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If you don’t have kids, it’s easy to be like, “Relax! Just let the kids fall asleep around the campfire and toss them into bed. Be cool, man.” That’ll work if you’re lucky, but most toddlers will stay up as late as you’ll let them, to the point of delirium. When they get that tired they’ll act like emotional drunks, laugh-crying and pushing you away when you try to help them. We decided to put the three of them to bed at the same time—8 p.m.—so that if they cried they could cry together until they couldn’t fight sleep any longer. When silence finally fell it felt like the last note of an orchestral performance fading away; we waited, then smiled, then applauded ourselves.
It would have been impossible to lounge inside such a small cabin without waking the babies, so we turned off the propane-powered interior lights, pulled the beer coolers outside next to the fire pit, and lit the kindling. We talked around the campfire for a few hours. We were determined to make as much of this time as we could, though all of us were drowsy from the drive and the kid wrangling. When I finally went to bed at midnight (in my pre-parental days I would have stayed up until at least 2 a.m.), I sneaked inside, being careful not to wake the baby even as the plastic mattress covers crackled and the frame squeaked. I laid there tired but awake, thinking about time.
In describing the General Theory of Relativity, Albert Einstein said, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour.” Parents experience a similar change in their perception of time. Days are chopped up into little activities: preparing bottles, changing diapers, wiping faces, comforting children, playing with them, performing the rituals of bedtime. Even after they’re in bed, the mind brims with to-do lists. Time flies, but not always in the fun way. On adventures past, we could sit around a table and finish a board game during the afternoon, sit in the sun and read a sizable chunk of a novel, make dinner at our leisure. It’s not that we got more done, it’s just that time felt like one, long, continuous stretch.
But what if this perception shift isn’t just about having kids? Neuroscientists have shown that time seems to speed up for all adults as they age, that experience and repetition make us less patient with living in the moment—the directive that every self-help book implores us to follow. Children don’t perceive time passing. They just live in it.
My husband crawled into bed next to me and soon began to softly snore. Minutes ticked by. If time is so subjective, I thought, there’s no better place than a cabin in the North Fork to slow it down.
We rose at 6 a.m., the children bright-eyed, adults a bit bleary. We boiled water and made coffee and ate a delicious one-pot meal of scrambled eggs, salsa, bacon and potatoes. We packed the kids into backpacks and headed off down a ravine that leads to the North Fork of the Flathead River. It was a beautiful sunny morning. The aspen and pine forest provided just the right shade, even as the sun dappled the lush ground. Within minutes the children were asleep, as if under a spell, and we talked quietly at first, then louder as we realized that nothing was going to wake them—and that being quiet in grizzly country isn’t exactly the smartest strategy. At the bottom of our first steep hill we emerged into a swampy area full of mosquitoes, so we hiked back out and meandered from one trail to the next until we ended up back at the cabin. It was a short but sweet trip, and at first we felt guilty for not taking on a day-long hike, but then we reminded ourselves that we were here to relax. We put the sleeping kids down to finish their naps, sat on the porch sipping lemonade-and-PBR cocktails, and gaped at the mountains.