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  • Children and pregnancy are the canary in the coal mine of our control-obsessed culture. Tweet This
  • Parenthood will always involve moments we can’t plan for and dependence on others. Tweet This
  • Children offer a challenge and a rebuke to the dominance of chronos (or chronological time) in our culture. Tweet This

Babies are disruptive—not just on planes and not just to silence. A child is a challenge to the way we order our lives and our illusions about how much control we have over them. In the first two months following my daughter’s birth, every plan has come with a tacit caveat, “…Beatrice willing.”

I got a foretaste of this when, five years ago, I babysat a friend’s two-year-old for the weekend. The toddler’s parents went to a B&B for two days, while I stayed at their home with their daughter. In the time we spent together, I learned not to make plans about our schedule. A walk to the playground might take 10 minutes or half an hour—it depended on what sticks or insects lay along the route and how much attention they merited. 

A toddler has no sense of keeping appointments—at least not beyond the appointment they are presently keeping, perhaps with a number of pebbles that all need to be examined and then placed into one’s pockets. By offering to babysit, I was giving my friends a vacation from parenting, but I felt like I was on a holiday from calendars and my usual relationship to time.

It was as though I took a little break from chronos and slipped into kairos. The Greeks used these two terms to distinguish chronological time and an opportune time for action. But I first encountered the terms in Madeleine L’Engle’s fantastical novels, the series that begins with A Wrinkle in Time. L’Engle explains her own understanding of the words in Walking on Water, a book of reflections on faith and art. She defines kairos as:

That time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards […] The saint in contemplation, lost to self in the mind of God is in kairos. The artist at work is in kairos. The child at play, totally thrown outside herself in the game, be it building a sandcastle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos. In kairos we become what we are called to be as human beings, co-creators with God, touching on the wonder of creation. This calling should not be limited to artists, or saints, but it is a fearful calling.

Back then, I was a single person with a job that stayed neatly penned into the workweek, so it was a pleasure to accept a toddler’s invitation into kairos. Children offer a challenge and a rebuke to the dominance of chronos in our culture. 

We can deceive ourselves (at least for a little while) about our limits and our control—by staying up too late to finish something for work, by cancelling on a friend we know will understand, by carving out more time, whatever the cost, to stay on schedule. But a child, starting in pregnancy, cannot be negotiated with in the same way.

That’s why children and pregnancy are the canary in the coal mine of our control-obsessed culture. The tyranny of chronos is exemplified by the current state of federal paid leave. Consider the Family and Medical Leave Act (FLMA), which has a one-year blackout period, during which workers are not guaranteed unpaid leave for pregnancy or other medical crises, as though babies arrive only when convenient. The policy can’t prevent children from being conceived, though it may prompt potential parents to try to delay pregnancy. In the worst case, it may lead a worker, like Charlotte Sullivan, to choose to abort a child she wanted to raise because she didn’t think that her employer would make space for her or her baby. She wrote in The Guardian that she considered asking her employer for an exception but that, “revealing to them that my decision to stay pregnant partly depended on their willingness to waive the rules felt daunting. Perhaps if I had been brave enough to communicate what I wanted, they would have relented. I’ll never know.”

In this case, chronos denied kairos—denying the reality of need in order to preserve the invented reality of schedules and expectations.

If children can be one of the most delightful doorways into kairos, infirmity is one of the most difficult ones. My husband and I spent three years trying to have a baby, and we lost six children during those years—their lives too short to make it out of the first trimester. I wished for the ordered, predictable control of chronos, but there was nothing I could do to schedule a baby. Each of our children would come and go at their fitting time, regardless of our wishes.

Even after we welcomed Beatrice, I found myself on involuntary kairos time, since she entered the world through an unexpected c-section. Anything I did, even something as seemingly simple as getting into or out of the hospital bed, took my full attention. I was forced to give everything its needed time—no option to shortchange or squeeze it.

My recovery came as others entered kairos through me: my husband, my mom, and many others leaving aside their schedules to come and act at the opportune time to care for me. It was a good way to begin because parenthood will always involve moments we can’t plan for and dependence on others. So will all the rest of the parts of our lives, but those exits from chronos won’t always be embodied as beautifully as our new limits are: given life in our daughter.

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Building the Benedict Option and Arriving at Amen.