Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

by Brigid Schulte


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Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte

Can working parents in America—or anywhere—ever find true leisure time?

According to the Leisure Studies Department at the University of Iowa, true leisure is "that place in which we realize our humanity." If that's true, argues Brigid Schulte, then we're doing dangerously little realizing of our humanity. In Overwhelmed, Schulte, a staff writer for The Washington Post, asks: Are our brains, our partners, our culture, and our bosses making it impossible for us to experience anything but "contaminated time"?

Schulte first asked this question in a 2010 feature for The Washington Post Magazine: "How did researchers compile this statistic that said we were rolling in leisure—over four hours a day? Did any of us feel that we actually had downtime? Was there anything useful in their research—anything we could do?"

Overwhelmed is a map of the stresses that have ripped our leisure to shreds, and a look at how to put the pieces back together. Schulte speaks to neuroscientists, sociologists, and hundreds of working parents to tease out the factors contributing to our collective sense of being overwhelmed, seeking insights, answers, and inspiration. She investigates progressive offices trying to invent a new kind of workplace; she travels across Europe to get a sense of how other countries accommodate working parents; she finds younger couples who claim to have figured out an ideal division of chores, childcare, and meaningful paid work. Overwhelmed is the story of what she found out.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374228446
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/11/2014
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Brigid Schulte is an award-winning journalist for The Washington Post and The Washington Post Magazine, and was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize. She is also a fellow at the New America Foundation. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband and their two children.

Read an Excerpt


Work, Love, and Play When No One has the Time

By Brigid Schulte

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2014 Brigid Schulte
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4587-5



Time is the soul of this world. —Pythagoras

It is just after 10 a.m. on a Tuesday and I am racing down Route 1 in College Park, Maryland. The Check Engine light is on. The car tax sticker on my windshield has expired. The cell phone I'd just been using to talk to one of my kids' teachers has disappeared into the seat crack. And I'm late.

I screech into the crowded University of Maryland parking garage and wind ever higher until I at last find a spot on the top deck. My palms are sweating. My breath is shallow. My heart races and I feel slightly sick. I throw the car into Park, fumble ineptly with the parking ticket machine, and race down the stairs.

Only later, in revisiting this frantic day in my memory, will I realize that the sky had been that poignant shade of autumn blue and the leaves tinted with red. But as I live it, the stress hormones coursing through my veins tense my entire body and collapse my vision into a narrow, dizzying tunnel. Because I am filled with dread.

This is the day I have been avoiding for more than a year. Today, I am meeting with John Robinson, a sociologist who for more than a half century has studied the way people spend their most precious, nonrenewable resource: time. Robinson was one of the first social scientists in the United States to begin collecting detailed time diaries, counting the hours of what typical people do on a typical day, and publishing scholarly tomes summing up the way we live our lives. For his pioneering work, his colleagues call him Father Time. And Father Time has challenged me to keep a time diary of my own.

He told me that his research proves that I, a hair-on-fire woman struggling to work a demanding full-time job as a reporter for The Washington Post and be the kind of involved mother who brings the Thanksgiving turkey for the preschool feast and puts together the fifth-grade slide show, have thirty hours of leisure time in a typical week.

Today, he is to dissect the mess of my time diaries and show me where all that leisure time is. I feel as if I am a bug, pinned on a specimen tray, about to be flayed and found wanting.

Because this is how it feels to live my life: scattered, fragmented, and exhausting. I am always doing more than one thing at a time and feel I never do any one particularly well. I am always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door. Entire hours evaporate while I'm doing stuff that needs to get done. But once I'm done, I can't tell you what it was I did or why it seemed so important. I feel like the Red Queen of Through the Looking-Glass on speed, running as fast as I can—usually on the fumes of four or five hours of sleep—and getting nowhere. Like the dream I keep having about trying to run a race wearing ski boots.

And, since I had kids, I don't think I've ever had a typical day.

There was the morning my son tae kwon do roundhouse kicked me when I went to wake him up, which sent my coffee splattering over every single book on his bookshelf. I hurriedly wiped the pages dry so they wouldn't stick together and render the entire library useless. Which of course made me glaringly late for work and threw my plans for the day into the shredder. My sister Mary has these kinds of days, too. She calls them Stupid Days.

There was the day when my husband, Tom, was overseas again and I flew in late to a meeting with school officials to discuss why our then-ten-year-old son, who knew more about World War II than I ever will, was floundering in fifth grade. I dragged along our second grader, still in her pajamas and slippers because she'd stayed home sick. And I nervously kept an eye on my BlackBerry because I was in the middle of reporting a horrific deadline story about a graduate student who'd been decapitated at an Au Bon Pain.

Then there was the time when the amount of work I needed to do pressed so heavily on my chest that I'd said no when my daughter asked, "Mommy, will you please come with me on my field trip today?" We'd been through this before, I told her. I couldn't come with her on every field trip. Then her big blue-gray eyes started to water. I felt all the breath drain out of me. I thought, at the end of my life, would I remember whatever assignment it was that seemed so urgent—I don't even recall it now—or would I remember a beautiful day in the woods with a daughter who had been struggling with unexplained stomachaches, was socially wobbly since her best friend moved away, and who still wanted me to be with her? I went. I spent three hours in the woods with her, guiltily checking my BlackBerry, then, after putting her to bed that night, went back to work for another four.

I have baked Valentine's cupcakes until 2 a.m. and finished writing stories at 4 a.m. when all was quiet and I finally had unbroken time to concentrate. I have held what I hope were professional-sounding interviews sitting on the floor in the hall outside my kids' dentist's office, in the teachers' bathroom at school functions, in the car outside various lessons, and on the grass, quickly muting the phone after each question to keep the whooping of a noisy soccer practice to a minimum. Some appliance is always broken. My to-do list never ends. I have yet to do a family budget after meaning to for nearly twenty years. The laundry lies in such a huge, perpetually unfolded mound that my daughter has taken a dive in it and gone for a swim.

At work, I've arranged car pools to ballet and band practice. At home, I am constantly writing and returning e-mails, doing interviews and research for work. "Just a sec," I hear my daughter mimicking me as she mothers her dolls. "Gimme a minute." She has stuck yellow Post-it notes on my forehead while I sit working at the computer to remind me to come upstairs for story time.

My editors can recount every deadline I've blown. My son, Liam, once recited every single one of the handful of honors assemblies or wheezy recorder concerts I'd missed in his entire life. I was even failing our cat, Max. I asked someone at the pet store what I could do to make him stop scratching up the carpets. "He thinks you're his mother. He's showing he needs more attention from you," she'd said. "Can't you find time to play with him every day?"

"Can't I just squirt water at him instead?"

At night, I often wake in a panic about all the things I need to do or didn't get done. I worry that I'll face my death and realize that my life got lost in this frantic flotsam of daily stuff. Once, my sister Claire told me that when you smile, it releases some chemical in the brain and calms anxiety. I have tried smiling. At 4 a.m. In bed. In the dark.

It didn't work.

On some level, I know that who we are depends very much on how we choose to spend this ten minutes or that hour. I know from all those bumper stickers that this is my one and only life, and from the Romans that time flies. And I know from the Buddhists that we should embrace the moment. I wake with every good intention of making the most of my day—to do good work, to spend quality time with my children, to eat less trail mix, to stop driving off with my wallet on top of the car. But then one of the kids throws up, or the babysitter calls in sick, or the kitchen faucet starts gushing water, or some story breaks and everything collapses.

I fast-walk across the University of Maryland campus like it's Judgment Day. I'm hoping these hectic, tardy, and chaotic little scraps of time that I've been tracking will add up to a meaningful life. But as I rush into the sociology building where Robinson works, I'm more afraid they'll show anything but. I'm terrified that all the mess that I usually keep stuffed behind a friendly, competent, professional, if harried, veneer will come spilling out.

"Sorry to be late," I apologize breathlessly. John Robinson just shrugs. He is, I would soon find out, no slave to the clock. He is seventy-four years old. Tall, thin, and stooped, he wears khaki pants, a canary yellow polo shirt, and sensible shoes. His long, wispy gray hair is styled in a Beatles mop top. Robinson leads me into a conference room, saying he'd rather meet here than in his office. (I would later discover why.)

We sit. I reach into my backpack and pull out two little black Moleskine notebooks, 3¾ inches wide by 5½ inches long, crammed with crazy scribbles. Robinson had challenged me to track my time fully a year and a half earlier. I had been part of an internal work group at the Washington Post researching why so few women were reading the newspaper. "Maybe we should just hire them all babysitters," one male editor had joked. But it was serious business. In previous eras, women were always among the most faithful newspaper subscribers. But these days, only women of a certain age in retirement seemed to have the time. We began talking to women between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine and heard responses that all sounded something like this:

"I read the paper, typically at midnight, in bed ... I have no time in the morning. I do everything in the house. I pay all the bills, take out the trash, I've got the dry cleaning in the car. So in the morning, when my husband is reading the paper, I'm in constant motion getting the girls to school and getting ready for work. Men are different. They could read the newspaper with piles of laundry all around them. I can't."

One woman confessed that she canceled the paper because the unread stack became a nagging reminder of all the things she hadn't been able to get to. "It's just one more thing to feel bad about."

The internal working group, many of us mothers and caregivers frantically grabbing scraps of time to read the newspaper we worked for ourselves, soon learned that market researchers call our demographic "frenetic families." It was my job to get the time-use data showing how busy and time-starved women are, particularly mothers. Not knowing where to start, I Googled "time busy women," and up popped John Robinson.

When I called him, I told him we thought women were stretched too thin to read the newspaper.

"Wrong," Robinson interrupted.

"Women have time," he said. "They have at least thirty hours of leisure every week. It's not as much as men, but women have more leisure now than they did in the 1960s, even though more women are working outside the home."

I blinked. Hard. I felt like I'd been clonged on the head with a frying pan.

I quickly ran through what I could remember of the previous week. I'd been up until some ungodly hour the night before making my son finish a homework project. I did have a day off for having worked a weekend shift, but I spent it avoiding doing the taxes by cleaning the oven, and on the phone with Apple customer service trying to figure out why all the icons on the Mac had turned into question marks. The only activities that, with some stretching, I would consider "leisure" were our usual Family Pizza Movie Night on Friday, a seventy-five-minute yoga class on Saturday morning, and a family dinner at a friend's house with the kids in tow. There were the few minutes each night when I struggled to keep my eyes open long enough to read more than the same paragraph of a book. But thirty hours?

"I don't know what you're talking about," I finally managed to sputter. "I don't have thirty hours of leisure time every week."

"Yes, you do," he'd said. "Come and do a time study with me, and I'll show you where your leisure time is."

* * *

I put it off for months. Part of me wanted to prove Robinson was wrong. Some days I felt so overwhelmed I could barely breathe. But honestly, I was more afraid than angry. What if Father Time was right? What if he found that I was squandering my time? Frittering away those precious Buddhist moments? Wasting my one and only life? What if I did have thirty hours of leisure and was simply too stressed out, disorganized, neurotic, or something to notice?

Truthfully, I've never been good with time. A friend once stole my watch as we traveled through Asia after college and set it ten minutes ahead, so we wouldn't keep missing our trains. Another, shaking his head as I crammed writing seven incomplete term papers into the last week of college, told me, "You, my dear, spend time as if you had a discount." As a kid, I constantly ran out the door with shoes and toothbrush in hand to get to school or to church.

Working and becoming a mother had just pushed me over the edge.

So I had to wonder, was it just me? Were other people more focused, better organized, or just plain better at figuring out how to make time to do good work, be a good parent, fold the laundry and, as our Declaration of Independence spells out, pursue happiness in their abundant leisure time?

I asked friends. They asked their friends. I sent out queries to Listservs and on social media. "Looking for moms with leisure time." I got answers back like this one:

"If you find her, I think I'd probably put her in a museum, next to Big Foot, a Unicorn, a Mermaid and a politician who doesn't play dirty. I honestly think the only moms who have leisure time also have 'staff.' I manage about 5 hours a week for working out, but that's not really leisure—just less expensive than psychotherapy."

One friend counted fifteen hours of leisure a week. Another, stretched between her work as a psychotherapist in New York and caring for her busy toddler and her dying mother-inlaw, didn't even try. "What I would give for a bunch of Mormon sister wives or a few Muslim harem mates," she e-mailed. "So tired I cannot speak." My friend Marcia reminded me that our husbands made time for their monthly neighborhood Del Ray Dads' beer-drinking outings in the neighborhood, but that our attempts for a similar Moms' night fizzled. Everyone was too busy. And, she said, even when she did have the occasional night out, her husband and kids continually called asking her where they needed to be or where they could find their stuff. "I feel like I never sit down," said one mother of two who had recently quit her job as an attorney. "Except in the car." Another mother said that if she found herself with a free moment, she spent it anxiously asking herself what she was forgetting. "I can't seem to get myself to just relax and enjoy the moment," she said. "I have to find something, anything, to do, because that's what I'm usually doing—something."

When I read that some social scientists thought the time crunch was really an indulgent "yuppie kvetch," I asked a friend who works with working-poor immigrant families if I could come to one of their monthly evening meetings. A group of about fifty people gathered in the cafeteria of the local high school. As I went from table to table, many explained how they cobbled together two or three part-time, low-paying jobs to pay the rent. They lived in apartments with two and sometimes three other families. They couldn't afford child care and shuffled their kids from an abuela to a neighbor to a TV set somewhere or hauled them along to work. They spent their time worrying about homework they didn't understand and were too afraid to ever ask for time off to care for a sick child or meet with a teacher. Standing in front of the group, I asked them if they felt rushed and could never do in a day all the things they wanted and needed to do. All fifty hands shot up. I asked if they ever had time for leisure, to relax. They stared at me in silence. Finally, one woman responded in Spanish. "Maybe at church," she said. "Or when I sleep."

As I began to think more about leisure time, I realized that I kept putting it off, like I was waiting to reach some tipping point: If I could just finish picking all the weeds, chopping the invasive bamboo, cleaning out the crayons and shark teeth and math papers and toys and bits of shells and rocks and too-small clothes in the kids' closets, buy more cat food, fix the coffeepot, complete this story assignment, pay these bills, fill out those forms, make that phone call, send this wedding present five months late—then I could sit down and read a book. As if leisure was something I needed to earn. Even when I seemed to have some free time, it was often for such a short period that I was at a loss for what to do with it. So I just went on to the next item on the to-do list.

As a kid, I remember losing myself for hours in imaginary worlds, playing with marbles or LEGOs or dolls or in the woods behind our house in Oregon. I remember playing the piano and long hours spent splayed across my bed reading. But I also remember that my mother, usually with a basket of laundry in hand, would come across me and sigh, "I wish I had the time to do that." Did I somehow absorb the idea that becoming an adult, a mother, meant giving up time for the things that give you joy?

I talked to mothers who said they both loved and dreaded the holidays. They both longed for and loathed vacations. "So much work," they said. And even when it appeared on the outside as if they were all having fun—going to the pool or taking a family bike ride—on the inside, they said, they were often preoccupied. They were thinking about the car pool they needed to set up, worrying about the homework that was due, the groceries to buy, and all the while, taking emotional temperatures and making sure everyone else was happy. Their brains whirred in perpetual logistics mode.


Excerpted from Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte. Copyright © 2014 Brigid Schulte. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



1. The Test of Time

2. Leisure Is for Nuns

3. Too Busy to Live

4. The Incredible Shrinking Brain


5. The Ideal Worker Is Not Your Mother

6. A Tale of Two Pats

Bright Spot: Starting Small

7. When Work Works

Bright Spot: The Pentagon Can Do It, Why Can't You?


8. The Stalled Gender Revolution

9. The Cult of Intensive Motherhood

Bright Spot: Mother Nature

10. New Dads

Bright Spot: Gritty, Happy Kids


11. Hygge in Denmark

12. Let Us Play

Bright Spot: Really Plan A Vacation


13. Finding Time

Bright Spot: Time Horizons

14. Toward Time Serenity

Appendix: Do One Things




Reading Group Guide

An award-winning journalist and harried mother of two, Brigid Schulte spent her days racing from one deadline to the next. A good night's sleep and leisure time? Impossible in her demanding world. Yet researchers insist that Americans are actually rolling in leisure time; it's the perception of busyness we're addicted to. In Overwhelmed, Schulte speaks to neuroscientists, sociologists, and hundreds of working parents to examine the factors contributing to our collective sense of being overwhelmed. She investigates progressive offices that have invented a liberating yet highly productive kind of workplace. She travels across Europe, where shorter work hours and longer vacation periods are the cultural norm. And she examines her own communities to uncover the roots of our seemingly time-crunched culture. The result is an inspiring new vision of the Good Life—and an urgent, invigorating plan for change.

This guide is designed to enrich your discussion of Overwhelmed. We hope that the following questions will enhance your reading group's experience of Brigid Schulte's timely call to action.

1. If you started keeping a time diary, what categories would you want to create? Would you follow John Robinson's definition of leisure? Which category consumes most of your time right now?

2. In your family, how has the delegation of household duties changed over the generations? Did your childhood feature many scheduled activities, or did you have unstructured time? Did your parents embrace the idea of leisure and vacations?

3. How have you been affected by the increasing demands placed on salaried workers in an age of 24/7 availability? Who at your company would need to be convinced that reduced work hours and increased flexibility in scheduling could actually lead to increased productivity and profit?

4. How did you react to the author's interviews with Pat Buchanan and other traditionalists? What sustains their point of view?

5. What would it take for programs such as the Menlo Innovations approach in Ann Arbor and the Alternative Work Schedule at the Pentagon to become the norm throughout the United States? What do the book's progressive examples tell us about the best way to achieve change?

6. What are the most frequent contributors to your time confetti? If you could convert all of your confetti into leisure time, would you feel guilty?

7. Discuss the true equality proposed by Jessica DeGroot at ThirdPath Institute. Have you seen it in action in your community?

8. How would you respond to those who say women have only themselves to blame for the inequities they endure in the ratio of leisure time to "on call" time? What enabled Schulte to leave her kids behind and trust Tom? How did that help them work through their impasse?

9. What is at the root of discrimination against working moms, both in the workplace and among certain circles of stay-at-home moms? What do cases such as that of Renate Rivelli, the Brown Palace Hotel employee described in chapter 5, illustrate about the grossly inaccurate perceptions of a working mother's capabilities?

10. How would you answer the central questions posed by Schulte in chapter 9: who's right, what's best, and how do we stop the insanity? What did you learn from her sojourn in Denmark, where work hours are shorter and highly focused while the economy remains robust? How could the concept of hygge help us redefine the ideal standard of living?

11. In your opinion, why does the ideal of the self-sacrificing mother persist, despite the gains of the feminist movement? Why have so many American families resisted the fact that dads also have a parenting instinct, and that a diverse caretaking community can have a highly positive impact on a child's well-being?

12. One of the findings presented in Overwhelmed is the notion that grit and self-confidence, rather than income or GPA, are strong predictors of happiness. What do our barometers of success say about our real values as a society? Is happiness—whose pursuit is touted in the Declaration of Independence—still valued in the United States?

13. Discuss the concept of contaminated time. Knowing that the brain's working memory can hold only seven pieces of information at once, how would you begin to clear your cluttered mind—even if the responsibilities of work and home seem to follow you 24/7? What kind of space would "decontamination" create in your life?

14. Overwhelmed underscores the fact that years of history and cultural conditioning have spurred women to work harder than men, even during supposed time off: If a woman wants to watch TV, she'd better fold some laundry while she's at it. If she'd like to read a book, she should do it on the treadmill. On family "vacations," Mom will make sure that all of the kids' needs are met. Does this ring true for you? Do the men and women in your world manage time differently? If so, what can they do to silence that little voice that says women don't deserve to rest? What would motivate you to give yourself a break, even if it incites uproar at first?

15. Drawing on the author's closing advice to "do one thing," which of her changes will you implement in work, play, and love? What predictions would you make about the way future generations will balance their time among parenting, career, and leisure?

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Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
StitchVP More than 1 year ago
Well-written and well-researched, but a better subtitle would be "work, love, and play when working mothers don't have the time", as I'd say 80% of the page count refers to the overwhelming life of the working mother. That isn't meant to say that's not an important and worthy book, but it's worth noting that bias from the beginning, because a great many people might see the title and reviews and not understand that bias.  Many single non-parents also feel time stress and the feeling of being "overwhelmed" and might be frustrated that the "no one" in the subtitle often doesn't include them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A must read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed the book a lot and learned about the importance of playing as an adult.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Accurately portrays the stresses people face today in trying to accomplish everything that needs to be done each day, no easy answer here but she does offer some helpful tips