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Author Brigid Schulte has a job, a house, a husband, several children, and a whole lot of stress.  She's also just written a book, available online and at your favorite bookstore, called Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, about how we've taken on way more than we can handle, what it's doing to our lives and our families, and  how we can learn to live differently.  She graciously made time for my questions, both here and in my next post on this blog.

Do fathers and mothers experience overwhelm differently?

Absolutely! Right now, mothers are still doing twice the housework and child care, even if they work outside the home, and they tend to be both the “default” parent in charge of the time-sensitive tasks, like getting out the door on time, and the one in charge of all family logistics, delegating to others and to the “helper” parent or the “fun” parent, that Dads tend to be, time studies show. What that means? Mothers’ time is “contaminated” – meaning they carry in their heads long, long lists of all the stuff that needs to get done at work and at home, which crowds the brain – the working memory can only hold seven pieces of information at any one time - and can make you feel like you’re running a race, as I wrote in my book, wearing ski boots.

Has family life really changed in the past few decades?

Yes and no. One of the most astounding findings to me was that, for fathers who WANT to be more involved at home, more of the full partners that the feminists always imagined men would be when women entered the workforce, the workplace is actually MORE punishing. Men who seek to deviate from the “ideal worker” standard of total work devotion – all in, all the time – are seen as wimps, weirdos, not as committed to their jobs and more likely to be passed over for big assignments or promotions or even fired, some fascinating social science is finding. What that means? Men are trapped at work. And women, because the workplace tends to tolerate flexibility for mothers, are left carrying the double burden. So what really needs to change are workplace cultures. It’s troubling, but at the same time strangely hopeful, that men are beginning to feel the same time pressure and conflict between work and home demands now that women did 30 years ago. Some surveys show they’re even MORE stressed out than mothers. So with both parents overwhelmed, parents we ARE on the verge of a full-fledged family movement.  

Are there effective strategies to fight back against the time famine?

Yes! Overwhelm, or stress, is caused by the inability to predict or control your time. The more you can find ways to do that, and to find oases of calm, the better your time will feel. I deliberately searched for Bright Spots in my book, places where change is already underway that can be sources of inspiration and hope. While I argue for change on a larger scale, that may not come for a generation or two. So, to live our best lives right here, right now, I try to remember four things:

  1. Awareness. It’s not just you. Be aware of the larger and powerful cultural and historical forces at play. Our brains are wired for unconscious bias – equating men with career and women with home. To disrupt that – reprogram your brain, putting images of the ideal life you’d like to lead around you.
  2. Pause. Regularly. Step off the gerbil wheel and ask yourself questions. Are you baking those cupcakes at 2 am for the kids’ Valentines’ Day party because you really want to, and because it will create a closer connection to your kids, or are you doing it because you think you have to, or want to show the other mothers, the school administrators, the world, that you’re a good mother? Understand mothering standards have ratcheted up like crazy since the 1980s, and they don’t necessarily make you a better mother. Me? Baking cupcakes at 2 am turned me into a bitch the next day, snapping at the very children I was attempting to force closer connections to
  3. Set your own priorities. You. Not Martha Stewart. Not the mother down the street with the perfect house, the tiny waist, the perfect, high-achieving, artistic kids. And make you, your own health and wellbeing a priority, too. It will make you a better worker, mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, employee and human being.
  4. Find a network of like-minded supportive people. Humans are social beings wired to conform. If the larger society requires you to work crazy hours at the office, or to hyperparent or to be perpetually busy, to overschedule your kids to fit in, and it’s not what you want, it’s hard to push back from that all by yourself. Find others who want to set their own course. Meet regularly, in person, by phone or virtually. Listen. Support. Don’t judge. Experiment. Keep at it. Make your own way.

In the next post, Brigid addresses maternal guilt and anxiety, and how we can get ourselves out of this mess!

'Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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