In last week's New York Times Magazine, Ann Hulbert wrote a thought-provoking essay looking at new research on how Americans interpret time. In it there was a hopeful message for the harried working mom who feels as if her day is chopped into a zillion little pieces: You're not as overworked as you think and you're spending just as much time with your kids as stay-at-home moms did in the 1970s.
The big surprise is that working-age Americans have actually gained between four and eight hours of free time since 1965 (men are working less, and women are doing less housework), according to a working paper on leisure by economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst. And University of Maryland sociologist Suzanne M. Bianchi found that the average working mom in the year 2000 recorded 100 hours a week in "primary child-care time" -- the same as her counterparts 30 years ago. Both researchers studied the 2003 American Time Use Survey done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which follows how Americans spend each hour of their day.
The data is somewhat troublesome, however, because it may reflect different interpretations of what counts for childcare versus leisure time. "How we conceive of child-care time is a puzzle with implications for how we experience it -- not least, whether we end up feeling unusually privileged or besieged," writes Hulbert. For example, in what category do you put attending a child's soccer game? The economists may count it as fun time, whereas a parent may regard it as duty. Also, today's parents may exaggerate their time with their kids because there's so much emphasis on one-on-one interaction. Perhaps "what Americans may now enjoy more of shouldn't be called leisure, with its connotations of ease. Instead it's discretionary time," Hulbert writes.
Whatever the case, Hulbert makes the important point that it's all in how we view things. She questions her own spin on her predawn duty of driving her kid to crew practice. "I'm soon home to enjoy the newspaper in the kitchen, listening to music, with nobody else awake bustling or bothering me. What I wouldn't take the time to explain is that although this sounds like a lovely balance of special solicitude and unexpected solitude (a mother's dream), I seem more susceptible to feeling parental stress than newfound leisure," Hulbert writes. Maybe, she hints, there's a better way to conceptualize our overscheduled lives.
It's just something to think about.