Hey, Mom: You have more free time than you think

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because-I-said-so-greenMoms never get enough sleep and they certainly don’t get any “me” time — or so goes popular opinion. But numbers from the latest American Time Use Survey released last Wednesday say those common societal laments aren’t necessarily true.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, women in households with children under age 6 averaged 8.92 hours of sleep a day in 2014, while women with household kids aged 6 to 17 got around 8.81 hours a day. The average woman spent 3.86 hours a day engaged in leisure activities, a category that includes socializing and communicating, watching television and participating in sports, exercise and recreation. That’s around three times as much as the average 0.94 hours spent on housework and 1.02 hours devoted to food prep and cleanup. So why do so many moms feel perennially tired and run down?

Author and time management expert Laura Vanderkam says perspective may be partly to blame. After all, the sheer number of blogs, books, magazines and TV shows geared towards moms implies that they have at least some time to consume such things.

In her recently released book “I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their time,” (Portfolio, June 2015) Vanderkam studied time logs from 1,001 days in the lives of working mothers who earned at least $100,000 a year. Even in this exceptional group — in the United States less than 4 percent of employed women make six figures — Vanderkam saw time for sleep, self-care and leisure.

[pullquote]“Busy people seldom have as much leisure time as they want, but our tendency is not to say ‘I have some, I just wish I had more.’ Our tendency is to look at the rest of the world watching 20-plus hours of TV a week and decide, by comparison, that we have no leisure time at all.”

—Laura Vanderkam, Author and time management expert[/pullquote]

“Busy people seldom have as much leisure time as they want, but our tendency is not to say ‘I have some, I just wish I had more.’ Our tendency is to look at the rest of the world watching 20-plus hours of TV a week and decide, by comparison, that we have no leisure time at all,” Vanderkam wrote in an email.

This “I have no leisure time” narrative is particularly problematic because it keeps people from taking advantage of time that exists, she says.

“If you think you have no leisure time, then you don’t think about what you want to do with it. So when it happens, you spend it mindlessly, surfing the web, watching TV, or puttering around the house flipping through the Pottery Barn catalogue,” Vanderkam says. “Whereas if you tell yourself ‘I have some leisure time, and I can choose what to do with it’ you’re more likely to come up with actual restorative ideas.”

For instance, the mother of four recently spent an evening alone at the pool after her kids were in bed because she planned ahead and asked her husband to run interference on kids that might get out of bed.

“It was really nice to be out swimming at night,” said Vanderkam, who also authored “168 Hours” and the ebook “What Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.” “If I hadn’t though ahead, because I assumed that people like me have no time, I probably would have spent that time reading through a magazine I’d already read before.”

Another surprising statistic from the American Time Use Survey was the number of hours spent in primary childcare activities: just under three hours a day for non-employed women with children under age 6 in the household and 1.88 hours a day for employed women in the same category.

While those numbers sound low, Vanderkam points out that childcare as a primary activity isn’t overall time spent around children, but rather time actively engaged changing diapers, feeding children, reading them stories and giving them baths.

“If you’re emptying the dishwasher while the child is playing in the next room, this would not be childcare as a primary activity, even though you’re on call and available to that child,” she says. “If you keep these definitions in mind, I think these numbers sound about right for the population as a whole.”

The survey found that adults living with at least one child under age 6 spent far more time engaged in secondary childcare — basically multitasking while keeping an eye on the kids. Women alone averaged 6.27 hours a day in this category.

For “I Know How She Does It,” Vanderkam didn’t come up with a number of hours for time spent on childcare activities. But anecdotally, she often saw slightly higher numbers for primary childcare from women with big careers.

“The intensive parenting phenomenon is real — even among high-earning mothers!” she says.

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Natalie Hollingshead is a former magazine editor turned freelance writer and editor. She writes regularly about home, family, food and travel for a handful of publications, and is co-author of the book "Happy Homemaking” (Cedar Fort, 2012) with Elyssa Andrus. A native of Alberta, Canada, Natalie lives in Orem with her husband and their three children.

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