The endless to-do list

I’ve been thinking about that NYTimes article on mother’s labor force participation.  The article suggests that the slight recent drop-off in women’s labor force participation in recent years is because we’ve pushed unpaid work — housework and child care — about to its lower limit, and there are only so many hours in the day and something has to give. 

Bitch, PhD thinks that makes sense.  She wrote:

if, broadly speaking, we’ve wrung about all we can out of the 24 hours in a day, then it makes sense both that some women would step back from the grueling regime in favor of a more balanced personal life, regardless of the possible risks they run in doing so: when you’ve reached the limit of your energy, you can’t keep going and that’s all there is to it. It also makes sense that women who are still trying to hang onto the stressful balancing act of career, children, and coupledom would feel that they’re singlehandedly carrying the world on their shoulders. And given the pressures on all of us, of course we’re all defensive and insistent and argumentative about our choices.

But one of her commenters, Steve Horwitz, points to this Economist article (based on this paper by Aguilar and Hurst) which uses the same underlying data as the Times article and comes to the conclusion that total leisure time for all groups — including working moms — has increased significantly over the past 40 years.  Is this possible?  And if it’s true, why do we all feel so tired?

I think there’s a bunch of different things going on.

If I’m reading the papers accurately, the biggest issue is whether you consider time spent with children doing generally recreational activities — reading to them, taking them to parties, watching school plays, even going to the park — as leisure.  Aguilar and Hurst do, while I think Bianchi (whose data the NYTimes uses) counts them as child care.  Conceptually, I think these activities somewhere between true leisure and work.  They’re not in the same category as changing diapers or attending parent-teacher conferences, which you do because they’re important, but no one really considers fun.  But they’re also at least semi-obligatory —  you feel guilty if you don’t do them enough, and you often have to do them even if you’d really rather be doing something else.  So they add to the modern parent’s endless to-do list.

While the time-use studies clearly show that the amount of time spent on housework has dropped significantly, they don’t account for the fact that people’s expectations  haven’t fallen as much.  So even if we only vaccuum once a month, we feel like we ought to do it more often, and it stays on our to-do list, even if we know that we’re never going to get to it.

Aguilar and Hurst also point out that there’s been an increase in inequality in leisure time, with more of the gain in leisure concentrated among less educated individuals.  If you believe Annette Lareau, the parents with more education are also spending more of their "free" time in intensive parenting activities.  And if you’re reading this blog, or Dr B’s, the chances are high that you’re in that group.

As the Economist article acknowledges, the blurring of the lines between work and free time are also a factor in our perception of overwork.  If you have to carry a blackberry to your kid’s soccer game, and check your voice mail over the weekend, it’s hard to leave the office behind.  And I don’t think it’s coincidence that Dr. B and Sandy Piderit are academics.  It’s not just that professors work long hours, but that their hours of work are unbounded — there’s almost always something else that they could/should be working on.

Overall, I think it’s that sense of things left undone, rather than the total number of hours worked, that makes people feel overwhelmed.  When I started work after getting my masters, I remember how excited I was at the concept of the weekend.  Look, it’s Friday, and I get to go home!  And I don’t have to think about work, or feel guilty about not doing it, until Monday morning!  What a concept.

But at this point in my life, my personal to-do list is a lot longer than my work one.  Some days are busier than others at work, but I generally leave the office having accomplished most of what I need to do.  At home, I almost always feel like I’m running behind.   Therefore, I need to make a conscious choice at times to let go of the endless to-list.

Or, as Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

"The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world."

Shabbat Shalom.

11 Responses to “The endless to-do list”

  1. landismom Says:

    Yeah, I think you’re right about the difference in thinking about this being related to what the kid-activity is. I mean, I love being with my daughter, but a game of Monopoly is fraught with the peril of worrying about if she’ll get frustrated and start a fight with me. My son is a darling, but he one of his favorite things to do is jump on the couch, so even if I’m sitting on the couch with him, I’m constantly telling him to cut it out. Neither of these activities is relaxing for me, although I’m sure to the untrained eye, I look like a person at rest.

  2. Moxie Says:

    Yes. And yes. Doing laundry with a 4-year-old is not vastly different from playing Candyland with a 4-year-old. I never connected the dots before, though. Thank you.

  3. Danigirl Says:

    Yes yes yes!! It’s kind of like an opportunity cost – you can do A, B and C, but you have to choose between A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H (on a good day), and you can only really do a half-assed job on each one you do get around to doing. That’s where almost all of my stress comes from, as a working mom to preschoolers.
    It is *exactly* about being overwhelmed by the to-do list, and exhausted with the constant reprioritizing and reorganizing, and disappointed with some of the things that never seem to make it to the top of the list, but never drop off the bottom either.
    Great insight! Now, what do we do about it?

  4. merseydotes Says:

    I’ve been struggling with how to respond to this, Elizabeth, as the phrase “work-life balance” gets my goat as much I think the phrase “mommy wars” gets yours. 8-)
    I think everyone has always worked to have balance in their lives. Balance is nothing new to this generation, and the struggle for balance is not limited to people that work or work full time or work 60+ hour weeks.
    The authors of the world can debate about the way we *actually* spend our time, but I think the larger issue here is the perception of how that time is spent. Not the perceptions of the data miners and analysts, but of the people actually spending the time. The rub is, different people view the same task different ways.
    I spend time whenever I can cleaning and straightening up my house. While partially motivated by the so-called endless to-do list and the standards of modern housekeeping, I am more motivated by the lure of incorporating lifestyle activity and the health benefits associated with such. Is housekeeping drudgery? I guess it could be, if I chose to see it that way. But instead, I focus on the benefits that I’m getting. It feels like I’m in control of the situation, doing what I want to be doing, not chained to a task because society told me it is worthwhile.
    Personally, I can’t decide whether recent generations are just whiners and complainers or whether the media just makes us out to be that way. Anecdotally, I know a lot of women who go to great lengths to “streamline” their lives, “outsource” any tasks they can and achieve “flexible” work arrangements (their buzz words). Do they feel restful and satisfied? Hardly. Most just seem to focus on the negative aspects of their new arrangements, which makes me wonder if balance is truly eluding them or if they just need to become glass half-full people.

  5. Jennifer Says:

    Thoughtful post, Elizabeth. I like the tie-in to Shabbat — because as I was reading, I was thinking that part of our problem is that we are never *in the moment*. We are always multitasking. Checking email at the ballgame, as you say. I think if, once we commit to a path or task, we focus on it exclusively, then we’ll be happier.
    For myself: in January I put my 18-month-old in daycare 2x/week; I work (from home) one full day and one half day, and then take a half-day to go snowboarding. Having just those few hours to myself, to indulge myself, have made me so much more content. I think it also helps that it’s exercise, and a kind which requires intense focus.

  6. amy Says:

    as I recall, and as someone in Bitch’s comments pointed out, mothers are also sleeping less than they used to, and spending less time on personal care. Add that to the semi-obligatory, and that may account for some of the extra leisure time.
    I also suspect there are still big differences among various groups of mothers when it comes to both leisure time and definitions of leisure. Though I’m sure the study defined leisure for itself.
    Rob Helpy-Chalk also pointed out in Bitch’s comments that playing with your children can be work, sometimes exhausting work. So there’s a hell of a question: When is playing with your children leisure? When is it not leisure?

  7. mamabalaya Says:

    You know, if anyone told me that after having kids, I would be *thrilled* for an extra kid-free hour to clean the house and/or go to the store (and count it as a leisure activity) I would have thought they were crazy…. Now, I really understand the popularity (and uselessness) of time management “tools”….

  8. Jennifer Says:

    When I read that Economist article, I was nodding my head at its insights. But now, reading your post, I realise that like many other types of analysis it is limited by the average. Sure, the average person may have more leisure time than they did 40 years ago. But hidden by that average is a change in which group of people have more leisure, and potentially a bigger range of amount of leisure. And it seems likely that the people who run the media (and most readers of your blog) are among those whose leisure has reduced. I remember a similar sigh of relief after finishing my professional exams, that I wouldn’t have guilt on the weekends any more. But now, I feel guilty about work and spending time with the kids in equal measure, if I do anything else.
    For me, playing with my children is leisure when they are in a good mood, and I have the hour and a half between getting home from work and bedtime just for the three of us. There’s nothing else I need to do, and we can just spend the time together. But if (as is often the case) I’m stressed about all the work I need to do once they’ve gone to bed, I find it hard to enjoy them and relax into the moment no matter how cute they are being.

  9. Not In Kansas Anymore Says:

    Half Changed World: The endless to-do list

    Elizabeth sent me a post from Half Changed World about The endless to-do list:
    Overall, I think its that sense of things left undone, rather than the total number of hours worked, that makes people feel overwhelmed.
    That sure sounds right to me….

  10. Jeremy Adam Smith Says:

    I’m a mostly stay at home dad with a part-time freelancing career; at times — especially when I’m surveying the wreckage of our kitchen or noticing the food granules that pockmark our carpet, and thinking simultaneously of the three writing deadlines that passed yesterday — I feel like my to-do list will roll right out of my ears and take half my brain with it. I struggle all the time with certain knowledge that my anxiety is society’s fault, balanced against certain knowledge that it’s the product of my own shortcomings. I try to put my child at the center of my life and simplify that life as much as possible, but worry that a lack of ambition will later bite me on the ass, professionally and financially. And of course, it always turns out that nothing is simple. An imagined future of dead-end destitution always shadows the present — a present which really isn’t all that bad, and is, by every objective and subjective “measure,” better than what’s come before. Yet ever since becoming my son’s primary caretaker, increasing anxiety has become THE issue in my life.
    Y’all might be interested in this piece for the academic journal The New Atlantis, “Are We Worthy of Our Kitchens?”: It covers a lot of this same ground from a different angle. Christine Rosen (an academic, natch) ends the piece with a rather utopian call for the renewal of domesticity. (Yes, I know, great, one more fucking article to read.)
    I comment on Rosen’s essay on my blog today, at, with a link to this entry on Half-Changed World.

  11. Elizabeth Says:

    Just wanted to add into the mix Ann Hulbert’s take on the same study: “”
    I like her idea that we’re talking about “discretionary time” rather than “leisure time.”

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