America's Workers: Stressed Out, Overwhelmed, Totally Exhausted

Why do so many people—particularly women—seem to have so much on their plates?
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Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library/Flickr

Perhaps the most poignant detail from Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," was also one of the smallest: an overworked mother of three who "organized her time so ruthlessly that she always keyed in 1:11 or 2:22 or 3:33 on the microwave rather than 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00, because hitting the same number three times took less time."

That may be extreme, but it illustrated a familiar feeling, one the writer Brigid Schulte calls "the overwhelm." In her new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Schulte scrutinizes this state of affairs: Why do we all feel so overworked? How is that feeling different for men than for women? Is a better, less harried life possible? I spoke with Schulte about her research, and a lightly edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Can you start by telling us about what "the overwhelm" is, how you see it now after years of research and writing on the topic, and how you think that your understanding differs from the conventional one?

This whole book started when a time-use researcher told me I had 30 hours of leisure a week. And when I told him he was out of his flipping mind, he challenged me to keep a time diary and he would show  me where my leisure was.

The whole premise of his challenge was that there was something wrong with me. That I should have this time, and if I didn’t feel that I did, it was my fault. I already felt totally inadequatefelt that I never did enough work, or that it was good enough, that I wasn’t spending enough time with my kids, or that I was so exhausted I was yelling at them, and I stomped around seething that my “egalitarian” marriage left me up late folding laundry or wrapping Christmas presents or doing the dishes while my husband slept soundly.

Before I began working on this book, I thought that’s just how life had to befast, crazy, busy, breathlessparticularly for working mothers in the 21st century. I didn’t think it could change. I had no role models. And didn’t really stop and think about why. Most everyone I knew was busy, with schedules going every which way. I remember talking to another working mother on my cell phone in the car weeping after going back to work after my maternity leave about how burned out I felt and how I missed the companionship and understanding of the mother’s group I’d joined after maternity leave. “This is it,” she’d said. “This phone call is the only kind of mother’s group you’re going to get now.”

There was also no real national discussion on what I was experiencing. If women were feeling overwhelmed, I had the feeling that the culture just thought, "Tough. You made this choice to work, now deal with it." That view was always reinforced after I would write a piece for the Washington Post about juggling work and life. I would always get comments about how working mothers were just selfish. I would get into big back and forths with readers who thought working mothers just wanted big houses and were abandoning their kids. They didn’t deserve free time. Anything approaching discussion about feeling overwhelmed was dismissed as a “Mommy issues,” and [the upshot seemed to be] that middle-class women just needed to to get to the spa for an afternoon or take an anti-anxiety med and chill out.

But I discovered soon enough that these are hardly “Mommy” issuesthese are human issues, how we work and live, the pressures to spend so much time at work, or living up to crazy ideals, is affecting all of us. And you’re beginning to see the conversation changeeven conservatives now are looking at birth-rate declines and work like Stewart D. Friedman’s Baby Bust showing that more young people don’t see a way to combine work and family in a rational way, so are choosing not to have families. That’s huge. That’s when work-life issues become the problem of society, especially one that purports to value families and that wants to survive into the future.

What I discovered in researching the book has been infuriating, enlightening and ultimately liberating. It is so clear now how on the bleeding edge we are of changing gender roles, how so much has changed in our lives and yet how so much remains stuck in amber, in the nostalgia of another era. I’m not just talking about workplace laws which were written in 1938 when the world was a different place and tax policies that favor breadwinner-homemaker family models, but our cultural attitudes, our unconscious biases.

I had one of those “aha” moments when I found the General Social Survey question about whether mothers of preschoolers should work. As late as 2002, the last time the question was asked (at least at the time of my reporting) majorities of both men and women said no, she shouldn’t, or she should only work part-time. What that showed me was such a deep and pervasive ambivalence about working mothersno wonder we don’t have national policies and workplace cultures to help women better juggle work and home, if we’re deeply conflicted about whether she should be at work at all.

I was struck, too, that the GSS doesn’t ask that same question about fathers. Even the way we pose our questions is stuck in the 1950s. Our family lives, family structures and the workforce has changed utterly in the last half century, and yet our workplaces, the policies everyone knows look nice on the books but are the kiss of death to take, our laws, and our attitudes have yet to catch up with our reality. That’s where the swirl of "the overwhelm" begins.

But it doesn’t stop there. I soon discovered that men are beginning to feel as much or more overwhelm than women, now that so many no longer just want to be the distant provider father, or just the fun Dad or helper parent, but truly involved at home. They’re doing now what women did 30 years agogiving up time for sleep and personal care and spending almost all their “leisure” time with their kids. And I discovered how much longer and extreme work hourswhich have been climbing since the 1980sthe constant dings and pings of technology and a new cultural value of busyness is now ramping the feeling of overwhelm for everyone.

Like any reporter, I started down a path and just followed where the trail led. I began looking for these 30 hours of leisure. But I soon discovered you couldn’t look at leisure without looking at work, and you couldn’t understand what was happening at work without looking at home and our relationships. That’s where the subtitle comes from: Work, Love, and Playwhat I was to discover philosophers and psychologists said are the three great arenas of life, and that you need time in all three for the Good Life.

How much of the overwhelm would you say can be chalked up to a sort of shared mental statein which we are all constantly in a frenzy and talking about that frenzy, and that elevates our feeling of being overwhelmed? And how much of this feeling is justified by realityAmericans, particularly women, doing more, having such high standards for themselves, the endless chores it takes just to maintain a household, etc. etc. etc.? Also, how much of this is due to our choicesI’m thinking of this recent Onion article “Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown.” Is it just that we are all striving too hard to achieve too much?

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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