This essay originally appeared in our monthly newsletter for The Mom Hour podcast. To get our emails, subscribe here. –Meagan
Recently, a friend challenged me to train for an obstacle course race. While one of my favorite mottos of adulthood has long been “I don’t run unless I’m being chased by a bear,” these pandemic months have been rather long on sameness and short on novelty, and a new challenge intrigued me. I mentioned the idea to Owen, who got excited and asked if he could do a race with me. And when your 14.5 year old son gets excited about doing an activity with you, Mom, you sign up and pay that registration fee before the mood passes.
Since 2020 is pretty much cancelled, Owen and I have quite a long time ahead of us to train. So I’ve been playing around with my runs, testing things like my breathing pattern, music choice, running cadence, and even how tightly I tie my shoes to see if there’s a difference in how I feel or perform.
So far, the variable that’s had the most surprising effect? How far ahead I set my gaze.
Look straight down, of course, and not only am I likely to run into a tree, but I also have no idea where I am, so there’s no sense of progress. But look too far ahead – way down the street to where I know the one-mile mark is, for example – and all I can do is fixate on how much further I have to go. I start wondering if I can make it. I start speeding up too much or forget to breathe slowly and steadily, and next thing I know I’m gasping for air and wanting to give up.
Part of what’s happening is that I’m still developing muscle memory around running. I’m just not an experienced-enough runner yet to know in my bones what a half-mile or a mile or two miles “feels” like. Look at a spot ten or fifteen or twenty feet ahead of me, however, and the game changes. I know I can make it another twenty feet; and I can sense innately how much time and energy it’ll take. The short-term goal feels doable, and eventually I reach the bigger goal by stringing a lot of small ones together.
It occurred to me earlier today, as I was huffing my way through my neighborhood, that never has it been more crucial to look just far enough ahead than it is right now. So much is up in the air: from school to work, from the economy to politics. If I try to make a plan for six months or a year into the future, I’ll fixate on that to the detriment of my day-to-day life – and, let’s face it, I’ll likely be disappointed when things change again; when the finish line keeps getting moved back. And since this is a new and ever-changing experience for every one of us, none of us have had the opportunity to build “muscle memory” around this strange new sense of time. (Let’s hope “pandemic time management” isn’t something we ever have the opportunity to become true experts in.)
Lucky for us, we moms are already well-versed in the practice of creating a fluid relationship with time. The last ten days of a pregnancy can seem like a year, but then the clock shrinks into thirty-minute increments: feed, switch sides, change diaper, nap, repeat. We learn to cram an incredible amount of productivity into the extra 15 minutes we score when a nap goes longer than usual and lower the bar to convince ourselves that 5 solid hours of shuteye counts as “sleeping through the night.”
In short, friends, we’ve got this. We moms know how to manage our expectations and help our kids manage theirs. We understand innately how to fit a lot into a little time, and we can also learn to stretch a little bit of certainty, energy, or joy to fill a longer period of time than we’d necessarily like. Yes, we wish the finish line was closer. We’d be content with just having some idea of where it is. But right now, the only way to get through this without hyperventilating is to pick a time frame that’s a little more manageable.
Right now, a week seems to be about the right time frame for me. This week, I have everything I need. This week, we have a fun outing planned. This week, we are healthy and safe. This week, I need to accomplish the five tasks on this list.
There have also been periods when that window has shrunk to a day, or even an hour. And that’s OK too. One day, I’m sure I’ll start thinking and planning in months and years again. But for right now, this week is just long enough. And until it’s in front of me, next week can take care of itself.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, defeated, can’t catch your breath and want to give up…maybe try shortening your gaze. A month instead of six. A week instead of a month. An hour instead of a day. No matter what, keep putting one foot in front of the other and those hours, days, and weeks will eventually get us all to where we need to be.