Brigid Schulte: Why time is a feminist issue

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Brigid Schulte

Brigid Schulte.

Brigid Schulte. Photo: brigidschulte.com

Let me tell you what I did when a time-use expert told me I had 30 hours of leisure time every week: I stopped breathing. I sat in my chair, phone to my ear, jaw open, and utterly frozen in disbelief.

Because this is what my life was like: two kids, and a whole load of guilt that, as a working mother, I wasn't with them every minute of the day, twirling red and black mobiles to make their baby brain neurons grow and feeding them organic spinach lovingly grown in the backyard. (I had weeds and gravel.) A demanding job trying to keep up with a bunch of crazy workaholics and never measuring up – one boss liked to say the best workers were always in the office until 9 and 10 at night. (Never mind that half of them were fried and playing solitaire.) And husband that I had to keep reminding myself that I loved even as I burned with low-level resentment when I did the laundry, the grocery shopping, the cooking, the child care drop offs, the dry cleaning, the bills, the pediatrician appointments, the summer camp planning …

Leisure time? I would have settled for a sick day.

When I'd recovered my senses enough to speak, I sputtered something like, "I don't know what you're talking about. I don't have 30 hours of leisure a week."

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"Yes you do," he insisted. "Come do a time study with me, and I'll show you where your leisure is."

Fast forward a year and a half. (I kept putting it off, angrily wanting to prove him wrong, but secretly terrified that he may be right – and that I was frittering away my one and only precious life.) The time expert looked through the messy time diaries I'd been keeping (one mysteriously went through the dryer) and found 27 hours of what he called leisure, and I called bits and scraps of garbagey time. Five minutes here. Ten minutes there. Listening to the radio, exhausted, trying to get out of bed.  Getting some exercise. Waiting by the side of the road for a tow truck. (Yes, he said that counted as leisure.)

The image that came to mind was this: time confetti.

What I didn't know at the time was that this is what time is like for most women: fragmented, interrupted by child care and housework. Whatever leisure time they have is often devoted to what others want to do – particularly the kids – and making sure everyone else is happy doing it. Often women are so preoccupied by all the other stuff that needs doing – worrying about the carpool, whether there's anything in the fridge to cook for dinner – that the time itself is what sociologists call "contaminated."

I came to learn that women have never had a history or culture of leisure. (Unless you were a nun, one researcher later told me.) That from the dawn of humanity, high status men, removed from the drudge work of life, have enjoyed long, uninterrupted hours of leisure. And in that time, they created art, philosophy, literature, they made scientific discoveries and sank into what psychologists call the peak human experience of flow.

Women aren't expected to flow.

I read feminist leisure research (who knew such a thing existed?) and international studies that found women around the globe felt that they didn't deserve leisure time. It felt too selfish. Instead, they felt they had to earn time to themselves by getting to the end of a very long To Do list. Which, let's face it, never ends.

I began to realise that time is power. That time is a feminist issue.

And it's time not only for all the invisible work that women have always done to be valued – time diary data tracking child care and house work time is actually being used by some countries to calculate GDP, because without that work, economies don't grow and the next generation of society isn't raised. It's also time for that invisible work to be shared more equitably, so that women, too, can have time for leisure.

It's an ongoing project in my house. My husband and I began going on long walks, trying to figure out where we'd gone off the rails, and how to find our way back to the equal partners we promised each other we'd be.

We began by putting all the work that needs to be done to run the house on the table, and dividing it up fairly. Last one out of bed makes it. I do the laundry. He grocery shops. He cooks dinner. The kids and I clean up. We take turns taking the kids to the dentist, the orthodontist, the pediatrician, the allergist. The more we shared, the more time I had for other things. I began to run. I found time to read again. And the more he took full responsibility, and I wasn't delegating, then checking in to see if my "helper" followed through – the more space I had in my head for other things – like thinking, and writing a book.

As we walked and talked, we came to see that, despite our best intentions to be equal partners, we had no role models. The minute we got home with our brand new baby, it was like these unconscious, old 1950s-era black and white movies started playing in both our heads – that the Ideal Father goes off to work and provides, and the Ideal Mother is always available for her kids and keeps the house neat and tidy. Those old movies, time diary data shows, are still playing all over the world. Women are still doing twice and three times the housework and child care, in many instances, even when they work full time.

It's time for new movies.

So that both women and men can have time for meaningful work, for connecting with family and those they love – the foundation of human happiness – and for true leisure – not fragments of time confetti – but that place, the Greek philosophers said, where we all not only refresh our souls, but are most fully human.

Brigid schulte is the author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. She was a guest speaker at The Sydney Opera House's All About Women festival this year.