How to cope with life’s ‘overwhelm’
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By Brigid Schulte
Do you ever feel there’s no time to do all the tasks you have to do, and still less to start the fun things you’d like to do?
Do you feel overwhelmed by the sensation that diminishing time comes with a shortfall in happiness? And that – while some lucky people can focus on fashionable “mindfulness” – you are hurtling towards the grave, frantically clutching your smartphone and playing deaf to your children’s needs?
If so, according to Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte, you are in tune with the rest of the Western world, where the greatest privilege seems to be the right to chase your own tail until you drop dead.
She writes: “Time never changes. There will always and ever be 168 hours in a week.” The secret is time management, and we are getting worse at it.
Of course, all our ancestors didn’t have to contend with the cacophony of sound that is the modern world: the voices within your head and all around that tell you your best just isn’t good enough.
Worry, feel guilty, strive to do better, take your iPad to bed… this is the modern way. Tired already?
Mother-of-two Brigid Schulte was certainly exhausted when she began this lively, personal, eye-opening study of how we fail to cope with (as the subtitle puts it) “work, love and play when no one has the time”.
She describes the frantic juggling that countless working mothers will recognise: “I have baked Valentine’s cupcakes until 2am and finished writing (newspaper) stories at 4am. My to-do list never ends. I have yet to do a family budget after meaning to for nearly 20 years.
“The laundry lies in such a huge, perpetually unfolded mound that my daughter has taken a dive in and gone for a swim.”
The author uses a new noun – the overwhelm – to describe this state of being a hapless hamster set permanently on a pointless wheel.
She talks to sociologists, neuroscientists, time-management experts, psychologists, economists, politicians and employers, as well as working parents overwhelmed by the overwhelm.
The real and sometimes moving sense of this book being a personal quest gives it a serious edge over other studies of workplace inequality and male-female roles within the home, as well as the endless self-help tomes about work-life balance.
It’s a masterly combination of social observation, interview, statistics and riveting human stories. Schulte’s honesty is appealing.
She tells us that when she is clearing up after a child’s party, her husband, Tom (also a successful journalist) is smoking a cigar on the patio. She then describes how they went about changing the way they shared chores and childcare. It should be required reading for all married couples.
Schulte’s private intention was to change the way she thought and acted by examining the three vital arenas of human life – work, love and play – and asking two questions: “Why are things the way they are? How can they be better?”
She offers copious statistics and case studies. For example, both parents now spend more than half their waking hours multitasking. That is double what they did in 1975 – “and operating under the weight of so much constant stress, the brain is not changed for the better”.
This is due partly to a neurotic inability to switch off from work, and partly to an insistence on perfectionism, which leaves even the full-time mothers she interviews full of guilt and exhaustion.
Do you really have to bake cupcakes for the school fete, lady? Couldn’t you buy them? But the working mother like Schulte compensates for her guilt by staying up until 4am to bake the damn cakes. She can’t be seen to fail, to be anything less than Superwoman.
“Competitive mothering” is a pernicious addition to the time burden of women in the early 21st century.
The author brilliantly demolishes the “cult of intensive motherhood”, that it’s not just “helicopter parents” who do too much for their children: “When children learn to resolve their own conflicts, without mom or dad swooping in to the rescue, they build grit, self-confidence, and the creative problem-solving skills that lead to academic achievement.”
We can give thanks we do not live in the US, which has (Schulte says) the most child- and parent-unfriendly workplace policies in the West. In contrast, she takes us on an uplifting journey to Denmark, where she finds attitudes to work, love and play which inspire her – and made me (hard-working mother turned grandmother) rather wish I had my time all over again, to be more like the Danes. They seem to place leisure time on the pedestal it deserves, and see no kudos in working long hours.
The final chapters are about optimism, gratitude and finding time for serenity. Does that sound rather “new age”? Believe me, it’s not.
There is much wisdom here – Schulte points out that the Greeks had two words for time. Chronos is the time that is lived by the clock. And Kairos is “when time is not a number on a dial, but the enormity of the experience inside it”.
That is what makes you stop short, look at someone you love, or at the glint of dew on the grass – and feel gratitude.
The powerful message here is to seize that time, breathe yourself into peacefulness and say: “Here is the best place to be.” – Daily Mail