When Carol Greider got the phone call at 5:30 A.M. on Monday, October 5, 2009, informing her that she had won a Nobel Prize, the Johns Hopkins University researcher was wide awake—and sorting laundry. "I was already up, and all these clothes were just staring at me," said Greider.
Who knew that I had so much in common with a Nobel Prize–winning professor of molecular biology and genetics? The last science class I took was in ninth grade, but I, too, have things in my house that get in my face and demand to be dealt with during my so-called downtime: dishes, garbage, mail, unmade beds, dogs, and, oh yes, small children. (Last night, when one of those small children called downstairs to ask why I hadn't come up to put on one of the Curious George tattoos from a birthday-party goody bag, I said, "Mommy's relaxing for five minutes." She replied, "Why do you want to do that?")
There's a reason why so many women say they're short on time—and why even the words we use to talk about that phenomenon (like stretched and crunched) are freighted with connotations of pain and deprivation. Life is busy: We have pressures weighing us down, both big (work, family) and small (writing thank-you notes, getting the dog's teeth cleaned). Is it any surprise that the time-frazzled woman has become a common archetype, courtesy of literature and Hollywood—ranging from Kate Reddy in I Don't Know How She Does It to Claire Dunphy on Modern Family?
In the Real Simple/Families and Work Institute (FWI) survey "Women and Time: Setting a New Agenda," we found that 49 percent of women say they don't have enough free time (defined as "time that you spend on yourself, where you can choose to do things that you enjoy"). While nearly half of women manage to find 1½ or more hours of free time a day, 25 percent have less than 45 minutes a day, and 4 percent say they have zero hours of free time. (Please, someone send those ladies a spa gift certificate.)
"For a while now, we have had a 'running the marathon' definition of time, where we think we have to keep going-going-going at work and at home because there is just too much to do, instead of a weight-lifting approach, in which you have a period of rest and recovery before you lift a heavy weight again," says Ellen Galinsky, the president and a cofounder of FWI. As a result, women are losing the opportunity to use their free time to reenergize and bring real benefit to their lives.
2 of 5Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images
Our Endless To-Do Lists
Of course, some laundry, organizing, and cleaning is unavoidable—those dishes aren't going to do themselves. But experts argue that women are too mired in obligatory domestic duties (see What Women Can't Let Go), and it's making us miserable. "We've focused so much on how work impacts family, but we haven't heard as much about family impacting family. However, that dynamic powerfully affects free time," says Galinsky.
Never-ending to-do lists aren't bad just for our psyches (and our relationships) but also for our physical health. The stress hormone cortisol has a strong diurnal pattern—it peaks shortly after waking and drops throughout the day. The steeper the decline from afternoon to evening, the healthier and less stressed you are, since elevated end-of-day cortisol levels have been linked to burnout, depression, and earlier mortality.
We all need time to relax, and chores are getting in the way. In a study published in 2011 in which sociologists followed 30 couples (all of whom worked more than 30 hours a week), tracking their activities every 10 minutes and taking saliva samples, both women and men who devoted the most time to housework had higher levels of evening cortisol. Why? Housework is, well, work, so it's more likely to keep your cortisol spiked than is doing something that's calming.
"Our bodies need to recover physiologically after work," says Darby Saxbe, one of the study's coauthors and a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. "These couples were returning to homes where dinner needed to be cooked, laundry needed folding. Instead of unwinding, these couples took on more work." (If this sounds familiar, take comfort in the fact that you now have a scientifically legitimate reason to cut back on housework after 6 P.M.)
3 of 5Tim Evan Cook
You Call This Downtime?
But it's not just what we choose to do with our free time or even the amount of free time that matters. Sociologists Liana Sayer at Ohio State University in Columbus, Marybeth Mattingly at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, and Suzanne Bianchi at the University of California, Los Angeles, have all found that women's free time is more likely to be contaminated, fragmented, and interrupted than men's. "Contaminated time" refers to leisure activities that are combined with something else, frequently housework or child care.
Now, kids do bring us much joy, but let's face it: For many women, taking the little ones to see Dr. Seuss' The Lorax is a less indulgent, less restorative experience than going to see The Artist with a friend. In a 2003 survey that looked at not only how men and women were spending their free time but also whom they were spending it with, "the biggest piece of the story was that men had better access to pure adult leisure with no children present, so they were doing things that were truly freely chosen," says Mattingly, who coauthored the research. "Doing things with children can be enjoyable, but it's more subject to others' needs. You still have to be responsible."
Perhaps the most significant finding to come out of the recent sociology research is that, owing to all this contamination and fragmentation, free time for women may be ineffectual—meaning it might not give us a real opportunity to take a deep breath and recharge our batteries. For example, in 1975, free time reduced the feelings of being rushed in both men and women, but by 1998 it no longer reduced these feelings for women, according to Mattingly and Sayer.
4 of 5Britt Erlanson/Getty Images
Set Attainable Goals
What makes this all the more disconcerting is that some of the time pressure experienced by married women, in particular, appears to be self-imposed. For example, in our survey, the majority of women—64 percent—felt sometimes or very often that if they did less around the house, they would feel as if they weren't taking care of it properly. An identical number said the same about the amount of time and effort they expended on parenting. "Women still feel that they are going to be held accountable if the housework and the child care don't get done," says Sayer.
In some cases, women may have set unreasonable standards for housekeeping. But the key underlying issue is one of control: We want to hang on to it, no matter what havoc it wreaks on our schedules. Take the 28 percent of married women who say they frequently avoid asking their spouse/partner for help because they don't believe that their partner would do chores the way they would want them done. Experts call this phenomenon "gatekeeping," in which women unwittingly prevent a more equal distribution of labor or even block a husband's attempts to get more involved in housework or child care.
"Gatekeeping happens when you're in charge of a domain and you don't want to cede the power to someone else," says Sayer. Case in point: A 1999 Journal of Marriage and Family survey of 622 working mothers found that more than one in five could be classified as gate-keepers, and that group of women did five more hours of family work every week than their peers did. What's more, many women refuse any opportunity to outsource that work by hiring someone else to do it. In our survey, 45 percent of respondents said that they would not hire more household help even if they could afford it.
5 of 5John Howard/Getty Images
Making Time for Fun
The problem, then, is that we can't always distinguish between what makes us feel in control and what makes us happier. Many of us believe that control will confer joy. But as anyone who has resentfully carried a heavy load can attest, there isn't always a relationship between those two things. Even when we know how we wish to spend our free time, we often force ourselves to complete various tasks first—58 percent of women in the survey postpone free time until they finish their chores. "Too many women rush around to accommodate leisure. They might tell themselves something like 'If I do the laundry and answer my e-mails, then I can read for an hour,' " says Mattingly.
To reclaim our free time—and enjoy it—"shifting our standards is critical," says Galinsky. "Our expectations that we can get everything done are totally out of sync with our lives." We would be happier if we prioritized time for ourselves, thereby allowing ourselves to tackle our responsibilities later in a better frame of mind. In our survey, women who set aside free time on a regular basis even though they had not finished all their chores were happier, more cheerful, and more optimistic. That doesn't surprise Benjamin Hunnicutt, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who points out that "culturally, there's now a vision of work without end as the central focus of one's existence—but leisure is a crucial part of the American Dream."
That's why the genius scientist/sock sorter, Carol Greider, routinely schedules free time for herself. I had heard the laundry anecdote about her many times, but when I called Greider, she set me straight. "The story has been told in a way that makes it seem like I get up early to fold laundry because I am so busy," she said. "In fact, morning is when I take time for myself. In this case, I was waiting to go to a Spinning class with my friends. I find it essential for my sanity. Saturdays and Sundays are laundry days, but sometimes it doesn't get done." In other words, taking a class with friends was her top concern; household drudgery, a distant second. "It's hard to find time for myself, but I make sure to do so," she says. Each of us would do well to heed Greider's sage advice. After all, she didn't win a Nobel Prize for nothing.
Ruth Davis Konigsberg is a senior editor at Time and the author of The Truth About Grief ($26, amazon.com).