Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

By Brigid Schulte

Farrar, Straus and Giroux/ Sarah Crichton Books. 384 pp. $26

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Reviewed by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans

Brigid Schulte arrives for her appointment with sociologist and time-use expert John Robinson with her "check engine" light on, a state sticker on her car expired, her cellphone missing under the seat - and she's late.

Robinson had challenged Schulte, an award-winning writer for the Washington Post, wife, and mother of two, to keep a time diary after telling her today's women actually have more than 30 hours of free time a week. At his suggestion, she cobbles together the time to attend the annual conference of the International Association for Time Use Research, beginning a quest to discover whether others also resided in a "frenetic shower of time confetti," or whether she was - as she says he maintained - "just a nut"?

Welcome to Schulte's reality (perhaps it's also yours): "I have baked Valentine's cupcakes until 2.a.m. and finished writing stories at 4 a.m. when all was quiet and I finally had unbroken time to concentrate. I have held what I hoped were professional-sounding interviews sitting on the floor in the hall outside my kid's dentist's office, in the teacher's bathrooms at school functions, in the car outside various lessons, and on the grass quickly muting the phone after each question to keep the whooping of a noisy soccer practice to a minimum. Some appliance is always broken. My to-do list never ends."

As she navigates, diagnoses, and examines solutions for coping with the persistent stress of what she calls "the overwhelm," Schulte will spend approximately 300 pages of this meticulously researched tome directly or indirectly challenging Robinson's thesis.

Her reporting will resonate with anyone who has tried to balance work, love, and parenting in a society in which job security is more elusive, safe child care is often unaffordable or absent altogether, and employers provide little institutionalized support for caregivers.

Women who work outside the home are often torn between seeking to fulfill workplace demands and the equally strident outer (and inner) voices of the "cult of the ideal mother" (even as studies show, says Schulte, that women are actually spending more intensive time with their children than in previous generations.)

"What researchers will tell you" writes Schulte, "is that educated at-home moms have turned motherhood into a profession. And working moms overcompensate for their guilt by overdoing. Then both sides try to outdo the other (or at least keep up)."

Even when workplaces have "family-friendly" policies, she finds, mothers know that they won't get far if they choose to work flex hours or part-time, and fathers that they will be punished for taking time to attend their kids' baseball games or help out at home.

"You want equality in the workplace? Die childless at 30," work-life expert Joan Williams said in one memorable quote.

Though Schulte includes interviews with at-home and flex-time fathers as well as progressive male employees and egalitarian Danish families, the overwhelming amount of studies, data, and expert opinion offered in Overwhelmed suggests women are more likely to suffer from the weight of work-life imbalance.

Though men are logging more hours at home, studies show women are still doing twice as much of the housework. Mothers are viewed as less able, intelligent, and capable - particularly those who work outside the home. Research says the male-female wage gap is really a chasm between mothers and everyone else.

After Thanksgiving Day chaos and a raw turkey contributed to a crisis, Schulte and her husband, Tom Bowman, decided to reevaluate and reconfigure their own relationship. And Schulte gives many examples sprinkled throughout the book of women and men who have decided not to buy into "the overwhelm." In a chapter toward the end, she shares some concepts that have worked for her. Don't multitask. Clear the mental clutter. Be purposeful when you check e-mail.

Share the "second shift" with your husband and kids.

Given the huge amount of useful information in Overwhelmed, it feels churlish to say it is frustratingly incomplete.

Perhaps that's because Schulte, an award-winning journalist, is often more willing to report information than to draw conclusions.

Or maybe it's also because, for a writer who says she has learned so much about behaving differently at work, at home, and managing her own self-expectations, it's not clear what conclusions Schulte wants her audience to draw. Replete with citations, overflowing with studies, brimful of interviews and adventures and anecdotes, Overwhelmed reads like a term paper written by a highly intelligent student still agonizing over whether she'll get that A.