The April issue of Real Simple features a long package on women and time. Based on a survey done for Real Simple and the Families and Work Institute by Harris Interactive, the package argues that women feel they have little free time, but not for the reasons you think. It’s not because harried working moms are putting in long hours at the job. More than two-thirds of respondents said that their jobs don’t interfere with their personal lives. Rather, it’s because women are spending a lot of time hovering over their kids, and cleaning their houses, refusing to release these chores from their grips, even if their spouses have similar standards, and even if they can afford to outsource things. Which, by the way, Real Simple readers can (if the $565 Max Mara pants in the fashion section mean anything).
It’s an interesting conclusion, though I’d argue with a few things about the package. First, the opening line: “Got a minute? No, we know you don’t.” Of the survey respondents, about half said they don’t have enough free time. But that means about half do have adequate free time. We could focus on these women who feel their lives have adequate leisure. But we don’t.
Instead, we get a pie chart showing that 52% of women have less than 90 minutes of free time a day — about 11 hours a week — and “what’s worse, 29% have less than 45 minutes a day. Not even enough time to watch a whole episode of The Good Wife.” I wonder if that line is meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, because I’m pretty certain that if you’d asked people, prior to the question about how much free time they have, to list their favorite TV shows, they’d have told you some names. According to the American Time Use Survey, the average employed mother of preschool aged children watches over 11 hours of TV per week. And what is TV watching but leisure? I wonder what percent of the women who claimed little free time have Facebook accounts. Or ever write personal emails. Or read Real Simple. (Also, answering Harris Interactive polls isn’t required for people’s jobs either, so the 4% of women who say they have no free time show they are deluding themselves simply by responding).
Real Simple makes a more supported case with its assertion that women’s free time is often contaminated. To the magazine’s credit, the writers of the various time essays argue that this contamination often occurs for self-inflicted reasons. A woman who wants to read, and who sees dirty dishes in the sink, will often get up and go do the dishes — loudly, hoping her husband reading the newspaper will hear — before sitting back down again. But why? Why not read and wait and see if he’ll go do it? Did it have to be done right then? Why not go to bed and see if it gets done? While 6 in 10 women say their spouses have the same or higher standards when it comes to housework, 45% of these women refuse to give their spouses control over household organizing. There is a lot of gatekeeping going on. I appreciate that Real Simple reported that women are spending a lot more time with their kids these days than in 1965. Some of this is good, but some of it makes for antics of the sort Lenore Skenazy mocks. If you’re still supervising your teens’ homework instead of going for a walk, you should consider whether, at some point (college?) they’ll need to start doing their homework on their own.
Some useful poll results: 50% of women who schedule their free time regularly are satisfied with their lives, but only 41% of women who postpone free time until they finish other tasks are satisfied. The lesson? Leave the dirty dishes there! Don’t pick up the house after the kids go to bed. It will just get dirty again but you’ll never get that time back. Just because you go to bed with a clean house doesn’t mean you’ve done something if a clean house isn’t one of your over-arching life goals. Schedule free time than can’t be contaminated, like a yoga class or a volunteer gig that takes you out of the house.
I tend to think that we use “lack of free time” as a proxy for feeling stressed. We do the same thing with lack of sleep. But these are not the same. I have a fair amount of stress in my life at the moment. But I know that I sleep enough, and I have free time — more than 11 hours a week. I make sure of this partly to deal with the stress. Going through an intense time at work while raising three small kids is just stressful. But how I spend my time is a different matter.
How much free time do you have?