Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Free Time

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, women today have, on average, thirty hours of leisure time per week. In Dani's post on the subject, she admits that despite the pressure of near-constant busy-ness, she manages to find 20 hours each week for photography, working out, and other leisure pursuits. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that some quick number-crunching put my weekly leisure hours at around 40. (My embarrassment is, incidentally, confirmation of one of the Post article's major points: it's not so much that we are busy nowadays as that we are conditioned to associate busy-ness with status.)

I'm not under the impression that I am crazy busy. During March and November, when the marking season hits, I make hefty withdrawals from that 40-hour fund, but right now, I'm pretty relaxed. My house is clean. I feel confident, most days, that I will get through my allotment of classes without that panicky mid-lecture feeling that when the current sentence comes to an end I will have no idea what to say next.

By any measure, I have a pretty comfortable amount of leisure time. I go out for lunch twice a week, once with my husband and once with a friend. I keep up with a demanding television schedule that includes (at the moment) Bachelor, House, Survivor, Lost, and Grey's Anatomy with HGTV to fill the gaps. I subscribe to four different magazines, not to mention some eighty-odd blogs. Nevertheless, the task of adding up my leisure hours reveals some ambiguities. Does it count as leisure if I read a book during a quiet office hour? I'm not free to leave the room; I am, technically, being paid to sit there. Given the choice, I might prefer a good round of Guitar Hero, or even an hour at my computer to catch up on some marking. But an hour spent chuckling over an Alexander McCall Smith or Nick Hornby novel seems pretty self-indulgent. Into the leisure column it goes.

I did not, on the other hand, put my commute into the leisure column. It's a relaxing drive through an often very beautiful countryside, and it's time I often use for work-purposes, thinking my way through an upcoming lecture. But what if I spend that 45 minutes composing a blog post? (My posting record should make it clear that I don't do so, but what if I did?) One reason I enjoy housecleaning is that I can pop in the Greatest Hits of 1983 and listen to "Karma Charmeleon" while I sweep the kitchen floor. Listening to music is a leisure pursuit; scrubbing toilets clearly is not. What happens when I do both at the same time?

The distinction between work and leisure seems obvious, but the more I think about it the blurrier those categories become. Most workplaces include opportunities for pleasurable and not entirely work-related activities like gossiping with co-workers or updating Facebook. In their leisure time, people often embrace challenging and productive activities like jogging, volunteering, or learning Italian. The difficulty in distinguishing work from leisure may even be a marker of happiness: the happiest people are those who enjoy their work (getting paid to do something they would otherwise do voluntarily) and who have enough energy left over at the end of the day to take on leisure activities more stimulating and meaningful than predicting who'll leave empty-handed from this week's rose ceremony.

The distinction between work and leisure is never more problematic than when we consider time spent with children. John Robinson, the expert quoted in the Post article, includes child-care in his definition of leisure time. His point, I think, is that contrary to popular myth, parents are not in fact working too hard to spend time with their kids. Parents today actually spend more time talking and playing with their children than parents in the 1960s. This is a point worth making, but it also radically changes the impact of his pronouncement that women have abundant leisure time. I assume he does not include in his tally the time spent changing diapers or packing lunches, but even so, time spent in the company of a crying baby or an active toddler does not, in any way that I can think of, qualify as leisure.

Baby-care is not leisure; toddler-care is emphatically not leisure; but school-aged children complicate matters somewhat. When I sit down with my kids to cringe through an episode of Sailor Moon I don't feel that I am settling in for a bit of free time. But what about the half-hour I spent last Saturday sharing their enjoyment of the sword-fighting scene in The Princess Bride? Anime crimefighters are one thing; a young Cary Elwes is another.

The problem with Robinson's inclusion of child-care in the leisure category is that it conflicts with most people's assumption that by leisure time we mean free time: activities we engage in freely because we enjoy them, not from a sense of duty or obligation. For me, at least, the first five years of child-care are driven by duty. I love my children; I am fascinated by their development and dedicated to the task of learning who they are. But assembling Dora puzzles and playing games of Uno are not examples of free time. Neither is shivering at the top of a tobogganing hill.

Nevertheless, the joy of the last couple of years, for me, has been the gradual erosion of this distinction. When I take my children to the beach, that is not leisure: it is suffering endured for a cause. But increasingly, there are times when my free time dovetails with my children's. Bub belts out "We Are the Champions" on Rock Band while hubby and I accompany him on guitar. Pie and her best friend sip apple juice at the local tea shop while their mothers down cups of Irish Breakfast with brownies.

I remember the first time I realized that spending time with me could qualify as free time for my mother. We had gone shopping downtown at the old Eaton's building and then we ate lunch in the department-store cafeteria. I had chocolate milk and a croissant and at some point during that meal it dawned on me that my mother wasn't taking care of me anymore: she was hanging out with me; she was doing this because it was fun, for her as well as for me. That probably wasn't the first time she had experienced her time with me as leisure rather than work, but it was the first time I realized that our relationship had shifted in that way.

Already with my children I catch glimpses of that kind of interaction. Shopping is rarely the best way to achieve it: 4-year-olds have different taste in stores than almost-40-year-olds and even when we can agree on where to shop, we disagree on when to leave - either the children get bored long before I do, or else they flatly refuse to go until I bribe, threaten, and/or drag them from the premises kicking and screaming. But every once in awhile we get it right. Like that time last summer when Pie and I peeked into a little home decorating shop in a neighbouring town; I found a candle in the exact shade of blue I had been looking for and Pie found an Ugly Doll exactly like the one she had spotted excitedly in a recent issue of Canadian House and Home. We made our purchases triumphantly and exited the store with expressions of mutual congratulation. Times like that are not merely leisure time - they're the best leisure hours of them all.


Lady M said...

I was also intrigued by that study. I have friends who can't believe I have time to blog, yet can watch hours of TV every week. I'm not saying that one hobby is any more valuable than another, but that we just make a choice. Granted, there are times when I do nothing but work and child care, but usually, there is time to read a bit, play a bit, and enjoy as child care becomes leisure time with children, as you put it.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

What a brilliant take on that dumb article, which made me angry & I couldn't really figure out why. I love that you've "admitted" to enjoying your life. Hardly anyone ever does. (Admit it, I mean.)

Peacock Feathers and Diamond Rings said...

I haven't read the article but I love your response.

I am always pleased when you do post. So many blogs are tedious to read but you never are. Despite being so different to me in so many ways I always find what you have to say interesting.

Bea said...

Jennifer - It is hard to admit - it seems like bad form somehow. That's part of the reason I don't have much to blog about anymore.

Anonymous said...

From the beginning of parenthood we incorporated our children into all aspects of our lives as their ages would permit. My toddlers used to race the elevator at my office on weekends, they didn't know we were there so mother could work. We had the best times during unexpected interludes. When teaching time management a core principal for me is to view priorities horizontally and not as a top to bottom list. "My children are my priority"; said defensively one mother to another...WHAT? Does that preclude spouse, aging parents, beloved friend? They are equal in the horizontal line and changing needs dictate who is first and for how long.
It is wonderful to read your words. You write so literately and with raw honesty. And I agree with earlier comments. You really do unabashedly enjoy your life. Woo-hoo!
I had the original mother guilt which is NO GUILT.
Thanks for writing.

Carol said...

I think the people who did this study need to distinguish between "leisure" and "fun".

I don't see child care as leisure, but I do see it as potentially fun.

Or maybe it's only leisure when you're doing fun things, but not when you're trying to get them to eat their vegetables...

Margaret said...

My son is turning 8 this month, and the percentage of time we are at leisure together (vs. care giving) is growing. But I would never call child care time leisure. Oh, those people at the day care are just hanging out for the fun of it? Being responsible for children is WORK.

When I read blogs like yours, it's leisure, but the next minute I may be reading something for work, so who can measure?

I am glad you can say you have time to enjoy life. Me too. Shh, don't tell everyone I'm happy, it seems to be unpopular with some factions.

Pieces said...

Great post. I hate that our culture equates busy-ness with status. I have plenty of leisure time and am not running around always in a panic but I am afraid to admit that to anyone.

I am currently enjoying quite a bit of leisure time with Girlkiddo and it is so nice. Eventually, though, she will be in her room with the door closed as a teen so I am enjoying this time while I can.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I had been wanting to see Avatar for a long time and without a babysitter or any free time, we decided to take a chance that our nearly 10 children were ok to see it....WITH us. For the first time in nearly a decade the entire family went to go see a movie that we were ALL aching to watch. We had such a good time - anticipation before, lots of fun watching it and tons to talk about after the movie (we're still talking about it).

I haven't read the article but I can tell you I see the light at the end of the tunnel and my children's interests are starting to converge with ours. Board games, movies, shopping - it is slowly but surely coming together....

Mimi said...

Funny. Munchkin and I were recently picking out our favorite paint colours from a very colourful ad in House and Home. I've noticed the very same thing about time with her lately: just as entertaining for her, but also more enjoyable for me.

Gwen said...

Young Cary Elwes really was a thing of beauty, wasn't he? Watching that movie with my kids is mos def leisure time.

But everything else? Not so sure yet.

Mary Ellen said...

What a thoughtful and enjoyable piece! My youngest - now 22 - stopped by my office today for a chat. This was surprising, even though he's attending a college where I work in student services. We had a nice chat (partly on my work hour, but going beyond it) about his writing project (a sci fi manuscript, not his course papers). I even got him to schedule his dental and eye exams. That was a good balance of "work" and "life" - but here I am, working into the evening, instead of being home with the dog. That's NOT a good balance. I doubt that I have 40 hours of leisure, unless taking baths and brushing teeth and eating count for some of that.

Bea said...

Mary Ellen - Eating and bathing were two categories I was wondering about too. I definitely do not consider a shower to be leisure time - in fact, I usually deeply resent the way showering cuts into my leisure. A lingering bath with a magazine on the other hand might count if I'm taking it because I'm in the mood and not just because I have an early morning the next day. Eating meals is not leisure, but eating snacks often is ... It's tricky.

I've also realized over the last couple of days that my leisure hours are purchased, to a great extent, by my total avoidance of cooking and meal preparation (something that hampers my quality of life in other ways).

painted maypole said...

very interesting. i think it's rather clear that putting on music you enjoy to make toilet scrubbing more palatable does NOT make it leisure time, no matter how loudly you sing along, and even if you take the occasional twirl through the room dancing with a towel. but child care as leisure time? no. there are times my child is at home and we are not interacting and I might be at leisure. there are times when we are interacting and i am enjoying it and might call it leisure. but when I am chasing after her to clean up or take a bath or do her homework? not so leisurely. parenting is work, as well. work I often enjoy, but enjoying your work doesn't make it leisure. i think it is when you can choose for yourself what to do. sometimes that includes time parenting, and sometimes, it doesn't.

DaniGirl said...

I read this on Friday but didn't have time to comment until now - that says something about how thinly I'm slicing my leisure activities these days, I think! (Then again, I did manage to watch all of Lost AND Survivor and a suprising amount of Olympic coverage.)

You touch on another point that I found interesting in that article -- the fact that as mothers, we're so used to doing eight things at once and maximizing our time that it's difficult to clearly differentiate leisure from other activities.

I didn't see the point that you noticed -- that the "expert" dude calls child care leisure. In fact, I think he said waiting for a tow truck would be leisure but waiting in the company of your child would be child care. (A little fuzzy either way, I'd say!)

I think defining leisure boils down more to choice, as in "would you, given no other outside influences, choose to be doing this particular activity right now?" If yes, then leisure. So that hour with Nick Hornby? Yes. The commute? No. The first five minutes of the shower? No. The next 20? Yes.

Thanks for the linky love. It's always a pleasure to have you riff off a theme I've found!

Bea said...

Dani - I read that bit of the article again and I think you're right. The "you were playing with your daughter" remark meant "Oops, that wasn't leisure" rather than "That's why I classified it as leisure." Which pretty much negates the meaning of my post, but oh well.

Margaret said...

OK, I feel a little better that he is not classifying child care as leisure, but he still has an odd defination. Going to the gym? That depends on why you go to the gym - to hang out with friends and play basketball - leisure. To walk on the mindnumbing treadmill because your cardiologist told you you'd never make it to your kids' weddings otherwise - not leisure.

kittenpie said...

Absolutely, it is fuzzy. I sit on a subway and usually read for most of my commute, or eat a muffin. Calming, perhaps, but I'd rather do it in my own house, by far.

My biggest problem with the leisure hours count is that most of the hours I watch TV in the evening are hours during which I am so tired, I wouldn't be doing anything useful. So yes, they are leisure, but it's almost not by choice!

(And btw a young Cary Elwes? Is a DELICIOUS thing!)