Welcome to Overwhelmia: The modern-day madness of working mothers

Petula Dvorak
Columnist March 13

I wrote a few paragraphs of this column between school drop-off and an appointment. I sent a bunch of e-mails between making dinner and tae kwon do. Bedtime reading with the kids, then more writing at 1 a.m., after a few hours of sleep. Then back up at 4 a.m. to write and sign up for summer camp.

There’s a name for this. It is called “time confetti.” It’s miserable. And it’s part of why we are all Overwhelmed.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

My Washington Post colleague Brigid Schulte somehow carved out the hours to research and write a book — “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time” — about this modern-day madness, the abject misery of allegedly having it all.

It’s the plight of many middle-class working mothers trying to juggle careers, children, activities and friends. Boo hoo for us, right? But it feels like being handed a fat check from the lottery, only one that’s been through a paper shredder. Confetti.

Schulte and her husband, Tom Bowman, were talking about the book this week, and I had the brilliant idea of trying to get a few citizens of Overwhelmia together to hear their thoughts and share some of our own afterward.

My mom friends and I all live in Overwhelmia. But somehow, we usually find the time to get together and talk about having no time.

The most recent gathering included an international lawyer who works full time and has two kids, another mother of two who recently reentered the workforce as a part-time construction manager, and a lobbyist with two children whose husband used to be a stay-at-home dad but who is back to working. The one mom who doesn’t work outside the house was too busy and Overwhelmed to make it.

“Ha!” was what all of the women said when I asked them whether the University of Maryland time-management guru featured in Schulte’s book is wrong in saying American women have 30 hours a week of leisure time.

“Some confetti, maybe,” the construction manager said.

Our having-it-all, second-shift lives leave many of us conflicted. And exhausted enough to fall asleep on the floor of the kids’ bedroom, still in our work clothes, drooling on the smartphones in our hands.

There is so much to say on this topic. It’s about a workforce that isn’t as friendly to men as it is to women when it comes to flexibility and family time. It’s about a nation that insists it’s family-friendly, yet has never meaningfully addressed safe, reliable child care. It’s about a truly new world order where our hunter-gatherer genes are completely eclipsed by the physically attainable yet emotionally challenged goal of gender parity.

But let’s get back to how it all feels: better after a lovely bottle of Xanthos red we all shared.

The problem is, we make time confetti because we often misunderstand what it is that makes us good parents and good employees.

The construction manager, who left a high-profile job being a kick-butt, feminist woman in a male-driven industry, thought focusing full time on the kids would produce strong, happy boys.

But then she heard this: Her older son was at a playdate one day, and a girl put a backpack on and pretended to head off to work. “Silly Hannah,” the boy later told his tough-as-nails mom. “Girls don’t go to work. Only boys do.”

“That shook me to the core,” the construction manager said.

Or take the lobbyist, who actually made history a few years back as the first female chief counsel in a high-profile government job. She’s a military veteran with two girls and was eager to stay on her high-caliber career trajectory, with retired naval officer Dad staying home with them.

Feminist’s dream?

“I was miserable. One month I’d be in Europe, and two weeks later I’d be in Asia,” she said. “I never saw them. I was missing everything.”

Ditto with the international lawyer, who was Skyping from Nairobi with the kids to talk about homework. “There’s a reason I’m not in Ukraine right now negotiating the aid package,” she said.

Lean in? Recline? What is best?

The only thing we know for sure is that the things we think we have to do to be good moms aren’t always working. There is all this pressure, for sure. Magazines, Pinterest, the Other Parents. Our memories of what our childhood was and wasn’t. The pressure is external and internal.

Schulte describes being up at 2 a.m. making cupcakes for a school event and then, predictably, being a witch in the morning to the children she was trying to bake love for.

I’ve totally been there. The baking scene always comes when women agonize about work/life balance. Who could forget the scene in Allison Pearson’s “Feminine Mystique” for Generation X — “I Don’t Know How She Does It” — where the banker mom is mangling a store-bought pie to try to make it look homemade before she delivers it to school?

Who is making her think she has to bake it? Who is making us think we have to drive the kids to tae kwon do, soccer practice, ballet lessons, or maybe all three. Because we actually do have a choice.

Our children, unless they find themselves in a ninja movie, will survive without martial arts. They won’t get scurvy if you stop making kale chips. We will still be alive, employed and housed if we don’t volunteer for the spring auction.

I struggle with that. We all do. Who knows what resentments, faults and complexes our children will have if they leave the nest without piano skills and soccer trophies?

So we hedge our bets and err on the side of being Overwhelmed. The thing to remember, we all agreed when the wine was gone and we had to return to our regularly (over) scheduled lives, is that there never will be a Mother of the Year parade, no confetti.

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