A Book To Deconstruct the Work-Life Balance
Every waking minute, some woman is made to feel guilty about how she’s spending her time. Laurie Abraham and a new book deconstruct the myth of work-life balance.
Ever heard of John Robinson, the éminence grise of the sociologists who study how Americans spend their time? He and his colleagues have issued a bevy of findings over the years—e.g., a dishwasher does not save time (maybe due to vigorous rinsing before loading?)—that I’ve always accepted as truth, as counterintuitive as some of the results seemed.
Which is why I was glad I took the approximately 10 minutes required to read the first chapter of Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte’s new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. I almost didn’t open it, because it looked like yet another earnest attempt to crack the code of “work-life balance” (a concept that I find useless when it comes to constructing a meaningful life, but more on that later). While Schulte is definitely earnest—her misery at being unable to feel any sense of peace about her performance on either the home or the work front seems very real, and poignant—the book is distinguished by the depth of her reportorial investigation into why busyness has become both a bane of twenty-first-century existence and a badge of honor.
So back to chapter one: There I learned that if your car dies in the middle of the road and you wait two hours for a tow truck, as Schulte was forced to, those 120 minutes count as “leisure,” according to the time-diary method Robinson and his ilk employ. (Subjects keep detailed accounts of their days, and then researchers slot the various activities under general headings.) And I realized that another head-scratching Robinson factoid had lodged itself in my brain: Women have more leisure time today than they did in the 1960s, despite so many more of us now working outside the home. I’d heard this and reflexively assumed that I must be more of a layabout than I’d thought. I mean, doesn’t everyone think she works long and hard? The power of the expert to define reality can be awesome.
Over the course of a week, Robinson totaled up 28 hours of leisure for Schulte, which included: 6 a.m. bedroom DVD workouts (sound muted, so as not to wake her daughter and son), reading the Post (even though she works there), Friday pizza and movie night with the kids, listening to NPR for 20 minutes while trying to drag herself out of bed, “an hour on the computer at midnight beating it roundly at backgammon (okay, busted—some incontrovertible leisure), downloading photos and e-mailing them to family, answering e-mails, and arranging for a cleaning service to come to my friends Jeff and Molly’s house because Jeff was battling stomach cancer.”
Part of the problem with time-diary studies may be that the categories aren’t fine-grained enough to describe female existence. (For Schulte, Robinson divided her time into paid work, personal care, sleep, leisure, child care, housework, volunteering, and commuting—though some investigators use up to 17 groupings.) But better representing our experience isn’t just a matter of increasing the number of slots, according to the new crop of (often female) academics whom Schulte consulted. For one thing, women’s actual leisure feels less than leisurely because it tends to be chopped up, parceled out in what one scholar calls “minute vacations” (Schulte’s example: pausing to observe an “uncannily beautiful moon”…in the midst of searching for her son’s bike helmet). Men, meanwhile, log extended stretches of pure downtime: weekend afternoons of golf, Wednesday nights out with the guys. Perhaps worse, women’s time is generally more “contaminated” than that of the opposite sex, Schulte reports, because, as a result of both working in the paid labor market and being ringmaster of the domestic circus, we usually have multiple balls in the air, and on our minds. As one friend told me, explaining why she felt so frazzled, “My son borrows my cortex.”
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, aka the father of “flow,” documented this contamination by using what’s known as the “experience sampling method”—subjects are buzzed at random points during the day and asked what they’re doing and how they feel about it. The average mother is doing five things at once and simultaneously planning two to three more, his data shows, while the average father is doing one and a half. The upshot, Csikszentmihalyi says, is that the splendors of flow—a peak state in which we’re so immersed in what we’re doing that we lose self-consciousness and the sense of time passing—are enjoyed more by men.
Here are a few things about how I live, things that, notably, I don’t advertise to my full-time working-mother set: I sleep a minimum of eight hours a night. I “make dinner” for my two daughters at most three times a week (the air quotes because the usual menu—none of it organic, except incidentally—is, say, ground beef tacos with applesauce from a jar, or macaroni and cheese from the box with frozen peas, and I’m not kidding). For other meals, we eat out or order in. I don’t go to the gym or do yoga or any other regular exercise. I don’t have to supervise my girls’ homework—their father pays a bit of attention, but since no teacher has ever complained I’ve never felt compelled to get involved. I’m not a big cell-phone user—I turn it off, forget it at home, neglect to charge it.
I know my real friends don’t hold this stuff against me (you’d think I was confessing to pedophilia)—because, let’s face it, my real friends are basically aware of how I live. But I out myself, in all my banality, to strike a blow against the cult of busyness: the need to prove one’s worth based on the length of one’s to-do list. (Schulte speculates that as religious commitment receded, the “busier than thou” ethic caught fire to answer questions like “who am I?” and “why do I exist?”) Because I realized while reading Overwhelmed that as much as I believe that some research has grossly underestimated the demands of women’s lives, I don’t identify with Schulte, or at least not with her state of mind when she began her project, always in a frantic rush, never having time to herself, and never—and this is the big mea culpa I hear among women—feeling like she’s doing anything right.