Book Review – Overwhelmed

overwhelmedOverwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time
Brigid Schulte
Harper Collins 2014, 353 pages

Busy? Aren’t we all, right? Or maybe… we just think we are.

Time management is a skill that very few people are taught as kids, so as adults, we take on more and more responsibilities and succumb to what author Brigid Schulte calls “the overwhelm” only to find ourselves desperately stressed and unhappy.

In Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, Schulte talks to time management experts from around the world to try to discover what has happened to the average person’s leisure time, and why so many people join the rat race of gender-determined career paths in industries that value bums in chairs and daily face to face interactions instead of the myriad options that are available to us in the 21st century, such as working from home, job sharing and flexible working hours.

This is of particular importance when it comes to families where the “ideal worker” has priorities other than their job, and where kids can have a schedule as packed as their parents.

Schulte ultimately offers no solutions to the problem at hand. She’s learning as she goes, and experiences a fair bit of culture shock observing Danish families where kids are expected to help around the house and everyone is home for family dinner. The Danes have carefully avoided the helicopter parenting so prevalent in North America and it becomes obvious that anybody wanting to fight off the overwhelm might first have to have the nerve to buck the status quo.

Which means finding work at a company that allows a flexible schedule but also having the spine to rebel against all of the things people (especially parents) are supposed to do – such as bouncy castle birthday parties, chauffeuring kids to multiple extra-curricular events and baking those cupcakes for the school bake sale.

There is also leeway for perfectionists trying to do all of the above and still have a spotless house – a little dirt never killed anybody – but I suspect most people (especially women) will have trouble getting over the guilt of not doing/having/being it all.

Amusingly, I grew up in a household where things ran smoothly. Dishes and vacuuming were done daily, nobody ever ran out of clean clothes, and both my parents worked full time. The difference was the era – parents didn’t plan their child’s schedule down to the second – but also the attitude. Everyone pulled their weight. I was prepping family dinner by the time I was ten, and babysitting my younger brother all day during the summer by the time I was twelve. If I needed to go somewhere, the majority of the time, I walked or took the bus. The idea of NOT expecting kids to participate in chores or have some personal responsibility absolutely boggles my mind.

But when I tried to relate my experience to a group of people on Facebook talking about exactly this issue, I was reamed for daring to offer a point of view and was told outright that unless I have kids my opinion didn’t count. This is, of course, some cliched martyr melodrama that only exacerbates the problem – a parent afraid to give their kids responsibility will raise an irresponsible adult, which is why we see so many young adults these days who can’t do even the most basic tasks in the kitchen. The idea that by giving a kid “every advantage” with lessons and sports teams helps them excel in life is smashed when those same kids grow up incapable of taking care of themselves because Mom and Dad didn’t expect them to do their fair share. And, as Schulte relates, it leaves the parents harried and stressed – doing all the chores themselves while also doing everything else for their kids, to the point where most working adults don’t get enough sleep, have an ongoing to-do list and can never find a scrap of time for their own enjoyment.

But Schulte also touches upon the status of busy. As a society, we tend to think of having free time – especially time where we’re not actively accomplishing something like a hobby or a craft – as suspect. We’re lazy if we just lay in the grass and stare at the clouds. So we’ve begun to equate busy with important, and as such, we cling to our to-do lists with a death grip because having fifteen things to do is actually what makes us feel good about ourselves. (And could it be that, for parents, having a list of things to do for their kids promotes the idea that they are a good parent?)

Schulte explores the idea of intentional play – people, especially women – making time to do something fun, just for the fun of it. Amusingly, she discovers that most people have a lot of resistance to the idea; taking time just for themselves, doing something “fun” without the kids in tow, and especially doing something with nothing to show for it at the end such as a craft or a batch of jam is really difficult for many people.

Ultimately, Schulte offers no real solutions; Overwhelmed is more of an observation of how things are, and some potential insight as to how things could be… if the US offered paid maternity leave, easy to access child care, didn’t consider fathers caring for kids as weird, and middle-class parents could shrug off the status quo of bouncy castles and over-scheduled kids to be honest – and accepting –  about what they are really able to accomplish in the limited hours in a day.

The biggest irony of Overwhelmed is that the people who really need to read it, the ones who need to be told it’s okay to take an hour for themselves here and there… won’t be able to find the time.