On time

by DaniGirl on February 9, 2010 · 19 comments

in Working and mothering

Moms have more leisure time than they think!” reads the provocative headline on ParentDish, and you don’t even have to read the comments to imagine the divisive and ultimately completely unhelpful comments from both mothers and those who love to hate mothers. And of course, there were defensive howls of outrage across the mamasphere.

A few clicks brought me to the original article in the Washington Post. It’s quite long, but very good reading. A busy mother with a full-time career as a writer set out to find both good story fodder and a solution to a problem we all face: “Most days, I feel so overwhelmed that I barely have time to breathe” she wrote. So she kept a diary of all the time she spent on various activities and handed it over to an “expert” for analysis, who told her that she has 30 hours of leisure time each week. The kicker, of course, is in the definition of “leisure.” This particular expert defines leisure time to include, for example, visiting a sick friend, watching a movie with the kids, lying in bed listening to the news on a clock radio, and “sitting in a hot, broken-down car for two hours on a median strip and playing tic-tac-toe with my daughter while waiting for a tow truck.”

The fun times in Mommyville never end, I tell you!

Seriously, though, she raises a point that few of us would deny. We’re busy. Overwhelmingly, crazily, frustratingly busy. Ironically — or maybe not so much — I’ve been reading the source material for this blog post and pecking it out in stolen moments over the course of about four days, in an ADD-inspiring dozen or so separate sessions, because that’s how my life works these days.

I have two places I want to go with this post. The first is that I’ve been a whole lot happier in my life since I stopped feeling persecuted about the sheer amount of effort it takes to keep our family on track. Never in my life would I have imagined I’d be the kind of person who runs the swiffer at 6:30 in the morning because the best time to do something is the instant I notice it needs to be done and four other things aren’t clamouring for my attention. In the not-too-distant past, I was offended at the idea that I’d be required to do any sort of domestic work (tidying the kitchen, packing lunches, putting toys away) after putting the kids to bed because the time between 8 pm and bedtime seemed inviolably sacred “me” time. And I’ve gotten used to the fact that any given moment of doing one thing has an opportunity cost of a whole bunch of other things that will not get done. Between the time I get home from work and bedtime, I almost never sit still, occupying myself with one brain-dead and thankless domestic task after another. This is the reality of my life, this constant crazy juggling act, stealing Peter’s time to pay Paul and always on the breathless brink of having it all come crashing down on me like an ill-built house of cards.

But really, I’m okay with that.

More specifically, I become okay with that when I stopped feeling maudlinly nostalgic for the times when my life did not follow this frenetic pace and I realized that whether I pout about it or not, someone still has to fold the laundry. Again. It takes a damn lot of work to run a household and a family and a job. In fact, the straw that breaks this particular camel’s back is going to be — mark my words — managing the flow of paperwork to and from the school, in addition to managing the homework and the special PJ days and 100th day of school activities and pancake dinners and friendship parties and all the rest of what it takes to be a contributing member to our school’s community.

I’m rambling, aren’t I? Okay, maybe I’m ambivalent instead absolutely content with my particular spot on the leisure-time spectrum right now, but I have to tell you, I’m feeling a whole lot better about it now that I’ve made efforts to go with the flow instead of feeling resentful about the constant demands on my time and attention.

The second place I want to go with this post is that despite everything I said in the first point, I could easily argue that I have a good deal of “leisure” time in my life. I mean, I dedicate probably five to seven hours a week to the blog and my online empire — twitter, e-mail, surfing, etc. (Probably, ahem, a hell of a lot more than that, but I am not yet willing to stare down the reality of that particular truth just yet.)

And there’s another two or three hours a week that I dedicate to photography — taking pictures, processing them, reading photography books, coveting other people’s camera equipment (that last one, conveniently, I can do while doing many other things.) My single hour at the gym on Saturday mornings is something akin to sacred time, as is the 30 to 45 minutes I spend with the newspaper and a coffee the three days a week I don’t have to go to the office. I watch about an hour of TV a day, usually in a bit of a slack-jawed stupor at the end of the day. I meet friends for breakfast quite regularly on a Sunday morning and feel like I’ve done the kids an injustice if I don’t spend some time on a weekend getting out of the house with them, whether playing in the driveway or going to the park or the library or the museum or any of the hundred other places we haunt on our excursions. And I manage to cram in 20 to 30 minutes with a book every night in bed before I go to sleep.

Count up all that and we’re well over 20 hours per week of built-in “leisure” time. Mind you, I paid a price to buy that extra time in my life when I took a 20 per cent pay cut to drop down to a four day week, so maybe I’m not representative of the kind of “career mom” they’re talking about. And, rare is the time that I’m dedicating myself fully to a single task. I swear, I will not be that mother who surreptitiously checks her Blackberry while pushing junior on the swings — I don’t even *have* a Blackberry and I feel quite smug about that fact — but I have been known to check the blog or Flickr for new comments in between reading Dr Seuss and Sandra Boyton.

This quote from the Post story stayed with me, though. “In the Middle Ages, the sin of sloth had two forms,” [the time management expert] said. “One was paralysis, the inability to do anything — what we would see as lazy. But the other side was running about frantically. The sense that, ‘There’s no real place to go where I’m going, but, by God, I’m making great time.’ ”

In the end, you control what you can, and one of the ways to control your own personal chaos is with choices. I choose to blog rather than clean the bathroom, and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable choice four times in five, as long as you get to the bathroom eventually.

What say ye, bloggy peeps? Are you ladies (and men!) of leisure, or on the fast track to burnout? Do you have to work to find balance and, more importantly, do you succeed? And, most important of all — has anyone seen the toilet brush?

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Cristen February 9, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Awesome post! I barely have time to read it (I have a job interview in two days and I’m taking a rest from preparing my talk), but I loved it. We like to think we should make time for ourselves, but then our “time for ourselves” is almost always actually still devoted to the family (processing pics of our kids, posting on our mommy blogs, keeping up friendships and family relationships in part so our kids have playmates and to support us through our stressful lives, etc.) – I wish I had the guts to really step away from my mom role and really do something for me (I’m learning portuguese but that’s a vain attempt to get my portuguese hubby to speak the language with my kids). I’ll never regret putting my career on the slow track though so I could spend more time with my kids while they’re really young – I just wonder if I have the guts to walk away from the career totally (probably not).

PS Having cleaning people to clean my house is the best investment I ever made in myself!

2 mrsgryphon February 9, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Must admit, I’m struggling with the transition from one to two kids and the loss of the vast majority of any time that was “mine” before. Right now, the baby is playing on the floor and the 4 year old is at school, so I have about 8 minutes before I need to get us bundled up to go get her.

I was just thinking this morning that the best description for the daily work of motherhood is “relentless”. I find it exhausting to have to keep doing the same tasks over and over again – I don’t find joy in doing the dishes or doing the 87th load of laundry this week, and it never ever feels like I’m caught up and can breathe for a moment. Even the days our cleaning lady is here, the house is a mess by dinnertime! I’m amazed by how much more difficult it is with 2 little kids, compared to one.

I’m trying to stay off the computer, get to the gym a little more regularly, read a book for a little while everyday. It helps, but really? I need a week by myself on a beach somewhere. I’d settle for a Sunday afternoon lunch and a couple of hours at the bookstore.

3 Sara in Montréal February 9, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Obviously, this subject appeals to me, as it would any mom I guess.

And I would say that, for me, having time for myself is not as much of an issue as not felling bad for taking some leasure time. With two jobs and baby to come and a long list of boring stuff sill to do, but essentials to our financial survivance during my year off (tax reports anyone? or independant worker maternity leave shenanigans?), I always feel like I should be doing something more usefull.

I have personnal projects too, that I don’t want give up (blog, 365). Not now, not after investing already so much time and energy on it. It would bring me a sense of failure that is not appealing at all. And some “essential” pleasures – reading before going to bed, writing that stupid journal that helps me keep my mind together, reading other’s blogs, or the news, etc etc.

And, of course, the sisyphean stuff that comes with being human, but is worsen by being a family: chores. Did I mention being a mom to my daughter and a wife to my husband? And dealing with his (totally justified tto) sense of overwhelmness?

Time is limited commodity, but the demand is limitless. You could make a fortune on the stock market, if only you could trade it.

(It took me litterally two hours writing this – not more then 10 minutes actual time though).

4 Jen February 9, 2010 at 9:11 pm

This is very timely for me. Since having my second baby a year and a half ago (first is now five and a half), I’ve struggled to find what I would consider “me” time. I developed a permanent chronic condition during my second pregnancy that causes a great deal of pain and severe fatigue. Since I went back to work last summer, I’ve felt like I’m barely keeping it together (and sometimes not even that). Once the kids are in bed there’s a never-ending list of chores that I’m often not up to even beginning. I’ve gained a lot of weight, partly because of the medications I take and partly because I can’t find time, energy, or get rid of the pain enough to exercise. I don’t ever feel like I have enough time for me, but I do a lot of the same things you mention – photography, blog-reading (although my own blog has fallen by the wayside), reading, a bit of tv watching, etc. I think part of the problem is what I think of as the “mother load” – being the one responsible for remembering all the kid details about school, daycare, when the kids last had a bath, remembering to brush teeth before bed, signing up for activities…and on and on.

Thanks for the post -very though-provoking for
me. (And apologies for any typos…multitasking on my iPhone while I make dinner!)

5 Jen February 9, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Hee hee…had to post that my captcha was “not acing”…so appropriate for my life these days!!

6 Amber February 9, 2010 at 11:25 pm

I’m with you on going with the flow. I can resent the situation, or I can just do it. I’ve found that resenting things takes up energy and time, and that just doing things actually helps me get more stuff done, and faster. It also helps me to remember that I LOVE my kids and I chose this life, instead of lamenting the fact that it’s full to overflowing on every front.

I would also say that being busy is a matter of perspective, on some level. It’s about how we choose to spend time, what our priorities are, and how good we are at recognizing those things. If you’re watching 3 hours of TV every evening but you don’t make it to the gym that’s your choice. It’s not necessarily objectively true that you have no time to work out. And that’s fine, but like you said in your first point, better to make your peace with it.

(I want to be clear – I have not made it to the gym since 2004. I am not judging here. And I have been known to waste rather a lot of time on Twitter, so I don’t exactly speak from a point of strength anyway.)

7 Kathryn Easter February 10, 2010 at 12:37 am

RT @DaniGirl: A rambly post on leisure time and getting over my sense of entitlement to it: http://tinyurl.com/yg9e2fx

8 Mary @ Parenthood February 10, 2010 at 5:18 am

RT @DaniGirl: A rambly post on leisure time and getting over my sense of entitlement to it: http://tinyurl.com/yg9e2fx

9 SC February 10, 2010 at 9:16 am

Great post Dani. I like to think that a busy life means its a full life… and I would rather be busy and having to always ‘keep up’ than to be alone and wondering if I am ever going to find fulfillment in life. I think if you have your family and your health… then you have the world by the horns. It is easy to think that we can never do enough or never have enough time to complete our ideal day, but I think of many Moms who have to fight cancer, or chronic diseases, and just don’t have the energy for anything else. We are lucky to have to juggle life and all the ups and downs of it and It’s like you say… if you eventually get to it (cleaning the bathroom) that’s what matters. Life slow downs as your kids get older and it won’t be long before Moms have all the ‘me’ time in the world, and begin to long for the no-me time phase again!

10 bea February 10, 2010 at 10:11 am

I think a couple of other variables come into play here: (1) energy level and (2) susceptibility to being interrupted. When Bub was a baby, for instance, I actually had plenty of time. He was my only child, and he slept a lot (at least at first). But still, the relentlessness of new motherhood was totally overwhelming. Yes, I had plenty of hours in the day, but it was a huge adjustment to realize that I was on-call 24/7. When the baby slept, I had the opportunity to do all kinds of things: shower, eat, houseclean, read – but I spent those hours coiled in anticipation of that urgent cry of wakefulness that would put me back on duty. Doctors get compensated not only for the hours they work but also for the hours when they’re on-call – and mothers are always on-call.

The energy factor comes into play in how we spent our “free” time. Those hours slumped in front of the TV each evening are, technically, leisure time, but it was another huge adjustment for me to realize that I could no longer count on being productive at any time after about 8 pm. I’m too tired. When my children were younger, especially, the lack of sleep and the early wake-ups meant that there was a huge loss of freedom in the evenings when no external factor kept me from writing, or reading, or even going out with friends, but I would be predictably and consistently too tired to do so. An external assessor could report back to me that I had any number of leisure hours, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything on the ground if I’m spending those hours semi-comatose.

11 bea February 10, 2010 at 10:46 am

I just read the article and came back to comment again. The author makes the same point I did about being on-call as a “contaminant” of leisure time. But what shocked me most is that the “time expert” quoted in the article includes as leisure any time spent in child-care. I assume there is some distinction made between playing with children vs. making their lunches, changing their diapers, etc. – but if child-care counts as a leisure activity, then the only thing surprising about this guy’s stats would be that there are ONLY 30 hours per week of “leisure” time in most mothers’ lives. Part of his point, I guess, is that we are under the impression these days that we work so hard at our professional lives that we have no time to spend with our kids, and I was interested to read that this isn’t true: parents today actually spend more time with their kids than parents in the 1960s. But it’s a huge leap to go from the statement that “Working mothers have time to spend with their children” to “Working mothers have hours of leisure time.”

12 sophiev February 10, 2010 at 11:32 am

This made me laugh, because perspective is everything. For months I have telling my husband that his half hour commute both ways each day is part of his leisure time. Now as I return to work (I’m on day 3) after our 3rd baby in 3 years, I am loath to claim that commute time as my leisure time 🙂 When I was at home, I longed for 2 half hour breaks in my day. Now that time is spent overwhelmed by the inevitable shift in our family schedule, portioning out what I will do first, how I will get everything done and wondering if there is actually enough food in the house to make a dinner that all 5 of us can (or will in the case of my 4 year old) eat. Perspective however reminds me that I am living a very lucky life and really, as long as we are healthy and the kids are happy, the laundry can wait for a few more days. Tonight, I plan on watching TV with my husband after the kids are down for the night – almost like a date 🙂

13 Christine LaRocque February 10, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Interesting and timely read for me as I make my way back into the workplace (today!) after a year long maternity leave. While it was fraught with sleep struggles, adjusting to life with two boys instead of one and the general chaos that ensues, just one day I already long for the freedom of my leave (ahem, I say that as I comment on this blog from work). That said, like you my life is full of “me time”. It’s a choice I make to keep myself on track, to keep myself from resenting the other pressures that must get done. I’ll admit that I occassionally feel guilty indulging, but what I’ve learned is that if the bed doesn’t get made or the dishwasher doesn’t get emptied, the world won’t fall apart. If I don’t get time to read, scrapbook, blog or have coffee with a girlfriend, I just might.

14 Finola February 10, 2010 at 5:35 pm

It’s astonishing when you count up all the tasks the way you have done here. No wonder I can’t breathe a lot of the time, and no wonder I have a hard time focusing on any one thing at a time. Thanks for writing this, it’s nice to know others are in the same boat.

Also, I agree with Cristen that hiring a cleaning service was one of the best investments we have ever made. We just can’t do it all, and why are we killing ourselves trying?

15 XUP February 11, 2010 at 8:49 am

Things in my life calmed down a lot the older my daughter got. Soon the kids will start taking over all those things you have to do for them every day – help with homework, getting dressed, help with feeding when they’re young, baths, story time, all their activities and, as you say, school events. Ferrying them back and forth to friends’ or having their friends over. It’s like a new lease on life when they can do all that for themselves. They don’t need babysitters anymore. The only cooking I have to do is supper maybe 4 or 5 nights a week and she does it the rest of the time. So those really hectic first few years are over pretty quickly and then you can have your life back.

16 Annika February 15, 2010 at 1:48 pm

I think that some things cannot be quantified:

1. Learning how to “let go” of the idea/goal of perfection in everything we do as mothers (it took having two children in less than two years for me to finally get this). For example, my house looks like a train recently drove through it in the midst of a hail storm. And I don’t care. Seriously. I’d much rather be surfing the net for a few minutes than sweeping the darn floor.

2. Remembering to slow down, breathe and enjoy the moment we are in. I especially try to do this when my kids are awake (they are napping right now) and sometimes it means choosing to put off yet another household chore in order to lay on the floor and play with my munchkins. Sure, it means I am often doing laundry at 10 p.m., but I like being with my kids as much as possible.

3. A supportive and hands-on life partner. Enough said. Couldn’t survive the tidal wave of work, worry and repetition without my husband.

4. Sleep. Get it when you can. If this means a nap, so be it. If this means going to bed early in the evening, do it. If it means taking turns with your partner getting up with those middle-of-the-night wakers (if you are no longer breastfeeding/if it is possible), then do so. I often choose sleep over a shower or washing my hair! It’s true.

17 Chantal February 20, 2010 at 12:12 pm

I need to take you advice about noy resenting the busy. With 3 boys I now need to embrace it 🙂

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