After I returned to work from maternity leave, the first time I went to a spin class on my lunch break, I had a startling thought: “This class isn’t worth my time.”
For years I’d squeezed quick workouts into my impossibly long days at a demanding media job. It was the one reliable 45-minute chunk of time I allowed my brain to just shut down. The classes were included in my membership in an average midtown gym, and I wasn’t especially picky about their quality—some teachers were better, some playlists more or less intolerable, some routines more burn-inducing. Mostly I just pedaled through them on autopilot, without giving it much thought.
Why was the fact that a mediocre class I’d been attending for years had suddenly become “not worth my time” so startling?
I’m (more or less) a member of the generation Anne Helen Petersen is talking about in her nuanced exploration of millennials and burnout; a generation that has been maximized for efficiency since childhood; traumatized by inheriting a political and economic order decidedly less stable than the one we were brought up under; and prone to keeping one eye always on the aspirational domain of our Instagram feeds. Doing it all is kind of my generation’s thing.
It seems only natural to assume that for someone accustomed to the erasure of space between work-life and life-life, as I certainly was, I’d have an inherent sense of the worth of my time. But before I had a kid, I didn’t. Not really. I thought nothing of frittering away untold hours at my desk, or aimlessly attending industry events; agreeing to a publicist’s request for a coffee or a friend of a friend’s desire to “pick my brain”—all in the name of “work.” Most of these endeavors yielded very little other than hangovers.
I related precisely to Petersen when she wrote: “Things that should’ve felt good (leisure, not working) felt bad because I felt guilty for not working; things that should’ve felt “bad” (working all the time) felt good because I was doing what I thought I should and needed to be doing in order to succeed.”
When I had a baby, everything changed. In all the obvious ways I won’t bother to list, yes, life got way more complicated. But everything changed in another way too, one I wasn’t expecting: Life got simpler.
Prioritization had never been easier. I was suddenly acutely awake to how I spent every minute, especially those I wasn’t with her. Was this meeting really necessary? Was there a more efficient way to make this decision? Was this spin class the best possible use of my 45 minutes of me-time each workday?
My time suddenly seemed infinitely more valuable. How could it not? I had a small, dependent creature demanding huge swaths of it. But more than that, I had a small, dependent creature that I physically craved time with. I also had a full-time job I cared about, and a social life, and a gym routine. But how all those things slotted on the rungs of my mental hierarchy had changed. All my time, all of my tasks, suddenly stood in stark relief to each other. They either seemed all the more worth it—worth so much that they were worth time away from my baby. Or they didn’t seem worth it at all.
It became easy to rouse myself to leave the office now that I had daycare pickup; easy even, to my surprise, to skip impromptu after-work drinks, in favor of playing with her for a few hours before bedtime. I thought I would miss the freedom of life without a child. And sure, what I had now did feel a lot less free; but it didn’t feel bad. Being with my daughter just became the most important, best possible thing I could to do most evenings.
“Just wait til you have kids” the internet told Petersen after she published her piece:
Really, “just wait til you have kids” is as useless and clichéd to say as “I’m going to turn this car around!” Of course parents are burnt out too. Of course our to-do lists are impossibly long. None of that detracts from the very real cultural, political, economic, and psychological currents that Petersen is contextualizing around burnout.
But there’s another way to hear “just wait til you have kids”—less as a snarky, dismissive comment, and more as a reassuring testimony that a paradigm shift is possible: Having kids doesn’t make things easier, but it does make your priorities clearer. And at some level, the need to feel you’re nailing every aspect of “adulting” is a matter of prioritization.
Petersen’s essay provoked an epic, day-long conversation on Quartz’s newsroom chat, Slack. Almost everyone could relate to the horror of “errand paralysis” she describes. Many of us shared our own shameful examples. (Mine: writing a will a year and a half ago and leaving the paperwork sitting on my desk ever since; carrying my completed 401K rollover paperwork around in my bag so long that it has literally started to disintegrate.)
“Just wait til you have kids” wasn’t said, but among parents on the thread there was a striking trend in the responses: self-forgiveness.
“Everybody has a list of stuff they should do, in a perfect world, with infinite hours in a day,” one mom wrote. “I think having one is a sign that you have your priorities in order, and are taking care of the stuff that’s more meaningful first.”
“Just catch the ball that can’t fall and ignore all the others that will……the many,” advised another.
Often, we move too fast, on autopilot, and as Petersen describes, life is a constant struggle to keep up. Becoming a parent can be an emotional reset. Am I prescribing parenthood as an antidote for burnout? Of course not. And it doesn’t have to be a child that shakes your worldview and resets your priorities. There are myriad other ways people achieve this kind of reset: a dog, a serious illness, a religious epiphany, ayahuasca. (Admittedly, it might be another sign of our unsustainable times that true priority-setting, for most of us, requires so much drama.)
And I’m certainly not calling parenting, with its own exorbitant to-do list and creative layers of internalized guilt, relaxing. But in its exhaustion, it is possible to find strength. The strength to say “no”: to pass on things that aren’t worth your time and energy; to skip events you don’t really want to go to but feel like you “should”; to take Instagram with a grain of salt. To not sweat the small stuff, in other words, or at least to reject the notion that by not sweating the small stuff quite as much, we’re not measuring up to some impossible standard.
The US could certainly do more to support parents, but at least parents are occasionally allowed to say, “Hey, I’m just doing the best I can here!” Sometimes we even let ourselves believe it.
That’s life, as Petersen suggests—not optimized but lived.