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Time Share

Others often complain that they "don't have time." But this isn't true. We have unlimited time for some things and almost none for others. I spend hours in the park with my 18-month-old, Isabelle. But I'm desperately short of "predictable time," those dependable blocks the management experts advise you to schedule for projects that can't be done while dancing with teddy bears or reading Hop on Pop. It's predictable time that keeps a mom's motor running. And it's predictable time that mothers struggle with, negotiate over, and fight for every day.

My husband, Bill, and I are no longer just lovers and confidants; we're shift workers, trading our daughter back and forth for equal blocks of time. Our system is simple  -- if I put in several hours with Isabelle, Bill owes me roughly the same amount.

It may sound crass, but we've formalized what most couples keep mental track of anyway. Is there any parent who hasn't noticed his or her partner getting a little bit "ahead" in the time department? Doing shifts allows each of us quality time with our daughter and predictable time without her. It's a great system, with only one hitch: The person often providing me with predictable time is chronically short of it himself.

As a result, our marriage has become one long negotiation over hours  -- and these negotiations can be complex. After all, 20 minutes spent changing poopy diapers and scraping squished peas off the floor isn't the same as 20 minutes spent strolling with the baby. For a while, I was getting the poop-and-pea shift rather often, and I brought this to Bill's attention during one of our rare evenings out alone. We argued by candlelight over squished peas and diaper duty all through dinner  -- about $70 with babysitting included. He agreed to do more.

That should have settled it, but it didn't. For, as it turned out, not all predictable time is equal either. A set amount isn't the same as having Bill suddenly take Isabelle on a walk for who knows how long. In the first case, I can start a project and finish it. In the latter, I run around like a madwoman, not knowing how long I have to spend my credit.

After a few episodes of project interruptus, we settled on a new rule: If you take the baby out, you need to say when you'll return. This resolved the problem beautifully. But then I had to figure out how to use my block of time.

In the beginning, this is how it often went: Bill would leave with Isabelle on Sunday, off to church and then to the music store's weekly CD party. The car would pull out of the driveway, and I'd replace "The Wheels on the Bus" with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. I'd consider going back to bed, then decide to pay a few bills. Afterward, on my way to read the Sunday paper, I'd trip over Raggedy Ann and pick her and her friends off the floor instead. Now well into my productive-mommy persona, I'd answer e-mails, order another CD holder, pay more bills  -- I was the picture of efficiency, doing 20 things in the time it used to take me to do 10. And when my husband returned, expecting gratitude, he'd find me angry and frustrated.

Somehow, time alone spent picking up toys and wrestling with the checkbook just isn't the same as spending an hour with my feet up, reading the Sunday paper. I've found that the real challenge isn't negotiating with my spouse, who's a generous and enlightened man. The real challenge is negotiating with myself over how to use the hours I've been given.

These days, when Bill and Isabelle leave, I make a personal deal. I do chores. Then I paint my toenails.

Watching those nails dry seems almost like robbing a bank and getting away with it. To do something so frivolous as the mother of a toddler  -- yet perhaps it's frivolity, in the end, that can save us.

It's a delicate art, balancing frivolity and efficiency. On a recent Sunday, I paid my bills, then painted my toenails, stopping time, in pearly pink. Isabelle and Bill were due back but hadn't arrived. I looked down at my toes, confused. Where could I go from here? Suddenly the house seemed a bit quiet. I looked out the window. No car. I sat down to read the paper, got up, and looked out again. Hmmm. The music store. Who knows what could happen there?

I was circling the living room with Raggedy Ann when suddenly the front door swung open. "Mommy! Mommy!" Isabelle shouted, running into my arms. "Isabelle!" I cried, scooping her up.

Back on shift. Thank goodness. What would I do without her?

Jennifer Bingham Hull has written for Salon, The Atlantic Monthly, and other publications.