On Saving Time as a New Mother: Rachel Ranie Taube Reads Jenny Odell
"Time becomes less an inevitable, external thing spread in front of you, and instead a thing you generate in concert."
I read, these days, on my phone, over the head of my breastfeeding newborn. I pause to adjust her body against mine, to listen to the heavy, dramatic sighs she makes between swallows. The light outside the window is dusky, the sun rising or setting—it doesn’t matter much, here in the rocking chair in her nursery. She’s hungry.
When my daughter was born in November, I went on leave from my fulltime job, where I had used time-tracking software to plot my hours. I moved to a new system of clock-watching, in which the only salient measure of time was how long it had been since my daughter last ate—no longer than two to three hours, we were advised. Time became more circular than linear as my husband and I tried to teach her the circadian rhythms of day and night. I had no idea what day of the week it was.
Jenny Odell might call our newborn our “zeitgeber”—a German word which translates roughly to “time giver,” and refers to “something that organizes and patterns your time.” The five-day workweek of my past life is a zeitgeber; so are rush hour, the Sabbath, school schedules, and a child’s moods. Often, various zeitgebers in a person’s life will clash, like needing to wake up in the dark for an early shift, the body and capitalism in conflict.
In Odell’s new book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, she deconstructs the zeitgebers of the modern, Western world, in which time is money and your time is only as valuable as your labor. In her words, she “set out to try to find a conception of time that wasn’t painful—something other than time as money, climate dread, or fear of dying.”
Though Odell only mentions motherhood explicitly in a few places, I found new ways to understand my experience everywhere in this book—in part because, in the first days after my daughter’s birth, I felt more tied to the clock than ever. We tracked feeds first on a whiteboard at the hospital (9:05pm, 11:40pm, 2:40am, 4:40am), then at home in our Notes app (7:30am, 8:44am, 12:30pm, 3:50pm). We got a digital clock for the nursery, and I watched it religiously; at night I’d hear my daughter shuffle in her bassinet and check the time on my phone.
Had it been two to three hours? There is such luxury to this newborn period, in which pediatricians actively discourage schedules and we feed on demand. And still, I worried, sometimes, when my daughter wanted to eat again after only an hour, or more than three.
Maybe I was feeling this tension because nothing about the way we organize time, Odell says, is inevitable. Clocks are inventions, and they have existed in many, diverse forms. Some cultures have used sundials to keep time (which actually shift in “accuracy” throughout the year), others used systems based on the flow of water or on burning incense. When an Italian Jesuit brought mechanical clocks to China in the 16th century, a Chinese reference book called them “intricate oddities” that “fullfil[ed] no basic need.”
The history of dividing time as precisely as we do today is murky. Starting in the sixth century, monks used bells to tie towns to Christian canonical hours, thereby marking prayer times and delineating work schedules. (Some orders used sundials and water clocks to measure those hours, encouraging a fluid sense of time; others used escapement-like designs like pendulums.)
This “technology” inspired the use of mechanical clocks to centralize power, a practice which grew in influence as Europe colonized more of the world. “Clocks arrived,” Odell writes, “as tools of domination.” Historian Giordano Nanni called “the project to incorporate the globe within a matrix of hours, minutes, and seconds… one of the most significant manifestations of Europe’s universalizing will.” One purpose? To regulate the labor of the colonized, of slaves, and ultimately of wage workers.
The shadow of this history is long: though I’m on maternity leave, it’s obvious that my time is still money. I’ve spent hours proving to the Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave office how much my time caring for my daughter and recovering from childbirth is worth—slightly less than my husband’s, it turns out, but more than most, because the number is tied to my salary. Unequal pay for equal time.
Reading Odell’s exploration of the racism inherent in wage labor and domestic work, I know it’s a distinct privilege to have any paid leave at all in the US. The activist Selma James, who drew on the work of Black welfare activists, coined the term “unwaged labor” to refer to this care work we do—and also noted women’s work as necessary to raise and prepare the future laborers for their roles in the economy. One day my daughter will work, production stemming from reproduction.
Odell notes that Puritanism “taught children even in their infancy to improve each shining hour,” and I recognize our ingrained beliefs that even my newborn daughter should use her time productively, eat regularly and efficiently. Online, momfluencers advocate for “full feeds” and exact three-hour increments and tracking “wake windows.” I unfollow them and do none of this, and productivity culture has still tricked my brain into seeing my daughter through the lens of a schedule. But the clock can’t tell me when she’s hungry.
I, too, have this deep sense that I need to use my time “off” productively. “We are taught from the beginning that faithfully squeezing the most value out of your twenty-four hours… is what a good person does.” I should listen to audiobooks while breastfeeding or write while my daughter sleeps on me; sometimes I do. Sometimes I text or scroll. Often I just want or need to commit my whole self to feeling her against me, reacting to her movements. I have to consciously let myself be in those moments. I’m aware of the irony of writing this essay mostly while she slept on me.
In her chapter on leisure, Odell suggests “resting as something that’s subversive and inventive,” a way to “questio[n] the bounds of the work that surrounds it.” This reminds me, too, of her ideas regarding rest as revolutionary in her first book, How to Do Nothing. In those pages, Odell challenges productivity as an end in itself and advocates for replanting our attention in the local, the public, and the poetic. She advocates for caretaking and the work of sustaining our home environments—and ourselves as parts of those environments. Publication is productivity, yes, but for me, writing is also the way to pay attention. A form of sustenance.
Ultimately, Odell elevates non-Western, non-linear ways of understanding time—as circular, or tied to our changing environments, or stretching into the past and future simultaneously. She notices the migrations of local birds, the movement of tides near her home in California. Money can’t buy the time it takes the ocean to wear down rock. “What we think time is, how we think it is shaped, affects how we are able to move through it.” With a shift in thinking, time becomes less an inevitable, external thing spread in front of you, and instead a thing you generate in concert. Time re-conceived becomes “aliveness,” something “creative.”
Old concepts of schedules and productivity followed me into the fourth trimester, and so I have to recognize and reject them as they arrive to me. I’ve scotched the Notes app, a relief. I watch my daughter’s body for the hunger cues I can now recognize—her pumping left leg, her shallow panting, a cry that starts with the letter “L.” I feel her hunger in my full breasts. It’s okay, at two months, to forget exactly when she last ate, and so I do. I can mark time by paying attention.
I’m far from the first to experience new motherhood as a break in time. Odell highlights the work of visual artist Sofía Córdova, who frames childbirth as a “possible portal or escape hatch from the flow of our shared concept of time.” In order to experience it fully, Córdova decided to follow the Latin American practice of the cuarentena, in which a mother stays home for forty days following birth. Córdova describes the “specificity, disorientation, and uncanny nature of this fleeting moment.” Odell calls this becoming “unfrozen in time,” an experience in which an entity is “not only existing within time, but also as the ongoing materialization of time itself.”
That’s right—my daughter is time itself. When I follow her lead, time transforms, defined by our shared needs. She cries with the letter “L,” and our bodies realign.
“Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm,” Odell writes, “you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.”