Today, I could work on this web site or this other web site.
Or I could spend some time writing that essay or commit to the next chapter of can I start calling this a novel?
There’s laundry piling up, and there are appointments to schedule.
Also, what am I making for dinner?
My life for the last seventeen-plus years has trained the focus right out of me.
Since the day I brought my oldest daughter home from the hospital, I’ve been shortening my attention span. I remember the deep exhaustion of those early weeks, the ones when I sat on my couch and stared at a pile of baby gifts in pretty pink gift bags and promised myself I would put one of them away by the time my husband got home from work. I operated in minutes, then: she’d let me put her down for four minutes, she’d slept in the stroller for twenty-two minutes while we walked, she’d stopped crying for nine minutes while I held her in my lap and typed an e-mail message to my boss. In a blue sling across my chest, she was content for thirty minutes, as long as I never stopped moving.
She got older, of course, blessedly, as babies do, and the minutes stretched. I could do so much in the fifteen minutes she spent stacking blocks next to me on the floor! And then, deep into my pregnancy with her little sister, I stood her at the filled kitchen sink on a chair and gave her plastic fruit and toy plates to wash, which entertained her for thirty or forty minutes at a time. In thirty or forty minutes, I did so much work, sitting right behind her at the kitchen table, that I felt like perhaps we’d all been fooling ourselves for years; we didn’t need eight-hour work days. We needed a hyper-focused forty minutes, followed by a long break for playing and lunch, followed by a nap on the bed with a toddler’s fingers tangled in our hair and then, while she still slept, another hour of the most intensely focused work possible. I could do so much in one day, so many things, the most productive hours of my life – at least I thought so.
With my second child — always sick and always needing something surprising and often terrifying — I learned to compartmentalize tasks in such tiny time increments that the menu of things-I-could-do became overwhelming. I quit my job to take care of her wheezing and failure to thrive, and starting my own business gave me the freedom to build my work around the times between times, in snippets and corners, outside the bedroom doors of scared little girls in the night, in hospital rooms, standing at the kitchen counter as she pulled on my leg. I can now do short, easy things in record time: wipe down every counter in my kitchen, make quick text updates to my clients’ web sites, respond to yes-or-no emails, throw in a load of laundry, book that plane ticket, send a text. I learned to cherish five minutes. A five-minute nap, even, was a great and glorious gift that sustained me for hours and hours.
But now, seventeen years and almost nine months later, there are too many choices and, oddly, far too much time. I fight for my mind not to wander to the next thing or the other thing or the last thing, what was it I was doing? This last summer, doing the research for the book that right now is waiting on the desks of editors for their judgment, I found myself on my front porch, feet on the railing, coffee at my side, and children far away at camp. Two weeks stretched in front of me, all mine, all the options available. I sipped my coffee. I watched the birds, listened to the wind, breathed the faint scent of the lake. No one would be calling for me. No one would be needing me.
It was terrifying.
What other job is like this: Train and improve and accommodate and then, when you’ve rewired your mind and your body completely, it’s over?
With the taxi driver in my brain asking me, every three minutes, “Where to, lady?,” I’ve checked my email three times, Facebook twice, sipped my coffee six times, and browsed the web just a teensy amount while writing this post. I’m going to call it a win, for now, with a mind toward another seventeen years of retraining. Wish me luck.