Oct 28, 2012

The Free Time Paradox

via My Humor Spot and reblogged all over the internet

As everyone knows, once you are a parent there is no free time. I don't want to sound like a woe is mom, because I am actually not complaining about it. (Though it is OK to complain about it because sometimes it can suck).

What you have instead are these:

  • snatched time here and there; 
  • work time; 
  • supermarket shopping time (if you get to go alone); 
  • negotiated, fought for or paid for time out (e.g. meet friends for dinner or a movie); and
  • collapse-on-the-couch-after-kids-are-in-bed time.

When my twins were babies the thing that hit me hardest was how little time I had to myself, to do exactly what I wanted. In fact, it was with a kind of hazed-out horror that I realised that I would never have that sort of time, really, ever again.

The advice in baby books and magazine articles designed to help with "tips" such as "take fifteen minutes" to have a quiet cup of tea, paint your nails or relax outside while the baby slept or played in her cot horrified me. Fifteen minutes? FIFTEEN MINUTES? Pre-baby I was used to frittering away whole afternoons reading, walking or watching movies. No fifteen minute "me time" was going to do anything helpful for me.

Of course, everyone struggles with this and of course it does get better. 

Now my kids are nearly seven, I still can't while away whole mornings or afternoons doing whatever I want, but things are not as relentless, and I no longer feel I am living life on a hamster wheel spinning between home and work and home again.

I still yearn for more free time. 

But when I have it, I often don't know what to do with it.

Even if I plan what I'm going to do, I don't always enjoy it, or fully engage with it.

Instead I fret about how little time I have left, think of jobs or work I could be doing [not that I want to], or daydream about doing something else.

Sometimes all I want (NEED) to do is relax. So I will lie on the couch, or sleep, or watch TV or read, as I know this is what is best for me right now.

But oddly I am rarely recharged, happy or calmer after these sessions. It could be, of course, that by the time I do it I'm so exhausted that an hour in bed is not going to be enough. 

But sometimes I think it's something else.

It's hard to truly relax and enjoy yourself when you're unhappy with the state of your house or you have not done things you know you need to do - whether those are to do with work, self-care, housekeeping or administrivia, they have a way of gnawing at you and sapping any pleasure from "me time" until you tackle them.

It's where that advice from The Happiness Project comes from: if something takes you less than a minute to do, do it now, and you'll be happier. Hang up that jacket; return that book to the bookshelf. It's true, and we all know it.

Of course, it is also slightly annoying advice because, just as when my husband refers to a task as "only five minutes", what it, and he, infuriatingly neglects to remember is that home life is full of a million tasks that only take one minute, or five minutes. If you just attended to everything that you can do in a minute or five minutes, you could still be on your feet and doing stuff all day long (at least you could in my house).  So, you know - take advice like this where it's helpful, and leave it where it's not.

But here are two examples of how I used "free time" this week and how it affected my mood.

(1) Relaxed. Said "stuff it" to housework, shut my eyes to mounting chaos in the loungeroom, watched a DVD and napped. (This was on Tuesday afternoon/evening while the kids were at Greek school. I wasn't working that day, and I did nothing more than the minimum at home, which was parent my kids and prepare meals. I always wonder, why isn't that enough? It should be!)

Result: felt defensive, sluggish, faintly depressed. It's true I "needed" that relaxation time, and it's true that housework never stops and sometimes you just have to leave it. But it doesn't help you feel better about it.

(2) Cleaned up, and cleaned. Tidied living and kitchen area, swept and mopped floors, cleaned kitchen cupboards and surfaces. Swept porch, dusted and brushed dirt away from sills and screen door outside, took 4 bags of rubbish and a load of recycling to the garage.
(This was over 2 days, this weekend, in preparation for the kids having a friend over. I hasten to add this friend had never been here before; close friends and family members bringing their children round does not prompt me to clean).

Result: For the first time in awhile I felt energized and competent. It felt good to be relaxed and confident in a tidy house - benevolent queen of my world. It left me happy and relaxed all day. The sunshine no doubt helped, and the playdate was good - all three girls played happily together and without drama for 3 hours. (I'll say that again: all THREE GIRLS played happily and without DRAMA).

I know - housework and a tidy home should not be what life's all about. And truly, for me they are not (as anyone who visits here can attest). And yes, it all depends on your mood and your energy levels at the time. This weekend was the first in awhile where I haven't had pain in my arm (healing after surgery from a bad break 4 months ago), which has been a real downer, as pain tends to be.

So, you know, I'm not saying this is a meaningful comparison or even telling anyone anything they don't already know.

But it's interesting anyway. We yearn for free time even though we have spent 10,000 years inventing ways of life with little of it. 

We (that is, I) prefer to sit and relax where we can, even though doing other things actually make us (me) happier.

Hosting a play date - assuming all goes well - is quite a good way to find happiness. First, it spurs you to clean the house. Next, you get to sit down and read or do whatever you like while the kids play for hours. Third, it makes your kids happy, which makes you happy too. And fourth, it makes them tired and happy to eat an early dinner and be all tucked up in bed before Homeland starts at 8.30.


  1. I think that it's hard to relax because guilt takes over.

    I went for a swim today and then had to lie on my side when I got home because water was sloshing in my ear. That led to reading a couple of chapters as I waited, watching a TV show I'd recorded ages ago and trying to pretend that I couldn't see the dust bunnies under the lounge and dog hair tumble weeds in every corner,.....

  2. I think you're right.
    But kudos for your multi-tasking - getting water out if ear while reading and planning what *should* be done. All at the same time! ;)

  3. Oh Jackie, I hear you!! I too suffer the curse of the time paradox, most attempts to lie down and nap leave me with a headache and a racing mind, then I am annoyed at myself (and the kids) because I'm behind the eight-ball. As much as I love this time with my little ones, I am looking forward to them bei grown up enough to entertain themselves for three hours!

    1. Yes - we know its a case of "be careful what you wish for", but still!



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