How to Take Charge of Overwhelm

Photo of computer on desk

I heard a woman at a book group say recently: “I don’t want to lean in; I just want to lie down.” Sometimes I feel the same way.

After I posted an essay about our culture of overwork and the epidemic of overwhelm, I saw a Petula Dvorak column in the Washington Post called Welcome to Overwhelmia, Overwhelmed Moms. The next day, I heard an NPR interview with Washington Post writer Brigid Schulte on her new book Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, which Dvorak referenced in her column.

And then, my TED video weekly summary arrived in my inbox, including a TED talk by Anne Marie Slaughter. Remember her? She wrote The Atlantic article entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in 2012. She’s the woman who wouldn’t lean in, leaving Hillary Clinton’s inner circle and returning home to New Jersey to spend time with her teenage sons before they left for college.

This conversation on the so-called work/life balance just won’t go away.

The Struggle between Work and Home

Dvorak says we live in Overwhelmia because we are hedging our bets as mothers to be sure our kids get everything they need, so we won’t feel guilty that we didn’t do all we could for them. We manage our time as if it were “confetti,” squeezing in the cupcakes for tomorrow’s bake sale as we send an email for work and get a load of wash going. Mostly, we are exhausted.

Schulte’s research shows that women in the U.S. spend almost all their leisure time with the kids, and that working mothers today spend more time with their kids than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1960s and 70s. And yet, she says we are still ambivalent about mothers who work outside the home. Compare the workplace accommodations for people with children or other family obligations in the US with those in the Nordic countries, she says, and you’ll see what she means. A lot of working mothers feel like they’re waging a losing battle.

In her TED talk, Slaughter suggests that we give equal respect to a wider range of life choices for women and men. She rightly points out that juggling work and family is not just a problem for women. In her view, breadwinning and caregiving should be given equivalent value, and our workplaces should apply that principle to men and women alike.

Of course, this will take a broad consensus and probably specific policies that government and the private sector will have to hash out. But her point is right on, and no one feels stronger about this than the men I work with who have become full-time caregivers. They personally experience the discount we still apply to “stay-at-home” parents.

In the meantime, how can we lessen the struggle between work and home obligations? In my experience, it starts with an honest inventory of our own commitments.

What do your commitments say about your values?

In coaching, we view commitments as the most basic level of our interaction with the world. They are created any time we say yes to a request. Clearly, whether we keep or break commitments has a huge effect on who we are, that is, how others see us.

Which commitments do you want to hold, and for how long? Which do you want to renegotiate? And which do you want to let go of? What we seem to have forgotten — both men and women — is that we must continue to have conversations about what is important to us and how we want our lives to reflect those priorities.

A Harvard Business Review cover story entitled “Work vs Life: Forget about balance – you have to make choices” put it this way:

Work/life balance is at best an elusive ideal and at worst a complete myth, today’s senior executives will tell you. But by making deliberate choices about which opportunities they’ll pursue and which they’ll decline, rather than simply reacting to emergencies, leaders can and do engage meaningfully with work, family and community. They’ve discovered through hard experience that prospering in the senior ranks is a matter of carefully combining work and home so as not to lose themselves, their loved ones, or their foothold on success. Those who do this most effectively involve their families in work decisions and activities. They also vigilantly manage their own human capital, endeavoring to give both work and home their due — over a period of years, not weeks or days.

Maybe part of the answer is not to lean in but to stand up — for yourself, your choices and your boundaries.