And then a good friend, who happened to overhear my 700th answer to the same question, approached me. She looked me in the eyes, smiled, and said, I know everyone is asking you what you are doing all day. And you feel like you have to say something profound. But I think they’re just asking because you are the light at the end of the tunnel. You are entering the place we [with young children] are only dreaming about. I think people want to know what it’s like because you give them hope.Laura notes that it's not just moms who are asked (or feel the need) to justify what they do with their time:
Shortly after I quit my full time job to write, I had multiple people ask me the same question: “What do you do with all your free time?”
Well, yes, it was true that working for myself offered me a newly discovered freedom with my own schedule, but that didn’t mean I was sitting around all day pondering my belly button. I was resentful at first. I was frustrated that they thought that I just sat around eating candy and watching TV.
All of those stereotypes apply to anyone who doesn’t have a traditional job. Stay-at-home Moms for generations have heard them. And is it really a judgment on what we are doing, or is it jealousy on the part of those asking the question?...
Why are we so fixated as a culture on what everyone else is doing with their time?
Good question. I think it's because time (and leisure time in particular) has become such a precious commodity in our chaotic world these days, we are curious & perhaps envious of anyone who appears to have more of it than we do, or at least a better controlled schedule. This is something that Brigid Schulte writes about in her recent book "Overwhelmed," which I reviewed here.
I could relate to both Lauren & Laura's posts.
The first time I had to deal with the "what do you do all day?" question was when I was 24, newly married and unemployed -- looking for a job, but mostly just setting up housekeeping in a small midtown Toronto apartment and getting used to my new life and new surroundings. I was a bit lonely at times -- the few friends I had in Toronto worked, of course, so I could go for days on end without talking to another adult besides my husband, when he got home at night -- but I was never bored. I did the housework, I had dinner on the table when my husband got home, I went to the library, I read, I went shopping, I went to the occasional afternoon movie matinee by myself. I took long walks, I learned to navigate the subway system, I went to museums and art galleries and explored what my new city had to offer. I am glad I had that time and was able to start my marriage in that way.
Then I went to work, at a high-stress corporate job with long hours (that got longer once we moved and I had to add up to three hours of daily commuting into the equation). But as a childless woman, I felt like I had to shut my mouth while the moms around me vented about how busy they were. (Even the ones who had also lost babies.) No matter how exhausted I was, I felt like I didn't have the right to complain. As moms, they held the trump cards (i.e., kids). How could I possibly be as busy as they were?
Now, almost 30 years later, at age 53, I am unemployed again -- retired (albeit involuntarily). I may not have been raising children, but I came to realize that I was busy -- not in the same way that a mom is, but "legitimately" busy enough in my own right. And I feel like any leisure time that I now enjoy, I've more than earned.
Lauren Knight acknowledges that some of the pressure she feels to justify how she spends her time is self-inflicted, "with the clear knowledge that staying at home is a luxury to many, and something I feel humbled and grateful for on a daily basis. It is a beautiful gift."
I too am grateful, that I don't have to work anymore, unless I want to (even if the decision to leave work was made for me). I realize that not many people get to retire in their 50s these days. But I don't really think of this time in my life as a "gift." It's something that I worked hard and saved diligently for. As I said a few paragraphs earlier, it's something that I earned. For me & dh, early retirement is something that only really became a possibility once we realized that having children was not in the cards for us. It became the new life goal we set for ourselves, the silver lining in the dark clouds of infertility and loss -- something we could look forward to in the future.
And now our future is here. Perhaps some people look at our early retirement as the light at the end of the tunnel, a ray of hope for the future, as Lauren put it -- but the cynic in me is more inclined, like Laura, to wonder whether there's a bit of jealousy there. As Schulte points out in her book, we’ve developed this culture where we feel we have to be busy (or at least appear to be busy) all the time -- and I sometimes think people are just envious when they see others enjoying some downtime, no matter how hard-earned or well deserved it might be. They don't realize, or forget, the price (the heartbreak of stillbirth and involuntary childlessness) we paid. They don't really consider that the life we have today, however appealing, was not our first choice -- that we might have wanted a life that looks more like theirs, even if we did wind up working until we were both 65 to pay for it.
So I try not to let those questions about how I'm spending my time now bother me (too much), or worry about giving the "right" answer. As Lauren Knight put it:
What kind of value do we place on a day with nothing planned? On a day not filled with lists of accomplishments, but with peace and quiet: a long walk to a coffee shop to enjoy a book, a phone conversation with a family member with whom we’ve lost touch. Will we tell those stories, or leave them out? There is value in both the busy days and the slow, reflective ones. There is value in finding time for oneself.
When the next person asks me what I do all day, maybe I will simply say, “Enough.”