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Why American Mothers Have Less Leisure Time And Find Ourselves Overwhelmed And Exhausted

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Did you know that Danish mothers have, on average, one and a half hours of leisure time every day that is spent in "pure" or child-free time to themselves? American mothers, in contrast, have about thirty-six minutes a day to themselves.

I learned of these powerful statistics when I recently had the honor of interviewing Brigid Schulte, who is an award-winning journalist for the Washington Post and the New York Times best selling author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time. In her book, Brigid, discusses how time pressure and modern life have led to a constant feeling of being overwhelmed which is affecting our health and even the size of our brain. She shows us how role overload, time contamination, social structures, and even our own subconscious beliefs can lead to this state of a constant sense of urgency; consuming guilt and a certainty that we are inadequate both at work and home.

In her book, Brigid uses Denmark as one of the "Bright Spot" examples to demonstrate that there are places where individuals do not feel this same pressure or overwhelm, where families feel supported and both working mothers and fathers have been able to cultivate a relaxed sense of fulfillment at home and at work. I wanted to know -- how do they do it?!

In Denmark, the world's happiest country, it's possible to work short, productive, flexible hours and still be successful, committed workers and attentive parents. Brigid tells the story of an American who moved to Denmark and got dinged in her review for working long hours, because it was assumed that she was less productive than her peers who were leaving earlier. Can you imagine that happening in the United States? In my former career on Wall Street, I know I certainly couldn't.

Denmark also offers an interesting counter-point to the mother's guilt many women experience in the United States. The Australian sociologist Lyn Craig found that in Denmark, women have the most leisure time of mothers in any country she studied -- as much as an hour more of leisure a day than mothers in the United States, Australia, and France. One and a half hours of a Danish mother's leisure time every day is spent in "pure" or child-free time to themselves. American mothers, in contrast, spend the most leisure time of any parents studied with their children, and spend the least amount of leisure time without them. "American mothers, on average, have about thirty-six minutes a day to themselves."

Not surprising to me, Denmark has one of the highest maternal employment rates in the world, with more than 80 percent of mothers with children under 15 in the workforce.

When Brigid asked one Danish couple she interviewed what enables Danish mothers and fathers to have more leisure time than parents in other countries they replied that Americans seem to value achievement above all, and Danes make it a priority to live a good life: "Here, you get a lot of status from what you do in your leisure time. The papers are filled with stories about people doing interesting things with their leisure." One Danish man also said, "Some of my colleagues who are the highest achieving and most productive pick up their children at 4 or 4:30 every day, no one works at the office until 6, 7, or 8 o'clock just to show they're there. We tend to focus on what needs to get done and just do it."

And, even more convincing, Brigid found that these shorter work hours and longer vacations do NOT come at an economic cost. The Danish economy is one of the most productive in the world, ranking just behind the United States, even though Danes work so much less. And only 6 percent of Danes find it difficult or very difficult to live on their current income, compared to 21 percent of Americans, even though the United States ranks highest in the world on household income.

I was also struck by how much the couples Brigid interviewed so easily share the duties of parenting and homemaking. Brigid tells the story of one man she interviewed, who has an important job in the Danish parliament, leaving work at 4:30 pm and biking home in the rain just to be home in time. When Brigid asked "for what?" His wife replied, "My favorite exercise class!" as she kissed her husband goodbye and walked out the door. He made pizza dough while the children played, telling Brigid, "I intuitively found it very natural to take part at home because that's what I saw. For me, it would have been very odd to have a wife who didn't develop her own skills. I find it very much part of human nature. For me to do all the work and have a wife doing everything at home would be strange." The default allocation of household duties seems to be different in Denmark than in the United States, and this contributes to women having more leisure time and a happier society overall... are you connecting these dots with me?

If we aren't willing to uproot and move to Denmark, what can we do to cultivate that kind of lifestyle? During our interview, Brigid told me it was important to take time to pause and to set your priorities. Brigid also said "Recognize those pressures that are out there to over work, over do, over schedule your kids, over parent your kids. Take a breath. Work in pulses. Find a network of support. This is something you have to practice -- it doesn't just happen overnight."

One action step you can take right now is to carve out at least one hour of extra leisure time for yourself this week that does not involve your partner or your children. Book a massage, go to a café, read an indulgent book, walk in nature, just take some time apart and notice how recharged you feel when you get back. And when in doubt, think of Denmark.