Yesterday I read an article in the Washington Post called “The Test of Time” in which Brigid Schulte, a Post staffer and busy mom of two, tried to find out what’s happening to all her alleged “leisure time” (according to researcher John Robinson, about 30 hours a week). From the piece:
“I am like the Red Queen from “Alice in Wonderland,” forever running faster and getting nowhere. Entire hours evaporate while I’m doing stuff that needs to get done, but once I’m done, I can’t tell you what it was I did or why it seemed so important. At work, I arrange carpools to band practice and ballet. At home, I write e-mails, and do interviews and research for work. “Just a sec,” I hear my daughter mimicking me as she mothers her dolls. “Gimme a minute.” She just stuck a yellow sticky note on my forehead to tear me away from writing this story, at 9:35 p.m., to remind me I’m late to come read Harry Potter for story time. Most days, I feel so overwhelmed that I barely have time to breathe.”
Though Schulte claims, early in the piece, to have an overall happy life, that disclaimer is a bit hard to swallow when faced with passages like this and others sprinkled throughout the story. Can anyone really be happy when they can’t breathe? As I read on, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Schulte views herself as a victim of her own too-busy life.
To be fair, Schulte’s position, as a staffer for a major newspaper, is likely a lot more intense than my own career as a freelance writer. On the other hand, her two kids are school-age, and two of my five are home with me all day. So while I can’t perfectly understand her life and the stresses she faces, I can definitely relate to the feeling of trying to meet a deadline while kids need me in the background (ask how many interruptions I have dealt with while writing this post!), staying up too late, getting up too early, never doing anything quite as well as I would like. Yes, sometimes I feel overwhelmed.
But if I had to be perfectly honest with you I think I probably average more than 30 hours a week in leisure. I know that doesn’t jive with our cultural obsession with busy-ness, but I rather enjoy being not all that busy and am not ashamed to admit it. Of course, I don’t expect to just wait around for the Leisure Fairy to come by, tap her wand and grant me my 30 hours. Like so many other things in life, I’ve learned that when I want leisure time, I have to demand it.
Much of what Schulte wrote in her piece does ring true for me. I do often feel the pull of my kids’ needs while I’m engaged in a leisure activity, whether it be reading a magazine or watching TV. I am often mentally multi-tasking, thinking of something other than what I’m engaged in and have to bring my focus back to the present again and again, like a meditation practice. Every time I go to the movies I experience at least one “fade out” during a boring or repetitious part, where I find myself obsessing – almost before I know what’s happening – about whether or not I need to go grocery shopping today or if it can wait until tomorrow; whether I remembered to switch the laundry over to the dryer or not. But again, focusing on the present takes practice. And just because I don’t always do it perfectly doesn’t mean that leisure time didn’t “count” or wasn’t worth having. I still enjoy it, even if it’s imperfect. And when I’m too geared up or distracted to enjoy it, it means something in my life needs to shift.
I wonder if this obsession with time – not having enough, trying to find more – just exacerbates this “over-busy” feeling. It’s like when you have insomnia, and can’t stop looking at the clock. The clock reminds you how much sleep you’ve missed and how little you’ll get even if you fall asleep RIGHT NOW. As you hyper-focus on the time, it becomes even harder to fall asleep. Similarly, often I get distracted from whatever it is I’m doing. To allow myself to get further distracted by worrying about my distraction would be just sort of…ridiculously distracting, not to mention counterproductive. Who can ever enjoy herself if she’s always worried about her enjoyment being interrupted?
Yes, it may be a bit hard to swallow the fact that Robinson, an unmarried, childless man seems to be telling moms with spouses and young, needy children and demanding jobs to stop and smell the roses. But let’s not shoot the messenger (or resort to physical violence: on NYT blogger Lisa Belkin’s analysis of the piece, commenter “Ross” wrote: “If I ever meet that Robinson dude I’m going to spend my 30 hours of leisure time as a stay-at-home mom punching him dead in the face.” Yikes!)
This is life: we’re living it right now, and we don’t get a do-over. But neither is it set in stone – it’s a series of small choices we make and priorities we pursue, and we always have the power to shift it in a new direction. It’s OK to ignore the kids for a while and flop down on the sofa with a magazine. It’s OK to hire help. It’s OK to ask more of your spouse or partner. It’s OK to say no to an expensive and time-consuming after-school activity, or to teach your kids to be more self-sufficient so you can do less. It’s also OK to just say, my life is crazy-busy right now and there’s not much I can do about it, so I’m going to find enjoyment where I can…even if I’m not getting my full 30 hours of approved leisure time this week. We can also move toward seeing our kids as more than a job, more than an obligation, and think of them as a big part of our leisure time. I know that’s not easy in today’s high-pressure, high-stakes parenting culture, but I think it’s healthier all around.
I like what my friend Amanda Witman, mom of four, has to say on the topic. “I think the bottom line is, if someone feels they don’t have enough of (fill in the blank…leisure or whatever else) it is their personal challenge to figure out how to shift priorities or choose to gracefully accept the status quo until a shift can be contemplated.”
This new world of parenting means we’re all dealing with shifting responsibilities and different pressures–both economic and social–than previous generations did. But we do have options about the way we live our lives, and we can embrace the good while dealing constructively with the not-so-good. We don’t have to buy into a model of productivity that doesn’t work for us. We can pave our own paths. And my path? Happens to be the leisurely kind.
How much leisure time do you think you get in a week? How do you define leisure? And does it matter to you how much you get—or just how much you enjoy it?