Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte

I was drawn to Brigid Schulte’s new book as soon as I heard the title: Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. It immediately sounded like my life. I hoped that Schulte, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the Washington Post, had found the answer to why we, as Americans, are so overwhelmed and what we can do to fix it.

Despite the books’ length and small print, it was a page-turner. Not in the sense that a good fiction book is when you can’t put it down, but Schulte, an overwhelmed, working mother herself, seemed to know my life situation intimately and kept hinting at solutions. But, for nearly the entire first half, the book never got to them. I couldn’t put it down because I thought that maybe if I read just a few more pages, I would get some answers. I was getting rather depressed. Finally, one night, as I was explaining to my husband how the U.S., in the early 1970s, was on the verge of creating a universal childcare system that would allow mothers the flexibility to work and peace of mind that their kids had quality, affordable childcare waiting for them at six weeks old, but that Pat Buchanan campaigned heavily to keep mothers in the home, I lost it. I started balling and trying to explain to Nathan through my sobs all of the ways our culture has stacked the deck against working parents and against equality in workload between spouses so badly that most of us immediately assume that women’s careers should take a backseat and men belong in the office working long hours. At that moment, I wasn’t sure where Schulte was going, except that she made me want to run for office and make sweeping changes to the way we support working parents.

It was a true catharsis. After that, the book turned a massive and very welcomed corner. What Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a Harvard-trained Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Davis explains is that the myth of women always being at home and the men working is completely false. In fact, when humans were in hunter-gatherer mode, children actually spent 60% of their daylight hours until the age of 4 in the arms of “alloparents“. We lived in communities where grandparents, uncles, aunts, neighbors and older siblings were always around and everyone helped each other. Mothers would go off to gather food and alloparents would watch the children. That’s how humanity evolved and we, as women, shouldn’t feel bad for leaving our kids at home or in childcare with others.  Hrdy explains, “It’s natural for mothers to work.  It’s natural for mothers to take care of children.  What’s unnatural is for mothers to be the sole caretaker of children.  What’s unnatural is not to have more support for mothers.”

Schulte then talks about Jessica DeGroot’s organization, the ThirdPath Institute, which helps men and women find the balance at home they need for both spouses to live sustainable lives. Whether that comes from one or both parents working flexible schedules, getting more help at home, or splitting the chores more equitably, there are many, many families who have found a balance by discussing their needs, working hard and finding their own balance together. One of the most interesting things researchers have found is that when dads and moms take the time to have parental leave from work alone, both tend to share chores equitably for the rest of their lives and both parents have close relationships with the kids, not just the mother.

The book was further split into three sections: work, love, and play and my favorite section of the book by far was play. Play is so important that without it, our brains don’t develop properly. Many people, and especially women, tend to save true play for the end of their to do list, which never arrives. Think about it, when was the last time you lost yourself in something completely engrossing that was just…for fun?

There are plenty of bright spots in the book. A women’s group called Mice at Play goes on adventure playdates (without the kids) to ride rollercoasters or soar through the air on a flying trapeze, simply to stretch women out of their comfort zones and have fun. The book goes into great detail about how families and communities work in Denmark, the happiest country on Earth. Here, the whole society is built to encourage free time. People work strict 37 hour weeks and take every second of their six-week paid vacation time. The newspapers focus on people’s leisure activities and, in fact, working long hours is not seen as productive, rather it’s seen as inefficient. Inside a Danish household you won’t find a lot of furniture or paper or kids’ toys; they simply don’t value material wealth.  You also won’t find the mother doing most of the housework or childcare, most Danish families split all activities nearly 50-50.

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, find the time to read this book. To help carve out that time, use one of Schulte’s recommendations: pick ONE thing to accomplish everyday and do it first.