For me, the period between the start of the school year and the end of the calendar year is traditionally even more hectic than usual. Earlier this year, I made a resolution to simplify my life.
To help me understand how I became so "time-starved", and what I could do about it, I read (and highlighted 40 per cent of the statements contained in) Brigid Schulte's Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.
Schulte is an award-winning journalist whose book has given a comprehensive picture of being busy by interviewing sociologists, scientists, CEOs and at-home mothers.
She cites studies on leisure time, gender bias, the impact of technology, and the modern workplace.
First, Schulte explores today's expectation of busyness, this maniacal need to be productive and give meaning to our lives. Having children means we devote countless more hours to making their lives productive. Schulte moves on to "the cult of intensive mothering".
You are a part of this cult if you have ever wondered, aloud or silently, "Where can I find harp lessons for my two-year-old?" Or, "Should I start my six-month-old on Putonghua?"
Schulte writes: "Time studies show that mothers' time with children has been climbing steeply, at the expense of sleep, personal care and leisure, ever since 1985. Educated at-home mums have turned motherhood into a profession.
"The inertia of going along with doing what everyone else is doing becomes the default mode because it takes so much conscious effort to pull back."
Next, Schulte looks at the mental burden that seems to be the sole domain of mothers. Fathers help with childcare more than previous generations. But they are delegated tasks by mothers.
When mothers act as the "maternal gatekeeper" and are still in charge of everything, having a helpful spouse around does not necessarily translate into more free time for mothers.
One of Schulte's interviewees describes how a holiday often meant more work: "A resort vacation where even a swim with the dolphins was one more item to be checked off my to-do list, along with getting up early to grab seats by the pool, slathering sunscreen on kids. I perpetuated what I do at home."
True co-parenting means that husbands need to help their wives clear mental clutter. When my husband asks me what I want for dinner, he does so with the purest of intentions. He recognises that I'm busy and wants me to have a meal that I will enjoy eating. He has now taken charge of our date nights and our meals at home because he realises that, most of the time, all I want is to not have to think about what I want for dinner.
What is Schulte's solution? The book's appendix comes with a list of tips, but the main message is: presence is more important than productivity.
- Leisure does not mean "being slothful, idle or frivolous. It is simply being open to the wonder and marvel of the present". I reflected on my own feelings of inadequacy when my day was not filled to the brim with lunch dates, play dates, exercise dates, home projects and work projects.
- Leisure activities should be undertaken for play, connection and reflection, and not merely for checking off a to-do list item.
- List your priorities, and spend your day accordingly. No one would prioritise "Handling of all electronic communication/Sorting through email" over "Spending quality time with loved ones". And yet, many of us are guilty of stopping whatever we're doing as soon as we hear the beep of a new message.
- Let go of the modern obsession with providing children with amazing life experiences and Facebook-worthy photos. We expend effort and resources on excursions to enrich our children's lives, but what they remember of their childhood will invariably be the simple joys of their daily lives.
Another interviewee says, "The most special moments are the spontaneous dancing or jokes that can break out while the family cleans the dinner dishes - moments of unadorned grace that unfold when you're not distracted and rushing into the next big thing."
As author Annie Dillard once said: "How we spend our days is how we spend our lives."
Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me a Book HK