Rachel Bertsche, THE KIDS ARE IN BED

Rachel Bertsche, THE KIDS ARE IN BED

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Rachel Bertsche, B-E-R-T-S-C-H-E, who is the best-selling author of MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend, also Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me: The Pursuit of Happiness, One Celebrity at a Time, and now her latest book which am obsessed with called The Kids Are in Bed: Finding Time for Yourself in the Chaos of Parenting. She is also a journalist and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Parents, Marie Claire, Teen Vogue, Seventeen, Self, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, New York, and more. A former producer for oprah.com and an editor at O, The Oprah Magazine, she lives in Chicago with her family.

Welcome, Rachel. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Rachel Bertsche: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited.

Zibby: I was just telling you as we started chatting over Skype, this book is the perfect book for my podcast and me. I almost wish I had written it myself. It’s exactly what I’m trying to do with my podcast. It’s amazing.

Rachel: Thank you. Yes, I know. When I learned of your podcast, I was like, oh, my god, she’s my far-away spirit sister. We need to connect. I’m so excited.

Zibby: Exactly. This is the best part about connecting with other authors and people, is just meeting people who you might not have met who have so many similar thoughts and feelings and goals. How else would we have found each other? You’re in Chicago. I’m here.

Rachel: That’s my favorite thing about writing books. The books that I write often are about just the things that are on my mind that I’m like, I can’t be the only one thinking about this. When they come out and I hear from people who are like, “I thought I was crazy,” or “Oh, my god, you’re totally speaking to me,” that is very rewarding.

Zibby: I agree. The Kids Are in Bed is your book, Finding Time for Yourself in the Chaos of Parenting. Tell listeners what this book is about. Then tell me how you decided to start this book.

Rachel: This book is about how parents use our time when we aren’t physically parenting or working. It looks at how our time use has changed over the years and also some of the myths about how we use our time, or the time we do or don’t have. Then it looks at the three areas of our life that take the biggest hit when we have kids, so self-care, romantic relationships, and friendships, and tries to look at ways we can create time, how we can use time, but also just talks to parents at large about why it feels like we don’t have time to do anything.

Zibby: Did you decide at the beginning to launch your study of time-spending habits? Was that part of the original idea?

Rachel: No. The kernel of the idea started — I was working a full-time day job at a tech startup. I was working all day. I would rush home to relieve our nanny and spend some time with my kids and put them to bed. Then I would get back to work because my office day was meetings all day, so I had to do the actual work from, let’s say, seven — at that point, my kids went to bed a little earlier — to nine. Then I was also working on a book, not this one. I would then switch to book writing. I was working until eleven or so and then literally falling asleep at the computer sometimes. I was on the phone with my best, oldest friend. She was like, “When do you have time to watch TV?” when I told her this. People always laugh when I say that, but the reality is I love to watch to TV. It’s the thing I do for just comfort and relaxation and refreshing. What she really meant in that moment, I think, was when do you take care of yourself? When do you do anything other than work? It got me thinking about that question of, when do I do that? I talk to all these friends who all have kids but have different lives and different jobs. Some don’t work in an office. Some do. But everyone feels that way. Who has the time? I wanted to dig in that way. It started more in a memoir place. Then I backed up into, how do we make this not just my story, but kind of everyone’s story? That’s when I decided to do the bigger research of surveying parents.

Zibby: I love how you found that fifteen percent of parents are these role models. Tell me what it means to be a role model in your study.

Rachel: Our study was of five hundred parents, nationwide. We asked them all these questions about how they use their time. There was fifteen percent of parents, as you say, we call them role models because they felt great about how they use their free time. The rest of the parents had all these regrets or concerns with why they couldn’t use their time well, but fifteen percent said, not me, I feel great about it. There were three things that made those people different. They prioritized friendship, or I should say they prioritized time with friends. They prioritized exercise. They deprioritized time online. It’s impossible, really, right now for us to say from our study if it’s because they did those things they felt better about their time, or they’re people who felt better about their time so they were better at filling those things in. The relationship is undeniable. People who are doing those things feel better. Similarly, people who are not, the first thing they do isn’t pick up phone and start scrolling, seem to feel better about their time also.

Zibby: Good advice. This is good inspiration.

Rachel: I don’t know that I am a role model yet, but I admire them.

Zibby: I am not a role model either. I admire them too. I want to become one. Another thing you talked about in this study was avoiding contaminated time, especially guilt. This was one of the best parts of the book for me. You cited that seventy-one percent of parents agree or strongly agree that their free time didn’t feel free because they were still thinking about everything they could or should be doing, which I completely relate to. What are we supposed to do about contaminated time? What do you think?

Rachel: I talk about, in my book, something called pockets on indulgence. To me, that’s sort of my solution or my suggestion. I always say if you’re lying on the massage table and you’re thinking about the emails you need to return and the birthday presents you need to buy and diapers you need to order, then that time doesn’t really feel that relaxing even if you’re doing the ultimate relaxing activity. I think when people say, oh, you should just take me-time, it can feel so nebulous and endless. There’s dishes in the sink waiting for you. It can feel sort of intimidating, so they don’t do it. I talk in my book about what I call pockets of indulgence which are literally pockets of time with a beginning and an end. I think the end part is the important part where you can really lean into doing something for yourself. That doesn’t have to be two hours. It can be twenty minutes. I was talking to a friend about it once. She was like, “I like that there’s an end because then I’m like, okay, I can get back to all the things I feel like I should be doing.”

We have all this guilt. We put all this pressure on ourselves as parents and moms to get everything done for everyone else, and so it feels selfish, unfortunately, to take time for ourselves. It shouldn’t, but that’s the reality. I like the idea of pockets of indulgence because then I say, the dishes will be there. You can get back to it in twenty minutes. You can tell yourself, I’m going to do that. You can really give yourself permission to lean into the time that you are giving yourself to watch a show or read a book or do a crossword puzzle. Those are my things. Then in the best-case scenario, I say you might kind of lose yourself in that activity. Maybe you go over your window. Then the dishes will still be there. Everything’s going to be fine. If you understand that you’re not ignoring all the must-dos and really taking whatever amount of time that you can allow yourself and enjoy it, perhaps you can get rid of a little bit of that contamination.

Zibby: I like that it’s twenty minutes because it’s not even that long. Since I read your book and before this podcast, I’ve been trying in little itsy-bitsy pieces of my life to do that. The other day I met a girlfriend for coffee. It wasn’t even thirty minutes we were together. It probably took us longer to plan it, but both of us were really busy. We just had a chance to sit down and give each other a hug and remind each other that we loved each other and that no matter what was going on, we just had that connection, that moment. In my head, I’m like, oh, coffee with a friend, it’s going to be like an hour and a half. How can I treat myself to that right now?

Rachel: Exactly. I think twenty minutes is something of a magic number. You can get a lot of refreshment. Exercise experts say you can get a great workout in twenty minutes. You can take a power nap in twenty minutes. You can get a lot of good work done in twenty minutes. One of the things we heard from parents in the survey was that the biggest challenge to using their free time in a way that felt good was that their chunks of free time were too short. I think reframing your idea of what free time looks like — because if we wait for two hours or even an hour, sometimes that just doesn’t come up. But twenty minutes, if you’re ready for it, can pop up unexpectedly also. As you say, grabbing that time when suddenly you’ve dropped one kid at a birthday party but the other one doesn’t need to be picked up from dance and you’re like, oh, my god, I have twenty minutes, if you’re not “prepared” for that time, it can be really easy to feel like you’ve wasted it. Personally, I often pick up the phone and just scroll social media, which is great if you enjoy doing that. If you feel like it’s a waste of time, then you’re going to feel regretful about your time. Or I spend that time staring at a wall thinking about, I bet I could be doing something good with this time, and I can’t think of what to do. I even have a little list on my phone of, here are things I can do in thirty or twenty minutes so that the decision fatigue — I don’t waste the time thinking about what to do with the time.

Zibby: One time I was on a plane by myself for the first time that I didn’t have my kids in forever. This is years ago. I remember sitting there being like, I don’t even know what to do. Should I watch a movie? Should I read? I don’t know. How am I going to use these three hours to the best of my ability? What should I do? I just sat there. I was like, how can I squeeze all this in in the best way? Then you end up doing nothing.

Rachel: That’s exactly right. I hear that from so many parents. I experience that myself. I think once you have kids, your free time feels so extra-precious that the pressure to use it “well” or productively is so high. I hear from people all the time who say, “The pressure to make the right choice of how to use my time is so overwhelming that I end up doing nothing.”

Zibby: And just the mental space that guilt takes up, which you address in the book. I have a girlfriend who I had coffee with about a year ago. I was like, “How are you doing?” She was like, “I’m good. I’ve decided to stop feeling guilty.” I was like, “What do you mean?” She’s like, “I just gave it up. I decided not to do it anymore. Now I feel great.” I was like, “How did you do that?”

Rachel: Sounds like a vegan.

Zibby: She meant it, and she has stayed that way since. She’s a working mom. She commutes, all this stuff. She’s like, “My kids are lucky to have me. Whatever time they get is great. They have great lives. I’m just going to keep doing it that way.” Now she’s so much happier.

Rachel: I love her. She’s right. The research really does bear that out, that we are doing enough for our kids. Even full-time working mothers are spending more time with their kids now than they did in the sixties. I think we have this idea that this world of intensive parenting — we all have so much guilt that we should be doing more and more and more for our kids, but the reality is that, like your friend said, we’re doing enough. They’re lucky to have us. If we can let go of the guilt, I think everyone would be better off. Easier said than done.

Zibby: I was going to say. I’m going to try. You also talk about the paradox of how much free time parents have matters far less than how much they feel they have. We might actually have more time, but we don’t feel any sort of calmness or ability to maximize it. What do you think we should do about that?

Rachel: It’s like you said before, that contaminated time, we all feel like we don’t have time. It’s really because, like you say — there’s all this American time-use data about how much “leisure time” people have. What they find is that even the most time-strapped people, which are according to this study, working mothers of kids under six, have like three hours of leisure time a day. When you say that, it sounds ridiculous. When I mention that to parents, they usually laugh. Even, we get defensive because we feel like, no, I don’t have that and I want to show that I’m doing so much. If you feel like a person who has time, it’s so much, as you say, about how you frame it. If you read one poem a day, suddenly you think of yourself as a person who reads poetry. If you’re a person who reads poetry, you must have some time in your life, versus if you’re on a massage table but you’re worrying all the time. Then you’re going to feel like someone who doesn’t have time to yourself. A lot of it is using whatever small amounts of time you have in a way — I want to stress that I’m not saying in a way that’s productive, but more in a way that feels good. It might be watching a TV show or looking out the window. It doesn’t have to be exercising or getting work done or doing a big project. I think we live in this world of — we put so much emphasis on self-improvement and productivity that we feel guilty even if the time that we have for ourselves we don’t use in the “right way.”

Zibby: Totally. I feel like we’re just, also, hard on ourselves. There’s this constant punishing —

Rachel: There’s a hierarchy of how we use our time. I feel less guilty saying to my family, I’m going to go work out, on a Saturday. But if I said, I’m just going to go see a movie, I would feel really guilty. The time away from them is still the same two hours or whatever. It’s just different what I’m doing. Certain things feel more valuable or worthwhile than others. There’s a lot of guilt and mental stuff wrapped up in there.

Zibby: Yet this is really life at the end of the day. This is it. How we use our time is who we end up being. Sometimes in my head, I’m like, I’ll just wait until my kids are older or whatever. I have seven and a half years between my oldest and youngest. By the time my oldest goes to college, I’m going to be a senior citizen, basically. I can’t keep putting my life on pause until the kids are older. This is most of my life. If we miss it, we don’t get a chance to get it back. Not to sound dire, but there has to be a more workable strategy to getting through it all in a good way.

Rachel: I always appeal to people, when we talk about letting go of the guilt, also, this is your kids’ lives. This is what you want to show them. One thing, studies show that what kids want is not actually more time with their parents. What they want is less stressed parents. If we can take small bits of time to feel better, we’re serving everyone. I know mothers, we don’t want to. Even when we know better, it’s hard to really believe I can actually do something for myself, but maybe if you know it’s also for your kids. I have a daughter who I really want to see me doing things for myself because I want her to learn that she can take of herself and that she’s important. If she decides to have kids one day, I want her to feel like she’s allowed to take some time for herself. Sometimes when I’m caught in the guilt spiral, even me, I’ll say to my husband, “I don’t know. I haven’t seen the kids.” He’s like, “You know, there’s a book about that you can read.” I remind myself. I say to my daughter, “I am going to book club. I get to see my friends once a month. It’s really important to me.” I try to model that for her because I think especially for girls, it’s important that they see that.

Zibby: Also, just keeping a sense of humor the way you just did with your husband, that’s also important, not to take it so seriously, which is hard when we’re all sleep-deprived and stressed and whatever, but maintaining some…

Rachel: The kids are going to be okay. We’re going to be okay. I’m not saying that every single day you should be able to fit in your kids and your work and time for yourself and time for your spouse and time for your friends. There’s only so many hours in the day, obviously. If we can fit one thing in here and there, I actually think the return on investment is really big.

Zibby: I’m starting this content site which I think I already told you about which launches on Mother’s Day. My goal is to help moms with exactly this, seeing what they could do if they did spend the time on these things. I’m going about it, like, moms don’t have time to have sex. Moms don’t have time to work out. Moms don’t have time to… I’m getting personal essays from people from the podcast like you. My whole goal is like the goal of your book. What happens when we do take the time out to go running? What happens when we do write that book we always wanted to write? or something.

Rachel: Absolutely. I think seeing how other people do it or make it work or the creative ways they do things is really helpful. For me, I’m a sucker for all of those essays and schedules different sites post about how other people get it done.

Zibby: Speaking of how people get things done, tell me about how you got this book done. How long did this book take you to write? When and where did you write it? Did you do it like your last book where you did it after a long day at work?

Rachel: I got this book done at night, on weekends. After I was at that tech startup, I switched jobs to one that had a more reasonable work-life balance so that I could spend time on book writing on the side. I love doing that. Definitely, it was something I had to fit in, sometimes literally sitting outside my daughter’s bedroom after trying to put her to sleep. She doesn’t want to go sleep. My husband was traveling for work. I’m lucky that some weekends I could say to my husband, “Go to the park. I’m going to stay here. I have to get X amount of words done.” I do keep myself on a schedule where I say I need to do three thousand words a week or something. Otherwise, I’m the kind of person who won’t get it done. I’m pretty strict about that. You had asked me prior, did writing the book count as “pockets of indulgence?” I would say no. I love writing, but I think work is still work. That’s different than time for yourself. Like I said, I love writing, but it was the kind of thing, I had to get it done. It didn’t feel like that relaxing feeling of when you sink into a novel and stuff like that.

Zibby: How much time did you have to write the book?

Rachel: I had about a year. That involved outlining and some back and forth with my editor. The actual writing process was probably more like six months. I’m one of those people who is better with a tight deadline and with clear guidelines. I always email my editor when I’m starting a book. I’m like, “I don’t just want the due date. Let’s talk about when part one is due, when part two is due,” so I can make sure that I don’t find myself the night before it’s due trying to write eighty thousand words.

Zibby: Little overwhelming.

Rachel: I am a person who will start something the night before it’s due if I don’t — I know myself, so I put guardrails in place.

Zibby: Do you already know what your next book is going to be? This is your third book.

Rachel: This is my third book. I don’t know what my next book is going to be. I’m still processing this one and doing some publicity stuff. I also do a lot of book collaboration, working with other authors who are writing books and helping them get their books out in the world. I’m doing some of that. I really love that work as well. I don’t know. I’m sort of in that place right now where I’m like, I don’t know. I’m waiting to see what’s going to happen next, which is both exciting and terrifying, but trying to be centered about it, semi-successfully.

Zibby: I also wanted to go back between feeling regretful about leisure time and feeling refreshed by leisure time. I know this sort of dovetails with everything else that we had just discussed. I love that differentiation and keeping that particular bifurcation in mind. Can you talk about that for a sec?

Rachel: Yeah, of course. A lot of us, myself included, I mentioned the phone, but there are a lot of things that we do with our time — after we put our kids to bed, we’re all kind of tired and depleted. We spend all day making so many decisions for other people and for ourselves that I think sometimes we just can’t figure out how to spend the time. I sometimes find myself just moving water bottles from one shelf to the next for twenty minutes. Then I’m like, what just happened? I’m tired. I have to go to bed. What did I just do? Or rereading emails that I’ve already sent, or looking online for things that I’m not going to buy, or ruminating on camp dates or how I’m going to figure out the summer schedule for the whole family even though the camp dates aren’t available yet so I can’t even actually solve the problem. There are so many things that we do with our time that don’t feel great. Then suddenly, it’s bedtime and I’m thinking to myself, what did I just do?

I do, I feel really regretful and sometimes even resentful that I have wasted this time or I don’t have this time to myself anymore. I’m like, okay, I guess I have to wait for the same time tomorrow to try to do better. If you use that same time to do things that you enjoy, as I said before, that return on investment, you don’t need a ton of time. If you pick up the phone and call a friend — some of that stuff, I think calling a friend specifically, can feel sort of intimidating. Like you said about coffee with a friend, it feels like it’s going to be this big endeavor. For some reason, calling friends I feel like always sounds intimidating to us these days. Whenever I do it, I hang up and I’m like, oh, my god, that was so, so great, even if it’s just a short call to connect with someone. I feel totally refreshed and I’m like, okay. I had a weekend recently where I had to go run and get a haircut. I had like thirty minutes before I had to meet my family. I had a book with me. I went and got a sandwich and read a chapter of a novel. Then by the time I came home, my kids were like, “Can we make cupcakes? Oh, my god, I want to do this and this.” I was like, okay. Whereas had I not done that, I was at that place at that time on a Sunday afternoon where I was like, no, just go over there. Play a board game. Leave me alone. I think that time can really refresh us and make us happier and also help us be more present and enjoy the time with our family more, frankly.

Zibby: That’s so true. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Rachel: My advice for aspiring authors, I always say stop telling people about how you have this great idea for a book. Just sit down and start writing that book. I feel like I did that for a really long time with my first book. I hear from people all the time who say that to me, “I have an idea for a book.” I’m always like, “That’s awesome. You should write it.” I think everyone can do it. Writing is hard, of course. If you have an idea, the thing that separates the people who do it from who don’t, it is really just the sitting down and opening the computer and writing. I remember when I wanted to start my first book. I’d been thinking about it for so long. One day I was just like, I’m going to watch all the TV and finish the internet and then I’m just going to have nothing left to do, so I’m going to have no choice. I just sat down and started writing. Sometimes it really is just forcing your butt in the chair.

Zibby: Thank you so much for sharing your limited time with me to be on this podcast.

Rachel: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thanks, Rachel. That was awesome.

Rachel Bertsche, THE KIDS ARE IN BED