Overwhelmed? How To Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time!

Book Review and Conversation with Author Brigid Schulte

Choose Differently

We lined up for questions. ‘Why do I feel guilty about not baking the cupcakes’ and ‘How can I make time for myself when work expects email replies 24/7?’ There were over 200 women in that room, seeking ‘Life Hacks for Life Zen.’  Brigid Schulte, best-selling Author and Journalist, was a voice of reason onstage amidst growing panic that achieving ‘life Zen’ as a busy Mom was akin to catching a unicorn. By the tail. She eloquently shared her story of change, from stressed-out Mom, to enjoying greater balance.  She said we could “buy into what society wants for us or choose to live differently.” Noted. I was so impressed that I introduced myself to her.

Before we spoke again a few weeks ago, I devoured her book,  ‘Overwhelmed: How To Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time’.  How can Moms ease the relentless pressure? With a steady rise in ‘girl power’ messaging everywhere from the arts to business, why are we (still) trapped by a punishing schedule of obligations?

Frenetic Families

“I was unaware of the pressures most women and Moms faced…there was still this code of silence.” Brigid described what surprised her while writing the book. “It was painful, because to rip the bandage off, I had to face my own overwhelm.”

Brave, thoughtful and thorough, she weaves personal stories with rigorous research in her quest to understand ‘frenetic families’ and the chronic stress most Moms face.

Mental Load = Mental Pollution

“It’s being overwhelmed by everything you have to do and having that tape running in your head about it all the time.” Why yes. That! Brigid’s description in the book is the most illustrative mental load (aka emotional labor or emotional load) description I’ve seen since my obsession (ahem research) to understand this began. “That mental tape loop phenomenon is so common among women it even has a name. Time use researchers call it, contaminated time. A product of role overload…all the demands of work, kids’ calendars, family logistics and chores.” 

The Frustration of ‘Time Confetti’

Discretionary time is so fleeting and unpredictable, we try to stitch together little ‘scraps’ of time and fret when nothing important gets done. In the book, Brigid beautifully describes the ‘time confetti’ dilemma. During our call she said, “Moms spend more time with their kids now than ever…but it’s at the expense of sleep, time with their spouse and other adults.”  In the book she cites time-study research that, “American mothers average about 36 minutes a day to themselves.”  Barely enough time for a workout, let alone a proper thought!

Women’s Leisure, A Novel Concept

The book reveals, historically, leisure was the domain of the privileged.  For a long time, the privileged were men. We fritter away time on the same obligatory busy-work we’ve seen our Mothers and Grandmothers do. Modern Moms need to embrace, then create, a foundation for leisure or ‘play time’ in their lives. There’s wonderful detail about this in the book and if you’re a research fan like me, you will love it!

When ‘Ideal Mother’ Meets ‘Ideal Worker’

Brigid digs deep into dynamics behind US work culture. Expectations about who the ‘ideal worker’ and ‘ideal mother’ are emerged from 1950’s gender norms. Workers, never sick and willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ for their jobs, became the exemplar. Mothers, in parallel were expected to spend more time with their children than ever. Brigid describes her realization, “I was trying to follow the work ethic of my Dad and the parenting style of my Mom…who stayed at home. You can’t combine two people into one!” How many Moms follow this model to our detriment?

Feminism 2.0

“Early feminists spread the message that women don’t need special treatment.” Brigid acknowledges this may have been the right first step.  “However…(saying) we can do everything that men can do made it really difficult for Mothers at work.  The expanded roles women play now are new in human history.  Now, we need to move to a more inclusive, human vision:  that men and women can do meaningful work in the public sphere and that men and women can (and do) give important care in the private sphere.”  Yes!  “…And to enable everyone to do that, we don’t need any more of the old ‘fix the woman’ solutions. We need to rethink the way we work and who we reward and promote (hint, it’s about performance, not about showing off with long hours.) We need a more expansive, human view of gender roles, and we need much better policies to make it easier. Right now, we make it so hard for families in America.” An important reminder when we lament the slow progress. She said, “We’re so not done…feminism is still at the beginning.” I laughed, thankfully!

What Can We Do NOW?

While we fervently support the long game (policy change and updated cultural norms) how can we create space for happier lives that honor our identities? Not just as Mothers, but as partners, friends, daughters, volunteers and for many Moms, workers?  The implications are clear, from Brigid and the other talented super-Moms who’ve written about this, we need to revisit our assumptions.

  1. Claw Back Your Discretionary Time.

Share Household and Childcare Responsibilities With Your Partner

“Mothers, even those working outside the home for pay, still do twice the housework and twice the childcare as Fathers.”  The American Time Use survey statistics don’t shock anyone. If you’re partnered, an equitable split of infrastructure at home, is critical. Stay tuned for a piece devoted to this topic, however, I was encouraged to learn Brigid began this, successfully, 20 years into her marriage! She admitted what many of us feel, “I was so angry to realize what I was doing…(following traditional gender roles) but I was part of it.”

  1. Rethink Productivity

“I realized I could never schedule my way out of the overwhelm. There would never be enough room in the day for my two clashing ideals.” She shares in the book, followed by her experiments with productivity and time management techniques. I’ve included two of the productivity hacks she found particularly effective.

The Brain Dump
“The working memory can only keep 7 things in it at one time. If the to do list is much longer than that, the brain worried it may forget something, will get stuck in an endless circular loop of mulling…If your to-do list is on paper, the brain doesn’t have to expend energy trying to remember it.”

In the book, Brigid explains on a weekly basis she would, “Set a timer for 5 minutes to write about everything that’s worrying me and I didn’t have to do anything about it.  Just getting the ambivalence out of my head gave my brain a rest.”

Power of the Pulse
Described in the book ‘as her single most helpful tool’ learned from Tony Schwartz, Author of ‘The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working.’ “Human beings are designed to alternate between spending and conserving energy…We ignore the signs of fatigue, boredom, distraction and just power through.” Brigid recommends his method of working in 90-minute sprints before taking a break.

  1. Play = Self-Care

In the chapters about play she provides a hilarious account of taking (under duress) a trapeze class as part of her research into having fun. Note, I’ve taken a trapeze class and it’s delightful! The whole process Brigid goes through, reluctantly at first, to give herself permission to do something fun underscores how little, society as a whole and Moms in particular, value play.  She includes findings from Dr. Roger Mannell, “…when people have a sense of choice and control over their free time, they’re likely to get into flow. What some call a peak human experience.” Moms, we deserve access to peak human experiences!

At the heart of this book is the struggle we feel to reconnect pieces of our identity that break off after Motherhood. Unlike the other roles we play, raising children has such gravity and beauty, we welcome its expansion into every corner of our hearts, minds and calendars. If you love understanding the macro issues to uncover context for your life, this book will inspire you.  Although the questions are weighty and the answers complex, Brigid paints the big picture while also providing practical guidance to improve life now.


About Brigid & Her Work

Many thanks to Brigid Schulte for her time, candor, humor and for writing an amazing book!  Brigid is an award-winning Journalist; Author of the NYT best-selling book Overwhelmed: How To Work, Love & Play When No One Has the Time and Director of The Better Life Lab at New America.   Follow Brigid’s adventures on Twitter, Facebook and by signing up for her website’s newsletter.

I was delighted to learn more about Brigid’s work at the Better Life Lab dedicated to playing ‘the long game’ through amazing programs and research to support policy change for a more inclusive work culture.  Also, Slate has a channel for The Better Life Lab where they explore the future of work, gender and social policy – with great stories and research to advocate a fairer, juster, more sustainable, egalitarian world!

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