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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC's and PhD's: Eat the marshmallow!
April 7, 2010 - 8:53am

Recently a friend of mine, a fellow PhD/stay-at-home mom, told me that she’d taken the day off. I was puzzled since I was sure she was no longer taking on research contracts. What did she mean, she’d taken the day off? It took me a second to get it. She meant, of course, that she’d not done errands, laundry, volunteer work, writing, editing, shuttling kids, or any of the myriad chores she needed to do. In those precious hours while her children were in school she read a novel, just for fun and just to give herself a break. I was impressed. Regardless of how we balance our work and family lives, it’s hard to ignore the competing demands on our time and indulge in our own desires once in a while. But enough with the deprivation — we need to give in.

Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiments from the late sixties, discussed in a New Yorker article by Jonah Lehrer last year, were all about the psychology of delayed gratification and resisting temptation. In Mischel’s experiments, children were left alone with a treat such as a marshmallow in front of them. They were told that if they waited to eat the marshmallow until the experimenter returned ten minutes later, they would be given a second marshmallow. Most kids just ate the marshmallow in front of them without waiting, but a few were able to hang on for the double marshmallow reward. Follow-up studies in later years showed that kids who resisted eating the marshmallow fared better in school, and as adults they went on to do such things as pursue PhDs. We mama (and papa) PhDs it seems may be really good at resisting temptation and postponing our rewards (unless, in my own case, chocolate is involved). For parents, this study has obvious implications for teaching our children about delayed gratification, a phrase we use at our house all the time (and it really annoys our kids!). When they want a treat and it’s too close to supper time, or when our son needs to complete his homework before playing with his friends, we sometimes only need to say, “Delayed gratification!” Current applications of Mischel’s work, as Lehrer discusses in his article, indeed seek to teach children techniques for developing self-control and improving school performance.

All this seems great, except when we become so habituated to delaying gratification that we continually postpone or forget our rewards. Perhaps it’s possible to take things a little too far. I think we parents often fail to give in to ourselves and eat the metaphorical marshmallow, which could be anything such as time off to read for pleasure, to work on a fun project, or even to get away for a few days. Because there’s always something needing time and attention, it’s hard to set aside free time unless it’s programmed into a schedule and routine. It’s been that way for me, regardless of whether I worked in academia or as an at-home mother. My down time is usually fit in around everyone else’s schedules. To be fair, it’s the same for my husband, although we do our best to accommodate our mutual need for free time. At this very moment he’s eating his own marshmallow, playing a few levels on our son’s video game after the kids have gone to bed.

On Thursday nights I indulge in a musical marshmallow, an evening of choral singing and the music of Fauré, Mendelssohn, Bach or Byrd, among others. (It was nice to hear about another Mama PhD singer’s musical indulgences too. After my son’s karate class, I have just enough time to throw together a quick dinner and gobble it down before rushing out the door to catch a bus downtown for my choir rehearsal. My husband usually gets home just as I need to leave. After a quick debriefing of the day’s events and kisses all around, I’m off. Freedom! And just a twinge of guilt. Thursdays are big homework nights, and because the kids are extra tired by the end of the week, bedtime is especially challenging on my choir nights. Sometimes there’s fighting and bickering in the background as I bid my husband good-bye and good luck. Leaving the house when I know it could be a difficult night is a guilty pleasure. Everyone has to accommodate my schedule. And it’s my time, every gratifying, tasty, marshmallow minute of it.


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