The Test of Time: A busy working mother tries to figure out where all her time is going
Let me tell you about a typical day in my life as a working mother.
Oh, wait, there is no such thing.
There was the Tuesday I flew in late to a meeting with school officials about why my son was floundering in fifth grade; I dragged along my second-grader, still in her pajamas and slippers because she had stayed home sick, and I kept glancing at my BlackBerry because I was in the middle of reporting a fast-breaking deadline story about a Chinese student who'd had her head chopped off. Then there was the Thursday that the amount of work I needed to do pressed like a heavy weight on my chest, but my heart just about ripped apart when my daughter's big blue-gray eyes started to water because I had said no when she asked, "Mommy, will you please come with me on my field trip today?" I spent three hours in the woods with her -- and my BlackBerry and my guilt over not being at work. I worked an extra four hours after she went to bed that night.
I have baked Valentine's cupcakes until 2 a.m. and finished writing stories at 4 a.m. My toilet runs. My "to do" list never ends. The unfolded laundry in the upstairs hallway rises like the Matterhorn. I take too long on stories. I haven't written a book. I eat lunch at my desk. My son can recite the handful of times I've missed an honors assembly or concert rather than the hundreds of times I've cut out of work to be there. I never feel I do any one thing particularly well.
I am like the Red Queen from "Alice in Wonderland," forever running faster and getting nowhere. Entire hours evaporate while I'm doing stuff that needs to get done, but once I'm done, I can't tell you what it was I did or why it seemed so important. At work, I arrange carpools to band practice and ballet. At home, I write e-mails, and do interviews and research for work. "Just a sec," I hear my daughter mimicking me as she mothers her dolls. "Gimme a minute." She just stuck a yellow sticky note on my forehead to tear me away from writing this story, at 9:35 p.m., to remind me I'm late to come read Harry Potter for story time. Most days, I feel so overwhelmed that I barely have time to breathe.
John Robinson says I have 30 hours of leisure time every week.
Blame him for this story.
Robinson is a 74-year-old sociologist at the University of Maryland. Widely known as the father of time-use studies in the United States, he codes, analyzes and makes pronouncements about how people spend their precious time on Earth. One spring day in 2008, when I was serving on a Washington Post work group studying the newspaper reading habits of women, I called him. Women don't read newspapers as often as men do, we hypothesized, because, between work, children and keeping the house from falling down, we were all stretched too thin. Women just didn't have the time.
"Wrong," Robinson interrupted. "Women have time. Women have at least 30 hours of leisure every week. In fact, women have more leisure now than they did in the 1960s, even though more women are working outside the home."
"What?" I asked. My head just about popped off. I quickly reviewed my previous week. I'd been up till some ungodly hour the night before making my son do the homework he said he'd finished but hadn't. I had had a day off but spent most of it weeding or on the phone with Apple trying to figure out why all the icons on my computer had turned into question marks. We had family pizza-movie night on Friday, and I took an hour and 15 minutes of a yoga class on Saturday. There was a family dinner at a friend's house and, each night before bed, a few minutes of trying to read more than the same paragraph of a book that I'd read the night before.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I spat. "I don't have 30 hours of leisure time every week."