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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC’s and PhD’s: Stress and struggles
November 27, 2012 - 8:24pm

As of today we’ve lived in our new home, in our new city, for 85 days. (You can follow our move in my earlier blogs.) Our first month here flew by - everything was new, we tried different things. The second month also went fairly smoothly, as we started to live the new life with a bit more routine. But the third month has been a month of struggles. It has sunk in to all of us that we miss and mourn for our old home, friends, and life; especially my super-shy teenager, who (as you might expect from age and temperment) is having difficulties fitting in. It’s hard to differentiate normal ordinary traumas and dramas of teenage life from difficulties of new school, new classmates, new everything, so all this is uncomfortably lumped together in my husband’s and my guilty psyches as problems we’ve possibly stirred up by moving rather than the normal stresses of adolescence. 

As I notice the acceleration of my follicles to produce grey hairs, a couple articles have made me think about working through stress and struggles in a new light.  Both highlight concepts that are in fact quite familiar to me, but somehow these tellings, perhaps coupled with my new location and situation, soundly clicked for me with a loud “aha!” and since they have made a strong impression on me I will share them with you. 

•  The first is a youtube video “23 and ½ hours: what is the single best thing we can do for our health” by Dr. Mike Evans about the relationship of mental and physical health to exercise.  Yeah, yeah - I’ve heard many times that one should engage in semi-vigorous exercise for 30 minutes a day.  Like drinking eight glasses of water a day (which I personally find almost impossible to do, although maybe if I did more exercise…?), even minimal exercise has completely dropped from my day. When I look back on my last 85 days, I realize how sedentary I have become.  Especially now that my kids are older, my day is filled with mental work centered around the computer and with emotional work, centered around sitting in deep thought (I marvel at how easy it is to let fretting distract me from doing exercise rather than the other way around). Furthermore, the internet is too alluring - for example, I discovered how efficiently I can “explore” our new neighborhood on facebook, websites, email; there’s literally a constant pull from the computer. Six hours after sitting down at my desk, I look up to realize I need to run some errands before my kids come home.  What do I do?  I walk the 20 steps to my car. Days are busy, rushed with a lot to get done so I easily overlook the fact that the rushing is my fingers on the keyboard or my foot on the gas pedal, and doesn’t involve my other body parts in the least.  Evan’s 9+ minute youtube presentation not only made me aware of how sedentary I am, it also opened my eyes to the dangers of sedentary: including (but not limited to) huge increases in incidence of anxiety, depression, fatigue, even earlier death. To its credit, the video’s message is couched in the context of “really, even a bare minimum has huge effect - you can do it,” and this is how it can be responsible for my post-Thanksgiving pledge is to remain vigilant in controlling my sluggishness; I started tonight with a drop-in aerobics class and I am determined to embrace a new habit and not let it slide.  Watch it if you haven’t already.  It is convincing.

• The second article is a recent NPR piece that profiles research comparing cultural interpretations of the act of struggling to master something.  The essence: whereas in our Western culture where struggling to understand a concept or figure something out epitomizes weakness or lack of intelligence, Eastern cultures interpret the struggle as a strength, showing that you are able to persist and rise to a challenge.  Consequently American kids tend to view struggling as embarrassing and give up on or avoid the challenge, while Asian kids accept struggle not as a negative but as what they must do to achieve something, and have respect for those who work hard to figure something out.  I’ve heard different permutations of this idea before, such as in the form of cautions to avoid encouraging children by praising their smarts. However, this article hit home for me how powerfully the act of admiring intelligence could inhibit a person’s inclinations to struggle to master something difficult, as it implies that not being able to pick up a task easily is evidence of limited intelligence.  On the other hand, praising effort reinforces the diligence needed to master something difficult, making the struggle less painful.  After falling into the trap of praising their intelligence for most of my kids’ lives, I hope that turning my recognition more to their efforts can boost their appreciation of the process rather than the product. I can’t change our culture, but I understand its effects better now.  And… I write this just as my child despairs that her violin piece did not come out right the first time.  Yikes.

It is late and I am weary (though with some satisfaction) from my own struggles to write this piece, get exercise, soothe the day’s teen challenges, etc. on top of the day’s usual commitments, so I bid you adieu for now and wish you a healthy half hour of physical activity and engaged struggle in your day.


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