11:00am

Mon May 5, 2014
13.7: Cosmos And Culture

How (And Why) We Should Celebrate Mother's Day

Raising children does funny things to your experience of time.

Sometimes minutes ooze by with painful viscosity as you wait for the baby to (finally!) fall asleep, seek another way to entertain the (grumpy!) toddler or wait for the teenager to come home (past curfew!). But then you blink and the minutes have amassed into years: the baby's walking, the toddler's in high school, the teenager is engaged.

This paradox of parental time perception is nicely captured by an aphorism of uncertain origin:

"The days are long, but the months are short."

Today felt like a century — you might think, as you finally crawl into bed — but it feels like only yesterday that you held a tiny newborn in your arms.

We know from experience (and research confirms) that a variety of factors can influence the perception of time, including emotion and attention. There's also research suggesting that time seems to accelerate with age. But how can experience feel slow on one timescale, yet fast on another? And is there something about raising children that generates or exaggerates the mismatch?

Psychologist and Nobel-laureate Daniel Kahneman talks about two selves: the experiencing self, who lives in the present, and the remembering self, who reflects on the past. Your experiencing self wades through the days, but your remembering self sums up the months.

These two selves can disagree and for parents their divergence may be especially stark. To borrow the apt title of Jennifer Senior's book on modern parenthood, raising children can be "all joy and no fun." We rejoice perusing old photos as we remember the months; we weep with vexation as we experience the days.

Of course, not all parental memories are rosy, and not all parental experiences subpar. But the divergence between the joy and the fun, between the months and the days, gets something right about the experience of parenthood.

In a review of Senior's book at Slate.com, Aileen Gallagher explains how the parents that Senior interviewed railed against the challenges of parenthood, but without regretting the decision to have children:

They wished their days were different, but not their lives.

If only we could fill our days as parents with the joys of parenthood.

It's this hope that brings me to Mother's Day, the one day a year set aside to honor mothers. Instead of flowers and cards and other trappings of this highly commercialized fete, here's what I want this year: a day that's long with pleasure and short on vexation, a day to both experience and remember, a day with all the joy and all the fun.


You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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