Conversation with Brigid Schulte, Author of Overworked: Work, Love & Play When No One Has the Time
Authoring a Book on the State of Women & Work and Life
April 5, 2018
1. What is your book about?
I’m the author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play when No One has the Time, a New York Times best-selling book about women, time pressure, work, family, and gender. I used the best available data to tell a story about where we are as a nation with regard to women and family. My goal was to bring light to areas that would inspire outrage but also show examples that would make the reader hopeful. I hope that by the end of the book, you would see that things don’t have to be this way for women, for men, for families, for organizations, for our society and that there is a possibility for change. I believe that change can come from redesigning the way we work, re-imagining gender roles for a fairer division of labor and opportunity, at work and home, and by rewiring social policy to truly support the way people live.
I am also the director of The Better Life Lab at the nonpartisan think tank, New America, where we seek to elevate the conversation, explore transformative solutions and highlight how work-life and gender equity issues are key to excellence, productivity, and innovation, as well as a full, authentic and meaningful life for everyone.
2. What made you decide to write the book?
Honestly, I have to say Overwhelmed was an accidental book. I was working on a project at the Washington Post and a time-use researcher told me I wasn’t busy, that I had 30 hours of leisure a week, and challenged me to do a time study with him. That led to a magazine story on my search, as a frazzled working mother, for these elusive 30 hours of leisure. The response of the magazine story was so overwhelming that book agents started contacting me, asking if I would consider writing a book. My answer was, “Yeah but not about this.” Honestly, I just didn’t know what more to say about it – I felt I’d made this personal choice to be a working mother, so if I was stressed out of my mind, it was my fault, – this is just the way things are, and I thought they couldn’t change.
And so I thought about it for a year. When I finally decided to write the book, my plan was to treat it the same way that I would any serious investigative journalistic piece. I wanted to go deep to understand how things are, understand the policy and the data. I also want to know if things really could be different. If change was possible, how problems can be fixed and find interesting stories that illustrate what is working.
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
It was hard. And believe me, there were times that I would have this terrible crushing insecurity and imposter syndrome. I would think, “Oh my God, who am I? Who’s going to listen to me? What do I know?” And when I started learning things, I became shocked at how ignorant I was. There was this fantastic body of research that I didn’t even know about. One day I got a shot of courage by glancing at my husband’s office bookshelf. He is a journalist who writes about the military, and he has just stacks and stacks of books about World War II. And I thought, “Okay. If there are so many books about World War II, we can have more than just one book about work and family.”
Plus, once I got started, I really wanted to know the answer. And so it was a kind of thing where I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning to see where the research would take me. Who am I going to call today, what am I going to read, and what am I going to learn today? Writing the book became an opportunity for me to deeply understand modern life.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
Finding the structure of the book was really important. And I have to be honest, it changed as my reporting and thinking evolved. I wasn’t really quite sure when I started how I would tell the story or which stories I would tell. There was one day, I was really sick and had laryngitis so I couldn’t talk to people. So I was just laying on my couch and watching TED Talks on my laptop. I came across a talk given by Professor Martin Seligman about Erik Erikson. Erickson had written about how the richest and fullest lives make time for the three great arenas of life: work, love, and play. And in that moment I had an epiphany and realized that was how I would organize my book. Because the story I was telling was really about how to live a good life – how anyone, including working mothers, can and should have time for work, love, and play.
I very purposely wrote myself in as a first person, flawed narrator character which, as a journalist, is very difficult. At first, I wasn’t comfortable. But when I began thinking that the structure would enable me to take readers on this journey of discovery with me, that helped me get the rhythm right. I’d given a talk right after the magazine piece came out, and I was struck by the real hunger to understand. We were all living fast and busy and no one knew why or if there could be another way. One woman in the audience said, ‘If you take this journey, I will follow you every step of the way.’ That became a real touchstone for me.
5. Was there ever a particularly tough time that in retrospect was a priceless learning moment?
With a master’s degree and working at The Washington Post, I thought I was pretty well-educated and reasonably on top of events. And everything that I found out was utterly shocking. I didn’t even realize that we didn’t have a national paid family leave policy. I didn’t know that we’d nearly had a universal, high-quality child care system in the early 1970s that was vetoed at the last minute because of Cold War fears that childcare would make the U.S. like Communist Russia. The more I researched, the more I saw how U.S. policies are still promoting breadwinner-homemaker families, and are a big part of what drives stress and overwhelm in families. It’s maddening.
My sense is that we haven’t taken a hard look at these work-life issues – except for the very poor – because the people who are most affected by them are too busy to fight for change. You’re really busy, everybody else you know is busy, everybody else you know is trapped. Nobody has any time to try to figure out what the hell is going on. You’re just trying to hang on and get through the day somehow without falling apart. And so finding all of this out was absolutely infuriating.
And part of the reason why I think we don’t know is because it hasn’t been seen as important. I think these have long been seen as, kind of, “women’s issues,” or “mommy’s issues.” And so we don’t tend to value them. And yet finding ways for men and women to combine their work and life in meaningful ways is central to living a good life, connecting as a community, as well as ensuring healthy businesses and the economy.
6. Were any partnerships helpful in writing your book? How so?
I had a wonderful agent who really got it. She actually represents a lot of journalists and understood from the beginning that I wanted to write a game changer. And then we had a fabulous publisher, Sarah Crichton, who was actually one of my teachers when I was at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I have just have always really admired and respected her. And she understood that I was looking to use my reporting and storytelling skills to not only write the continuing story of Juliet Schor’s Overworked American and the Arlie Hochschild’s Second Shift, but use the book as a call to action.
7. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
That I actually finished the book. I’ve been such a perfectionist, and have struggled with gnawing self-doubt that I didn’t feel worthy enough to write a book. I was really freaking out at one point. And an editor told me that I didn’t have the luxury of freaking out. And so I really adopted the Facebook mantra, done is better than perfect. So the first thing is that I’m just happy that I actually did it.
Secondly, I think what is really gratifying is that it is really striking a nerve and in a positive way. I love when people come up to me and the book has all sorts of sticky notes or scribbles in the margin or pages turned down. I love that the book has created conversations in the workplace and in people’s relationships. It’s opened people’s eyes. I get email from people still who say, “You know, this really changed my way of being or thinking about things.” That’s the most humbling and gratifying thing.
8. What were some of the biggest positive or negative surprises about writing your book?
Until I spent all of this time looking at the data and the research, I didn’t realize how severely limited our imaginations were in terms of what we think is possible for men and women. We think that women are biologically wired to be just caregivers. Or we think that men can better handle a big job. We will all suffer for it. Men and women will suffer and our children will suffer. And frankly, the economy and innovation. If we allow people to be human and not defined by their gender roles, I mean, what that could unleash – it’s really exciting.
Iris Bohnet has written a fantastic book on gender bias called What Works: Gender Equality by Design. One of her examples about orchestra auditions was powerful for me. If you’re an orchestra director, your ultimate goal is to make the most beautiful amazing music, right? To hire the best musicians. Yet for the longest time, all the best musicians were thought to be men. Then the organizations running auditions made two simple changes: One, they put up a partition so that the evaluators couldn’t see the gender of the person playing and two, they put down a carpet so if an auditioning woman wore high-heels you wouldn’t hear the sound of the heels on the carpet. And then in a few short years, more than 30% of the major orchestras of the world were made up of women.
I’ve come to see that time is a feminist issue. Why aren’t there more women authors, artists, musicians, philosophers? It’s not that women haven’t had the talent. They haven’t had the time. And they haven’t been given the chance.
9. Have there been positive or negative impacts on your family and work/life balance once your book was published?
Probably one of the biggest positive changes is my relationship with my husband. I didn’t realize how resentful and angry I was all the time. Why was I the default parent? Why did so many people ask me if I would return to work once I had kids, and never him? Why was I automatically in charge of everything at home, even when I was just as busy at work, and making just as much or more money? The thing is that my husband and I never had a conversation about how to divide work and life fairly. When we first got married, we’d made a promise that we would be equal partners. But we clearly didn’t know how. And then we fell into traditional gender roles because it’s so easy to do that. Because the culture pushes you that way, people’s expectations push you that way. Policies push you that way – I had maternity leave. My husband felt his career would suffer if he took paternity leave, even though his workplace offered it. Even I thought to myself, “Well I’m just better at this because I have the maternal instinct, right?”
It really took writing the book to learn that there is no such thing as a maternal instinct. There’s time. And the more time you have, the better you get. So you give men time to care and guess what, they get to be really great caregivers too. What men haven’t had is time
Now, we talk a lot. We try to create systems to divide chores fairly, based not on our gender, but on what we like, and automate it, so we don’t have to spend time negotiating, arguing or nagging. My husband does the grocery shopping, I do the laundry. He cooks, and I’ll do the dishes. When there’s a big job that needs to be done, we’ll discuss how we are going to divide it up. Whereas before we both assumed I would deal with it. It took having those conversations, it took creating new systems and new expectations for each other. And it’s just, it’s a joy to have my relationship back. The anger and resentment is gone. My mental load is lighter. I have more of my own time. And I feel like I finally have the real partner that I’d hoped for. It’s made such a world of difference.
10. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?
It’s never too late. It’s not all your fault. And things can change. To me, that is really hopeful.
Date of conversation: January 12, 2018
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