Monday, April 28, 2014

Book Review: Overwhelmed

By Jami Deise

I bought Brigid Schulte’s book on modern working motherhood (Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Timewhen it first came out, but it took weeks before I actually had time to read it. This is ridiculous because I’m no longer part of the cohort Schulte examines: I don’t have a paying job and my son is 20 and well past the years when I spent hours in the car driving him to his activities. This may serve as a warning: the “overwhelmed” habit is firmly entrenched in the lives of American women, and even those of us without the 50-hour-a-week jobs find ways to stress ourselves out. For me, it’s an unpaid reading internship at a literary agency, my own writing (marketing one self-published book, trying to find an agent for another, editing a third, and outlining a fourth), reading and writing reviews for CLC, taking a real estate class, taking care of an ill in-law, and trying to get to some of my son’s baseball games. Plus the ordinary laundry/grocery shopping/dog needs surgery/car is making a funny noise detritus of daily life.

For Schulte, it’s a full time job at the Washington Post (although she’s on leave to write this book), two young children with multiple activities, and a husband who’s also a Post reporter and whose assignments have him overseas for weeks at a time. With an author who’s as overwhelmed as her research subjects, her inquiries have the urgency of someone who isn’t just studying modern life to have something to write about – she needs answers that can apply to her own life, and fast.

At the beginning of the book, Schulte is already late for a meeting with University of Maryland researcher John Robinson, who wrote the famous study claiming working mothers had thirty hours of leisure time a week. Schulte brings her time diaries to the 70-year-old researcher, who somehow doesn’t have the time to clean his own office. He pronounces her diary efforts insufficient, but not before telling her that the time she spent waiting for a tow truck after her car broke down was “leisure.” When Schulte notes that she was trying to get her daughter to a ballet lesson, Robinson generously changes it to “child care.”

Why are American working mothers so uniquely harried? What do women in other countries have that we don’t? Universal child care and generous maternity leaves are one answer. As Schulte tries to conduct her research while her husband can’t figure out how to operate the dryer, she talks to other working mothers and travels to other countries to talk to parents who have more leisure time than we do. Denmark, for example, is the world’s happiest country and the country where parents have the most leisure time in the world. Not coincidentally, Danish parents do not worship at the altar of the child. They famously leave them outside of cafes in their carriages while enjoying scream-free dining, and they aren’t on the karate/baseball/piano lessons/soccer merry-go-round that most middle-class American parents are forced on as soon as their children are out of diapers. Schulte even talks to Pat Buchanan, who in the 1970s helped kill universal child care, because women at home with their children was best for the country. Buchanan, by the way, has no children.

While Schulte seems without answers as far as ways to change America’s lack of policies toward pre-K education, she does at least get the upper hand and disproves Robinson’s 30 hours of leisure theory. And she’s also able to achieve a small measure of relief on her own home front, by making time for herself, adopting to-do lists, and asking her husband to take responsibility for some household chores. (Although I’d be remiss in not mentioning that women who are able to delegate certain tasks to their husband are still mentally responsible for them.)

Schulte notes that the idea for the book began when the Post asked her to research reasons why women like herself no longer read the newspaper. As a journalism major, reading the newspaper has always been a priority for me, but recently I’ve had to give it up as well. And while it’s been years since I found myself crushed by a 50-hour-a-week job with a two-hour commute, a needy four-year-old and a husband who was only home on weekends, the memories of that harried time (and the extra twenty five pounds it gave me) are never far away. Ironically, the women who really need to read this book are the ones least likely to have time to do so. But it’s an important reminder that “overwhelmed” is not just one mother’s problem – it’s everyone’s.

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