By Eve Tahmincioglu
Thanks to Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, my new catch phrase is, “What would the Danes do?”
As a working mom, I was particularly attuned to what Brigid uncovered about us. Turns out, working mothers in Denmark have among the most leisure time of any working moms in the world, and some families there get together on Mondays for potluck dinners. This is even during the school year. This got me thinking that my feelings of overwhelmed-ness in recent years may be of my own making. Yes, I’m a busy working mother who commutes once/week to New York from Wilmington, Delaware. Yes, I’m a senior director of communications at Families and Work Institute. Yes, I write a blog and lots of other stuff.
But even I, as well as other frazzled working parents, must have time for potlucks with our neighbors.
At least that’s what Schulte’s exhaustive research contends. She traveled the globe to see what working parents are doing in other lands and also to uncover the latest research on time and time management.
One theme that kept coming up was this idea that we’re creating so much of the feeling of overwork ourselves in this country, valuing “busyness” and devaluing “idleness.”
“Life in the early twenty-first century wasn’t supposed to be so busy,” Schulte writes. “The economist John Maynard Keys in his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren predicted a fifteen-hour week by 2030 and the end to the human struggle to survive, and time to enjoy.”
Schulte even dug up information on my ancestors, the Greeks, writing that, “The high minded Greeks called leisure skole. Like school, they considered it a time for learning and cultivating oneself and one’s passions.”
Women, in particular, are having trouble with this skole thing. We’re just doing too much and not savoring the moment, according to a renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi she spoke with.
He found men usually do one and a half things at a time, while “women, particularly mothers, do about five things at once. And, at the same time, they are caught up in contaminated time, thinking about and planning two or three things more. So they are never fully experiencing their external or their internal worlds.”
The author turned to Families and Work Institute for a lot of research in her book, and our president Ellen Galinsky shared the reality that it’s not just working moms who are feeling overwhelmed. “I’ve interviewed a lot of moms who had quit working because they thought life would be much more leisurely. It wasn’t,” she noted.
What’s going on?
It could be “mental pollution,” as one researcher Schulte spoke with told her. Our brains are stuffed with chores, kid stuff, family responsibilities, and we’re not thinking straight.
We definitely don’t seem to have much time for play—that’s for sure. And I mean play for adults, something Schulte says we need to thrive.
A particularly eye-opening section for me was when Schulte shared animal studies on rats that were deprived play and, as a result, ended up with brain damage. Made me think differently about the phrase rat race—that’s for sure.
One big takeaway for me was how behind the U.S. workplace – and our country as a whole – is when it comes to making work work for working parents. As a nation, we were heading toward some sort of solution in the early 1970s, but it got derailed when Pat Buchanan killed a child care bill that would have likely changed everything, according to Schulte. He wanted to preserve the “natural” traditional family, she wrote, but, as a result, the U.S. is alone among industrialized nations, when it comes to high-quality child care.
And, Schulte pointed out, “workers in the United States have no right to flexible or short work hours, unlike in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The United States has no system to require benefits, fair pay and advancement opportunities for part-time work, while the Dutch government is promoting the concept of the ‘daddy day’ with each parent working overlapping four-day workweeks so that children are in the care only three days a week.”
Schulte notes that the great United States, however, “has no paid sick leave policy, unlike at least 145 other countries. No paid vacation policy—while Europeans who get sick during vacation are legally entitled to another. And a tax policy that still favors families with one breadwinner and one homemaker. In other words, U.S. policy not only doesn’t work for more than three-fourths of all U.S. families with children, it makes their lives worse.” And all for naught, as Buchanan admits that his strategy failed to preserve traditional families. Instead, what we have is lots of nontraditional families struggling and feeling overwhelmed.
Time for all of us to start asking ourselves: What would the Danes—and lots of other enlightened nations—do?!
BOOK REVIEW SERIES: Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit action tank providing research to live, learn and work by, has launched a book review series that includes video and blog reviews about work-life related books getting people talking and thinking. We go beyond the noise and let you know how popular books on the topic of work can, or can’t, impact your life. We read them for you because you don’t have time to read everything.