Overwhelmed, Part I: Most of us are stressed for time

March 01, 2015

By Lea Z. Singh |

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I've just finished reading Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2014).

The boring book cover underplays the tour de force that is unleashed within its 286 pages of text. Schulte is a veteran journalist, and it really shows. Her book is written with exceptional rigour, quality and depth. This book should be game-changing.

Overwhelmed is nothing less than a manifesto for an entirely new and better way of structuring our workplaces, reforming our culture, and consciously improving our own lives.

This book is brimming with exceptional research. It's not just statistics. Like a true reporter, Schulte has actually taken the trouble to travel extensively, personally interviewing experts in many different areas, attending conferences, visiting foreign countries, and spending days in the lives of many real mothers and fathers from different walks of life. She brings those interviews and experiences to life in this book with just the right amount of length and detail.

What's more, Schulte's writing reads like the Washington Post Magazine, for which she writes. She is a master at constructing arguments and seamlessly blending in statistics, expressive phrases and vivid life moments. She has also structured her book exceptionally well, her sections flow logically and organically direct the reader towards a greater understanding of the subject.

Finally, there are the ideas. When I started reading this book, I wasn't quite sure what I thought about the overwhelm of working mothers. After all, I am a stay-at-home mother myself. But Schulte has completely convinced me: I am now an advocate for transforming the workplace so that both women and men can be their children's mothers and fathers without having to exit the workforce entirely.

Having finished the book, I've come to understand that being overwhelmed is not something reserved for working mothers. Most people in our culture, including men, are actually teetering at the edge of overwhelm. I now understand the need to shift our social assumptions and our entire culture, including our subconscious expectation that "mothers mother and fathers provide", as well as our excessive societal focus on achievement and our snobbery of leisure time, and build a more healthy culture that values a balanced life for both women and men, mothers and fathers.

To acquaint you more with this book, my goal is to write a series of posts and to discuss it in parts. I will begin today by discussing the first part, entitled "Time Confetti".

Working mothers are surviving in overdrive

In the first part of Schulte's book, she makes the case that many American mothers, including herself, are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of duties and tasks in their lives. They are caught in a whirlwind of "endless, fractured work hours, frantic family time, and crappy bits of leisure time confetti", and steeped in guilt over not being good enough as mothers (Schulte recounts one particularly heartbreaking scene where her own young daughter cries because her mommy is "always at the computer and never spent enough time with her").

Schulte coined the term "time confetti" to describe how her life felt to her, because it was always divided into so many small multitasking particles. She had been feeling particularly overwhelmed, had started waking up in a panic, having sleepless nights, and otherwise losing her mental and physical health to her harried life. She found herself constantly juggling several tasks at the same time, unable to pause, unable to think clearly, unable to rest or relax or to enjoy her own life.

Who else is feeling the "modern squeeze"? Everyone. 

It isn't only full-time working mothers who are feeling overwhelmed. Schulte discovered that part-time work is not the answer either, although "60 percent of the working mothers...surveyed in 2007 said part-time work would be their ideal job situation." (28) As it turns out, researchers have found that part-time working mothers "felt the most time pressure of all. They worked fewer hours in paid work than men but more than made up for it in hours put in on the unpaid job of taking care of the children and the household." (28)

Schulte further discovered that even many stay-at-home mothers are feeling overwhelmed. Many women opted out of the workforce expecting that life would be more relaxed, only to find a continual feeling of being pressed for time. (27)

Moreover, the feeling of being overwhelmed is catching on among men as well. Schulte discusses that "Fathers are beginning to feel as much time stress as mothers, and in some cases, more." Among the fathers of young children in particular, "the number of fathers who felt harried nearly doubled from 1982 to 2004, and a negligible 5 percent of fathers felt they often had time for leisure - far fewer than in previous years." (25)

The feeling of being overwhelmed is not just a middle-class phenomenon. Schulte visited working class families and interviewed poor immigrants as well, and found the phenomenon happening there as well. "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." (9)

The feeling of being overwhelmed is not reserved for big cities, either. Schulte visited sleepy small towns in places like North Dakota, and found that even in these locales, many mothers reported feeling too busy and overwhelmed.

Most disturbing of all, children too are feeling overwhelmed. "The average high school kid today experiences the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient of the 1950s." (56-57)

Why are Americans overwhelmed?

This is the big question of the entire book, with the other big question being: how do we reduce this feeling of overwhelm and time confetti in our own lives? Schulte progresses through the various causes in a very organic manner and covers all the bases, section by section. In the first section, several causes for the overwhelm are identified:

1. Americans are overworked. "nearly 40 percent of American workers...from the top to the bottom of the socieoeconomic ladder, report feeling overworked. They work among the longest hours and the most 'extreme' hours of any industrialized country in the world. ...Half of the workers they surveyed in 2008 felt there were too many tasks to complete in a typical workweek. Two-thirds said they didn't have enough time for themselves or their spouses, and three-fourths felt they didn't spend enough time with their kids". (26-27)
  • Vacations are almost non-existent: "The United States is the only advanced economy that doesn't guarantee workers paid time off. Nearly one-quarter of all American workers get no paid vacation most of them low-wage and part-time workers. And those whose companies do offer paid vacation get about fourteen days a year, far fewer than the twenty to thirty-day minimums, plus paid national holidays, for workers in other industrialized countries. Even so, nearly six in ten American workers say they don't take all the vacation they've earned, putting the United States simultaneously at the bottom of the global list for vacation time offered and at the top of the list for workers who throw those vacation days away." (27)

2. American women do far more housework and child care than men. (156) In fact, this is a global phenomenon. "One-quarter of Italian men do no housework at all. Men in Japan and South Korea spend less than an hour a day on chores. In South Africa, women do three times the amount of housework and child care that men do, even when the women work and the men are unemployed." (31)

3. Working mothers in particular are functioning in "role overload." "One's brain is stuffed with all the demands of work along with the kids/ calendars, family logistics, and chores." As a result, many women are constantly replaying a mental tape-loop of their to-do list, and they never feel truly relaxed. They have also become relentless multitaskers. Every few minutes throughout their day, mothers switch between their functions as parents and their roles as workers. This need for constant shifting of identities, for constant "stops and starts", is exhausting and exacerbates the sense of a time crunch. (27-29)

  • Mothers today spend more time with their children than previous generations. This is a very surprising finding, especially given the "mommy guilt" of so many working parents. Schulte discovered that "In America, mothers today spend more time taking care of their children than mothers did in the 1960s, even though so many more are working, and working full-time, outside the home." What's more, mothers "have almost tripled the amount of time they spend in high-quality 'interactive care,' reading to and playing with their children." (32-33)

4. Being busy has become a "badge of honor". Schulte talked with researchers who believe that "Somewhere toward the end of the twentieth century...busyness became not just a way of life, but glamorous. Now, they say, it is a sign of high social status."(45)
  • Our culture frowns on leisure time as lazy time, and respects busy time as productive and important. Schulte later talks a great deal about the importance of leisure, which is properly defined as doing something "with no other aim than that it refreshes the soul", including doing things purely for fun or just doing nothing at all (51). 

5. Vicious consumerist "work and spend" cycle: people "drowning in stuff" but still needing more. (53)

Stress causes brain damage

Being overwhelmed actually changes us physically in negative ways. Here are some of those ways:

  • "scientists are finding that when children are exposed to stress - often stemming from the overwhelm of their parents - it can alter not only their neurological and hormonal systems but also their very DNA." (57)
  • "stress can, literally, age someone. A study of more than 13,000 genes in four brain regions found that 667 were expressed differently in men and women. And of those, 98 percent led to more rapid aging in women, something researchers attributed to women's 'higher stress load'".
  • Our brains shrink up to 20% with stress: 'It's really clear. As your adverse life events increase, your gray matter decreases. And if you feel really stressed as well, it decreases even more." (62)
  • Adult women are now the "fastest-growing group not only being diagnosed with ADHD but also using mind-focusing medication to clear the jumble, soaring 264 percent between 2001 and 2011." (65)
Some of the other interesting findings that Schulte discussed in this connection were:
  • A knowledge-based job is far more stressful than a physical labour job like farm work. Physical work helps us cope more with stress, and creates less stress because when things go wrong due to weather, etc., it is not our fault. In a knowledge job, we are expected to control everything, and when things go wrong, we think it is our fault. Also, we have not learned how to control the "unprecedented flow of information coming at us." (62)
  • Researchers have found that the way people feel about the stress in their lives is a far more powerful predictor of their general health - whether they're more likely to be depressed, anxious, smoke cigarettes, or overeat - than any other measure. The perception is more precise, even, than actual stressful life events. In other words, what we think about ourselves and our lives is our reality." (61)
  • "Though it's a popular notion that women's brains are wired to multitask and men's to compartmentalize, neuroscientists have found that's patently untrue." (65)
That's makes for the end of Part One: Time Confetti. In the next installment, I discuss Part Two: Work, where Shulte looks in detail at how the American workplace is not working for us, and how things could change.

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