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Can working parents in America—or anywhere—ever find true leisure time?
According to the Leisure Studies Department at the University of Iowa, true leisure is "that place in which we realize our humanity." If that's true, argues Brigid Schulte, then we're doing dangerously little realizing of our humanity. In Overwhelmed, Schulte, a staff writer for The Washington Post, asks: Are our brains, our partners, our culture, and our bosses making it impossible for us to experience anything but "contaminated time."
Schulte first asked this question in a 2010 feature for The Washington Post Magazine: "How did researchers compile this statistic that said we were rolling in leisure—over four hours a day? Did any of us feel that we actually had downtime? Was there anything useful in their research—anything we could do?"
A New York Times bestseller, Overwhelmed is a map of the stresses that have ripped our leisure to shreds, and a look at how to put the pieces back together. Schulte speaks to neuroscientists, sociologists, and hundreds of working parents to tease out the factors contributing to our collective sense of being overwhelmed, seeking insights, answers, and inspiration. She investigates progressive offices trying to invent a new kind of workplace; she travels across Europe to get a sense of how other countries accommodate working parents; she finds younger couples who claim to have figured out an ideal division of chores, childcare, and meaningful paid work. Overwhelmed is the story of what she found out.
On her quest to turn her "time confetti" into "time serenity," journalist Schulte finds that, while it's worse for women and hits working mothers the hardest, what she calls the "Overwhelm" cuts across gender, income, and nationality to contaminate time, shrink brains, impair productivity, and reduce happiness. Investigating the "great speed-up" of modern life, Schulte surveys the "time cages" of the American workplace, the "stalled gender revolution" in the home, and the documented necessity for play, and discovers that the "aimless whirl" of American life runs on a conspiracy of "invisible forces": outdated notions of the Ideal Worker; the cult of motherhood; antiquated national family policies; and the "high status of busyness." The result is our communal "time sickness." Schulte takes a purely practical and secular approach to a question that philosophers and spiritual teachers have debated for centuries how to find meaningful work, connection, and joy but her research is thorough and her conclusions fascinating, her personal narrative is charmingly honest, and the stakes are high: the "good life" pays off in "sustainable living, healthy populations, happy families, good business, sound economies." While the final insights stretch thin, Schulte unearths the attitudes and "powerful cultural expectations" responsible for our hectic lives, documents European alternatives to the work/family balance, and handily summarizes her solutions in an appendix.