When the children start school. When they get older. When they go off to college. When they leave the house to settle on their own.
These were the consolation phrases I fed myself for years during the hamster-wheel craziness of raising children while working full-time. I knew that eventually, hopefully, my harried lifestyle would slow to a manageable pace as the responsibilities of parenting lessened. It did — but only because the baton has been handed to the next sprinter.
Very little has changed in a generation. I watch my older children, now parents themselves, and recognize with a shudder the frantic quality of their lives. They are forever running here and there, forever putting in hours at work that are nothing short of a sweatshop schedule. One day staggers into a week that lurches to a month that pitches into an entire year. Before they realize it, a couple of decades will tear by, a blur, a smear.
I call it the merry go round of life, young adult life in particular, and it takes courage and foresight to jump off the speeding ride. Few ever manage to do it.
Sound familiar? It should. We are, after all, a society that prizes busyness as a measure of a worthy life. We buy into the expectations that tell us there is a touch of glamor, a hint of prestige if our dance card is booked from here to eternity.
So it was with keen interest that I listened to a radio interview with the author of a new book that delves into this cult of overwork and overcommitment. In Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time, Washington Post writer Brigid Schulte tries to figure out why many of us live as if there aren’t hours enough in the day and why, even in an era when technology should afford us more leisure time, we feel, as she explains, “scattered, fragmented, exhausted.”
Or as the daughter of a good friend put it, in a lament that was part complaint, part conceit, “I don’t know if I’m coming or going.”
This is, as Schulte notes, particularly true of working mothers, a group that has been growing exponentially over the years. Three quarters of those with young children work outside the home. The Overworked Mother has become a stereotype, as much part of our family identity as a van or an SUV. And the “always-behind, one-more-thing-to-do” lifestyle is now a badge of honor.
It’s not just mothers, either, though they do the lion’s share of housework and child-rearing. I see the stress borne by fathers, too, young men who want to spend more time with their families without being dismissed as lightweights by bosses who control promotions and pay raises.
Schulte discovers, as many of us eventually do, that we are partly to blame for doing too much while also fretting that we’re not doing enough. By elevating this frenzy into a status symbol, it serves as both hair shirt and silk sash.
Doesn’t have to be that way, however. Many of us have a choice. We can refuse to buy into the craziness. We can refuse to work the insane hours. We can say no to this activity and that commitment, refuse to listen to the endlessly woeful talk about having too much to do in too little time.
But be prepared to pay the price. At work. Around the house. With friends. You’ll be labeled a radical, a heretic. In a world where being overwhelmed gives you bragging rights, simplicity and balance are actually harder to achieve than the pretension of being crazy busy. I know. After all the years, I’m still trying to figure it out.