Why are we so OVERWHELMED?

jpegBeing overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed.

Clients entering my therapy office cite being overwhelmed as their biggest concern.   Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed, touched a raw nerve among my clients, spawned book discussion groups, and recently garnered buzz on talk shows.    The cover of Ovewhelmed Work, Love, Play when No One has the Time,  is filled with Ms. Schulte’s own to-do list.  Who can finish such a list?   Since I wonder whether anyone has time to read the book, I decided to offer some highlights, especially since the author waits until the Appendix to insert some suggestions.  Although she includes a short chapter “New Dads” (p. 199), most of the book focuses on mothers:  children increase the demands and stress and mothers still provide the majority of childcare.

Multitasking does not work.

After interviewing neuro-scientists, behaviorists, and time researchers in several countries (mostly European), Ms. Schulte’s answer is that our Cro-Magnon brains are maxed to capacity.  We are not meant to hold more than seven pieces of information in our working memories and some of us can’t hold that many.  So we multi-task away and feel incompetent when we can’t.  Or don’t know we can’t until we forget an important meeting or taking a child to a doctor’s appointment that we’ve waited months to get.  We have so much coming at us from our devices, our bosses, our children calling for play dates that we are switching tasks every three minutes.  We feel fragmented and sometimes incoherent, unable to predict and control the forces that shape our lives–a perfect definition of STRESS.  The author also asserts that the belief that women’s brains were built to multitask is a myth. (p. 298)

One highlight is her interview with a co-founder of Moms Rising.

Joan Blades and her colleagues have collected stories of outrage, and struggle from their one-million member moms who had to go back to work days after giving birth, and “families nearly broken by the cost of child care, and the unconscious bias against affordable, quality childcare is breathtakingly deep” (p. 120).  There is deep ambivalence in this country about women working yet economic factors mean that both parents have to work–except for the few families in the 1%.  There are outdated family policies in place that are holding women back and exhausted, fathers and mothers, in struggling to cobble together their own childcare.  This country is just not friendly toward families. (p.98) Other countries, such as France, provide high-quality, government-supported child care.  The US Family Medical Leave Act does not cover 40% of  the US work force and it is UNPAID.  (p. 109).  Moms Rising has given up on protest marches (since no one has time and leaders in Washington don’t listen) in favor of using the Internet to click on a link, post a comment, or add a story.  “Leaders in Washington have no clue about what’s going on with American families.” states Kristen Rowe-Finkbinder, a co-founder from Seattle.  (p. 120)   Moms Rising is working on change at the local and state level because of the fractured, stalled political system in Washington.

Moms are trying to be too perfect.

There are now two million kids being homeschooled in this country(p. 186).  This is a huge growth and is not just a reflection of religious values.  Parents seem to want their kids to have it all, such as the “perfect theme-based” birthday party which can cost hundreds of dollars.  One mother, who has spent hundreds on her kids’ birthday parties overheard her son raving about a party where the primary event was a game of tag. (p. 182)   SIMPLICITY MOMS meet regularly in Portland Oregon, trying to find a way to escape the “cult of intense mothering.”  There is an “inertia” about going along with the group. At first no one would talk about it but once they allowed themselves to feel vulnerable,  the women began to see an opportunity to make real change in themselves and families.  A pediatrician and parent coach meets with them urging them to push back against the “idea of the ideal mother.”  “Intensive mothering is at odds with what IS valuable:  Love your kids, Keep them safe and accept them as they are.  Get out of their way. (p. 189)

So what to do about our continual anxiety and not being perfect?

Schulte’s first suggestion is to focus on one thing at a time.   Most of us have too many applications opened on our devices at one time.  Give your brain a rest by getting into your breath, your body, or the moment.  Women are especially prone to ruminating and wanting to do it all.  Start a “Worry Notebook”.  Notice your thoughts without judgement.  Write them down.   Unplug.  She cites the dopamine burst we get when  hearing the “ping” of an incoming message.  Ignore it unless it’s the boss with a crisis at 3 am.  Stop the “cycle of responsiveness” which makes work overly intense.  As a culture, we seem to take pride in our “busyness.”  Schulte found this NOT to be true in France, for example,  where there is government-supported daycare and a “vacation” culture.  Join a small group where you can become vulnerable and reclaim some personal time and make changes in your way of life.

 Claim your Priorities

Banish ambivalence (p. 282).  Decide with your partner what is most important to your family.  Industrial-age gender roles are outdated.  “Check your unconscious” bias on whether your family structure favors the male.  Decide together who does what in the family and get the children involved with family tasks.  “Park your helicopter.”  Find a “listening partner” to help you become clear about the gap between “your current reality and your goals.”  Cultivate a “growth” mind-set to try new things and believe in change..and yourself.

Finding Time

If you find the first part of the book just adds to your stress, skip to Chapter 13, p. 255, beginning with the quote by Annie Dillard: ” The way you live your days is the way you live your life.”  It’s how Schulte learned the Jedi Mind Tricks.” (p. 262)  She discovered that humans are designed to work in “pulses and rhythms”, alternating between spending and recovering energy.  This does not mean writing a book chained to a desk for ten hours at a time.  It means working in “chunks”, using the “brain dump” and the Worry Journal, all of which are helpfully described in this chapter and the Appendix.  So don’t skip this part.

Find some ideas that work for you and your family.  Don’t just add them to another to-do list.  Breathe deeply.

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