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."