I went into Brigid Schulte’s Overhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time with something of a pre-formed opinion. I had read the original article back in 2010 in the Washington Post that inspired her to look more deeply into the subject of leisure time (or lack of it) and even blogged about it here. At the time I came away slightly disappointed that Schulte didn’t more deeply examine our attitudes about work and busyness. I was interested in reading the book to see the idea fleshed out more and because she’s an excellent writer.
Schulte does explore society’s attitudes and norms regarding work, love and play in more depth in the book. She looks at the culture of the “ideal worker”. A quote from Ben Hunnicutt (a leisure researcher) that stuck out to me this time was also one that I quoted in my previous blog post:
Work has become central in our lives, answering the religious questions of “Who are you” and “How do you find meaning and purpose in your life?”
As I said here and here, I think a lot of people like being busy. Or at least like the feeling that being busy makes them valuable. Schulte interviews a researcher named Ann Burnett who has been examining Christmas letters for years and has noticed that over the years
…people are competing about being busy. It’s about showing status. That if you’re busy, you’re important. You’re leading a full and worthy life. There’s a real “busier than thou” attitude, that if you’re not as busy as the Joneses, you’d better get cracking.
Schulte spends a lot time looking at ways that companies can cut down on work stress. Later in the book she spends a lot of time examining ways that couples can individually look at gender roles in their relationship and how society could find ways to be more supportive of working women and fathers who want to stay home. She had a lot that was interesting to say but at the end of her book I came away feeling slightly disappointed, as I did with the article.
Part of the reason was that I felt like she never really addressed the root cause of the overwhelm. What is it in us that causes us to make choices that make us busier and busier? Why do we need to sign up our kids for every activity under the sun? Why do we need to buy the bigger house which means we have to work more at a more demanding job? Why do we feel like being productive makes us somehow more worthy than having a lot of free time? Why do we equate self-worth to how much is on our to-do list? All of those are interesting questions and perhaps not answerable but no number of social programs or incentives by companies or flex-time or marriage counseling is really going to help us if we don’t somehow address them.
Another disappointment to me was the final section on play. In it, Schulte is a strong proponent for the idea of whimsical play. She spends time with a group of women who organize formal playdates (a word I cringe at using for my kids and can’t even begin to want to use for myself) where they do things like take trapeze classes or go rock climbing. Another play consultant is admired for her collection of goofy toys and her habit of blowing bubbles in the car. Schulte makes the case that for many years leisure time activities for women have actually been work: quilting, knitting, canning, baking. She is quite dismissive of quilting in particular, bringing it up as a poor example of play multiple times. I don’t quilt but I have always loved quilts. One of the things about them I love is that women didn’t have to make them artistic or creative but they chose to. It would have been quicker and just as warm to slap together some fabric and make and ugly blanket. But quilting became an art form over the years. It’s an example in my mind of women turning their work into something joyful and creative and, yes, playful.
I’m not advocating at all that all of leisure time has to be productive. And I’m not anti-bubble blowing. But there was something a bit too contrived about this kind of play in my mind. And again I think Schulte misses a chance to look at the deeper attitudes at play here (pun totally intended). Instead of seeking out new ways to play, it seems to me that we should first look to make the life we have playful. Or maybe to put it better, we should first examine our attitudes about the things that we have to do.
We got a dog last summer and she has to be walked daily. This is sometimes a dreaded chore (especially lately with single degree digit weather.) I find that when I look at it as a chore it feels like a chore. Last week, at the end of a long day with the kidsI took her out for a walk alone because I wanted to walk alone. It was a beautiful night with snow drifting down in soft white flakes. The dog loves the snow and she was so excited. There was no one else out even though it was relatively early. As I walked along in the dark, looking in lighted windows, and breathing in the cool crisp air, I was completely happy. It felt like play. Same chore, but new attitude.