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Books and Culture

Laura Vanderkam
Overstated
Maybe we’re not so pressed for time after all.
25 July 2014

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, by Brigid Schulte (Sarah Crichton Books, 368 pp., $26)

Ask anyone how she’s doing these days, and she’ll probably answer, “Busy!” If she also happens to be a working mother of young children, she might describe life as “scattered, fragmented, and exhausting.” That’s how Brigid Schulte characterizes existence in her new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. A Washington Post reporter and mother of two, she juggles deadlines while trying to be “the kind of involved mother who brings the Thanksgiving turkey for the preschool feast and puts together the fifth-grade slide show.” Many of Schulte’s friends inhabit this same frenzied zone.

John Robinson, an eminent sociologist who has studied time use for decades, tells Schulte that women are fooling themselves. He finds that they have at least 30 hours of leisure time per week—less than men, but still a lot. “I felt like I’d been clonged on the head with a frying pan,” Schulte writes. She insists that she has no such time. Robinson has her keep a time diary for a week. She finds that she can’t describe her time in the little cells of his spreadsheet, and she writes stream-of-consciousness entries like this one: “2 am – 4 am try to breathe. Discover that panic comes in the center of the chest—often in one searing spot. Fear in the belly. Dread just below that.” Robinson discovers that she does have down time; she just doesn’t seem to enjoy it.

Overwhelmed is an exploration of why this might be, and what social forces are at work to make Schulte spend an hour daily “picking up the muddy shoes under the kitchen table, the jackets left on the floor, the junk mail that pours in.” She interviews other researchers whose conclusions differ from Robinson’s. She looks at policies that might help burdened parents, and at societies that structure work and life differently. She puts out queries on e-mail lists looking for a mother who will admit to having leisure time. “If you find her,” one of her readers says, “I think I’d probably put her in a museum, next to Big Foot, a Unicorn, a Mermaid and a politician who doesn’t play dirty.” But Schulte eventually learns that she is one of these unicorns.

What sets Overwhelmed apart from most other books lamenting our frazzled modern lives is that Schulte is a prize-winning reporter (her team at the Washington Post won a Pulitzer a few years ago), and so rather than just spouting opinions, she goes out and talks to people. Instead of lampooning Pat Buchanan for campaigning against a federal child-care bill years ago, she interviews him to learn why he opposed it: he thought mothers should spend more time with their young children. That turns out to be the same reason why Patricia Schroeder, on the other side of the political spectrum, has campaigned for family leave and urged the federal government to become a family-friendly employer.

Schulte is at her best when she has good news to report. She profiles companies that have prospered by giving employees flexibility, couples who have rethought traditional roles and become happier, and policy experiments that have made people’s lives easier. She’s evenhanded, noting that Danish women enjoy more leisure time than American women do, but conceding that “Denmark is not perfect.” Parents take gobs of paid leave there, but it’s hardly a feminist utopia if women work disproportionately in the government and not “in positions of power in the corporate and entrepreneurial worlds.” It’s pleasing to believe that a mother could take a year or more out of the workforce multiple times during her childbearing years, and return with her skills and connections intact, but in practice, it doesn’t work that way.

Schulte’s weakest moments come when she tries to make a perfectly sensible Big Issue book into a book about herself. She spends the first part of Overwhelmed trying to convince us that her life is a mess. But her lows—she has taken phone calls in the dentist’s office and on the sidelines at soccer practice, and she has cleaned the oven while her husband sat watching TV—don’t amount to much compared with those of other women she interviews, who have been discriminated against because of their family responsibilities. Schulte, by contrast, has spent decades working for an employer that offers benefits, including paid maternity leave, and that let her work in a part-time arrangement for a while. Sometimes her complaints border on self-pity. She argues that she felt she was “always doing more than one thing at a time and . . . I never do any one particularly well.” She writes that she “just tried not to get fired”—this from a Pulitzer Prize winner. But she seems aware that many women would be grateful to be “overwhelmed” like she is.

Schulte’s story has a happy ending: she learns to reclaim her leisure time. She signs up for races and goes out with friends, all without making any changes to workplace policies or seeing any new laws passed. Instead, she realizes that she “had to figure out how to embrace my own life.” She asks her husband for help, decides her kids don’t need her hovering over them, and lets herself relax about work.

That she was able to do this all by herself suggests that perhaps society isn’t always to blame for what she calls the “Age of Overwhelm.” Sometimes it’s our own mindset. After all, anyone who picks up and reads Overwhelmed by definition has free time. We just don’t always see it that way.

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