The Strands of Time

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Feb. 2 2011 3:21 PM

The Strands of Time

Over at Motherlode, Lisa Belkin highlights a British survey which found that "working parents have 90 minutes" of spare time, each day, to themselves. The study for some reason was done by a supermarket chain--perhaps wanting to know how much time busy customers have for food-shopping and cooking. Or maybe the store just wanted to perform a public service. Maybe some parent in management was curious. Who knows?

Anyway, 90 minutes sounds generous to me, unless you count things like feeding the cats or taking out the recycling as "spare" time. But the piece got me thinking about how the time and place of parental free time changes as kids' needs evolve. When my children were very little, and being at home meant for me (or my husband) that some small body was constantly needing to be lifted or put down or herded or rescued or fed or bathed or clothed or ferried, the only place I remember experiencing free time was in the shower of the public indoor swimming pool near our house. I would slip out to do some laps, then luxuriate in that crummy collective shower, where there was no privacy and the water was never quite warm enough, but on the other hand, there was nobody who needed anything and I could just stand there and exist, amongst strangers and running water, without any limbs being tugged. Showers in general are one place I think parents often escape for a small window of free time, though even there, if you are at home, you are never safe. I know one woman who--on a particularly excruciating day when her 5-year-old son was following her around the house singing some kindergarten song at the top of his voice while she tried to get her house ready for a dinner party--attempted to lock herself in the bathroom for a quick shower and some peace and quiet. Her son picked the lock with a hairpin, flung open the door, and announced "Great news! I am here!"

In fact, so little free time does one have, when the kids are little, that I remember going on work trips and feeling that a quiet hotel room was so overwhelmingly luxurious that it was all I could do not to stay in there for two days, order room service and watch television. Working on a work trip seemed so unjust.

Once my kids got older, I can't remember having much in the way of free time at all, except maybe on the commute to and from work. No wonder women are from time to time pulled over for applying mascara at stoplights; it's their only opportunity to do so. I know one working mother who has long nursed a "broken ankle" fantasy: She would step off a curb and get hit by a bus, but not badly, enabling her to stay in a hospital room for a while with her leg up, chatting on the phone to her friends, enjoying sick leave, and someone else would have to do the housework and take care of everything. When you are the mother of active elementary-age schoolchildren, a minor hospital stay qualifies as "me" time.

Now that my children are teenagers, or nearly so, my main role in their lives has become that of chauffeur, as well as exhorter, cook, personal shopper and executive assistant. My longest stints of free time occur in the car--often in traffic--driving to pick them up or returning from dropping them off. This life-stage has allowed me to spend a great deal of quality time with the voice of Kai Ryssdal, whose Marketplace show is aired around the time my daughter and a friend are picked up from school. But here's the thing: one day in the not-too-distant future, even this stage will be past, and my kids will be away from home living independent lives, and I will have way more than 20 or even 90 minutes of personal time a day. Time to wake up, luxuriate over a second cup of coffee, organize the bills and other household papers, apply makeup calmly and well, watch 10 years' worth of movies, go to museums, work very very very hard at my job, perhaps finally take up yoga, and wonder, all day long, how their lives are going and what they are doing. The closer that time comes, the more I dread it. So to the parents who marvel over that study, compare it to their own lives, and find that the total is not nearly 90 minutes: enjoy it while you can. Someday we'll have all the time in the world, and I have a feeling that when it happens, it will be the last thing we will really want.

Liza Mundy is the director of the Breadwinners and Caregivers Program at the New America Foundation and the author of The Richer Sex.