Skip to main content

Time, as understood in the fourth trimester

Having a baby is not unlike accidentally slipping into a science fiction universe, everything you know is so completely upended. I wrote an essay about how my sense of time shifted out from under me in the first months of my daughter's life. 

Excerpts in italics are from the essay The Beginning Of Time, by Stephen W. Hawking


The time scale of the universe is very long compared to that for human life. It was therefore not surprising that until recently, the universe was thought to be essentially static and unchanging in time.

The Longest Shortest Time is the name of a podcast on parenting that I heard about several years before becoming a parent and filed away mentally. “The days are long but the years are short” is another phrase used to both comfort and cajole new parents. The implication is that parenting shifts your experience of time, as if life simply advancing in years wasn’t enough to do the same. One hour of an infant screaming inconsolably after her two month immunization shots lasts longer than her first eight-hour sleep stretch that comes later that night. All of the mind-numbing hours of work in a cubicle in my former life suddenly feel like vacation compared to trying to figure out a simple task like how to go to Safeway and also to the Post Office.


A pregnancy is marked by trimesters and weeks, a newborn by days and weeks. But in some murky moment between eight weeks and three months they go from being recorded in weeks to months. After a year of age you may get credit for a half-year – as in, she’s three and a half—but you are no longer allowed to claim this after some fuzzy time between fifteen and eighteen. At nearly four months, I can no longer do the math to translate Beatrix’s life from months to weeks; there is only forward. Tomorrow marks her implant-aversary: the day her six-day-old embryonic self came to reside in me. The day essentially that made me a mother.


In an infinite and everlasting universe, every line of sight would end on the surface of a star.

Six hours of sleep is enough to exist on, but not when it has been bifurcated into two-hour shifts over a ten-hour span. “Day” and “Night” are meaningless, there is only awake and asleep. Sleep is a temporary escape from the experience of time. The moment I am yanked from sleep by an urgent cry, heart terrorized, I’m plunged back into time. Newborn hours put you in touch with your animal self, with the very elements you are made of. The lived experience of them feels infinite. I email a night doula at 3am to ask after her rates. She doesn’t reply for two days, with an astronomical sum. Suddenly my overnights have a price attached. I am thrilled she understands they are so costly.


Beatrix’s late afternoon nap, the last chance to get a sufficient number of hours of rest before day’s end, remains a riddle to be solved. For three of her four months, true rest during this nap is only achieved while being held. I position myself on the couch, a blanket over my legs to ward off the apartment chill, the semi-round Boppi pillow wrapping her close to me, a bedtime fan app singing out hypnotizing white noise. Held this way, she can sleep two, three hours. In her crib she never makes it past thirty minutes, and wakes angry. I have my phone and a book nearby but ignore them. Instead I have grown to love not doing anything at all during this nap. Thoughts meander at a pace reserved for being in bed with the flu: random firing of neurons at once beautiful and undemanding. Nothing can be accomplished. I know I have to give it up, have to teach her how to sleep well in the afternoon on her own, but I dread the lines that would created on my to-do list. I’m not ready to let go of unhurried time in bedroom fan silence.


Galaxies move steadily apart from each other… one can plot the separation of two galaxies as a function of time.

In the middle of a crisis, time slows to concede to the depth of the disruption. I am nineteen when I learn this. The hallways of the hospital are etched in my soul. My mother was caught in a torrent of hallucinations for days following the surgery to embed a Baclofen pump into her belly in an attempt to slow the progress of her chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. Her fever dreams are of Murphy Brown and also toxic air cranking through the recovery room vents. During the daily forty-minute drive to the hospital I am uncomfortable listening to the Top 40 station. The music is too frivolous for this new heaviness. There is dread in the drive there, lostness in the visit, guilt-ridden relief in the drive away. I visit every day between college classes for the many weeks she spends not really recovering. Those hours have left rings inside me like an old oak tree, representing a great fire. I couldn’t then know her suffering would last two more years. I couldn’t know then there’d be darker rings to come. And then, finally, years after her death, signs of regrowth.


“It goes by so fast,” is another phrase used to traumatize new mothers into “cherishing every moment.” But highlighting the scarcity of time only introduces anxiety. Like the very hungry caterpillar, anxiety eats all the time it comes across transforming it into even greater anxiety. When Bea is only five weeks old I find myself ogling other people’s children, hunting for signs that she will eventually transform into something I can relate to. I tell a friend: “I know it’s supposed to go by so fast, but this part isn’t going by fast enough,” but feel angst for willing time to hurry. I text my brother: “I’m basically white-knuckling it here until she learns how to smile.” “Yep, you’re pretty much just a vending machine to her until then,” he texts back. “Hang in there.” He does not write it goes by so fast because he has three children and knows intimately how deathly slow time can take to pass. 


Although on average, the galaxies are moving apart from each other at a steady rate, they also have small additional velocities, relative to the uniform expansion. These so-called “peculiar velocities” of the galaxies, may be directed sideways to the main expansion.

The first time she sleeps through the night I wake at 2am. Being able to wake up according to my own sleep cycle and not from an urgent cry is disorienting, but heavenly. I feel rested. I wait, listening. No need to let myself drift back into sleep, it’s just a matter of time. I’m hungry. If I’m hungry shouldn’t she be famished? I need to pee but our creaky floors are like trumpets blaring to her perfectly undamaged hearing. It’s 5am and I realize I haven’t slept, but certainly she will wake any moment, and it’s so painful to be ripped from blissful deep sleep. And then it’s 6:10 and a cry pierces through the air, yanking me from a incomprehensible dream and I feel a thousand times worse than I did at 2am.


The first weeks of her life have us recording every start time for feeding, every wet and dirty diaper. The hospital gives us a small white booklet for this purpose. We take turns entering the data in the dark hours overnight until we come to the end of the booklet. We can’t bring ourselves to stop. I tear half sheets of paper for each day’s numbers. When she gains back enough birth weight we are allowed to stop considering the diapers, but I find I am lost in time if I don’t write down when I start a feeding and with which breast. One day my husband orders us a digital clock for the living room, so much easier to read than our lovely but artfully indiscernible clock made of recycled record album. The next day I wake up from a nap to find the label maker on the coffee table and the digital clock bedecked: Beatrix Mission Control Official Time. It is the single most pure object that demarcates our before and after lives. I still record every feed, keeping track of right or left in a notes app on my phone so that I don’t have to spend any mental effort remembering.


…to understand the very high-density stage, when the universe was very small, one needs a quantum theory of gravity, which will combine General Relativity and the Uncertainty Principle.

The Fourth Trimester is not something that can be recorded in weeks but is a very real lived experience. Human animals must be born before they are ready, their skulls would otherwise devastate their mothers. Other creatures exist without mothers, but we are beyond vulnerable in our earliest days. To survive the Fourth Trimester with a creature who would rather be back in the womb one must recreate the womb in as many ways as possible: shushing sounds to fill the silence, close holds, warmth, bounces or rocking. The Fourth Trimester is solely about survival; the babe’s and yours. “There are no bad habits yet,” the experts tell me, “You just have to get through.” The “yet” hangs there, threatening, implying that eventually there will be demands beyond mere survival.


Chocolate becomes essential to survival. A one-pound box of See’s Candies, a treat normally reserved for the annual celebrating of birthdays, becomes a weekly staple for six weeks straight. “There are no bad habits,” we tell each other. “It’s all about survival,” we say, popping yet another milk or dark chocolate truffle in our faces. “Dark chocolate has iron,” I declare, my uterus still bleeding into wholeness. A small fortune in chocolate, worth every debit charge. It sweetens the memory of those first sleepless weeks.


Quantum theory introduces a new idea, that of imaginary time…One can picture it the following way. One can think of ordinary, real, time as a horizontal line. On the left, one has the past, and on the right, the future. But there’s another kind of time in the vertical direction. This is called imaginary time, because it is not the kind of time we normally experience. But in a sense, it is just as real, as what we call real time.

When she is three weeks old I can barely manage to imagine life at four weeks, the horizon is too immediate. At two months old I research furiously when she might begin to sleep through the night and find a horizon worth dreaming about at four months old. She is now four months old and I find I have a wide swath of horizon, have gotten just enough rest to look into the future without driving impatience. The gift of being forty-three and a mother for the first time is how deep and wide my experience of challenge fortifies me. If it weren’t for my living with the experience of my mother dying, I’m not sure I would have survived these initial months. The knowledge that comes from the rings of strife born out of living with her years of dying is now an enormous strength that helps me live each day.


You can’t really explain your experience of time to someone else, and maybe you can never fully understand it yourself. You can’t take yourself out of time and study yourself like a scientist. You can’t have perfect understanding of the before and after, or even of the during. But each delicate moment of life with a new life contains a multitude, a mystery, a magnificence.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

My Litquake 2012 Report

I've been avoiding putting this together, because a part of me really doesn't want this year's Litquake festival to be over already.  The other part of me is still cranky-tired, wandering around trying to get to all those projects I said I'd get to after Litquake, and feeling post-Christmas like. In short, this year's Litquake was AMAZING.  Every year has been awesome, but this one was particularly special for me because I got to actually help plan the awesome.  As a volunteer during the festival for the past several years, I definitely felt like I contributed to making each event I helped at awesome, but this year, being on the committee,* I got to witness the tremendous build up to the festival that happens the whole year prior.  The amount of love, sweat and time that goes into it is incredible, and I'm not sure I've ever been part of something so cool.  Which is not to say I'm not still cranky-tired and looking forward to feeling fully recovered.

Love These Days

What love looks like these days in my tiny corner of the world. Or, what I'm loving these days. Books: These have brought me so much delight and escape and hope lately: Housebreaking , by Colleen Hubbard The Swimmers , by Julie Otsuka A Life in Light; meditations on impermanence, by Mary Pipher Rules for Visiting , by Jessica Francis Kane This Time Tomorrow, by Emma Straub Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver Hunt, Gather, Parent , by Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD Podcasts (the links will take you to specific episodes that moved me): Crazy Good Turns HerMoney with Jean Chatzky The Lazy Genius Podcast Mega Moms Don't Have Time to Grieve Unpublished We Can Do Hard Things On Being Death, Sex and Money I was going to add another category here and then I realized all I've been consuming lately are books and podcasts. :) I love a book or podcast recommendation! What have you read or heard lately that has made your heart sing, your world grow, or brought you solace?

What To Expect When You Are Expecting A Pandemic

“When I think about all that has to transpire to get from pregnancy to the birth, I am overwhelmed by time and the unknown. It’s not useful to contemplate. There is only today, and it is good.” I documented my move from ambivalence about parenting, to IVF, to motherhood, as well as all of Year One. I did it longhand because that’s what I did back then. So now, finally, I’m typing all those pages up, in part because of the great What If that living amid a pandemic creates. And I came across this yesterday and it is so true for the current moment, for this, the fifth week of Sheltering in Place. Ways this time is like pregnancy: It can make you fat. It will definitely make you crave near-constant meals and snacks. You will swing from feeling good to anxiety-laden, angry, irritable and back again several times a day. You will want to know how this will all unfold, how hard it will get, exactly how you and your life will be changed. You can’t know any of that. Ther