My Name is Laura, And I Have Free Time

Over at the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, Lisa Belkin posted this week about “Free Time For Parents.” Apparently, over in the UK, a supermarket chain called the Co-operative polled working parents about how they spent their time, and found out that their days, on average, looked like this:

Get up                                                         6:42am
Get ready (shower, dress, coffee)        55 minutes
Get children ready                                  47 minutes
Commute to work                                   52 minutes
Working day                                           7 hours
Pick children up                                     33 minutes
Makes / eat dinner                                 46 minutes
Children’s play and bedtime              1 hour 9 minutes
Household chores                                 1 hour 13 minutes
Work from home                                   1 hour 12 minutes
Go to bed                                                 10:45pm
Spare time                                =             1hour 30 minutes a day

Lisa asked “Does this breakdown sound familiar? Or does 90 minutes of free time sound high to you?” There were a range of comments, but a reasonable number echoed one poster who said “Wow — I’d KILL for 90 minutes of ‘me time,’ even once or twice a week let alone daily.”

These comments always make me scratch my head. No one has to read the New York Times website. So that strikes me as a leisure activity (and yes, I know that someone may need to be at work and is reading it there… but isn’t it amazing how we make space for “me time” during the workday?) I think that 90 minutes of free time is pretty low for a workday, and the tally will be much higher on weekends. Here’s a stat: According to the American Time Use Survey, the average full-time working mom watches almost 90 minutes of TV a day. This is TV as a primary activity (not a secondary activity, like the TV being on during dinner). Just like posting on the New York Times website, sitting on the couch watching TV is hard to count as anything but leisure.

One person’s experience does not define an average. But I personally had over 90 minutes of free time yesterday. I spent 25 minutes running on the treadmill. I read for half an hour while my husband took the kids to the apartment building’s playroom in the evening. My husband and I watched The Daily Show (TiVo’d) for about 25 minutes after the kids went to sleep, and then talked with each other for about 30 minutes before going to bed. So that’s at least 1 hour and 50 minutes.

Now, granted, I work from home, so I don’t have a commute. I live in NYC and don’t have a car, so I don’t drive around places and convince myself that I “had” to do those errands or kids’ activities. I live in a fairly small apartment, so there’s just not much house to keep tidy. We ordered sushi, so there was no cooking (for the adults). Then again, I worked 9 hours yesterday, which is more than most people do, and my kids didn’t actually go to sleep until 10pm. If they’d gone to bed at 8pm like normal 3- and 1-year-olds, I would have had even more free time if I’d wanted it.

As I wrote in 168 Hours, I think modern parents like to claim we have no free time because it’s a way to show how dedicated we are both to our work and our families. We also have this perception of leisure time as meaning something decadent, like a massage at a spa. So if we’re not at the spa, we think we have no free time, even though we’re spending hours parked in front of the tube or hanging out on Facebook. The fact that we don’t use our leisure time well doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

We all like to complain, but there is a big downside to this claim to have no free time. It makes young people — young women in particular — think that there is no way they can build a career and a family and still have time to sleep, exercise, volunteer, read a book, or all of the above. But you can. I hope more of us will start talking about the leisure time we do have as a way to change the conversation from one of “no time” to choosing what is a priority. I have free time. And I’m guessing you probably do too.


9 thoughts on “My Name is Laura, And I Have Free Time

  1. Hi Laura. I read your book – you have empowered me to not play the victim. I have 3 children (ages 10, 7 & 4) and work full time, plus I’m a hockey Mom! I chose to work because I need the mental challenge and do not want my business degree to go to waste. Sometimes I let myself feel guilty because we don’t need the money so why am I not dedicating all my time to the children? Rubbish. As soon as I walk in the door the children are my priority. I spend 45 minutes every day reading with them. After reading your book I have been taking stock of the time wasters in my life and making my choices. There are some things I am saying “no” to because at this time in my life I would rather spend time with my kids (sometimes a great excuse when you want to get out of things!). I check your blog every morning when I get to work because it helps ground me. Keep it up.

    1. @Denise- thanks for reading the blog! No one dedicates all their time to their children. The important thing is to build a good life where you can spend lots of hours on the things that matter to you. It’s always a journey, but definitely worth it.

  2. I think a large part of the problem is that admitting we have leisure time is dangerous at work. For instance- I went on a job interview last week. I’ve worked with the hiring manager before, and he wants to hire me, but he needs consensus from a much larger group. I interviewed with more than 10 people. He says that there has been only one serious concern raised. One guy got the idea that I wouldn’t work hard (i.e., enough hours) because in answer to his question about the sort of company culture I prefer, I said I prefer a company where results matter more than “face time” in the office. Now, since I’ve worked with the hiring manager before, he was able to dismiss this concern. But if that weren’t the case, my honesty may have cost me a job.

    The honest fact for me is that my productivity peaks at about 40-50 hours/week. If I work more than that for a long period of time, my productivity starts to go down, until I’m actually getting less done than I would if I was working more reasonable hours. But admitting this is a risky thing to do, even though I have never been criticized for my productivity at work, and am often praised for it at review time.

    So, our macho “I work such long hours” culture supports itself by forcing those of us who work more reasonable amounts of time to keep it to ourselves. I know that I’ll be more careful in my next interview.

    1. @Cloud- congrats on the job interview! I’m sorry to hear that someone who would have any influence in such a situation would think that way… I mean, really, what are you supposed to say? “Actually, I prefer a culture where we sleep in our office chairs and spend 6 hours a day in chat rooms because we’re done with our work, but our culture says success means not leaving before 2AM!” Does he not realize that “face time” has a negative connotation? Certainly more negative than “results.” Hmmm….

  3. @Denise–I like the way you put it, as you’ve been a victim. As Cloud has realized, people don’t think you should take control over your own time. My husband balked at first when I told him I would no longer sit in front of the TV at night, that I’d rather go do something else. “but where is our quality time?” he asked. I proposed 2 TV-less nights a week for us to re-connect and it has done wonders. Now he realizes that those other times were not quality at all. He still watches TV, but I have reclaimed my time.
    @Cloud–I hope they realize what an asset you would be to any company–the fact that you would be honest about what makes you a productive worker should be in your favor.

  4. WIth young children, the problem is the increments the free time comes in. I spent 90 minutes today getting a tire problem diagnosed (and buying tires) I spent 3-4 hours driving to and from a medical specialist in a major city for my child’s surgery follow-up. I spent 30 min in the waiting room at the specialist. I got two rock chips in the windshield which will require repair (phone calls, probably with hold time, to insurance and a trip to the repair shop). Theoretically, I had 2 hours in waiting rooms today that would have been “free” if I hadn’t been supervising 2 two year olds and a 4 year old. (In case you wondered, there were 120 tires in the tire store waiting area.) As I type this, 2 two-year olds are sharing the chair. Is this free time because I’m not engaging in a “quality time” activity? Partly, but I’m talking to them and singing at the same time.

    1. @Twin Mom: True, but recognizing that the time is there, even if it comes in small spurts, is the first step toward figuring out either ways to combine it or seize it. (A poem can be read in 5 minutes, for instance…) With little kids though, this doesn’t preclude free time, even if you are their primary caregiver. They sleep, for instance. At some point, they start going to preschool. And I have learned that other people’s children go to bed much earlier than mine! If kids go to bed at 8, and you go down at 10:30, that’s time that could be seized. Also, even when people are the primary caregivers, the other parent is around sometimes — could they take them for a shift on weekends, one evening a week? That carves out free time as well.

  5. Twin Mom makes a great point, and I’d take it a little further (farther?). Perhaps the reason some don’t recognize these ninety minutes of what I’d call “unallocated time” is because it does not come in one lump but rather in smaller pieces in between other activities.

    Americans (and I’m sure other cultures have this problem, although they might describe it differently) suffer from the Puritan work ethic which was woven into our national mind-set centuries ago. We are raised with the idea that any time in which they are not actively doing something is wasted time.

    This isn’t unique to modern parents. Many people without children fit Laura’s description of claiming “we have no free time because it’s a way to show how dedicated we are […] We also have this perception of leisure time as meaning something decadent …”

    Wool-gathering, day-dreaming, and staring into space can all be time well spent when they provide the harried brain with a little down-time. Some call it “meditation,” whether they seriously mean it that way or use the word as a way of saying,”I’m not goofing off, really!”

    Experience shows (and studies bear out) that taking a few minutes from time to time to breathe mindfully (with closed eyes, if possible) provides a dandy mini-break.

    Seems to me valuing this kind of time is an important lesson for children to learn, and who better to teach them than their parents?

  6. .Study findings released earlier this week that men have more free time during the day to pursue hobbies and spend in leisurely ways. The Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development said that American French Italian and British men all spend more time than their female counterparts relaxing.The results showed that Italian men have the most time to relax with 80 minutes more free time per day. Men had 50 minutes extra leisure time in Belgium 38 minutes in the US 33 in Britain and 22 in Germany..But how accurate are the results?

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