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When Dr. Phil comes calling

The phone call came like a bolt out of the blue.


A breathless young man, identifying himself as an associate producer for the Dr. Phil Show, speaking a mile a minute, asked me about an article on time - a crazed working mother's search for the elusive 30 hours of leisure that researchers say I have every week - that I'd written for the Washington Post Magazine.

Would I consider coming on the Dr. Phil show to talk about it? Next Monday? Could I answer a raft of questions on mommy wars that Dr. Phil's staff had come up with? By Saturday? Would I allow a film crew to spend a day following me around to see how I actually spent my time. How about Friday? The travel staff was already looking for flights for me for Sunday...

Being in a state of shock, I can't remember exactly what I said. I think I mumbled something about checking with my editor first. I then hung up the phone and said the first thing that popped into my head: "I have nothing to wear on the Dr. Phil Show!" (Of this, I am not particularly proud.)

"Don't do it," said a colleague. "They'll make you look like an idiot."

"Go ahead," said my editor. "It could be fun."

Deb Leithauser, the editor of the magazine, promised that if I held up a copy of the Washington Post Magazine on national TV, lunch was on her. (I didn't manage that, but got a really nice lunch anyway. Thanks, Deb!)

I had mixed feelings. I had never seen the show. And I am terrible speaking on the spot, in front of other people. (I'm the kind of reporter who nearly faints at the thought of asking questions in press conferences. I prefer the shadows to the bright lights. I walk with people down the hall chatting after the press conference.)

And I was worried that they kept asking me if I hated Dr. John Robinson, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and the father of time use studies who had issued me the challenge to find my leisure time in the first place. "No," I kept saying. "He's perfectly lovely. It's just that there's a big disconnect between what his research shows and the way it feels to live in my skin." (For those who watch the show, the 70-something Dr. Robinson deserves a Good Sport award if you ask me.)

But I did have a lot to say about what I'd discovered in the course of researching my article -

-like working mothers actually spend MORE time with their children today than at-home moms did in the 1960s, and yet are still often consumed by guilt and hostility from some quarters.

-like the way they manage. That is, they've forgone nearly all personal leisure time to spend just about every minute that they're not at work, sleeping, eating or in the shower, with their kids.

-like it's not just multi-tasking activities that keep working mothers in perpetual motion. Their brains are in constant motion, planning next week's wrestling carpool or wondering if there's enough laundry soap in the cupboard or worrying about everything. When they DO have free or leisure time, it is often what researchers consider "contaminated" and experienced in such small chunks as to not feel very refreshing or fun or leisurely.

-like, though men ARE doing more to help around the house and with the kids than in past decades, we are NOWHERE NEAR parity...

I wrote all my "talking points" out on brightly colored 3 x 5 cards. My husband, Tom Bowman, who is in radio, kept reminding me not to ramble - as is my usual mode of communication - and hit the points short and hard. "Say three things and shut up," he said. "On TV, it almost doesn't matter what you say, as long as you say it emphatically."

If it takes a village to raise a child, it took my village of girlfriends to get me camera-ready. Jenny, my friend with a PhD in physics who hates shopping almost as much as I do, braved the mall with me, giving me the best advice on a belted Sarah Palin-esque number a personal shopper had put together: "Take that off RIGHT NOW!"

My friend Marcia walked me through my talking points. My friend Molly got me my first hair cut appointment in, oh, a year or two, then walked to my house in the snow to supervise the application of the first make-up I'd worn in years and the blowdrying of said cut. ("NO!" I wailed at one point at the aggressively pouffy do, "I look like CAROL BRADY!")

I didn't make it out to LA - Washington's historic snow dump last month saw to it that all the flights were cancelled. Instead, I got a car ride to an office park in Herndon for a video link hook-up. I appear as a giant floating head on a big TV screen, like Oz. And I didn't get much of a word in edgewise. The producers said they wanted a lively discussion. But no one much listens to you when you're just a head in a screen. So much for those talking points.

Was it worth it? The show airs today, Tuesday, March 30, at 3 pm on WTTG Fox Five. You tell me. And your comments are welcome on the comment board below.

And tomorrow here on the big blog, come on back to take the Time Challenge--use the same time-tracking devices that researchers and Brigid Schulte used in the development of her Post Magazine story.

By Brigid Schulte  | March 30, 2010; 9:20 AM ET
Categories:  The inside story  
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Brigid - As the national landing place for working mothers, All of us at Working Mother ( wonder where the researchers found those 30 hours. If leisure means standing at a soccer game or running errands during a dance lesson, we may have a few true leisure hours. Beyond that, our typical weeks look much like yours - a frenzy of fitting things in. Thanks for taking him on - and join in our conversations at
Helen Jonsen

Posted by: hjonsen | March 30, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

Hey Brigid!

I got to see snippets of the segment online. They woefully don't release the entire thing, which gave me a skewed version of the whole show. From what I did see, however, I felt the new mom with her four-month-old got a lot of play. Of course new motherhood is overwhelming. And yes being home with kids of any age can be (I have been home for nine years!). I hope the show didn't come down to the whole mommy war conversation, which is a circular, most unhelpful diatribe flooded with heated opinions and ground-staking.

While in the US in mid-March, I saw how much time we spend in the car, for instance. Is there a way to slow down our lives when most of it is spent on the road? We need to rethink our lifestyle to allow larger chunks of down time. As the show revealed, we often only have snatchets of time during the day that are not at all relaxing.

We are addicted, on some level, to our own frenzy. Hmmm...I'm feeling a blog post coming on! :)

Posted by: christinehohlbaum | March 31, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse


I did not see this until Wednesday.

Posted by: gary4books | March 31, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

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