Trapped free time

Now that it’s summer, meaning the kids are done with school this year, that brings a whole new level of schlepping kids here and there for the next couple of months. Day camp on weekdays, swimming on weeknights, and soccer one weekend morning, repeat. What that means for me, in addition to making my brain melt in terms of logistics, is that I have a bunch of trapped free time.

I remember a book I read a few years ago – ETA okay, fine, I googled it and this is it – that talked about how little free time American moms have. Part of the book went into time studies, where women were asked to track their every moment and it turned out they actually had way more “free” time than they thought. I can’t fairly recall the exact details, so do not take this as an attack on the specifics of that argument, but there’s different kinds of free time.

There’s true free time, where you get to decide what out of everything in the world you want to do with that time: read, watch tv, go swimming, get a pedicure, go hiking, whatever. Then there’s paired free time, which is only slightly less awesome, where you and your partner determine together what to do with that time, a subset of the first category. You probably would go out to eat, go for a bike ride, go get a beer, or watch a movie, go to a concert, etc. In other words, if given all options, you might prefer to stay home and sew a bag, but because you’d dedicated this block of free time to your partner, you have a slightly smaller subset of options (because you’re excluding individual pursuits, since it’s not very team-building-y to go off in your own corner and write while your partner works on their yoga or whatever).

Then there’s what I have in spades right now: trapped free time. All of these moments of otherwise free time. This happens when I’m

 

  • usually by myself,
  • but at a specific location (i.e., soccer), *not at home*,
  • where I cannot leave, or even when I’m allowed to, there’s literally no point because there’s nowhere I could get to and back from in time, so errands are out,
  • and have a limited amount of time.

 

I have tons off these blocks of trapped free time. 25 minutes a weeknight at swim lessons, 50 minutes every weekend, and then, of course, the periodic 2-hour drop off birthday party or playdate. With the 2 hour blocks, that can be a lot easier, although to be honest, it depends on the location of that. I’ve been to birthday parties where there’s nothing within a 10-15 minute drive, and so by the time I got to Target or wherever, I would have so little time to browse that I just don’t find it worth it. I personally don’t find it relaxing to look around or shop with 30 minutes or less. But at least with those, I can at least get my groceries or something where I have a very routine and rote thing I need to get done. Still I wouldn’t call that free time, as if it’s some kind of leisure.

The weeknight and shorter blocks are what I think of when I think of trapped free time. Sure, I could bring a book, but given my budget and self-imposed library-only policy, means that I have to also have time to plan in advance. To get to the library, browse for something, and get back out without my kids losing their minds or, (GASP!) if I’m on my own, before I’m late for kid pick-up. In other words: oh so rare! That leaves magazines, which, again, I don’t subscribe to because money but am wondering if they would be worth it for this very reason. It comes to my door, it comes with a variety of topics to read about, and I just stuff it in the car and have it at all times. But for the moment, I don’t have any subscriptions.

There’s always podcasts. That’s oh-kay, because I do love podcasts, but I already isten to them at specific times and most of them, I can’t keep up with. Plus it would also require me to have the time and forethought to plan in advance, because budget precludes me from walking around streaming cellular data at all times, so I download for offline or at-home-wifi listening only. So, a possibility, but meh.

So what’s left? Cute little mobile games that I download and require no cell / wifi data. Those are always good when I find a great new one, but I don’t know where / how to find new ones. I keep asking my tech-savvy friends where do you find new games and they just blink at me. Maybe they don’t play them? Or maybe they just scroll endlessly through the app store and pick ones at random? I can’t deal with the choice overload there. Having to specify which category of game I like gives me hives. I have no idea what those categories mean.

I can use trapped free time purely as down time, meaning time to just *be*. To sit, relax, listen to the kids play and eavesdrop on the parents over there and hear myself think. That’s totally an option for at least a night or two, but I can’t help but be irritated at me having “free” time that I could be putting towards my own sanity, self-care, and/or personal goals, but that I’m not using for myself because it’s usally the only time I get to myself. To me, there’s a major distinction between down time, in which you are intending to do nothing at all, and free time, which you choose to fill with something.

By the way, I totally recognize that this is a privilege in the first place: to have free time OF ANY SORT, EVER. Parents who work a very demanding schedule, multiple jobs, or have so many responsibilities they can’t even breathe, I get that my problem is really a non-issue. But still: trapped free time. Driving me. CRAY CRAY.

Balancing my current work with my future work goals

A few days ago, I told my child’s teacher after I completely spaced the parent-teacher conference we had scheduled, “I used to have my shit together, and then I became a parent. But I guess 6 years in to this parenting run, I suppose I can no longer claim my new normal is temporary.” She didn’t know me in my pre-parenting days, when I really was on time to things, and even occasionally organized. A time when I could string thoughts coherently, er, string coherent thoughts togetherly.

While I don’t think I can get back to being on time or organized, I intend to regain my identity as a blogger. No, not some bullshit microblogger or #sponsored content provider or mouthpiece for a giant brand. After all, how is blogging for someone else any different from what I do now: writing web content for my employer?  My blogging goal was always to gain just enough independence that I could at the very least downsize from my full-time gig, carving out a bit more space for my creative work, whether that brought me income or not. (The answer is most definitively not, if you were wondering). When that didn’t happen – and life happened simultaneously – it became necessary for me to reallocate how I used my time.

I’ve had an autoimmune disease for 11 years. Or maybe I’ve had it for a lot longer, but I got diagnosed when I was 30. For awhile – like, say, in my adult years prior to having children, I could manage my depleting energy levels by taking a nap on the weekend or even catching a nap before dinner on weeknights. But over time, I guess as I get older, between working 40* hours a week and parenting, there’s very little time for me to ever feel “caught up” on my energy. And being tired all. of. the. goddamned. time. means that I have so little ability to clear the brain fog, nevermind the energy once the brain fog may have cleared to do anything.

* Now let’s talk about that 40 hours a week thing. I used to work 40 hours a week. Then I kept getting much more interesting work, and I was actually legitimately one of those gross people who claim to like their jobs (because I did). So losing sight of my personal goals didn’t blip much on my radar at that time a couple of years ago because I was engaged and fulfilled at work with intellectual and writery challenges. But during the past two years, my good work means that I’ve been promoted a time or two…and tasked with larger projects…that take up more mental energy…with less actual *time* during the workweek to tackle those projects. So full-time work became more, like, well, let’s just say more than 40 hours a week (and in academia, so without the pay to reflect that).

So working more left even less time to devote to my stuff. Yes, some of the bleed-over of work hours into *my* time is my own fault. But I’ll also point the majority of the blame right back on the higher ed industry, an industry that relies on churn-and-burn, hardly-paid adjuncts like My Better Half. It seems like a dicey endeavor to disengage when you are the sole source of income in your household for a family of 4. And/or have a complicated auto-immune disease that insurers know better as a pre-existing condition in this era in which it is unclear whether insurers will cover your care. To sum it up: I found myself with almost no energy, nor much mental clarity, but tethered to a job that had begun to eat up any of my free time.

I’m working on that last one, though. For the past few weeks, I’ve put strict boundaries on my work hours and will truly only commit to 8 hours a day, walking out the door at 8 hours and 1 minute. Which has begun to give me a little breathing room for places like my new work blog and here. (And, to be honest, the capacity to start looking for other, higher-paying work, as putting job applications together takes energy, mental clarity, and time. With more money could come more freedom…)

Let’s Make Everything Harder for Parents, Shall We?

A conversation in our house this morning:

Me: “…so the bottom line is, yes, Dawdler Toddler can start preschool next month, & there’s still availability, we just have to decide which of the 10 preschools in the district we want her to go to.”

My Better Half™: “why not just the one in walking distance to which we are zoned?”

Me: “No preschool there.”

My Better Half™: “So just send her to the closest one in our district that has a preschool.”

Me: “oh, sure. You’d think it would be that easy. But here’s the tricky part: preschool in our district is 4 days a week…no school on Wednesdays…and you choose the morning half day, which ends at 11:20 OR the afternoon half day that ends at 3:20…”

My Better Half™: “…can’t you just do both to get a full day that’s 8:20-3:20? Even though that’s NOT A FULL DAY at anybody’s work?!”

Me: “…no, because it’s exactly the same school day, just repeated twice.”

My Better Half™: “…so what are we supposed to do with her after the morning or before the afternoon? And ALL DAY EVERY Wednesday?”

Me: “…that’s an even bigger question. So there’s a before/after school program for those of us who, I dunno, work and stuff? But it’s only offered at some of the 10 preschools. There is one full-day option – it’s a Montessori multi-age classroom, but that’s only at 1 of the 10 preschools… and we’d be committing to the Montessori track…which I’m not sure I’m on board with…and anyway we would have had to registered forever ago because there’s a waitlist for that.”

My Better Half™: “…okay, so I guess we do the preschool that’s closest to us AND has one of these before/after school programs.”

Me: “…agreed. So now we get to the next question. Of the preschools that also have the before/after school programs, which of those do we want her to go to Kindergarten at?”

My Better Half™: “…okay, now you’re just talking crazy. She’s only 3!”

Me: “…yeah, I know. But here’s the thing: Since our elementary school, the one in walking distance, doesn’t have a preschool, she can either go to preschool wherever we choose and then switch at kindergarten to where we’re zoned OR continue on to kindergarten wherever we send her to preschool. There’s this thing where if your elementary school doesn’t have a preschool, and as a result you send your kid to a district preschool somewhere else, you can choose to continue on at that school where she started for kindergarten & elementary – y’know, so your kid doesn’t have to make all new friends at a new school all over again. So it’s really a question of where do we want her to ultimately go to kindergarten & elementary school.”

Both of us: <banging head on counter>

Me: “…and there’s actually kinda significant differences in curriculum & in quality in the different district elementary schools that also have preschools so…”

—-

Is it absolutely bonkers that we’re talking about WHERE TO SEND OUR JUST-TURNED-3-YEAR-OLD to kindergarten?! Is this INSANE or normal these days? Hard to tell…

A case of the mondays

Two weeks ago, Baby got viral gastroenteritis for a couple of days and shared it with me for all of 8 hours while I was home from work with him, but we both recovered. Last Friday, as I was picking up Dawdler Toddler from daycare, she starts hurling. She had it all through the weekend, meaning we got nothing whatsoever done except tending to her. Side note: why is it that the weekends where I want to sit around on my arse and do nothing do not coincide with the weekends I get to do that? I had TONS of errands & stuff I desperately needed to get done, because I’d gotten nothing done being home from work with a sick Baby.

By Sunday, I was feeling very stressed – faced with missing even more work and still needing to get tons of stuff done outside of work, I texted every sitter as well as any contacts who could potentially serve as an emergency stand-in sitter, asking if by some random chance anyone could possibly watch her on Monday. I’ve been missing TONS of work with sick Baby. My Better Half doing fieldwork during the workweek means that I’m the only one ever available when daycare calls telling me Baby has a fever and has to leave, so I feel like I’m walking a fine line at work. I don’t know if I am. Maybe I’m just super sensitive to the rolling eyes one of my coworkers gives me (a childless jackass) whenever I’m dashing out to grab a sick Baby or Toddler. Maybe I’m just super sensitive because it’s performance review season and I’m paranoid that it might appear as if I’m not accomplishing much other than occasionally and unpredictably occupying a chair after returning from maternity leave this time around. Maybe I’m super sensitive because I have a new boss, who, while he has four children of his own, has never once experienced the “my kid has a fever above 100, so s/he has to be picked up from daycare within 30 minutes and can’t return for at least 24 hours” because his wife has always been a stay at home mom. I’d like to believe that my work worries are all in my imagination but I’m not quite convinced that’s true. But, alas, no sitters or would-be sitters were available.

So I crossed my fingers and held my breath and the next day, Dawdler Toddler seemed to be back to her normal self, and after being able to hold down her breakfast, I took her to daycare. And her Baby brother. Even though he had a fever. I didn’t have an alternative, given that I had no sitter available. And I HAD to make an 8:30-10:30 meeting, if nothing else. So I just prayed that he was just running a low-grade, teething? minor thing? fever and would be fine. After having to wait in the morning to make sure Dawdler Toddler was okay enough to go to daycare, I was super late to work – more than an hour late. Let’s just say the clock read 8:32 when I was getting ready to leave daycare for work. I got to work only to discover that my meeting was way far away in another building, so I was about 30 minutes late for that important must-not-miss meeting. And I was there about 25 minutes before daycare called and said Baby had a fever and was vomiting and had to leave.

So I excused myself with yet another quick missive of “sorry! gotta run! I’ll try to get in some work from home!” apology and dashed out. Got Baby, got him some Tylenol and he went down for his afternoon nap. That just dragged on and on and on. By late afternoon, after I’d picked up Dawdler Toddler from daycare, I was starting to get concerned. He seemed a little out of it, listless if you will. And his fever, rather than going down with Tylenol just kept going up. And he wasn’t the least bit interested in eating anything at all. By the time his breathing seemed to be getting strangely irregular, I left My Better Half, home from 10 hours of fieldwork in 111 degrees, to put Toddler to bed while I took Baby in to the children’s hospital, the only thing open at that hour. I get to the children’s hospital and have a text from My Better Half saying: I have the stomach flu now too, can’t stop throwing up, but keep me updated. I get us checked in and while we’re waiting in triage, I start hurling. Repeatedly.

They kept an eye on Baby, checking his vitals every 20 minutes, trying to coax him into taking pedialyte (unsuccessfully), giving him medicine for nausea first in order to then administer more Tylenol so he could keep that down and then waiting for him to demonstrate that he wanted and/or could eat. They kept him far longer than I would have expected. Which is why I was more miserable by the moment. I couldn’t stop throwing up, my stomach was doing somersaults, and I had nothing with me. Nothing. Not even a water bottle to go fill up, not a sweater to stave off the fever chills that were washing over me in waves. So every 20 minutes they came in to give him medicine and make sure he was improving and I’m getting worse by the second but they couldn’t even so much as bring me a goddamn apple juice because I’m “not the patient.” I get it on an intellectual level – liability of treating someone who’s not a patient in this letigious world of defensive medicine we find ourselves in – but at a visceral, physical level I was furious. Your whole purpose as nurses and doctors is to help people feel better, and if mom is doing this horribly, how can she be expected to take in all the information you’re giving about Baby’s condition and respond?

Why wouldn’t I just text My Better Half and say “for chrissakes, bring me some gatorade?” you ask? Because we have one vehicle. One. With both carseats in it. So even if he would have wanted to drag Toddler and himself out of bed and then out of the house at an ungodly hour to come bring ME medicine at the children’s hospital, he couldn’t have. Not to mention he was throwing up at home too.

So all in all, I’ve managed to make it to work one whole day this week. My Better Half seems to have improved, as have I. Although now that he’s back to working in 110 degrees, we’ll see. Baby still has a fever and is vomiting and was seen again yesterday and will be seen again Saturday. So I’m not counting on getting ANYTHING done this week or weekend either. Good thing my folks are coming in town Tuesday. Oh wait, that means I gotta somehow clean & disinfect this disastrous house. And take 48 hours vacation time. Right before my annual performance review. I’m beginning to think the rumors circulating yesterday that anyone who was getting a raise this year got notification yesterday is true. Like that asshole coworker who shoots me a dirty look every time I rush out, scrambling to go get a sick kid, just doing my best not to lose it.

Bringing children & work together every day

Yesterday, at least at my workplace, was Bring Your Child to Work Day. It was also, at least in my job, Bring Work to Your Children Day. Aka Thursday. Aka my telecommuting day.

I think when you say ‘telecommute’ a lot of people picture some kind of tech startup employee who works from cooler-than-thou hipster coffee joints all day. In my case you should envision me surrounded by the detritus of toddler & baby toys trying to respond to emails with one hand while nursing and shushing Baby with the other, sipping room temperature coffee all day (so as not to burn Baby when he inevitably flings his hand into the mug sending its contents all over my applesauce and GoGurt-encrusted jeans). I’ve telecommuted one day a week ever since the nearly 3 year old Dawdler was born – and it was fine when it was just her. Now my telecommuting day just feels so overwhelming. It’s impossible to compartmentalize anything. I’m trying to work while also pick up the ever-growing clutter around the house, I’m trying to put away laundry amidst work and a crying Baby, and I’m trying to convince the toddler Dawdler to shuffle off to daycare so I can focus on only two things at once, with the ability to give neither my full attention.

It’s nearly impossible to give my full attention to anything at all anymore, least of all myself. I get it, it’s a mom thing to never have any time to myself, but for crying out loud, I’ve got to find some time for myself. At my cubicle, I’m occupied with work. At home, I’m occupied with the kids. And during the rushed commute in between? I’m trying to slough off the day’s work and get into parenting mode with no space for my own occupations in between.

I have turned to working out before to solve this problem and decompress. Before I had kids, I went to the gym every night right after work before I got home. Now that just seems unfair to My Better Half. Right now, he has the responsibility of getting the kids up, dressed, fed, and off to daycare (and in the case of Baby, full-time parenting some days of the week), on top of adjuncting and trying to write and make dinner and. And, and, and. So it feels awfully selfish of me to tack on an extra couple of hours to his days to stop off at the gym for myself. When I explained this to someone, they said “oh! So that’s just mommy guilt! You gotta shut that sh*t down.”

Please don’t ‘just’ that. That ‘just’ you threw in there implies that it’s all in my mind, that it’s ‘just’ a small problem, that it’s insignificant. Baby is now 7 months old and I’ve never managed to get in a single workout or find any regular routine of time for myself since he was born. That doesn’t feel insignificant. Sure, it’s true that this is just a phase, as my mom says. But it doesn’t feel temporary living in the midst of this phase.

So until I can sort this out and/or afford a gym membership, you’ll excuse me while I carve out time for myself at the bottom of this bag of Pepperidge Farm Molasses Crisp cookies. It’s ‘just’ one bag. A week.

All This Thinking is Counter-Productive

Yesterday’s work day was simultaneously one of the best and worst work days ever. Our network was completely down (and remains largely down today), giving me a very limited subset of tasks I could work on. Simple tasks that I blew through in just a few minutes. So I basically goofed off on the web all day.

I feel guilty about that in the sense that I know I’m not getting paid to just goof off. But I also feel guilty about it in some other, more profound way. That I don’t give a sh*t that that’s how I spent my day.

After months of un- and under-employment in 2010 and 2011, I finally landed this job. And I was, and continue to be, grateful for that. Even more grateful for the fact that I was more than 6 months pregnant when I started here. And that my workplace is so accommodating and understanding of the new rhythm of my life. Like needing some time to adjust to the schedule of getting to work with pants on. I have a lot to be thankful for: I have an amazing boss. I make a decent living. I have benefits. But I don’t love my job. I don’t love the line of work I’m in. It just doesn’t excite me or inspire me. If it’s too much to ask to do work that you’re really designed to do, that you are enthusiastic about, that provides the work environment and work style you desire, and at which you are driven to excel, then honestly? I’d rather just be home with my baby.

Having nothing to do but idle time to pass away in my cubicle yesterday was not a good thing because it sent me down a path of re-examining my career and life path yet again. I sat there in my cubicle thinking. And while thinking may be dangerous, it’s all I could do. Well, I mean, besides watch youtube videos of dogs.  Or babies. Or dogs and babies.

The result of all that thinking was a deafening cry inside my head: I want to be productive. I want to work hard. But I want to work for myself. If nothing else, if I worked for myself, woke up one morning, and the network was completely down? I wouldn’t sit there and stare at a blank screen all day like an automaton. I’d go out and live life. Read, nap, go for a hike, take a scenic drive. The possibilities are endless. Bonus: a little break would have reinvigorated me for when it was time to work again.

Coincidentally, I happened to read a blog post last night by someone who talked about losing his job suddenly and needing new work ASAP, who wrote “All I need is to be working with smart passionate people, flexible hours and the ability to work from anywhere. A cubicle is my death. I’ll take it if it’s all I can find, but I’d prefer to work from home and fly anywhere for meetings/face to face time.” Well said, my friend. I work in a cubicle, though that, in and of itself is not the problem. The last museum I worked for, I worked in a cubicle and worked with some of the most talented, funny, amazing coworkers friends ever. If we could have run away to found our own creative firm offering our services as a web designer, writer, graphics/visual artist, and editor, I totally would have. Except that we would have needed insta-clients, and lots of them, because all of us have piles of bills to pay.

Some of it has to do with the stupidity of playing working by the rules. Whether it’s that I have to show up & sit here in a cube for 8 hours even though none of us can get to a single work file, or that I can’t install Flash because I don’t have Admin user privileges even though I produce Flash videos for my job, or that I can’t listen to music on my computer even though I work at a music museum, whatever the workplace is, it has inane, inexplicably dumb rules. I want to live life by my own terms and work by my own rules. Work when I’m ready to work, rather than staring at a blank screen trying to get motivated because I haven’t yet had my coffee and had to be at work at 8:30 even though I’ve been up with a baby since 3:30. Or that I didn’t get to bed with the baby til 3:30. Cuz everyone knows, if you work from 11-7, your quality of work is just total sh*t compared to the quality of work you produce on no sleep between 8:30-4:30! Write about topics that I’m interested in, rather than digesting & regurgitating the most boring information to a general audience. And produce deliverables that match my expectations of high quality rather than pass off “meh, it’s ok, but at least it’s on time” stuff because of someone else’s constraints.

That could be the biggest thing. There’s nothing more frustrating at work than having to compromise, or even abandon your vision. That’s been one of my frustrations with everywhere that I have worked since grad school: not being in control over the quality of the work products I deliver. In grad school, I was in total control over the quality of my research sources, the level of my analysis, and the craftsmanship of my writing. But working for someone else is a whole different story. It’s awful to have a product “represent” you that you don’t feel is the type or quality of work you do best. Because I have worked only for nonprofits, I’m always on a shoestring budget, but I don’t always know the external constraints. Like when your boss tells you you’ve got a $25,000 budget for an exhibit, and you spend $4,000 only to be hauled into her office and told that you’ve “gone over budget.” How? Because she was working on the assumption that $22,000 of that “budget” was for your own salary. (And you were working on the assumption that budget = money one can spend. Because that’s what the word means). Or how you get “voluntold” at work to produce a professional instructional video in 3 months but you get told by the videographers that they can’t work you into their schedule in that time frame, so the best they can do is hand off some B-roll footage and let you work your own magic. When you’re in control of your own product, you know what’s within your abilities and limits and don’t overextend that by taking on projects and agreeing to ideas that compromise your vision. And you’re clear on the rules of engagement.

Here’s the thing: I feel like I finally deserve to find work that works for me. Until this job, I spent my work life trying to make a career out of museum work, and it’s just not there to be made. Museum work is tireless, thankless, and undervalued. It demands a lot of your time, your efforts, your patience, and your resources, but does not deliver equivalent opportunities for personal and professional growth, upward mobility, and, most importantly, work-life balance. Sure, you can rise through the ranks. Either incrementally and over a long period of time, working your way up in a large institution where you must summon the patience to spend years doing menial work that inexplicably demands a Master’s degree waiting for a vacancy for which you have been groomed over time to materialize. Or you may rise through the ranks at a tiny institution well before you are equipped with the skils, abilities, leadership, and network to tackle the frequently insurmountable problems of a small and increasingly irrelevant institution. I gave both a shot, and neither path worked out for me.

Then, when I was laid off by the last museum, I spent my time scrambling, trying to find any job that fit my existing skill set, hoping things would work out for the best. And the side effects aren’t shabby: a steady job that uses the skills that I learned used in museums – research, writing, editing, teaching, and a little design  – a decent paycheck with benefits, and the best boss I’ve had since 2006.

But I want more. I don’t want to try to squeeze myself into a new career that doesn’t fit me exactly right. All that thinking time yesterday reaffirmed that I’ve got to figure out how to make my next work move be to work for myself.

Work Less for More Happiness

I’ve always said that I would gladly work fewer hours for less money in order to have more time off. My favorite work schedule ever was a 32 hour workweek. Sure, I didn’t make a ton of money. Guess what? I still don’t!

But my current 40 hour workweek doesn’t leave me time for the things I used to spend my free time doing – long hikes with my dogs, trying out new recipes, exploring the library for something new to read. In part, all of that was a major lifestyle change that happened when I moved from Nashville to Flagstaff, where I learned to cherish the experiences that come from being in an outdoorsy small town over the things that money can buy. So while some might read the intro to this NYTimes article & think, “This chick be crazy!” I’m thinking I should follow in her footsteps…