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The Test of Time: A busy working mother tries to figure out where all her time is going

Working moms and time management
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Rodriguez, who is not married, has no kids, lives with his parents and enjoys long, slow walks on the beach, gave me homework. For two weeks, he wanted me to slow down. I failed. Though I did find time to clean out my junk drawer.

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Perhaps Robinson, Hunnicutt and Rodriguez can achieve their soul-enriching leisure because they live in the rarified world of academia. Back in the time-starved real world, maybe I needed help. I called a life coach who told me to breathe. Another talked about paradigm shifts. I made an appointment with one coach and promptly showed up 13 minutes late. "For someone on the other end of the time crunch," she said, "someone waiting for you, do you realize that that can come across as arrogant?"

This wasn't helping.

I found Carolyn Semedo, 41, who has been blogging about her smackdown with time. She has three children, works part time at her son's preschool and runs her own life-coaching business out of her Alexandria house, as well as an organization she founded called the Enterprising Moms, for mothers who own their own businesses.

"I was just so overwhelmed by the volume," she says. She kept trying to stop working in the afternoons so she could be with her kids, but her work kept spilling over into that "sacred" family time. "It was extremely frustrating. I'd hear someone say, 'Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom!' over and over again, and I'd be sending a work e-mail with typos. I kept thinking, Oh, man, this isn't working for anybody." Last spring, she made herself the case study for a "productivity makeover" workshop she organized for the Enterprising Moms.

She worked with a productivity expert, who sat her in front of a giant calendar and told her to write down exactly how she spent her time. She couldn't do it. "I was afraid," Semedo says. "I didn't want to see how little time I had."

Semedo, quiet and thin with long dreads studded with silver rings, took me past the elaborate, laminated family calendar and chore charts hung in her kitchen to the corner of her bright orange bedroom upstairs, where she works. She pulled out the color-coded "time map" she finally came up with. Big pink and purple blocks of work time consumed most of her mornings and slices of her evenings. Green blocks of housework filled her afternoons. Family time with her kids was scheduled from 1:15 to 4:30, Monday through Friday. And weekends were for family playtime. Semedo scheduled tea with her husband from 7:30 to 8 p.m. six out of seven days. She scheduled 30 minutes of reading for pleasure at 10 p.m. on Sundays and 30 minutes for personal writing at 10:30 p.m. on Sundays and Fridays, although she hasn't found the time yet for either. It isn't perfect. But the new map "reaffirms my choices," she says, "and that they're in sync with what's important to me."

***

By late summer, fully one year after I started trying to track my time, I had amassed what turned out to be six full weeks of diaries and had made another 10 false starts. I began calling Robinson to have him show me my elusive leisure time. But first, he was at a beer festival. Then he was in Berkeley, where he has a condo and stays every summer. Then, he was in the Nevada desert at Burning Man, the wild, no-holds-barred annual festival featuring lots of nudity. Finally, one crisp autumn day, we met. I offered up my battered diaries. He squinted. He couldn't read my handwriting.

"What does this say?"

"Um, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009. 4 a.m. Wake with a start. Familiar panic. What am I doing with my life? ... Realize it's raining outside, throw on some clothes and run outside to take patio cushions in. ..."

"Do you have anything," he interrupted, "that's a little less stream-of-consciousness?"

I pulled out the one week that I had taken the time to laboriously type out. Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009, to Monday, Oct. 5. He pulled out a yellow highlighter and got to work.

The 40-minute runs on Monday, Tuesday and Friday. The 30-minute 6 a.m. DVD workouts in my bedroom on Wednesday and Thursday, and the yoga class on Saturday. All leisure.

"Exercise is leisure?" I asked. "That feels more obligatory."

"Exercise is leisure," he said.

The hour at midnight Wednesday mucking around on the computer, beating it roundly in backgammon, answering e-mails. Leisure.

Reading the newspaper, sometimes at 10 p.m. Leisure.

Listening to the news on the radio while trying to haul myself out of bed. Leisure.

Watching movies with the kids. Visiting a sick friend with the kids. Talking to a friend about her leisure time on the cellphone to report this story while taking my son's bike to the shop for repairs with the kids. Leisure, leisure, leisure.

Printing out a gift card to Best Buy for my friend's son while yelling at kids and husband to "get into the car now" two minutes before leaving to go to a birthday dinner. Leisure.

Sitting in a hot, broken-down car for two hours on a median strip and playing tic-tac-toe with my daughter while waiting for a tow truck. Yes, that, too.

"Waiting for a tow truck is leisure?"

"Oh, you were playing with your daughter. That's child care."

"So, if I were broken down on the side of the road by myself, that would be leisure?"

"Yes."

All together, not counting the tow truck wait, Robinson found about 28 hours of leisure for the week.

I felt deflated.

"But it didn't feel very leisurely," I said.

"I just measure time," Robinson said. "I'm not a chrono-therapist."

***

Turns out, I didn't need a chrono-therapist. I needed Rachel Connelly. Connelly, 52, is a labor economist at Bowdoin College in Maine. She's also the mother of four children. Looking at the same data as Robinson, she sees working mothers with next to no true leisure time.

The revolutionary change of women entering the workforce -- 47 percent of mothers of school age children worked in 1975, compared with 71 percent in 2007, according to federal statistics -- coincided, she said, with intensified expectations of what it takes to be a good parent, particularly in middle-class families. But there are still only 24 hours in a day. To make it all fit, mothers slacked off on housework and gave up their personal leisure to spend their limited free time with their kids.

"My mother was home all day, so on the weekend, what did she want to do? Get away from us as fast as she possibly could and take my father with her. They went out every Saturday night," Connelly said. "But now, mothers are employed. We see it as essential that we spend time with our kids. We don't want to be away from them. On the other hand, we're never away from them."

Plus, Connelly said, mothers are always "on call" -- like my friend who can't go out for an evening alone without getting pelted with calls from her family. Even during a so-called leisure activity, mothers are more likely to be worried about something, planning what to pull together for dinner or strategizing. Sociologists call that "contaminated time."

My crazy diaries began to make sense. I was trying to live two lives at once: work full time and be a stay-at-home mom. Of the 28 hours of "leisure" Robinson discovered in my diary, I had spent more than 18 of them with my kids, 2? hours more if you count the "leisure time" I spent waiting for my daughter at ballet.

For months, I dreaded facing how my diaries would add up. I was afraid they'd show that I don't work very hard, because I never feel I've accomplished enough. Or they'd show that I don't spend enough time with my children. Or that I fritter my time away. A deadline finally forced me to face those fears. Fairly quickly, I discovered that my anxiety is fueled by the fact that I do very little in chunks of concentrated time. Instead, my days are chopped up like little bits of time confetti. Gathering all those fragments together, I found an average of about 50 hours of work a week, sometimes more, sometimes slightly less. I slept an average of six hours a night. If you count worrying, I spent just about every waking hour multitasking. In addition to the load of laundry thrown in, the cooking and the grocery shopping, I found nearly an hour, every day, spent somewhat obsessively "tidying up." One week, when I worked at home because of a child-care crisis, out of the 73 hours that my children were awake and out of school, I spent all but seven in their presence. Granted, it wasn't all quality time ("Shut the door! Mommy's working!"), but I was there. And most weeks I did find the 28 hours or so of free time that Robinson had found -- generally 6.25 hours watching movies and "Saturday Night Live" on TV, six hours reading, 5.75 hours exercising and 5.4 hours mucking around on the computer among them -- but typically only about half of those hours actually felt like leisure.

I asked Connelly if she has leisure time. "I chose to have these four kids," she said, finally. "I am most happy when they are all around."

Does that mean that working mothers can never aspire to anything close to 30 hours a week of "that place in which we realize our humanity?" That we will never hit the open road, much less have a room of our own?

"Ahhhhhh," she said. "It would be great if you could have career-type jobs where you only work 30 hours a week. Are we getting there anytime soon? No, we're not. So you live in a dirty house. You say, no, we don't make homemade cookies. You enjoy your kids, enjoy your work. And know that [the time squeeze] can't last forever."

***

If you've stuck with me this far, you're probably hoping for an answer like the ones you see on the cover of "Oprah" or "Real Simple": "Too busy to live? How to go from swamped to sane -- now!" or "Overbooked? Overwhelmed? Set yourself free." (Those are real headlines. And, yes, I bought the magazines.) But I don't have that kind of answer. The heart is, as Saint Augustine wrote, still unquiet. No doubt I could stand to work with a productivity coach. Realize that a to-do list ends only in death. And learn to make an uneasy peace with my choices. But it's 1:31 in the morning; this story is two days late; the dinner dishes are still in the sink; and there's a form I need to fill out before my daughter goes to school. For a few fleeting moments earlier this evening, however, as I searched for my son's bike helmet, I did notice that the moon was uncannily beautiful.

Brigid Schulte is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at schulteb@washpost.com.


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