Tuesday, October 28, 2014

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

Title: Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time
Author: Brigid Schulte
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction
Started: October 18, 2014
Finished: October 28, 2014

From the inside cover:

Overwhelmed is a book about time pressure and modern life. And it comes at the perfect moment: Amid debates about the toll of conflicting demands on parents and our addiction to the daily grind, Overwhelmed is just what we need to address our questions about work, love, and play. Brigid Schulte, an award-winning journalist for The Washington Post and a harried mother of two, began her journey to rediscover leisure when she realized her life was becoming "like the the dream I keep having about trying to run a race wearing ski boots." She goes from the depths of the "time confetti" of her days to an understanding of what the ancient Greeks knew was the point of living a good life: having time to refresh the soul in leisure. What Schulte finds is illuminating, perplexing, and maddening, but ultimately hopeful.

Taking the baton from such pathbreakers as Barbara Ehrenreich, Arlie Hochchild's The Second Shift, and Juliet Schor's The Overwhelmed American, Schulte details not only the intensifying pressures on women, and increasingly on men, but also how feeling overwhelmed is affecting our health and even the size of our brains. At times, the author becomes her own subject, as when she sits, jet-lagged and hungry, in a Paris auditorium crammed with scholars and dozes off - until a speaker lamenting the toll of "role overload" on working parents snaps her awake.

She visits Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, the renowned anthropologist, who presents hard evidence that women are not "wired" for child care - so a "natural" family arrangement might actually include heavy involvement on the father's part. It's a model that's taken root not only among the hunter-gatherer tribes in the Kalahari Desert the Hrdy has studied, but also in Denmark, the world's happiest country, where it's possible to work short, productive, flexible hours and still be successful, committed workers and attentive parents - and have time for oneself.

Overwhelmed is both a map of the stresses that have ripped our leisure to shreds and a blueprint for how to put the pieces back together. What Schulte offers us is a revelatory, at times hilarious, and at heart optimistic view of how we can begin to find time for the things that matter most and live more fulfilled lives.

When I first saw this available at my library, I scooped it up as soon as I realized what it was about. Like most mothers, I struggle to balance full-time work, my family, and running a household. Growing up, I saw what overwhelmed looked like (my mother was the poster child for it), and resolved to not fall into the same traps when I had children. Though I do make time for myself through reading, other forms of leisure and especially play are hard for me to accomplish, especially with a husband who works many hours. I know most of my female friends that are married with children feel the same, and I figured there must be some reason why the majority of mothers feel this way, and it turns out there is.

The author divides her book into two main parts: describing how leisure time has eroded in the past 50-60 years and why people feel so overwhelmed by "role  overload", and the second with how to possibly address this problem in three areas: work, love, and play. The second section examines flex time policies, family leave, and groups that encourage women to play in different areas all over the world.

This was an eye-opening book that all women, particularly mothers, should read. In fact, their husbands should read it too since men are feeling the pressure nowadays as well. Traditionally, men fell victim to the "perfect worker" stereotype of the person locked at the desk for hours on end, first to get there and the last to leave. When women started working, since most ended up with jobs that didn't make enough to make the cost of child care worth it, many ended up either staying home or taking jobs that specifically allowed them to work around their children's care schedule. With men focusing more on working hard, long hours so as not to go against North American society's view of the perfect worker, women were left to balance not only their own work, but the household responsibilities and that of their children as well. With it not being as socially acceptable for men to take family leave after the birth of their children, they become less comfortable with caring for them, leaving those duties to their wives. Since society has protected men's leisure time through sports and social outings but in a strange way has stigmatized women who are not accomplishing something at all hours, women feel increasingly guilty wen taking time for themselves if they aren't crossing off something on the never-ending to-do list.

The chapters on Denmark were enlightening. Men are obligated to take family leave just like women, offices automatically close by 4:30-5pm, and all stores close close to 7pm. Plus, working harder rather than smarter is frowned upon, if you stay at an office in Denmark till past 5pm, you'll be the only one there. It's obviously a two-fold problem: our policies do not encourage a proper work-life balance, and our culture encourages the perfect worker stereotype because we assume that working longer means working better, when in fact studies show people work better in shorter spans with frequent breaks.

All people, especially parents, should read this book. Hopefully this will encourage readers to advocate for flexible policies at your workplaces in order for everyone to benefit.

Thoughts on the cover:
It looks like my to-do list, I like it.

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