edges I could hold onto—deadlines and papers and presentations and grading.
My babies were soft flannel snuggles and slippery bubble baths, long walks and big eyes turned to track new sounds. Every day was lost in discovery of the essential people that they were.
Very little happened, not in the way I understand chronological time as moving from one event to the next.
We were the event.
There in the meeting of our souls in the room, as they ate and bathed and slept and played, we were the thing. Ourselves knowing each other.
The only movement was kairos time, as deep and enveloping as walking intentionally through strong waves into the deep parts of the sea.
I knew when I decided to stay at home with my children this year that there would be costs to my career. It was not a decision I made lightly; no one leaves a career they’ve worked at for almost a decade easily. But after months of registering the level of stress on our kids, my husband and I both made decisions to plateau our careers for a year. His plateaus were different than my own, but we made our decisions together.
I use the term ‘plateau’ because I still remember a line from Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”:
“Along the way, women should think about the climb to leadership not in terms of a straight upward slope, but as irregular stair steps, with periodic plateaus (and even dips) when they turn down promotions to remain in a job that works for their family situation; when they leave high-powered jobs and spend a year or two at home on a reduced schedule; or when they step off a conventional professional track to take a consulting position or project-based work for a number of years. I think of these plateaus as ‘investment intervals.’” (I think, by the way, that men should think about their careers that way too–and I don’t love everything about that article, but I loved that paragraph.)
This year is my ‘investment interval,’ I have said. I love the optimistic feel of that phrase. I’m not giving up in my career, I’m investing in it. For an interval.
I will say with all honesty, it has taken me at least half of a year to detox from living so meticulously in chronos time that I almost forgot the benefits of moving more fully into kairos.
In chronos time, I was always late, always behind, always frantic.
The connectedness of our lives has made it worse; I had children who were mildly panicked all the time, picking up on my own panic, that maybe they should already have done several seasons of soccer or basketball or be reading at the right level or…whatever the level of achievement we could come up with for our kids, usually based on what I saw from someone else on Facebook or Instagram.
My kids needed to bathe in kairos time; they needed hours outside playing with dirt and sticks and dogs.
Last year, when I was picking them up in the front yard so we could make it to soccer and piano on time, we had very little time for kairos.
I hate essays like this one. I hate it when mothers say things like ‘maybe kids need to be outside more’ or ‘I’m so glad I’ve plateaued my career.’ All I ever hear is judgment or guilt and privilege.
I don’t mean any of that, but I’m aware that it’s there.
Let me be as clear as possible: I recognize that being able to make career decisions can always sound didactic. I love to hate-read didactic bloggers: “These ten steps worked for me, and they can help you be your best you!” I find it fascinating how we let people with no expertise other than an ability to take selfies of their impeccable farm tables or adorable outfits tell us what to do.
We made very tough decisions because of the family we had—a daughter with attachment issues, two daughters struggling to keep their heads above water after very stressful years—and it’s been both good and hard for me, but I don’t expect what worked for me to work for anyone else.
I’ve tried to be as honest as I could with everyone who has asked me: this year has been good for my kids, good for our lives. We’re eating better, sleeping better, enjoying each other more than we ever have.
But if I were being honest, I’ve been climbing the walls for most of the last school year.
I am used to—in fact, I really love—the productivity of chronos time. I am an achiever to my core. If there are gold stars to have, I want them. When I first read about Hermione Granger, I knew I’d found my literary soul mate.
Graduate school, working, teaching—for most of my life I’ve had little markers I could hit where gold stars would rain down.
And now they are gone. There are no gold stars with children. There is just the never-ending cycles of dirty to clean: dishes, laundry, floors, dog, children. Over and over, dirty to clean to dirty to clean. Day in and day out.
The lack of specificity—this is the thousandth dish I’ve washed this plate this month, or this is the 47th time I’ve treated jeans for grass stains this year—makes it all run together.
The repetition wears away on the edges of my time.
The truth is that I used chronos time to distract me from what needed to happen in kairos time.
It took me awhile to come to this truth, but I needed to plateau my career for myself more than for my children. I needed to remember who I was beneath the gold-star-grasping, diaper-changing, laundry-folding machine that I had become.
The constant lists, the urgent sense that there was always something else that needed to be done, was a relief to me most days. I said it was not—I complained and complained about my busyness—but I knew, somewhere buried in my psyche, that I used the busyness of chronos time to distract me from the things I needed to face in the unforgiving sea of kairos time.
I’ve been learning to measure the productivity of my time not by what I’ve gotten done but the depths of relationship I see with the people around me. I can feel it in my girls, the strength of what we’re doing here. Nothing changes from day to day, and yet over time, everything is changing.
And the hard things about being at home with my children are also the hard things about being with myself.
Without the distractions of job and our barely controlled chaos, I have to remember who I am again.
A friend reminded me that these moments would come for everyone: the still place in the hospital room when you realize the life you had planned out might not work out that way; the quiet kitchen on the first morning after retirement; the long trip when the last child finally goes to college.
Taking time to stop and contemplate myself and my life is not easy for me. Maybe it is easier for other people, but I find it searingly painful.
I reach for distractions, but I’ve been trying to stop, to learn to sit with the discomfort, the holy boredom, of knowing myself completely.
I find that it is easier than it was—not yet comfortable, not yet effortless, but getting there.
It is like moving from eating Cheetos and Snickers bars to craving sun-warmed tomatoes from the vine.
Or returning to Tai Chi after years of competitive martial arts and finding value in holding the poses until my muscles ache and my arms flow fluidly into the next move in a rhythm I didn’t realize I have always known.
Slow. Methodical. Painful.