There is something in my house which has become a kind of weird, private emblem for all the parenting woes I’ve ever felt. That something is my electric toothbrush.
I’m 99.8% certain this is a universal feature of any electric toothbrush, but my Sonicare has a two-minute timer which gives you a tiny pause at 30-second intervals (supposedly to prompt you to move mindfully on to the next ‘quadrant’ of teeth in your mouth—to which I say, that’s cute). In sum, you turn it on and you keep brushing until the toothbrush turns itself off two minutes later.
For many years, I despaired of ever being able to complete the two-minute toothbrushing cycle again. I would turn the toothbrush on and start brushing wildly all over, quadrants be damned, because I didn’t know how much time I would have. My heart rate would quicken because I was bracing myself for the inevitable: a sudden call or shriek of “Mama!!” from another room, or a child suddenly running to find me for immediate help with something that couldn’t wait (two minutes), or a child suddenly needing me simply because they realized I had, heaven forbid, gone to do something.
Like brush my teeth.
In that moment, I would feel the adrenalin spike of stress and annoyance that my body had already primed itself for. This was all before I knew a little better how to anticipate and manage moments like this.
With the toothbrush buzzing away in my mouth and my body stifling a roar, I would not be able to reply. Then, a stubborn resistance would set in: I would not turn the toothbrush off because the ostensible goal was to complete the two-minute cycle and I was already several seconds in. There was no pausing now.
Boundaries, I’d remind myself, trying to self-soothe. Two minutes to brush my teeth is not an unreasonable need.
But the longer my silence, the more frenzied the distant pleas. The greater their frenzy, the greater my frustration: Why can I not have TWO measly minutes of time to myself!?
If a child was starting to melt down within eyeshot, I would point to the toothbrush frothing in my mouth and explain, “AuHUUHnnn!!!!” That never worked.
The relativity of time would kick in nicely about now: the two measly minutes would start to feel interminable. A few infernal seconds of escalation, and then I would finally give up and turn the toothbrush off.
In the mornings, I wouldn’t even bother with the electric toothbrush. A regular, no-timer, no-expectations toothbrush felt like the sane choice. (And maybe there’s some wisdom buried in that.)
Nowadays, when I start brushing my teeth in the evening, I am no longer on edge when I press the button. I regularly (not always, not yet) make it to the end of the two-minute session in peace. When I do, it still feels like a minor miracle. (Parenting has a way of resetting the threshold for gratitude.)
And in that respect, my electric toothbrush has become a kind of unwitting marker of progress and, yes, time: not a calibrated kind, but a sweeping kind you can only truly appreciate after it’s long past. A kind that’s hard to see in the present without help. A kind with no clear intervals.
I enjoy seeing the profound in the absurd, so I wonder:
What else is sweeping through my life at the moment that I can’t quite see?
What is sweeping through your life?
And what might the marker be?