An old friend asked me recently about my plans for when my youngest child starts kindergarten. “Do you think you’ll go back to work, or live a life of leisure?” she asked lightheartedly. I knew she meant no offense, but I couldn’t help but feel a little defensive about this so-called life of “leisure” that I may or may not lead in the future.
It’s hard to imagine what that life would look like, since by the time my daughter starts kindergarten I will have been home full-time for 9 years. Life certainly does not feel very leisurely at the moment. Most days it feels like my cup is being completely drained, and there’s never enough time to fill it back up.
It feels like I’m constantly discovering new depths of patience, but it’s still not always deep enough to prevent me from snapping occasionally. Then it feels like failure because this is my one job and I’m not even doing it that well.
It feels like I’m running myself ragged with little to show for it. And even though it is a love like no other, it can also feel like there is no time or space to just be me, not Mama.
So again, the notion of a life of leisure feels pretty impossible right now. But it’s true, the day will come when I’ll have a big chunk of child-free time during the day. And I don’t know yet what I will do employment-wise. What if I don’t go back to work at all? Would that really be a life of leisure?
In a 2014 Pew Research study on how mothers spend their time, they defined leisure as “time spent on TV and media use, social activities and sports.” I know a few moms with older kids who stay home, and their lives don’t seem especially full of those activities. Their days may have a slower pace than a corporate VP or an ER doctor, but they are still busy. They volunteer at their kids’ schools, spearheading events and fundraisers. They are active in their community, and they take care of and manage their families and households.
I would do the same in their position—in addition to taking care of my kids during non-school hours, I would help out at their school, get more involved in activism, volunteer in the community, write posts like this one. Much of my limited free time now is devoted to that. (As well as some actual leisure activities, too.)
With a life of “leisure,” I could finally exercise more consistently and focus a little bit more on self-care. It’s difficult to find time for that when I’m on-duty with one or both kids for 12 hours a day with no built-in breaks; even nap time is hit-or-miss with a 3-year-old. I would also have more time to run errands and work on household tasks during the day instead of in the evening, which would be a huge privilege.
Obviously having the choice to be a SAHM equates to a lot of privilege, particularly socio-economic, because my family is able to live on one income. (Although, while I was very lucky to have a choice and wanted to be a SAHM, my choice was informed by the sad state of paid parental leave and high childcare costs that would have eaten up a big portion of my salary.) I also feel privileged to get to spend so much time with my kids during their early years, even though, like any job, it can be demanding.
I have never thought, however, that one of the privileges of being a SAHM was having an abundance of leisure time. I can barely get a second alone in the bathroom before someone barges in. My child-free time would definitely increase if I were to stay home once my kids are in school, but the majority of it would not be spent on leisure.
I think that this misconception about a life of “leisure” relates to how we value (or rather, devalue) the unpaid work of caregiving. Some people think that unpaid work is not real work, so since SAHMs don’t work, they must have a lot of leisure time. But the work of caregiving and all the invisible labor that goes with it is essential, and just because stay-at-home parents do it without pay does not mean it’s less of a contribution to society.
Our society also needs to re-evaluate the way we view leisure as negative or useless. We glorify grind culture and being “booked and busy,” so people perceived to have more leisure time, like SAHMs, must be lazy or inferior in some way. I’m slowly untethering myself from this toxic way of thinking and reminding myself that I deserve rest even when I’m not running myself ragged. That my productivity doesn’t define my worth as a person.
Why do I feel the need to defend myself, and future self, so much? I guess it’s because I’ve heard just enough comments similar to the one about a “life of leisure” to feel like the way I spend my time is not good enough in some people’s eyes. It’s also because deep down I question whether it’s good enough, whether I’m making myself or anyone proud, whether my future self will be happy with my decisions. That insecurity makes me defensive, too.
In the end, all paths are valid. Everyone’s just trying to make it work no matter what their career/life/family balance looks like. No one has it easy, especially in a country that provides so little support for parents. But hopefully we’re all using whatever privilege we have to do some good in our community. I know that no matter what my future holds, I’ll be trying to do that. And finding time for rest and leisure, too.
Featured Image Credit :: Noelle Westcott Photography