Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time
By Brigid Schulte
Sarah Crichton Books, 353 pages

Brigid Schulte is a journalist at the Washington Post, a mother to small children, and a wife to a husband with a demanding job. She bakes cupcakes at 2 A.M., writes stories at 4 A.M., perpetually misses work deadlines, arrives late to meetings, and lives among piles of laundry you could “swim” in. When asked by a researcher to keep a time diary, she is not entirely sure how to categorize most of her day. She thumbs at her BlackBerry during her daughter’s field trip. She makes work calls in the waiting room at the dentist. And while eating lunch, she’s simultaneously on hold with a technical-support line and filing an article.

Schulte is an extreme case, but the behavior she describes in her new book, Overwhelmed, is a serious problem for many working mothers. In her exhaustive research, she finds that women and men are actually doing two things at once at about the same rate. “Mothers and fathers now spend more than half their waking hours multitasking, double the multitasking they did in 1975.” She notes, however, that “women report feeling more frustrated, irritated and stressed by it.” Which may have something to do with the fact that fathers are juggling different work-related items while mothers are going back and forth between work and children.

Studies show that men and women are working about the same number of hours on average (when child care is combined with work outside the home). So why don’t fathers feel more overwhelmed? For one thing, says Schulte, when they are with the kids, they are horsing around or having fun. They are not doing as much of the feeding, bathing, and cleaning up. And when fathers do those more menial tasks, they don’t perform them in the same way as women: Chicken nuggets are fine for dinner. Baths are not necessary every night. Toys can remain on the floor.

It’s also true that men don’t feel the attendant waves of guilt that seem to crash over women. When Schulte confronts her own husband over why he didn’t take off more time from work when their children were born, he says: “Where I worked at the time, it was just understood that taking parental leave wouldn’t be a good thing to do…I was wary of my position.”

Schulte shows how workplaces have different expectations when it comes to men and women caring for their children. But she never pauses to note that perhaps her husband didn’t feel guilty about spending less time with the kids because he felt he had no choice in the matter. His job was to make sure that he continued to earn a paycheck. Women’s guilt, in large part, comes from the fact that they are always making these choices, second-guessing them, and then reading blogs about why they are right or wrong to second-guess. Schulte wants to spread that guilt and agonizing around more.

Despite her interviews and research, Schulte ends up right where you’d expect—with a kind of feminist manifesto. Men need to pick up the slack. Workplaces need to have more equal expectations for men and women and more family-friendly policies generally. Americans should really consider publicly funded high-quality daycare programs. We should all live more like they do in Denmark.

Schulte tends to minimize out of hand any significant biological differences between men and women when it comes to their desires and talents for parenting, even when it comes to babies. She cites evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who says men and women are equally likely to respond to a screaming baby but women are quicker to respond to a fussy one. The only reason that infants are more likely to be soothed by the mother, according to Hrdy, is that she comes more quickly and so the infant gets used to her. Thus are the comforting arms of a mother, known to all cultures, explained away.

When Schulte sets out to find out why it is that American women and men don’t live in a gender-blind Nordic paradise, she interviews Pat Buchanan. An odd choice, perhaps, but he is the man who got President Nixon to veto the 1971 Comprehensive Child Development Act. Buchanan opposed large-scale federally funded child-care centers because of the effect he feared they would have on the American family. Today he acknowledges that he has been fighting a losing battle. Despite his best efforts, “the traditional family is disintegrating,” he says. Schulte can barely contain her outrage.

Indeed, two working parents is the norm. But women are working fewer hours out of the home and say they want to be working even fewer than they are. Even with more widely available affordable childcare, it’s not clear that America would much resemble Northern Europe, and Schulte herself inadvertently stumbles onto the reason. The key to Danish happiness, she concludes from one of her interviews, is “lowering your expectations.” This is something Americans are unlikely to do for themselves or their children anytime soon.

In the end, Schulte acknowledges that her dreams of changing American law and culture probably won’t be realized overnight. But at least she can change her own life. This is where the book descends from politically tinged journalism into the realm of Oprah. In her efforts at self-improvement, Schulte first masters the obvious. You know, like make a to-do list (either on paper or on your smartphone). Figure out what’s important to you and schedule that first. Take Twinkies to the bake sale instead of staying up half the night to make your own sweets. But then she goes for the more intangible. Schulte tries swinging from a trapeze, goes on a meditation retreat, and joins a rowing crew. Then she goes on to offer readers seven pages worth of clichéd advice: Find time to play. Don’t feel guilty. Live your life as if you don’t have much time left. With that in mind, it might be best not to pick up Overwhelmed in the first place.

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