Sunday, March 9, 2014

Q&A with author Brigid Schulte

Brigid Schulte is the author of the new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. She is an award-winning journalist who works at The Washington Post, and she is a fellow at the New America Foundation. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: What first inspired you to write Overwhelmed?

A: It’s sort of embarrassing to say, but this is an accidental book. I never set out to write it. How is it that I came to step outside my life? I was forced to!

I was on a women’s reader committee at The Washington Post, looking at why female readership was dropping. We rolled our eyes—duh, we’re busy! We either had kids and were hyper-involved parents, or were caring for aging parents, or were raising nieces and nephews, while trying to compete with men and others who had caregivers at home—trying to squash two lives into one 24-hour period.

Someone asked, Aren’t there time studies? And I said, I’ll look it up. It all came from that one simple effort—I Googled it and found a time-use researcher. He said, You have 30 hours of leisure time a week! Come and do a time study and I’ll show you where your leisure time is.

Q: What has the reaction been to the book so far?

A: It comes out Tuesday, but I’m really heartened by the reaction so far. People are getting it. I didn’t want to write a mommy book. They’re funny, but now what? The journalist in me wanted to get to the bottom of this and understand this deeply--understand modern life.

I wrote the first chapter, which first appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, about going to the time-use researcher to track my leisure. It was really when I got the response from that article—I had been feeling alone. I’ve never been that good with time. I was thinking that maybe I was a failure. I got so many e-mails, long involved detailed messages from people, saying, You’ve written about my life!

Q: What have you learned about your own time management from writing the book?

A: I’m still a work in progress. I have learned so much—I guess what I’ve learned was how much bigger this is than a single person. Leisure, work, and home are all tied together. On the upper end of the socioeconomic scale, we work more extreme hours.

It’s been so powerful to learn about exciting, innovative workplaces that are changing the norms; about other countries that are as productive if not more, where people work short, intense hours and there’s more gender equality. I also found places that value the sacred time of leisure—not just watching TV or having a beer, but really refreshing your soul.

I still work too much, but on good days I work in pulses, and I try to minimize distractions. I work intensely, and then take a break. When my running partner and I run, we ask, What’s your one thing to do today, so you’re not setting yourself up for failure [with a longer list].

I changed the way I do my to-do list—there’s work, love, and play. There’s time for family, time to reflect, and that has the same weight as work. The detritus of life—bills to pay—I would always put it first and then get to enjoy my children, or reading a book—but I never got to that. Now I take time with the kids first, or read a book first.

The biggest change is that my husband and I are going through a tough but enlightening process, and we’ve had conversations we should have had 20 years ago about being equal partners. We have made so much progress; we’re so much more fair.

Some of it is tied up with working mother guilt. I spoke with Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who studies motherhood in primates and early humans. [After speaking with her,] I understood it from a broader perspective--that the expectations of mothers are almost impossible. You give your body and soul to your children, and layered on at the same time was [the fact of] a very demanding workplace.

I’ve built time to pause and set my own priorities. I’m less reactive, and I don’t feel guilty for working.

Q: You’ve discussed some of this already, but how do the issues in your book apply in particular to women?

A: When you talk about leisure time, there are cultural notions that if women don’t have time to relax, it’s their fault. Leisure time is when art and civilization and inventions are made, when you have time out of time. Women never had that kind of time. It was really a revelation to me. That’s why artists and writers [have mostly been] men. High-status men have always had uninterrupted long blocks of time; that’s never been allowed to women.

A 1920s study said that a good mother is someone who never sits down. That’s been very powerful for millennia—a woman’s work is never done. In a 1990s study, what resonated with me is that at every socioeconomic level, women felt they needed to earn leisure.

In this whole new era, women have status. We have time to reclaim our leisure time. It’s nothing to feel selfish or indulgent about. We can come back to our other spheres refreshed. One of the big messages of the book is that it’s time for women to have that time.

Q: Do you think this tendency toward being overwhelmed will continue?

A: That’s the $64,000 question. I don’t want to predict; that’s always a mistake. There are hopeful signs out there, if people realize that the expectations are unsustainable.

Some companies realize that their workers are burning out, and they’re not going to get the best work that way. I’m hopeful about millennials, who feel entitled to have it all, both men and women. On the flip side, the baby boomers are living longer and want to keep working, but not in a 90-hour-a-week fashion, so there’s pressure from that end.

The toughest nut to crack is how to change the division of labor at home.

Right now we value busyness; it’s a badge of honor. A hundred years ago, we valued leisure. Maybe there’s a way to meet in the middle, and find a way to value oases of time. We had a busy day last Monday, but we went sledding for an hour with the kids—it was a little oasis.

Q: Are you thinking of writing another book?

A: I’d love to write another book! I’m not sure what it would be about. I’m so wrapped up with this one, plus working full time for the Post. Yes, I’d love to, and I’m hoping that in a moment of idleness a great idea will come to me!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I started thinking about writing a book, I took a book leave, and spent much of the book leave reporting. I was talking with my agent, and I was filled with rage. My agent said, I see, you want to write a game-changer! I want to write a game-changer—I want people to see that this is about how we’re living, and how we can all live better lives.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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