to do list

Are you overwhelmed?

If you answered no,  I’d like your number so I can call you in the middle of the night when I can’t find a pen in my dark bathroom where I need to write down all the to-do list items that have reproduced in my head like a family of baby bunnies.  Maybe you will know where a pen is.  Or maybe you will have a sage voicemail greeting that will gently encourage me to let go of the list and return to restorative slumber.

But the odds are that none of you said no. None. Overwhelm is almost universal no matter what your situation is:  working mom, stay at home mom, single mom, married mom, one kid, four kids, terrible twos, terrible teens, flush with cash, strapped for cash…… just doesn’t matter.  Modern day American society is creating a population of stressed out people even in the midst of privilege and the supposed ease that should bring.

I am a work-at-home mom of one school-aged child with a fully employed husband and a roof over my head in a safe neighborhood.  My bills are generally paid on time. My house is comfortable. My child is healthy. Our household is not dependent on my income. I have flexibility in what work I do and when I do it. What right do I have to feel stress?

Enter Brigid Schulte, author of the new book  Overwhelmed:  Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Does that title speak to you?  (Again, if the answer is no, please tell me all your secrets). Listening to Schulte on NPR, I felt like she could be the poster child for this universal form of overwhelm–juggling a job, kids, pets, household responsibilities, the needs of parents and in-laws, career aspirations, mom guilt, and a to-do list that, like mine, seemed to reproduce like a family of baby bunnies. And she, like me, wanted badly to find some time to relax……..once she crossed everything off her list. Ok, I can hear you laughing now. Because you know as well as I do and as well as Schulte does that YOU NEVER CROSS EVERYTHING OFF YOUR LIST!

To emphasize the point, the cover of Overwhelmed is peppered with snippets from an actual to-do list found in the author’s purse. Everything from “TAXES!” and “Dentist!” to “Try diet cat food” is scribbled on the cover, like it’s mocking me for my need to do everything that has ever needed to be done.  Ever. It’s incriminating, validating and hilarious all at the same time.

Schulte decided to examine this phenomenon of universal overwhelm by interviewing researchers on the topic of leisure (there are actually people who study leisure time for a living -which may or may not be a good idea from a recreational point of view). They mostly look to answer the questions  “What constitutes leisure and who gets it?” Well, after reading the book, I can tell who doesn’t get it. You guessed it–WOMEN. Specifically, American women. Unless you count the time spent reading People magazine while you wait for your kid at the orthodontist–which I don’t.  True leisure time can’t be found in a waiting room because your personal relaxation and fulfillment shouldn’t be a byproduct of a service you provide for your family. Nor do I count “quality time with children.” As lovely and fulfilling as that is, it’s still work done in service to your family.

What Schulte found is that our lack of true leisure time is inextricably linked with lingering inequalities in the home which stem from blatant inequalities in the work place which come from outdated public policies that lag far behind the rest of the industrialized world (one year of paid parental leave to be split between two parents? You’ll have to move to Denmark).

Add to that the collision of the women’s movement with the era of helicopter parenting AND the uniquely American notion of “The Ideal Worker”–someone who shows up early, stays late, answers emails in the middle of the night and would never sacrifice work to pick up a sick child at school–and the result is standards that are impossible to meet. The Ideal Worker exists at home, too, it just looks more like pick ups and drop offs, attending parent meetings, coordinating fundraisers, making homemade nontoxic organic edible play dough, and arranging long term care for your ailing father. If you think this sounds stressful, YOU”RE RIGHT! We are screwed, people! Our fear of being lazy and second best permeates everything we do resulting in the ultimate clash of the titans–work versus parenting. And if parenting is your work, well, good luck figuring that one out.

I started out with a library copy of Overwhelmed but quickly saw the need to buy my own copy when I felt compelled to underline and scratch notes in the margins, analyzing my own behavior and that of the people I see every day. Is it necessary to be so tired? Why does it feel like our smartphones will explode every time we open our calendar apps? Why can’t we just enjoy the ride?

Overwhelmed  a skewering of our culture as we know it.  It’s a condemnation of our public policy and how it traps us in the dark ages as if the women’s movement never happened.  And it’s a rally cry to change things.  Things HAVE to change.  Because the stress we feel over emails and appointments and diet cat food is affecting us at a cellular level, making us tired and sick and unable to fully engage in the beauty that lies before us, around us, each and every day.

It doesn’t have to be like this.  If you knew it wasn’t like this in other countries, would you be compelled to change?  Could you?


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Comments (4)


  1. Posted by: Laura

    Wow, you must’ve wrote this piece specifically for me today as I broke down in the bathroom at work this morning and cried over how stressed I was with work, kids, life, no vacations, etc.

    Thank you.

  2. I have it to read and I love that now I’ve read the crib notes! I suggest the bullet journal for lists; I really like it.

  3. Oh my gosh I laughed out loud when I got to your part about “if you think this sounds stressful YOU’RE RIGHT! We’re screwed people.” LOVE it! It’s funny how we think we’re totally alone in our feeling overwhelmed. I just mentioned this yesterday to a client who was feeling overwhelmed. I hadn’t read your article yet, but I know– I’m a mother! I said, “All you have to do is look around to see a woman who feels overwhelmed. Every mother you can spot with your eyes has experienced this. Guaranteed.” Love your article. I want to see your follow up article about doing it differently– in another country!? Thanks for making me laugh!

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