Book Review: Overwhelmed

Book Review: Overwhelmed

By Susan Sapiro

WO Book Review Overwhelmed artA few years ago, Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte, by her own admission, would not have had time to read this book review, or pieces in Brain, Child. Like many other busy mothers, Schulte blamed herself for the frantic pace of her life—a state she calls “time confetti—one big, chaotic burst of exploding slivers, bits, and scraps.” Yet, as she began to research for her book Overwhelmed, she soon identified external forces that have changed the way almost everyone loves, works, and plays (or tries to) in twenty-first century America.

In sections on “Work” “Love” and “Play,” Schulte introduces readers to how modern life has created time crises in each of these areas. She also features organizations and individuals with missions to help people create the right fit between personal and work or volunteer commitments.

Technology is one of the main culprits. Expectations of constant connectivity from both our jobs (work emails at night and on weekends) and our social circles (how many times a day do you check and update your Facebook status?) can lead to mental exhaustion. Women’s brains, in particular, find it hard to turn off all the things they have to remember, plan, delegate, and do. This “contaminated time,” according to time-use researchers cited by Schulte, is why women often feel like they have little to no free or uncluttered time.

Schulte explains (based on the pioneering work of scholar/advocates like Joan C. Williams and others) one of the main problems with our work culture is that when women entered the modern labor force, they entered a workplace with attitudes, cultures and policies calcified and staffed with a 1950’s un-reality: the Ideal Worker—the person who seemingly has no outside responsibilities or commitments and can be endlessly responsive to the demands of his (and yes, the model is a man) employer or clients. This Ideal Worker model affects assessments of working mothers who, researchers have discovered, are perceived by both men and women as less committed and less competent than women without children and fathers.

While Schulte does focus on women (mostly mothers) and their often pressured lives (there is a whole chapter on the “Cult of Intensive Motherhood,”) she notes the number of fathers surveyed feeling harried, nearly doubled from 1982 to 2004. She devotes a short chapter to hands-on, involved fathers, some of whom have scaled back their careers, and some who have left the workforce to care for their children while their wives are breadwinners in often demanding jobs. And despite the fact that so many more mothers are working (even full-time) outside the home, time-use researchers discovered that American mothers spend more time taking care of their children now than in the 1960s. Yet, Schulte notes that this increase in caretaking time has coincided with concurrent rising cultural expectations about being a “good/involved parent.”

While not exclusively an American phenomenon, Schulte notes that being mental and physical slaves to the cult of busyness is more prevalent in the United States than the rest of the world, mostly due the U.S.’s well-known lack of supportive family policies. As a Canadian in the U.S., I’ve spent many recent child-bearing years listening wistfully to friends in Canada recall their year-long maternity leaves (at least partially paid, and often shared with their husbands). Yet as I read Overwhelmed, I found a new country to envy—Denmark. Denmark, Schulte writes with amazement, seems like a paradise for working families. Most Danes work flexible schedules, finish work by 4:30 p.m., and the hours between 5 and 8 p.m. (AKA the “Witching Hours” in North American families) are considered “sacred family time” in Denmark. Danish mothers have more leisure time than women in all other industrialized countries, and Denmark has one of the highest rates globally of maternal employment. With a standard 37-hour work week and six weeks of paid vacation a year, most Danes fill their generous leisure time with sports, exercise, and adult education programs. When Schulte asked students in one class if they felt selfish or guilty taking time for themselves with these classes, they looked at her quizzically and laughed.

Back in the U.S., Schulte profiles a few progressive companies, such as a completely virtual law firm called Clearspire, Stanford University Medical School, and the Pentagon, all of which offer flextime and other work-life benefits for their employees. More importantly, these organizations provide the cultural support for their employees to actually use them.

Schulte’s writing is clear, engaging, and deeply personal. One of the book’s great strengths are her personal stories—arguments with her husband over chores, scrambling frantically to find childcare, missing work deadlines, and making painful choices (choosing to go a field trip with her daughter’s class, illicitly checking her Blackberry in the woods, and then working late into the evening after her daughter went to bed)—these will resonate with readers. Schulte’s angry musings on her relationship with her husband and what seemed like the inexorable (inevitable?) descent into traditional gender roles once their children were born reveal many working mother’s frustrations: “Why did I feel like he had a career while I just tried not to get fired?”

One of the most unique contributions of Schulte’s book to the work-life field is her discussion of play.  Women, she notes, have never had a history of leisure. Men have almost always had longer, uninterrupted times of both work and leisure, while women’s leisure time is usually fragmented. And since women are often usually responsible for coordinating the logistics—technical and social-emotional—of everyone else’s play time, they never really end up truly relaxing. But play is an integral part of being human, and without play, scholars have found, we can’t truly be creative, smart and happy. Schulte profiles an innovative group called Mice at Play (as in, what they do when the cat is away), a group of women in New York who meet regularly for various dynamic and creative activities, by themselves, just for fun. This shouldn’t be such a radical concept, but Schulte shows as she reviews research on women and leisure time, women choosing respite without children or family is considered a truly subversive act. Musing on this knowledge, she asks the poignant question: “Did I somehow absorb the idea that becoming an adult, a mother, meant giving up time for the things that give you joy?”

I snuck in small, scattered chunks of time to read the book, something that I found ironic as I read Schulte’s analysis of women’s (lack of) leisure time. Should reading a book in order to write a book review be counted as leisure time or work? Reading Overwhelmed reinforced for me that we will all continue to be overwhelmed unless policymakers and employers realize that both men and women, mothers and fathers, need time for life outside of work.

For an interview with author Brigid Schulte, see Brain Child contributing writer Valerie Young’s posts on her Your (Wo)Man in Washington blog:

Interview Part 1

Interview Part 2

Susan Sapiro is a Westchester, NY based grant proposal writer and fundraising strategy researcher for nonprofits.  She has been reviewing books about work-life issues, motherhood and feminist issues for fifteen years.

Subscribe to Brain, Child