Dear Carolyn: I work from home at a career I love that I built myself. I'm also the parent of two small children.
And I have a paralyzing sense that I'm a lazy bum.
This is despite the fact that I am by all (external) accounts a hardworking, productive person. I know my fears of being lazy are overblown. I get my work done. My clients are happy with me. I'm a good parent. I follow through on obligations.
I just also sometimes take a nap or read a book while my kids are at school, instead of doing my paid work. For a while, I tried to just own it. When my inner critic would call me lazy for procrastinating or for taking a bath in the middle of the day, I'd respond, "OK, so I'm lazy. So what?" This was helpful at first, but it is losing its effectiveness.
Other than talking to a therapist about this — which I'm working on, but it's been very difficult to find someone I click with and this is not an urgent issue — do you have any suggestions for how to stop seeing my time usage as a moral failing?
Carolyn says: I love my country, I love my fellow citizens, I love me some good can-do-ism, but there are times I want to punch my culture in the throat.
You have won the lottery. You bathe at midday in the tears of your predecessors, who fought and marched and suffered to give their children a world with choices, with agency, with satisfying paid work, with time to raise their kids that doesn't come at the cost of time for themselves.
And maybe you do have some personal, internal malfunction that keeps you from appreciating what you have, and maybe you're right that a good therapist is the best way to fix this allegedly malfunctioning part of you — but I can't be alone in thinking that blaming yourself for this self-doubt is but another symptom of the cultural sickness, the productivity fetish, declaring you unworthy just because you take a few moments to breathe.
Maybe outside permission to relax is all you need to counteract that outside pressure to work. If so, then you've got mine. But if happiness were a mere dope-slap away, then your strategy of owning it would probably also have worked just fine. So it's possible you have to work to retrain yourself to honor rest as a virtue.
Start with understanding productivity. Yours is a knowledge-economy type job, yes? Research suggests you have only about six productive daily hours anyway.
And, rest at regular intervals helps your performance at anything. More creativity, better work; more patience, better parenting. Toggling between work and child-rearing, without having to rob time from either to get the other done, probably also makes you better. Each keeps you from getting worn down or bored by too much of the other good thing.
Next, use your schedule as a moral ally. Deliberately block out X hours that you need to work, after which you earn your right to play.
Then, find a new way to apply your skilled and rested self toward the greater good. Keep up the naps, books and bubble baths, by all means — you are an inspiration, and I am not being facetious — at your usual pace except for one day a week. With that one exception, dedicate your time to a cause that's meaningful to you. Work at a food bank, call lawmakers, nurture the neglected, raise money, put your skill set to work (or cultivate a new one).
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.