The XX Factor

In Defense of Busyness

Kid Playing Baseball.
You tell him he’s too busy.

Photograph by Jim Larimore.

A few springs ago, we signed up our oldest, then 6, for soccer and t-ball.  Each sport had practice one night a week, and each had about one game a week.  It was a rather tame schedule. But one day I was sitting at t-ball practice, feeling harried by trying to keep my 3-year-old entertained while not wandering too far away from the stroller where our youngest sat, playing with my phone. And I looked into the future and multiplied two activities a season by three children.  And then I looked at the baby and said to him, silently, “It’s a good thing you were born before your brothers started playing sports.”

I was half-joking, but the future is arriving, and I’m still pretty glad we had our third kid before giving any consideration to the extracurricular schedule. Because if we had thought about it, we might have stopped at two. Our family of five is definitely enmeshed in “The ‘Busy’ Trap” that Tim Kreider describes in his essay from the weekend. My husband and I both work, often more than 40 hours a week. Our kids are busy—not overscheduled, but busy—and doing things they love. We have orthodontist visits and carpool duty and volunteer shifts and playdates and a house that sorely needs cleaning and weeds taking over our landscaping.

But I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Kreider writes that when people say they are busy, “It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.” Maybe for some, but not for me. It’s not a boast—I don’t pretend that this is for everyone—and most of the time I’m not complaining. It’s just the way it is, and we’re content with it. I’m thrilled that my kids are getting old enough to be on teams and make friends outside of our neighborhood and school. In our case, it’s helped provide a sense of community since we are relative newcomers to our town. Professionally, I like having a job that isn’t mindless drudgery, even if that occasionally means I’m putting in an hour on the laptop while watching TV after the kids go to bed.

Kreider cites the old saw about  no one—himself included—on their death bed ever wishing they had worked more. Maybe someday I’ll wish that I had pursued a calling that required no more than Kreider’s four or five hours a day of work. Maybe I’ll regret that I never finished that novel I started, though 1) there’s still time for that and 2) I share Christopher Hitchens’ belief that “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.” But as far as our kids go … the time from birth to college goes a hell of a lot faster than you ever think it will when you’re doing 2 a.m. feedings, and it’s going to be over all too soon. If they are getting positive experiences out of activities and trips—friendships, hard work, good memories, learning the values and rewards of hard work—I will shuttle them around town and serve dinner in shifts as long as I have to.

Kreider writes that being busy is an, “existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” Maybe for some.  But I don’t delude myself that what I’m doing is necessary and vital to the fate of the world.  But my job is challenging and rewarding and sets an example for my sons, which I feel is important in its own way. We have three healthy children who are able to participate in activities, and we make time for kiddie cultural experiences like museums and parks and zoos (and the only people who would call taking the kids to an art museum “idleness” or “leisure time” don’t have kids). Our busyness comes out of everything that has gone well for us. It’s a privilege, not a burden.

Also at the XX Factor, Hanna Rosin asks if “the busy trap” is ruining us all, and  Bryan Lowder dissects Kreider’s “obnoxious classism.”