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What Does It Mean to Squander?
I used to break my time into chunks. Then I had a baby.
Hi, I’m Finn Schubert, and this is The Menstruant—an essay series loosely centered around the question, “What does it mean to be a gay man who loves having a uterus?” More broadly, I love writing about the stories we tell ourselves, the narrative structures we give our lives, and how we can find the metaphors that truly make sense for us.
What Does It Mean to Squander?
I’ve been wondering if there is a productivity book for those of us who spend all of our time chestfeeding, or, if away from our baby at work, stuck in the lactation room whenever we can find a moment between meetings.
It turns out everything I thought I knew about time was wrong.
I used to think of time in bricks. I used to block them off in my BestSelf Planner. (I used to find a concept like “BestSelf Planner” to be energizing, not disconcerting.)
I used to think that the way to get things done was to write a list of those things, prioritize it, and assign those tasks to chunks.
I used to have chunks of time, or at least, I found that a helpful shorthand for my experience of time. A story to tell myself about how time operates in my life.
But now, nearly four months postpartum and recently back at work, I find myself stuck between stories.
I’m realizing a lot of it is that I don’t know how to think about time.
The “chunks of time” metaphor no longer operates in my life, but I haven’t figured out another metaphorical container, another way to think about time that feels truer to my life right now.
I can’t get it together, I say.
It feels like as soon as I have a moment to collect my thoughts, I have to nurse (or pump) again.
And as someone who pays a lot of attention to metaphors, I am certain I do mean “collect my thoughts.” I experience them, almost viscerally, as littered around me, needing to be swept into a neat pile, then catalogued and sorted.
But I don’t know what I need.
Do I really need to “collect my thoughts,” or might I be better served by accepting that they may feel scattered for the foreseeable future? Should I try to adapt previous ways of “managing” my time in the world, or should I accept that such a project is futile?
Much like during my pregnancy, I can’t quite figure out what the narrative is right now.
I can’t figure out where I am in the story I’m telling myself about my relationship with time.
During my pregnancy, my friend told me that sitting sesshin (the intensive, weeklong meditation retreats in the Zen tradition) prepared her more than anything else for childbirth.
I’ve sat a lot of sesshin, and it prepared me to be a new parent. Time does funny things on sesshin, too. Some meditation periods go by quickly, others drag on so long that one feels certain the timekeeper must have made a mistake and forgotten to ring the bell to close the period.
And there’s that similar sense of time scarcity. Most of the time is blocked out, accounted for—meditation, work practice, meals, clean up, and a brief, early afternoon period known as “rest practice.” Rest practice often afforded enough time to shower or to take a brief nap, not both.
Years of sesshin spent choosing between a nap and a shower prepared me very well for early parenthood. One or the other. Not both. Which do I really want today?
At the Zen center, we chanted each night,
Let me respectfully remind you
Life and death are of supreme importance
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost
Each of us should strive to awaken
Take heed, do not squander your life.
Revisiting this today, I wonder—Does time swiftly pass by? Is opportunity lost?
My friendteaches that we are never lost to each other, not in the long story of a soul.
Perdita writes about moss time, about slow-growing things.
“Whenever I’m upset, I think about rocks,” a friend once said to me. Geologic time.
Then there’s, “Take heed, do not squander your life.”
I’ve been thinking about this word, squander. “To spend lavishly, to be wasteful.”
It implies that we know what something is for, that we know what its best use is. That we did not “spend” our time in accord with what we ought.
Virginia Woolf wrote of eleven days unrecorded in her diary as “life allowed to waste like a tap left running.” Yet many of us don’t journal at all, let alone consider eleven days unrecorded to be as wasteful as an open tap.
It seems that each of us makes the determination of what is squandering and what is well-using (if indeed we can speak of “using” our time—maybe it’s better to just say, living) differently. What is squandering to some might be living to another.
Which brings me back to chestfeeding. In a childbirth prep class, I was told, “There will be days when you feel like all you did was feed the baby.” And there have been.
I got nothing done today, I’ve heard myself say a few times at the end of a day at home with my baby.
I’ve learned to stop saying this, because it’s never true. I’ve fed my son, pumped, changed him, played with him, and put him to sleep. The fact that this thought even crossed my mind is, I think, just another manifestation of the erasure and devaluing of care work. In what world is sustaining another human life the same as getting nothing done?
Something is being squandered on days when I say this. Not my time. Maybe my self-regard, my ability to affirm that I did attend to that which was most important to me.
Two things I have deeply wanted for my life, and have been deeply unsure whether I could ever have, were to belong among other gay men, and to birth a child. Both of these came for me, unexpectedly and with grace. And yet I experience them as somewhat opposed to one another. Not opposite, but with a certain tension between them, like a wrinkle in a carpet, like two cards propped against each other instead of lying flat.
I gave up certain things to have a baby. Not just related to money or work, or even the momentum I was gaining for a book I will no longer write, but things about my identity. It’s not that I feel that having birthed a child makes me less of a gay man, but it certainly doesn’t make for easy small talk at the local gay bar—I can tell you this from recent experience. Sometimes I was celebrated. Sometimes I was a bit incomprehensible. But I didn’t feel relatable. I’m not sure I would write, as I did before, about having a story that rhymed with those of the cis gay men I met.
This does feel like a loss, even if it’s one I’ll gladly accept. It doesn’t feel like a trade. Something was given up, even if it was neither spent nor squandered.
I used to feel more cohesive as a gay man, even if I was a trans gay man. In this way, too, I feel scattered. My internal life has become an amalgam of stories—some of queer maleness, some of transness, some of motherhood—without a unifying narrative, without a single arc or story shape.
Another definition of squander is “To wander at random, to scatter.”
I have to ask, again—is there something wrong with being scattered? With being in many places at once?
Seeds need to be scattered in order to grow.
I can’t help but wonder if the problem with being “scattered” comes back to linearity again, to the idea that our resources are wasted if they are not all brought together in a single story, one in which we work efficiently and steadily, in carefully delineated chunks of time, toward a clearly defined goal.
I started this essay while pumping my milk, and I’m finishing it on a park bench, with my baby asleep in the stroller in front of me. He may wake up in two minutes, or in twenty. The breeze smells like rain, and I’m alert for the first drop, which could come any moment, signaling that it’s time to close my laptop and hurry indoors.
I don’t have chunks of time anymore, but I do have moments, often delineated not by the clock but by my baby’s cry, or the first drop of rain. I experience these moments as scattered, but I’ve come to think that scattered isn’t a bad thing. That time doesn’t need to come in chunks, and effort doesn’t need to move in one direction, toward only one story.
Etymologically, to squander is related to squatter, “to splash water about.”
Splashing water about—how pointless, how playful. How free.