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

By Brigid Schulte
Sunday, January 17, 2010; W10

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."

"Yes, you do," Robinson said. "Come up here and do a time study with me, and I'll show you where your leisure time is."

Reluctantly, I agreed. Part of me wanted to prove him wrong. Here was just one more man who had no idea what it was like to live in a working mother's shoes. But another part of me worried that he might be right. What if I did have 30 hours that could be filled with leisure and I was just too distracted or disorganized to find them? Would the exercise end up being one more thing to feel badly about?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. I am grateful to have a full, happy, if somewhat crazed life. I have a loving family, good health, good friends, a great job and a cozy bungalow in a close-knit neighborhood. It's just that I'm not particularly proud of the scattered way I spend my time. In truth, I don't even want to be sharing it with you. Or, at least, I don't want to be honest about it.

That might be why it took six months before I found the time -- or the nerve -- to get to College Park. I arrived late. Robinson -- tall, gaunt and stooped with a silvery Beatles-style mop top -- handed me the time diary. I was to record every minute of my time -- filling in little blanks, starting at midnight, for seven days -- and then come back.

Over the next few months, I made several attempts. But it took too much time. Some weeks, I'd track Monday and Tuesday, then not get back to the diary until Friday or Saturday. By then, I had absolutely no recollection of Wednesday or Thursday, so I'd start over. And my life was messy. I always seemed to be doing more than one thing at once. Did I count it as work time when I was answering an e-mail in the office but was on hold with the pharmacy to refill my son's EpiPen prescription? Wasn't that housework, too? And what about the window on my computer screen at work opened to a State Department Web page so that, between interviews, I could figure out how to get my brother-in-law's death certificate from China? What kind of time was that?

"Just write a diary," Robinson told me when I called to report my utter inability to fill out the time sheets properly. "I'll figure out how to code it."

One year later, I was ready.

***

John Robinson has been getting under people's skin for decades. He has spent his entire professional life trying to convince people that the way they think they spend their time is wrong. The popular belief that Americans work harder than ever? Wrong, he says. Time-diary data show that Americans, on average, work fewer hours than they did 20 years ago. Americans so stressed out that they're sleeping less? Wrong. Time diaries show a fairly constant eight hours over the last four decades. Mothers coming home from work to the exhausting "second shift" of housework and child care? Working mothers spending less time with their children than at-home moms did in the 1960s? Everyone too busy for leisure time? Wrong, wrong and wrong.

According to Robinson's research on how people spend the 1,440 minutes in a day and 168 hours in a week, fathers and mothers are moving toward "androgyny" and have about equal workloads (64 hours a week) if you count both paid and unpaid (housework and child care) work. Despite predictions that mothers would spend 40 percent less time with their children once they entered the workforce, Robinson has found that, compared with 1965, mothers now spend nearly three hours more time every week caring for their children, even though most women now work. People do indeed have plenty of time for leisure, Robinson argues.

What he does not dispute is that people think they have no time. "It's very popular, the feeling that there are too many things going on, that people can't get in control of their lives," he says. "But when we look at people's diaries, there just doesn't seem to be the evidence to back it up. It's a paradox. When you tell people they have 30 or 40 hours of free time every week, they don't want to believe it."

For years, nobody wanted to believe Robinson. He once received a Golden Fleece award for wasting taxpayer money. The science of measuring time use was fairly new when he got into it in the 1960s. For centuries, people noted the passage of time by the chores that got done or the changing of the seasons. With the coming of the industrial age and the rise of the clock, time-and-motion studies on factory floors became all the rage. Time became a commodity that could be earned, spent or wasted.

Robinson was intrigued that perceptions about time are not only powerful but often powerfully wrong. One early international study found that women in wealthier countries such as the United States, no matter how many washing machines or time-saving gadgets they own, spend just as much time doing housework as do women with no such luxuries in, say, Bulgaria.

The Soviets were the first to use time studies in a big way to gauge worker productivity. In recent decades, time-use studies have become ubiquitous. The European Union collects them. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics now runs the $5 million annual American Time Use Survey. Social scientists comb this data for clues about the way we live. Some findings are obvious: One recent report showed that married working mothers were "more likely to do household activities and provide child care on an average day than were married fathers." (If I didn't already know that intuitively, the phenomenon certainly showed up in my diary: Saturday, 9 to 10:30 p.m., Clean up after 11-year-old's birthday party while husband smokes cigar on back patio.) Other discoveries are merely interesting: People spend the most time walking in Spain, relaxing in Italy and Slovenia, and watching TV in Bulgaria (16.6 hours a week). But some studies find their way into important policy discussions. Economists now use diaries to track the amount of time Americans spend taking care of children and cleaning up the house so that work can be included in the country's gross domestic product.

But it is Robinson's controversial work on leisure time -- his insistence that we have it and our just-as-adamant argument that we don't -- that has made the biggest splash.

Finding leisure time, Robinson says, is an act of will. Once, he kept his own time diary and found he worked 72 frantic hours in a week. "I was not living the kind of life I wanted," he says. "So I changed." Now, Robinson, who is divorced and lives alone, sometimes hops on the Metro without knowing where he's going and gets off when the spirit moves him. He travels, is never rushed and has become a beer connoisseur. He goes out nearly every night. "A day without live music," he says often, "is like a day without sunshine."

***

To the Greeks, a life of leisure was a human's highest aim. Liberated from work, one could devote his or her time to the pursuit of the higher arts such as poetry, art and music. (Though this applied largely to men.) True leisure was, as leisure scholar Ben Hunnicutt writes, "that place in which we realize our humanity." Work was only the means to get you there.

Instead, Hunnicutt argues, Americans devote their lives to work. "Work now answers the religious questions of 'Who are you?' and 'How do you find meaning and purpose in your life?'" Hunnicutt says. "Leisure has been trivialized. Only silly girls want to have time to shop and gossip." To be idle is to be unproductive. To waste time.

Hunnicutt, 66, who heads the leisure studies department at the University of Iowa, was playing a Mozart divertimento on the piano when I called. At 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. He'd taken a 90-minute walk with his wife and granddaughter the day before. He chuckled fondly at the memory of the poem they wrote about it afterward. Though he doesn't count the hours, like Robinson, he makes time for leisure every day.

I told him I didn't. I was too busy.

"Ah," he said, "one of the Seven Deadly Sins."

"Busyness -- a sin?"

"In the Middle Ages, the sin of sloth had two forms," he said. "One was paralysis, the inability to do anything -- what we would see as lazy. But the other side was running about frantically. The sense that, 'There's no real place to go where I'm going, but, by God, I'm making great time.' "

He thinks people in the modern world have become so caught up in busyness that we have lost the ability to even imagine what true leisure is like. He told me to read Walt Whitman's "Song of the Open Road," where the poet enjoins people to hit the road and "Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen'd." All I could imagine were the faces of two crestfallen children running after me on that open road crying: "Mommy! Mommy! Come back!"

"Well, then," he persisted, "What does leisure look like to you?"

I had to think.

"A sick day."

***

I carefully scribbled in little black books that I used as time diaries -- Saturday, 7 to 7:30 pm: friend at party persuades me to go to tarot card reader set up in living room. "You need some time for yourself to be quiet," the reader says. "What can you do to give yourself that kind of time? Can you get up earlier?"

I began to wonder if I was alone. Had anyone else, any working mother especially, discovered these magical 30 hours of leisure each week?

I sent out queries: "Looking for Moms with Leisure Time." I got answers back like this one, from the Oldtownmoms e-mail list in Alexandria: "If you find her, I think I'd probably put her in a museum, next to Bigfoot, a unicorn, a mermaid and a politician who doesn't play dirty. I honestly think the only moms who have leisure time also have 'staff.' I manage about 5 hours a week for working out, but that's not really leisure -- just less expensive than psychotherapy."

One friend said that even when she did have an occasional night out, her time was peppered with calls from her husband or kids asking where they needed to be or where they could find stuff. Another asked if leisure time included schlepping kids to soccer games. Yet another said that if she found herself with a free moment, she spent it anxiously asking herself what she was forgetting. "I have to find something, anything to do because that is what I'm usually doing -- something."

It all sounded familiar. As I kept my time diary, I realized that I kept putting leisure off, as if I were waiting to reach some mystical tipping point: If I could just finish cleaning out the crayons and shark teeth and math papers and toys and rocks (yes, rocks) from the kids' closets, fix the coffeepot, pay the bills, send that wedding present five months late -- then I could sit down and read a book and not feel guilty. As if leisure were something I needed to earn.

I just felt so busy. That sense of being overwhelmed, explained cultural sociologist Edson Rodriguez, 27, who teaches at the University of Southern California, is a status symbol these days. Every-body who aspires to be anybody is busy. Gone are the days when the goal of the wealthy and elite was to laze around doing nothing. These days, even billionaires are on tight schedules. "We derive status from feeling overwhelmed," Rodriguez says. "So if I don't feel busy today, there's something wrong."

Rodriguez studies middle-class frenetic families. He's finding that, although people say they feel overwhelmed, they secretly enjoy it. "There are these complaints: 'It's too much. We've got to scale down.' But beneath that, there's a shared connection. You come home at the end of the day, and, though no one says it, you look at the calendar and think: 'Wow, look at us. We were so busy, but we pulled it off!' "

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.

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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