Our Lives

Time off teaches the meaning of productivity

CorrespondentNovember 3, 2012 

MCCARTHY01.LI.020912.CCS

Elizabeth McCarthy for "Our Lives" column.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com

The classes I teach run in five-week terms that race along at breakneck speed, so it is difficult to take time off, except during the few student breaks. This summer I discovered I had accrued so much vacation time that I had stopped earning any. The perfect solution was to take the October term off. Five weeks of no work, and for the first time in many years, I didn’t have to be on bed rest or have a baby to do it. So, for this month, I’ve been enjoying the life of the idle poor. Only it isn’t as idle as it should be.

It turns out that any kind of work expands to fill the time allotted for it, and that I don’t do leisure time well. I am not delusional: The daily task of raising four children and getting them to and from all of their activities, feeding and clothing them, and hearing “Hey Mom?” dozens of times a day ain’t leisure. But in the absence of the Sisyphean task of grading essay after essay, it sure feels like it.

I’ve learned a great number of things over the past several weeks. The most important is that getting enough sleep beats getting up in the dark to grade before the house wakes up. All of my people have benefited from a well-rested, merely moderately cranky me. A realization I should have seen coming is that a month off means letting things slide. I spent all of September frantically working to finish a tremendous course development project, and the house suffered for it. I won’t delegate that task because I’ll do it myself in October, said the optimistic me. “That” was everything from cleaning out closets to moving furniture to working in our yard.

Prior to my break, I had this unfulfilled fantasy of creating a list of Stuff that Had to be Done, but even in the absence of a list, mostly it has gotten done. I won’t panic if someone comes to our house and sees how we really live: I’ve gotten rid of a great number of toys nobody plays with, clothes that fit no one, and appliances that do not work. I bravely faced the horrors of what lurks under the furniture. I’ve sorted out a lot of clutter. I’ve cleaned closets and baseboards, furniture and windows, and I have made some headway in making this house a softer place for all of us to land at the end of the day.

Spending my break cleaning my house has been both a hideous chore and a great relief. Since I telecommute, my house has to make sense for me to think straight. I need to delegate more housework, but while my husband has many fine qualities, he couldn’t sort out the My Little Pony toys from the Littlest Pet Shop toys if his life depended on it. My children are pretty good at specific chores, but useless at organizing the linen closet. This is stuff, if I want done, I have to do myself.

I was so worried about frittering away my break and not getting things done I nearly forgot to achieve two important goals: beer drinking and nap taking. I’m so used to running on a tight schedule I even had to schedule fun. I’ve had to change my perspective on what it means to be productive, and that has been a hard lesson to learn. While I cannot check off a neat list of the things that I’m doing for my family, I realize that their importance had gotten a little lost in the shuffle of work. I’ve indulged my 4-year-old’s dinosaur obsession with trips to the museum, and we’ve spent some afternoons at the library and mornings at Pullen Park. Instead of working, I’ve read to the kids nearly every night, and I’ve read for myself. A lot. And it hasn’t been in those stolen moments before collapsing to sleep.

This stretch of time off has given me some clarity when it comes to defining success. I can only speak for myself, but I suspect most moms who work for pay put way too much pressure on themselves to have it all: a fulfilling career and happy home and family without being completely stressed out about either. That is pure science fiction. I propose redefining what “all” means and measuring productivity on a different scale. A moderately clean and orderly house full of mostly happy inhabitants and doing better than average at a paying job now looks a lot closer to “all” than it ever did before. I’ll settle for having it some, most of the time.

I’m back to the juggling act of balancing what it is that I really have to do and what it is I want to do. At the very least, not working my paying job for a month has taught me that productivity isn’t always measured by the tasks I can accomplish, but rather by time well spent.

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