I’ve recently gotten hooked on a new genre of non-fiction: books about time management (or the lack of it… lack of time, lack of management, what-have-you). It started with The Fringe Hours, which I read a few months ago and which I think I’ll be going back to sooner than later. I’ve also been meaning to read 168 Hours, but have been putting it off because I plan to track my time for a week while I read it, and that sort of time study wouldn’t tell me much right now, as I’m currently enjoying maternity leave. And then there’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, by Brigid Schulte. I just started noticing this title making the rounds of the book blogs, but it was one blog in particular that convinced me I needed to pick up Overwhelmed, and right away.
Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness wrote of starting Overwhelmed and returning it to the library because, well, it was overwhelming. She explained:
One of my “genre kryptonites” is books about time management, especially motherhood and time management. I don’t have kids, but reading about it is one of the ways I’m helping myself think about whether I want kids or not. The first few chapters of Overwhelmed were filled with these rushed stories about mothers running late and working constantly and ferrying kids around that made me want to bury my head in the sand… so I returned it to the library.
Ironically, Kim’s reaction made me want to read Overwhelmed more. You see, I’m not approaching this book or any other time management book from a perspective of thinking about whether kids are in my future. I’ve already got kids. They’re in my present. So the thought of reading about some frenzied mothers who are dealing with the same intense time pressures I deal with on a daily basis (when not on maternity leave) was not off-putting to me; it was comforting. A book about my people! Maybe they’ll have some answers for me! I logged onto the library website and reserved a copy immediately. And well… well. Yes. This book is indeed about my people. So much so that I thought I might pull a muscle in my neck from all the nodding along.
Schulte, like The Fringe Hours’ Jessica Turner, wears many hats. She’s a mom, wife, and… oh… award-winning journalist for The Washington Post. And in seeking to fill all of her roles, Schulte found herself in a state of chronic frenzy. Stress. Lateness. General exhaustion. She coined some fun terms for her time management issues. The miniscule snippets of time, too short to do anything except maybe check one more item off the to-do list, contributed to a state of “time confetti.” (Reading about Schulte’s time confetti made me want to get her together with Turner, who would encourage her to turn that time confetti into fringe hours and spend them on herself.) And the state of exhaustion and angst from having to (or feeling like she has to) do it all, Schulte called the Overwhelm.
(Mountain picture for serenity purposes.)
Ahhhhh, the Overwhelm. I know it well. I operate in a state of being perpetually overwhelmed. Sometimes I manage to muddle through the chaos, but more often I feel as if I’m floundering in it. When the Overwhelm gets to its worst point, I don’t feel like I fill any of my roles well. There have been a few times in my life when the Overwhelm was really pulling me down, and I still shudder when I look back on them. Third year of law school, that’s one. I simply had too much on my plate – a full schedule of classes, a 20-hour per week internship, an international moot court competition, serving as President of my law school’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Board (like moot court, but our competitions were in things like negotiations and client counseling), teaching legal research and writing to a section of twelve first year students, and, oh yeah, all this during my first year of marriage. I was practically losing my mind, was constantly fighting off colds, and forgot to attend several important meetings. Not good. And then there was my first year of motherhood – particularly after I returned to work from maternity leave. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything well. I was making mistakes at work (not irreparable mistakes, and not many, but I really hate to feel like I’m not at my best when I’m at work), I was bringing stress home, I was perpetually exhausted and snappish, and I was sick at heart because I was convinced I was missing Peanut’s babyhood. It was a miserable time that I fixed by making a huge change in my life – moving to Buffalo and spending seven months as an “opt out” stay-at-home-mom. (That was very good for me. When the right opportunity came along, I was refreshed and ready to take another crack at being my best self at home and at work.)
But, yes. I know the Overwhelm; I live the Overwhelm.
Schulte takes on the Overwhelm and how it affects three areas of our life: work, love and play. In the work section, she discusses the myth of the Ideal Worker. (The Ideal Worker is never late, always works nights and weekends, has no home responsibilities, can travel at a moment’s notice, is available for infinite facetime… in short, the Ideal Worker is an almost impossible standard for moms, most dads, and anyone who wants some form of balance in their lives, to live up to.) Schulte explains how the Ideal Worker has harmed families; mothers are either shunted to the side and placed into “Mommy track” or pushed out altogether, and dads who want to be involved in raising their children are harshly punished. The only type of parent who doesn’t suffer in an Ideal Worker workplace is the “traditional” breadwinning/provider dad whose wife stays home to raise the kids and who as a result has no responsibilities (and no desire to spend time) at home. That sort of dad is a dying breed; every year, the ranks of involved “new” dads grows.
As lawyers, hubby and I work in a field that is often entrenched in its worship of the Ideal Worker. Certainly, there are exceptions, but these exceptions are notable for a reason – they’re rare. And as a result, we constantly worry about balancing work and family obligations. I’ve been lucky enough to land in a relatively family-friendly firm, where I’ve been given considerable flexibility without being pushed into “Mommy track.” I’ve had no trouble rushing out of the office in the middle of the day to pick Peanut up from school if she starts running a fever, getting my work done from home later in the day, and I’m currently enjoying the generous maternity leave policy. All the while, I’ve been able to work in the particular practice that I enjoy and in which I have an established expertise. (My firm in DC? Same thing. I’ve been very lucky.) But it’s impossible not to worry about these issues, when you work in a law firm.
Then there’s the “love” section, which focused mostly on families. Schulte argues that just as harmful as those who worship the Ideal Worker are those who worship the Ideal Mother. She explained how, in many families, the “gender revolution” has “stalled,” leaving women – even those who work outside the home and may be the primary breadwinners – disproportionately responsible for housework and child care. Schulte notes a surprising phenomenon – American mothers today, many of whom are fully engaged in the labor force, spend more time with their children than the “Ideal Mothers” of the 1960s. (That’s because those 1960s mothers, while yes, waiting with cookies and milk for their children returning from school, then nudged those children out the door to play while Mother met with her bridge club; in short, 1960s mothers enjoyed some pure leisure – more on that in a minute.) American mothers today are putting in heavy hours on the job as managers, doctors, lawyers, and in every other field. Then we come home and still are the ones putting dinner on the table, cleaning the house, and carrying the lion’s share of child care duties. No wonder we’re overwhelmed! Of course, that’s not to say dads do nothing. Schulte devotes a chapter to “new dads” – meaning not necessarily men with brand new infants at home, but men who are embracing a new style of fatherhood – carrying diaper bags, chasing toddlers down while Mom works, and chatting with other dads on the playground about developmental milestones. Some of the dads profiled work flexible schedules that allow them this involvement; others have made the choice to stay home or had it made for them in a layoff. (I recognized my own husband in this chapter. He doesn’t enjoy the luxury of a flexible work schedule, and he is employed, so you won’t find him on the playground at 3:00 p.m. on a Thursday, but he’s certainly an involved dad in the new style of fatherhood.) Even in families with “new dads,” though, Mom often still performs just as much housework and child care as in other families – with the result being that everyone is overwhelmed. Schulte devotes considerable space to discussing families who are negotiating this new frontier in parenting; some have come up with workable arrangements while others are still muddling through.
(Heavy stuff. Here’s another mountain picture so we can catch our breaths.)
Then there’s the third area of exploration: play. Schulte examines leisure time, through the lens of history and in relation to other countries. Her chapter on “Hygge in Denmark” was one of the most interesting and enlightening chapters of the book, describing how mainstream Danish families structure their time – seemingly miraculously – so that both Dad and Mom are able to do meaningful work, spend time with the kids, and enjoy their own leisure pursuits. (Hygge is “the key to Danish happiness” and describes, basically, the state of really being in the moment and focused on what you are doing: “When you’re riding Icelandic ponies, ride Icelandic ponies.”) Schulte had me wanting to move the whole family to Copenhagen. In other chapters, she discusses the challenges – both external and internal – that keep women from fully exercising their right to leisure, and profiles groups such as the “Mice at Play,” a group made up of mostly moms who schedule “playdates” like trapeze lessons (!). She describes the importance of play – not just leisure, or enrichment, but actual play – for adults (and made me want to sit for hours doing a puzzle, or book a ride on the Holiday Valley mountain coaster, immediately). Schulte laments that moms rarely take time for pure leisure for themselves; their “fun” time is disproportionately spent with their children (hey, nothing wrong with that – I love my kids and want to spend time with them – but we moms also need some time for ourselves) and, even when they’re supposed to be unplugging and enjoying themselves (like on vacation), women are often busying themselves with taking the emotional temperatures of everyone around them, worrying that the family is having a good time, and ruminating on the vacation to-do list. (I definitely can relate to that. When I was a stay-at-home-mom, some of my favorite leisure hours were spent at Stroller Strides classes. I loved Stroller Strides and looked forward to it all week… but it hardly counts as “pure play.” I was burning calories, discussing motherhood with other moms, and constantly keeping one eye on my little sidekick to make sure she was happy, fed, entertained, and not in need of a clothing change.) Women rarely take time to play in completely non-productive ways, focusing only on themselves, just for fun. Maybe we think it’s selfish? But it has to change.
Schulte ends the book with a section on her attempts to knit together her “time confetti” into blocks of useful time that she can dedicate to one of the aforementioned three areas – work, love or play. She experiments with working in “pulses” of ninety minutes punctuated by breaks (not a bad idea, and something I might try to implement when I get back into the office after my leave ends), works with her husband on creating a more equitable division of labor in their household, and shares ideas for incorporating more play into a busy life. While I wish there had been more space devoted to her experiments in creating a better balance, I’m certainly planning to try out a few of the suggestions that were there.
I realize that this blog post has gotten insanely long. It’s just that there’s so much in this book; I’ve barely scratched the surface. In fact, I’m strongly considering buying a copy (maybe a few copies, so I have extras to hand out to the other frenzied moms I know). As I was reading, I was repeatedly struck by the urge to underline and make margin notes – which, of course, I couldn’t do to my library copy. It’s a relatively short book – under 300 pages of text – but there is a wealth of information, research, and observation crammed in there.
Now, it’s important to note that this book is aimed at a very specific demographic: working moms, primarily, although busy stay-at-home-moms and fathers in the “new dad” model would also find plenty worthwhile in it. (Single folks with busy careers and lots of community obligations, or married or partnered individuals with similarly busy lives, would also recognize big chunks of the book that pertained to their own version of the Overwhelm. But it’s true that Schulte is mainly talking to harried parents.) As a working mom with young children, I’m squarely within Schulte’s target audience, which may explain why I kept shouting “That’s RIGHT!” as I read. So while I did note some Goodreads reviewers complaining that the book doesn’t apply to their lives, I can’t relate to those comments, because this book relates very directly to mine. And for where I am in life, I found Overwhelmed to be so many things – comforting (I’m not alone!), empowering, heart-breaking (oh, the section on our broken child-care system), and ultimately encouraging.
Recommended for: anyone who feels perpetually busy or strained by their out-of-balance lives.