Slowing Down Time… As We Age

“It all went by so quickly,” one mother sighs.

Mature Woman Reading a Book and Smiling“I know. You blink and they’re in college,” says another.

I say nothing. I have never experienced time whizzing by in this fashion, or more precisely, parenting time. If anything, my sense of the years is that they dragged, though expressing that sentiment is not likely to garner me any mothering awards.

So why did the years feel painfully long more often than not? And how does that jibe with the way I love my children, and the fact that I believe I raised them well?

Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

Clearly, our sense of time varies, and I imagine that circumstances combined with emotional state play a role. You know. “Time flies when you’re having fun.”

And presumably it slogs along when that isn’t the case.

But I don’t think it’s quite that simple, and digging deeper into circumstances that include the physical and emotional makes more sense.

I have also wondered if age comes into play, though I had dismissed that notion, favoring sentimentality and selective memory instead as Empty Nest offers an example of both. For those (primary caregivers) who find themselves at loose ends when Junior takes off, it’s all too easy to gaze nostalgically at the past, and refashion it into something idealized and too quickly passed.

But what else is going on? Why don’t I have the sense that my sons’ early childhood years disappeared in a flash? Or for that matter, their adolescence? It didn’t all plod along, but nor did any of it seem to speed by.

How Our Perceptions of Time Differ

In “Fast Time and the Aging Mind,” Richard Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Cornell, provides possible answers in his New York Times article to my seemingly different perception of time, and in particular, the parenting years.

Apparently, my inability to experience time’s shrinkage may be the result of emotions – those stressful single mother years, and even those that preceded them while married.

Professor Friedman writes:

Recent research shows that emotions affect our perception of time. For example, Dr. Sylvie Droit-Volet, a psychology professor at Blaise Pascal University, in France, manipulated subjects’ emotional state by showing them movies that excited fear or sadness and then asked them to estimate the duration of the visual stimulus. She found that time appears to pass more slowly when we are afraid.

In addition, he goes on to explain:

Attention and memory play a part in our perception of time…

Single Parents – A Different Perception of Time?

If fear “slows down” time, does stress do the same? Isn’t stress at least in part fueled by fear?

If a single parent is perpetually worried, second-guessing what comes next, wondering how to get through the next week financially or for that matter, emotionally, will this alter more than the experience of these days while living them – but the memory of years that others perceive as having sped by?

In this example, a dose of time in the fast lane would’ve been very welcome, yet it seems to me that most of us might like our recollections and actual experience to reside somewhere in the middle. Who wouldn’t want to master a capacity to power through the tough times as quickly as possible, and equal capacity to more fully appreciate (and slow down) the good times?

Professor Friedman elaborates on ways to slow our perception of time, and the reasons we would want to do so:

So what, you might say, if we have an illusion about time speeding up? But it matters… the distortion signals that we might squeeze more out of life.

It’s simple: if you want time to slow down, become a student again. Learn something that requires sustained effort; do something novel.

How to Slow Down as We Age? Learn Something!

We all know we’re fighting technology creep when it comes to our time and attention, not to mention excess hours spent working multiple jobs, and worrying about all of it.

We have difficulty closing our laptops and shutting off our phones.

We’re driven to Digital Detox weekends, while simultaneously smitten with the concept of staying “in the moment.”

We’re terrified that we’re running out of time – especially as we age – and we’re fighting it tooth and nail while we’re at it.

Our best bet, or so it seems, may be letting go of obsessing over all of it – and focusing instead on learning something! Professor Friedman provides examples in his father, who lived to 86. I see a model in my mother, who took up Japanese in her 60s and continued its study into her 70s.

Slowing the “Good” Stuff

Naturally, I’m wondering if my children will look back at their childhood and perceive it as having passed slowly (a good sign, as apparently in childhood, we’re learning and discovering so much we retain a fuller sense of the experience).

My own recollection of the past 20 years remains stubbornly sensitive to their realities: fatigue from being an “older” mother as well as a largely solo one; emotional challenges carrying the burdens and too few outlets for sharing the happy times.

That I’m not in some way imagining that two decades didn’t speed by strikes me as reassuring. If anything, I may be experiencing a distortion that is the opposite of many parents, though despite that, my overall impression of the parenting experience is one of great privilege: the privilege of nurturing my sons, the privilege of their humor, the privilege of participating in their hard-won lessons.

Ironically, in contrast, my past two “relationship” years seem to have flown by. As I interpret Professor Friedman, in a way that’s an excellent sign, while offering opportunities for lingering longer in the pleasure.

As for slow parenting, I am certainly not without my misty moments, wishing our situation had been otherwise. But considering Professor Friedman’s message, that we can experience a fuller sense of where we are and the time we have by letting go of worrying about it, not to mention learning something, I’m all ears. And eyes. And appreciation for his perspective.

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© D. A. Wolf



  1. says

    Hmmm. I was so unhappy in my marriage, but my kids brought me so much joy when they were little. I guess that explains why my perception of time during all that is…odd. Now that the marriage is over and life is good, it’s speeding right along. :-)
    Elizabeth Lee recently posted…My Non-AversaryMy Profile

  2. Deborah Smikle-Davis says

    Although I have not experienced pleasures or the challenges of parenting, at this point in my ‘mid- life’ times seems even more precious. My husband of two decades and I often exclaim, “Where did the time go?” Precious months and then years fly by as if they never were. I am therefore trying to capture, appreciate and celebrate as many moments as I can. They are so fleeting and without fanfare, become a faint historical footnote as time goes quickly by. Grab onto life and love it more, I am learning with age.

  3. sue says

    I think that NYT article is on to something. I also had two children in my thirties and raised them largely on my own by their adolescence. Like you, Ms Wolf, I do not feel those years raced by. I was terrified of the responsibility for their well-being and happiness. And now that they are in college and beyond, I can breathe a sigh of relief and try to enjoy my life again with my wonderful partner. I am, however, having a difficult time doing that. “Mom Guilt” still rears its ugly head. You have also been fortunate to find a lovely male companion. Do you feel that tug – that conflict about how much time and energy we can now devote to ourselves and how much of that time and energy we should still give to our ever-developing young adults?

    • D. A. Wolf says

      The ‘mom guilt’ – yes, Sue. I feel it. (And your comment makes me feel better.) There’s also the reality of the accumulated fatigue, the habit of putting kids first, the trailing financial issues that are perhaps inevitable in certain situations, so we do our best to deal with that, too, which keeps us busy.

      I try to appreciate what I have now, and frankly, having made it through those years more or less intact. I wonder though how long the sense of not doing enough will linger, even though our heads tell us we did what we could.

      • sue says

        Oh, yes, your words always ring true with me (I feel we live somewhat parallel lives given what you write). I am as we speak packing up my home to move to the suburbs with my new fiance. As I go through the vestiges of my children’s childhood and sort and label all their milestone moments (communions, confirmations, graduations) I am reliving all the emotions I felt at those moments. And instead of feeling bittersweet joy at the memories, I feel pain that I wasn’t “there” enough in the moment. Was I distracted by all the issues you stated above, did I do a disservice to my children, can I make it up to them in some way now – or has my time passed?

        • D. A. Wolf says

          I’m not sure any mother, in any circumstance, feels she’s done enough. Not in this era, and not in this country. (I’m generalizing, but I also read a lot of parenting material by still married mothers. They also suffer from mom guilt and feel like they’ve not done enough or by doing too much they’ve created children who don’t take enough responsibility.)

          I wonder if we shouldn’t stop judging ourselves (easier said than done). I wonder if we should allow our kids to take the reins and run with the good lessons we’ve given, including some of the most powerful lessons – those hard times.

          But I have another question for you. Where do you get the courage to marry again, Sue? (I would ask the same of other readers who remarry after being single for a long time as well.)

          I am in awe of that sort of courage, those who can make that leap of faith.

  4. says

    Thanks for this excellent post, D.A. As a married mom, whose husband was/is an engaged and excellent parenting partner, I felt that time sometimes went slowly when we were in it but when looking back, feel it went by quickly. Did we have anxiety and tough times? Definitely. Would I do some things differently now? Absolutely. But I recently realized that my sons are truly on their own now. They still like us — and, in spite of a previous comment I made on this blog, it seems they like each other, too — as a recent visit one made the other at his Peace Corps site seems to prove. But realizing that I couldn’t make them “get along” also made me realize that a lot of what happens next is out of my control. They are who they are, and maybe, now, finally, I am free to just be myself.
    Judith A. Ross recently posted…WallowingMy Profile

    • D. A. Wolf says

      Thank you for this comment, Judith. I think much more than we realize is out of our control. If we can do our best and find a way to accept that, maybe we won’t spend so much time kicking ourselves for the wrong parenting style or the wrong move or too much of this and too little of that.

      “Free to be myself.”

      What wonderful words.

  5. sue says

    Before you envision me as a paragon of courage, let me give me my stock reply to that question – “It was a heck of a lot easier to marry someone I didn’t love in my twenties than to marry someone I do love in my fifties!”. But we must give ourselves that opportunity. Joe and I have been together six and a half years; he is the country mouse and I am the city mouse. Our children were ensconced in those life styles and it would have caused great adversity in all our lives to make either set of children relocate. So Joe and I have trudged across the Pulaski Sky Way for years.

    Now as our children are leaving the nest, it is our time to make a life together. I am petrified, but also energized at the concept of a new beginning at this stage of my life. And that is enthralling – that we can still participate in the inception of a new life – a new start – a rebirth.

    Courage? Would anyone attempt any new endeavor if they thought it would fail? So we go forward knowing the possibility of failure but anticipating the joy of a new beginning.

  6. says

    During my 20 years of marriage, my ex traveled 3 weeks out of every month which led to me doing solo parenting with our 3 kids who are each 5 years apart in age. This was the most exhausting time of my life and steeped in responsibilities. I find myself grateful that I did experience that time with them during those years, but also still feel angry about having to re-enter the totally over-saturated job market in 2008 at the height of the recession. It’s been very challenging! At least now that my youngest has turned 16, I can devote more time to my job and my divorce coaching business.

  7. says

    Time’s a tricky thing – twisting and bending, circling and slowing, speeding and evading us. It’s illusory at best, I think. And whether a time sped by or crept slowly – depends on my day, what I’m looking back on, my mood. I enjoyed raising my children – but the time didn’t fly by – I think because I tried to be present – good or bad. And really, as a mom – how can you be otherwise?
    Barbara recently posted…Second Saturday in SistersMy Profile

  8. says

    I vividly remember the day I realized my youngest was (aghast) in college! I was driving to work and all of a sudden it dawned on me that 18 years was gone. And it literally seems like last week she was going to kindergarten. Days and weeks drag on and on with their mundane tasks and stressors….but years seem to fly by. I can’t believe it’s the end of July as we speak. Half a year is already over and I can’t say that I’ve really paid attention. Too busy? I dunno…let me check my calendar.
    lisa recently posted…Dog DayzMy Profile

  9. says

    Psychological time, as the phrase indicates, is a matter of our perception. There are some general principles, while other aspects are more affected by personality. As you mention, our sense of passage of time has much to do with what is going on during that time.

    For me, some things in the past seem like so long ago. I don’t know the extent this may be due to aging or due to the influence of Fran, the one who rarely looks back. Time with my kids seems to have gone by rather fast and happily. Time with my former wife was slow and unpleasant for a substantial part of our time together. But who cares — it’s all past. I remember the past to learn from it and to appreciate the good times, not to relive the past. That learning gives me confidence that I am ready to meet new challenges (within bodily limits of aging).

    We have made the big move, it was likely the hardest physical effort I have ever made in my life, but that is past and we are living a much simpler lifestyle (no boats or motorcycle, and chickens will be here shortly) and feeling better for it. The effort and move took me away from Facebook and other online activities. It was freeing and felt good, so I although I will maintain some online activity, I am not going back to what I had allowed to creep up on me and become more than I believe was appropriate. We have made friends and contacts in our new neighborhood and see them in person because we live in a busy area. Time in the future is what counts – not passage of time in the past.

    I did a paper on the psychological experience of time when a graduate student decades ago. Interesting topic.

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