A Couple Whiles: What My 3-Year-Old Taught Me About Time

When my three-year-old asked me today when we were going to work on her puzzle, I replied offhandedly, “In a while.” She then asked, “How many whiles? 10 whiles? 20 whiles? Mommy, how about we do it in a couple whiles?” I smiled, realizing that to her three-year-old brain with its undefined sense of time, a “while” means the same as a second, or a minute, or a month, or a year, just as “10”, “20,” and “a couple” are all equally abstract terms.

Later, as I watched her complete the floor puzzle all by herself, I thought about how many “whiles” ago it was that she needed me to help her with that puzzle. Surely it was just a tiny little while ago, but when exactly did that “while” happen?

It made me realize how abstract time really is, even for us adults who can measure it by the exact minute, second, and even tenth of a second on my iPhone. When I think back to college it feels like it was only five years ago in some ways, and then at the same time it feels like it was eons ago (in conventional time, I graduated 17 years ago). My wedding feels like it was yesterday and yet it was pre-baby, so it is also considered to be at least 20 years ago (9.5 years ago in conventional time). How can “yesterday” and “20 years” refer to the same time? Well, in my three-year-old’s mind, it’s all the same, and I guess she’s onto something.

You see, it was just a “little while” ago that she was in diapers. Maybe three whiles ago that she was a tiny baby in my arms, my third and last baby whose infancy I swore to cherish and brand every second of onto my brain because I knew how quickly those moments and whiles would swirl past and leave me dazed, in a simultaneous state of wonder, joy, and sorrow when I thought about where the time had gone. It was maybe six whiles ago that my second daughter was a baby and I was learning to juggle two kids, worried about making sure my oldest still felt important and loved while trying to give my second half the amount of attention her older sister received at the same age. And it couldn’t have been more than ten whiles ago that my first child was born and I was overwhelmed by all the changes, both joyous and not-so-joyous, that motherhood had brought into my life. And yet within those few “whiles,” millions of things happened, some too mundane to even want to remember, some major milestones of which only half I can honestly say I clearly remember, and some precious moments I know I’ll never forget no matter how many millions of whiles may pass.

I know that by this logic, even though it seems right now like I will never have five minutes of peace or a clean house ever again, my kids will all become adults and move out of our house (God-willing) in only a couple whiles. Every parent with older kids tells me how fast the time flies by, and though I try my best to fully appreciate what they are saying, I know I will never really understand until I send my first child off to college. That day feels like it’s fifty years away yet I know when it comes in ten years, it will feel like it was only fifty days. Or maybe, really just a few “whiles.”

Many wise mothers have told me, “The days are long, but the years are short” -- yet another incongruity that makes total sense when you think about it. With young children at home, each day, each hour, even each minute can stretch an eternity when things are their most chaotic or most dull, but then suddenly you wake up and your baby is eight-years-old and you yearn for those blissfully and chaotically dull days with a newborn.

Credit: abnormalbeauty.

So what is my point, other than just dragging you into my little sentimental reverie? I guess it’s that I shouldn’t be focused on the clock or calendar (two more hours until bedtime, three months until vacation, etc.) because, according to my three-year-old, conventional time is insignificant and immeasurable -- and I’m beginning to think she’s right. Instead of looking at my watch or wondering where time is going, I should be focused on what I’m doing with my time and making sure that I’m not wasting this abstract, fleeting thing that is truly better measured in memories than in minutes or months. In other words, I need to make sure that what I’m doing is worth my “while.”

Originally posted on http://basementblogging.tumblr.com/

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