During a recent conversation with a urological surgeon and mother of three, I discovered we had both just read the same book. She raved about it; she had earmarked various pages and filled it copiously with post-it notes to help manage her daily juggle.
The book, published earlier this year, is called Overwhelmed – work, love and play when no-one has the time. It was written by Brigid Schulte, who was inspired by her own life as an overwhelmed, “hair on fire woman” journalist and “involved mother” of two school-aged kids living in the United States. The book is her journey from someone feeling very overwhelmed by time pressures to someone learning how not to be.
It turns out Schulte is typical of many working mothers in the Western world torn between a successful career and the demands of motherhood. As men are beginning to take some responsibility for the so called ‘second shift’, it’s a juggle an increasing number of men are also discovering.
Schulte provides an historical account of why we have become a society caught up in a “vicious cycle of work and spend” and the trivialisation of leisure time, once so valued by civil society as the great enabler of innovation. She talks about how the “Ideal Worker”, one whom is free from all domestic responsibilities and dedicated to the office, came to be a “face-time warrior”. We are all familiar with such “warriors” but as Schulte explains we are also becoming increasingly resistant to working this way. We want more flexibility at work and we want more time for love and play, for good reason.
Seeking out “bright spots” in the workplace, Schulte discovered the ground is changing, especially in industries that recognise that, without change, they cannot attract and nurture the best talent. She talks to Rich Sheridan, cofounder and CEO of an enlightened firm, software design company, Menlo, who observes “If you have time for your life, you are joyful. And when you come to work in the morning, you’re more creative, more imaginative and more excited to be there”. Sheridan firmly believes there is a tangible business value in joy which leads to greater productivity.
Schulte also talks to academic observers of the gender revolution who say we cannot complete it until we see issues such as access to childcare, critical to relieve overwhelmed parents, not as a women’s issue but one for the whole of society, even a “human priority” as described by US Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The volume of research conducted by Schulte is impressive. She consults parenting experts and anthropologists to discover that mothering is best shared among both parents, older siblings, extended families and other trusted adults. She travels to Denmark, a country renowned for its gender equity and productive economy, to observe families who naturally balance work, love and play. She crosses America to witness a number of women regaining their wellbeing through organised play (even joining a group called ‘Mice at Play’ to try her hand at trapeze). She consults human performance scientists who advise that ninety minute pulses, with breaks, make the brain work best and finally she undertakes a mindfulness meditation course to help master the “ceaseless clatter of her contaminated mind”.
One of the most surprising findings is that Schulte discovers that parents are spending more time than ever with their children. Referred to as ‘helicopter parents’, they tend to over-occupy and over-protect their children, stifling their independence, creativity and grit. Schulte describes grit as “the ability to set your mind to something and stick with it”.
The book’s overall message, from Schulte’s research and personal journey, is that there is much to be gained by managing our all-too-precious time. While well-written and entertaining, the book is wordy and convoluted and the saviour is a really useful Appendix entitled ‘Do one thing’. Schulte herself makes real progress towards “time serenity” but concedes it is hard and, ironically, something that requires grit –to negotiate better salaries and more flexible terms, more help at home and plenty of breaks for love and play.
Schulte has done one thing (among others) too mundane for the Appendix. She has introduced a new rule in her household, for herself and her husband: The last one out of bed in the morning has to make it. A good start, but hopefully most of us are beyond that.Have you read Overwhelmed or are you feeling overwhelmed and thinking maybe you should?