Dr. Phil and free time

So the Dr. Phil show today is going to feature recent research from John Robinson at the University of Maryland that claims moms have 30-40 hours of free time every week. Of course, the studio audience in the preview clip goes absolutely nuts when Dr. Phil suggests this. As they would. The widespread myth of the time crunch claims that moms have no time to breathe, let alone relax.

But it’s worth looking closely at this, because I believe that Robinson’s research is pretty accurate.

First, the mom shown most prominently in the Dr. Phil clip has an infant. An infant really does demand care pretty much around the clock (though they sleep a lot too. My baby is sleeping right now. My toddler is at preschool. If I weren’t working, this could be free time if I wanted it to be).

But children are only infants for a very short time. If you’re a mom of a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old, they’re not as intensely, physically dependent on you. Yes, some moms spend a lot of time shuttling teens to sports or supervising homework. But there’s plenty of research showing that the average child really doesn’t spend that much time in activities, or doing homework, despite the cultural narrative of the overscheduled child. So it’s not particularly fair to use a mom of an infant as an example to counter the 30-40 hour claim, when that is not the average experience that characterizes most of women’s years in motherhood.

Another factor driving up the totals is that the average person watches plenty of television. If you believe Nielsen, we watch over 30 hours a week, though time diaries put this number lower. Time watching television is hard to characterize as anything but leisure. Think about that: anyone watching the Dr. Phil show on how moms have no time is actually using some of their free time right there.

People also argue that time spent in your minivan waiting to pick up the kids from soccer practice shouldn’t count as leisure time, but why not? If you plan ahead, you could spend that 20 minutes reading a great book. You could go for a brisk walk around the soccer fields and get some exercise. Many of the people I interviewed for 168 Hours did just that.

Anyway, in the course of writing 168 Hours, I logged my time for multiple weeks, and I’m still in the habit of noting how I allocate my hours. I can tell you that, right now, I have more than 20 hours of discretionary time during every 168 hour cycle.

Here’s how that worked this past week (during which I worked about 35 hours, slept 56 or so, and spent 35 or so on childcare). Deep in the throes of marathon training, I exercised for close to 8 hours. I had choir on Tuesday night, which took 4 hours. This past week I went out with my husband one night, so that was another 4 hours. I generally get at least 1 hour free after the kids go to bed (I tend to spend another 30 minutes to 1 hour working then, too). Figure another 4 hours there of reading, puttering, hanging out with my husband, etc. We can often get them both down for a simultaneous nap for an hour on a weekend day, or at least get the baby down, and Jasper watching a video. Plus I went to church (2 hours total).  That’s at least 24 hours there, and I’m not counting the random minutes I got to read the paper here and there. Or my trip Friday afternoon to visit another friend and her baby, and my brother, because I had Sam along. That could still be counted as childcare (though it felt pretty leisurely to me). It is quite possible I spent some time watching TV too, though I don’t remember having turned the set on for myself (when I turn it on for Jasper it’s usually because I’m tending to Sam).

Anyway, that adds up to a lot of time. Not quite 30 hours, but not far off either.  Hopefully Dr. Phil will give the research a fair shake.

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2 thoughts on “Dr. Phil and free time

  1. I have a 3 year old and infant twins and I edit research papers for engineering professors in Korea.

    The issue of time is not so much one of hours as one of interruptability, on the daily scale and on the life scale. I was laid off as an R&D engineer because my industry was going overseas and I was in the middle of a high risk twin pregnancy during the layoff decision making process and was not “available” for overseas trips.

    Now, I have free moments during the day (like typing this comment) between getting home from story time at the library and getting the next load of laundry out of the dryer and folding it while one of my two children sleeps and the other two play.

    My career is probably permanently derailed because I’m not willing to be “available”- I cannot go in to the IC fabrication facility or to Italy at any time of the day or night there is a problem, an expectation of such an engineering job.

    Wal-Mart is doing the same thing- checkers are scheduled to work short shifts during the busiest times, and people who aren’t available won’t be employed.

    In general, only a small portion of the workforce has control over when and how they work, due to commutes and requirements (some of which are necessary, some of which are not) of employers, customers and clients.

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