When people think about their hectic lives, a frequent theme comes to mind, “I wish I had more free time.”  Although this wish is common, some segments of the population appear to be most affected by being “leisure poor,” as this concept is known in the literature.  Predictably, this group is mothers, and especially mothers who work full-time.  Working mothers as compared to other groups often shoulder the responsibility for the household and the childcare, as well as their job, leaving minimal time for other things.  This has been supported by research which found that after subtracting paid employment, childcare and household tasks, women in this group had an average of ten hours per day left.  Although that may seem like a lot at first glance, remember that these 10 hours need to include: sleeping, eating, showering and all other activities that are not explicitly paid work, childcare or household tasks [i].  To gain an even clearer understanding, one study looked at how much does each child “cost the mother” in free time, and it was found that for a married parent, the cost of one child is the loss of 1.4 hours of free time per day and 2.6 for two children.  If a child is under age 3, then there is an additional cost of 2.4 hours per day.  The length of any individual period of leisure time is also shortened when the child is young.  It was found that women get this time by taking it out of leisure activities and self-care[ii].  The minimal amount of free time is associated both with the sense of being rushed, as well as low satisfaction with the free time that does exist[iii].

Although there may be very little that mothers can do to increase the amount of free time they have, there are things that can be done about the level of satisfaction if the cause of the dissatisfaction is identified.  For some women it may be the kind of activities that are being considered as leisure.  It was found that women spend 30 minutes less per week eating, 3 hours less per week watching television, 1 hour less per week socializing and doing sports and 30 minutes less reading than men[iv].   Thus, it is possible that if a woman who is an avid reader has to sacrifice reading in order to sleep, eat and exercise, she may be unsatisfied with her “leisure time” since she derives potentially no pleasure from the tasks she engages in.  There are several ways to address this problem.  Ideally, there is enough flexibility in the schedule, where the desired task can be added into the schedule on an infrequent but regular basis at the expense of something that can be either delegated or skipped.  For example, one can say to herself, “I will create the time to read for one hour each week.  I will do this by ordering pizza for the family once a week for dinner.  Doing this will give me the hour that I need because I will not need to cook or clean up.”  If this works, and the needed time is created, the important thing then is to protect that time and use it for the activity for which it was intended.  So, if after ordering pizza, the woman spends the hour mindlessly reading through Facebook, this is unlikely to improve her satisfaction with her leisure time.

Nevertheless, very often such changes are not feasible since the schedule is already as leveraged as it could possibly be.  In these situations, the satisfaction needs to be derived by changing how one thinks about the free time.  Specifically, instead of saying to yourself, “I can’t believe I don’t have the time to spend on the things that I love to do,” try saying to yourself “This may not be ideal, but I am getting a break from work, and since this is what I am able to do, I may as well enjoy it.”   Another way to think about it is “If I did not have this time to do _____ (insert less preferred activity), I would be doing _____ (insert work/household/childcare…).  This is definitely better” or  “I am not enjoying this thing that I am doing because I keep wishing I was doing something else.  Continuing to do this will make me feel like I did not have this free time at all, and I refuse to waste the limited free time that I have.”  Changing how you think about the activity that you are engaging in may help to alter how you perceive your free time.

An additional issue is that not only do women have less free time, but they are also responsible for “providing the setting” for free time[v].  For example, if the “leisure activity” is having friends over, then the woman is often the one who, in anticipation, is cleaning the house and cooking the meal, thereby creating additional housework  This means that the free time comes at a price.  The cost of the leisure activity may at times feel too high to engage in.  However, this then leaves the woman feeling like all she does is housework, work and child care, which in effect turns out to be true.  To address this issue, it may be necessary to readjust what kind of leisure activities happen and/or readjust expectations for prerequisite activities. For example, if a woman had always cooked a full sit-down meal for company, she would need to determine what part of that activity is important to her.  If the important element is being able to socialize with friends, then she may have to learn to be okay with store-bought appetizers instead.  Although this may at first feel disappointing and like she is not living up to her own standards, the woman has to remind herself that she needs to stay focused on the targeted element, in this case socializing, and the less important element, the food, is the obstacle.  It is also important to remember that the feeling of disappointment in herself is preventing her from enjoying the leisure activity she had created.

The above example sheds light on another critical finding, which is that free time is less restorative for women than it is for men[vi].  The authors proposed that this may be due to the fact that women continue to worry about everything that they have to do while engaging in leisure activities.  It is also possible that women often engage in free time activities for the sake of the family rather than because it is something that they want, and as a result they are less restored by it. Some women may also view themselves as less deserving of free time, and the guilt interferes with the restorative effect.  This is an excellent opportunity for other adults in the woman’s life to intervene and help the woman get as much out of her free time as possible. For example, a husband knowing that his wife plans to give up something that she wants to do, such as read a favorite book, in order to have family over for dinner, may suggest that he will find another time that they can see the family, so that she can spend the time on herself, or he can propose to make reservations for a favorite restaurant and make arrangements for everyone to meet at the restaurant instead of coming to their house.  However, it is important that he takes on these tasks because if she needs to take on the coordinating of the changed plans, it will use up all of the time that she was trying to create for reading.  Also, an offer of this type from her husband reaffirms that he believes that she “deserves” the time she is setting aside for herself.

The other issue that needs to be considered for leisure activities is the fact that for many people, and especially mothers, leisure time is “contaminated” by other activities, meaning that the person is engaging in several activities at ones in order to meet all of their time demands.  It was found that parents spend approximately 1.25 hours per day of their free time with their children with about half of that time spent alone with their children with no other adults present.  This is important because under such circumstances, free time can turn into childcare very quickly.  For example, the mother may be playing a board game with her children-free time, but the children begin to argue and she ends up having to separate them and address the arguing- child care.  In this example, it is unlikely that the woman walked away from that experience refreshed. Also, if the woman is alone with her children for a large part of her free time, it limits the kind of activities that she can engage in.  For instance, she may not be able to go play tennis because she has to be with the children.  Again, if the family recognizes the importance of making sure that the mother has adult free time, which is the type found to be most restorative[vii], a plan can be developed where her time alone to engage in the things she enjoys is protected from other activities and responsibilities.

This topic is critical because with every year people feel more rushed as lives get busier and busier, and this trend has been steady since 1965[viii].  However, it appears that having restorative free time is an effective coping technique for this pace.  Since life circumstances make it difficult for women to experience such restorative free time naturally, it is important that it is created using the strategies above.

[i] Ekert-Jaffe, O. (2011). Are the Real Time Cost of Child Equally Shared by Mothers and Fathers? Social Indicators Research, 101, 243-247.

[ii] Ekert-Jaffe, O. (2011). Are the Real Time Cost of Child Equally Shared by Mothers and Fathers? Social Indicators Research, 101, 243-247.

[iii] Gimenez-Nadal, J. I. & Sevilla-Sanz, A. (2011). The Time-Crush Paradox. Social Indicators Research, 102, 181-196.

[iv]  Gimenez-Nadal, J. I. & Sevilla-Sanz, A. (2011). The Time-Crush Paradox. Social Indicators Research, 102, 181-196.

[v] Mattingly, M. J. & Bianchi, S. M. (2003). Gender Differences in the Quantity and Quality of Free Time: The U.S. Experience.  Social Forces, 81(3), 999-1030.

[vi] Mattingly, M. J. & Bianchi, S. M. (2003). Gender Differences in the Quantity and Quality of Free Time: The U.S. Experience.  Social Forces, 81(3), 999-1030.

[vii]  Mattingly, M. J. & Bianchi, S. M. (2003). Gender Differences in the Quantity and Quality of Free Time: The U.S. Experience.  Social Forces, 81(3), 999-1030.

[viii] Mattingly, M. J. & Bianchi, S. M. (2003). Gender Differences in the Quantity and Quality of Free Time: The U.S. Experience.  Social Forces, 81(3), 999-1030.

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