Overwhelmed, Part III: We expect too much of modern mothers

March 17, 2015
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By Lea Z. Singh |

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This is the third part of my book review of Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2014). (Also check out Part I and Part II).

Here, I discuss Part Three: Love, where Schulte examines our societal beliefs about motherhood and fatherhood, discusses the new "cult of intensive motherhood," and thinks about how we can change our culture for the better.

Schulte starts out by discussing how married women still do most of the unpaid work inside the home. "[T]ime studies have found that married women in the United States still do about 70 to 80 percent of the housework, though most of them work for pay, and that once a woman has children, her share of housework increases three times as much as her husband's." (156)

This turned out to be true in Schulte's own life. Both her and her husband had demanding careers as journalists, and both tended to stay late at the office. But at home, Schulte's husband would smoke a cigar and relax, while Schulte would scramble to get things done, taking care of the house, setting up birthday parties, preparing meals, and so on. Their "unintended slide into traditional roles" had happened especially after their children were born, and Schulte felt stuck in a situation that was draining her of all her energy and sanity.

This organization helps parents learn to
"share their work and home lives as full partners".
Schulte ended up asking Third Path to assist
her and her husband with their own home-life impasse.
The ideal mother, the ideal father

Schulte finds that just as our culture has an understanding of the ideal worker, there are also stereotypical role models in the home life: the ideal mother, and the ideal father. The ideal mother is a homemaker who does all the work associated with the home and with child care, while the ideal father is a rather distant provider figure who is busy being the ideal worker in his workplace.

Many people might think they are far too modern to be influenced by such outdated stereotypes, but Schulte cites studies which show that these "traditional" parental roles continue to influence almost everyone subconsciously. Even at the start of the 21st Century, the 1950s continue to define our societal understanding of what mothers and fathers are "supposed" to do.  Part of the overwhelm of working mothers can be attributed to the unconscious effort to meet the demands of the "homemaker mother" stereotype even while working outside the home.

We can overcome these stereotypes through a conscious effort at sharing the tasks of the home and family life. This can go a long way towards alleviating the feeling of overwhelm of working mothers, and increasing the happiness of a marriage: "International surveys have found that majorities of men and women in most Western countries say marriages in which both partners share work, child care, and household duties are the most satisfying." (164)

The cult of intensive motherhood

Many of today's mothers are trying to be both the ideal worker and the ideal homemaker mother. As if that wasn't enough to cause overwhelm and burnout, there is yet another new societal norm for them to conform to. Starting in the mid-1980s, a new phenomenon was born which Schulte terms "intensive motherhood."

Think: Martha Stewart. Think: endless crafts, cool at-home projects, and other intensive "quality time" with the kids. Many mothers today (not just working mothers) are haunted by the guilt of not spending enough time and not doing enough stuff with their children. There is competitive pressure to be the kids' chief social planner and entertainer, to fill their lives with enriching activities and play dates, to throw the best birthday parties. Kids have no free time anymore, and neither do mothers, who have morphed into "helicopter moms", always hovering and injecting themselves into every detail of their children's lives.

The ratcheting-up of motherhood is not just in our heads. "Time studies now show that mothers' time with children has been climbing steeply, at the expense of sleep, personal care, and leisure, ever since...1985." (180). It turns out that working mothers today are spending at least as much time with their kids as homemaker mothers used to in the 1970s, while stay-at-home moms today are spending far more hours with their kids than previous generations of homemaker mothers.

Personally, I find this very true, and I see it playing out all around me. One of the reasons, I believe, is that kids are no longer free to roam the neighbourhood, as they once were, so visits with friends are often scheduled and require driving. Perhaps another reason is urban sprawl, again creating the need to drive everywhere, forcing mothers to become their children's personal assistants and chauffeurs. And then there is the fact that, since everyone is competing with the Joneses, every kid now needs to participate in a zillion activities and sports.

Interestingly, Schulte puts homeschooling into the category of intensive motherhood, and I can't but agree with her. As one homeschooling mother told Schulte: "homeschooling sucks up every moment of your life." (186). This is true in my experience as well, at least for those who don't just throw up their hands and leave their children to their own devices (sometimes called "unschooling").

Homeschooling is indeed a very demanding task, especially when there are several children involved. It's yet another full-time job for the mother: the job of teacher, of every subject. What's more, it can actually be the equivalent of several full-time jobs, as some moms are simultaneously juggling the education of kindergarten, elementary school, middle school and even high school kids. Think of all the curricula, projects, trips, activities, etc. that have to be planned and carried out, and the incredible number of hats these homeschooling moms have to wear each day. It's a gigantic task that can easily create the feeling of overwhelm.

Mothers never had to do it alone

As it turns out, the kind of intensive mothering that has become an ideal in our society is neither traditional nor "natural". One of the most interesting parts of this book was the section where Schulte explores how mothers have cared for their children for millenia. (191-194) She discovers some very important facts:

First, for thousands of years, mothers had lots of help in raising their children. "Alloparents" were trusted and nurtuting adults who helped to care for and educate the child. These included the father, older siblings, grandparents, extended family members, neighbours, and many other tribal or village members. These people provided all kinds of support for the mother, so that she was never the sole caretaker of her children. (While Schulte doesn't say so, it is also a fact that these people helped the mother with her other tasks as well: preparing meals, for instance, was often a communal work.) Here is one interesting passage:
Anthropologists studying [contemporary] primitive hunter-gatherer bands...report that in every one, babies are passed around to others - both male and female - almost from the moment of birth. And everyone helps care for and feed the children. Among the Efe of Central Africa, researchers found that babies average fourteen different caretakers in the first days of life. By the time a child turns four, he or she will have spent 60 percent of his or her daylight hours in the arms of alloparents. (194)
Second, most mothers in history have been "working mothers", in the sense that they had to travel long distances, haul water, forage for food and supplies, tend the fields, and carry out many other survival tasks, even while caring for their children. Most mothers were in no position to run around their children all day and make them the constant center of their lives and attention. Quite on the contrary, children were often cared for by older alloparents while the young, strong mothers carried out the hard labour of communal survival.

Schulte's findings in this section really resonate with me. There are still societies in the world where it is much more normal for mothers to make use of a network of cooperative alloparents, and I started my own life in one of them.

In Czechoslovakia under Communism, people could hardly travel and families lived in the same dwellings and with the same neighbours for multiple generations. My mother was often able to leave me with my great-grandmother, and I also spent a lot of time with my maternal and paternal grandparents. This kind of babysitting felt incredibly natural and organic - these alloparents were family, and they loved me as a parent does. They were also able to teach me new things, and actually helped to make me familiar with my own family history and to root me in the world. Because of the availability of alloparents, my mother could spend time apart from me without having to use paid babysitters or leave me in institutional care.

In North American society, the availability of alloparents is at an all-time low. Families live far apart, everyone is incredibly busy, and retired people may now have plans that don't involve providing a supportive alloparent role to younger generations. As a result, the nuclear family is very, very alone. The parents are left to do it all themselves; what this really means in practice is that mothers are expected to do almost everything. No wonder many of us are so overwhelmed.

Toughen up your kids

My favourite part of this section is Schulte's discovery that overscheduling our kids with activities, sports and other education and enrichment actually doesn't work. It doesn't produce the kinds of results that parents are looking for: it doesn't actually lead to happy or successful adults. Says Schulte:
Today's overhelicoptered children, bred on parental overpraise and the worship of self-esteem, are entitled, spoiled, self-centered, value being rich, have inflated egos, and feel...miserable. They feel they don't have the power to control their own destiny....they tend to be cynical and feel easily victimized. And having been so programmed all their lives, they hit young adulthood and aren't even sure of what they like, much less who they are. All that schlepping around in the car, from voice lessons to the tutor to baseball practice, doesn't build the intimacy or the independence that gives rise to a quality that researchers are finding is hey to both success and happiness. A quality they call grit. (208)
What is grit? "Grit is the ability to set your mind to something and stick with it when the going gets hard." Grit is what really gets us through life: "The more grit, the more likely you are to follow a passion, persevere, and do the sometimes arduous work on your own to reach a goal. And the more you do that, research shows, the more likely you are to be happy." (208)

So how can you teach grit to your kids? "Let your children struggle." It turns out that being challenged, even having some anguish in their lives, is good for children. Letting children resolve their own conflicts is good for them. Stop coming to your kids' rescue, and let them develop creative problem solving skills. Allow them to take risks, try new things, follow their own inklings, and make mistakes.

That's it for now. In the final installment of this book review, I will discuss the rest of Overwhelmed, where Schulte discusses leisure time and gives suggestions for how to reform our own lives away from being overwhelmed.






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