Illustration: Pearl Law

Time waits for no parent

For many years I tried to ignore time. I seldom wore a watch, frequently turned up late to events and generally tried to be casual about punctuality and deadlines. I guess it's what people expect from musicians and creative types. That we appear lost in inspiration, working all hours of the night, chasing new insights or sacrificing social niceties to achieve some great work of art.

After a while, people expect you to be late, fashionably late, to parties and social functions. Friends will compensate for it and everyone else will accept it, or pretend to, for that's the way with "creative people".

Then you become a parent and things start to change. Pretty soon, time matters in ways it never did before. You can delay this a little, the longer your child spends at home (and the less you buy into rigid times for sleep and eating), but once preschool and school starts, the clock ticks louder than ever.

In a way, it's not just a challenge for creative types; even hard-nosed executives are used to being able to reschedule meetings and talk their way out of delays. But the preschool teacher can be disarmingly good at cutting you down for being tardy when picking up your young one. It only gets worse as your children get older. No one thinks you are cool and creative for making your child's teacher wait at the school gate. And, there are no prizes for being fashionably late to an after-school bus pickup. I've seen parents move mountains and juggle the most important business and career moments to make a tiny window of time for a parent-teacher interview or child's performance.

Before my child was born, one year would tumble into the next, with birthdays and holiday seasons coming and going. But, I had no real sense of getting older. Now, with a child growing up in front of me, I have a constant reminder of the passing of time.

Perhaps nothing reminds us more clearly of how time moves on than the way our children shed the skin of each passing season of life. Consider the way they outgrow clothes, toys and books. In a very real sense we dress our young children. We buy them things that will protect them and keep them warm, but the clothes reflect us, as parents. They may well mirror our aspirations for them: to be cool, sporty, smart or distinct. It's the same with toys and books. Then, over time, our children start to express their own preferences and make more choices for themselves. Pretty soon what has been discarded is more than what exists in their life. This coincides with a child being able to take on more responsibility for themselves, usually about managing their time better.

I often admire my daughter's ability to be blissfully unaware of time, when we are walking on a beach or when I have asked her to clean her room and also her ability to have an almost telepathic sense of when the school bus is coming, or when to get ready for a friend's birthday party. But like any child, she struggles with managing time in more abstract ways, like planning for longer school projects.

Children now seem to have a very different school day from what I remember (one teacher, one classroom, one unrelenting sense of monotony). Different classrooms, specialised teachers and subjects from a young age and a more complex curriculum mean that, even in the early years, a pupil's day is more complicated than mine was for most of high school. That is why I admire those who can still get lost in play and story-making, even as they approach adolescence. I hope they never lose the skill (and I insist it is a skill) of being able to lose track of time and allowing the world around them to feel enchanted and full of promise.

I hope my child will grow up better adjusted to the rule of time than I ever was (OK, the bar is low). But, I also hope she will remain able to switch off the clock and live in her imagination, where dreams and creativity overrule the tyranny of time. Fernando Gros is a writer, musician and photographer

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Wait a minute, I'm having second thoughts