Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Italian Time" and Motherhood

As a young teacher, on a ten-month salary schedule, I always needed a summer job. You know, so I could pay the rent, buy shoes, have drinking money, that kind of thing. One summer, I was hired to teach English for an international educational foundation that did a sort of glorified summer camp for European teens whose parents wanted to travel and not be bothered with their obnoxious (and stinky) offspring. (I say stinky because, man, these kids reeked. We actually had to tell them that American teens shower daily. Your average teenager is smelly enough without adding in soccer games in 80 degree weather. P. U.) Most of our students came from wealthy French and Italian families. The kids spent the morning in English classes; afternoons were spent at various shopping and site-seeing destinations. American teachers and European chaperones lived in the dorms with the students, taught classes, and planned and supervised the outings. (Yeah, it sounds fun; really it was just ten weeks of utter exhaustion. But I made some lifelong friends, probably due to the Helsinki Syndrome-like conditions we worked under.)

One of many things I learned during four summers teaching rich, smart-ass European kids was how to swear and talk dirty in 14 different languages. But another useful thing I learned was that the concept of time is somewhat, um, fluid in Italy. "We're leaving in five minutes" meant anything from 5, 10, 50 minutes to them. If we said, "The bus leaves at 9:00," then we expected the kids to show up about 8:45, get on the bus, and leave AT 9:00. Reasonable, right? Wrong. They'd start showing up about 9:30, 9:45, we'd start yelling, then we'd have to find their Italian chaperones (in the cafeteria, complaining about American coffee), and we'd finally leave campus around noon. OK, I may be exaggerating, but only a very little bit. It was very frustrating the first few times. But we got used to it pretty fast, and we learned to beat them at their own game: We started giving them fake departure times. If we wanted to leave at 9:00, we'd tell them to get on the bus at 8:00. Sneaky, but it worked.

Another thing I realized about Europeans was that their concept of "hurry up" is NOTHING like ours. We walk faster, talk faster, eat faster, shop faster, play faster; EVERYTHING is faster here. I was always saying, "Let's GO! Hurry UP!" to my students. They took forever to eat lunch, pick out a Swatch Watch (don't ask, it was the 90s), do that scarf-around-the-neck thing that only European women can pull off. It drove me crazy. When I finally quit that summer job, I thought I was forever free of "Italian time."

And then I had kids.

There is NOTHING in the world that will prepare you for how long it takes a toddler to walk to the mailbox at the end of the driveway. Every single crack in the concrete, bug on a leaf, stray piece of mulch, blade of grass, twig, or ladybug must be examined with the intensity of a scientist in the field. What used to take me 2 minutes now takes 25. And there is no way to know beforehand how long it will take a five-year-old to put away 16 blocks and 2 stuffed bears. Trust me, it can take 5 minutes or 2 1/2 hours. You just never know.

When I had my first baby, I had no idea what children would do to my timing. Where it used to take me 10 minutes to get to the mall (grab purse, get in car, go), it now took me 45 minutes. Get the diaper bag, strap the baby into the car seat, adjust her straps, struggle through the garage door without banging the car seat into the cars, snap the car seat into the base, put the stroller in the trunk, and adjust the baby mirror 18 different times so I could see her (sleeping, unmoving) face in my mirror. Then, when I arrived, I had to unload the stroller, unload the diaper bag, adjust the seat and seatbelts properly...and oh, yeah, get the baby out of the car and into the stroller.

Once, when my oldest was about 5 weeks old, I had a particularly bad morning. I just wanted to go to the grocery store, like a normal person. But every time I picked my daughter up, she spit up on me. I don't mean a nice little Gerber baby dribble. I mean like Mount St. Helens erupting down my back. I'd put her down, change my clothes, clean the wall and the floor, pick her up - and then she'd have a diaper blowout. So I'd clean her up, clean myself up, pick her back up - and she'd spit up again. This went on for, no joke, about 40 minutes. And then she needed to eat, which took another 45 minutes (a firstborn, obviously - the second kid could drain me in ten minutes flat). Finally, I was out of clothes, she was out of ammunition, and I was in tears.

Kid time. It's even worse than Italian time. At least with my students, I found a way around it. With my kids, no matter how much time I give them, they need more. They take more. "Five more minutes" means absolutely nothing to a child. Try to rush them, and they slow down even more. It's maddening. If I need them to just put on their shoes and get in the car, I can pretty much count on the fact that at least one of them will choose that exact moment to poop, need a band-aid, or have to tell me a very long story about a caterpillar on the playground last week that was missing a leg. (WTF???)

Just tonight, after story time, my Kindergartner said she had to go potty. I sat on her bed while she went in to bathroom, fuming about how long it was taking her. How hard is it to just go in, do your thing, wash up and come out? But she had songs to sing, soap to splat, water to play in, earrings to admire, a nightlight that needed to be flicked off and on approximately 84 times, and, of course, she had to check her look in the mirror, "to see if my French braids made my hair all springy and crazy." It took forever. And all I could think about was all the crap I still had to do downstairs before I could finally relax and watch "Modern Family" on my DVR.

But then I realized something important: Kids are kids. No timetables, no mental to-do lists, nowhere else to be, nothing else to do. It's always summer vacation. They can live in the moment without worrying about all the little crap that we worry about. Did it really matter that she sang her songs, stared in the mirror, took a few extra minutes in the bathroom? She was happy, singing, giggling, enjoying life. I wish I had that much fun peeing.

When we're at the zoo, my kids can gaze for an hour at the sea lions. They'll stare at the monkeys forever, watching them groom each other and swing around, giggling and pointing. The lion cubs could keep their interest all morning; comparisons to Nala and Simba are nonstop. But my husband and I find ourselves glancing at our watches, hurrying them along, saying things like, "Don't you want to have time to see the meerkats? the ponies? the turtles?" All the while, they are content to just watch, observe, enjoy, without worrying about anything at all. That's childhood. Why take that away from them? Why rush and hurry them unnecessarily? We're at the zoo for THEM, after all, so why not just stand there and let them take whatever time they need?

Slacker Mom Says...don't fight kid time. It will not end well. When it really matters, when it's work or school or an appointment, that's one thing. Build some extra time into the schedule, be silly, give them a fake leaving time, do what you have to do. As a teacher, I had songs we'd sing to mark the transition to the next activity. They had to be done by the time the song ended, and they usually were. But sometimes we need to just stop and think: Does it really matter if it takes a few extra minutes? I am constantly rushing my kids through every little thing. I might get them to do it faster, but at what price? I'm yelling, they're crying, and we're all stressed, all so it can be finished a few minutes early? Not worth it. In a very short time, my precious girls will be grown and gone, and I'll have all the time in the world to watch whatever I want on TV. Shoot, I won't even have to DVR it, because no one will be here to interrupt me when it's on the first time. How sad will that be?

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