Racing the clock

"Greetings, Agent Parent. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to finish a major work project, complete with Power Point presentation, while also driving kids to music lessons and the dog to the vet. Pick up dinner somewhere and have it on the table by the time your weary spouse gets home. Spend three hours overseeing homework, washing dishes and resolving disputes before falling into bed, exhausted. This Palm Pilot will self-destruct in 10 seconds."

(Cue theme music: "Dum-dum. Da-dum. Dum-dum. Da-dum. Dum-dum. Da-dum. Dum-dum. Da-dum. Tweedle-dee. Tweedle-dum. You're late!")

Modern life has become "Mission Impossible." Working parents can't make a move without synchronizing our watches -- or, at least, our calendars -- and most days are filled to the brim.

To meet all our daily appointments, we need organizational skills and coordination and communication. We share responsibilities with our "team," assembled for their special abilities -- spouse, coworkers, carpoolers, cleaning lady, yard guy, babysitter, travel agent, in-laws. We schedule everything down to the exact minute.

And still we find ourselves zooming through traffic at the last possible second, turning a routine trip to the orthodontist into an action-movie driving sequence.

(That maniac you saw in traffic today? The one who nearly mowed you down with a minivan while trying to simultaneously drive, talk on the phone and discipline children in the back seat? Five will get you 10 they were late for soccer practice.)

Most of us have demanding jobs, chock-full of appointments and sales meetings and other time-wasters, and we speed through them so we have time left to do actual work. Quitting time gets pushed back, later and later, until it sometimes seems simpler to set up a cot in the workplace.

Things don't settle down once we finally do shake free; just the opposite. Our children have too many activities, all of which require transportation, typically all the way across town. We need family time and exercise time and laundry time and a few hours' sleep and, please, oh, please, just a few minutes to collect ourselves. Because tomorrow we do it all over again.

Everything must go like clockwork. Throw in a dental appointment or a flat tire or a special homework project or -- gulp! -- an unexpected business trip, and it all goes kablooey. Work goes unfinished. Dinner is forgotten. Children are left waiting at curbs, collecting resentment they can reveal to their psychiatrists years from now.

Families coordinate these impossible missions in different ways. Some use a universal calendar, where everyone in the family gets to note appointments and events. Others do everything electronically, sending e-mails and instant messages with constant updates (this technique has the added benefit of allowing family members to avoid each other). Some skip planning altogether, rushing around willy-nilly, everybody late all the time, until the parents keel over with heart attacks and the children become wards of the state.

At our house, we use a combination of methods. A technophobe, I use an actual paper calendar, where I write cryptic little notes to keep track of everything. My wife tracks everything by computer. Once a week, we synchronize our calendars.

Is our system working? Let's put it this way: If you see my minivan hurtling through traffic, you might want to drive up onto the nearest sidewalk where it's safe. Because here's what playing on my car stereo: "Dum-dum. Da-dum…"

No comments: