Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte
This is one of my favorite nonfiction books I’ve read all year. It’s part sociology, part memoir, part self-help, and I think that’s the best approach to some of these issues. It’s important to show the big issues and social norms behind the struggles we have, the policies and ideologies, and it’s also important to show how we can make change as individuals, both through the author’s example, and through concrete steps we can all take. The three concepts of work, love, and play are the main organizing principles for the book, with long discussions about the meaning of each in our culture and our lives.
I’m glad this wasn’t purely self-help, because I think it’s so important to acknowledge that these things are not happening in a vacuum. People feel overwhelmed not because they have bad time-management skills, but because of our insane work culture and the way it conflicts with equally insane expectations of mothers, and increasingly fathers as well. Of course, if the book stopped there, it would be frustrating and depressing because then there’s nothing to be done with that knowledge. You get mad and have no way to channel the anger. Instead, Schulte takes the important next steps of discussing personal changes people can make to stop feeling so swamped all the time. A few of my takeaways:
- Try as much as possible to live in the moment
- Alloparents are super important and necessary.
- Don’t wait until the to-do list is done and the house is clean to do something fun, or you’ll never do it.
- Create routines to cut down on decision-making
- Chunk time instead of multitasking, which is less efficient.
- Take restorative breaks
I especially loved the discussion of leisure, a concept that seemed foreign to me in many ways. Our culture as a whole doesn’t value it and sees people who do as lazy. And historically, for women leisure has been nonexistent. That means that women often have to learn to let go, or give themselves permission, in order to enjoy themselves. That makes a lot of sense to me; it’s something I’ve experienced and seen in other women as well.
One point Schulte makes toward the end is that the thing that makes it so hard on working mothers is ambivalence: feeling unsure that you’re doing the right thing. Constantly second-guessing yourself is what’s so exhausting. If you can commit to what you’re doing and know you’re doing your best, that ambivalence can wither away, and that gives so much freedom. It’s hard not to feel ambivalent when the culture pulls you in two opposite directions at once, but turning off that feeling might be the only way to find peace.
The only small quibble I had with the book is the assumptions Schulte made about work and its structure. She talked a lot about telecommuting, working from home, working part time, job sharing, face time, sludge, Results Only Work Environments, and other issues that are more relevant for some types of jobs than others. For example, a retail worker can’t telecommute, but that isn’t because her job has an onerous bias for putting in face time, it’s because that workplace is structured around the in-person presence of salespeople and cashiers, etc. If my principal were to decide that my school is a Results Only Work Environment for teachers, that would involve completely re-envisioning our students’ educations in a way too radical to do without approval from the superintendent, and maybe the US Dept of Education. I guess this bias toward white-collar creative work is pretty common, but sadly, these workplaces are probably the easiest ones to fix. Making blue-collar and pink-collar jobs less overwhelming will be much harder.