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Jessica Pearce Rotondi

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Free Time: Is There Such a Thing for Women?

Posted: 03/ 7/2012 5:41 pm

Got a minute?" asks the cover of the April issue of Real Simple magazine: "No, we know you don't." KJ Dell'Antonia, who interviewed Kristin van Ogtrop, the magazine's editor-in-chief, for the New York Times recently, suggests that women's lack of "free time" is self-imposed. I couldn't agree more.

While Dell'Antonia's piece focused on the lives of couples and parents in particular and how women put responsibilities to their children and homes before their own, I think women are primed to fill their time at a much earlier stage. Case in point: A recent conversation with my group of friends in New York, who try to meet semi-regularly for dinner. The conversation went something like this:

"Are you free next Tuesday?"
"No, I have Zumba class."
"What about Wednesday?"
"Second date."
"Okay, what about the following week?"
"I have book club," two of them reply at once.

We eventually settled on a date to have dinner nearly a month in advance. It was the first evening three single women in New York were all available. And I'd venture to say that our packed schedules aren't rare.

I'm not suggesting that a Zumba class is the equivalent of cleaning or caring for an infant -- at all -- but I do think that even before there are pressures on women to put family first, there are societal pressures to fill up free time. How many women' magazine articles have you read offering "constructive" ways to relax? How to fit a workout into a 15-minute break at work? When you need advice on how to relax, you know you're in trouble.

In New York and other cities that offer so many opportunities -- career, social, cultural, gastronomical and otherwise -- it sometimes feels like you have to have a damn good excuse to just go home and relax. It sometimes feels like it's some sort of failure to end up with time to yourself. I have friends who, no matter how tired, no matter what their mood, insist on filling up every available night in their calendars: A cardio class from the latest Groupon offer, language courses, dates (even if the person across the table isn't interesting, they are at least Out and Being Social).

It's not even limited to major urban centers -- with Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter on your phone, it's easy to feel guilty for not posting an Instragam pic of the ultra-exciting way you spent your Saturday for the world to see. Who wants to post (or, for that matter, read) about how you spent the weekend on their couch, decompressing? All of the ways women share how they spent their "free time" on social media just add to the pressure to fill that free time in interesting ways. Meanwhile, logging onto these sites to monitor what everyone else is doing chips away at the free time you have to fill.

It's not a bad thing to thrive on being busy -- but can anyone really be doing something productive with their lives 24/7?

I'm learning that the only way to feel good about how you spend your time is to recognize that, in many cases, you do have a choice. A 2011 poll from Working Mother showed over 50 percent of women couldn't remember the last time they had free time, but as BNET's Laura Vanderkam pointed out, it's possible women just don't notice how they're spending it. Vanderkam wrote:

I think what's happening is that we tend to view "me-time" as something elaborate and consciously chosen -- like a full day at the spa. For logistical and financial reasons, that's not going to happen for most of us too often. But humans don't function well with no decompression. We sneak it in one way or another ... but because these things aren't planned and consciously chosen or announced to the world, we don't view them as me-time in the way that an afternoon out shopping might be.
In the end, Dell'Antonia argues that women's "self-imposed" lack of free time is both a good and bad thing. Bad because we put pressure on ourselves to fill our free time, but good because once we realize we're doing it, we can hopefully silence the internal voice telling us to fill every moment on our calendars.

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