The New Time Management: Protecting and Valuing Free Time

Recent studies have found that those of us who transitioned to remote working environments actually worked longer hours during the pandemic. This past winter I taught a 22-credit semester, which equates to fifteen weeks of time and a half, and I cannot even blame my boss or workplace. I chose to fill my hours with additional emails, zoom meetings, and grading. Nor can I really say I did it for the money, as I have probably the only profession in the world where I get paid less for overtime. I have a base salary for thirty credits and anything over that I receive a fraction per credit hour of what I receive for the first thirty. Madness! Yet, I gave my time away for a bargain, and I signed up for two leadership roles voluntarily. Now I am left to wonder why I don’t value my time more?

Growing up on a farm, I was instilled with a very strong work ethic. Work was how I contributed to the household; it was value. When I whined about spending my summer days toiling in a field, my day would always say, “Think about how good you will feel when you are all done.” And I do clearly remember how good I felt after an afternoon of weeding or picking rocks, riding home in the back of the pick up truck, the wind drying my sweat. While I am grateful for my upbringing and I do think working hard has helped me succeed professionally, it cannot be how I define my worth. I’ve read enough theory on capitalism to know the harm of basing my value on my productively. Yet, still, when faced with pandemic anxiety and ennui, my go to coping mechanism was to sign up for more work. The idea being, at least something of value will come out of my quarantine time at home.

This coping mechanism was coupled with the very unfair reality that pandemic childcare labor fell disproportionately on moms. I was the parent working from home, which meant that I was the parent supervising virtual schooling and enrichment activities and preparing lunches and snacks, while also teaching and running a department from home. Inevitably, I constantly fell short of the type of parent and professor I wanted to be. My own health, both physical and mental, was largely ignored unless it interfered with work and childcare. Amelia and Emily Nagoski describe this mindset as Human Giver Syndrome in their book Burnout: “Human givers must, at all times, be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others, which means they must never be ugly, angry, upset, ambitious, or attentive to their own needs.” I discovered this book while trying to multitask my housework and intellectual curiosity by listening to podcasts while I clean because I am all about getting the most out of my time.

I am lucky that I have been given a brief respite from emotional labor, as my classes have ended and my children are in school (geophysical school), so I can take the time to really assess what I have learned over the past year and set new goals for post-pandemic life. First and foremost, I have learned that work and parenting should not be the whole of my identity nor should they be ways to cope with anxiety or avoid less comfortable ways of interacting with the world. I hope in this brief break to begin looking at other rewarding facets of life, picking up the projects and plans I abandoned for being too self-serving or too vulnerable, such as writing on a blog.

Good Morning or At Least Trying

I am tired, deep down bone weary. My friend and I discussed yesterday how we do not write anymore. Our lives are consumed with the daily dramas and demands of work, and for me family. Last night, I became increasingly frustrated at my 7 year old who simply would not go to sleep. As she fussed with hunger, thirst, the urge to go to the bathroom, the need to be cuddled, etc., my golden hour of free time slowly dissipated. When she finally fell asleep, I remembered the grading I promised myself I would finish before the night ended.

To reward myself for the herculean tasks of getting my minimal family and work requirements done, I stayed up finishing a book and then cried at the end – for the characters, for the toxic political environment and victims of sexual assault, for my daughter who is still struggling with social issues at school, for all the crushing worries that are stealing my peace of mind. When I finally fell asleep, I was disturbed by one child and then another crawling into my bed. This rarely happens, but when it does happen, it is usually when I am already emotionally and physically drained. In slow increments I was pushed out of the bed by knees and elbows. I tried to find sleep elsewhere, but by 6 a.m. the children were awake and searching for me, alarmed that I was missing.

Because time does not stop, I tried first to rouse myself with coffee and then an energy aromatherapy bath. My eyes still feel swollen and abused, but I found a moment here upstairs with my words, and I will try to keep finding moments throughout the day – to create, to experience, to enjoy the moments that may come. Good morning.

Ode to the Junk Drawer

Today, I was finally going to sew on a button– one of those things I always say I am going to do, but never do. At the end of last summer, the button popped from one of my favorite pair of jean shorts. They had seen me through a variety of shapes and forms, and I was not ready to retire them quite yet. I put the button in an empty margarita glass where I now keep my odds and ends. The fact that I keep spare buttons in a margarita glass says everything about where I am in my life at the moment. Nearly a year later, as I prepare for vacation and realize I will not have the luxury of every other day laundry, I went to sew my button on, but the button was gone, as well as a good portion of my other odds and ends. My husband decided to do my a favor and clean out “the junk.” Of course, I was livid. He was less than apologetic, as he genuinely thought he was doing me a favor. It’s easy to be judgmental and dismissive of the things people keep, which made my wonder, why do I keep so much “junk”?

For me, I spend a lot of time imagining what my future self may do: from sewing buttons to creating steampunk art (see my Pinterest for proof). The beads, charms, buttons, and random pieces contain possibilities. Unfortunately, I rarely have the time or energy to create much beyond meals and class plans. To throw them out, though, would be dismissing the possibility that I ever will have the time. That’s too much to bear. I like knowing I have a drawer full of treasures waiting to be rediscovered. I like knowing that I may make a piece of collage art, put together a necklace, or bring new life to a pair of jeans.

Being a working parent of small children, I had to put aside some pieces of myself. I don’t have hours to get lost in projects or to follow my whimsies. Instead of making messes, I am cleaning messes. It will not always be this way. I don’t know if keeping all these things is exactly healthy, as it is a form of hoarding. It also seems to go against the “be present” mantra of today’s preferred self-help operating mode of mindfulness, as it is an activity designed for “someday.” However, collecting, organizing, and revisiting my little treasures brings me joy. That is enough of a reason for me to keep “the junk.”

Physically-Induced Relaxation

The greatest proof in my life of the mind/body connection occurs whenever I have a break from work. As always, when I anticipate a block of free time on the horizon, I begin making a list of aspirations: work on my novel, exercise daily, revamp all my course plans, design jewelry, finish a painting, socialize more, clean and organize the house, read twelve books, watch movies, discover a new TV series, enter an Instagram contest, etc., etc. Inevitably, the first day of my vacation I wake up sick. This time it was with a sore throat and fever, not sick enough to annihilate my day, but sick enough to slow down my motivation train and face the stark reality that I am a human. Somewhere inside me is an internal regulator that actually knows what’s best for me. Like a doctor who orders a medically-induced coma, this regulator forces me to rest.

There is actually a term for this: “leisure sickness,” coined by a psychologist in the Netherlands. Apparently, when our work pressures us with deadlines and must-attend meetings, our immune systems ramps up. When those external pressures are removed, the immune system relaxes, letting those latent germs play out. My job is to rest and repair.  This is just one of my many #firstworldproblems.

A True Mother’s Day

On Mother’s Day I wake up a half hour early so I can sneak out of bed before anyone gets the clever idea of bringing me breakfast and to have a moment of peace before I receive my sanctioned doses of gratitude. At 6:30 a.m., my son assured me that we can play games all day because mother’s day means getting to do whatever I want. We clearly have different definitions of what I “want.” However, after waking up with a timeline full of Facebook tributes to mom, I feel compelled to bring my “A” game. Also, I remain haunted by the All about Mom Questionnaire my son brought home from school.

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Number seven is a dagger to the heart. Luckily, his answering that my favorite food is salad throws the validity of form into question. I rationalize that he was probably thinking of the words he hears every morning when I drop him off to school (that’s right drop him off because I am too soft-hearted to make him ride the bus). Still, even in this context, it pushes the big flashing guilt button every working mom has.

Adding to the damning questionnaire is the history lesson of the day that Mother’s Day was created to pay homage to the great work done by women. In particular, Anna Jarvis wanted to recognize her mother Anne Reeve Jarvis, who spent her free time (a whole other concept in the 1860s) teaching women how to care for their children. Only four of her eleven children lived to be adults due to poor sanitation and lack of vaccinations at the time. She also organized “Mothers’ Friendship Day” after the Civil War, which brought together mothers and soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy in order to “promote reconciliation.” 

I realize now that allowing my daughter to use my bath tub today was not such a large sacrifice. After all, she did bring her own bubble bath. If we learn anything about the legends of motherhood, it is that self-sacrifice is a virtue. I tried valiantly to wear the mantle through sibling spats, six-year-old male rambunctiousness (my son’s new life ambition is to be a WWE wrestler), an endless round of storytelling in a cramped indoor fort, etc. Unfortunately, I am only human.

The day ends with my daughter first “accidentally” dropping a toy in the toilet and then later an entire roll of toilet paper. For the safety of all, I explained to her that she needed to remove herself from my line of vision. The mournful sound of “It’s a hard luck life” could be heard throughout the house from behind the closed door of her bedroom.

A hallmark holiday it was not. However, it was a true mother’s day.