For Working Moms, Key To Balance May Lie In Elusive Leisure Time If waiting for help when your car breaks down doesn't strike you as a leisurely activity, it may be time to reconsider. A new book looks at time management challenges of being a working parent.

For Working Moms, Key To Balance May Lie In Elusive Leisure Time

For Working Moms, Key To Balance May Lie In Elusive Leisure Time

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

If waiting for help when your car breaks down doesn't strike you as a leisurely activity, it may be time to reconsider. A new book looks at time management challenges of being a working parent.

Originally broadcast March 11, 2014.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. If you've just made any fresh New Year's resolutions for 2015, chances are good that at least one of them is related to better time management, especially between work and home life. Brigid Schulte is the author of "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time." It was published last year. And maybe you still haven't found the time to read it. So we're repeating her interview with Terry from last March. "Overwhelmed" is about the pressures on working mothers and fathers - pressures which 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 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.


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.


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: 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.

BIANCULLI: Brigid Schulte speaking to Terry Gross last March - more after a break. This FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2014 interview with author Brigid Schulte. Her latest book is called "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time."


GROSS: 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 that 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 this, 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 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 about 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 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: 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.

BIANCULLI: Brigid Schulte speaking to Terry Gross last March. Schulte's book is called "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.