Ideal Mothers, Ideal Workers, and the Myth of Busyness
We tapped Brigid Schulte, the author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has the Time, one of the more compelling, provocative, and resonant reads of the year, to talk to us about what it means to be a woman in today’s frenetic, over-paced world.
From Anne-Marie Slaughter to Sheryl Sandberg, the overriding thesis seems to be that women can’t have it all—unless they have deep pockets and a tireless work ethic. How do you hope to add to—or change—that conversation?
I take the conversation further. I talk about The Good Life. Harvard psychologist Erik Erikson wrote that the richest and fullest lives make time for the three great arenas of life: work, love, and play. That’s where the subtitle of my book comes from. I look at the big picture, because it’s all connected—work, love, and play; men and women; people with children and those without; workplace culture; laws and policies; cultural assumptions; unconscious bias and ambivalence about shifting gender roles; and how busyness has supplanted leisure time, joy, and refreshing the soul. I ask two questions: Why are things the way they are? And how can they be better? I wanted to take all my skills as a reporter for more than 25 years and investigate deeply modern life and why so many of us feel so overwhelmed and pressed for time. I wanted to look at time pressure and modern life with the same seriousness, research, history, data, and science that we’d use to cover war, politics, and economics, and weave in the stories that resonate and make it all come alive. But in looking for hope, I didn’t want platitudes. I wanted to find real world Bright Spots—where things are already changing, and people are beginning to live more authentic lives, with time for meaningful work, close connection with family, loved ones, and community. With that, science is now proving what we’ve known all along, that that is the source of human happiness, and where people have embraced the value of play. And my aim, my North Star, if you will, was to find the keys toward a more egalitarian future, where people can be people, and not stuck in predetermined and limiting gender roles, where choices can be freer, and not so constrained, career paths wider, with multiple, even meandering roads that all lead to good places, rather than one steep, narrow ladder and dead ends leading nowhere. The Greek philosophers wrote about The Good Life, but it was only available to high status men, in their view. I look for how The Good Life can be available to everybody.
“I wrote my book to be a game changer. To change the narrative, shine the light on Bright Spots, show new role models and change the tired old conversion, to uncover and unmask outmoded cultural norms and powerful, unconscious bias about gender, and to challenge the dangerous mythology that total devotion to overwork and busyness is what makes economies and corporations thrive. That is simply untrue.”
Instead, it’s making us sick, stupid, unimaginative, unproductive, disengaged, unhappy, and unhealthy. I call for change on the big, structural level, as well as the individual level..
“This isn’t just about whiney, tired Mums complaining and needing to go the spa to calm down. There are substantial, serious disconnects with substantial, serious consequences between the way we live and work in reality and the mythical way we’re supposed to live and work: working as if we didn’t have families, and having families and doting on them endlessly as if we didn’t work.”
It’s time to change the very structure of work itself, so that both men and women can lean in to flexible, productive, performance, not hours—rewarding workplaces, and both men and women can lean out to have sacred time for family, to be full partners, so everyone can have time for joy and play.
Clearly this is an incredibly emotional topic for women from all ends of every spectrum—and the “mommy wars,” are one manifestation of this. What, to your mind, is this a symptom of? And how can we change the conversation and/or do a better job of supporting each other?
“It’s time to end the “mummy wars” and realize we’ve all been on the same side all along: that we want to do the best thing with our own lives, and do right by our families and our children.”
These are very threatening, hurtful conversations, because they hit so deeply at our identity and the cultural assumptions of what a “Good Mother” is. Right now, our cultural messages are pretty clear: We are torn about what we think mothers should do.
Survey after survey shows a vast majority of both men and women are ambivalent at best about working mothers. The General Social Survey, the largest, longstanding public opinion poll shows that only a handful of both men and women think mothers should work full time—a statistic that hasn’t budged much in decades. I felt that every morning—just walking out the door sometimes to go to work in the morning, I felt so conflicted and polluted. I’d feel guilty and jealous and defensive around my at-home mom friends. And, once we started talking and being honest, they felt conflicted and worried and anxious and defensive around me and other working moms, wondering what all that education was for, but seeing no other way to combine overly demanding jobs and still meet the sky high expectations we now have for what mums should be and do.
“It’s our own ambivalence that has trapped us in the Mommy Wars.”
“So we force mums to choose to opt out and be a “Good Mother,” or stay in, gut it out, get little help and run themselves ragged trying to make it up to their kids and prove to everyone that they, too, are good mothers.”
It’s not only infuriating, it’s also really illogical. It’s time we all got together and recognized our “choices” are really constrained choices. And changing our overwork culture would go a long way toward making both men and women have real choices about how they want to combine work and life and what works for their own families.
You also write extensively about the stigma at work that’s attached to men who are looking to be more present and active—what’s the solution? And who is doing it well?
The flexibility stigma hits both men and women in our Ideal Worker, total work devotion culture. But emerging social science research shows that men are more harshly punished for deviating from that Ideal Worker norm – they’re seen as weirdos, wimps, passed over for promotion, sidelined, and even fired. That said, there are rays of hope. There are companies, managers, bosses, and workplaces that are ditching those Ideal Worker norms and fashioning workplaces where men can do excellent work and still be full partners at home. Peter Lando is an attorney in Boston who broke away from a big law firm to start one that valued shorter work hours and time for life, and he’s prospering. Deloitte has an active Dads group. Clearspire is a new kind of law firm that has blown up the billable hours culture, leaving both men and women time for life.
When I walked into Menlo Innovations, a software company in Ann Arbor, the first thing I saw was a guy standing at a white board, writing complicated computer code with his right hand, with a burp cloth over one shoulder and his infant daughter cradled in his left. This was the 8th “Menlo baby.” The company is founded on one principle: Joy. And that means that people get to live authentic lives and don’t have to pretend that they aren’t fathers and mothers or people who want to go kayaking on a beautiful Friday now and then. One of the things I found most surprising while reporting my book was that I found real innovation in the most unlikely places, the kind of places you think would be so wedded to our overwork culture that they’d never change: Law firms, high tech, Stanford Medical School and … the Pentagon. I devote an entire chapter to Michele Flournoy, who was then one of the top civilian leaders—she rewired the culture, instituted flexible work policies, and took vacation herself, demonstrating that leaders modeling flexible behavior is key to others feeling they have the permission to do so as well. In the process, she put two young fathers in charge of the effort. She saw very quickly that people were not only happier, but that the work got better, the thinking sharper, clearer, and more creative.
The trope of the “Ideal Worker”— That ambivalence is so damaging. What are we most afraid of when we think of working moms? We think they’re going to neglect or abandon their children. That she’ll be selfish and put her needs and wishes above those of her children. But because we’ve been so ambivalent about working mothers, we haven’t done much to help her work a reasonable, flexible schedule without sidelining her. We haven’t even talked, much less passed laws and policies to support her and working families, with high quality, affordable child care, with paid parental leave. And so what have we done? Our ambivalence has led to inaction, which has created the very conditions that we were most afraid of: In order for a mother to compete at work, she has to put in crazy overwork hours—and sacrifice time with kids and at home—in short, all that we were so afraid of in the first place.
It’s true, and there’s plenty of research that shows that our workplace cultures value workers who put in long hours of face time at the office. I call them “face time warriors.” And if you deviate from this norm, you may be tolerated, but you’re unlikely to rise, be compensated at the same rate, or seen as committed. And that is an absolute fallacy.
“People assume that total devotion to overwork and busyness is what makes economies and corporations thrive. That’s simply untrue. Instead, its making us sick, stupid, unimaginative, unproductive, disengaged, unhappy and unhealthy.”
People don’t realize that our labor laws haven’t been updated since 1938. The Fair Labor Standards Act instituted the 40-hour workweek. (This actually came from internal research Henry Ford did in his assembly plants—40 hours is how far you could push a manual laborer before they got so tired and fried that they began making costly mistakes.)
Then there are Millennials. They were the first generation of kids who were helicoptered and told they could do anything. They don’t want their parents’ crazy lives. And they don’t see any reason why they should have to live and work that way. Surveys show that both men and women are ambitious and care about having a career. And that both men and women value family and care about having time with them. God bless them, as the Millennials may lead us out of this Overwhelm mess yet!
If sharing the workload at home is one of the keys to unlocking more time in the day and easing the feelings of Overwhelm, how do you move to a place of equality?
This is a tough one. Women are still doing twice the housework and child care, on average, even when they work full time, and even though men are doing more now than men did 30 years ago. But women are not only carrying the heavy physical load, they’re doing the time sensitive chores that can make you feel like your head is going to explode like getting kids to school, getting to the child care pick up, getting everyone out the door to lessons or sports games. They’re still, by and large, doing all the “mental labor” of planning, thinking, organizing, connecting with family, and taking everyone’s emotional temperature. That “invisible” labor takes a huge toll and is hugely time consuming. Research shows that the scales start to tip in even the most egalitarian-minded couples when the first child arrives..
At the end of the book, you reveal some time-management tips that helped you overhaul your days—and find those pockets of time to use for yourself. It also seemed to be a way for you to take “control” of your life. What’s the secret?
Overwhelm and stress are caused by two things: A lack of control and an inability to predict. So in an unpredictable and often out of control world, in workplaces that are caught up in the mass delusion of the value of overwork and busyness, how can you fînd a measure of both? At work, that means getting real clarity about the mission of your job. And getting answers to three questions: How much is enough? When is it good enough? How will I know? What are you supposed to do—not where does the boss want you to sit—is what matters. What are the metrics to measure whether you’ve done it well? Work to get clearer and clearer on that and communicate it up and down the chain of command.
Ask for flexibility, come up with your own proposal, and make the case for why it’s important.
So many of us assume we’ll get the NO, assume people will think less of us, that we don’t ask. And people feeling too afraid to ask. To break through that fear, along with more clarity, a network of support. Like-minded people who, too, want to do meaningful, excellent work, and have time for their lives. Find networks of support, families that love their kids and don’t want to get caught up in intensive parenting craziness. Men and women who value leisure, downtime, sharing special moments and connecting, rather than bragging about busyness. Change is hard, but not impossible. It’s tough to push back against powerful social norms on your own.
`Work, Love and Play` in 10 Steps.
1 PAUSE. Step off the gerbil wheel regularly—if even for a moment, even if you have to schedule it in, to figure out where you are, and where you really want to go.
2 Understand how strong the PRESSURE is to overwork, overparent, overschedule, and overdo—and that humans are wired to conform. Our outlandishly unrealistic cultural ideals keep us spinning in “never enough”—that we can never be enough, be good enough, or do enough in any sphere.
3 Change the narrative. Actively support big change—in workplace culture, in cultural attitudes, in laws and policies. Redesign work, reimagine traditional gender roles, and recapture the value of leisure and play. Make conscious unconscious bias and ambivalence. Uncover. Be authentic. Expect it of others. Dispel worn out myths. Talk.
4 Banish busyness.
5 PLAN. DO. REVIEW. As you get clearer about where you are and where you want to go, begin to imagine in those moments of pause and how to get from here to there. Experiment. Assess. Try something different. Keep trying.
6 Set your own PRIORITIES—and then set up your own network of support that lines up with your values, that you want to conform to! POSITIVE PEER PRESSURE.
7 When it comes to the To Do list. Do a brain dump to get everything out of your head to clear mental space. Then give yourself PERMISSION not to do any of it. Also give yourself PERMISSION to put joy, fun, play, reflection and idleness or quiet time as top priorities and schedule it in until it becomes routine. You really don’t have to earn leisure by getting to the end of the To Do list. You never will. So flip the list. Joy first. Do one thing a day and do it first. The rest of the day is a win.
8 Chunk your time. Work in short, intense PULSES of no more than 90 minutes, and take breaks to change the channel. Check digital media at specific times during the day, and use timers so you won’t fall into the rabbit hole. Technology is seductive, lighting up the same structures of the brain that light up in addiction, so find your own system to use it wisely, not let it use you, or abuse you.
9 Set common standards at home and share the load fairly, even with the kids. Remember, as parents, love your kids, accept them for who they are, then get out of their way. That way, everybody has more time to connect—which is what’s really important, not how many instruments they play and how many travel teams they’ve made.
10 More is not more. Think inverted U curve. Like anything, some activity for kids, some novelty for the brain, some amount of hard work, some time for technology … it’s all good up to a point, but more is not better. Too much, and the benefits begin to diminish. Find your own sweet spot.
Interested to read more? Full article from Goop here. http://goop.com/ending-the-mommy-wars-3/