It's About Time

While I think it is important to continue to push for policy changes and champion any bills that seek to address work/life imbalance, I would like to focus more on the cultural aspect for the following reasons: 1) I have practical and applied experience in this area (more on this below). 2) Public policy change can take a very long time, but by changing how you interact with the culture of consumerism, you can begin to take back your time almost immediately. 3) As more people reject the demands of consumerism, the culture will begin change. This change in culture will make public policy change far more likely.

I am a textbook example of how changing the way you engage with the consumer culture can allow you to change how you spend your time. For six years I had the opportunity to be a stay-at-home dad. It wasn't all grins and giggles, but being there to watch and help my two boys learn and grow during their preschool years was an absolutely amazing and rewarding adventure. When I stayed at home to care for the kids the whole family benefited. It strengthened our family bond and allowed us to share experiences together that we would have missed out on otherwise. My wife and I both agree that deciding that one of us should stay at home with the kids was one of the best decisions we ever made.

I bring up being a stay-at-home dad because it wouldn't have possible if my wife and I hadn't made the decision to begin taking back our time before we had children. We did this by choosing to live simply and positioning ourselves to be able to make ends meet on one income. While our particular situation might not apply to everyone, I think it is important to recognize that rejecting the typical consumer lifestyle can help you put some of your priorities into practice.

Those who embrace simplicity usually begin by letting go of (and forgoing the accumulation of) the material things that they don't need. This might lead one to believe that simplicity is all about subtraction and ascetism. While it is true that practitioners of simplicity advocate and incorporate various degrees of minimalism and frugality, simplicity isn't ultimately about elimination, it's about addition. Adding what? Time! To my mind, the raison d'etre of simplicity is to spend less time on the superficial and the contrived and more time on the essential and the genuine!

The consumerist status quo requires us to sacrifice the things that we often say are our priorities...our health, our relationships, a livable planet for our kids and grandkids (to name a few). When I was a stay-at-home dad, people would often say to me, "It is so great that you are willing to sacrifice so much for your kids." I know they meant well, but I always found this kind of sad. Yes, we had to avoid purchasing the latest and greatest gadgets–we often bought used instead of new, and many times we would choose access over ownership–but none of this really constitutes a legitimate sacrifice. Having stayed at home with my boys, I can tell you that the real sacrifice would have been for our family to have missed out on that time together.

The desire to take back your time begins with the recognition that at a certain point increasing one's material possessions does not increase one's well-being. In other words, once you have the material things that you really need, acquiring more doesn't make your life objectively better. There are limits to what material things can offer. This is not to downplay the importance of material things–we all need basic material things to survive and thrive. What is important is the recognition that the good life cannot be cultivated through material things alone. We also have non-material needs (e.g. connectedness to our family and friends, our community, and nature) that must be met. These non-material needs require our time and attention.

I am no longer a stay-at-home dad, but the lessons I learned from my experience have given me an even greater appreciation for time than I had before. The passage of time is far more real to me now. I guess watching your children grow before your eyes can have that effect on you. In her novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes, "When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters."

If this is true, and I suspect for many it might be, we seriously need to change our "ordinary course". Shouldn't our lives be full of time to reflect upon and address what matters? Shouldn't our lives have ample space to create connections and cultivate meaning? Shouldn't we have time, as W.H. Davies said, "to stand and stare"? If we don't have the time to do these things, are we really living, or are we merely existing? To me, time is not the "stuff" life is made out of, time is the medium through which we make a life. I am grateful to be a part of an organization that seeks to ensure that people have the time to do just that.

Chris LaPlante is a full-time dad and husband and part-time Academic Advisor for the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia.