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The pitfalls of feeling ‘Overwhelmed’

Brigid Schulte might have a point.

When I sat down to write the review of her book, I had to dig my copy out of the bottom of my work tote bag, where it had been carried about for weeks, growing rumpled and coffee-stained. A few lonely pages slipped out of the binding. It looked rough.

Which is exactly Schulte’s point. We’re stretched a little thin these days.

In “Overwhelmed,” Schulte makes a sustained argument for the fact that many Americans – men and women, but perhaps especially women who are both employees and parents – are completely swamped.

We have work – many of us at full-time, demanding, even high-profile jobs. We have families. Moms and dads today have children they are doing their best to spend as much time as possible with – high-quality time.

We have hobbies and pastimes we have largely forgotten about, Schulte tells us. And, oh yes – we no longer know how to play, or understand the worth of time spent doing so, Schulte argues here.

Schulte, a Washington Post reporter and writer for the Washington Post magazine who lives in Alexandria, Va., knows the terrain. She writes in “Overwhelmed” about her ongoing struggle over the years to balance her challenging career with the needs of her family, which includes her husband and two children. At times, Schulte writes, she felt like she wasn’t making anybody happy, racing from work to home and back again, often late, often exhausted.

Schulte’s own experiences, and her observations about the larger culture around her, led her to investigate what she calls this massive sense of being overwhelmed that plagues American men and women on a daily basis. (Ask a working mom or dad with young kids if you can glance at their weekly planner – actually, no, don’t. It’s too disheartening.)

Although the sense of being overwhelmed that Schulte writes about could and does affect people of all ages, here she is focused primarily on families trying to balance work with the rearing of children still at home. These women and men are still, often, trying to exist both in a workplace culture where the “ideal worker” is prized – and, at the same time, coping with enormous 21st century pressure to be highly involved as a parent. Among the findings reported by Schulte is the nugget that research has shown that parents in 2014 multitask at a rate double that of parents in 1975.

Add to this the fact that technology means everybody is always connected – to the job, to the home, and beyond – and you have an unprecedented situation for many.

Part of the way Schulte conducts her investigation is by comparing the United States to other countries – how we stack up in terms of available child care, for instance, or flexible time in the workplace. Denmark is one of the places she explores: “Most Danes also have six weeks of paid vacation every year, one of the most generous vacation policies of any in the world, and, unlike Americans, most people take every minute of it,” Schulte writes.

But the other part, and perhaps the more telling and affecting aspect of the book, is Schulte’s account of what other working parents in this country are doing, day in and day out, based on her research and interviews. There are stories like that of Renate Rivelli, a Denver mother in her 30s who struggled to maintain a fast-paced job while being a mom.

In hearing the voices of these people, particularly women, we glimpse the difficulties in trying to be everything to everyone.

By the end of the book, Schulte offers some insights into how women and men can combat the sense of being ever-overwhelmed. These are strategies that she found worked for her. One was getting rid of her brain’s “enormous to-do list.” Another was working in “pulses,” or stretches of an hour or two at a time, rather than shorter or longer segments.

Luckily, Schulte patched together enough time in her hectic schedule to write this book. For moms and dads with seemingly never-ending time crunches, it makes for a thought-provoking read.