It is just after 10 a.m. on a Tuesday and I am racing down Route 1 in College Park, Maryland. The Check Engine light is on. The car tax sticker on my windshield has expired. The cellphone I'd just been using to talk to one of my kids' teachers has disappeared into the seat crack. And I'm late.
I screech into the crowded University of Maryland parking garage and wind ever higher until I at last find a spot on the top deck. My palms are sweating. My breath is shallow. My heart races and I feel slightly sick. I throw the car into Park, fumble ineptly with the parking ticket machine, and race down the stairs. Only later, in revisiting this frantic day in my memory, will I realize that the sky had been that poignant shade of autumn blue and the leaves tinted with red. But as I live it, the stress hormones coursing through my veins tense my entire body and collapse my vision into a narrow, dizzying tunnel. Because I am filled with dread.
This is the day I have been avoiding for more than a year. Today, I am meeting with John Robinson, a sociologist who for more than a half century has studied the way people spend their most precious, nonrenewable resource: time. Robinson was one of the first social scientists in the United States to begin collecting detailed time diaries, counting the hours of what typical people do on a typical day, and publishing scholarly tomes summing up the way we live our lives. For his pioneering work, his colleagues call him Father Time. And Father Time has challenged me to keep a time diary of my own. He told me that his research proves that I, a hair-on-fire woman struggling to work a demanding full-time job as a reporter for The Washington Post and be the kind of involved mother who brings the Thanksgiving turkey for the preschool feast and puts together the fifth grade slideshow, have thirty hours of leisure time in a typical week. Today, he is to dissect the mess of my time diaries and show me where all that leisure time is. I feel as if I am a bug, pinned on a specimen tray, about to be flayed and found wanting.
Because this is how it feels to live my life: scattered, fragmented, and exhausting. I am always doing more than one thing at a time and feel I never do any one particularly well. I am always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door. Entire hours evaporate while I'm doing stuff that needs to get done. But once I'm done, I can't tell you what it was I did or why it seemed so important. I feel like the Red Queen of Through the Looking-Glass on speed, running as fast as I can -- usually on the fumes of four or five hours of sleep -- and getting nowhere. Like the dream I keep having about trying to run a race wearing ski boots.
And, since I had kids, I don't think I've ever had a typical day.
Excerpted from "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time" by Brigid Schulte, published in March 2014 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Brigid Schulte. All rights reserved.