Review: Brigid Schulte. Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No-One Has the Time. Bloomsbury: 2014.

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I saw mention of Shulte’s new book in an article about the plague of over-busyness that has taken over our lives. I wish I knew what that article was now, but of course, at the time, I was merely skimming it, while fielding incoming emails, and chomping down on instant couscous and tuna in the little window of ten minutes’ quiet I allowed myself before flinging myself at the next task on the enormous and endless pile. I did not take a moment to note it, save it, even clip it, but went right on to the next thing.

Something stuck, though, from that little mention; I downloaded the book to my Kindle that night. Reading in the hour before bed is my daily, sanity-saving luxury. Schulte’s work confirmed for me that it is just such ‘clearings’ in our daily round that is one of the keys to tackling what she calls ‘the overwhelm.’

‘The overwhelm’ is what Schulte calls the endless, crushing sensation that we will never be able to fulfil all our obligations at work and at home satisfactorily. It is the way that we feel the need to answer work emails while supervising our children, and then end up spending time at work making calls for their appointments at the dentist and paediatrician. It is the factor that turns our lives – and, disproportionately, working women’s lives – into what Schulte calls “crappy bits of time confetti”.

What it is like to live inside this fractured “time confetti” is captured on Schulte’s opening page: “It is just after 10 a.m. on a Tuesday and I am racing down Route 1 in College Park, Maryland. The Check Engine light is on. The car tax sticker on my windshield has expired. The cell phone I’d just been using to talk to one of my kids’ teachers has disappeared into the seat crack. And I’m late.” Schulte’s willingness to share with her readers the barely-controlled chaos that characterises so much of her days as a working journalist and mother was what engaged me straight away.

This shredded time rarely amounts to a good clean run at a task that requires space to concentrate and go into something deeply without interruptions. Even in moments of apparent leisure, Schulte argues, working mothers are running an endless ‘loop’ in their minds of all the other things they have to get done. This results in what time managements experts call “contaminated time” where the period of time ‘off’ is ruined by feelings of it being illegitimate, stolen from the obligations that are yet to be met. Contaminated time also describes how everything bleeds into everything else, so that work is disrupted by domestic concerns, home is interfered with by professional obligations, and contemporary technology facilities it all in an endless whirlwind of the work-anywhere-everywhere-all-the-time ethic.

Overwhelmed has garnered a lot of critical and media interest. It has keyed straight into one of the most pressing issues faced by working families – an issue that has so far remained a political sleeper. Who has not felt that endless whir of things that need to be done and the sinking feeling that there will never be a time clear for thinking, daydreaming, staring out a window, or doing something you really love? The mystery for many of us in the developed world is, for all the affluence that we enjoy, the real wealth that is wellbeing and common weal seems to have been lost. For many of us, it seems farther off than it was 30 years ago when material living standards were lower, but time for family, friends, neighbourhood and health was in greater abundance.

The promises of futurists of the early and mid- twentieth century were that by now we would be faced with a large population with surplus leisure time; what we have instead is a stratified population of the un – and under- employed, and the working poor, who have to net huge hours to make ends meet, and another population of a salaried workforce who are over-stretched and over-worked. This is especially true in the United States where Schulte lives, where there are no legal limits to the amount of overtime an employer can ask of professional, salaried staff. However, even in Australia, things are increasingly pressed and compressed as we have less paid leave and fewer limits on working hours than our peers in Europe. And that’s before we factor in the long hours of commuting many are compelled to do from affordable ‘bedroom’ suburbs on the fringes of our main cities as the price of housing relative to earnings continues to rise.

Since the second wave of feminism, women have made huge inroads into higher education and the professional workforce. The rhetoric around equality and blended roles has, however, not translated into an optimum reality for women. Despite the calls from the likes of Sheryl Sandburg to “lean in” the picture that emerges from Shulte’s research is a workplace culture that is blind to what raising a family actually entails:

“Nowhere is that disconnect between expectations and reality more apparent than when a woman has a child. Time studies find that a mother, especially one who works outside the home for pay, is among the most time-poor humans on the planet, especially single mothers, weighed down not only by role overload but what sociologists call ‘task density’ – – the intense responsibility she bears and the multitude of jobs she performs in each of those roles.”

Schulte quotes numerous studies that show that even in families that see themselves as having a mother and a father ‘sharing’ the care equitably, the father usually cares for the children when the mother is still actually around. The mother may be in another room, having ‘time off’, but she is still effectively ‘on-call’.  She is the ‘default’ partner for all matters related to children or the domestic realm.

To some degree, this is specialisation. For myself, I certainly have less patience playing with Lego for hours on end when compared to the infinite absorption of my husband as he plays with our son on the kitchen floor on a Saturday morning. However, it is also set by the patterns that take hold once the first child is born and someone – usually the mother – – takes time off work to care for the baby. While she is home, bit by bit, she starts taking care of everything else as well. ‘Childcare’ becomes childcare-kindergarten-school-homework-housework-grocery shopping-babysitters-tradespeople-grandparents-play-dates-doctors-holiday planning and remembering to put the garbage bins out. And when the woman goes back to work, that new pattern generally does not shift, leaving the working woman feeling strung-out and inefficient at everything and the father acting like what Schulte calls, “The Lion King.” This analogy does not quite work because actual male lions do not hunt; but what Shulte is getting at here is that the male breadwinner role to go out and bring home the money and then, job done, means that anything else he does around the home is constructed as ‘extra’, whereas a working mother is merely expected to hold down everything as a matter of course. In short, Schulte argues, a mother in the workforce is expected to live up to two entirely contradictory ideals – – that of the worker and that of the maternal caregiver and homemaker.

In my world, I would put it like this – how many times are women told they are “really lucky” if their male partner does cooking, or housework or childcare, as if it were out of the ordinary? Now try this one – how often do the male partners get congratulated for being “really lucky” to have a working partner, even after the first child is born, since she got a degree and qualified for a profession and she is not burdening him with the sole breadwinner role? I thought so.

Schulte attacks this double standard. However, while shoring up her argument with data and research, she also leavens her volume with a series of vignettes. There is one incredibly powerful scene in the book that may well have been the kernel of experience that set the author off on her search for what had gone wrong in her marriage and her life. As she was hauling a massive turkey out of the oven for basting one Thanksgiving, Shulte was also running that mental ‘loop’ about all the other little details she had to attend to and coordinate, meanwhile keeping an ear out for her two children who were playing in the house. Her husband slopes on by with a six pack under his arm saying he was on his way out to visit a friend’s house to watch him ‘smoke the turkey’ and that he would be back in time for the meal. Shulte blew up. Clearly, this was a watershed moment for Schulte in which she wondered how two well-educated, well-meaning, equality-committed partners could have ended up in such a place. I think it is a question that has been asked in lots and lots of similar households. As one of the women whom Schulte interviewed for her project said, “All HE has to do is go to work.”

It is inevitable that male readers will complain that they are once again being tarred with the same brush as their less with-it peers and that THEY bathe their children and mow the lawn and even cook dinner. But Shulte’s research is not about that. It is about the impact of social ideals on both men and women and how powerful they are, even when it is not in people’s interest to try to live up to those constructs. For men, it is the long-standing but ever-growing image of the ‘ideal worker’ that means that showing concern about how your career might affect your family is seen as tantamount to tainting your professional image. For women, it is the head-on collision between trying to live up to the image of the ‘ideal mother’ AND the ‘ideal worker’ at the same time.

Shulte presents persuasive experiential evidence and data that shows that the next frontier of new social movements — for both men and women– is acting on the collision between expectations at work and expectations on the home front.  Expectations in both domains have ramped up considerably since the 1970s.

For example, while working parents continuously worry that they do not spend enough time with their children, the evidence presented by Shulte suggests that parents nowadays spend significantly more time with their children than their counterparts did in the 1960s and 1970s, even in those days of shorter working hours. Expectations about housework and a presentable home are also subject to continual inflation. It is a question of perception. Time use studies from the 1970s, for example, show the gap between the idea that “American housewives, with all their time-saving appliances, would be freed from the drudgery of housework” and the reality that “they spent just as much time cleaning as did women without them, in Bulgaria.” Shulte challenges her female readers to really ask themselves what is important. Do they really need to do ‘it all’? Have they created a construct of ‘it all’ that is in fact a fantasy?

Thankfully, it sounds as if the marriage at Schulte’s household has survived, but the text of Overwhelmed is clearly a search for answers. How does the woman get back her time – and, as over-work pressures ratchet up for men as well – how does the man do more at home without imperilling his role and status at work?

Shulte attacks the problem on several fronts. First, she advises us to drop the competition that she calls the “busier than thou” attitude. Second, we can each of us challenge the “cultural imperatives” that pressure us to “not just have it all, but to fit it all on the fast track … until life feels … like an exhausting ‘everydayathon’”. Third, she analyses the cultural tyranny of the ‘ideal worker’ and ‘ideal mother’ constructs, and argues persuasively that they feed into the workaholic culture and that we internalise and then use to police ourselves to exhaustion. She also sketches out some strategies she used in her own life to rein in the overwhelm. She asked herself these crucial questions:

  • How much is enough?
  • When is it good enough?
  • How will I know?

She argues that we need to change “the narrative of success” to a broader picture of what a career looks like over the course of a lifetime and what wellbeing and wealth actually mean. This means we all check in with ourselves and see whether the priorities we are living by are ones that are genuinely important to us.

On a final note, Schulte’s cultural critique is persuasive and develops points made elsewhere by Alain De Botton’s work in Status Anxiety and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Overwhelmed is part of a growing theme in American writing about the impact of extreme work hours, ICTs, consumerist values, and economic pressures on the way we think, create, love, work, relate, and ultimately, find meaning. Books such as William Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, Maggie Jackson’s Distracted, and the Take Back Your Time movement all tap into various aspects of the feeling that much is not right about the direction our cultures are heading.

However, Schulte’s book shares something else with these titles – an odd reluctance to call for any systematic, policy-driven approaches to the problem. From an Australian perspective, this fear of government-driven solutions is a blind spot in American writing and positively Cold-War in its anxiety that any government funded and regulated approaches will be deemed ‘socialist’. Schulte’s heart-rending descriptions of the infant and child deaths that are the result of a refusal to fund and regulate child-care properly in the United States are a case in point. To be fair to Schulte, she uses these stories to argue for a more coordinated approach to child care and crèches in the United States, and her descriptions of the set-up in Denmark made me green with envy. But, as is too often the case, she pulls her punches when it comes to advocating legislation around work hours, worker entitlements and other industrial issues. These discussions still seem off limits to American writers. As such, they can only offer piece-meal and personal solutions to what is clearly a system-wide problem. The social movements around simple living, downshifting and work-life balance are as yet nascent; Schulte’s work contributes to this discussion, while also evidencing the silence about these issues in mainstream politics.

Further reading:

Interview with Brigid Schulte and book excerpt on NPR.

Review by Ann Crittenden in New York Times Review of Books.

Review by Helen Lewis in The Guardian.

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