In her best-selling book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte offers an illuminating analysis of the trends, myths, policies and historical circumstances that have resulted in overwhelmed modern mothers while providing a hopeful vignette-based prescription for what they can do to enjoy life and motherhood again.
Schulte is also an overwhelmed mother who, as a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist raising two children, marvels that she has survived the years of running on empty in a blur of “time confetti”, from meeting to errand to games, escaping accident and injury at moments when she multitasked haphazardly, unable to respect her own physical and emotional limits.
Schulte does American workers a huge favor by naming what she calls The Ideal Worker norm that has set up all of us, especially working mothers, for failure in the effort to live balanced lives. When workplaces define a successful worker by this Ideal Worker norm, they expect an employee to work as many hours, filling as many roles as possible, without regard to flexibility or life balance. Increasing productivity is expected, even when it threatens a worker’s emotional and physical health. This is the current myth that dominates work culture in the United States, and that creates a culture in which working parents must miss a meeting to attend a child’s performance or stay home with a sick child to the detriment of their potential for success on the job.
As an alternative to the Ideal Worker culture, many new companies are embracing flexible workplaces and cultures. Schulte showcases several workplaces in which parents can bring kids to work, schedule time to go to the doctor or take some personal time. These workplaces trust workers to concentrate and produce in roughly 90-minute blocks of time, and to take breaks to attend to themselves, their lives and their children as needed. Neuroscience research has proven this method to foster creativity and efficiency; it draws on a sense of worker satisfaction rather than depletion so that workers get more, not less, done and have the energy to vision longer-term projects after completing their regular job tasks.
Another societal myth that Schulte introduces in this section is the Ideal Mother myth, the myth that the “ideal mother” does everything for her kids, her household and as a wife perfectly—she cleans, folds laundry, cooks with a smile on her face while seamlessly tending to all household- and child-related tasks. This ideal was exhibited during the ’50s and has led to what UC Berkeley professor Arlie Hochschild termed “The Second Shift.” Schulte points out that many stay-at-home mothers internally judge themselves against this ideal and have a tough time enjoying their kids or staying home, becoming just as overwhelmed as their working-mother counterparts.
Schulte urges that when parents welcome their first baby, critical patterns are set for the family’s life. Mothers and fathers must view themselves as equals in the parenting and domestic spheres at this pivotal time. Mothers must not automatically succumb to the pressure of the Ideal Mother myth in the beginning, or they will spend years trying to undo these patterns. This is when each parent must split household duties, when Dad must experience just as many sleepless nights as Mom does, when friends, family and neighbors are recruited to lend a helping hand and share the work of raising a family in a community. Kids need to be raised to do their fair share of the work as well.
If parents don’t create more equality in their homes, mothers will continue to feel overwhelmed—if they can free up more time to be present, kids can enjoy more unstructured time to just be and learn to become relaxed instead of stressed.
Schulte spent an afternoon with a New York–based group for moms called Mice at Play—she went with them to the trapezium and experienced the terrifying and dazzling sensations of flying through the air from a two-story platform as well as being caught mid-flight. She believes all women, and especially all mothers, need to have more of these kinds of experiences. Life is not supposed to be a fuzzy confetti of housework, childrearing, work and responsibilities. The good life is also about play!
In Denmark, when women become mothers, many will take classes in the evening in any hobby or passion that interests them while the father or family watch the baby. Most workers are home by 5:00 p.m., and many people know that Danish parents have long parental leaves from work. These are parents who are not trained to feel guilty about enjoying life and its many experiences. We all could stand to learn a lesson from this.
Schulte recommends that mothers start a gratitude practice and let go of the tyranny of their To-Do lists. What if we lived our daily lives as if we didn’t have that much time left? How would that change choices we make? Would we spend so much time worrying about being perfect? Try it and see! And read this book if you are feeling overwhelmed being a mother. It is well researched, creatively presented and full of inspiring ideas and practices to improve your everyday life, communications and priorities.