Something happened to me when my kids became teens and started spending more and more time in their rooms in the evenings. I became afflicted with a syndrome, for lack of a better word, whose main symptoms were heavy limbs and a kind of inertia; a lack of an ability to get anything done even though I had more time.
Finally, the kids are in high school, and my evenings are wide open: they have homework, they have the very developmentally normal need to be alone, and YouTube isn’t going to watch itself.
I got used to the oldest one going off to his room after dinner, but in the blink of an eye, even the youngest one was, too. It’s weird, because for close to two decades, evenings were a whirlwind of dinner, dishes, baths, playtime, prayers, etc., and it was awesome and exhausting, and when I finally had some alone time, I tried to do something exciting like hem a pair of pants while watching When Calls the Heart, but I fell asleep drooling on my own arm. This was excusable, in my mind, because I had young children. Exhaustion and drooling are part of the job.
I miss it a little; those little people in jammies with dump trucks or unicorns on them, jumping on the couch after dinner and swinging lightsabers, pretending to fight dragons or have tea with the fairies that lived behind the piano.
They wanted macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets at every meal, they wanted four stories before bed, with voices; they needed help washing their own hair and couldn’t sleep without a glass of water and two trips to the bathroom and whispered lullabies.
I Now Have Oddly Quiet Evenings
Now they eat sushi and shawarma and dip their chicken nuggets in aioli; when they eat mac and cheese it has a prefix, like “lobster” or “smoked gruyere.” They have homework before and after dinner, and I’m not really sure what they sleep in, because I go to bed earlier than they do. If I ever read something out loud in a character voice–even, say, to a visiting toddler–there is a good chance my child would drop dead on the ground from embarrassment.
It’s quiet after dinner at least a couple nights a week, even when the kids are all home, and, theoretically, I could remodel the bathroom or write a novel. I could even walk out the door and go shopping, night hiking, or to book club. But I don’t, because I have entered New Time. It’s not a disease or a side effect of being over forty: it’s a parallel universe that exists after dinner.
New Time is mysterious and annoying phenomenon known only to moms with older kids: dads don’t feel it, and the clocks don’t change so no one’s talking about it on the news. New Time is as perceptible and real as daylight savings, and you never quite acclimate to its rules of engagement.
New Time begins when we finish the dinner dishes and ends when I go to sleep; and its main symptoms are heavy limbs, brain fog, inability to concentrate or get even half as much done on any given project–even though the kids don’t need me–as I would on same project earlier in the day, or in Normal Time.
New Time affects even younger moms and marathon runners, if they have older kids. New Time has something to do with knowing your teens or grown children are in the house, in their rooms, not needing you. New Time is conflicting: it is nice not being needed, and it makes the times when they do come to you for help or advice all the sweeter.
But New Time takes some part of your brain hostage–the part that gets things done when the kids are at school–and holds it at gunpoint against the wall, then stands there and smokes a fat stogie while the hours tick by, and you get nothing done. The rest of your brain tries to take over, and the result is a mom operating at about sixty-eight percent capacity, give or take, due to New Time Inertia, or NTA.
On a good night during New Time, I might hang a shelf in the bathroom or organize a closet; more likely my NTA symptoms will take over my evening and I’ll just watch The Crown, feeling vaguely unsettled.
The part of my brain that’s being held hostage is thinking about the kids: What are they doing up there? Has his homework break turned into an hour-long Fortnite session? Does she secretly wish I’d come up there and talk? Why doesn’t he read more? Is she watching a youtube video by some narcissist, and will it undermine her belief in the innate beauty and dignity of humanity? Is that music coming through the floorboards as nihilistic and depressing as the bass line would have me believe?
I try to focus on Elizabeth and Phillips’ troubled marriage, but some little part of me is wondering if it’s okay that all the members of my house are doing their own thing, and it has nothing to do with the family; if it’s okay that I only chatted with them a little today and now they’re in their room with the door closed.
Much like a temporary virus or very mild disability (say, color-blindness), I’ve made my peace with New Time, because I can’t seem to change it. Nothing is quite as alienating to a seventeen-year-old kid as being told, “Come down here and spend time with your mom!” (The exception being if the mom in the scenario is holding a bag of Doritos or a chocolate cake.)
I could play the high stakes FAMILY TIME card, but it’s not really worth it on a Tuesday night when I have no real plan. So I finish up the laundry and watch Netflix shows, looking for the sweet spot somewhere between Lark Rise to Candlefordand Stranger Things. Occasionally I’ll try something more ambitious, like an evening walk or re-caulking the tub, but NTA symptoms would prevent me from finishing either very well and I know it.
How I Connect With My Teens
Most importantly, I have learned to combat NTA with an arsenal of small diversions that may contribute to home repair or laundry or writing the great American novel, but at least they make me feel like I spent time with the kids.
Two: a five-minute scroll through Pinterest with a daughter, who might reveal that she’s dreamed of owning a bakery that only sells cake pops, or that she loves wedding dresses with covered buttons up the back, or that she’s been considering cutting her hair short.
Three: Five minutes with a teen, watching PBS Eons or TedED. You wait ‘til they come downstairs for the 9PM bowl of cereal and you say, “This is cool, watch this with me,” and click on a video on megalodons or black holes or whether it’s bad to hold in your pee (there’s a Ted Ed video on this, for real).
Five minutes might turn into ten, and boom: you’ve spent a tiny but meaningful amount of time with a child. He may be taller than you and have hairy legs, she may be nineteen and more mature than you remember being until your thirties, but deep down they still want to play after dinner: to laugh a little or learn something interesting or just hang out together, just for a few minutes.
Take that, New Time; IN YOUR FACE. And if all else fails, make a chocolate cake and chances are, they’ll come.
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Paige Johnson is a mom of four teenagers (middle school through college) from Alexandria, Virginia. When she’s not doing laundry or cooking, she’s a writer, teacher and professional singer in the DC area. Paige has a BA from James Madison University and an MA in literature from George Mason, and has spent time working and being a SAHM, including that one crazy year where she homeschooled. You can find her at http://paigespace.com/