I started reading Overwhelmed at my desk with my phone, laptop, desktop and iPad propped within reach. Each device was dedicated to a different project: my laptop had over 20 tabs open as I attempted to complete research for an upcoming writing project. The iPad ran Hootsuite, a social media coordination app, and I occasionally broke from reading to update new scheduled tweet or Facebook post for one of the managed pages I run. I checked email on my phone every so often and on the desktop sat my Google Drive with three open shared docs I was editing for a third job.

And this was just a 30-minute lunch break from my full-time day job.

Many of us can relate to this level of multitasking these days, especially as we step into a new year with new responsibilities and challenges. We work multiple jobs or juggle several projects, which leaves us feeling exactly like Brigid Schulte in the opening of this book: stressed, anxious, exhausted and overwhelmed. Schulte explores exactly how busy she is (and how busy she isn’t) in Overwhelmed and draws her narrative out further to analyze the working life of the average American mom. She studies how much time we actually spend working and how American culture has become fixated on the rewarding and detrimental values busyness perpetuates.But what can we do when we juggle multiple projects that we’re passionate about (or projects that pay the bills) without sacrificing the quality of our lives? How do we balance life, love, and play?


Overwhelmed, Brigid Shulte

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time
Brigid Shulte
A&C Black (March 2014)

Overwhelmed works to answer some of these questions first by examining the nature of “busyness.” Schulte, a full-time reporter for The Washington Post and parent, documents how she spends her time for over a year with John Robinson, a sociologist who has studied the way people spend their time for over half a century. After years of research, Robinson insists that although many Americans feel like they’re working harder than ever, they aren’t. In fact, the average American woman has 30 hours of free time a week.

Schulte, however, is skeptical. She protests when Robinson asserts that the two hours she spends in her car waiting for a tow truck after it has broken down on the freeway is leisure. Her brow furrows when he claims the time she spends reading the paper for work is downtime. She shrugs as his highlighter screeches across the page, quantifying the half hour she spends sending photos to family via email as “free time.”

Other researchers confirm that Schulte is not manifesting her feelings out of nowhere. After staggering at the thought of a woman having 30 hours of leisure time a week, Schulte quickly looks into to other sources, exploring issues of gender roles and time management, the culture of a stressful workplace and the science of busyness. She delves into the world of neuroscience to investigate what happens to our brains when we feel the constant strain of anxiety linked with busyness. Schulte learns that the prefrontal cortex, a part of our brains that keeps the rest of our emotions in check, actually shrinks when exposed to constant stress, leaving the amygdala, where our negative emotions like fear, aggression and anxiety reside, to take over.

No wonder so many people feeling overwhelmed also feel short-tempered. Although this is a problem that affects all people, Schulte isn’t afraid to delve into what she calls a “stalled gender revolution” at home for women who deal with the “cult of busyness.” Schulte asks whether her brand of busyness — “scattered, fragmented, and exhausting” —  is only her problem, or part of a much bigger issue for working mothers across the country. She finds that 30 percent of mothers who have received an MBA choose to stay at home instead of work if they can afford to. Mothers are still doing twice the amount of housework and childcare at home as fathers. Schulte’s tense interview with Pat Buchanan, who, in the 1970s, helped kill the bill that would have created universal child care — a bill that was never surfaced for discussion again — illustrates the lack of affordable childcare in the United States.

Schulte argues that this added stressor is one of the many reasons women feel an added pressure to balance their work and home lives. Buchanan is a fierce combatant against the lives of working women, saying the bill was nothing more than a “great leap forward into the dark,” a view that he still upholds today. Buchanan wishes to “preserve the ‘natural’ traditional family of the father as breadwinner and the mom at home.”

He also says, “We wanted not only to kill the bill… we wanted to drive a stake right through its heart.”

Busyness, while stressful, is also culturally rewarding. Schulte addresses the notion that busyness is a cultural status; if you’re busy, you’re important and worthwhile.

Yet, some are busy because they are required to balance multiple jobs to pay the bills. Although Schulte works to answer these questions of balancing life, love and play, she fails to acknowledge how the stress of balancing multiple jobs to pay the bills affects the working-class, the lower-middle class and millennials. Schulte stays close to the subject of the middle-class family’s complicated relationship with the cult of busyness and briefly touches on the lives of workers in China and Indonesia, and Europeans. These narratives make only a few appearances, yet they are important when considering how classism and wealth discrepancy affects working-class citizens around the world. But Schulte stays close to what she knows, which is how overwhelming it is to be a working, middle-class mother, and her story is effective in conveying how problematic American culture’s relationship with work, gender roles and even technology is.

Technology is another obvious contributor to this “cult of busyness” that Schulte dissects in Overwhelmed, yet she fails to properly address this during crucial times of self-awareness. Instead, Schulte focuses more on the hard science of feeling overwhelmed and the physical and emotional tolls these feelings take on our bodies, families and careers. While she leaves some gaps in her argument, she also reveals some serious flaws in American culture’s systematic oppression of the working class. In an attempt to say one positive thing after presenting a heap of facts to demonstrate how overworked the average American mother is, Schulte falls back on the fallacy that if we all individually try a little harder to make time for play, tweak our schedules and divide our work up into smaller “chunks,” we can solve a systematic problem. Yet, Overwhelmed stands out among the stream of books written about the overworked American mom because of its thoughtfulness, engaging narrative and attention to detail, even if its scope remains too narrow.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.