SET ME FREE, BABE
Personal time isn’t just fun, or relaxing – it’s essential to individual and marital health. That men still get more than women is just one reason
Dave McGinn thinks we all need to take leisure time more seriously
The fighting between Gillian Rowinski and her husband went on for years. It was always the same fight, time after time.
“I would be doing too many things because I’d be either overcommitted or trying to do too much stuff. He would be relaxing playing a video game or reading a book or having a beer. I would look at him and get super resentful,” says Rowinski, who lives in Vancouver and has three children. “I would just blow up. ‘You never help me! I do everything around here! You do nothing.’ ”
Her husband would point out that he had, in fact, done a number of chores, it was just that she hadn’t noticed. “And then we would have this big argument and I would probably cry,” said Rowinski, who works in human resources and is a writer.
What Rowinski eventually realized was that she wasn’t upset that her husband hadn’t done the dishes – she was upset that he had figured out a way to find time to relax, and she hadn’t. She needed her own free time.
It’s a story that is familiar to most couples raising young children. Between work and kids and taking care of the house, it is hard enough to deal with all the responsibilities bearing down, let alone find the time to take a walk or go out for dinner with friends.
Family therapists say a lack of individual free time is one of the most prominent complaints they encounter, and couples who ignore the problem for too long risk seeing their marriages end over it.
» But even small changes can vastly improve each person’s happiness and the overall quality of a marriage. “It’s likely to surface quite at the beginning, at the outset of our sessions,” says Dr. Michal Regev, a Vancouverbased marriage and family therapist. It’s a ubiquitous struggle for his clients, one that can cause frustration, resentment and anger.
“We all need to recharge, especially when we are giving a lot to others in our family, at work and to others outside of our family who need our help,” Regev says. “Many people complain about feeling exhausted and depleted. The high-paced, high-speed lifestyle of today’s world may leave little room for individual time.”
That seems to hold true particularly for Canadians. Last month, Canada was ranked the fourthworst country out of 37 around the world for work-life balance in a report released by Expert Market, a British-based company that compares business products and products. The report, which analyzed OECD and World Bank data, based its rankings on average annual hours worked by parents, the number of paid leave days in each country and the total paid leave available to mothers and fathers.
Not that Canadian parents needed evidence: Everyone knows that e-mail and other pressures make it much harder to leave work behind at the office than it was for earlier generations. And, according to Statistics Canada, 58 per cent of couples with young children were employed outside the home in 2015, which squeezes personal time even more.
“After having our son, everything changed,” says Agatha Smykot, who lives in Calgary with her husband and their oneyear-old. “No more free time. It basically became non-existent.”
Regev says that women complain about the lack of free time more than men, which isn’t surprising, since the most recent data from Statistics Canada show that women continue to do more child-care and housework than men.
In 2010, women spent an average of 50.1 hours a week caring for children, compared with 24.4 hours spent by men. And while men put in an average of 8.3 hours a week on domestic work, that is still much less than the 13.8 hours women put in taking care of the house.
“Sometimes, I hear spouses say, ‘I was playing soccer five times a week when we met, so what do you expect? I love playing soccer. I need it for my mental health,’ ” Regev says. “Well, good. But what about your spouse?” As Smykot and her husband began arguing constantly, she even went out looking for her own apartment.
Like so many problems in a marriage, the lack of free time can only be solved through open and honest communication, says Dr. Jane Greer, author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. The New York-based psychotherapist and radio host advises people to first figure out how much free time they need to feel sane, then talk to their partners about what’s realistic for both of them.
“Let your partner know this amount and emphasize how it’s important emotionally and physically. Go over the list of responsibilities so that each person knows what needs to get done in the meantime,” Greer says. “Make sure it’s balanced.”
A couple of months ago, Smykot and her husband sat down to talk. She told him she had had enough, and they decided to fit free time for both of them into their schedules.
“That means Tuesdays and Thursdays, he’s responsible for picking up our son from daycare and then starting dinner and getting him fed,” she says. They also alternate putting their son to bed and taking the dog out for a walk. And Smykot recently joined a neighbourhood association to engage herself socially.
“Since we’ve allocated free time for each one of us, things just got exponentially better,” she says.
Rowinksi had a similar conversation with her husband a year ago. Their solution meant changes for the entire family – including no working in the evenings and trying not to overschedule their kids. Weekends are totally for family.
“If I’m not running from one thing to the next, I’m happier, I’m more calm, I’m a better parent,” Rowinski says. She still doesn’t have endless amounts of free time, maybe an hour every other evening. But that’s an hour she spends doing something she enjoys – and reading a book is much more satisfying than arguing.