March 11, 2014
Guest: Brigid Schulte
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If your to-do list is so long that you are overwhelmed just looking at it, and if your list has you mentally racing back and forth between your responsibilities to your children and your job, what my guest has to say may be helpful. Brigid Schulte is the author of "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time." It's about the pressures on working mothers and fathers that lead to a constantly racing heart, consuming guilt and the certainty that you've become inadequate at home and at work.
Schulte interviewed researchers studying time management, stress management, family life and gender roles. She examines workplace and government policies that affect working parents in the U.S. and compares them to other countries. And she describes her own anxieties as the mother of two with a high-stress job as a reporter at the Washington Post, where she covers work-life issues, gender and poverty. She's also a fellow at the New America Foundation.
Her husband has a high-stress job too. He's Tom Bowman, who covers the Pentagon for NPR. Brigid Schulte, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about the book, we have to talk about the cover because this is like my favorite cover in a really long time. So the title, "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time," and your name, is kind of outlined in one of those - you know, highlighted in one of those yellow highlighters as if it's, like, stuff you have to remember on your list.
BRIGID SCHULTE: Right.
GROSS: And then written in what looks like pencil is all kinds of, like, things on your to-do list, like chicken cutlets, granola bars, almond butter, taxes, exclamation point; get new flash drive, use it; reschedule flight to Austin; melatonin.
GROSS: Sunscreen. Three percent raises this year? Memo to Kevin and Marty, and that's crossed out. I guess you did that.
SCHULTE: I did.
GROSS: Fill out camp forms; find geometry tutor. That's just a small part of it. And it's all kind of like scribbled in pencil. Did you do that to-do list part on the cover of the book?
SCHULTE: Well, you know, it's really funny. When we were designing the cover, my publisher and editor, Sara Chrichton(ph), who's just wonderful, she sent me a note and said, you know, we're thinking of doing something with a to-do list, and what should we put on the cover. And I just sent her a note back, saying do you want my to-do list from this week?
SCHULTE: And she said sure. So I sent her my to-do list, and then they embellished with some others. You know, I did try to weigh in later when she said, you know, there's something at the top that said tonic and limes. I'm like, you know, that makes me feel like gin and tonics, and that was not on my list. But, you know, the memo to Kevin and Marty, I'm a reporter at the Washington Post, that was a memo I wrote to Marty Baron and Kevin Merida, the two top editors there. And the dentist with the exclamation point is definitely something I had to get my kids to and, yes, find the geometry tutor and fill out the camp forms. Yes, that's - you know....
GROSS: And there's Max to vet, try diet cat food, you know, question mark.
SCHULTE: Well, we do have a very big, fat, fluffy cat named Max. And I did have to get him to the vet, although we still haven't tried the diet cat food.
GROSS: So give us an example from your life of something that makes you feel overwhelmed.
SCHULTE: Well, to be perfectly honest, I don't feel as overwhelmed as I did when I wrote this book. I've learned an awful lot, and...
GROSS: We'll get to what you learned a little bit later. So let's back up a little. Before you learned how to cope in a better way...
SCHULTE: Right, right, still a work in progress, I'm not a guru, but absolutely. Well, when - and I actually have a hard time reading Chapter 1 now, but when I was - you know, when I let myself go back to how that felt, it felt horrible. I felt completely overwhelmed at work. I felt like I didn't spend enough time with my kids. I was just soaked in guilt all the time that I was a working mother and that I was somehow ruining their childhood.
I just felt like I could never do enough, like my mind was just constantly running. And I would wake up in the middle of the night at 3:00 in the morning just seized with panic about all this stuff that I still had yet to do.
GROSS: And so when you decided to look at women and time, you found a time researcher who tried to convince you that you had much more leisure time than you thought and that you probably had 30 hours of leisure time a week. So what did he show you that you weren't aware of? And were you convinced that you really did have leisure time?
SCHULTE: Well, you know, I put off doing this study with him for about a year and a half. At first I thought, well, I'm just too busy to track my time. And, you know, then he gave me this little template to try to describe what I was doing. And it - and my time just didn't make any sense. There was sort of - I was never just doing one thing.
So I added my own little category called doing anything else because it just seemed like I was doing a million things at once. And so when I finally did track my time, and I went to him, and I handed him these little notebooks that I'd been carrying because when I told him the templates didn't work, he said, well, just keep a diary, and I'll figure it out.
And so he took out a yellow highlighter very much like the cover of the book, and he started highlighting everything that he considered leisure. And at the end, he found 27 hours of what he called leisure. So he felt that he proved his point. And I looked at what he highlighted, and to me it was just garbage. It was 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there and being exhausted, laying in bed, trying to get out of bed listening to the radio, but listening to the radio in its strictest sense apparently is considered leisure to time use researchers.
And I think one of the most amazing things is I had taken my daughter to a ballet class, and on the way back the car broke down, and we were waiting for a tow truck on the side of the road to come for two hours. And he highlighted that, and he called that leisure time. And I said you are crazy.
You know, I think of leisure as laying in a hammock on a beach or, you know, reading a book for hours and getting lost in, you know, the time when days feel like it could last 1,000 years or whatever. And none of it, none of my time felt like that. And so I think that was probably one of the biggest revelations, is leisure is really in the eyes of the beholder, and what he considered leisure I considered just bits and scraps of in-between time.
GROSS: So was there any truth in what he said that you could use? Or do you think, like, that's an example of time research that's just not helpful?
SCHULTE: Well, I think that it's not helpful, frankly, because it makes you feel like a failure. It makes you feel like, wow, one more thing to really suck at.
GROSS: And when you're waiting for the tow truck to come or AAA to come or whatever, that's total anxiety time, and there's nothing you can do except the stuff you could do on your, you know, on your smartphone while you're waiting. It's not...
SCHULTE: Well, actually my daughter and I played tic-tac-toe and hangman.
GROSS: Oh, so it was leisure, see, OK. He was so right.
SCHULTE: But that's the other thing that really struck me, is - then he did revise, and he said, oh, you were with your daughter, so that's child care time.
SCHULTE: But, you know, but I think when I started really then looking at time use research, and I started looking at leisure research, I didn't even know there was such a field as leisure research or, you know, leisure research that was specific to how men and women experience it differently. And I think what really struck me is that for women, particularly in the United States, particularly now, they spend almost all of their leisure time with their children.
And that led to this other kind of crazy finding that has since really helped alleviate a lot of my guilt but that working mothers today, even when they work full time, the time studies are showing they spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1960s and '70s. And it just seems to blow your mind, but it's because they've given up personal leisure time and time with adults.
GROSS: Uh-huh. But also is it possible that parenting is more intensive now than it was - like for instance, you compare birthday parties, that when you were growing up the party that your mother would throw for you was like pin the tail on the donkey, a few friends come over, there's a cake. Compare that to the kind of parties you've thrown for your daughters.
SCHULTE: Oh, do I have to admit this?
GROSS: Go ahead.
SCHULTE: Okay. I staged D-Day for my son when he turned eight because he was really completely obsessed with "Band of Brothers." I've turned our backyard into Mount Olympus when my daughter was really into Percy Jackson, and everybody came as a different Greek goddess. So yeah, we've gone to town, but so did everybody else. That was just sort of kind of what you did in our group of friends and our kids' friends in our neighborhood.
And I think you raise a really good point that I - again, I didn't realize, is that motherhood, what we expect of mothers today, again, has just gotten really crazy and out of proportion. You know, when I came home from school, my mom was an at-home mom, and I love her dearly, but, you know, she wasn't always there.
And there were a couple times when she was - we're not sure where she was, but, you know, we broke in the basement window to get in. You know, if I did something like that as a working mother today, people would call the cops. You know, I think that what we expect of mothers, not only, you know, to be there and to be present and to take your kids to lessons and, you know, fill them - you know, read to them and fill their heads with all these educational opportunities, you know, it's so much more out of proportion than it's ever been.
GROSS: Well, let's take school events, too. Just run through some of the things you're expected to show up for at school, or bring food for or something else.
SCHULTE: Well, absolutely. You know, most schools, I mean, really have always been run on volunteer work, and volunteer work largely by women and mothers. And that hasn't changed. So, you know, you're still expected to be at the PTA. And you're still expected to work at the book fair, and you're still expected to come and, you know, help out in the classroom when you can, and be the room parent and chaperone the field trips and come to the parent-teacher conferences.
And, oh, by the way, they are only, you know, between 10 and two in the afternoon, right, when you might be on deadline. So our school culture really hasn't caught up with the way we live and work, either.
GROSS: Now, you write that academics who research time say that intensive mothering is a white, middle-class phenomenon.
SCHULTE: Right. You know, there is - you know, there is that sense that it's a middle- and upper-middle-class phenomenon. And, you know, honestly, when I was looking at trying to understand that, I also found that it's sort of spreading. You know, Thorstein Veblen and "The Theory of the Leisure Class," way back in 1899, when he started writing about leisure, he also wrote about something that I think is very true in other fields, as well.
He talked about how, you know, we look to the people, you know, one socioeconomic, you know, rung of the ladder ahead of us, and we try to emulate what they're doing, because that's where you get status in our society. And so this intensive parenting may have started in the, you know, middle and upper-middle class, but it has since filtered through different layers of society, where I talked to people who had just gotten off of welfare, who were also feeling if they couldn't do that kind of hyper-parenting, they were feeling really guilty about it.
So, you know, I know that there have been great studies that talk about, you know, the, you know, natural growth that working-class parents and lower-income parents sort of let their kids just develop naturally, but I also feel like that hyper-parenting, I found evidence that it's filtering down into that level, as well.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Brigid Schulte. She's the author of the new book "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time." And it's about being overwhelmed by parenting and work responsibilities, and what time experts and stress experts have to say about that. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Brigid Schulte, and she's a reporter for the Washington Post who's written a new book, "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time." And it's about the overwhelming amount of stuff that you have to do if you're a parent, and you're working - or even if you're just a parent.
You use the expression - well, you found out about the expression contaminated time. What does that mean?
SCHULTE: Yeah, no, I found out about it. Boy, I wish I were smart enough to have come up with that because it just describes so perfectly I think certainly what I was feeling and I think is a pretty pervasive feeling out there. And what contaminated time is, you know, even though men are doing more at home and with the kids, women are still seen as the default parent or primarily responsible for the home sphere because that's the way that it's always been.
And so what happens is now you're juggling work demands on top of all of the stuff that you've always had to do at home. We've ratcheted up the standards for what you need to do as a parent. And what that does, then, is it completely pollutes your time so that you may be in a moment that could look like leisure from the outside, but on the inside, you are just crashing around, thinking of, like, oh, man, what have I got for dinner, and I forgot the carpool, you know, to drive tomorrow, and did I ever send this note, and I better get this memo to somebody at work.
And so you're never really fully present in the moment, you know, and as new-agey as that sounds, there has been really great, you know, work by psychologists who say that's really peak human experience, when you're able to lose yourself in the moment.
GROSS: But what you're leading to, too, is I think that being overwhelmed by too many responsibilities of being a parent and working leads to this kind of panic, this constant state of panic.
SCHULTE: Well, it doesn't have to, you know, and I think that's what I found is that so much of where that panic originates is because our workplaces haven't changed. Our workplaces still expect and demand us to work as if we had no families. Are laws are still - we're still governed by the Fair Labor Standards Act that was written in 1938. You know, we have the Family Medical Leave Act, which is really the only piece of if you want to call it family-friendly legislation that we have.
And when you compare the United States to what other countries are doing around the world, we are really at the bottom of the barrel. We have not made it easier for people to work and have families.
GROSS: Compare us to Denmark.
SCHULTE: Well, let's see. Where do I start? Let's start with work. At work, people in Denmark, they have, by law, short hours, short, very intense, bounded hours. You work a certain amount of time, and that's it, and you go home. But what I also saw when I over there...
GROSS: Do they throw you out or something when your time is up?
SCHULTE: No, but this is interesting. They feel there if you work overtime, you're simply inefficient, that you're not getting your work done when you need to be getting your work done. They take short, half-hour lunches, and it's usually their workplaces have this fabulous smorgasbord. You know, I went to a couple workplaces and ate with them.
But that's - it's healthy, it's wonderful, and then they want you to get right back to work and so that when the workday is over, you leave. And then when it comes to the play part, it's also a society that values leisure time and values balance. I spoke with an American over there who, she kept getting dinged on her annual performance evaluations because she worked too long, and they felt that her work-life balance wasn't enough of a priority for her.
They wanted her to have a fuller life outside of work.
GROSS: Well, the leave policies for new parents, I thought that was really interesting because you get a year's worth of paid parental leave to be divided between the mother and the father or the two parents as they see fit.
SCHULTE: Absolutely. This is what's so interesting. When you look at what different countries are doing; countries in Europe, particularly the Nordic countries, and I can go back to that because there's a lot of fears in the United States that they're socialist, and we don't want to do what they're doing. And I'm not advocating that. But I think that we can learn a lot from what they're doing.
And the most important thing is that they're dividing that paid parental leave between mothers and fathers, countries like Denmark, Sweden and Iceland in particular, because what they're finding is that when you give father solo care time with their children early on, it substantially changes the division of labor in the relationship later on.
So if you want to have an egalitarian marriage, if you want an equal partner, the best way to do is start out from the very first with equal responsibilities. And what they're finding - there's been fascinating studies that three and five years later, those marriages have a much fairer division of labor between work and home between the men and the women.
GROSS: But also I think in terms of employer discrimination, if you're hiring a woman of childbearing age, and you're afraid, well, she's going to have a maternity leave, and then she's going to spend a lot of time, you know, needing to parent, so it's going to cut down on the amount of time she works, if that's equalized, if men are equally - if it's equally possible that the young man that you hire might be taking time off, then you're less likely to discriminate and say, well, I don't really want to hire the woman because she's going to be taking time off to become a mother.
SCHULTE: That's absolutely right. And I think that was the other thing that really shocked me when I started looking into this is how much what they call motherhood discrimination is out there, what a huge motherhood penalty we have here in the United States, that not only is there a lot of unconscious bias that mothers are not as committed, they're not as smart, they're not as good, there's a real pay gap, there's a real pay differential between not only mothers and women who do not have children but a huge pay gap between mothers and fathers because we reward fathers because we think that they're going to be that distant father provider.
Oh, he's going to work more because he's got to provide for his family, like they did in the 1950s. And then we punish the mothers because there's also a lot of social surveys that show we're really ambivalent about mothers who work. And so why do we want to reward her by giving her better pay and realistic policies that are going to help her juggle that?
And I think you're right, once we equalize that and realize that raising a family is a family issue, not a mother issue, and also raising families is - you know, we say we're a country of family values. You've got - you know, we do need to propagate the species. I mean, it's just sort of human nature to have children, and we've got to figure out how to do it better so that people actually want to make that choice.
GROSS: I know somebody who has a baby. He and his wife have a baby on the way. He is getting, from where he works, which is in the health care profession, he's getting one day of paternity leave.
GROSS: That's not even enough to see through the entire process of labor.
SCHULTE: No, it's not, and then when you look at even what we grant mothers, you know, three months maybe at most, at most places, and then you start getting into, you know, problems with pay and whether you'll be able to come back to the same - to the same position, or you'll be punished when you get back. You know, you haven't even physically recovered at that point.
You know, really what we expect mothers and fathers to do in this country, you know, it's really inhuman.
GROSS: Brigid Schulte will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Overwhelmed." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Brigid Schulte, author of the new book "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time." It's about why so many working parents feel constantly overwhelmed, and it examines research into time management, stress, family life, gender roles and workplace policies. To illustrate some of the stresses of being a working parent, Schulte uses some stories from her own life. She's the mother of two and a reporter for "The Washington Post," where she covers work-life issues, gender and poverty.
There's a story I want you to tell, and this is the story when you were driving your daughter to her ballet lesson because her - was it her nanny or babysitter - had to cancel at the last minute. So, just, like, give us a short version of that story.
SCHULTE: Oh, boy. This is a tough one. Yeah. So, I had a high school afterschool babysitter. But I do think this is a story that tells you how completely automatically I assumed the ideal mother. You know, she was living in my head. So, she called me at the last minute to say that she couldn't take my daughter to her afternoon ballet class. And I was working on a deadline story for The Washington Post about a Somali war criminal. It was a, you know, big, intense, difficult story to write. So, she calls me at the last minute, and without even thinking, I just automatically assumed that I need to take my daughter now. And I'm angry and I'm furious and I'm stressed out and I screech home and I'm wielding my Blackberry and making these phone calls and I'm yelling at her up the stairs to put her tights on. And she's doddling, because she doesn't want to go. And we've got literally like seven minutes to get across town. And she saunters down the stairs and she says, well, now I have to put my hair in a bun, you know, because it was a sort of fancy ballet school. And, you know, I said just get in the car. You'll be fine.
And so I'm screeching across town and handling the phone and trying not to take notes while I drive. And I look at her in the rearview mirror, and she's just shooting daggers at me. She's, you know, seven or eight at the time. And I just, I lost it and I'd just said, your mother works for one of the best newspapers in the country, and I am taking time out of my busy schedule to get you to your ballet class, and you should at least be grateful. And then, you know, a few beats, and this little voice comes from the backseat goes, what about The New York Times? You know, and I just...
SCHULTE: I, you know, totally...
GROSS: Because you work for The Washington Post.
SCHULTE: I work for The Washington Post. Right. You know, and so it was like, you know, we told that story for years about how precocious she was, and wasn't that funny? But, really, over time, and as I was researching this book, I became more ashamed of how I, you know, why did I make that automatic decision that I should take her to the ballet class? You know, why should I layer on this unnecessary additional layer of stress? I was so guilty about being a working mother, so worried.
GROSS: What were your alternatives, though? Who are you going to call?
SCHULTE: You know, well, you know what? If she missed a day of ballet class, she would've lived.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your life. You write that when you had your first child, you made a bargain with yourself that you would be, you know, basically, the primary parent. But you wanted your husband to say thank you. But you ended up getting very resentful about the arrangement. Can you talk a little bit about that bargain that you made with yourself, and why it didn't work for you?
SCHULTE: Well, actually, that bargain came after many, many years. When my husband and I got married, I was very adamant that I wanted a partner. I love and respect my parents, but I did not want the traditional marriage that they had. What I wanted from my life was very different. And so I made sure that my husband, Tom was also on the same page, that we wanted to be this, these equal partners.
And we really were. We had a really fair division of labor. Everything felt great. And then we had our first child. And I think without realizing it, I felt like I should be this kind of super-mother. And I felt like I needed to do everything that my mother did, while at the same time trying to work like my father did, you know, without realizing how impossible that was. But in me sort of taking that primary responsibility - I think to be fair, both because I wanted to, but also because I felt like I had to - that get Tom kind of in a secondary role. And this is what I didn't realize at the time. And if nothing else, I hope that this book will help people not make the same mistakes that I did, that that time when you bring your first child home is a crucial time for setting the trajectory of your relationship from then on out, particularly in the division of labor.
And so what happened over time, I just assumed I should do everything. I took the kids to the doctor. I stayed home when they were sick. I flexed my schedule. I went part time. I expected Tom to do none of those things. I kind of gave him the out to still be the breadwinner father. But then he'd come home and, you know, I would be so furious that I was the one paying the bills and doing the dishes and weeding the garden. And why was I doing all of this? And...
GROSS: And you write he got to be the fun parent.
SCHULTE: And he did. He - and he's a great dad. But he did all the fun stuff, and then I was the nagger. And have you done this, and why didn't you clean up your room? And, you know, it sort of turned me into this role that I didn't like seeing myself in. So I just made this bargain. I got so angry. I was just so angry and defensive. And it really took me a long time to see how much I had been a part of creating that, because I thought I had to be this ideal mother. You know...
GROSS: What else do you feel like you did to create it?
SCHULTE: Well, because I didn't let Tom have time alone with the kids. I felt like - you know, when you think about it, I had the maternity leave. Tom, at the time, worked for a company that had a policy on the books that said that men could take parental leave. But everybody knew that if a man did it, it was the kiss of death. It was just not done.
I think that's pretty common out there, that you have these wonderful sounding policies, but in reality, you know you can't take them. So that he was in that kind of position at that time. So I took the longer maternity leave, and I think we both thought that, well, you know, women are just wired to be the mothers and the caretakers. Isn't that just sort of biologically determined? Isn't that the way that it should be? And I think we both assumed that was true. And that was what was interesting, is finding out it's, like, wow, men also have biological changes. Ooh, men are also wired for nurture.
I mean, that was a huge revelation to me in the book. And that was the biggest difference is, is that women are given the time to develop the confidence and competence to know what an infant needs and how to take care of an infant. And then we assume that that's natural, but we've just had the time to figure it out what this fuss means, what that cry means.
And then the baby gets accustomed to you, so that the dad comes home at the end of a long workday, you're fried, you know, you haven't had your shower yet. All you've done is clip the baby's fingernails, and you don't know what the heck you've done with the rest of your day. And, you know, you hand the baby over, and you just need to have a little time to yourself. The baby starts to fuss. The guy freaks out, and hands the baby back to you, and you get all angry. And that's why I found the research about taking sole parental leave making a huge difference later on, because you've got to give guys the time to develop that same competence and confidence.
GROSS: You said that scientists are showing that men undergo biological changes when there's a new baby. What are those changes?
SCHULTE: This is what's fascinating. Their testosterone levels drop, which they may not be very happy about, you know, just because we so value the macho aspect of testosterone. But it drops when you not only have a child, but spend time around a child. They also have hormones. They have prolactin, which is, you know, the hormone that stimulates breast milk. Their levels also increase. You know, certainly, they don't spike like women's do, but they have biological changes.
There was a syndrome that men who gained weight, you know, when their wives were pregnant, that was always seen as psychosomatic, but it's really not, necessarily. And there's really good evidence in the animal world that males are also wired for nurture. And I think what's fascinating is humans are social creatures. We survived because we socially cooperated with one another. We had what was called cooperative breeding. We all helped one another out way back in the Pleistocene Era, so much so that when they've done - neuroscientist have done fascinating work, that even strangers, when they see babies, they have parts of their brain that light up that are also associated with nurturing and caretaking. So even strangers are wired for nurture.
GROSS: Once you figure out that you and your husband had kind of taken on almost traditional gender roles in childrearing and housework responsibilities, how did you re-divide things?
SCHULTE: Well, it was hard. And, you know, it's still a work in progress. You know, believe me, it's kind of nice when you don't have to do the drudgery of housework, right? You know, why would you, you know, why would you want to sort of start doing that if somebody else is doing it for you? I remember I used to always sort of lament, I need a wife, you know. I want somebody to do all that drudge work.
So, once we kind of came up with common standards and we started to divide things, then we had to work to keep each other accountable. And then I had to really work not to redo Tom's job, or to come in and swoop in and rescue the kids. I had to kind of pull back myself. So what I started doing - say, for instance, we came up with an agreement. OK, last out of bed makes the bed. I mean, as stupid as that sounds, all of these little things, if you're expected to be doing it all the time, they can really build up. And they eat your time, they fragment it, and they also create resentment.
So, on the days when Tom was supposed to make the bed, if he left the pillows on the floor - which he did for a while - I wouldn't pick the pillows up. I would take a photo on my iPhone and text it to him to sort of keep him accountable. But then I had to not pick up the pillows. The same thing, we came up with an agreement, I would empty out the dishwasher in the morning. He would load it.
And so when I was writing the book, I was working in my home office, and for a long time, I would just say, oh, well, I'm here. I'll just go ahead and do it. And I had to physically stop myself. It's, like, this was the agreement that we made. I am working, too. My work is also valuable. I want to make sure that I get my work done, so I that I can have family time. So this - I'm not going to take this on. And, obviously, there's some fluidity, here, because there are times when he's in a crunch and, of course, I'm going to do it. They're times when I'm in a crunch, he's going to do it. You know, so, you know, you have to be flexible and adaptable, as well, but we tried to figure out how to keep each other accountable.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Brigid Schulte. She's the author of the new book "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Brigid Schulte, and we're talking about her new book "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time."
Let's talk about other changes you've made in your life as a result of all the research that you learned about in the course of writing your book. So, how does your to-do list compare now with what your to-do list used to look like?
SCHULTE: That's probably the biggest change. I used to have a to-do list that just weighed on me like this huge weight, that I felt like I had to get to the end of it before I could do anything fun. It was almost like I used to call it this if-then mentality: If I finish up these tasks, then I can get to the important stuff.
And I think it was a huge revelation for me. I did want to learn about time management, which I think is a joke. I don't think you can manage time. You know, all of the strategies out there to help us cram more stuff into our calendar is really not the answer. It's figuring out what's important to you, and then making time to do what's most important first.
But I was at a time triage seminar to try to help you figure out how you spend your time, and why you're feeling so overwhelmed. And it was this exercise where they gave us this blank calendar. And first they said fill out what you did in the last week. And I was there with a group of people, and we all just busily scribbled everything in that we could do. And we were writing on the sides and, you know, all sorts of stuff was coming out.
And then she stopped us, and she said: Now, if you had as much time in your life as you wanted, what would you do? And we all threw things out like read, spend more time with my partner, you know, go for a walk, enjoy the sunset, all this kind of stuff. And she said: Where is the time for that in your calendar? And none of us had any of that in there. It was just filled with all this to-do garbage. And so that was a huge revelation. That to-do list will never go away. If you have this if-then mentality, you will never get to then. And so I have trashed the to-do list. To help my brain, I do get it all out. I write it all down, because then it kind of gives me kind of mental peace, that I don't have to try to keep remembering it. But right now, I try to do one thing a day, and if I can do it, that's great. And if I write stuff down, I do it and also give myself permission not to do it.
GROSS: Is that part of your worry journal?
SCHULTE: Yeah. Well, that's a little different. That's when I get, like, out of control. Like, I do, I tend to be very anxious about things, and then that anxiety clouds my vision, and then I just get ramped up. And that's when I usually go to that to-do list, because it's easier when you're in that kind of panicked state to do little things, and then check it off and sort of feel that - I used to call it virtuous busyness.
But at the end of the day, you can't really remember what you've done, and you don't really value it. You know, whether you've, you know, cleaned the oven hood or, you know, cleaned out your email inbox. I'm pretty convinced right now, unless technology changes, you really never should clean out your email inbox, because life's too short. So what I try to do, when I'm in that panicked state, I try to bound that time, five minutes, get everything out. Again, it's like brain dump - get it out of my head, so that it clears some space. It's living in a journal somewhere, everything that I'm bugged about, and then clear some space to again see: What is it that is most important to me, and do it now. You know, don't wait till then. Do it first.
GROSS: Now, you also write about leisure indecision, you know, and I think this is so true, you know, that if you're craving, if you're hungry for a little bit of time that's leisure and you finally get it, it can be like really overwhelming just thinking, like, well, how should I use it? There's so many things I'd like to do. Like, which of those things should I do? And before you're done deciding, your leisure time is up. So...
GROSS: So how do you deal with leisure in decision?
SCHULTE: Yeah. That's a really good question. I talked with this leisure researcher named Roger Mannell, and it just makes such beautiful sense to me when he said this. He said to have a true moment of leisure involves both control - a sense of control, and a sense of choice. That it's something that you choose to do, and that as something as simple as really kind of taking a breath, taking a pause, disrupting that cycle of busyness and really thinking, if I do have this time, what is it that I really want to do? And then making that choice and doing it, that that can make that leisure time feel so much differently because you've chosen something, and you've known going in what you've wanted, and then you're more likely to actually do it and have that experience.
GROSS: So you've started practicing some mindfulness meditation?
SCHULTE: You know, I'd like to say that I am.
SCHULTE: You know, but - well, you know, that's the other thing that I loved in the book is there's great research that's coming out that's showing that even 20 minutes of, yes, mindfulness meditation if that's what you can do, or just being present in the moment, just noticing kind of what you're feeling and where you are and how your clothes feel on you or what you're thinking, you know, something as simple as that can actually make the gray matter in your brain expand.
I mean, I find that profoundly hopeful. So I do try to disrupt the cycle. I do try to pause more. You know, I'd like to say that I meditate, but, you know, I don't often. I did yesterday, I'm very proud of myself, but, you know, 10 minutes, somebody told me about an app on your iPhone you can set for 10 minutes.
But, you know, when I've talked with people who do meditate, they say that they often give themselves a back door. Sometimes you're just going to have overwhelming time. Sometimes you're going to be busy. So even sitting on the side of your bed, taking five thoughtful, small, you know, breaths is enough.
GROSS: So how old are your children now?
SCHULTE: My daughter's 12, and my son's 15 now.
GROSS: How has that changed the kind of overwhelming craziness that you have to deal with as a working mother?
SCHULTE: Well, I think it does change as they get older. There's no doubt about it. It's so emotional when they're really young. It's hard to be away from them. They're very needy, physically demanding. And then it goes into a kind of a crazy logistics phase when they get a little older, you know, because there really are not a whole lot of great options for after school.
And if kids gets overscheduled, it's because there aren't a whole lot of options. That's a piece of it. So then it becomes kind of logistically crazy. And then you get to this age where they're a little older. They can be more responsible. Carpools are a wonderful thing. It does change. But then there is a heavier emotional kind of toll because they're becoming more independent, they're growing, they're kind of differentiating themselves from you. They're beginning to go through these storms of adolescence.
So your role as a parent changes. The demands change over time.
GROSS: So do you still multitask?
SCHULTE: I try not to. I really try not to. I try to bound my time for checking email and social media, and then I - then when it's time to work, I try to turn all of that off. And I'll say that I do this on my good days because, you know, I don't always have good days. I still have what I call stupid days. But on my best days I do that.
I'll save all my errands kind of in a pile, and I'll try to do them all at once. What I try to do on my best days is chunk my time and do one thing and do one thing at a time.
GROSS: How old were you when you had your children, and how do you think your age affected the kind of overwhelm that you experienced?
SCHULTE: Well, I had my kids - I got married later. I got married at 30. I had my kids at 36 and 38. I'm very much of that generation where, you know, again, because the workplace is so rigid, you felt like you had to work to get to a certain point where you'd proved yourself so that you could take time to have children.
So, I mean, what you see throughout the last couple decades are a lot of people having delayed childbirth is what they call it and oftentimes so delayed that then you almost run out of time, which was certainly the case with my husband and I. So I think that that adds a different level of stress because then you are at a certain level professionally, but then you have like one or two of these precious almost miracle children, you know, and so then you do tend to, like, devote all this time and energy to them.
You almost - in my case, you almost didn't have them. And so I think there's pressures at every different age but largely because of kind of the world that we're living in, kind of the water we're swimming in that we may not even see.
GROSS: Well, Brigid Schulte, thank you so much for talking with us about time and being overwhelmed. Thank you.
SCHULTE: Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: Brigid Schulte is the author of "Overwhelmed." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album by singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, who Ken says can make self-torture sound utterly beautiful. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The Chicago-based singer-songwriter Angel Olsen has a new album called "Burn Your Fire For No Witness." She's frequently performed solo and has been referred to as a folk singer, but rock critic Ken Tucker says this new record, her first with a backup band, takes her music into an unclassifiable realm.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HI-FIVE")
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Angel Olsen begins that song, "Hi-Five," by paraphrasing Hank Williams, admitting she's so lonesome she could cry. She then goes on to say she just wants someone who believes in love as urgently as she does. The twanging guitar throbbing beneath these sentiments suggests that it's going to be a long, lonely search. Over a matter of minutes, Olsen has created the landscape she'll inhabit for this entire album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH AND WILD")
ANGEL OLSEN: (Singing) You're gone, you're gone, you're with me but you're gone, a feeling once so strong is now an old forgotten song that you don't sing so high or wild, you don't sing so high or wild. You're here, you're here, but your spirit's disappeared off to someplace that (unintelligible) and I don't recognize you. I wish that this could turn our pain to bliss, and we could put our fears aside and learn to laugh and be alive and let our bodies be...
TUCKER: Frequently on "Burn Your Fire For No Witness," Olsen makes her voice echo and float in back of the guitars, keyboards and drums, surging forward to assert her ethereal loneliness, her periodically angry frustration. On the song I just played, "High and Wild," her voice is elusive, but her sentiments could not be more direct: You're gone, you're gone, you're with me but you're gone.
It's a complete musical representation of being stuck with someone who doesn't want to be with you, even as you're insisting that that someone should want you. Olsen knows it's a loser's game, but she plays it anyway. This takes its own kind of nerve. Olsen can also make this sort of self-torture sound utterly beautiful, as on the gorgeously languid "Iota."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IOTA")
OLSEN: (Singing) If only our memories were one, we only had to blink and it was done. If all the world could see it with one eye in perfect color to the perfect sky. If only we could turn ourselves around and all the things we're looking for were found. If only we grew wiser with each breath. If only we could dance our way to death. If only...
TUCKER: This album, "Burn Your Fire For No Witness," is Olsen's first one with a backing band, and she makes great use of it. Her singing contains a naturally mysterious quality, at once confiding and yet also baffling, unknowable. On a song such as "Forgiven/Forgotten," Olsen has the drums and bass guitar hammer away at her dented vocal. This creates the sound of someone beating herself up for being so obsessed with being in love, knowing that that's not enough, for her or for the object of her love.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGIVEN/FORGOTTEN")
TUCKER: There are moments on this album when Olsen sings shamelessly sentimental, self-pitying words that are instantly contradicted and raised in admirable complexity by the tone of her voice, her sharp phrasing, the arrangements she applies to her melodies. She's immensely shrewd about the differences between what someone says and what someone means. For the length of this album she's created a world in which she can share a desperation that ends up seeming triumphant and strong.
GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Angel Olsen's new album "Burn Your Fire for No Witness." You can follow our blog on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. You'll find staff-curated photos, videos, interview highlights and a look into what's happening behind the scenes.
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