Serious business.

A week or two ago, John came home from school looking run down. Shoulders slumped, feet dragging. He knew it, too. He said to Matt and I at dinner: “Guys, I’ve had a really tough day today. Those teachers had me doing stuff all day long.” Of course we told him that it’s fun to learn and that he’d get used to the school day in a little while. And we laughed about it later because it seemed like such a grown up thing to say. I think what John was feeling is what we all feel at the end of a busy day or a long week. The pressure of having obligations all day long.

John’s feeling busy at school now, and he’s got 12 more years of it through high school, hopefully some college, and graduate school, if this whole paleontologist phase holds up for 20 years. Then comes real life, and it’s no less busy. My parents, both retired, are some of the busier — and happier — people I know. So apparently the perception of always having a lot to do never stops.

Whether it’s school or work or taking care of kids or parents, we rarely build true free time into our schedules. We get up, get the family started, get the laundry done, start working, finish working, make dinner and eat it just in time to clean the kitchen again, more laundry, clean up a little bit, go to bed. Or get up, go to class, study, eat, study, go to bed. The things that are really leisurely activities somehow start masquerading as obligations as well. “I have 20 free minutes so I better get back to that book or I’ll never get it finished.” The urgency of filling down time with reasonably productive activity makes it seem a lot less like down time.

Sometimes I make the mistake of thinking that I feel like this because I have a family and a job, but I know that’s really not true. I have a friend who used to work full time and stopped a couple of years ago to be a stay at home mom to her two kids. We marveled at the time about all the downtime she would have in this new arrangement. That’s turned out to be completely false. Taking eight hours of work out of the day is like chopping off the head of a hydra: new obligations  — more you had to begin with — spring up to fill that space. I know this isn’t just about having a family, either. I’ve had tons of babysitters who start studying the moment that John’s head hits the pillow because they’ve got another job to get to after this one and there’s never enough time in the library. Or I have friends who are single and who never seem to be in one place for more than three days in a row.

I’m sure everyone deals with relentlessness of life differently, but for me, the big antidote is spending time with friends. I’m thinking specifically of a dinner party last weekend. Friday was a ridiculous day at work and John (exhausted by his own obligations) can be super touchy on Fridays, so his dinner and bathtime and bedtime felt like a minefield. But when we got to dinner, it was like the clock stopped. Great food, funny friends, and everyone at ease. Nowhere to go, nothing else to be focused on. I’m lucky, because I feel like that when I’m with my family, too. Other people find their ease in sports, or gardening, or yoga.

No matter what it is, it seems important to have something that helps you step off the merry-go-round. I’ll have to remember to help John find his.

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