Tag Archives: Parenting

Boredom: The Flip Side of Anxiety

An interesting parenting column in today’s New York Times has me thinking about whether boredom is just another name for stress dressed in sweatpants. Although not a parent of small children anymore, I can certainly relate to the excruciating sameness we are all experiencing. It’s also combined with the inability to meet some of our basic human needs such as anticipation, order and control, and touch.

Wherever possible, it’s helpful to search out little ways to feel happier. Could be planning a trip, varying your routine even if only to get takeout from somewhere new, moving some furniture around, calling a friend rather than emailing, etc. But let’s not get all Pollyanna about this — the seemingly-endless pandemic sucks. Read on!

Credit…Moritz Wienert
Jessica Grose

By Jessica Grose April 7, 2021 Updated 2:57 p.m. ET

Before the pandemic, I found comfort in the routine of my life and the rhythms of my family — what Nora Ephron once called the “peanut-butter-and-jellyness” of days with children. I liked the morning thunderdome of getting the children dressed and fed and breaking up some fights along the way, dropping them at school and taking the 20-minute walk to the subway. When I got off the subway, I had an array of coffee shops to choose from, which at the time did not seem exciting, but after a year of pandemic isolation would probably feel like bungee jumping.

At this point my commute is the five feet from my bed to my desk, and I am somehow both tired and agitated when I start work each day. My kids never leave the house, except when we go to the same three parks in our neighborhood. Sometimes when I go running outside, I fantasize about just … not stopping, my eyes thirsty for some new horizon.

In other words, I’m so freaking bored.

I’m not the only parent — or nonparent, to be sure — having trouble with the monotony of this moment. A study conducted early in the pandemic of more than 4,000 French people found that though respondents felt an increase of stress and fear, they mostly experienced a “slowing down of time” that was attributed to boredom and sadness.

“I’ve particularly struggled with boredom this year, in fact it resurfaced so many of the mixed emotions of maternity leave for me, feeling lonely and bored but simultaneously guilty for not treasuring every moment with my daughter,” said Jenny Brewer, the mom of a toddler in London. She said she feels her brain cells “ebbing away,” and like she’s not achieving anything at work. “I am so used to organizing days out and time with friends and family, that when it was taken away I was at an utter loss for how to kill the hours,” she said.

The way Ms. Brewer describes boredom is actually very close to the way boredom researchers — yes, there are boredom researchers — have defined the emotion. “‘Feeling unchallenged’ and perceiving one’s ‘activities as meaningless’ is central to boredom,” according to a study by Wijnand Van Tilburg, an experimental social psychologist at the University of Essex in England.

Or, as Leo Tolstoy put it, boredom is “the desire for desires.”

“The bored person does want to do something quite desperately, but does not want to do anything in particular,” said John D. Eastwood, an associate professor of clinical psychology at York University in Toronto, and co-author of “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom.” Boredom is distinct from apathy, because if you’re apathetic, you don’t want to do anything at all — but if you’re bored, you’re both restless and lethargic, Dr. Eastwood said.

Even in normal times, boredom is a very common emotion — a study of almost 4,000 American adults found that 63 percent felt bored at least once in a 10-day sampling period. While most cases of boredom are mild, chronic boredom can metastasize into depression, poor health behavior like drug use, or risk-taking behavior, said Dr. Van Tilburg. The causes of boredom are multifaceted, but a lack of control over your situation is a common one. He added, “There’s research that shows when you’re limited in your control over the situation — that intensifies boredom.”

Parents of very small kids may find our pandemic lot particularly stifling because it’s both repetitive and involuntary — we have no choice about keeping up the routines for our little ones, who cannot do things for themselves. Emily Lyn-Sue, a stay-at-home mom of two in Miami, said that while her husband and older son have outlets outside the home with work and school, she feels isolated and bored at home with her 3-year-old. “We speak an entirely different language that no one else understands. We are literally on an island alone, together — he is my Wilson and I am his Tom Hanks,” she said, referring to the relationship Hanks’ character develops with a volleyball while shipwrecked in the movie “Cast Away.”

Knowing that many of us may not be able to have much control over our movements for at least the next few months, how do we try to alleviate our boredom? First, the researchers I spoke to said it’s important to acknowledge there’s no easy fix for our doldrums — so much of what is happening right now is beyond our control, and the vaccines are just beginning to be tested in children under 12, so we may not be able to make big moves just yet.

That said, there are small changes you can make to break the monotony. James Danckert, a professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and the co-author with Dr. Eastwood of “Out of My Skull,” said that because boredom can result from a lack of control over your life, finding even small ways to assert your agency can make you feel more engaged. For me, that means sometimes walking to a restaurant in the neighborhood to pick up lunch rather than making myself the same sad desk salad every workday.

Dr. Danckert also suggested finding some joy in the minutiae of a regular activity; he quoted Andy Warhol, who said, “You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.” To be honest, I have struggled with this approach. When I took my younger daughter to a place we call “toy park” — a park filled with discarded and half-broken toys, which she loves — I tried paying close attention to the interactions of the children and the interplay of light from the spring sun breaking through the trees. But boredom won out, and I ended up looking at Twitter.

One bit of advice that resonated more with me came from Dr. Van Tilburg, who emphasized that boredom doesn’t just have to be a negative thing — it can also be a wake-up call encouraging you to find activities that are more meaningful.

I am by nature sort of a hermit, but pandemic isolation has stretched the limits of my introversion. This weekend, we saw relatives I adore for an outdoor Easter egg hunt. Just 90 minutes of warm interaction with these beloved adults made me feel so happy and alive that I was smiling for the rest of the day.

As the weather gets warmer here in the Northeast and more of my peers are inoculated, I am planning more get-togethers, with and without my kids. Whenever I drop back into the doldrums among those discarded toys, I will think about all the walks and dinners and hugs on the horizon.

Good News Monday: Peanuts May Soon Be Safe For Everyone

According to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a drug called AR101 has been shown to prevent deadly attacks in patients with extreme peanut allergies.

Will PB&J come back as a school-lunch staple? Could happen in 2019, they say.

Am I What I Wear?

Lately, I’ve been going through an identity crisis. A sartorial one, primarily, stemming from the question, “Who am I if I’m not working?” combined with the dread of becoming invisible with the passing years.

As a freelance writer/retired (mostly) by choice, I could spend the day in ratty sweatpants and no one would notice. But that’s just not “me”; I worked in an office for 30 years and dressing for work is a difficult habit to overcome. Plus, I’ve always loved fashion.

This particular crise du jour is also accompanied by weight loss, which would normally be cause for celebration but is in fact cause for alarm/introspection/analysis as I have to decide: Since I have to buy new clothes that fit, WHAT should they be?

The delightful blogger Lady Sarah offers a brilliant suggestion: Create a pie chart for how you actually spend your time so that you can buy accordingly. Instead of shopping for a fantasy life, I’m taking this a step further to analyze not just how I currently spend my time but how I’d like to spend it.

Categories

• At home doing chores, scrolling through online articles, contemplating working out, watching TV, contemplating cleaning, actually working out, reading, actually cleaning

• At home writing (want to project a professional image, if only to myself)

• Running errands: Stained tees are a non-starter even though the chances of bumping into someone I know — since I know virtually no one in Texas — are slim to none

• Lunch dates: All too few. Goal: expand opportunities

• Dinner dates with husband and friends: Ah, safe ground here. Need to look nice but not overly fussed over

• Opera/Symphony: Unlikely to run into anyone here either but a good excuse to dress up

• Entertaining at home: What to wear that is chic but won’t get stained while cooking?

• Travel: My sweet spot, wardrobe-wise. I’m a big-city girl at heart and enjoy being able to wear my favorite pieces without feeling overdressed. Not that anyone’s looking – but it’s all about how you see yourself, isn’t it?

• Playing with grandchildren: Not the time for a silk blouse, but surely I can do better than an old band t-shirt and leggings even if the baby is likely to spit up

• Summer hiking/walking: Anything goes, as long as it’s waterproof

• Wine tasting (a favorite summer activity): Upgraded casual, mostly dark colors in case I spill something – a real possibility around Glass #3

FullSizeRender 7All in all, what I’ve learned from this exercise is that I shouldn’t buy another leather jacket since I live in a warm climate (much as I adore them) and that I should create more opportunities that are appropriate for my favorite items rather than “dumbing down” my wardrobe to match my mostly-stay-at-home activities.

Sign me up for: adult education classes, more travel, more lunches/dinners with friends, more evenings out, volunteering at anything where you shouldn’t look like a slob, and so on.

Anyone else having an identity crisis as you change jobs, become a stay-at-home parent or approach retirement? Please share your solutions and insights with the rest of us!

Xx, Alisa

Bullies, Then and Now

I’d already started writing this when a wonderful blog landed in my Inbox. I’d been thinking about the ways life keeps tossing bullies in our path – just when we’re beginning to believe we’ve outgrown the past. Clearly, I’m not alone.

Back in 7th grade, I was frequently tormented by the mean and massive football player who sat next to me in Homeroom. I was shy, bookish and definitely not cool, having parents who eschewed everything that was considered fashionable in the 1960’s.

In junior high on Long Island, you had to have Pappagallos, low-cut flats that came in a rainbow of colors, were worn by all the popular girls, and that I was not allowed to wear because, according to my mother, they didn’t give my feet enough “support”. Instead I was doomed to clunky Mary Janes, which prompted endless witticisms from “Football Fred” ridiculing my old-lady clodhoppers.

Adding to my not-coolness was not being allowed to shave my legs. Having sparse, white-blond body hair I thought I could get away with this, but Fred never missed an opportunity to drop a pencil or notebook under my desk and retrieve it with a snarky whisper about my “spider legs”.

Happily, life goes on and we all grow up. Sort of. Because at my first job, I discovered a new species: the work bully.

My first boss, “Andy”, was an affable ex-military guy whose management style was a type of hazing designed to toughen me up. Although Andy wasn’t overtly insulting, he often withheld information that could make my job easier or more efficient. This resulted in a colossal waste of time and energy that, more than once, reduced me to tears of fury in the ladies’ room.

One of my early tasks as a junior art director was to recommend which artists we should contact for a particular job. I had no idea how to begin looking, and there was no Internet with which to research this. I asked Andy for direction and he told me to go figure it out. I suggested that if he’d simply tell me where the information was I’d never have to ask him a second time, but he walked away.

Hours later, I discovered that Andy already had files of cards from all the artists’ representatives, neatly catalogued by style from realistic to cartoon. He must have thought sending me on a wild goose chase would build character. Instead, it built resentment. We did, in the end, become good friends—once I was no longer working for him.

I next crossed swords with a burly, perpetually scowling television producer I’ll call Phil, who refused to partner with me on a commercial because I was too “junior”– never mind that it was one I’d written and it was therefore my responsibility to follow through.

Phil insisted he’d only work with my boss. After running up and down the stairs multiple times to relay this to my supervisor, who kept sending me back to negotiate further, I finally closed the door (hard!) to Phil’s office and said, “Look, I don’t want to work with you any more than you want to work with me, but we have a job to do so let’s get on with it.”

I never had trouble with him again – and I learned the important lesson that the only way to get someone to stop bullying you is to stand up to him or her and show them they don’t intimidate you. Even if you’re in your twenties.

I wish I could say that those were the only bullies I ever encountered. One of the worst was a poisonous co-worker at my last agency job. She ruled her stable of sycophants not by fear or obvious intimidation – she appeared to be friendly and fun – but by creating a merciless clique of who was “in” and who was frozen out. You could get on her s***list in a nanosecond for politely declining to drink on the job, as she did every afternoon beginning at 4 pm. Those who were “out” were viciously gossiped about, maligned to senior management and made so miserable that, years later, they still shudder when they hear her name.

Bullies, of course, reside in everyday life outside of work, too. There’s the woman who makes some guy’s life hell when he tries to end a relationship. The receptionist who won’t let you speak to your doctor. The guy in the Homeowners’ Association who insists you can’t replace so much as a doorknob without his permission. And the supermom at the PTO who tries to guilt you into doing her bidding by making you feel like a bad parent just because you have a full-time job.

Moral: Life is eternally 7th grade. But now you have the tools—wisdom, kindness, a good lawyer on speed dial—to fight back. And sometimes, growing up really is the best revenge.

Ms. StrangeLove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About My Kids

Sorry; this is an outright lie. If you’re a parent – whether to a child, dog, or gerbil– you know there’s always something to worry about. What’s more, what you worry about is a moving target: Just when you think you have a handle on the problem, something you didn’t anticipate rears up to scare the living crap out of you.

The Seven Stages of Anxiety

Infancy: Colic; SIDS; will I drop the baby on its head? Should we decorate the nursery in black and white for stimulation, gendered colors since you’re tired of people asking if it’s a boy or a girl and besides you actually like pink or blue, or a neutral color they can “grow into”; your baby’s measurements vs. the norm. (Note: The 20th percentile daughter I feared would be abnormally short has grown into a very slim 5’7”.)

Toddler: How to keep them from climbing on tables; how to keep them from pulling off all the baby-safe outlet covers and sticking wet fingers into them; how to stop them flinging food all over a restaurant while shrieking hysterically; whether they’re talking on schedule (how many five-year-olds do you know who don’t talk?); potty training (how many eight-year-olds do you know who aren’t potty trained?). Deep breath.

Kindergarten: Biting: It’s the law of the jungle—your kid is either a biter or a bitee; falling off the monkey bars and cracking their skull open; being “behind” the rest of the class; whether my son would have permanent nerve damage from putting his hand on the broiler-cooktop at Benihana. (He didn’t, though he still has issues with impulse control.)

Elementary school: Bullying; not having friends; having the wrong kind of friends; doing their homework; remembering to actually take said homework out of their backpack and turn it in; whether they suck at sports; ADHD; their exclusive diet of pizza, soda and candy.

High School: Drugs; sex; cutting class; smoking; not being able to get into college.

College: Drugs; sex; cutting class; smoking; not being able to stay in college.

Early adulthood: Not finding a job; not staying in a job; staying in a dead-end job; dating the wrong partner; dating the right partner but not committing; living too far away; living too close and wanting to stop by when it’s really inconvenient; not calling enough; calling whenever you’ve settled into a quiet night watching your favorite TV show; not telling you what’s going on in their lives; telling you too much about what’s going on in their lives and giving you new things to worry about.

The point is: For better or worse, your children have their own destiny. Once you’ve safely guided them through the early years, keeping them in one piece with a minimum of trauma and hopefully imparting a set of values and a sense of humor so they can make good decisions, your job is done.

I’ll always worry, but now that my kids are 25 and 30 I try to keep it to myself. Some days are more successful than others. Happy Mother’s Day!