Score more free time (even with kids and a job)

For a while the US was a demographic outlier, posting a higher birth rate than the rest of the developed world. In the last few years, however, this has drifted down. There are many reasons for this — economics definitely plays in, particularly the cost of childcare — but a recent survey over at the New York Times found that the most common reason people aged 20-45 gave for not starting a family (or not being sure that they would) was that they wanted leisure time.

Obviously, if people don’t want children, they shouldn’t have children. But I find this assumption that parenthood means a lack of leisure time kind of…sad. It is the inevitable result of all the stories out there about harried, sleep-deprived, crazed working parents. This is selective evidence; it doesn’t show the whole picture.

According to the American Time Use Survey, employed people without children at home have about 1.15 hours more of leisure time per day than employed people with children under age 6 at home. More than half of this difference can be accounted for by time spent watching TV. Employed people without kids average 2.33 hours/day. Employed people with kids under age 6 average 1.59 hours.

Of course, this 69-minute leisure time differential is not evenly split over all parents and non-parents. My own time diary studies have found that mothers of children under age 2 have significantly less leisure time than women with older children. Most people experience these baby years as their baptism into parenthood. If their friends have not embarked on this journey, the differential seems huge. It’s a different perspective than if you realize eventually your friends will be middle-aged and no longer hitting the clubs, and that the kids will grow up. My 8-year-old would sit at our home computer all weekend if we let him. I could literally read the entirety of War and Peace on the back porch and he would not notice. Yes, I drive the older kids around a lot during the school year, but a chunk of this winds up as work or leisure time (see below).

Anyway, parents do have leisure time, and many parents could have more, or could make the time they do have feel better, with some smart strategies. Over the past 11 years, here’s what I’ve found works.

Track your time. It’s always the first step. Feeling like we have no leisure time is often about telling the story that we have no leisure time. When we have a story, we look for evidence to support it, and there are definitely moments in life that feel squeezed. But there might be other moments too.

Recognize that not all leisure is equally rejuvenating. Perusing social media or cruising the web is leisure time. It just doesn’t feel all that relaxing, and since it’s done in little chunks, people often don’t even register it as such. Use this time — breaks at work, or when you’re at a kid’s activity — to read or meditate/pray/journal instead, and it will feel more expansive.

Don’t be a martyr. If you have a partner, you can trade off coverage with that partner so each of you gets free time. If the kids tend to default to you even if the other parent is in charge, leave the house. Also, let go of the stories of what “should” fill your time. You can relax even if the oven isn’t clean and sparkling. There is no 11 p.m. home inspection, with someone coming around to see if all the toys are picked up. Someone’s favorite pair of jeans not being washed nightly is really not the worst tragedy in the world. Kids can learn to do chores, and the more they do, the less the parents have to do.

Commit. While it sounds paradoxical that making commitments creates a feeling of having more time, if they’re the right commitments, they can. One-off events with friends are often too much work to justify, so they don’t happen. But agreeing to go out to dinner with a group of friends on the first Thursday of every month becomes a habit. People know to plan for it, and no one needs to figure out new logistics. So it does happen. Same thing with a regular Saturday morning long run, or joining a choir, or what have you.

Get a little more childcare than you absolutely need. If you do have little kids, a few hours on weekends, or one extra evening of coverage, can go a long way toward making life feel more relaxed. If you’re already paying for 40 hours, paying for 44 is not a huge shift. But it can make a big difference in terms of mindset.

Use work time. Take a real lunch break a few times per week. Go for a walk on a break between calls. Listen to a podcast you love in the car (like…Best of Both Worlds?) If you travel for work, this can be a big opportunity for building in space. I like to meet friends for dinner or coffee when I’m in a different town, or visit an art museum, run somewhere interesting, read a good book during the time when I can’t use my laptop on the plane, etc.

Have stuff you want to do. A lot of leisure time is nebulous. You could clean the house or check your email…or you could do something more fun. Make sure you have compelling, fun stuff that is always beckoning you. One way to figure out where potential leisure time might be lurking? Pick up a real page turner of a book, or start a binge-worthy series. You’ll magically find pockets of time to find out what happens next. Note where these pockets of time are, because you might be able to use them for other leisure activities too.

How are you doing on leisure time these days?

Photo: Snapped while relaxing at 25,000 feet, somewhere over Missouri

8 thoughts on “Score more free time (even with kids and a job)

  1. My biggest problem is that I have ALL free time (Independent Contractor) and have to parcel it out/arrange it so that I can earn a living and also have a life. Could use a book on Free Lance!

  2. I love your tips, but I think there are some flaws in the survey itself, and I think the NYT played up the leisure time factor as an attention-grabbing headline. It’s not clear whether the survey respondents were allowed to state more than one reason, and at least some parts of the results seem to be combine three disparate groups: people who didn’t/don’t have as many children as they want, those who don’t want children, and those who aren’t sure if they do. I’m not even sure that the last two should be combined as they are in the second chart, because they seem pretty different to me. The second most common response for that age range was “haven’t found partner” and I think that’s a pretty legitimate reason for not being sure about having kids or not wanting kids.

    I would like to see the survey questions, as it seems like there are double- or triple-barreled questions in there, which is not best practices for survey design. I would also be curious to know if respondents were allowed to choose more than one answer, as that would also affect responses. Overall I found the article reductive and frustrating (as a member of this age group who is currently expecting her first child). That being said, I appreciate your suggestions and efforts to challenge the status quo.

    1. @Caitlin- yes, definitely not a clear-cut thing, and I assume a fair number of people have multiple reasons. Not having found a partner is certainly going to be a big one. But I do think that this idea that parents can’t/don’t have free time is problematic, and I hope to push back on that story.

  3. I am an ob-gyn in a low income area. My new immigrant mothers have husband who will not cook or clean ( not a thing a man is expected or taught to do in many Asian or Middle East countries ) . The wives work minimal wage job , pick up the kill ds from school , make supper , supervise homework , give baths and put the kids to bed .Then they do dishes, prepare tomorrow’s lunches and collapse in bed.
    Most people can not afford ANY household help even less 2 separates nanies as you do .
    You need to be careful , a lot of options are available to RICH people .That is not true of most women around the world.

    1. @Marie-France- thank you for your comment. Of course, plenty of people have tougher situations than others. The American Time Use Survey data on leisure time looks at thousands of Americans over the entire year, recounting the previous day. This includes people from all economic circumstances. Certainly some people will have more or less than others.
      My tips are aimed at my readers, who are largely professionals who are trying to combine work and life and live a good life.
      I would push back against the “you need to be careful”/you are privileged/rich argument, though. Of course, people with more resources have more options in general. But if using the word “nanny” stops the discussion, then that keeps women in particular from sharing strategies on how to make their lives work. And that can keep women from achieving what they might, professionally.

      1. And next to professional child care such as nanny’s, there’s plenty of (free or nearly free) informal childcare one could kindly ask for support, and share and trade with, such as family, friends, neighbors, other parents from school. It does take a village to raise a child, whether you pay for it or not. And it takes just as much guts and creativity as it does money (if you have it) to organize a life that’s optimal in your situation.

  4. I have a friend in the neighborhood who has two kids similarly-aged to my two kids. We arrange to swap kids for 60-90 minutes at a time, which has been GREAT. Just that little bit of time can allow for a breath, some quiet, some exercise, etc. And it doesn’t cost anything — maybe an idea for women with less support and resources?

    1. @Lindsey – definitely. Swapping kids with neighbors/friends/extended family is a great way to score some free time, and also potentially have your kids entertained while they’re with you too! (My older kids can disappear with their cousins for a long time.)

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