For centuries you had noticed the passage of time through the work done, the changing seasons and the position of the sun. Then clocks came and time was standardized; we started counting it. Since then, time has often been viewed as currency: it is ours, we can spend it, waste it or invest it; we can keep it for ourselves or give it away – and it can be taken from us.
But since our second child arrived, I've found this metaphor increasingly misguided. While quite often I can choose how I spend my time – where to focus my attention at any given moment, where to go, or who to hang out with – at least as often I have no say at all. This is because two unpredictable factors – young children – have found their way into my life and, in all their innocence, have dictated how I spend my time. Their desires, their pace and their need for repetition largely determine what we do with our time as a family and how I feel about it.
In her book Valuing Children, American economist Nancy Folbre suggests understanding the relationship between parents and children not in terms of the "investments" parents make in their offspring, but in terms of the "commitments" they have made to them. I read this one Friday afternoon in the university library. My partner's house with the kids so I can stay until the shop closes.
And although such a concept seems dazzlingly obvious to me, it sounds pleasantly refreshing at the same time. I suppose that's because the work of economists, sociologists, and evolutionary biologists often seems so calculating to me. I mean the work of those who analyze the relationship between parents' time investments and "children's outcomes" as if they were talking about production processes or as if the family were a factory. Time will go and IQs and other test results will come out. Or who describes the time you as parents spend for your children as "opportunity costs". After all, you could have done something else with that time: make money, for example.
Given this view of parents and children, Folbre's suggestion is not all refreshing; it's almost radical. A commitment, she writes, is a promise that remains binding even if the expected "return on investment" is missing. In addition, unlike an investment, a commitment entails moral obligations – obligations that you cannot easily dispose of when the "results" are disappointing.
In those moments when time is no longer "mine" – when it no longer feels like an individual possession or currency – at least for me it takes on the nature of this type of commitment. When I sense time in this way, I no longer need to be reluctant or possessive, I no longer need to feel like I am falling short.
Instead, we define ourselves as a collective, entangled and interdependent, by the way we are bonded to one another.
In moments like this, I see our relationship as a relationship based on the promise I made before they were even with us and without fully understanding what it meant for this to be our time.