Picture the scene: Me, on a Saturday, in my living room. My husband had taken our 2-year-old and baby to the zoo so I could finish a work project. After a burst of the kind of productivity moms are known for, my work project was miraculously done. And the kids weren't back yet. Which meant that I had an unknown but blissful amount of time by myself to do whatever I wanted.
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So what did I do? Darned if I didn't start picking up the house. Every time I sat down to try to read, uninterrupted (something moms of little kids claim to fantasize about), I would spot another toy or tissue on the floor and interrupt myself to go pick it up.
Eventually I had to stop and laugh -- which is better than crying, which could have also been an appropriate response. Because on some level I knew that as soon as my kids got home, those toys would be all over the floor again. But I would never get that hour of potentially uninterrupted reading back.
I know I'm not alone in struggling with this issue. It's become fashionable in recent years to complain that women don't even have time to breathe, let alone do things like read or meditate. I don't think this is entirely accurate, a concept I explore further in my new book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. But we have a tough time appreciating our free time, learning to just chill, for a few reasons.
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First, we tend not to recognize when our leisure time is happening.
Really? You might ask. If I have a babysitter and I'm out for a night on the town, I'm pretty sure I'd be aware of that fact.
Which is true. But not all leisure time shows up in a party outfit. Sometimes it shows up when you stop doing something else (like my Saturday work session). Sometimes it is unexpected -- the 20 minutes the carpool is late bringing your kids home from soccer practice. Sometimes it shows up as "constrained time," by which I mean you're not totally free. You can't leave the kids at the house by themselves, but they're busy with something else or sleeping. And sometimes it's available if we want it (for instance your husband is around and can take the kids), but it requires being pro-active.
This need to be pro-active leads to the second problem: Because we don't recognize when leisure time is happening, we tend not to use it in a deliberate fashion. This is really just a fancy way of saying we watch TV. Even busy moms watch a ton of TV. So do dads. But if your husband is merrily watching a stupid movie with your kids, there is nothing stopping you from going for a run -- you just have to get your sneakers on and do it.
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Unfortunately, many of us find it easier to start picking up the house instead. I'm sure there is some great political essay to be written about social pressures and why we do this, but I'll just recount my husband's reaction when I proudly showed him, upon his return from the zoo, that we could now see our bedroom floor: "Um, I didn't think the point of my taking the kids on weekends was so you could do housework."
Point taken. Even more importantly: Much housework just doesn't need to be done. And so I'm slowly learning to choose to chill when I can. First, I have learned to figure out when my leisure time is happening: a lunch break during the workday, at night after the kids have gone to bed, on dark winter mornings if I wake up before they do, during weekend naps, during daddy time, and yes, those rare times when I have a babysitter outside my work hours.
168 Hours book coverI'm also learning to figure out ahead of time what I wish to do during these precious leisure hours. I have a few lists. One is a broad list of things I like in life: going for longish runs or hikes, hitting an art museum, eating at nice restaurants where they don't have crayons, going to the ballet. Another is a list of things that take about half an hour to an hour: shorter runs, reading a chapter in a book, listening to Bach or Tallis Scholars Renaissance motets (hey, we are all entitled to our own likes), enjoying a glass of wine, or, um, sex. The last list is of things that take 10 minutes or less: writing in my journal, reading a poem, looking at an art book.
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The first list requires planning ahead to build leisure into my schedule. But the others don't. When a spot of leisure opens up, because both kids are finally napping at the same time on a Sunday, I try to choose something from the list -- something I know I'll enjoy, like sex -- and do that. Rather than pick up the house. Which, when you think about it, doesn't seem like as good a use of time as sex. Or even listening to Renaissance motets.
Laura Vanderkam lives in New York City with her husband and two small children. Her books goes on sale May 27.
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