Family Life

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Are parents today feeling overwhelmed?

Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte examines the issues surrounding our busy lives in her recent book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. In it, she links our current state of over-busyness to a sense of ambivalence about the role of mothers.

Overwhelmed book cover - are parents today feeling overwhelmed?

“In the ‘90s I was covering Bob Dole on the election trail and he said, ‘We need to get back to a country where one salary is enough to raise a family,’ and that was his biggest applause line,” she said in a phone interview. “There is an ambivalence about whether mothers should work and whether that’s good for our kids. There’s this bias that it would really be best for a mother to stay at home, which ignores the financial reality for the vast majority of the people in this country. If you’re ambivalent about having mothers work and about working families, then why should you bother to change workplace culture to accommodate flexibility?”

Changing workplace culture is often thought to mean working less, the so-called mommy track. “But I worked hard when I worked four days a week,” says Brigid. “The mythology is that somehow when you’re working part-time you’re working less. All of the working research shows that it’s not about hours, it’s about the creativity that you can bring to things. And that does not come from overwork.”

The other side of the issue is the lack of quality child care. “Nobody wants their kids at daycare round the clock. We want to do our work well, but know that we’re going to have good family time at the end of the day. With our culture of overwork, our long commutes and it being so difficult to find childcare, we’ve just made it almost impossible for families to do that.” 

Brigid visited Denmark while researching her book to discover the secret to the country’s renowned high quality of life. While Danish maternity leaves and paternity leaves are generous like in Canada, more telling is that people only work until 3:30. “Because they have these shorter hours, there is no working mother guilt there. There’s no leisure guilt. People feel bad and selfish if they work overtime. There’s this understanding that you want to have a good life.” 

She describes one young couple she met who had just had a baby. After her six month leave, mom was going to go back to work, then dad was going to take a six-month leave. After a year, their child would enter a daycare program around the corner staffed by childcare professionals who were paid well. “I asked them if they would feel guilty leaving their child at age one, and they looked at me like I was crazy. They sort of blinked at me when I suggested to them that in the U.S. some people think it’s best for kids to stay home with their mothers.”

As the title suggests, Brigid wrote the book because she was feeling overwhelmed by trying to excel both at work and at home. She felt she had to do it all, and do it by herself. “I very much bought into the myth. My book is a plaintive cry, please don’t do what I did.”

 

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, June/July 2014.

a man carrying two children

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