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The Test of Time: A busy mom's lessons in work-life balance

Working moms and time management
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Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; 12:00 PM

Working mothers say they're busy, on the clock every second of the day. But is it true?

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Brigid Schulte consulted time-management experts in search of her own leisure time. She wrote about her experience in a Washington Post Magazine cover story, "The Test of Time" and was online January 19 to take questions and comments.

The transcript is below.

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Brigid Schulte: Hi Everyone,

Thanks for joining me here today to talk about time, life, leisure, work and parenthood. That about cover the waterfront?

When I first began this journey - taking up University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson's challenge to come up and do a time study with him and he'd find me my 30 hours of leisure time each week, I was afraid of what I would find. I was afraid I'd find I didn't work hard enough, spend enough time with my children, do enough, be enough, make the best choices, realize I even had choices to make, etc. etc. Mainly, I was afraid I'd be exposed to the world as a scattered, neurotic mess. I forged ahead, and have been innundated with messages from people, men and women, saying they feel the same way. I don't know that I have any answers, but there were some interesting revelations along the way.

I look forward to discussing them - and hearing yours.

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Wash D.C. : I'm a woman in my late 20s, embarking on a time-consuming career (medicine), with plans to marry and have children. Frankly, I found your article terrifying.

If you were in my shoes, what would you do differently knowing what you know now? Is there any way to prevent creating a life that results in the kind of frantic, crazed busyness that you describe?

Brigid Schulte: Oh my. I wish I had the answers. I would say - just live your life the best way you can. Go into medicine, do what you love, have your children, be with them and love them as much as you can.

I have a feeling we, as a society, will figure this out better as we go.

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Baltimore Maryland: Hi Ms. Shulte, Thanks for a great article, On the third page or so, you write, "Had anyone else, any working mother especially, discovered these magical thirty hours of leisure each week? I sent out queries."

I'm curious about how journalists find people living in the situations journalists write about. Do you take out ads in craigslist? I.e. "You are a subprime loan recipient walking away from your mortgage," or "you just bought an e-reader." How does one 'query' anonymous people? Also, was this group particularly hard to 'query?' After all, you're basically asking very busy people to sit down with you and describe their busy-ness.

Thanks again, Patrick, Baltimore

Brigid Schulte: Hi Patrick,

I sent out queries to listserves like DC Urban Moms (where I got the answer: "crickets" I wrote back, "crickets?" and the responder wrote me "the sound of crickets chirping because no one has any leisure time") I also posted on Oldtownmoms in Alexandria.

One thing that IS interesting, is that these mom/parent-centered listserves DO have a lot of traffic, because, even though people are busy, most of us ARE on the computer for at least some part of the day, and it is a way for moms especially to connect and not feel so isolated (AND a great way, in this age of scattered extended families, to ask for and get really great advice)

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Pasadena, MD: Many readers commenting on your article viewed the whole piece as incessant whining from an insufferable kvetch who can't appreciate how good she has it. (Not my take by the way.) Your thoughts?

Brigid Schulte: Ha. I was worried about that. But honestly - if you read the top of the story, I clearly state that I am NOT complaining. I am INCREDIBLY GRATEFUL for the life I have. But when you tell me I have 30 hours of leisure time a week when I feel like my hair is on fire, well, that just makes me mad.

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Springfield, VA: To what extent do you think women -let- their lives get this way? And is it OK at the end of the day because after all, it is just for a short time (the years their children are at home, etc.)? What role does ones frame of mind (ie, considering exercise, etc. as "leisure") play in happiness and acceptance of time crunch?

Brigid Schulte: You ask a really important question - and one that became increasingly clear to me as I kept a journal. We get so busy that sometimes we don't make time to take that proverbial step back and look at things.

Honestly, what I came away with after all this reporting, was that women/mothers entering the workforce is still a relatively new phenomenon in our society and culture - and the structure of our work, our attitudes, expectations and norms - and gender roles - have yet to catch up.

My husband does SO much more than my Dad. But I realized that what I expected was for him to be present, to spend time and pay attention to the kids in a way that my Dad and most men of his generation didn't or weren't expected to (my Dad's 82 and did the best he could) - so my husband gets major points there - he's a great, fun Dad. He's just not so great on doing the grocery shopping, which is, ostensibly, his part of our division of labor. I'm getting better, though. I used to go out and shop every week for the stuff he forgot. Now I don't. And we eat pasta a lot.

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Burke, VA: Brigid - I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your time with all of us! What a wonderful article. While I was hoping for some magical answer, I was more grateful for the validation that I am not alone! It took me a total of 12 hours to finish...I snuck you in while stirring eggs, nursing a baby, playing trains with my toddler...So, thank you for providing my "leisure time" in 5-minute increments. From one busy mom to another, hang in there :) and thanks again.

Brigid Schulte: That sounds so familiar. I was trying to read the front page today while folding four baskets of laundry, emptying out the kitty litter, signing my son's practice sheets and hunting for my daughter's library books ...

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Unsatisfying.: Not your article, which I found interesting, but Dr. Robinson's definition (which was what, exactly?) of leisure time. How is reading the news, presumably to be informed of current events, a leisure activity - for a journalist? As a scientist, for example, keeping up on current literature is hardly optional.

Dr. Robinson's methodology seemed to be going through one selected week in your year and adding up random events until they amounted to about thirty hours, which, since it was the hypothesis he set out to prove in the beginning, is hardly a satisfying conclusion.

So what is leisure time? Mine definition would include choice and an element of selfishness (I know, bad word) - doing stuff that would never be found on the to-do list.

Brigid Schulte: I love your definition of leisure.

I think that was one of the big A Ha moments with Robinson. After he took the yellow marker to my time journal and underlined things like laying in bed too exhausted to get up and listening to NPR as leisure. What he counts as "leisure" in his studies is really, free time - or uncommitted time - time that doesn't fit into any other category in a traditional time use study, like paid work, personal care, child care, housework, etc.

And there's a big difference in uncommitted time and leisure - which, I agree, has to have an element of selfishness and not be spent doing something you'd normally cross off on a list.

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I don't know if this is politically incorrect, but...: ...what if mothers acted more assertively re their own time needs toward their spouses and children? It seems as though there's not enough saying "No" by moms these days.

Brigid Schulte: Hmm. Maybe not. Moms? what do you think? The research shows that one of the reasons many moms don't feel they have leisure time is that they're the ones who have to think, plan, strategize, figure out logistics - so even if you're, say, on a bike ride with your family, which looks from the outside like a leisure activity, you could be a bundle of nerves trying to figure out how to get your kids home from school because the babysitter's sick or wondering what to make for dinner. They call that "contaminated time"

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Arlington: Your article was thought-provoking and highlights many women's failure to set limits and/or boundaries, perhaps out guilt, perhaps out of desire to be needed all the time. You mention your friend's inability to have a night out without being interrupted by calls from her children and husband about mundane matters. In our mothers' day, they would never have been phoned, except in a dire emergency. They (and we) somehow managed to survive without being in constant contact while they were out. What's wrong with turning off one's phone or not answering, especially when a responsible adult in on hand at home to deal with real (or imagined) crises? In your own case, you plowed through the clean-up of your son's party while your husband relaxed. Next time, speak up! If you ask for help, you'll be finished in half the time, and you can both enjoy some relaxation at the end of the evening.

Brigid Schulte: So true! What did we ever do in the age before cell phones! Are we being efficient? Or control freaks? I know in my case, after awhile of asking and asking and asking, you hate to sound/be/feel like a nag. But you're right, just sucking it up and doing it yourself isn't a very satisfying answer.

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Fairfax: Thank you for a great article. In your discussions with Dr Robinson and others, did the concept of motivation ever come up? "Lesiure" really shouldn't be defined simply as "free time," as it is also characterized by choice, self-determination, and intrinsic rewards. You may have 30 hours of free time, but do you really have 30 hours where you get to choose what you want to do and where you make those choices because of what you - and not someone else - will get out of it?

Brigid Schulte: You get an an important point. How we "feel" about time is often just as important as what we actually DO with it.

The kind of time studies Robinson and others, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are pretty straightforward recitations of activity.

There's another field of time study - that I didn't have time and space to get into in the article - called Experience Sampling Method - or ESM. In that method, rather than have someone write down everything they did from midnight to midnight, researchers "beep" their subjects randomly through the day, and ask what they are doing, what they are thinking about and feeling and if they wished they were doing something else.

Time use studies are good for getting the big picture and societal averages, but they lack in complexity. The ESM method is certainly more fine-grained. I tried to do a combination of both in the time diaries I kept.

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Reston, VA : Thanks for your honesty. One experience to share: doing for others what they should do for themselves. Having a 14 and 18 year old, I now see that while it might have seen "easier" to do it for them, I created more work for myself AND I robbed them of learning about doing for themselves. If everyone in my family truly did their own chores and share, I would have had more lesisure time. But it would have to start with ME not carrying more than my share. I'm not a victim of that. And yes, kids CAN DO most things for themselves...Elizabeth Vandenburg

Brigid Schulte: Hi Elizabeth,

I think that's a really important lesson. Sometimes working moms are so consumed by guilt that they ARE working moms, (or maybe its just me) that you tend to overdo in other areas to make up for it. But you're right - kids can and should do more - it helps them feel more responsible and part of something larger than themselves. (My kids have chores, but could probably use a few more)

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Rockville, MD: As a working mother of 4 young children I found your article interesting and John Robinson's definition of leisure to be a laughable. Sure I can find 30 hours of leisure time in my day if I count like he does, but when I was single and childless I can guarantee that my idea of leisure did not involve sitting in a broken down car or watching a kid's movie because your kids insist that you sit with them on the couch. There are no easy answers -- you go day by day, say no when you can, recognize that no one (kids, spouse, or employer) will ever be fully happy with you, keep your sense of humor, and if, at the end of the day, your kids are relatively healthy and happy and you are still employed count yourself a success. Soon enough they'll be grown and people tell me you'll look back on these crazy days fondly.

Brigid Schulte: That's why I love Rachel Connelly's view so much. Yes, it's a crazy time. But what a full and wonderful time, too!

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Boy, Can I Identify!: I was a single mom (minimal dad input) from the time my son was 15 months old. I volunteered in school, held a fulltime job, went to every sports event, managed a household, and reared him to responsible adulthood. A single male friend often commented, "I don't know how you do it." I did it by doing laundry and vacuuming at 3 a.m., if that's what it took, hiring (very)occasional help when I HAD to, and just putting one foot in front of the other every day. 30 hours of leisure, indeed.

Brigid Schulte: You are a hero.

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falls church: Just two comments (I am also a working mother of two and feel your pain!)

1. I'm always puzzled at the thought that women in the workforce is a more recent trend. Women have ALWAYS worked. Perhaps not in a lot of the fields/roles they are in today. I think of pioneer women or women who populated the sweatshops of yore. they worked, they had to, especially the lower down on the economic ladder they were, they supported their families; its just not recognized, I think as it should be.

2. I think for a lot of us, we just need to figure out how to get ourselves more organized. You can't feel like you get anything done if its all in fits and starts and bits and pieces.

great article!

Brigid Schulte: That's true. Women HAVE always worked. But our labor laws were set in the 1930s in the U.S. and based on a one-income worker per family and haven't changed much since then. Part time work, which many studies show is preferable to a parent, for at least some time while their children are young, is either unavailable for the kind of work they do (a friend of mine quit when, after the birth of her fourth child, she asked to go part time, and she was refused) or unaffordable.

And many in our culture still hold to the notion that one working parent and one at-home parent, usually the mom, raising the kids is the best model. Interestingly, that 1950s ideal was true for only about half of the population. But it has a powerful hold.

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Annandale, VA: I know this may be an unpopular thing to say, but, maybe it -is- really too much to try and hold down a full-time, demanding job and also run a household. I think we'd be better off as a society if more people chose to live simply, with less, and work less (whether it be the mothers or the fathers), thereby lowering the bar for EVERYONE. We've all gotten caught up in some weird rat race.

Brigid Schulte: Yes, there is that view, that if we weren't so materialistic, life would be easier and simpler. I think it's much more complicated than that. I have a hard time thinking that the majority of working mothers - more than 70 some percent of mothers of school-age children work outside the home - are only doing it for the money and to be caught up in a rat race.

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Silver Spring, MD: I'm so glad that you're doing a chat on your article! I really enjoyed it. I have two children, ages 2 and 4, and work full time outside the home, as does my husband. I was truly shocked at the concept that I have 30 hours of leisure time, and I disagree with much of what the time analyst that you met with calls leisure. That being said, I do feel that the time I carve out to exercise is leisure time. I just wish I had another hour post-workout to really relax and chill. That post-run shower/stretch/veg time is a distant memory. In any case, it was nice to read your account of how frazzled and time-crunched/crazed your life feels, because it truly echoed mine. I feel like I am constantly doing 8 million things, and none of them well. Finally, I totally agree with the statement that nowadays, working moms do spend lots of time with their kids. I am loathe to do things without my children on the weekends or in the evenings. As much as I enjoy spending time with friends sans kids, it takes a lot of mental effort to make those plans due to a combination of guilt and desire to be with my children. Again, thanks so much for the article!

Brigid Schulte: That was one of the most interesting revelations to me as I reported this piece - the finding that working mothers are now spending MORE time with their kids than mothers did in the 1960s or 70s.

I got a bunch of email on that today, disputing it. But in their really interesting book, "Changing Rhythms of American Family Life," U Md sociologists Robinson, Suzanne Bianchi (now out in California) and Melissa Milkie found in extensive time studies that working mothers had, in essence, "given up" their personal leisure time and cut down on the house spent doing housework in order to be with their kids.

I certainly find that. I really LIKE being with my kids. I guess that IS my leisure time. Even if it means I have to sit in the front row to watch Alvin and the Chipmunks at the cineplex...

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Berryville, VA: Did Rachel Connelly say what she thought triggered the rise in parental expectations?

Brigid Schulte: Interestingly, she didn't. I'm not sure anyone knows where that came from. But it did appear about the same time that mothers started entering the work force en masse.

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Upper Marlboro, MD: When I was working on the idea of travel time values, the hypothesis at the time was that men's travel time and women's travel time had the same characteristics. This is not the case, since women's travel time included more than the simple men's journey to work and return. Women did all sorts of inventive trip patterns to get everything done (work, shopping, child care, errands) that men's patterns did not require. There were also studies of time logs at Oxford which used a game board to show how time ties (their words) meant certain activities were precluded by the requirements of other segments of time. It looks like the guy at UMd has the old style, pre 1975 view of the world.

Brigid Schulte: Interesting!

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Cultural sociologist: Does the guy from USC spend his leisure time at Star Wars conventions? (no kids, single, lives with parents - come on!) Unless he wants to sign on for a month long tour of duty don't tell us we enjoy being overwhelmed!

Brigid Schulte: Ha! No, he takes long walks on the beach with his family. I talked to him because he's studying "frenetic families." He said something interesting when I talked to him. He was raised in an immigrant family where time always seemed slow - he would go to friends' houses and marvel at the swirl of activities, the lessons, the carpools. He wanted to study the class issues around that - the sense that being "busy" is associated with higher status.

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Washington, DC: Thanks so much for a terrific article. My husband and I are considering having kids, and I frequently talk about my fear of being super-hectic, as all the working moms I know talk about. He says his married-with-kids male friends don't talk much about frazzled/overwhelmed. Not sure if they just AREN'T, or if they don't talk about it. How does your husband experience life - as frantic/frustrating as you, or less so?

Brigid Schulte: Ha Ha Ha Ha. Honey? you there? I often tell him that I can't tell if he lives in denial, or is just a zen master. No, nothing seems to bug him.

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Fairfax, VA: I do think that a lot of the problem with working moms is our level of guilt. For example, even though my 1 1/2 year old is perfectly content to roll throughout the house, tearing open drawers and flinging utensils about, I feel guilty if I'm not literally sitting on the floor trying to interact with him, instead of keeping an eye on him while also watching HGTV. My parents used to go out to dinner every Saturday, but I find it so selfish to be at work all week long with my son at daycare, but then want an evening alone with my husband (outside of the house) at the end of the week. We are guilting ourselves out of free time because we want our kids to know that, even though we are working moms, we love them and can give them (relatively) as much attention as our SAH counterparts.

Brigid Schulte: Guilt. I was late for an 8:30 Saturday morning yoga class for YEARS because I felt so guilty I was leaving the kids. I think that's where making peace with your decisions comes in. Not that I have by any stretch...work in progress.

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Silver Spring MD: In workplace efficiency courses, there is great emphasis on using the 10, 15, 20 minute gaps to do things. Is it possible that the 30 hours of leisure time exist, but not in the 2-3 hour blocks of time we might wish for?

Also, do you plan your schedule ahead of time and/or affirmatively block out uninterrupted leisure time?

Brigid Schulte: That's what the research shows - and what my time diaries clearly showed - life came in little bits, and it all bled together.

No, I don't schedule uninterrupted leisure. But I think that's a great idea.

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Washington, DC: I think women fall into this more naturally than men because we are programmed to both multi-task and think ahead. Your description of multi-tasking made me smile because you described my life to a T - and I read the article while waiting for my daughter's haircut to be done. Sometimes I feel like a circus act because of the things I juggle. I don't remember being like this before becoming a mother, but suddenly there I was wearing a 6 mo. old in a sling, doing dishes, cooking dinner and talking to the insurance company on the phone all at the same time. It has to get done so you do it. I have let some things go over the years, like worrying about clutter.

As for thinking ahead, if I weren't here, my husband would be hard pressed to remember that the kids need annual dentist and doctor checkups. He's never arranged it and it's just not on his radar as say, homework. He's an extremely smart guy and great father, but never thinks about the kids outgrowing their clothes, needing supplies for school, signing up for camp in time and the like. I have always handled every school or daycare form that's ever needed filling out. I don't resent it, but I know if I don't do it, it won't get done.

Once when our firstborn was a baby, I was so fed up with remembering everything I waited to see if he noticed that we were running out of diapers (passive aggressive, yes, but I was also the only one ever waking up in the night). He was great about diaper changing and did it as much as me. He noticed the diaper shortage only when we ran out, then HE ran out to buy a small overpriced pack at the corner grocery (and we were dead broke back then). It just never occurs to him to stock up ahead of time, buy in bulk, etc. All of my married mom friends seem to be in the exact same boat. Men & women are wired differently. I've just learned to accept it, and I decided to think he's more skilled in some areas and this one is clearly mine, whether I like it or not!

Brigid Schulte: AMEN!

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Anywhere, USA: How easy is it to separate mental activity (the problem mulling and solving) from actual productive (or even unproductive) activity?

My mom accomplishes very little. She constantly complains about being stressed and super busy. It's because her brain is racing and stressing, in a most unproductive way. She needs to embrace the Nike credo: Just do it. And don't worry about it.

I've worked for years for women who stock their days with meetings and conference calls that are totally meaningless to accomplishing the meaningful goals in their work life. To them I say: Just don't do it.

Also important to separate where you have autonomy and where you don't. Control what you can control and don't stress about those things.

I'm very fortunate to have a wife in a flexible career. She's full-time w/kids now and does struggle with time pressure. But we work together to make sure she has true time to herself, and increasingly time with just the two of us. (Those two things are interconnected.)

Good luck! But keep thinking about how you live...you presumably only get to do it once!

Brigid Schulte: I know! I think that's why I wake up at 4 a.m. in a panic now and then. What did one reader write to me this morning - gather ye rosebuds while ye may ... There is the overlay of stress that this really is IT, your one and only life. And if only I could get the stairs vacuumed with the vacuum cleaner that's been sitting in my office for over a week, get that wax stain out of the table cloth from Christmas, fill out the after school club forms, write the check to the ballet class and finish that story, then I'd be able to get to it ...

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Takoma Park, MD: I think that guy needs to update his assumption that exercise is leisure. All the latest medical information and advice say that 30 min. a day is necessary for your body to keep functioning, and you're better off the more you do. For everyone's sake, especially mothers, exercise needs to be in it's own category and not considered optional.

Brigid Schulte: I agree. And exercise helps keep you sane.

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Brigid Schulte: Thanks everyone, for chiming in and taking part in this discussion. Good questions, great, diverse points of view. Now, let's all take a breath and schedule some leisure time ...

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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