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Confessions of a Bad Exerciser

So this is fun if you are looking for a little break from politics, pandemics, and all the other craziness: Yesterday my latest TEDx talk went up on TED.com!

If you’re like me, your daily routines have been upended again and again in the last six months. Back in March, I had grand plans to train for a half marathon, write my next book, and learn to speak Spanish. Go ahead: Guffaw. When I look back on my early ambitions, I can’t help but laugh!

My TEDxMarin talk Confessions of a Bad Exerciser is a look at what daily life has actually been like. (Hint: There has been no half marathon. But I am exercising, writing, and learning!) I hope this talk gives you a few realistic ideas about how to establish some healthy routines in this tumultuous time.

Coping with Constant Interruption + Tips for Focus

Several years ago, I devised a system for quickly getting into the “zone” while I worked. Free from distractions and interruptions, I wrote quickly, joyfully, and with surprisingly little effort.

But now freedom from distractions and interruptions seems like a fantasy. My husband and I are both working from home and our kids are doing school from home. Although we all have designated places to work, my family is forever interrupting me, jarring me out of my flow. For example, my husband likes to use the printer that is in my office (because I keep the paper and toner filled). He’ll saunter into my office to pick up whatever he’s printed, and even if I’m clearly trying to focus, he’ll put his face right in front of my computer screen and lean in for a smooch.

I recognize how sweet this is. And I am super grateful to have such a loving and affectionate husband. And I appreciate that I still have work. And I do like seeing him and our kids so much.

And also…Like many parents these days, I’m a little on edge, and each interruption has the potential to unleash a riptide of irritation. Even when the person interrupting me is a considerate and whispering teenager needing a change of scenery (“the chair in your office is so comfortable!”), or a loving husband who wants to shower me with affection, I sometimes feel frustrated and snappish.

Am I overreacting? Perhaps I could try harder to keep my irritation in check, but research gives me some grounds for it. In fact, studies have found that getting interrupted isn’t just a nuisance; it’s costly and problematic.

Here are three sometimes hidden costs to interruptions.

For starters, they cost us a lot of time.

On average, interruptions take 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from–even if the distraction is only a minute!

For example, say I’m uber-focused, but then my hubby comes in for a minute or two to chit-chat about dinner plans. Before I turn my attention back to my work, I might decide to take a quick peek at my email, and while I’m doing that, notice that I’ve missed a call and three texts. If I answer just a few of these incoming communications, it may well be longer than 23 minutes before I get back to work.

I suppose, if I tried really hard, I could get back on track faster. But that effort takes focus and energy that I could be putting toward my writing or other work.

Second, interruptions lower the quality of our work.

A mountain of research has demonstrated time and again that interruptions increase our error rate. For example, when college students that are concentrating on a task are interrupted for 2.8 seconds, they make twice as many errors as those who are not interrupted. When they are interrupted for 4.4 seconds, their error rate triples.

According to Glenn Wilson at the University of London, just being in a work situation where you can be interrupted by text and email can decrease your IQ by 10 points. For writers like me, the news here is even more depressing: Interruptions measurably lower both the quantity and the quality of writing we can do in even a very short period of time (20 minutes).

Finally, interruptions contribute to stress and overwhelm, making us feel conflicted and time-pressured.

As we shift our focus between tasks–as when we steal a glance at our email while we are working on a presentation–it increases our perception that we have too much to do in the time that we have to do it.

According to Gloria Mark, who studies interruption at UC Irvine, when we are diverted from one task to another, we can pick up our work pace to make up for lost time, but this increased speed comes at a cost: People who’ve been interrupted report having a greater workload, more stress and frustration, feeling more time pressure, and exerting more effort.

And guess what? This makes a lot of people feel annoyed, anxious, and irritable, as I do. Behavioral scientist Alan Keen believes the stress and overload that comes from constantly being expected to multitask is causing an “epidemic of rage.” Interruption and task switching raises stress hormones and adrenaline, which tends to make us more aggressive and impulsive.

In other words, interruption drains our energy and dampens our performance. The stress, inefficiency, inaccuracy, and time pressure that interruptions create are the very opposite of being in the sweet spot.

None of us needs the added stress of daily, constant interruptions during these difficult times. But for most parents working from home, near-constant interruption is inevitable. We can work hard to eliminate interruptions (see below for ideas about how), but in all likelihood, our efforts will often be thwarted.

Simply understanding why we feel so irritated by constant interruption can help. Research shows that identifying and labeling a difficult experience and the emotions that go with it allows us to recover a modicum of control. This “name it to tame it” technique works by decreasing activity in the brain’s fear and emotion centers, like the amygdala, and increasing activity in the frontal lobe, where reasoning occurs.

Labeling what is happening with us in the present — both the fact that we’ve just been interrupted again and the way we are feeling about it — is a form of acceptance. Acceptance is not the same as resignation; it’s not that our efforts to eliminate interruptions will never work, or that things won’t improve. Everything changes. But accepting our present reality does tend to make us more effective in the face of challenge. And fortunately, it can help us feel better.

Tips for Finding Focus

Without focus, kids struggle to learn and parents struggle to work. To minimize the interruptions and distractions that kill focus, we can do the following:

Designate a learning or working playing field.

We all need a place where we can concentrate, and when we designate a place that is for concentration only, we train our brains to focus better.

For example, a kid might have a specific spot at a small desk in a hallway where they do their online schooling and their homework—and only those things. You will have a different place for work. Leave your desks to check social media or do anything but focused work. Step away from your desk when you take breaks. Bonus: Our presence at that desk can be a signal to others in the household that we are trying to focus, and that everyone else needs to be quiet and careful not to interrupt.

Identify your feelings.

Interruptions and distractions can be both external (losing internet access, a Snapchat alert) and internal (feeling stressed or overwhelmed). Research shows that when we stuff our feelings down (also known as “emotional suppression”), our intelligence and learning suffer. Pretending to feel fine even when we are actually feeling something else takes energy and self-control, and that steals the energy and willpower needed to focus.

The task here is to identify what we are feeling, not necessarily why we are feeling that way. This can be difficult. We can get attached to our narratives about why we are upset and get caught up in trying to problem-solve. But that won’t help us focus. We need to talk about the actual emotions, not the reasons for the emotions.

Encourage single-tasking.

It might seem blazingly obvious that in order to focus, we will need to focus on one thing at a time, but this is no longer the way of the world. Even though multitasking is wildly inefficient, it feels productive. Especially for kids who are feeling bored and stuck at home, having a lot of screens open and alerts coming in makes them feel busy and stimulated.

But multitasking is the enemy of focus. The human brain did not evolve to focus on many things at once, and it can’t actually do it—it can only switch rapidly back and forth between tasks. This is a giant energy drain for our brains in many ways. It makes us tired (or wired) and inattentive. Most of all, multitasking makes learning and working inefficient.

We do better when we configure our work and learning environments, our devices, and our online time so that we aren’t tempted to multitask—so we’re less distracted by alerts and less tempted to check social media compulsively. Turn off all alerts and turn on “do not disturb” when you are trying to get into the flow.

Looking for more ways to find focus?

Check out Unit 4 of my online class, The Science of Finding Flow:

Introduction to Unit 4 – Focus!

Step Awaaaay From the Busyness Competition

Video: An Illness We Are Choosing

The Perils of Multitasking

Activity #1: Schedule Time to Single-Task

How Bad, Really, Are Interruptions?

Activity #2: Build Yourself a Focus Fortress

Prepare to Drop Into THE ZONE

Activity #3: Outline Your Flow Ritual

Short Video: Unit 4 Wrap-Up

Dear Christine: What If I Don’t Agree With My Co-Parent?

Trying to get your co-parent to parent your way? Here’s what to do.

Dear Christine,

What should I do if my husband and I don’t agree about family rules? For example, I really want to establish your no-phones-in-the-car rule, but my husband won’t enforce it. He often lets our kids use their phones when he is driving (or pretends not to notice that their phones are out). And when we are all in the car as a family, it’s too hard for me to be the one insisting that the kids get off their phones when they know that he will allow it.

Please help.

Sabotaged Spouse

Dear Sabotaged Spouse,

We know it is much better for kids when parents cooperate—when we are all “on the same page” and we “present a united front.” There are mountains of research that demonstrate that conflict between parents is bad for kids, and collaboration is good for them. We all get it…right? And yet many of us struggle to get co-parents on our page. It’s so frustrating to not be able to control other people! Especially when we are right! I know just how darn frustrating it can be when a spouse or co-parent doesn’t want to get on board with one of my fantastic (and science-based!) parenting ideas. This is a hard issue.

I’m only sort of kidding. I certainly have given a lot of thought to what best parenting practices are, and the strength of my convictions is pretty mammoth. How can I back down when I feel so strongly? And my husband is also very strong-willed (and not a big reader of research or parenting books).

So, again, it’s hard. And also: We must carry on.

The first step is acceptance. We can’t change our co-parents, tempting as that might be to try and do. Trying to change a grown human is a fool’s errand. Not because people don’t change—they do—but because we can’t force change in other people. The only truly effective option is to practice what we preach ourselves, and hope it rubs off on our co-parents. (Besides my husband, I also co-parent with my first husband and his wife, my daughters’ stepmom. Fortunately, we are pretty naturally on the same page!)

What has happened for me, and what I hope happens for you, is that the other parents in my life notice that the way that I parent works, and they can see that what I’m doing is rewarding for everyone. The kids respond, so my co-parents tend to be more motivated to mimic what I’m doing.

However, I’m also prone to overhelping my co-parents, which kills their motivation. When we overhelp, we subconsciously send the message that we believe that they can’t do it without us. This can make them feel like they’re being criticized or like they need fixing, and that can hurt. People don’t appreciate it when their spouse (or former spouse or former spouse’s new spouse) don’t accept them as they are. Often, overhelping others gives us a false sense of power that can distract us from our own problems. As Anne Lamott says, “Help is the sunny side of control.”

Fortunately, we can still help each other parent more authoritatively by supporting three basic psychological needs related to self-motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

We can support autonomy by backing off a little. Let them make their own decisions about how they’ll parent, even when they parent differently from you. This means practicing acceptance, as they are probably already parenting differently, whether or not we “let them.”

We can ask questions that help them build a vision for success and help them focus on the outcomes that they want. What does good parenting look like to them? How are they hoping to feel? And what will they need to do to succeed? Where will they need to ask for help?

We can encourage their competence by helping them build the skills they need. Do they want you to teach them what you’ve learned? What you are reading about in this book? What you are practicing?

No? Then take a deep breath and back off.

Finally, we can foster relatedness by building a sense of family. How can you find security in doing something together? Can you create common goals and common values? How can you make it fun to do together?

In the end, Sabotaged Spouse, the best thing you can do is to keep your own side of the street clean. When you feel frustrated that your spouse isn’t doing it right—or you fear that he’s undermining you—take a deep breath and turn your attention back to yourself, and to the things that are within your control. It is never too late for you to be the parent you want to be.

Love,
Christine


In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

Seven Ways to Cope with Uncertainty

What should we do when everything feels so out of control?

Living with so much uncertainty is hard. Human beings crave information about the future in the same way we crave food, sex, and other primary rewards. Our brains perceive ambiguity as a threat, and they try to protect us by diminishing our ability to focus on anything other than creating certainty.

Research shows that job uncertainty, for example, tends to take a more significant toll on our health than actually losing our job. Similarly, research participants who were told that they had a 50% chance of receiving a painful electric shock felt far more anxious and agitated than participants who believed they were definitely going to receive the shock.

It is no surprise, then, that there are entire industries devoted to filling in the blanks of our futures. See, for example, the popularity of astrology apps, or the prestige of management consultancies dedicated to strategic planning. Fundamentalist religions counter anxiety by providing us with unambiguous rules and absolute truths. Conspiracy theories provide us with simple explanations for complex phenomena.

But sometimes—maybe always—it’s more effective not to attempt to create certainty. Though evolution might have rigged our brains to resist uncertainty, we can never really know what the future will bring. And in improbable situations like the pandemic, which has massively disrupted our routines and utterly destroyed our best-laid plans, we need to learn to live with ambiguity.

“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is,” wrote mathematician John Allen Paulos. “Knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.”

So how can we best cope when everything feels so out of control? Here are seven surprising strategies.

1. Don’t resist

There’s no doubt: We are living through challenging times. But resisting this current reality won’t help us recover, learn, grow, or feel better. Ironically, resistance prolongs our pain and difficulty by amplifying the challenging emotions we are feeling. There is real truth to the aphorism that what we resist persists.

There’s an alternative. Instead of resisting, we can practice acceptance. Research by Kristin Neff and her colleagues has shown that acceptance—particularly self-acceptance—is a counterintuitive secret to happiness. Acceptance is about meeting life where it is and moving forward from there.

Because acceptance allows us to see the reality of the situation in the present moment, it frees us up to move forward, rather than remaining paralyzed (or made ineffective) by uncertainty, fear, or argument. To practice acceptance, we surrender our resistance to a problematic situation, and also to our emotions about the situation.

For example, you might find your marriage to be particularly challenging right now. Instead of criticizing or blaming your spouse—two tactics of resistance—you could calmly accept your marriage for the time being.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t feel frustrated anymore, or disappointed, or saddened by the state of things. A big part of acceptance is accepting how we feel about difficult circumstances (and difficult people) in our lives. But allowing our challenging marriage to be as it is right now—and acknowledging our feelings about it—puts us in a better position to move forward.

To be clear, acceptance is not the same as resignation. Accepting a situation doesn’t mean that it will never get better. We don’t accept that things will stay the same forever; we only accept whatever is actually happening at the moment. We can work to make our marriage happier, while at the same time allowing the reality that right now, the relationship or the situation is complicated. Maybe it will get better, maybe it won’t. Practicing acceptance in the face of difficulty is hard, and it’s also the most effective way to move forward.

2. Invest in yourself

The best resource that you have right now for making a contribution to the world is YOU. When that resource is depleted, your most valuable asset is damaged. In other words: When we underinvest in our bodies, minds, or spirits, we destroy our most essential tools for leading our best lives.

We humans don’t do well when we defer maintenance on ourselves. We need to sustain the relationships that bring us connection and meaning. We must get enough sleep and rest when we are tired. We need to spend time having fun and playing, just for the joy of it.

Don’t be confused: Self-care is not selfish. Selfishness is an anxious focus on the self. Selfish people tend to refer back to themselves a lot by using words like Ime, and mine. They pursue extrinsic goals, such as preserving their youthful beauty or cultivating an image of themselves on social media. They often hunger for more money, power, and approval from others, and they are often willing to pursue these things at the expense of other people or at the expense of their own integrity. That sort of self-focus is linked to stress, anxiety, depression, and health problems such as heart disease.

So, I’m definitely not recommending selfishness. I’m suggesting self-care and personal growth.

3. Find healthy comfort items

One of the most important ways we can invest in ourselves is to comfort ourselves in healthy ways.

If we are to stay flexible, we need to feel safe and secure. When we feel uncertain or insecure, our brain tries to rescue us by activating our dopamine systems. This dopamine rush encourages us to seek rewards, making temptations more tempting. Think of this as your brain pushing you toward a comfort item…like an extra glass of wine instead of a reasonable bedtime. Or the entire pan of brownies. Or an extra little something in your Amazon cart.

But instead of turning to social media, junk food, or booze to soothe our rattled nerves, we do better when we preemptively comfort ourselves in healthy ways.

Make a list of healthy ways to comfort yourself. Can you mask up and go for a hike with a neighbor? Schedule a call with a friend? Reflect on what you are grateful for? Let yourself take a little nap? Perhaps you could seek out a hug or watch a funny YouTube video.

Those things may seem small—or even luxurious—but they enable us to be the people that we want to be.

4. Don’t believe everything you think

Perhaps the most essential stress-reduction tactic that anyone has ever taught me is not to believe everything I think. In uncertain times, it’s particularly important not to believe thoughts that argue for the worst-case scenario.

It can be helpful for us to consider worst-case scenarios so that we can weigh risks and actively prevent disaster. But when we believe these stressful thoughts, we tend to react emotionally as though the worst case is already happening in real life, rather than just in our heads. We grieve for things that we haven’t actually lost, and react to events that are not actually happening. This makes us feel threatened, afraid, and unsafe when we are simply alone with our thoughts.

Our negativity bias can also set us up for failure. Expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we expect the worst, we often feel too afraid or close-minded to seize opportunities or respond to challenges with creativity and grit.

Instead of buying into every stressful thought, we can actively imagine the best possible scenario. We can find silver linings to replace ruminations. This counters our natural tendency to overestimate risks and negative consequences.

5. Pay attention

The opposite of uncertainty is not certainty; it’s presence. Instead of imagining a scary and unknown future, we can bring our attention to our breath. From there, we can check in with ourselves. Every time we wash our hands, for example, we could ask ourselves: How are you doing right now?

Notice what emotions you are feeling, and where in your body you feel those emotions. Bring curiosity and acceptance to your experience (see #1).

Even when it feels like everything is out of our control, we can still control what we pay attention to. We can turn off our alerts to keep the news or social media from hijacking our awareness. We can drop our ruminations and negative fantasies by attending to what’s actually happening in our inner world, right now, here in the present.

Attending to what is happening within us at any given moment keeps a crappy external reality from determining our inner truth. It allows us to cultivate calm, open-mindedness, and non-reactivity.

6. Stop looking for someone to rescue you

When we act as though we are powerless, we get trapped in narratives that leave us feeling angry, helpless, and trapped. And we start hoping other people will save us from our misery.

Although it can feel good when others dote on us, most rescuers don’t really help. Our friends might want to save us—because helping others makes people feel good—and their intentions may be noble. But rescuers tend to be better enablers than saviors. If we stay stuck, they get to keep their role as our hero, or they get to distract themselves from their own problems.

Rescuers tend to give us permission to avoid taking responsibility for our own lives. On the other hand, emotionally supportive friends (or therapists) see us as capable of solving our own problems. They ask questions that help us focus on what we do want instead of what we don’t.

“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is”

―John Allen Paulos, mathematician

In short: To best cope with uncertainty, we need to stop complaining. When we drop our fixation on the problem, we can focus on the outcomes we desire. How can we make the best of this mess? What can we gain in this situation?

When we take responsibility for our lives, we trade the false power of victimhood for the real power that comes from creating the life we want.

7. Find meaning in the chaos

Social psychologists define meaning, as it applies to our lives, as “an intellectual and emotional assessment of the degree to which we feel our lives have purpose, value, and impact.” We humans are best motivated by our significance to other people. We’ll work harder and longer and better—and feel happier about the work we are doing—when we know that someone else is benefiting from our efforts.

For example, teens who provide tangible, emotional, or informational support to people in crises tend to feel more strongly connected to their community. Research shows that we feel good when we stop thinking about ourselves so much and support others.

When we see something that needs improvement, our next step is to recognize what we personally can do to be a part of the solution. What skills and talents (or even just interests) can we bring to the issue? What really matters to us, and how can we be of service?

Meaning and purpose are wellsprings of hope. When the world feels scary or uncertain, knowing what meaning we have for others and feeling a sense of purpose can ground us better than anything else.

So, don’t just wait for this ordeal to be over. Don’t be resigned to your misery while we wait for a vaccine. What have you always wanted to do? What outcome are you hoping for? How can you make a real life in this? Live that life.

My Kids Have Nothing to Do This Summer. Now What?

This Dear Christine column offers tips for structuring your family’s summer during the pandemic.

Dear Christine,

Since school ended, my whole family is floundering. We have no summer plans. I’m feeling some pressure to make up for “COVID slump,” but I haven’t a clue how to do so. Neither of my teenagers has summer jobs or internships, and neither is interested in taking an online class. We need to find a purpose this summer—all of us. What, even, is the goal?

Warmly,
A Floundering Family

Dear Floundering,

You aren’t alone! Day-to-day life without structure and routine is hard. We human beings are creatures of habit, and when our routines are disrupted, we tend to feel anxious and agitated.

So, here’s the goal: Do something productive every day. Also, get into some semblance of a routine.

Even though your kids probably feel like there is “nothing to do,” they are going to feel better if they make themselves useful or do something creative every day. People feel good about the things that they do well. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have other sources of good feelings, but, truly, there is no other source of self-esteem than doing something—anything—well.

Also, there’s so much to be done.

I’m guessing you noticed: It’s a mess out there. My kids are tired of people telling them that 2020 is going to go down in the history books. They know that this is an important historical moment on a lot of fronts. A lot of old institutions and social structures, including our kids’ educational structures, have been profoundly shaken. If your kids are like mine, they may feel angry about all that is wrong in the world, and they may blame “you Boomers.” (For the record, kids, I’m not a Boomer.)

But, seriously, this is no time for finger-pointing. Neither is it time to wallow in self-pity or to allow ourselves to be sidelined by despair or resignation. It’s time to create the world we want to live in. We all need to get involved in fixing all the things that are broken. We need to step up and engage. What do you as a family care most about? What do your kids care about most? What role do you each want to play in making the world a better place?

This summer offers a chance to get involved in a meaningful cause. It could be through protest or activism, or it could be through learning, growth, and self-reflection, which are also productive foundations for social change.

And the goals we set for the summer should rest on that foundation. What do we want to learn or accomplish? How do we want to make a difference? The key here is not to set goals for our kids, unless we want to set the stage for endless conflict and nagging in our households (not recommended).

But using non-controlling, non-directive language, we can ask our kids questions about what they want. We can encourage them to set their own goals, letting them be guided by their own motivations (rather than what we want for them). What do they want to accomplish? What helps them feel like they are productive members of society, and of the family? What can they do every day to improve a skill that they value?

I don’t think that we need to push our kids to achieve something big this summer, and I don’t think we need to be particularly high-performing ourselves during this crazy time. Let “doing something productive every day” be a low mountain to climb. No need to construct some amazing program for your kids to counter the “COVID slump.”

Again, this is about stepping up and engaging.  Whatever they, and we, are interested in is fine. And as parents, we need to hold our kids to the expectation that they will contribute to our household in meaningful ways by, say, consistently helping with dinner or emptying the dishwasher without being asked. This may not feel as meaningful to them, historically speaking, as the other productive things they do. But it will make a big difference in our households, and our sanity as parents.

Key to accomplishing these goals is creating routines around them. 

Should you exercise in the morning or afternoon? Check email before or after breakfast? Work on college applications during the week or on the weekends? Shower every day? Go to bed before midnight or play video games all night?

Having a summer routine can free up a lot of energy that is otherwise exhausted by the constant need to decide what to do and when to do it. And for parents, this is even more important if we are managing (or just worrying about) our kids’ schedules.

This might seem crazy, but I ask my kids (and many of my clients) to construct their ideal day in increments of 30 minutes for themselves on a spreadsheet. I also do this for myself at the start of every new season, or when there is a big change afoot (here is an example of one created by a teenager for summer).

Developing a daily routine is about deciding how you will spend your time. More specifically, it’s about deciding what you will do and when you will do it. The key is to decide on these things one time instead of trying to figure out how to structure your day/week/summer every morning. Once constructed, we can lean on that structure to guide our daily life.

I like to think about our daily activities in terms of five big buckets:

  • Physical. How will we get some exercise? Is there something athletic we’d like to train for? How can we move our bodies throughout the day? What are other components of physical health that are important to me?
  • Emotional. How can we care for our psychological health by bringing some enjoyment into our daily life? How can we foster positive emotions like gratitude or awe? How can we connect with nature or pets or something that brings us peace or happiness?
  • Social. How can we connect with the people around us? This one is tricky during a pandemic, and it is also extraordinarily important. Teenagers need to connect with their peers. Similarly, most people need to connect with sources of emotional support outside of their immediate family unit. With creativity and determination, now that it is summer this can be done outdoors in ways that lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
  • Cognitive. Many of us get the intellectual stimulation we need through our work; kids can get it in myriad ways over the summer. What are they interested in reading? Learning more about? Can they get a jumpstart on their AP reading or SAT prep so they have less to worry about in the fall?
  • Spiritual or humanitarian. This is where our daily routine can connect back to engaging in something that brings us meaning or connects us to something larger than ourselves. Teens who provide tangible, emotional, or informational support to people in crises tend to feel more strongly connected to their community. Over and over, research shows that we feel good when we stop thinking about ourselves so much and support others.

Creating an ideal day that includes each of these aspects of well-being gives us something concrete to shoot for in a world of uncertainty. Once created, we don’t have to stick to it rigidly. Often, it’s not the plan that makes the difference, but the planning process. Having decided once, we don’t have to decide every day.

Floundering Family, your teens may or may not engage in deciding on their ideal day. They may or may not decide to be productive this summer. Either way, make sure they see you do these things. That you are clear with them what the larger goal is for the summer. As parents, often the best we can do is to teach through our own example. Fortunately, with teenagers, that is almost always the best place for us to start—and it is enough to make a difference in the long run.

Yours,
Christine


In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email [email protected].

Resources for Learning about Racism

What am I doing to be a better antiracist? Learning both about myself and about the racist systems, policies, and beliefs that are driving our culture.

Want to join me? You could start by taking the Harvard Implicit Bias test about race. Don’t worry if you find out that you have more unconscious bias than you realized; there is a lot we can do to dismantle our unconscious racism once we identify it. It’s helped me to see that the terms “‘Racist’ and ‘antiracist’ are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each movement,” as Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist, writes. “These are not permanent tattoos.”

Reading Ideas

Real American by Julie Lythcott-Haims
A poetic and powerful memoir about growing up as an upper-middle-class, biracial black woman in America. I recommend listening to the audiobook!

How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad
A 28-day “challenge” to own up to and share our racist behaviors, big and small. Powerful to do with a close friend, spouse, or discussion group.

You could also check out Kendi’s Antiracist Reading List, or one of these best-sellers about race (I hope to read them all).

Movie Ideas

13th

A documentary about the origins of America’s carceral state.

I Am Not Your Negro

The Force

The second in a trilogy by indie filmmaker Peter Nicks. (I also highly recommend the first in the series,The Waiting Room.)

I’d like to watch everything on this TIME list of expert recommendations of movies about racism and protest history.

Listening Ideas

Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris, episode 253: An Uncomfortable (But Meaningful) Conversation about Race with Lama Rod Owens

Unlocking Us with Brene Brown: Brene with Ibram X. Kendi on How to Be an Antiracist

The Science of Happiness with Dacher Keltner, episode 29: From Othering to Belonging

 “The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it.” — Ibram X. Kendi

 

A Conversation About Race with Julie Lythcott-Haims, Nefertiti Austin, Christine Koh and Leslie Priscilla Arreola-Hillenbrand

Probably like many of you, my “plans” for the summer are not what I anticipated they’d be. And my summer reading list has changed.

I’m with Van Jones  in believing that we’ve each been called to do “a personal and spiritual accounting.” How did we, as a society, get here? Though we may often feel powerless, most of us are not. And those of us with power and privilege are responsible for the state of things.

Ibram X. Kendi reminds us in How to Be an Antiracist  that “racist” is not actually a pejorative term. It’s a descriptive one. Personally, my fear of being racist has sometimes prevented me from taking antiracist action. As such, my fear is in and of itself unwittingly racist.

According to Kendi, “The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it.” To do that, we need to be able to label things we say or do as racist when they support or express a racist idea, even if our intentions are otherwise. “The attempt to turn this useful descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction.”

So I am asking myself a question posed by my friend and colleague Julie Lythcott-HaimsWhat am I doing to put my antiracist beliefs into action?

Parents: If you’d like to join a discussion about how to face this summer of uncertainty and unrest, I have a great opportunity for you on Wednesday nights 5pm PT/ 8pm ET. Join me and a dozen other parenting authors for a masterclass called Parenting in Place: Helping Families Thrive in Challenging Times.  Our conversation this week is about race, and it’s with Julie Lythcott-Haims, Nefertiti Austin, Christine Koh and Leslie Priscilla Arreola-Hillenbrand. If you miss the live version, you can catch the replay!

The entire series— 9 live classes, the bonus bundle, and the closed Facebook community—is only $39. (Registrants will have access to all replays, no matter when they join.) 10 percent of the proceeds will be donated to charity—I’m donating my proceeds to the Equal Justice Initiative. See the whole line up and register here: https://parentinginplacemasterclass.com.

Summer Parenting MASTERCLASS

I know many parents are feeling burned out on summer (already). I have a great resource for you! It’s a virtual masterclass called Parenting in Place: Helping Families Thrive in Challenging Times. It’s a new series from a group of parenting coaches, therapists, authors, educators, and neuroscientists who’ve come together to share best practices for thriving this summer.

Because the event is live, attendees will have the opportunity to ask the hosts questions. Don’t worry if you can’t join us right away; all sessions will be recorded. Register Here.

The Details

Parenting in Place features 9 weekly masterclasses hosted on Zoom, each focused on a different theme, and each including specific takeaways and strategies. We’ve also put together a bundle of free bonus content (downloadables, templates, webinars) from our speakers, and created a closed moderated Facebook group so together we can keep the conversation going throughout the duration of the event.

Live events will be held on Wednesdays at 8 pm ET / 5 pm PT, but registrants will have access to replays in case they can’t attend live.

We want to make this event accessible to as many people as possible and recognize the difficult position many families find themselves in these days. Therefore, we’re offering the entire 9-week series of live classes, the bonus bundle, and the closed Facebook community—for only $39.

Here is my favorite part: 10% of the proceeds for the Masterclass will be donated to charity to support COVID-19 and social justice-related work. I will be donating my share to the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization that advocates for criminal-justice reform and racial justice. I recommend this New Yorker interview with EJI founder Bryan Stevenson (he’s also the author of one of my all-time favorite books, Just Mercywhich was recently made into a feature film.)

The Line-Up

June 10: Summer Without Camp
with Audrey Monke and Katherine Reynolds Lewis

June 17: A Conversation About Race
with Julie Lythcott-Haims, JD, Nefertiti Austin, Christine Koh, and Leslie Priscilla Arreola-Hillenbrand

June 24: Screen Time
with Devorah Heitner, Ph.D. and Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD

July 1: Independence
with Julie Lythcott-Haims, JD, MFA and Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD

July 8: Anxiety & Building Resilience
with Madeline Levine, Ph.D., and Michele Borba, EdD

July 15: Showing Up
with Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., LCSW and Katie Hurley, LCSW

July 22: Finding Peace
with Debbie Reber, MA and Christine Carter, Ph.D.

July 29: Motivation
with Katherine Reynolds Lewis, Ned Johnson, and William Stixrud, Ph.D.

Aug. 5: Back-to-School
with Jessica Lahey and Phyllis Fagell

All I Want for Mother’s Day Is an Equitable Division of Labor

Here’s how to renegotiate the unfair burdens created by the coronavirus lockdown

This Mother’s Day is going to be a doozy for a lotta moms out there.

I have been flooded with requests from working moms for strategies to sustain their own well-being while trying to keep their children from slipping into depression and their careers afloat.

“I’m grateful to be working from home, but I’ve taken on way more of the housework and homeschooling than my husband has,” a client recently complained to me. “And I’m the one my kids come to to have their meltdowns. I’ve never been so exhausted. Or angry with my husband.” I know she is not alone; I imagine the resentment is reaching record highs this year.

I know from personal experience that resentment can show up on Mother’s Day as an expectation that our motherly sacrifice and hard work will be acknowledged and celebrated in a way that makes up for the unfairness of those sacrifices.

But this, of course, is an impossible fantasy. Even the greatest Mother’s Day brunch, complete with presents and flowers and heartfelt speeches (it’s a fantasy, after all), can’t fill the holes in our relationships that are created when mothers sacrifice their own well-being to take care of their families.

The resentment women feel when they do an unfair share of unpaid household labor is real, and it’s damaging. It hurts mothers and impairs their ability to parent well. It harms their relationships with their husbands. And, ironically, it strains their relationships with their children.

When my friend Monica and her husband married, she made more money than him (she was even, at one point, his boss). But by the time their third child came along, she’d taken a series of pay cuts in exchange for greater flexibility and more time at home. Her husband started doing less and less child care and housework. Even before the pandemic, she rarely had a moment to herself, while he has always taken the evenings and weekends off to “recharge.”

Now, even though they are both currently working from home and her husband’s job has turned out to be quite flexible, he is not helping out more. His work is considered more important than Monica’s because he makes more money. Ergo, he gets to focus on his work while she manages their three kids and the household and her own business. He recharges on the weekends and plays catch with their oldest son; she vacuums and mediates the kids’ bickering. For Monica, there is no time to relax.

Need I point out that this is unfair? Earning more money does not entitle a partner to a more joyful or restful life. Most women simply can’t earn as much as men. Mothers tend to take a financial hit when they have children; fathers do not. Women earn less than men in nearly every occupation. On average, they make only 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. In middle-skill jobs, those that require some college, workers in jobs mainly done by women earn only 66 percent of what workers earn in jobs that are mainly done by men.

This, obviously, is a vicious cycle. Earning less money (which in and of itself isn’t fair) means that mothers’ careers are less important than their husbands’, and therefore that they are expected to do more unpaid labor than their partners. It’s clear whom this arrangement serves, and it isn’t women.

Now, I know that there are a lot of mothers who do more unpaid labor at home than their husbands because they work outside the home less or not at all—and the arrangement feels fair. And I know there are a lot of couples who split the unpaid family work equally, or in ways that they both feel is fair.

This post is not about those couples. Nor is this post for women who want to take on extra unpaid labor so that their husbands have more time than they do to rest and recharge.

It’s for mothers in heterosexual partnerships who feel like they were dealt an unfair hand—one that has been amplified by school closures and endless time at home. This post is for the women who’ve said to me recently, “This is not what I signed up for when I married him. I thought we were going to be equal partners.”

Many moms renegotiate a raw deal through divorce: Dads with 50 percent custody suddenly find themselves doing all of their own housework and half the labor related to having kids. Divorced moms find themselves with uninterrupted time to rest, restore, and tend to their careers, while the kids are with their dad.

But divorce is a painful—and expensive—way to split unpaid family labor fairly. Doubling the amount of household labor that needs to be done is inefficient and heartbreaking.

Often, a better option is to renegotiate the terms of the marriage related to the division of labor. I can’t imagine a better time to do so than now. Dads who are working from home can plainly see how much unpaid work their wives do on behalf of their families. As old structures crumble around us, I hope the unfair division of labor at home is one of them.

10 steps to renegotiating a bad deal

No savvy businessperson will enter into a partnership without negotiating the terms of the deal. Marriage is a partnership; clear communication about roles and responsibilities is essential. When anger and resentments build in any partnership, it’s a sign that the partnership is in danger.

Renegotiation is always a possibility. I’ve drawn on the work of Harvard Business School professors and negotiation experts Deepak Malhotra (author of Negotiating the Impossible) and Max Bazerman (author of Better, Not Perfect) to outline some best practices when a lot is at stake.

1. Start by looking inward, to get really clear about what you need. Notice what ticks you off; anger is often a symptom of an unmet need. If you feel resentful whenever you see your husband reading on the couch, you probably need more time to relax.

2. Question your limiting beliefs. “I don’t get to decompress after work like my husband does,” a mom recently said to me. Why not? Who made that rule? What would happen if you were better rested or if you did less housework?

3. Set your assumptions—and fears—aside for now. Sometimes we don’t ask important questions because we are afraid of the answers. Does your husband really think his well-being is more important than yours? You won’t know until you ask, and you might be surprised by the answer. Once we know the truth of a situation, we can better deal with it.

4. Consider what you are willing to give up, or where you’ll lower your expectations. It can be hard to let someone else take on a task or a role you’ve been playing in the family if you fear they won’t do it as well as you. If you’ve been in charge of the meals, for example, consider that you’ve actually been practicing skills like meal planning and cooking. You’ve gotten good at them. Are you willing to trade having a task done your way for more time to do something else? Also: What if you weren’t the go-to person in your household for something? What if your partner does it better? Are you willing to relinquish control?

5. Begin the conversation by telling your partner how you feel. The goal is to be seen and heard in your marriage; this won’t happen if you come at him with guns blazing. Try to use specific feeling words rather than judgments or accusations. For example, DO say: “I feel so tired all the time. I want more than anything to just unwind and read a book.” DON’T say: “You do LITERALLY NOTHING around here compared to me.”

6. Agree on the larger goal, which is to arrive at a sustainable division of labor that feels fair to both of you. Research clearly shows that a perception of unfairness hurts both the marriage and the individuals in it—husbands as well as wives. When one person in a couple is dissatisfied about the division of labor in their household, the marriage as a whole suffers.

7. Negotiate as an equal partner. Even if your husband makes more money than you, or seems to have more power, negotiate as his equal. He can’t have your family the way it is without you. If your husband is making a demand of you that he would not make of an equal (say, if you were making the same amount of money he was), call him out on it. Remember: The unfair expectation that women should sacrifice their well-being for their families or otherwise do an unequal share of unpaid family labor is being renegotiated.

8. Find out what your partner wants, and why he wants it. Ask questions like: What kind of relationship do you want to have with me? The kids? What role do you want to play in our household? What would you like to do more of? Less of? Where would you like to have more control?

9. Find out what’s holding him back. It might be fear that you’ll criticize him or that he won’t be able to go out with his friends anymore. He might feel that you’ve been too controlling. Do not defend your position. Listen to his fears and complaints so that you can solve for them moving forward.

10. Find opportunity in your partner’s needs. Once you know what he wants and what he’s worried about, together you can find something that feels fair to you both, rather than dismissing the partnership as unworkable. Instead of thinking, How can I avoid having to accept this? Think: What have I learned about my husband’s needs? How can we meet his needs while also meeting mine?

Right now, whether they realize it consciously or not, many dads are benefitting from the gender wage gap. When your wife earns less money than you do, it can be easy to believe your own work is more important or to assume it’s fair to expect her to run the household and to contribute to the family financially.

Which is why courageous conversations can change the world. When it no longer serves men for women to be paid less, more will join forces with those who are already working hard to close the gender pay gap. Personally, I can’t imagine a better Mother’s Day present than that.

How to Help Teens Handle the Loss of Proms and Graduations

Losing these ceremonies is a big deal. We need to help them grieve.

Yesterday at dinner, one of my children was sad and irritated. She was offended by our mere existence.

“What’s wrong with her now?” one of the other kids asked unkindly, to no one in particular.

Like many young people around the world, this is a kid who has weathered some deep disappointments in the last month. She was studying at an art school, a once-in-a-lifetime semester program, when COVID-19 hit. Classes aren’t the same when you don’t have the materials, studio, and equipment you need for printmaking, sculpture, and developing your film.

And it turned out that my irritable art student had just been dealt a new disappointment: Her first real art show had been canceled. There’d be no way for her to demonstrate to her friends and family that she’s crossed over from being a creative little kid who liked art into a full-fledged, real-life artist. Her identity is different now than it was a year ago, a fact that would have been made concrete with a gallery opening and show. That rite of passage would have allowed us to better see her as she now sees herself.

Modern society has precious few rituals and rites of passage to mark kids’ journey through adolescence. The ceremonies and celebrations we do have are often in the spring. Performances and proms, championships and final projects all showcase growth and learning and accomplishment. And, of course, there is graduation.

These important ceremonies that say “Look at you! You are growing up! We are so proud of you!” have been canceled, leaving kids with no closure. Rites of passage have vanished into thin air. Even as they feel grateful for their health, and sorry that the world is suffering in the way that it is, Generation Z feels cheated. Their losses are tangible to them. And so they are grieving.

My daughter’s sadness and frustration—indeed her loss—has been hard for me to witness. I want to fix it. And yet I know I cannot. Here are some things that we parents can do.

1. Acknowledge their loss

Some “stepping up” ceremonies are so abstract (and, I’ll just say it, tedious for their audiences) that their importance for our kids doesn’t always register with us adults.

It’s true that their disappointment about not going to prom or having graduation is trifling compared to the tragedies that thousands of families are facing right now. Many people have lost family members who they didn’t get to say goodbye to, loved ones who died alone and terrified in an ICU.

And it’s also true that our kids’ losses and their resulting grief is real. Most of them don’t have the life experience that would help them put something like a canceled prom into perspective. Discounting their very real frustration and sadness will only make them feel worse. We adults can help them feel better by acknowledging both their losses, and also their feelings about the loss.

Empathy is powerful medicine.

2. Name their feelings

If you are raising or teaching teenagers, you already know that adolescents experience their emotions much more intensely than adults. This is normal and appropriate—and it can be distressing to us as adults. To be truly empathic, we need to listen without trying to fix or take away their grief. “I feel so FRUSTRATED!” my art school kid said before bursting into tears. “Looks like you are also feeling really sad,” I replied, pulling her in for a hug.

Helping kids identify what they are feeling can, ironically, ease their pain. This is the “name it to tame it” technique. Research shows that when we label our emotions, we are better able to integrate them. If your adolescent starts telling you a story about an imagined future—perhaps bringing up worst-case scenarios in which they aren’t able to go off to college—gently bring them back to what they are feeling right now, about the current disappointment.

See if you can demonstrate that you appreciate their difficult feelings in a simple phrase or two. For example, “I understand that you are super sad that your first real art show was canceled. And you’re mad that every day seems to bring a new frustration and disappointment.” Then, throw in a little empathy: “That’s just plain hard. I totally get why you are angry and sad.”

3. Teach them about grief

You may recognize that your teenager is grieving, but your teenager probably doesn’t. Though Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s seminal work on grief was originally about the way that we cope with death and dying (which is, unfortunately, relevant to many people as they lose family members to the coronavirus), her later work with David Kessler is relevant to more common losses, like canceled proms and graduations.

There is power in naming what teens are experiencing as grief; it helps them acknowledge and validate their own experience. Kübler-Ross and Kessler detailed five “stages” of grief. Because we don’t often progress through these stages in a linear way, I think of these as five typical human experiences we tend to have when we endure a loss. They are:

  • Denial: Many teens are denying the threat of the coronavirus, both the danger of their exposure to it and their ability to spread it.
  • Anger: Teens are clearly frustrated by having to stay at home. They are angry that we adults are keeping them from their friends. Many are furious—with President Trump and the Centers for Disease Control and the ways that this pandemic continues to be mishandled. Notably, adolescent anger is often misdirected. Teens who are mad about what is happening in the world often take it out on their parents and pick fights with their siblings.
  • Bargaining: Desperately hoping to avoid a key cause of grief—loss of social contact with their peers—many teens are negotiating hard to see their friends.
  • Depression: Kids are sad about their losses. In addition, they feel lonely and isolated. Prolonged sadness and loneliness can snowball into depression. Depressed teens often have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning (and an equally hard time getting to sleep at night). They may spend more time alone in their rooms or show up at meals sullen and mournful.
  • Acceptance: Teens who’ve gotten themselves to acceptance understand that this too shall pass; they see the futility of resisting a global pandemic. Their emotions stabilize, and they start to experience the calm that comes from accepting what they cannot change. They regain a sense of control by maintaining social distancing.

We adults can’t deliver teens straight to acceptance, but we can try to model it. By accepting these challenging circumstances—and also by accepting our own and our teens’ feelings—we can bring a calm acceptance to our household.

4. Help them find meaning

Kessler has continued the work on grief that he started with Kübler-Ross, recently adding a sixth stage: meaning. Meaning comes from the light we find in dark times. It might come from the gratitude we feel for our family or a sense of awe that overcomes us on a hike. And, often, meaning comes from helping others.

Again and again, research has shown that even in dire circumstances we feel better when we turn our attention to supporting others. This is true for teenagers, as well. It’s not surprising that teens who provide tangible, emotional, or informational support to people in crises tend to feel more strongly connected to their community. They cope with their own challenges more effectively, and they feel more supported by others.

As we approach what is likely to be a long summer for our kids—mine all had jobs and plans that are now in question—we can ask them: How can you be helpful to others during this time? How can you channel your frustration and anger? Our questions may or may not spark something in them. They may not be ready or able to find meaning.

Whether or not they see it now, meaning will likely come from simply enduring this difficult time. These kids—even the full-grown ones who are now living with us again—are getting a crash course in dealing with discomfort and disappointment.

While it’s true that a joyful life comes from positive emotions, it also comes from resilience—from having the tools needed to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties and painful moments. The silver lining for this generation is that, like it or not, they are gaining the skills they need to cope with difficulty. Fortunately, these are skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

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