Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time takes the author, a journalist with two children, on a quest to understand how her to-do list (which serves as the book cover and merrily jumbles a shopping list and finding a geometry tutor with action items for work) remains forever undone and makes her crazy as a result. The part of the book I enjoyed most was the discussions with time research scholars, members of the very serious International Association for Time Use Research. Who knew that this was such an active field of research? While said scholars have not found any miracle cure to our terminal busy-ness, they have supplied apt labels for our troubles such as “contaminated time” (time when our to-do list runs through our heads while we should be enjoying a moment of leisure) and “leisure episodes” (moments of leisure that are too brief to really enjoy) — and even identified key life transitions when time trouble sets in (at the birth of the first child, for instance).
I did not enjoy as much the longish sections on companies and organizations that have managed to provide a better work-life balance to their employees (which sounded, to me, like those vapid Working Woman magazine awards), or how the Danes have managed to arrange reasonable work schedules (good for them; not so helpful so us who live in a society that values long hours at the office and provides very little practical support for parents). And I had to chuckle at the to-do list she provides in the appendix to switch to a more serene life: it runs a good eight pages, single-spaced. You can take the woman out of the busy-ness, but not the busy-ness out of the woman, apparently!
The author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood does a great job of capturing the contrast between the drudgery of raising children (childcare seems to rank lower than even housecleaning as a non-enjoyable activity) and the great joy of having children and seeing them grow into independent adults. But I found the book to be rather weak otherwise. For one thing, the author seems to have chosen parents for the many vignettes throughout the book who are quite extreme. There is a mother of three (including a toddler) who somehow thinks she is going to raise them full-time while running a business from her home. Who could possibly achieve this feat? There is another who, although exhausted, will not, absolutely not, allow her children to cry during the night without getting up, against the opinion of her husband. And that brings up my other beef: why are the fathers portrayed in the book so calm and efficient (and involved!) and the mothers such airheads? Surely there are a few mothers out there who are smart enough to hire a babysitter, who expect their children to sleep through the night, and yet are having no fun trying to survive it all.
And where are the practical recommendations at a societal level? Where are the public nursery schools? The arrangements for emergency childcare for sick kids? The schools that don’t shut down at 3pm? It may be true that parents should be less protective of their children but we can’t really abandon them entirely!
Let’s stay in the Southern hemisphere and move West, to Western Australia, for The Light Between Oceans, the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife who one day find a baby in a rowboat drifting by their isolated island, and decide to keep it. The setting, to start, is magnificent, between the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean. The hero, the lighthouse keeper, a WWI veteran, has seen many horrors and retains a stoic but perfectly gentle manner. The many scenes of parenthood are captured with exquisite tenderness and authentic details. So far so good.
But the story line is most improbable, relying on so many amazing coincidences (starting with how a baby can be alive in a boat with her dead father). And the overly sentimental descriptions of motherly love and melodramatic female emotions turned me off. I imagine that less cynical souls would enjoy the book more than I did.
The Mothers reads like a memoir of a woman who, with her husband, wants to adopt a child through an open adoption. The story details the bureaucracy, the stilted process to qualify as an adoptive parent, and the schemes of birth mothers and others who pray on the parents. The book would stand quite well as a memoir, I thought, but it did not work as a novel. It’s boring: we know that it’s hard for a childless couple to witness others’ pregnancies and children. We can imagine that being scammed by a birth mother must be very painful. But we’d like, I’d like, a little more from a novel: a different twist, perhaps, a complex moral dilemma (beyond whether to check all the races’ boxes on the application), or a good climax of some sort. None of that here, beyond the very funny scenes of the adoption workshops where the would-be parents eye each other to decide which of them will be chosen first.
Having successfully sent two children away to college, waiting for the third one to get there, and hoping none will come back, I was curious to see what The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition had to say about the children who do come back. What I found was mixed. On the one hand the author is able to discuss anecdotes from many different countries, including Japan, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and several Nordic countries in addition to the United States, and is able to describe experiences both from the parents’ and the children’s perspectives
On the other, the discussion does not rise much above anecdotes. So yes, there are children who live at home past the age of 30, and there are parents who tolerate it, and parents who seem to prefer it that way, and yes, it is difficult for some young adults to make a comfortable living, but the economic argument seems rather hollow. After all, there are many adult children who strike out on their own, even if they must eat ramen and live in substandard spaces while they do so, so perhaps the issue is really about expectations: the expectations of the children that they will magically move into a lifestyle as comfortable as their parents’ upon college graduation, and of the parents who (methinks) don’t have the guts to kick them out.
Forget Bringing Up Bebe (which I refuse to read, on principle). It’s really Bringing Up Les Grands Bebes: you’re ready, now leave.