Review: Brigid Schulte’s OVERWHELMED: WORK, LOVE, AND PLAY WHEN NO ONE HAS TIME

I am just about finished reading Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has Time, and over the course of its pages, I have had many responses, stretching across a broad range of emotions. At the top of all the reactions was, HOLY COW, THIS WOMAN CAN WRITE. Schulte has made me realize why, in this age of disappearing newsprint and byte-sized reporting, a young person might decide to go into journalism. Because Overwhelmed IS journalism, the kind of quality investigation and prose that made me, a person who often struggles with nonfiction reading, continue to pick up this book over the very excellent novel in which I am simultaneously turning pages. And, in one of the very few times I have ever felt this way about a nonfiction book, I am pretty darned crushed and disappointed that this is the only (although hopefully just the first) book that Schulte has published. Because, frankly, I want more of the questions she asks, of the research she collects, and of the exquisite prose she crafts.

Another strong response has been that I am obviously not as cynical as I thought, because–as I read the book–I was beset, over and over and over again, but a heart-compressing, mind-exploding rage. Schulte did thorough research for this project, and she includes a lot of it in the book. Research about law suits that women have had to file, lawsuits about being discriminated against for getting pregnant, for having children, for making family-based choices. Still, in 2014. F*ing still. Okay, logically, rationally, if you’d asked me if this kind of thing were still going on, I’d have said, yes, of course, duh, because I am a cynic. But apparently my heart isn’t. Because I am angry, hurt, disgusted. Yes, the book has been a bit of an eye-opener. I’m not sure what/if anything I will do with this new vision, but it’s better to get it than not. My awareness, at least, has been broadened.

I spent some time while reading and in the spaces between reading thinking once again about Feminism. I am a feminist and, as far back as I can remember, have always been. You don’t grow up a non-feminist when your mother who was one of the first female vet students at UC Davis and your father as a man who considered himself incredibly to have met and married someone who wanted to build a veterinary practice with him, as partners. For me, feminism is a no-brainer. That said, I’m not naive enough to think that everybody agrees on a single definition of the word, or identifies with it in exactly the same way. What I kept thinking as I read Overwhelmed was, do I see this as a work of feminism. I think that Schulte’s primary focus in the book is her research about working women with children and the way in which their lives can and do get out of balance, whether from an outside perspective or their own or both. It makes sense that this should be Schulte’s angle, because it was in this scenario that she found herself basically drowning in, as she calls it, “the overwhelm.” However, I also think that Schulte recognized for herself and recognizes in the book that the overwhelm hits all of us, women without children, women with children who choose to stay home or work from home, men with children and men without children. She delves into work styles of individual and companies; she explores social and individual influences and drivers; she shares her own personal stories and stories of others–men, women, corporations, and governments–all of whom who are trying to find their way. So, yes, I think this book is a feminist book, both with its slant toward the frustration and imbalances still around for women today, but also in the sense that feminism is–at its root–about equality and not giving up on our fights, all of our fights, to achieve it.

And the last big response was the way in which I found myself reading for clues to and ideas about my own overwhelm. Frankly, I think I’m pretty good at leisure. With my reading addiction and my high-level of introversion, I do make plenty of time for curling up with a book and letting myself do just and only that. It’s my recharge time, and I take it. I also don’t have particularly high standards of house-cleaning, cooking, or filling my family’s days and weekends with a long list of activities. And there’s a chapter on play, which adults (women more than men) tend to leave behind with childhood. I’m thinking about this one, but again–my preferred play as a child WAS reading, and I certainly haven’t left that behind. I’m not sure I need to take the trapeze swinging class that Schulte got herself, too, but I can watch for opportunities that make a ping in my brain and see if I want to pursue them. (Seriously, a half-hour or so with Barbie and her camper might do it). So, basically, I’m feeling pretty okay.

EXCEPT…”contaminated time.” I don’t have the book at hand to give you the exact definition, but contaminated time is essentially those minutes (hours?) that we are ostensibly at leisure, but in which our brains are still looping around the to-do list, or future choices we have to make, or questions about whether a past issue is truly resolved and put to bed. And, oh, yes, I do that. Contaminated time is why I go to yoga classes and why I have started meditating and listening to dharma talks. And, yes, the studies Schulte researched do pretty much show that contaminated time is more of a problem for women than for men. Which I believe. Again, I haven’t sat down and decided which, if any steps, I want to take to reduce the contamination of my time. But it’s another place that Schulte has me looking at myself, at my goals, and at what I might want to do differently to achieve them.

When I heard Schulte talk about her book to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, I knew I wanted to read it. But I think I was expecting something like a very well-written, even humorous self-help book. Which I wish there were more of. That is not what I got. And I’m glad. Because Schulte’s research and writing took me out of looking for a quick-fix solution for myself and brought me back into touch with what is such a varied and yet common reality for so many of us. For so many of us women, yes, but also for so many men. She got me thinking in a different way. And that’s always good.

4 thoughts on “Review: Brigid Schulte’s OVERWHELMED: WORK, LOVE, AND PLAY WHEN NO ONE HAS TIME

  1. Jenn Hubbard says:

    This is the battle I’ve been fighting for the past few years now. Part of my process is to accept that I can’t do everything I ever want to do. I want to have 200 years’ worth of experiences in what will be, if I’m lucky, a 100-year lifespan.
    Not to mention all the obligatory stuff. I have to say I resent that the most. For example, I don’t mind so much paying taxes (I’m willing to contribute to the common good), but what I mind is the hours and hours and hours I spend trying to understand the rules, filling out the forms, collecting the paperwork, recording the information, filing, etc.
    Ditto with getting my hair cut, renewing my driver’s license, sending EOBs to my doctor because they never seem to record the health insurance payments properly, reading privacy policies and terms of service, having medical checkups, waiting for late trains, making lunches and picking out my work clothes, etc., etc. I can just feel the precious minutes slipping away as I do these things. I know Buddhists say to do all of it mindfully, but I’m not there yet.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I am so with you on this. It’s the little stuff. I either feel like someone else should be there to do it for me (where did THAT come from?!), or like it shouldn’t take so long or be so frustrating.

      The book is really interesting. Schulte is certainly NOT making the claim that we can do it all (all the good stuff), but I think there’s an argument for some of it every day. Mostly.🙂

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  2. I read this, too, Becky (in part inspired by your earlier post about it). I was impressed by the depth of research. In fact, Schulte kind of made me want to dive deep into some nonfiction topic and write a book. I thought that she was a little bit repetitive here and there (yes, women do twice as much housework as men, ok), and I was personally looking for more ideas for me than ideas for what the government should do. But Overwhelmed definitely made me think, and has continued to do so. I’ve noticed the “contaminated time” more, and all of the things that by default fall to me (thank you notes, keeping track of child’s schedule, etc.). It was definitely worth the read.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I know what you mean about wanting to dig into a nonfiction topic–although I was really craving more books of this type, written this well. Hard to find!

      I can see what you mean about the repetition, but I thought it was a valid point to make in the various categories into which she broke down the book. And, yes, like I said I picked it up thinking: Self-Help, with tactics for me to use. I did take note of the worry journal and the master to-do list, but I already do this. I also do turn on my phone at night and add things to the calendar/list so they’re out of my brain and I have a better chance of getting to sleep.

      I’m with you on the default tasks. The choices I made (with or without my husband) on how to break this all down felt and still, basically, feel like the right choices, but there is that looming sense of still playing out traditional, old-fashioned roles that brings with it some discomfort. It’s tricky trying to be/act like an individual but knowing you’re also part of group statistical data!

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