One Week Without The Kids

A mother of three reveals the surprising patterns that emerged when she suddenly had the house—and her life—all to herself.

Earlier this summer, I was feeling stretched. I’d been racing toward a book deadline in addition to plodding through my normal gigs. My husband had been traveling overseas a lot, leaving me to solo-parent our three small kids (ages 7, 4, 2). Our extra sitters disappeared for the summer, and right in the middle of this, we were supposed to hang out with my husband’s extended family for a week at the beach in North Carolina.

I told my husband that I needed to work during our vacation. I hoped he would be supportive of this. His answer: "Okay. You could also just stay in Philly."

At first, this sounded crazy. Send him off on a seven-hour road trip with the three kids? But soon I saw the wisdom of his offer. Once he made the journey, he’d have his mom to help. Whereas my need to work meant I’d be a lousy vacation companion. So it came to be that I loaded the crew in the car on Saturday, June 28. I watched them pull out of the driveway. And then, in the quiet, I realized that I had the house to myself—my life to myself—for a full 168 hours.

If you’ve got kids, you know how rare this is. I’ve traveled for work, but work travel means hotels and meetings. This was my first extended time at home, mostly alone, in seven years. It let me answer that question of what my life would look like if I didn’t have a passel of little ones around. Here’s what I learned:

Yes, I’d work (some) more.

Since I write about time management, I’ve logged my time for multiple weeks over the years. I know that I usually work 45-50 hours per week. That can increase when I’m busy; I logged a 56.5-hour week in March. Without the kids, it increased even more. I hit 61.25 hours. It’s higher, but I didn’t work 100 hours per week without my family around. Why not? Well...

Kids aren’t the only things that kill your productivity.

As parents, we sometimes blame the kids for all manner of work slowdowns. And yes, having kids home sick from day care will cut into work time. But life happens to people without kids, too. During my kid-free week, I managed to sprain my ankle on a trail run and had to deal with that. More significantly, we lost power for close to 24 hours after a major thunderstorm. My computer had about three hours of juice at that point. When it was out, so was I. At least spending time with my kids has upsides. There is nothing redeeming in PECO's inability to keep the lights on.

Without kids, I work differently.

About that book for which I was facing down the deadline: I recently undertook a time-diary study of 1,001 days in the lives of professional women and their families. One woman noted on her log that she hit a real stride at 4 p.m. daily, which is roughly 30 minutes before she had to leave to go get her kids at after-school care. She’d worked out a solution to use her peak hours two days a week when her husband picked up the kids, which which was great. But without kids, you can use your peak hours any day you want.

My work days looked totally different when I wasn’t beholden to our contracted childcare hours. Our nanny usually starts work at 8 a.m., and so do I. Without the kids, I woke up at 6 or 6:30 a.m., went right to the computer, and hunkered down until lunch. Then I’d work intermittently in the afternoon, going for a run (before the ankle problem) or doing errands. Then I’d pull another shift from late afternoon until I started getting tired around 10:30 p.m. I normally stop working at 5:15 p.m. to spend time with my family before going back to work for an hour or so at 9 p.m.

Because these evening hours are family hours, I’ve put it out my head that they are really, really productive hours for me. My kid-free week reminded me of that. With that knowledge, I’m now arranging my life so I have access to them 1-2 times per week.

Without kids, leisure doesn’t require hard choices.

I met a friend for dinner during my week "off" and she told me I looked relaxed. It was true. Despite working more than 60 hours that week, I found time to hit the spa twice. I read the newspaper daily. I even went swimming with no one splashing me. Because I do log my time, I know I have leisure time even when my kids are around. But seizing it requires choices—to not work during some contracted childcare hours, or to hire an extra sitter, or to trade off with my husband, or to get up early or go to bed later. Without the kids, I could go shopping for an hour in the afternoon, knowing that I could still work the whole evening if I chose. That made it easier to opt for leisure activities. I didn’t perceive the same opportunity cost.

I really do like my family.

Of course we love our families, but when you are constantly around each other—which is the case when you have three little ones who still need help bathing and getting snacks and most everything else—it’s easy to get burned out. Since I work from home, I’m not even away during office hours. Being apart for a week gave me space to seriously miss them. It also gave me space to finish my manuscript. I’d say that’s a win on both fronts.

[Image: Shutterstock]

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  • Armand Tadem

    The kids did not suddenly fall from sky into your life. You had that life before. So what is the difference between the new experience and your life before the kids? Unless you were born married with kids!

  • As a writer and also a work-from-home mother, there have been more than a few times I wish to have the house all to myself just so I can finish a chapter.

    Maybe I should give it a try!

  • joni

    What a great article...where can I find your basic (non-app)time trackers? working mom with active triplets keeps me on my toes, but I can lose time quickly...Thanks in advance for any links.

  • I have an ongoing fantasy of renting a tiny little cabin in the mountains... and just going there, me and my laptop, by myself, to work (and sleep, pee, & shower), uninterrupted, for a week. I haven't quite figured out how to make it happen yet, but it's on the list... And I'll be interested to see how I use my time sans kids, too. We get so used to arranging around their needs/schedules that I really don't know what my work habits would be alone.

  • Emily Bradbury Seamone

    Hi Laura - I just went through a similar experience - two weeks without the kids! I wrote about what I learned here (I wasn't very organized): I even mentioned your book 168 hours :)

    I've logged my hours before using ATracker Pro. But I can see how paper/pencil would provide additional insights, so I plan to attempt that in a few weeks. Thanks for sharing!

  • Gayle Goodman Lynch

    Great article, Laura. Thanks for sharing. I'm a big fan of chunking my time, and I count kid responsibilities (and kid fun) as its own chunk on the weekdays. True, kid chunks can be inconvenient when inspiration strikes, but I find that the regularity of the process has its own reward, more often than not. That said, I would love to have a week to get caught up on the things that never seem to find a hole in my schedule!

    To those who asked about logging time, I've done it for years, too (as a marketing consultant, all I have to sell is my time). I use an Excel spreadsheet and it has seven sections on each page (one for each day of the week, and yes, including weekends). I log the start and end time of each activity in the first column, a description of the activity in the second, the client, the total billable time (nothing if it isn't billable), and I total each column to the right by multiplying the billable time by the hourly rate for that client. It's a bit clunky, but it works!

  • lvanderkam

    Hi Corey- I often just use pen and paper and write down start and stop times. Sometimes when I'm feeling fancy I use a spreadsheet. I know a lot of people find Toggl pretty simple if you're looking for an app to start with. Thanks for reading!

  • I spent a similar week this summer while my 8 year old daughter went to (sleep-away) camp. Instead of turning my 7-8 hour work days into 10+ hour productivity marathons - without dropoff, pick up, dinner-making duties and after school/homework/playdate interruptions (great ones, but interruptions nevertheless) - I found that I had grown accustomed to the bookends to my day, the forced productivity times. I, too, work from home and found one great productive day in the midst of a overall underproductive week. I've found that I like the balance of the work day and the usually clear end to it when I pick up my daughter. Then it's family time, fun time, and work is largely off my mind until the morning.

    Thanks for the article!