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Valerie Young's picture

Two weeks ago I posted the first part of my interview with Brigid Schulte, Washington Post reporter and author of Overwhelmed; Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, her just-published study of the effect of living at warp speed and the unrealistic and unnecessary expectations of workers and parents.  You can refresh your memory of Part One here, if you like, before reading the concluding portion of my interview below.


 How do our cultural expectations of motherhood interact with overwhelm?  Do they exacerbate it?  Do maternal guilt and anxiety play a part?

Guilt is the default emotion for mothers these days. Working mothers feel guilty if they work. I did – for years, I was soaked in poisonous guilt that clouded my vision and I made really stupid decisions – like the day my after school babysitter called at the last minute to say she couldn’t take my daughter to ballet and I, without thinking, though I was on a really tight deadline, automatically assumed that I should, that somehow her childhood would be ruined if I didn’t take her to ballet – though I was a stressed out, Blackberry-wielding, cursing harpy the whole way there. Right now, the “Ideal Mother” standard is impossibly out of proportion and far higher than it’s ever been – even as most mothers of children under 18 work in the marketplace.

Why? It all starts with ambivalence. Surveys show that no one feels good about mothers of young kids working (Hello? Paid parental leave? Flexible workplaces that recognized good work without being a facetime warrior? On and off ramps that let people dial up, down, sideways and back up based on their family needs? Family policies that didn’t pretend every family was a breadwinner-homemaker family of the 1950s?)

That ambivalence has led to inaction in changing workplace cultures and family policies – why should we make it easier for mothers to work if we’re not sure we want mothers to work at all?  - and to the motherhood penalty in wages and promotion at work. And it has led to guilt at home. But the guilt runs both ways – working mothers feel guilty that they’re not the ideal mother staying home. And mothers at home feel guilty that they’ve given up education and careers, so they feel compelled to make mothering their “job.” Both wind up pushing themselves to extremes just to make the grade.

Adding fuel to the flame is fear – fear of the future, economic anxiety, worry about what kind of world our children will face, all the studies that show that without a college education, kids won’t have much of a chance at a comfortable middle class life. All that fear pushes the hyperparenting, overscheduling – we want to make sure our kids don’t fall behind or are left out. And because mothers are still the default parent – all that worry, schleping around, scheduling and organizing still falls on mom.

 What kind of relationship do husbands and wives have to have to successfully limit overwhelm?

I had one of those “aha” moments writing the book when I read how couples who set out to have egalitarian marriages gradually slip into traditional gender roles after the birth of their first child. I realized that’s exactly what happened to my husband and me. We both just assumed that I was the “natural” parent – that I was wired for it. My husband never took parental leave, even though his company at the time had a policy on the books, because he knew it would be the kiss of death for him. It was just not something men did. And I felt, both because of my guilt and because I wanted to, that I should be the one to take them to the doctor, the dentist, to flex my schedule, to stay home when they were sick.

I loved finding out that men, too, are wired for nurture. That men, too, have biological and hormonal changes when they become fathers. That all humans, even strangers, have brains wired to nurture and bond with babies. And that the biggest reason throughout history for why mothers have taken charge is TIME. Think about it – you’re breastfeeding, you get to know early on what this fuss means, what that cry means. And most men haven’t simply haven’t had the TIME to develop the same expertise. That’s why I’ve become a big proponent of men taking solo parental leave, or barring that, if it’s just not possible because of workplace or financial constraints, then to set aside a regular part of the week that’s Daddy time. And Mom – leave. That’s when you get your “me time.” You do deserve it. And, time studies have found, that when men take solo parental leave, three years later, their marriages have a much fairer division of labor. They are much more likely to be full partners sharing care than the “fun” or “helper” parent. That clears up a lot of the “mental labor” of contaminated time that women have experienced – which keeps distracted and from being able to live fully in the moment.

But even if you’re past that point, there’s hope for change. My husband and I had been married 20 years, our division of labor completely out of whack, before I started working with ThirdPath Institute, recognizing how I, too, had contributed to our unequal division of labor. We began to talk. To set common standards. To divide tasks fairly. To keep each other accountable – if Tom didn’t do the dishes like we’d agreed, I no longer just did them for him – I snapped a photo on my iphone and texted him with a line: “Really?” Then, even though I was working at home, I’d leave them in the sink until he returned. We’re still  a work in progress. We experiment. We get it wrong. We get it right. We try something new. But I feel like it’s no longer just me carrying the load at home and with the kids, we’re finally working as a team.

Thanks so much Brigid, and best of luck with the book!   Gentle reader, I hope you can set aside some time to read it.

'Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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