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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

I Didn’t Have Time to Write This, But I Did: Why Parents Must Rethink Free Time

When I told a friend that I was writing a column for and about career-loving parents (a phrase I lifted from Lean In), her immediate response was “How will you have time for that?” And to be honest, as a new mom with a full-time job, I’d asked myself the same question.

Of course I don’t have time. An “extra-curricular” activity that’s not part of my full-time job, even one that formed the core of my identity before parenthood, is my last priority. Like any other working parent, my week is consumed with pick-ups, drop-offs, and the endless chirping of email alerts, punctuated by brief moments of clarity when my son smiles at me from the baby swing while I sip an iced coffee that I made four hours ago and just now got around to drinking. Even with a responsible, loving spouse who fully shares all parenting duties with me, I don’t have much free time.

But I’ve decided that I must make time for writing, not just because analyzing the culture around me has always been my passion, but because I hope that in 25 years if my son is still as passionate about his Johnny Jump Up as he is now, he makes the time to engineer an adult-sized harness and giant-sized door-jam and jumps to his heart’s content.

Plus, it’s true that making time for the solitary (or, at least, child-free) pursuits you enjoyed before you became a parent is important for your mental well-being.

Now, I’ve read enough parenting literature to be able to recite the standard tips for maintaining your pre-baby activities: Wake up before your baby, carve out free time in your weekend and let your partner do the same, take advantage of grandparents, aunts, and uncles who want to spoil your kids. But I’ve also learned that making that time for our passions requires more than just a few calendar edits—it actually requires a seismic shift in the way we think about parenting in general.

Hear me out.

First, we need to really examine how we’re spending our time.

There are days when I collapse into bed at 8:45 and think, how can I be so exhausted when I barely got anything done today? I focus on what I failed to do—change out of my yoga pants, read and respond to an animated e-card my grandmother sent me—instead of the things I did accomplish: making a nutritious, semi-homemade meal with my husband, working a full-time job, and keeping a child alive.

It’s true that, as a working parent, we sometimes feel we’re on a treadmill, working hard but going nowhere. And when we do get a free moment, we tend to want to make it as productive as possible: Wash the car, take the dog for a walk, make a meal to freeze.

Last week’s New York Times piece about working mom Sara Uttech and her hectic schedule elicited a number of responses from the blogosphere, but one I particularly agree with is that of Jezebel’s Tracie Egan Morrissey: “We tend to ask ourselves what we can do to make it work. What more can we do so that we can do more? If that sounds like nonsense it's because it is.”

We are already doing a lot. A lot. And when we have a spare minute, we try to do more, even if, on the surface, it seems like we’re taking “time off.”

Which brings me to my second point:

We must rage against the increasingly narrow definition of “me time.”

This is especially true for mothers. A number of American media outlets—from television shows like What Not to Wear to magazines like Parents and Oprah—have shrunk our conception of “me time” to spa days and shopping. Their mantra is, “If you look good, you feel good. And that’s good for the whole family.” The implied statement, then, is: “If you don’t look good, you won’t feel good. And your family will suffer.”

While it’s a good idea to look professional at work, there’s an alarming emphasis on the connection between exterior appearances and interior fulfillment (and it’s no coincidence that the companies that create this connection are funded by advertisers that sell clothes and beauty products). Working mothers shouldn’t be guilt-tripped into spending their precious-little free time on tweezing, waxing, or staring at themselves in those awful three-way mirrors.

For me, a weekly mani-pedi may help me relax for 20 minutes, but it doesn’t leave me feeling fulfilled and rejuvenated. Likewise, I try to head to Target with brushed hair, but why wouldn’t I swap 30 minutes of getting ready for 30 minutes of reading or writing? Don’t give into the ridiculous expectation that spare time is for beautifying.

Finally, we must stop measuring our parenting skills in terms of our sacrifices.

In her book Bringing up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman contrasts the parenting styles of French and American moms and dads, pointing out that, unlike American mothers, French mothers do not glorify constant personal sacrifice as a motherhood badge of honor. Many American mothers, she argues, not only abandon their own personal pursuits, but see doing so as a sign of good parenting. The logical conclusion, then, is that any activity that doesn’t make you miserable (besides being with your child, of course) detracts from your overall parenting score.

Of course every good parent puts the needs of his or her children first. But we must abandon the idea that ignoring our own needs and foregoing any opportunity for personal fulfillment makes us good parents. Think about how this translates in your professional life: In your career, you’re both committed to your job, projects, and responsibilities, and simultaneously focused on developing professionally. Your ambition to get promoted, earn more money, and learn more is not seen as incompatible with your current role. In fact, it’s a sign that you’re a good employee.

We need to apply this philosophy to parenting: Wanting to develop personally, even while juggling 9,000 child-related balls in the air, means you’re a good parent (and person), not a bad one.

So, though it might seem a little crazy, I’m making time for my passion, and I’d encourage you to do the same. Making time for personal and professional development requires effort, planning, and a mindset that allows you to enjoy yourself—but it’s worth it. After all, if we don’t think critically about the culture of parenting that we live in, we’ll never be able to think at all—we’ll be too busy teaching our two-year olds geometry, getting microdermabrasion, and then feeling guilty about it.

Photo of woman relaxing courtesy of Shutterstock.