Monday, October 6, 2014

"So, what do you do all day?"

Laura LaVoie at The Not Mom recently flagged a Washington Post article by Lauren Knight, a stay-at-home mom who recently saw her last child off to school -- and now finds herself being asked "So, what do you do all day?" She found herself trying to come up with an answer that was "good enough," justifying how she spent her newfound time.
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.”


  1. LOVE this post. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!

    I think I once got a glimpse of this kind of life when my dad retired. He didn't take it well. Post-power syndrome escalated until we had to call in an outsider's help to be a neutral party (actually he felt he was being treated unfairly, so he insisted on having a third party).

    He mostly lashed on my mom, even though she didn't do anything wrong. He was afraid he wasn't going to be respected anymore once he wasn't the breadwinner, even though all we wanted/wished for him was to ENJOY his retirement that we knew/believed he had earned.

    It was a tough couple of years, but it really opened my eyes to being able to enjoy the unemployment period (be it a temporary one or a retirement period). If we can't enjoy this period of time, we're doomed.

    Without really realizing it, this was also a trait that I was looking for in a man. I wanted someone who could still enjoy these periods of time without lashing out on anyone (i.e. me!). Maybe some people thought it was weird and crazy that I married my husband when he was still unemployed, but I valued his ability to enjoy life during that period of his life.

    When I left my job to move to Finland and had to learn Finnish and be at home, in the beginning I struggled with my self-worth as a stay-at-home wife. I felt that the whole world expected "more" from me. I had to learn to shout out those outer voices and really dig deeply into my ingrained self-worth and just do whatever I could do at that time to learn Finnish, cooking, etc. OK, I've babbled enough, but as you can see your post has made me remember all this he he...

  2. Beautiful post. I personally like eating candy and watching TV and the day that gets to happen, I'll let you know. Yep, they are jealous. DH used to ask the the same question cause he really wanted to give up the high stress job and stay at home with Boo. Who wouldn't be envious of being able to retire at 53. Do whatever the hell you want - rub it in, friend!

  3. The best piece of advice I ever received was "never justify yourself to anyone".

    You HAVE earned this and worked damn hard for it too. I admire your diligence.


  4. I so love this post and I have trouble (feeling guilty) myself saying "I am busy" to others who I know have children. I don't know why but I do. I feel like people look at me and say how can you be busy you aren't running children around to sports activities, doctor appts, and such. I also have guilt when I leave work at a normal time and don't stay late...I think others are thinking where does she have to be. Society has made it this way for us, I believe and as women we feel like if we aren't doing "something" there is something wrong with us. As I age though I am trying my hardest to get over these feelings and feel good about my accomplishments in my life whether how small or large. To enjoy the life and make the best of what life has thrown my way, whether or not others agree with it or not. I feel like you...this isn't the life I had planned being childless but the life I have been given and I have paid a hefty price (emotionally, mentally, and physically) for this that few people truly understand.

  5. My husband is semi-retired. He's always busy. I go to work, because it's far more relaxing there. :) In 10 years, I will be technically eligible for retirement (at age 55), but I don't know if I will retire then. I have the most flexible job in the world - there's no real good reason to leave. But we'll see what happens in 10 years.

  6. It should be "What do you enjoy doing all day?" lol

  7. I love this post.

    I think life is a lot like a goldfish in a bowl. What is the myth/reality of goldfish? That they grow to fit the size of the bowl? I don't know anyone, regardless of their life situation, who just hangs around, looking at their bellybutton all day. We all fill the hours. We just fill the hours differently. But they're all full.

  8. I really thought I'd commented on this post. I suspect ipad and blogger conspired against me.

    I'll probably blog about this, so I'll keep it short. When people ask, "so what do you do all day?" with a judgemental, puzzled air, I always think that they lack imagination!

    I like your answer "enough" but I often take it further myself, and respond that I still never have enough time to do everything I want to do.

  9. Awesome post. I have been pondering all you wrote and the articles you linked to for a while. People often ask that of me since I work from home. People seem to think that if you work from home, you don't do anything. Well, seeing as how I'm self employed and the bread winner - I do quite a lot! But people always say "oh that must be nice you have so much free time!" and yes, I do have a lot more flexibility and no crappy commuting and all that good stuff. But, I also have to do a lot of other things that people who work for someone else don't have to do - like accounting & billing, bothering people to pay me, searching for new work, promoting my business, etc etc etc. So, all that glorious free time people imagine I have doesn't really exist. It is hard for a lot of people to step outside their own shoes and imagine what someone else's life may be like. I never realized until recently how hard that is for most people.