Do I Have Time for This?
Meditations on wellness time, domestic time, leisure time, and time well spent
I made notes towards this essay five minutes before my therapy appointment this morning, after spending an hour wondering if I’d spent too much time waking up/drinking coffee and calculating whether I had enough time to ride my little rented stationary bike for 20 minutes before said therapy appointment. I rented the bike to make myself more productive and therefore “give myself more time,” but it has now taken its place in my life among all the other constant negotiations I have in my mind, during which I ask the question, all day, every day, on and off: Do I have time for this?
When I first started this newsletter, I jotted down in the notes app on my phone a headline for a piece I never wrote: “My Color-Coded Life.” The headline was kind of dumb, I thought, but the point of the piece, at least as I imagined it, was important. Parents’ lives are often whittled down to an array of pastel boxes, events we share frantically via email and Google Cal with other stakeholders in our lives, trying to keep everyone on track.
I make notes like that headline often in my phone. I type out writing ideas at stoplights, on my way to pick up my kids from school. I dictate a paragraph here and there, after a shower, before bed, afraid to lose the moment, the idea, the fleeting kernel of inspiration, to the rush of time. This is one way I “carve out time” for myself.
When I was working on my dissertation years ago, one of the topics with which I was obsessed was how time is managed in the home—how mothers and housewives are constantly making time where there is no time. In one chapter, I wrote about the poet Bernadette Mayer:
The shifting temporalities Mayer explores in her writing are at times informed by the mind-body of the working mother-poet, who struggles with a second shift that includes both house/maternal work and literary activity. In other texts temporality is more closely linked to the changing seasons, or to Mayer’s pregnant body. Units and forms of time overlap, interweave, fuse, inform, and intrude upon each other, suggesting that the writer-mother moves between many alternative temporal frameworks and is a master of negotiating all of them.
This embodied, varied temporality runs counter to the linear, productive, teleological paradigm on which all conventional notions of philosophical and aesthetic productivity rest. The paradigm of productivity that frames capitalist understandings of Work (versus domestic labor), also relies on a sharp division between public and private life.
I wrote in that chapter, too, about Sylvia Plath’s poem “Morning Song,” which I return to often, and in which she describes her child as a “fat gold watch.”
I studied time back then, maybe, because I still had it. I began my research while I was pregnant, but I ended it in flurry, in a rush, a few years after I had my first child. By then, I just wanted to complete the dissertation, a project that hung over my head, threatening to swallow years of my life. I wanted my time back, to do with it whatever I wanted. It felt like I was studying time but not using my time wisely.
Writing that project took time from my child, our shared relationship, our love, but it wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to be doing. Thinking and writing about time felt like a waste of time, even though my interest in the temporality of the home remained: I wanted to understand how capitalism makes it seem that no time passes there, at home—how this creates the illusion that no work is completed there.
Last week, I was supposed to publish an interview here withabout her new book Real Self-Care. Pooja asked for an extension, a way to take care of herself, to practice the ideas she presents in her book, and to create some space for herself within the confines of book-launch-time, which can feel particularly manic and pinched. then posted at her newsletter a reflection on her own loss of work-time to the hectic dregs of no-childcare-time— how a lack of time had delayed her publishing an interview with Pooja as well. I was reminded of all the interviews that circulated when Rachel Yoder’s iconic Nightbitch published. Maybe the deferred interview with Pooja, pushed off by interviewer or interviewee in an effort to practice real self-care, to make some space-time for ourselves, would take on a similar cult status among writers who are are also parents?
Wellness discourse—that is, what we usually call “self-care” and what Pooja calls “faux self-care”—seeks to convince us that our individual problems are ones related to time. We just need to “make more time for ourselves.” We just need to “take more time out of our day.” We just need to “spend our time wisely,” as though there were not always a limited amount of time in which to do all the things because we live in a society that steals our time, overloads our time, taxes our time, gives us too little money for too much time spent.
Time is the enemy of ambition, we are told, our days always threatening to go underfilled, underpacked, underproductive. But it is also ambition’s tool. Take back your time, we’re told, as though we ourselves can bend the clock.
For women, time is also the enemy. We must protect ourselves “against the ravages of time,” etc.
In her new book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, Jenny Odell argues that late-stage capitalism fundamentally morphs our conception of time. We are obsessed with efficiency. But Odell pushes back against the idea that “time is money.”
She writes in the introduction:
I think the reason most people see time as money is not that they want to, but because they have to. The modern view of time can’t be extricated from the wage relationship, the necessity of selling your time, which, as common and unquestionable as it seems now, is as historically specific as any other method of valuing work and existence. The wage relationship, in turn, reflects the same patterns of empowerment and disempowerment that touch everything else in our lives: Who buys whose time? Whose time is worth how much? Whose schedule is expected to conform to whose, and whose time is considered disposable? These are not individual questions, but cultural, historical ones, and there are few ways to liberate your time or anyone else’s without considering them.
As I wrote in my own project about time years ago, this historically specific method of valuing work and existence—the capturing of time by the wage—is also one primary reason we still see women’s time in the home, as domestic labor advocate Eve Rodsky has written, as infinite. Because time is not money in the home—because maternal work and housework are not waged—no time can be said to have been spent doing anything there.
This week I started watching the show Extrapolations, and I was thinking about how this moment in time, in ecological and cultural history, has made it impossible for us to imagine the future— or, we can only imagine a future of environmental catastrophe. Odell writes, too, about what she calls “climate nihilism.” She suggests shoring ourselves against this nihilism by remembering that the future remains unwritten.
I am still working my way through Odell’s book and some of the solutions it poses— which I admit here to eschew the illusion that I have all the time in the world, completing books left and right, just in time for their pub dates, writing TIMELY analysis of what everyone says all the time, when in fact, even today, I am up against a clock that says I must stop work at 1pm to pick up my daughter because it’s early dismissal day.
One thing I am never not thinking about, though, is how all nonfiction today feels pushed into providing solutions to inexorable problems—and how our habits as readers, and what we want from nonfiction texts, increasingly reflect that “historically specific… method of valuing work and existence” that Odell explores. We want a book to be productive, a good use of our time. But I’m not sure this is a great way to think about art or writing or reading.
In an interview for Ms., Odell remarked that pandemic childcare shifted her perspective on time significantly. Obviously, it’s this point and the history of maintenance labor she references in that interview that are of the most interest to me. Is time gendered?
A few mother-writers I know have set up their auto-reply email messages to auto-ping senders with reclamations of their time— their right to take time responding, to send emails when they wish. I always love seeing these. A major boundary-flex, as a friend of mine puts it. Of course, as comes up in Odell’s book, reclaiming time takes a certain amount of privilege, but these little methods of refusal feel powerful, if small.
In the chapter of my dissertation on Mayer’s writing, I wrote about another perspective on the fucked-up hierarchies of time— another way, perhaps, of “saving time,” and of thinking about pushing back against our historically specific notions of time:
For Mayer, the dance between the writer, the care work, the writing/teaching work, the home, and the other bodies in the home is not an impediment to creation. The pregnant body, the child, and the daily work of reproductive labor are not framed as threatening …. Rather, the activities of the home and the maternal provide fodder for Mayer’s textual experiments with language and form.
I’m also thinking this week about scarcity— about how we want a book to do a thing for us, an activity to be productive, because we live with a scarcity mentality around time. We don’t have “enough time.” We are so busy. We have to spend our time wisely.
For those of us that grew up around financial scarcity, or who are still living in financially precarious situations, money too can feel scarce, even when it’s not, compelling us to work more and faster and better.
Before I got sober, I used to pack in pleasure-time. I would drink as much as possible, eat the best food, pleasure hard, because good feelings felt scarce. Odell suggests changing our perspective on leisure time, to look at it less as a mode of escape, and more a mode of self-exploration.
I’ve written about leisure time with kids here before, and I have a spring break trip planned in two weeks with my family. We’re going to an amusement park. The trip promises to be hectic and fun and not much of a self-exploration. But I have also noticed my own approaches to pleasure shift over the past few years. I’ll be thinking about vacation time while I run with my kids on to rollercoasters and laze by the pool. I’ll be thinking about both the rush and the slowness, how they mean the most when they’re not done for any purpose.
Anyway, that’s all I have time for today.
[As I was finishing this I thought, how many “minutes to read” will Substack mark this as? How will that influence whether anyone reads it all? Food for thought.]
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