On Sunday morning, my husband "let" me sleep in. Until the late-for-my-current-life hour of 9:15. Even better, the kids were busy playing together in the sunroom so I had some time to read the newspaper. And, best of all, my husband had already made the coffee. A full pot of strong coffee.
Plus, we had no plans! At least not until after lunch.
This is about as leisurely as it gets in my life.
So, I actually had the time to read the featured article by Brigid Schulte in Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine, The Test of Time: A busy working mother tries to figure out where all her time is going.
I leaped in. Maybe this article would clue me in on my own time crunch. Give me the magic formula to reframe my schedule. But the title of the WaPo piece turned out to tell me all I needed to know: The author's time was split like an ever-dividing mother plant cell. Not into two daughter cells (as in mitosis). But into a job cell and a kids cell that frequently (and frustratingly) overlapped. Schulte writes, "At work, I arrange carpools to band practice and ballet. At home, I write e-mails, and do interviews and research for work." Nothing surprising here.
But I read on anyway.
In the article, Schulte, a Post staff writer and a mom, tries to figure out - in a witty and well written way - why she always feels so time-starved. And whether, as John Robinson, a prominent University of Maryland sociologist and time-use expert, tells her, she really has 30 hours of leisure in her week. (That's not a typo. That's thirty hours!)
Along the way, she meets some interesting characters, weaves in some revealing statistics, and highlights attitudinal changes about "busy-ness" and about child-rearing that have an impact on working moms. And exposes her own internal and external conflicts between career and kids.
Schulte’s description of her life (“The unfolded laundry in the upstairs hallway rises like the Matterhorn.”) struck a chord with me. Even though I wondered where Schulte’s husband (who she mentioned only once in connection with cigar smoking) was in all this. (Turns out, as Schulte said in an online chat yesterday, that her husband does do a lot of family stuff.) And whether she really needed to be cleaning out her kids' closets or worrying obsessively.
So, does Schulte actually have 30 hours of leisure each week? Sort of. But not really. Well, no. Sigh.
After consulting with Robinson and other experts, including a labor economist with four kids of her own, Schulte actually did find about 28 hours of so-called leisure time in her average week. Composed of "6.25 hours watching movies and Saturday Night Live on TV, six hours reading, 5.75 hours exercising and 5.4 hours mucking around on the computer.”
But not much of that leisure time actually felt leisurely. Not the exercise! And certainly not the hours multi-tasking or worrying and planning while engaging in a purported leisure activity. (This is called “contaminated time.”) And not even the time spent with the kids, which Schulte obviously covets.
All this led me to assess my own lot of leisure. I, like Schulte and most moms, laugh (well, it's more of a snicker or a snort) at the idea of 30 hours a week. But maybe I have more than I think. And what is leisure anyway?
Turns out, that lots of people have thought about leisure. What it is. What it isn’t. And there's no universal idea. Everyone seems to agree, though, that, at its core, leisure is not paid or unpaid work activity.
There are those like Robinson, the time-use sociologist quoted in Schulte’s article, that essentially count any time that doesn’t fall into a traditional category like paid work, child care, housework, food preparation and cleanup, etc. Leading Robinson to code the time that Schulte spent waiting for a truck to tow away her broken down car as leisure. This, by the way, is the approach of the Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Study. The one that keeps telling us that we have more leisure time than we think. The numbers are fascinating, though - after sleeping, and working, the third biggest time use category - ahead of socializing, volunteering, or basically anything else - is watching television. No wonder the experts keep telling Americans that their perceptions of their amount of leisure time are wrong. (And check out Tables 9 and 10 on time spent caring for household children under 18.)
And then there are others who espouse an idea of leisure that goes way beyond non-work or even scattered spare moments. They conceptualize leisure as truly discretionary time. Time spent refreshing the body, restoring the soul, and recharging the mind. Here's one idea from a collection of concepts of leisure from the School of and Leisure, Sport, and Tourism at the University of Technology Sydney that I kind of like (Note that I’ve changed “his” to “her”in the quote):
Leisure is activity - apart from the obligations of work, family, and society - to which the individual turns, at will, for either relaxation, diversion, or broadening her knowledge and her spontaneous social participation, the free exercise of her creative capacity.
Unfortunately, while I like the perspective, I can't quite picture how this idea of leisure plays out in my life. It certainly wouldn't include the 15 minutes or so I get to read standing on the metro during my morning commute. Or the 10 minutes of gabbing with another parent while waiting to drive my kids home from their gymnastics' studio.
But wait! It would include writing this blog! An entirely discretionary exercise in creative expression. (At least I hope so.) And I spent a lot of time thinking about and writing my post this week. Of course, mostly around midnight or so. Still, I've found my leisure time! Thanks, Brigid, for helping me track down this elusive element of my life.