Einstein and Toddler Time


Why do they do it? Why do they watch you, struggling with a toddler flailing at your side shrieking “Want toklit now” while the baby grizzles in the pram that you’re rocking violently in the vain hope that she’ll fall asleep despite the roaring fury of her brother, and then say;

“Time goes so fast when they’re little.”

Oh no it doesn’t. Not when you’re living through it. It goes appallingly, unbelievably, frighteningly, life-sappingly slowly. Every minute takes an hour, every day consumes enough patience for a year.

At the end of the week when you take the baby to be weighed – assuming it’s your first and you can still be bothered to go to the health centre, although when you’ve got two, any trip out can seem an attractive alternative to sitting in your kitchen wishing you didn’t live in a pit coated with primary coloured plastic – the baby has put on less than a pound, but has consumed enough of your energy to weigh at least ten stone.

You smile, thank the health visitor and say “fine” when she asks how things are. Because they are fine. The kids are fine, you have a house, maternity pay, and a husband who comes home as early as he can to see the kids and help with the dog end of the day. What’s not fine? Well, in a word, time.

Time was when time was money. There were tasks, deadlines, more tasks, more deadlines, congratulations on tasks completed on time, extensions to deadlines when tasks just wouldn’t fit into the allotted time. It was all measurable and containable. Time to go to work, time to go home, just time for a quick drink.

And then, after children, time starts to betray you with its perverse inconsistencies. A minute is no longer just a minute, an hour is not always an hour and a week can stretch out into a lifetime. It’s like a science fiction film I saw, in which an astronaut travelled through space for many Earth years, and returned only a few months older to find all his contemporaries dead and his children grown up.

I blame Einstein.

He said time passes at different rates depending on the observer. Well I’ve observed that spending a lot of time with babies and young children takes you back, not just to some primordial sludge where we exist in synch with all the previous generations of humankind, but even further back, to before the Big Bang, when time didn’t exist and therefore didn’t pass AT ALL. It just sat there, waiting.

I met a woman in a park when my son was two and my daughter a few months old. I’d meandered my way there, feigning interest in my son’s observations about this piece of mud and that lump of dog poo, staring into space and trying to root myself in the here and now instead of looking forward to bedtime, mine even more than theirs. The woman and I sat next to each other on a bench, and as I breastfed the baby we chatted a bit about the children, the weather, the tiredness, and I asked her what she was doing next, after the park.

“Oh, just passing time until tea,” she said.

And I nodded. I knew exactly what she meant, as that was why I was planning to take the long route home, not just to quench my hormonally driven thirst for Homes and Gardens magazines at the local newsagent, but to allow a bit more time to pass before getting them home and waiting for the clock to shift its reluctant hands to five o clock and tea time.

Sometimes I’d crack at four-thirty, move everything forward by half an hour and have them in bed before their father got home.

“Oh,” he’d say, disappointed and yet guiltily relieved, “are they in bed?”
“Yes,” I’d say, between gritted teeth.
“Bad day?” he’d ask.
“Not particularly,” I’d say, “just long.”

And I’d leave it at that. There’s no point trying to explain to someone who exists within the space-time continuum that I’ve just hitched a ride in the Tardis to a land that time forgot. He’s still existing in real time, while I have journeyed for days, nights, months and years back to non-time.

“How was work?” I’d ask, trying to show as much interest in his livelihood as I’ve been showing all day in throwing balls, picking up worms and explaining what’s behind the sky.
“Fine,” he says, “bit slow.”

Too right, I think. Much too slow. But that’s the point of little children isn’t it? They need to take life slowly, they’ve got so much to learn. Dawdling along the pavement poking things with sticks isn’t a waste of time for them, it’s educational, and as long as the things that are being poked aren’t living things, it’s to be encouraged.

And once they start school, you look back on the previous few years of bimbling about with buggies and think,

“Gosh, that went quickly,” forgetting the almighty time warp you’ve just lived through.

It’s at precisely this point in time that you start looking wistfully at other people’s toddlers, appreciating their idiosyncratic attitude to time from afar. You might even find yourself wanting to say, with the benefit of hindsight,

“They’re not little for long you know, time goes so quickly when they’re small.”

Well just DON’T SAY IT!


You can also read this piece in Shaggy Blog Stories - a book of jolly funny blog posts put together for Comic Relief 2007.

About Beta Mum

Here you can find the ramblings of a trapeze artist turned journalist who ran away from the circus to join the BBC. Cathy "mine's a Kir Royale" Keir then spent thirteen years working in Jersey, Guernsey and Devon, before downgrading to what you see before you. She has contributed articles to The Guardian, The Stage and Television Today, Junior Magazine and both the BBC and Bad Mothers Club websites. She has two children who think women can’t be prime ministers. She blames herself.
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