My summer of reading continues, with the excellent Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte. Chock-full of information, research and case studies about gender roles at work, home, love and play, this book, predominantly aimed at women, dissects why so many of us feel so overwhelmed and frazzled so much of the time.
I have to admit that the first chapter made me feel a bit anxious and panicky as I was reading it. Brigid runs through all the ways she feels stuck in what she calls, ‘the overwhelm’, that state of not having enough hours in the day to accomplish the endless to-list that comes with having a busy work and family life. She describes in forensic detail, how much she has to do, how late she stays up to accomplish some of what’s on her to do list and the endless guilt she carries around with her. It struck me how much she was trying to accomplish on her own and how much long-term resentment she held against her husband for not being more of an equal partner at home.
I could relate to the stories of being a busy parent, trying to fit everything into the day. What I couldn’t relate to was the endless guilt. Guilt about not working enough, guilt about not being there enough for her children – so much guilt. This guilt that mothers tie themselves up in knots about, that creates this endless worry and anxiety. There’s a great quote from one of the expert the book, Terry Monaghan, who says, “so much of our overwhelm comes from unrealistic expectations…and when we don’t meet them, we think we’re doing something wrong.” It’s this unnecessary pressure that we put on ourselves.
A large section of the book is devoted to unpacking the relationship that men and women have with work, how both genders would generally like to work in a more flexible way, but how the the myth of the ‘ideal worker’ – the person who is always available to take meetings, jump on a plane, stay late – can hold people and companies back from making real change. The benchmark, the country that seems to have it all figured out in this area is Denmark, where couples share parental leave, overtime is frowned upon and people maximise their leisure time as much as possible. When I read some of the case studies of American women and maternity leave, I realised how good we have it in here in the UK and in Europe. A strong parental leave policy backed by government subsidised and regulated child care means that women can spend longer with their babies with generally good childcare options to fall back on.
Brigid talks a lot about the ambivalence that American mothers tend to have around work. Towards the end of the book, she realises that she “would never be able to schedule [her] way efficiently out of the overwhelm. [She] had to face [her] own ambivalence about trying to live two clashing ideals at once.” She realises that she has to figure out how to embrace her own life with passion, in the face of ambiguity. I really relate to this. I admit that I still feel some ambivalence about being back at work, despite being freelance and really enjoying what I’m doing. I feel torn about putting my son in nursery, despite me knowing that for his three days a week there, he has a great time and has made some lovely little pals. Before reading this book, I thought this ambivalence was a natural part of being a mother – wanting the best of both worlds.
It’s clear that it’s time to let go of this ambivalence and start fully enjoying what I have and that I am privileged to be able to make my own choices – the choice to freelance part-time, to study towards my dream career part-time and to have two full days with my son to myself in the week.