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Time Doesn't Fly When You Have Kids

09/03/2013 12:19 EDT | Updated 11/03/2013 05:12 EST

When I picked up my son at daycare the other day, a little girl in his room yelled out "Goodbye boyfriend!" A couple days later, Emile informed me they'd gotten hitched: "You're married to mommy and mommy is married to you," he explained of his decision, "but I didn't marry anybody yet!"

Cue the studio audience laughing at his sitcom precociousness. But for real, nobody has ever been in as big of a hurry for anything as a preschooler is to grow up. For them, everything takes forever.

Parenting, on the other hand, is supposed to race past us. Kids grow up so fast, the cliché goes, you blink and they're in college or, even -- egads -- married! But E's just-pretend nuptials aside, that has not been my experience. Rather, these have felt like the longest years of my life.

Emile is turning four and entered junior kindergarten this week. Both are milestones that are supposed to make you reflect on how fast they arrived. But they haven't arrived fast. No milestones have.

Parenthood is rife with exasperating platitudes, but I've found none quite so off base as this whole "time flies" business. E will not be out of the house before I know it. Even a future where he's a teenager and I can finally go back to sleeping in on weekends seems unfathomably far away. (Seriously, what is wrong with little kids' internal clocks?)

Those first three months of his life might as well have been millennia. The incessant sleep deprivation and high-intensity pressure gave that interminable stage the hypnagogic anxiousness of a bad acid trip with eight hours still to go. All I wanted was for him to develop neck muscles so I could stop worrying about breaking him -- and for the crying to cease so I could stop worrying about him breaking me.

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Now those months are shrouded in the fog of distant memory. And so are the far more enjoyable next nine, between holding his own head up and taking his first step, when he went from a whinging blob to a mobile beast, one whose intense pleasure at seeing bubbles or a sprinkler for the first time felt powerful enough to replace fossil fuels.

Each stage of E's development has fallen into its own memory hole as if it lasted forever and ended forever ago. He spent years gurgling, then rudimentarily signing, then uttering his frustratingly few words until, one amazing month, he suddenly exploded into full language. Now he reasons, jokes, negotiates, chats, and even tells himself stories after we've put him to bed -- and it feels like he's always been doing that, too.

What does time even mean to a new parent? It's not yours anymore, it belongs to a small creature. Those relaxing, do-nothing days that once blended together become bygone. Every daytime moment you're not at work, you're working on entertaining your kid, feeding him, putting him down, or cleaning up after him. And your ever-present lack of sleep makes time's passage feel even more tenuous.

Besides, even if our division of time into seasons and days is based on astrophysics, how we experience it is purely psychological. As Einstein noted, time is relative.

The older you get, the faster time seems to pass because your brain ignores stuff you've done a million times before rather than waste space on repetitive remembrances. It saves that storage for new and unique experiences that deserve detailed memories. So those few years before Emile -- when I went to the same job, drank on the same patios, and danced in the same forests -- did race by. But Emile pulled the handbrake.

(My wife has not had the same experience -- she feels like it was just yesterday he was a baby and can't believe what a big boy he is now. I think that might be genetics playing tricks on her so she'll reproduce again, kinda like how women quickly forget how painful their labour was.)

Turns out, the adage that time flies when you're having fun is not totally true. Research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that "people judge the duration of a period of time from memory differently than they judge the duration of a time period as it is going on."

Meanwhile, Belgian experts found that "feeling excited and [being] actively involved in something strengthens memory formation...This in turn means we estimate the time elapsed to have been longer than it really was, due to the fact that we can recall much of the period in detail."

So while time may fly at a rave and crawl at the office, in hindsight those boring days will disappear from your memory banks while the interesting ones will each get their own entry. Or as Italian poet and novelist Cesare Pavese suggested back in 1938, "Idleness makes hours pass slowly and years swiftly. Activity makes the hours short and the years long."

For little kids, every singe day is filled with activities worth Memorexing, and so time moves incredibly slowly for them. That's why, since becoming a parent, it's moved at the same pace for me, too. Everyday is a brand new experience, be it Emile beginning school or undergoing surgery.

Even while I jotted down notes for this piece in longhand, E and I were on his all-time first-ever train ride, heading to Montreal to visit his Great-Bubbeh. I'm unlikely to forget his jaw-dropped, eyes-popped awe as he exclaimed: "Daddy, I'm watching the world pass by!"

Almost every day since he was born four years ago has been different and fascinating enough to warrant such lasting memories. It's also been increasingly fun, for the most part. So I could not be more grateful to find out that rather than flying away, Emile has kept my perception of time stuck in slow motion.

A version of this previously appeared in The Grid

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