Hunker Down Thoughts (aka Totally Privileged Problems): Old Age Edition

Backstory:

In 2020, I started blogging about my hunker-down thoughts during the pandemic while home all day and questioning my sanity. After a writing hiatus, I have come to terms with the fact that I am still in a hunkered down mode and that my sanity is still very tenuous.

Why am I still hunkered down and slightly bonkers? Partly because I work from home now in my virtual job. I continue to wear loungewear from the waist down and don’t have sufficient interaction with the outside world, i.e., “The Outsiders.” But mostly because I am alarmed every day about my Rapid State of Aging. So that’s where we find ourselves—“we” meaning both my psyche and this unreliable vessel.

10/20/22 Entry:

Nothing makes you feel older than swapping notes with your friend about acid reflux. We have landed on the fact that we really shouldn’t eat anything with red sauce for dinner, like pizza, spaghetti, lasagna, and basically all delicious food. Those can only be on the lunch or breakfast menu now. We also can’t bend over at the waist because we can feel the acid rising up our throats. So we bend with the knees (though the knees are finicky too). And we should maybe do Kegels for our lax esophageal sphincters because we must have flaccid throats to go with Limp and Saggy everything else.

Cheers, y’all

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How to Unemploy: A 5-Part Plan to Get to Know Thyself

by Megan Taylor Stephens

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be -Lao Tzu

This article is part two of two. Part one is Aimless Unemployment: Allowing Yourself to Step Away Without a Goal.

You’ve Quit. Now What?

You may be 100% on board with stepping off the hamster wheel, but you still need some guiding principles in your search for a goal-less existence filled with wide open possibilities. It’s difficult to detach cold turkey from the expectation that one will always be a Productive Person. It’s hard to shed off Type A tendencies and ignore the feeling that you are judged for your accomplishments and busyness or lack thereof.

Removing expectations and objectives for yourself can let new paths emerge into view and fresh opportunities percolate to the surface. If you think it’s in your best interest to reboot and regroup, feel free to copy this admittedly loosey goosey 5-part self-discovery plan.

Note: A licensed career or life coach will have much more reliable information and a better structured plan than me! These are simply my first-person point of view musings.

1. Set aside some days to go to sleep and wake up when you want to.

I’ve always found myself to be a morning person. I am energized and able to tackle big jobs in the morning (perhaps all that caffeine helps). But other than that, I think I have been sleepwalking my way through my own sleep awareness, as it were. I don’t really know much about my own body’s preference for somnambulation.

Learning to take care of your sleep hygiene and notice your optimal sleep patterns is critical for your mental health. It’s important to tap into the innate flow of our bodies and allow our brains to take an occasional time out. Knowing one’s natural sleep and wake and super awake rhythms is valuable information. The observations can clue us in on a certain type of job, e.g., remote vs in person, salaried vs project-based, contractor vs employee, daytime vs graveyard shift, international vs domestic, etc.

Log your observations

Give yourself some time to turn off the alarms, notifications, and ringers and pay attention to your natural rhythms. Log your results. How many hours of sleep do you need to feel refreshed and rejuvenated? Do you sleep more soundly with a certain room temperature or are you more light-sensitive when it comes to sleep quality? Is something in your diet making you toss and turn at night? When there’s no alarm clock, when will your circadian rhythm nudge you awake?

You might need to send the kids to their grandparents or live in the garage for a few days, but it’s well worth it if you can pull off this informal little sleep study. If you can’t change your sleeping arrangements, maybe just experiment with cooling down the bedroom or installing a blackout curtain or cutting out alcohol in the evening.

Count your sleeps.

It might be my peri-menopause, but I am finding that I’m a “two sleeps” person by nature. In Shakespeare’s day, they say it was common for people to sleep in two shifts. So let’s say a person would get some solid Zzzzs from 10:00pm to 2:00am, then wake up and putz around for a while, then sleep again from 4:00am to 8:00am.

What happens in that putzing zone can be amazing and earth shattering! You don’t have to toss and turn and be frustrated that you’re wide awake. You can get up and get busy doing something that you’ve feel drawn to. Such as work on a mosaic tile Mona Lisa replica or crank out one award-winning play after another like Señor Shakespeare did!

Succomb to the nap.

Left unattended and unoccupied, will you take a nap? I learned something new: that I do like a very short afternoon cat nap after all. I thought I disliked naps because they disorient me and keep me in a prolonged state of torpor. Not true anymore! These days, it feels delicious and decadent to doze off mid-sentence in a book, mid-scroll on my phone. I couldn’t be more content to drift away with my trusty, napping dog at my side, legs twitching in her dream state.

2. Ask yourself if something is an obligation or a desire, mandatory or optional.

Look, there are some things that must be done, like laundry and taxes. But there are so many things that we think we should do—or that society tells us we should do—that are utter nonsense. The Earth will keep spinning and heads will not roll if we ignore or refuse to do many tasks. These three tips can help us prioritize and scale back many tasks in our overwhelming lives.

Follow your own heart.

I should cook an elaborate dinner. Nope. The kids will not become malnutritioned from occasionally consuming food that is freezer-to-table rather than farm-to-table. I should lose weight to be as fit and slim as my younger years. Not really. Getting pudgier with age is quite normal, as long as I have relative health. I should strive to climb up the professional ladder after all these years. Nah. I have climbed far enough to enjoy the view and get a little acrophobic toward the top. I’m cool at the lower rungs.

Instead of belaboring what I should do based on others’ expectations, I will follow where my heart and mind take me and see what floats my boat. (Though I really should mediate. I should add that to the obligatory list of laundry and taxes.)

Trim the list.

We try to do too much. I always tell my kids: “mandatory comes before optional.” It’s mandatory to do your chores and it’s optional to hang out with friends, so do A before B. I use this mandatory vs optional dichotomy all the time. But in truth, it can be really hard to separate the two.

Think about something on your To Do list. Is it absolutely necessary that it be done? Once you realize that it is ‘optional stress’ and you can opt out, are you good at saying no? Some people rarely say no for fear of disappointing people. Others just need to step back and ask themselves if they must do That Thing. You might find out that you can move something from your To Do list to your Not To Do list. Some tasks might stay on your To Do List but can be moved toward the bottom in that hazy To Do Eventually zone.

Keep the dog in mind.

When we’re about to reflexively commit to something, perhaps we can ask if we’re “shoulding” ourselves and not thinking through whether something is truly obligatory vs optional. We can be more in control of our life than we give ourselves credit for. Our instincts are strong; we just need to notice and acknowledge them. Then we can proceed with the knowledge that we are in control of our time and activities.

When we are the ones controlling the minutiae of our lives, we are like the dog wagging its tail and not the tail wagging the dog. The same goes for how we approach work. Are we taking ownership of our lives or letting other forces steer the ship? In our jobs, so often we find that the tail (i.e., our supervisor’s glare, our rote behaviors, our frivolous tasks) is wagging the dog (i.e, our values, our health, our satisfaction level). It’s time that we act like the dog and not its puny appendage!

3. Notice your feelings

I am pretty good at sorting things into the categories of mandatory vs optional, which helps me whittle down my To Do List and lessen my overwhelm. But I am still on a journey in terms of learning to sit with my feelings and true reaction to a proposal or idea. I’m convinced that tapping into my feelings is key to finding my way.

Go with the Hell Yes.

Do I truly want to hang out with that person at this time? Do I truly want to hang out with that person but not at this time? If I am double booked, is one event much more appealing to me than the other? If I say no to something, will I ultimately have FOMO or JOMO—fear of missing out or joy of missing out?

I’m trying to go with that emphatic “hell yeah” response (à la Derek Sivers) rather than stumble along passively with a semi-dissatisfied taste in my mouth. Maybe there are important patterns that we all can notice about what sparks joy for us. What makes us perk up, our hearts flutter, our cogs turn, our boats float? Maybe there are equally important patterns to know about what makes us recoil, wince, or groan.

Draw the happiness.

How do you feel deep down? You could take that To Do list from the section above and assign feelings to each item. Do you feel excited to tackle something on that list? Are you dreading doing it? Put a feeling next to each thing. Same with a list of job openings. Which ones attract you, which repel you, and which are neutral for you? Put a smiley, frowny, or neutral face next to each job on that list that you are qualified for.

You can cross out lots of things on your To Do List or Potential Jobs List that you don’t want to do or don’t need to do (or that someone else can do) and add things that you can do and are excited to do. Pack your To Do list and Potential Jobs List with things that require no motivational speech from yourself to go after because they already bring you happiness or satisfaction.

Find the patterns.

Stand back and look at those lists. Are there patterns to what you like and dislike?

I like things that are creative, intellectual, social, and physical. I dislike bureaucratic things that involve forms and numbers, like accounting, budgeting, bills, taxes, and paperwork. Which is interesting, because my professional field requires lots of administrative form-filling and organizational skill, and I’m generally good at it.

This is an opportunity to notice that “I’m good at it” is different than “I enjoy it.” I may not be able to find a job that ticks all the boxes of enjoyment for me, but I can sure try. When we like a task or activity, goals and motivation are less relevant. We can ride the wave of internalized pleasure that propels us where we’re meant to be.

4. Be Laissez-Faire

I heard something the other day along the lines of “a sense of urgency is trauma-based.” I don’t usually buy into sweeping generalizations like that, but it definitely stuck with me.

With America’s WASPy cultural and religious underpinnings, we’ve been traumatized by oppressive forces on all fronts to work harder, do more, go faster, acquire more, do better, be better, be perfect. Between pleasing children and parents, bosses, and the bill collectors, the fear that Everything Will Crumble Around Us keeps us on that Oh So Very Urgent Hamster Wheel.

Sometimes urgent things come up, but always carrying oneself with a sense of stress when there is no emergency isn’t good for the mind or the body (hello, cortisol!). And if we are in a constant state of stress and urgency over very basic daily things like shopping, cooking, and raising kids, then there’s something wrong.

Short of day drinking and getting stoned every day, certainly there are ways to have a more calm and nonchalant baseline demeanor. By embracing a Zen mentality, we’ll have more healthy heart rates and blood pressure, surges of endorphins, and flowing serotonin, making us happier and more sustainable in the long haul.

The opposite of “a sense of urgency is trauma-based” might be “a sense of calm is self-care.” Here are three of my reminders to embody the latter.

Reject the Rush.

Whether at work or at home, step off the gas pedal. Embed relaxed energy and a slow, methodical, reasonable pace into our work. Listen to music, nibble on snacks, and sing or chatter with friends and colleagues as we pass the day. When in doubt, take the long way rather than the short cut. Stairs instead of elevator, walking over driving, stopping to smell the roses. No amount of hurrying and scurrying will bring satisfaction. The faster you do things, the more things you’ll find to do.

Take breaks.

Life doesn’t hand out breaks voluntarily, so you have to make them happen. Mix up the day with 15-minute dog walks, karaoke, yoga stretches, food prep, meditation breaks, weeding, reading, Duolingo lessons, whatever brings you a sense of rejuvenation. Instead of feeling guilty for taking a short break from work or childcare or whatever you have urgent feelings about, remind yourself that Chilling the Eff Out is good medicine and ultimately good for productivity.

Pair up.

Even if you’re introverted, try to occasionally swap out activities and tasks you could do alone (and often more quickly) for collectivist activities that are done in a group (and often more happily). You can sometimes be more efficient and proficient when you go it alone, but being rushed and manic about your own projects also tends to feed the Urgency Monster. Work parties with neighbors to clean up each other’s yards, paint each other’s houses, round up the trash and recycling, or host a potluck remind you that the journey is more valuable than the destination.

Many cultures are collectivists and work together to bring in the fish from the sea, harvest the crops, shuck the corn, mill the grains, mend the roofs. I highly suspect that a cooperative mentality lowers stress and an individualistic mentality increases it.

5. Be spontaneous and try new things

Along with scrapping a lengthy To Do list, I’m trying to stop over-planning in general. That’s the only way for exciting possibilities to crop up. A packed and preset schedule doesn’t allow for pockets of exploration. The creative self needs wide open space to daydream, ruminate, ponder. Novel experiences introduce the mind to new worlds. Running from appointment to appointment and event to event leaves no time for novelty or reflection or aha moments.

I also like spontaneity because there’s really no way to know ahead of time if I’ll be in the mood for that concert, that restaurant, that trip. I’d rather pounce on something when I’m feeling it rather than drag my behind out the door kicking and screaming because I made a commitment long ago to go to such-and-such a fundraiser or such-and-such a volunteer gig.

Here are some fun, last-minute things one could do:

In the mood for an escape to nature?

Try shinrin yoku. “Forest bathing,” as it’s known in Japanese, is when you go out into a forest and drink in the beauty and oxygen around you. You purge the toxic buildup of the modern world and immerse yourself in nature therapy. I asked my friends for recommended hikes not too far away, and they came through in spades when I was ready to dart into the forest.

Hankering for people?

Meet Up events tend to be smaller and more intimate than FaceBook events. Get on meetup.com to see what is happening in your community. I just saw meet ups coming up in my city for Walking Group, Singles Game Night, 80s Dancing, Adult Asperger & Autism, Fall Hike, Mushroom Picking, Book Club, and many more. There is something for everyone, including some very niche themes and eccentric activities!

Missing your artsy side?

If you don’t know where to start, you might try Airbnb Experiences. You log onto Airbnb and instead of looking for lodging, you can search experiences that are offered. They range in price and span all sorts of small group or private activities. I see someone local offering a self-portrait painting class, pottery wheel lesson, photography workshop, botanical watercolor lesson, and more.

Don’t Disrupt my Mojo: A Resolute Mindset

I know this period of semi-employment won’t last long, so I’m soaking up every soul-affirming moment I can get. A big hope of mine is that when I’m ready to relaunch this whole employment thing, I won’t fall back into old patterns that leave me overworked and zapped of energy.

Somehow, amidst my Demotivation Plan and Free-Floating Agenda-less Existence, I will need to come out the other end of these gap months with a clear sense of purpose. Chilling out isn’t enough. Joe Pinsker (2022) put it this way:

“Sabbaticals seem to help people heal from burnout, but they aren’t a comprehensive cure. ‘You can’t rest your way out of burnout, because burnout is about the relationship between your ideals for work and the reality of your job,’ Jonathan Malesic, the author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives, told me. If you don’t change anything about the way you work, he said, ‘you’re going to end up in the same miserable condition again.’” 

I know good things will come of my sabbatical if I pay attention to my internal state and ward off external pressures. One external pressure is my ever-comedic husband. In between my self-care activities and experiments, he has been disrupting my mojo. He likes to remind me of the high pay for plasma (or is it platelet?) donation and offers to set up regular clinic visits for me. I think he’s joking—he’s a real ham, that guy—but he may not be.

Sorry, Honey, I’m committed to being uncommitted for a few more months, and that includes prescheduled plasma donation appointments. Try to hold down the fort while I take a nap.

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Citations

Pinsker, J. (2022). What is life like when we subtract work from it? The Atlantic.

https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/05/us-sabbatical-helps-work-burnout/629956/

 

Photo by Shea Stephens (2021) San Juan Islands, Washington State

Aimless Unemployment: Allowing Yourself to Step Away Without a Goal

by Megan Taylor Stephens

“A sabbatical is more than a vacation, it’s a sacred human ritual for what you want to do differently in life—even if for just a little while” (thesabbaticalproject.org).

The Backstory

Perhaps you’ve heard the news that educators are tired. Well, I recently quit my job of 20 years. When I start to panic about what I’ve done, I tell myself that it’s good to hang up the work badge and office keys from time to time. The only pressing question is: How does one unemploy?

I am determined to treat my unemployment as a gift and use this time wisely. A “wise use of time” for most means tackling big projects, networking, hustling for the next job lead. For me, I’m adhering to the notion that the key to self-discovery is to be intentionally aimless, demotivated, untethered. Every so often, I think it’s wise—at judicious junctures of our lives—to surrender to fate and see if the universe can take us where we need to go. This is very hard for me, but I think I can do it.

In my unemployed state—I’m technically under-employed since I do have some small random gigs—I’m motivated to be unmotivated for a few months. I picture myself all alone and pensive in a remote log cabin or perched in a fire lookout tower scanning the horizon. In reality, I’m just in my home office on a Quasi Sabbatical of Sorts.

Sooner rather than later, I need to make more money to keep the finances afloat and my spouse at bay. But for the time being, I vow to not stress about money and to trust that the stars will point me where I need to go. My only goal is to sit back and relax and see what inspires me, see what makes me tick.

Before I divulge my self-discovery plan, there is solid data on taking a hiatus from the Rat Race that is worth reviewing.

The Research on Pressing Pause

I am happy to report that there is plenty of research to support what I’ve so rashly done. Twenty percent of employees said they are very likely to quit their job in the next 12 months, based on a 2022 survey conducted by PwC across 44 countries, the Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey. Not only are people from all walks of life resigning en masse across the globe, but they are not necessarily jumping right back into the workforce.

In fact, the number of workers taking an extended break has tripled in the past four years, reports Lo (2022) in the Fast Company article called “The Great Resignation Has Morphed Into the Great Sabbatical.” The author says that, whether due to external circumstances or internal dissatisfaction, many people—herself included—decided to take a break rather than resign. “Instead of quitting one job to immediately embark on another, a growing number of American workers are choosing to take time off to do nothing at all—at least for a little while.”

Why would people do something so drastic? Quitting is one thing, but choosing to stay unemployed is another thing entirely. The book “Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break” by Allen et al. (2011) says it all in the title. The premise is that we deserve the gift of time to envision what we want out of life and to prioritize how and where we want to be.

There’s clearly a benefit to pausing to ruminate on one’s life. Returning to work after their break, employees report “feeling refreshed and rejuvenated — a feeling that is likely to have a ripple effect on their job and their co-workers when they return,” according to the New York Times article “Instead of Leaving a Job, Why Not Take a Pause?” (O’Meara, 2017).

In a study published in the Harvard Business Review (Burkus, 2017), professors who took a sabbatical had “a decline in stress and an increase in psychological resources and overall well-being” compared to the comparison group that didn’t take a break. The added benefit is that “those positive changes often remained long after the sabbatical takers returned to work. This suggests that not only do the rested employees benefit from time away — the organization benefits as well.”

Not everyone can afford to take an unpaid sabbatical, but the good news is that not everyone needs to quit in order to reflect on how their career is going. In the article “Work Life Balance is a Cycle, Not an Achievement” (Lupu & Ruiz-Castro, 2021), the authors make a case for employees periodically stepping back and reflecting on their situation. Their research concludes that “for people to make real changes in their lives, they must continuously remember to pause, connect with their emotions, rethink their priorities, evaluate alternatives, and implement changes — throughout their personal and professional lives.”

Taking the Plunge

I’ve already evaluated and reevaluated my work situation for several years and, for me, the decision to jump ship feels right. (Did I mention that we educators are tired?) The next step is putting my principle to practice. Maybe you’ll join me.

Are you burnt out, at your wit’s end, or dissatisfied with the fast pace and mindless motions of your life? Are you simply curious about exploring a different path for your future? Are you already unemployed or underemployed? Then I invite you to take a deep dive with me into an untethered, demotivated, and agenda-less state of mind. Welcome to my parameter-less unpaid sabbatical.

My next blog will be How to Unemploy: A 5-Part Plan to Get to Know Thyself.

Note: A licensed career or life coach will have much more reliable information and a better structured plan than me! Don’t take my word for gospel; I’m just sharing my two cents.

Citations

2022. Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey. PwC. https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/issues/workforce/hopes-and-fears-2022.html

Allen, C., Bearg, N., Foley, R., & Smith, J. (2011). Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break. Beaufort Books.

Burkus, D. (2017). Research Shows that Organizations Benefit When Employees Take Sabbaticals. The Harvard Business Review.

https://hbr.org/2017/08/research-shows-that-organizations-benefit-when-employees-take-sabbaticals

Lo, D. (2022). The great resignation has morphed into the great sabbatical. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90715900/great-resignation-sabbatical-gap-year

Lupu, I. & Ruiz-Castro, M. (2021). Work-life balance is a cycle, not an achievement. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/01/work-life-balance-is-a-cycle-not-an-achievement

O’Meara, R. (2017). Instead of Leaving a Job, Why Not Take a Pause? The New York Times.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/jobs/career-pause-sabbaticals-unpaid-leaves.html

The Sabbatical Project. https://thesabbaticalproject.org/

John Stephens, CEO of the Boma project stands in front of a dusty airport landing strip in northern Kenya. The BOMA Project empowers women in the drylands of Africa to establish sustainable livelihoods, build resilient families, graduate from extreme poverty, and catalyze change in their rural communities. (Photo by Ami Vitale 2021)

Growing Gray with Intention: Why is it so Hard for us Women?

by Megan Taylor Stephens

You’d think that letting yourself grow gray would be easy. You just sit back, relax, and watch your hair follicles die a slow, sure death. There are so many excellent reasons to feel good about the decision to go gray, and—if you are like me—you can list them all:

  1. You are delighted that you can free up a few hours of time on your calendar every few months.
  2. You feel vindicated that you are saving big on your hair coloring bills.
  3. You relish the fact that you don’t have to breathe in toxins or let them soak into your scalp.
  4. You feel smug for not being an eco-hater who flushes chemicals down the drain and eventually into our groundwater.
  5. You gloat in revolting against society’s images of female beauty that reek of toxic patriarchy.

Deciding to go gray means consciously disregarding societal norms. In a culture that undervalues all things old and overvalues all things young, letting oneself age without concern for one’s plummeting status is both terrifying and liberating, as Gloria Steinem put it so aptly:

“In a general way, women become more radical as they get older. The pattern is that women are conservative when they’re young. That’s when there’s the most pressure on us to conform, when we’re potential child bearers and sex objects. An­d we lose power when we get older. Which is a very radicalizing experience.”

On a technical level, is there anything not to like about going gray? I don’t think so. So why haven’t I fully embraced it? I set out to figure out what my problem is and I learned some stuff along the way.

Side note: I’m not shaming people who make the decision to dye their hair. The societal messaging about beauty that pushes women into covering up their gray is real, and the messaging resides deep in our bones. Ageism in the form of employment discrimination is also a real thing, especially for women. Above all, women certainly have the right to make decisions about their own bodies, whether for medical or aesthetic reasons. Period. Full stop.

A Faint, Gray Memory

We spied her bent over the bathtub with a box of dark brown hair dye. She was about 40 years old. She was half upside down and her butt was unceremoniously in the air as she awkwardly rubbed in the dye around her temples, which were the main areas going gray. She looked up at us through the bathroom door. We snickered at her. We actually probably guffawed.

Why did my sister and I tease our poor mom so many years ago? I remember thinking it was stupid of her to try to beat back the encroaching tide of gray. In my young mind, she was old, and she should just succumb. Enough with Jazzercise, Tab, Melba toast, and Vidal Sassoon hair dye. Who was she trying to impress? One of those dull suitors who would come by once in a while? She raised us to be feminists, intellectuals, athletes, and pragmatists, and this seemed just plain vain and stupid. What happened to “Free to Be You and Me”? Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” (Hear me Roar)?

Why Does Hair Turn Gray?

Let’s review why my mom found herself draped over the bathtub in that unglamorous state in the first place. What makes hair go gray?

According to a 2021 article on WebMD, your hair color comes from melanin. Melanin comes from pigment cells in your hair follicles. As you get older, the pigment cells die and never regenerate. The reduction of pigment leads your hair to slowly turn to gray, and the eventual absence of pigment turns it to white.

The extent to which you’re likely to grow gray is largely governed by your genetics. Parents who go gray prematurely spawn kids whose hair goes gray early. Race also plays a role. White people go gray earliest (in their mid-30s), Asian people go gray next (late 30s), and Black people go gray last (mid-40s).

Health issues can speed up the graying process. Thyroid diseases, insufficient vitamin B12, vitiligo, alopecia, and smoking are some of the things that can expedite gray hair. And menopause, which involves a decrease in estrogen, also contributes to thinning hair. Thin hair breaks and falls out more easily, so if you’re older, it’s more likely to come back in gray.

Gray hair feels more stiff, coarse, and thin compared to nongray hair. Gray hair has a thinner cuticle, which gives your hair less protection from the sun, wind, humidity, heat, and chemicals, which in turn makes your hair lose water. This causes it to be thinner and frizzier. Let’s face it, it’s hard to embrace.

My Hair is my Identity

I always liked my hair, and others did too. It received many compliments. It was long and wavy and golden chestnut brown with hues of red. When I didn’t brush it, it was thick and curly. Sometimes I colored it, usually with a cheap box of Sun In. I played around with every hair style that grabbed my fancy in my youth: the flower child look of Jan in The Brady Bunch, Lady Di’s short and sassy do, Annie Lennox’s shocking flat top, and the ill-conceived mullet inspired by…I really don’t know. Patrick Swayze or Rob Lowe?

Even when I didn’t like my outfit, my flat chest, or my big butt, at least I always had my hair as a flowing asset. It was one thing that I could fully control and that had a good return on investment.

Fast forward to my forties, and I wasn’t terribly surprised to see the approach of gray. It seemed premature compared to my friends, though, so I started dying my hair and carried on with my life. I didn’t like the toxins and always asked the hairdresser if there was a less poisonous alternative. Not really, unless I just wanted henna. The henna didn’t cover my gray hair well, so I was resigned to the poisonous products.

As my forties went on, my natural hair color became shockingly gray shockingly fast. (PSA: I found out later that my undiagnosed hypothyroidism played a big role in that.) I dabbled with letting my hair do its own thing, but always went back to coloring it. I honestly felt more youthful with brown hair. I carried myself with more confidence, dressed with more pizzazz, and truly felt younger in my body. I think seeing brown instead of gray reflected back in the mirror tricked me into thinking I was younger than I really was. And since younger is synonymous with prettier, in the patriarchal scale of valuation, it’s no wonder that brown hair boosted my ego.

What are the Stats on Dyeing?

Our society endorses a number of anti-ageing practices and products, all of which are fully backed by the beauty industrial complex. Wood (2019) estimates that 60% of Americans have gray hair by age 60. Imagine the beauty industry drooling over such a large market segment—all those people in need of rejuvenation products and services! Especially those poor, past-their-prime womenfolk.

The fact that there are double standards for beauty should come as no surprise. While men who are “salt and pepper” are considered mature, stable, and handsome, women are considered to have let themselves go.

Maniace of Men’s Journal advises a 26-year-old man not to dye his graying hair: “Graying is part of aging—it’s distinguished, it’s sexually attractive, and people dig it. If you color it, it’s like a neon sign saying, ‘I’m covering up what’s happening to me as a man.’” If only this same advice were given to women. 

Data show that men accept going gray at a far greater rate than do women. A survey of Americans indicates that approximately 11% of men dye their hair compared to 85% of women, according to Goldstein’s (2019) article. And these are repeat customers, to the delight of the beauty empire. Approximately 85% of women color their hair at minimum once every two months (Wood, 2019).

In the European Union, ECHA estimates that about 60% of women versus 10% of men dye their hair. I couldn’t find statistics for Asia, Latin America, or other places. I can only assume that the numbers are similar. Although dyeing one’s hair as a woman is in some ways probably a culturally specific phenomenon, it’s also clearly governed by a universal, unwritten code to look young. The stats might vary somewhat from country to country, but we all know that egg-laden, nubile-looking women are held in high esteem the world over.

Let Go and Let Gray

When COVID-19 hit and all the beauty parlors closed, I decided to cut the cord. I was only really visible via video conferencing, so I didn’t fret over my image too much. I figured that when the pandemic was over (in what, a few months?!), I could decide what my longterm hair plan was.

My friends and family said my gray mane looked great. They said it was an elegant, silver gray. I wasn’t so sure about that—it looked pretty drab to me—but the encouragement helped me decide to let it linger. I was already dressed in my dowdy pajamas from the waist down, so who cared if my coiffure was a bit matronly too? I joined an online group devoted to inspiring people to embrace their gray hair. It was empowering to hear other people’s stories. I let go and let gray. Sort of.

In all honesty, I still haven’t fully embraced my gray. It’s pretty lonely here in the gray-haired-50-year-old-female camp. I know that it makes me look older than my same-aged peers. If everyone would stop dyeing their hair, that would help the world see what a woman in her 50s really looks like, but I don’t think my complaints and pleas have much traction. Luckily, there are plenty of celebrity females who have gone gray and are inspiring others to do the same.

Here are some famous gray-haired women: Glenn Close, Judi Dench, Jane Fonda, Whoopie Goldberg, Emmylou Harris, Salma Hayek, Diane Keaton, Jamie Lee Curtis, Andie MacDowell, Helen Mirren, Rita Moreno, Tia Mowry, Bonnie Raitt, and Meryl Streep.

All Aboard the Gray Train!

I know I haven’t completely marketed going gray as an easy act of empowerment with zero side effects or misgivings. But maybe I’ve convinced a few more revolutionaries to join me. Here’s the most important thing to know: You can’t, all by your lonesome, tackle the culture of patriarchy, which indirectly tells women that we are only desirable if we are young and fertile.

You must find your radiant silver-haired (or mousy-haired) people. Perhaps a friend of yours vows to never buy a box of hair dye again and you can be accountability partners. Or you can join a support groups to keep you on your path toward enlightenment and acceptance about going gray. Search up some bloggers or get on all the usual social media sites and you will find your silver-fox-embracing peeps.

Trust me, you’ll need a support system to keep you on your path. It’s very tempting to abort mission as you watch your two-toned hair rear its ugly head. Once your hats and headscarves stop doing their trick, you’ll find yourself desperately calling up your hairdresser in a sudden change of heart. You’ll go in for a trim and come out platinum blonde if you’re not resolute and tenacious.

What are you waiting for? All aboard the Gray Train! We’re on a journey to an exciting, exotic, mystery destination. What shall we call it? I have so many ideas!

Gray is Beautiful – Be Yourself! (GIBBY)

Zen and the Art of Going Gray (ZAGG)

Women Embracing Getting Older Naturally (WEGON)

Silver Haired Eco Lovers (SHEL)

Rage Against Ageism Altogether! (RAAA!)

Smashing the Patriarchy One Gray Hair at a Time (SPOGHAT)

Votes are open. Passenger reservations are accepted and tickets are free!

P.S. Mom, I hope you vote too. Sorry for being mean, and thank you for embracing your white hair and teaching me not to be afraid of aging! 😊

Citations

ECHA European Chemicals Agency. Good to Know About Hair Dyes. Chemicals in Our Life.  https://chemicalsinourlife.echa.europa.eu/en-US/good-to-know-about-hair-dyes

Goldstein, J. (2019). Why More DC Men are Dyeing Their Gray Hair. Washingtonian. https://www.washingtonian.com/2019/09/25/why-more-dc-men-are-dyeing-their-gray-hair/

Maniace, S. Here’s Why Guys Should Think Twice About Dyeing Their Gray Hair. Mens Journal. https://www.mensjournal.com/style/heres-why-guys-should-think-twice-dyeing-their-gray-hair/.

WebMD (2021). Facts About Gray Hair. Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on November 15, 2021. https://www.webmd.com/beauty/ss/slideshow-beauty-gray-hair-facts#:~:text=Your%20hair%20follicles%20have%20pigment,%2C%20silver%2C%20and%20eventually%20white.

Wood, H. (2019). 27 Hair Color Statistics, Facts & Industry Trends (That Will Blow Your Mind). Hollee Wood Hair. https://www.holleewoodhair.com/hair-color-statistics/

Alexandra Grant, artist and Keanu Reeves’s girlfriend (©2017 Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

                                        

Yours truly

Bad Humor: Why We Laugh When We Shouldn’t and Why it’s Okay (Sort of)

by Megan Taylor Stephens

Laughing at the Wrong Time

You know those times when you absolutely should not laugh? When the tone is somber, subdued, reverential? Think of being at a religious ceremony or the family meeting when you know you’re getting in trouble as a kid. Well, you really have no business snickering. It’s the farthest thing from normalcy, decency, and decorum. It’s sort of diabolical, even. The problem is, I do have an unfortunate history of bursting out in hysteria at just these moments.

When my sister and I were about 10 and 11 years old, we sat side-by-side in hard wooden pews in nice dark dresses and endured a long eulogy about our dear grandmother. We loved our grandma Emilita—Grammie or Gramacita, as we would call her. She was ornery and cantankerous. She was a cut-throat card player and Yahtzee fanatic who wasn’t about to lose to us little kids. She had a twinkle in her eye when she made snarky remarks, so we were pretty sure she wasn’t actually mad. We learned to appreciate her nuanced sense of humor rather than fear her scathing tongue.

Funeral attendees sat in silence and some were in tears. Every once in a while, my sister and I glanced at one another and shared a moment of sadness. Did I mention that we weren’t used to religious events or serious settings or sitting still for any length of time in girly dresses?

I think Gramacita’s spirit overtook us because at one point when my sister and I glanced at each other, we could see that the other one was trying to contain herself from turning that frown upside down into a smirk. It was just a subtle difference in facial expression, but when you and your sister are only 15 months apart in age, you just know. Soon we were both looking down at our laps and trembling. The adults next to us assumed we were crying. It didn’t take long for us to completely lose it and be forced to run out of that somber setting.

Why do We Laugh When We Shouldn’t?

Why does intense sadness or seriousness sometimes cross over into inappropriate bursts of laughter? I do think I have a strong absurdity gene. When things are preposterous or unexpected—whether in a comedic sense or in a heavy way—it’s like I get my emotional wires crossed. But it’s only around certain people, like sisters or close friends, that my nervous laughter comes out. I contain myself at work and around random strangers.

Psychologically speaking, my problem seems to be inappropriate affect or incongruous emotion. “Emotions, actions, or overall demeanor that seem out of place in a situation all fall under the general umbrella term inappropriate affect,” according to Cuncic (2020). However, I am choosing to reject this idea because it leads directly into discussions of brain injury or psychiatric disorders. Besides, I am not like this all the time. The conditions have to be just right for me to laugh like a hyena when I should be reaching for the Kleenex.

Nothing was Funny

My husband likes to tell the story of me completely losing my $hit during a very heavy movie scene in a theater while on a double date with him in college. The movie was “Gorillas in the Mist,” starring Sigourney Weaver. I loved anthropology and revered Dian Fossey and her tireless work on behalf of these endangered animals. I was fully into the movie and up in arms about the plight of these majestic creatures. Nothing. Was. Funny.

After many minutes of dreadful suspense, the camera suddenly zoomed in on the carnage that poachers left in the mountain gorilla troop. It was so silent in the theater that all you could hear were muffled sniffles. Tears were running down my face.

A woman in the audience broke the silence by standing up and yelling out, “Fu¢kers!” I immediately looked at my best friend and then collapsed to the floor, laughing hysterically. I don’t know why, but this hippie, intellectual woman in this liberal college town (who I was in all ways identical to) yelling at the screen flipped a switch and turned my deep horror into some sort of cathartic paroxysm. The idea that movie goers thought that I thought mountain gorilla poaching was a laughing matter just made it worse. I was in over my head. I was ushered out by my appropriately somber date while people gave me intense stink eye.

The Benefits of Laughter

Before you conclude that we should go back to the first explanation about me possibly having a serious mental health condition, I would like to consider a more favorable reason for my inappropriate outburst.

Ramachandran (2004) is a neuroscientist who posited the idea that nervous laughter is meant to reassure our fellow peeps that, even though the situation is tense, everything and everyone is going to be okay. He thinks that “laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes; don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm. Laughter is nature’s OK signal” (p. 22). He also believes that when we laugh during emotionally intense times, we are subconsciously trying to replace the painful or traumatic event with positive feelings.

I’m sure I was nervous to be on the date—I just wanted to be platonic at that time and knew he wanted us to be more than friends. And it was a terrible movie choice to inspire romantic feelings anyway, so I was probably grasping for a shred of positive energy. In retrospect, me having a bout of emotional dysregulation makes a little more sense. Plus, hasn’t everyone heard that laughter is the best medicine?

According to Cimons (2019), laughter is known to decrease cortisol, a stress hormone, and release endorphins, or happy hormones. It leads to relaxation and oxygenation, which is good for the heart and other organs. It improves the immune system and even lowers one’s chances of serious disease. Laughter is basically free medicine without side effects.

The sullen funeral goers and distraught theater audience may not have understood my uncontrollably mirth, but maybe in some little way it helped reduce everyone’s dangerous cortisol levels and overwrought limbic systems. Maybe just a tad?

Gramacita and Gorillas

In tense situations, I would generally recommend trying to pull oneself together, put on a long face, and act like an actual grown up. But if that’s impossible, I suggest rebranding your behavior as altruistic and even medicinal. Tell your friends and family all about the rationale and health benefits of laughing in the face of stress. And while you’re at it, send them an invoice for improving their physical and mental wellbeing at unexpected intervals, just when they needed a pick-me-up.

Gramacita would approve and join in on the racket. Gorillas? We don’t joke about them. They. Are. Always. Off. Limits.

Citations

Cimons, M. (2019, June 15). Laughter really is the best medicine? In many ways, that’s no joke. The Washington Post.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/laughter-really-is-the-best-medicine-in-many-ways-thats-no-joke/2019/06/14/9f159208-8955-11e9-98c1-e945ae5db8fb_story.html

Cuncic, A. (2020, April 9). Understanding Inappropriate Affect. Very Well Mind.

https://www.verywellmind.com/understanding-inappropriate-affect-4767992#:~:text=and%20related%20issues.-,Overview,umbrella%20term%20%22inappropriate%20affect.%22

Ramachandran, V. S. (2004). A brief tour of human consciousness: From impostor poodles to purple numbers. Pi Press, an imprint of Pearson Technology Group.

Laughing and trying not to laugh from 1980 until now

The Scoop on Valentine’s Day and White Day in Japan

by Megan Taylor Stephens

My First Taste of Japanese Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day in Japan is not the same as Valentine’s Day in the Western hemisphere. I learned this the hard way. It was 1987 and I was an international exchange student at a Japanese public high school for my junior year.

I was dressed in my sailor style school uniform with a pleated navy skirt, white shirt, and matching navy colored jacket. I was tall and awkward and temporarily frozen. My friend nudged me toward a boy who we’ll call Takuya. I was holding a small box of fancy chocolates behind my back.

I dreaded giving Takuya the gift, but my friends had told me that I needed to make the first move. The custom was for the girl to give the boy a Valentine’s gift, and if he liked her back, he would give her something one month later on White Day. I seriously regretted telling my friends that I had a crush on him.

My friends had to explain to me several times what this Valentine’s Day and White Day tradition was all about. I was skeptical. I had never heard of such a thing and wondered if they were pranking me. But I reasoned that it was only fair to occasionally make the girl be forced to feel the same anxiety that boys typically feel about asking someone out on a date or making the first move. I definitely felt the anxiety, or rather, sheer terror.

I held out my hands and shoved the box toward him, saying the phrase I had practiced: Tsumaranai mono desu kedo, dozo (“It’s nothing much, but here you go”). Takuya’s face flushed and everyone around us tittered. I could tell he was surprised but I couldn’t interpret any other emotions. I darted off as soon as I could.

Chocolate Choices and Choice Words

When it comes to chocolates, not all are on equal footing in Japan. There are connotations with the type of chocolates you dole out. Here are four kinds of “choco” you may encounter:

· Giri choco are run-of-the-mill, obligatory chocolates that one gives to platonic friends and coworkers.

· Honmei choco are sincere, high quality chocolates that are given to one’s true love.

· Tomo choco are friend chocolates. Women buy these for each other as a sign of comraderie.

· Jibun choco are ones you buy for yourself as a little token of self-care.

On White Day, presents such as white chocolate, cookies, jewelry, or flowers are also common.

Should you intend to give someone honmei choco, consider using one of these handy dandy phrases. You’ve already embarrassed yourself beyond belief. You might as well top it off with an ill-pronounced or poorly scrawled message!

Anata ga suki desu あなたが好きです = I like you.

Anata ga daisuki desu あなたが大好き です = I like you a lot.

Ai shiteru 愛してる = I love you.

Tsukiatte kudasai 付き合ってください = Please go out with me.

The White Day Finale

It was an agonizing 30-day countdown to White Day, March 14, 1987. This was the day when I would find out if my crush would return my affection and give me a gift or if my overture would be ignored and my love would be spurned. It was going to be the talk of the school either way.

Takuya approached me, egged on by his friends, and had an agonized look on his face. He thrust out his hands, said Okaeshi ni, and scurried away. Oh no. He was basically saying not that he liked me, but that he was returning a debt. That didn’t sound promising.

Well, it wasn’t promising. The chocolates were unremarkable — decidedly giri choco and not honmei choco. He was teased by his guy friends and I had to lick my wounds the rest of the year. Thank goodness the new school year started in April so they could become seniors and I could have a fresh start by joining a new junior class. No more crushes for me. I was going to lie low. Only tomo choco or jibun choco from here on out!

***

Good luck to you. May the cupid gods forever be in your favor.

Break out the Tomo Choco!

Tips for Learning Japanese

by Megan Taylor Stephens

How my Journey with Japanese Started

As I sat in the airplane ready to fly to Sapporo, Japan, I had a panic attack. It dawned on me that I knew no Japanese other than a few phrases. Konnichiwa (good afternoon), Sayonara (goodbye), and Hajimemashite (nice to meet you) would only get me so far as an exchange student about to live with a Japanese family and go to a public high school for my entire junior year. I furiously flipped through the little dictionary I had in my lap. This was pre-Google Translate. Pre-smart phones. Pre-most-things, actually. The year was 1986.

What is the Japanese Language Like?

Don’t worry, Japanese has a straight-forward phonology, or sound system. There are only 46 syllable forms to learn, and they’re “phonetic,” meaning how it is written in Roman letters is pretty much how you pronounce it. These syllables are the basic building blocks for all the words you’ll learn. For example: a, ka, sa, ta, na, o, ko, so, to, no. Put any two syllables together, and you probably have said a word (e.g., kasa = umbrella; asa = morning; ato = after). It’s uncommon for Japanese words to end in a consonant. That’s why you’ll hear Japanese people adding a vowel sound to English words, such as raisu for “rice.”

Basic Japanese grammar is pretty simple too. English follows the Subject-Verb-Object word order (e.g., “I like sushi”), while Japanese follows the Subject-Object-Verb word order (e.g., “I sushi like”). It’s a bit more complicated than that, since there are various grammatical markers (particles) to add. “I like sushi” is Watashi wa sushi ga suki desu. It breaks down into: Watashi (subject) + wa (subject/topic particle) + sushi (object) + ga (object particle) + suki desu (verb).

Writing is more complicated. There are two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, which are like alphabets but for syllables rather than letters. The four syllables in the word “hiragana” look like this: ひらがな hi-ra-ga-na. Katakana is similar, but used for borrowed words, concepts, and names, such as the English word “box”: ボックス bo-ku-su. The third and final type of writing is called kanji.

Kanji are based on Chinese characters. Kanji are considered “ideographs” because they are symbols that represent ideas. For example, 木 means “tree.” Doesn’t it look like a tree with branches? 森 means “woods.” See the idea? Sadly, only the elementary school level kanji really look like something recognizable. But don’t get discouraged! Just learn a few a week and you’ll be able to get by eventually. You need to know a few thousand kanji to read the newspaper, a goal I never attained without a dictionary.

Different Ways to Learn Japanese

The best way to learn Japanese is to live in Japan. There are programs for older students to study in Japan for a few weeks, a few months, and even a few years. There are lots of jobs one could get in Japan as well, especially English teaching or tutoring. If moving to Japan is not feasible for you, the next best thing is to find a person to teach you who has high proficiency in the language.

Interacting with real humans in the real world is the surest way to improve proficiency in any language. There are language organizations where you can learn from a professional Japanese teacher. Or you can find a private Japanese tutor to teach you. Make sure to find an experienced teacher, even if the price is higher, because knowing a language from birth does not always translate into knowing how to teach effectively. If money is an issue, you can participate in a language exchange where, at no cost, you teach English in exchange for being taught Japanese.

For those of you who are solo flyers or lone wolf language learners, there are many reputable online programs and self-paced apps that offer Japanese learning opportunities as well. Just make sure the program is based on research and the science of language learning. Speaking of lone wolves, it is shocking how many people have been able to teach themselves Japanese on their own! I know teenagers who, through many hours of watching anime, have amassed an impressive accent and vocabulary. I know adults who were disciplined enough to learn the language just through YouTube, gaming, subtitles, and other forms of self-study. These people are truly dedicated, and also unusually self-disciplined.

Top Six Tips for Learning Japanese

Flash back to Sapporo, Japan in 1986. I spent a few months in the Silent Period. This is where someone doesn’t speak, but instead listens intently and absorbs as much as they can. It’s kind of what babies do, or anxious people who are afraid to make a million mistakes (me!). After a few months of my self-imposed silent treatment, I decided it was better to make a fool of myself and just start talking poorly one word at a time. Lo and behold, it worked! My host family siblings were very patient (and amused) as they corrected my speech and taught me 1st grade kanji. By the time I flew home in 1987, I was fluent in conversational Japanese, and after college, had a stint as a Japanese interpreter and translator.

In conclusion, my top six tips for learning Japanese are:

  1. If you can, go to Japan.
  2. When possible, learn from a real person.
  3. Do research before you begin a language program.
  4. Learn what you can for free: anime, TV, movies, YouTube, etc.
  5. Learn a phrase, word, or character every day. It adds up.
  6. Just try. Make a fool of yourself. The effort will pay off.

Ganbatte kudasai! (Good luck!)

My Pets’ Language Skills: A Speech-Language Pathologist’s Observation

by Megan Taylor Stephens

Jan. 7, 2022

Apparently, I have too much time on my hands, because I have been pondering my dog and cat’s ability to communicate. The following are my perhaps not-so-earth-shattering observations.

My cat has better expressive language. He has a certain meow to say “I’m hungry” and another one to say “It’s freezing, let me in.” He purrs when he’s content. Or he may just be self-soothing, because he often purrs just to purr. He swipes at me or bites me to say, “Don’t touch me there, Lady!” He has limited nonverbal communication. He does, however, stand next to the door and stare at it creepily to ask to be let out. He also rubs against me persistently with his tail up as if to say, “Feed me! I’m dying! And why haven’t you fed me in eons?!”

My dog has better social pragmatic and receptive language. She understands lots of commands and responds well to my tone of voice. She knows when my prosody and pitch indicate that she’s been a good girl or a naughty rascal. She understands and uses a wide array of nonverbal language, such as my gestures for “Shake, Roll over, Go away.” She makes consistent bids for interaction, such as bringing me a squeaky toy to throw. She has excellent reciprocity. After I give her scratches, she gives me licks. After I do a wrestling move on her, she does one on me. She rarely speaks except to say, “Let’s play!” or “State your name and purpose, Stranger.”

I should say that neither my cat nor my dog has superb pragmatic skills. One is quite self-centered and doesn’t really seem to give a rat’s rump about anyone but himself. The other doesn’t take hints that not all humans are dog people and they don’t unanimously appreciate slobbery licks. It could be worthwhile for me to do a developmental history interview to see what their birth parents have to say, if there’s any pattern of delays in littermates, and what their early childhood was like before I became their mom.

Who says the pandemic is totally nonproductive? This speech-language pathologist with too much down time has managed to do a quick language observation on her subjects. Now I will undertake some response-to-intervention before determining whether or not to move to a formal evaluation. I’m thinking of trialing some AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) devices such as those programmable buttons to help my pets communicate. Then again, that would require way more free time than even I have. The pandemic had better wrap up before I stumble upon other inconsequential distractions!

Imagine a Butterfly: How to Parent a Kid with ADHD

by Megan Taylor Stephens, M.A., M.S., CCC-SLP

Jan. 2, 2022

We learn in the struggle. If you deny the child the struggle, you deny them their growth, which is its own reward. –Lara Cannon

SOS for ADHD

Send in the experts! Our teenager has ADHD, and it’s high time we get some proper professional help. Here’s the essential conundrum: My husband and I are often at an impasse about how to manage our kid’s behavior.

We often find ourselves entrenched in the opposing stances of prosecutor versus defense attorney when it comes to our son’s transgressions. We make our case for how egregious or petty we think the crime was. We make judgments on his frame of mind at the time of the misdemeanor. We decide how intentional or premeditated the action appeared to be. We sometimes even refer to historical precedents or bring in key eyewitnesses, like the little sister or the dog. I wrote a whole guest blog on this topic for ADDitude magazine called “Crime and Punishment and ADHD: When Parents Disagree on Discipline.”

Well, I finally found someone to give us sage advice. I reached out to Lara Cannon, a licensed professional counselor and ADHD specialist, with this question: How can families cope with divergent attitudes, especially when it comes to behavior and discipline, with their kids with ADHD?

Cannon’s take home message is that the more you can model awareness, flexibility, and problem-solving skills, the better you can activate the child’s desire to want what you want and the more likely you are to avoid conflict. Let’s break that down into specifics.

Here are Cannon’s five pro tips and my own interpretations in italics:

1. Educate Thyself

Parents should learn more about ADHD. When a child has a diagnosis of ADHD, it is important for caregivers to be on the same page about what it means and what it does not mean. In essence, ADHD is an effort regulation problem. Relying on the child’s internal regulation system (i.e., braking system or decision-making ability) when effort, focused attention, or self-control is required is a set up for failure.

Medication can be helpful, but it is not enough. Mindfulness and emotional regulation are skills that can be taught. Learning about how the ADHD brain works is also helpful. The role of the prefrontal cortex, limbic system, norepinephrine, and dopamine are a few of the buzzwords that caregivers should be knowledgeable about.

What I am taking from this is that our son is perfectly capable of attending to things he is interested in because it is effortless for him. Photography and videogames come to mind. However, he lacks attentional regulation and self-control when it comes to effortful things like household responsibilities. This is not a willful, intentional oversight. The idea of chores doesn’t light up circuits in his prefrontal cortex, arouse his limbic system, or reward him with buckets of norepinephrine and dopamine. All these things feed off of each other to perpetuate his neglect of responsibilities. Got it.

2. Reduce Friction

Parents should avoid power struggles. Pick your battles. Kids want autonomy, but kids with ADHD get ten times more corrections than neurotypicals. Reduce the number of commands. Let the small things go. It’s okay if your daughter didn’t manage to brush her teeth before school. Power struggles occur when caregivers and children have differing interests, which lead to a motivation mismatch.

Find out what motivates your child because these are high interest areas. Pay attention to what they naturally move toward, and power struggles will diminish. For example, if your child wants your attention (high interest), give it to them while you are doing yard work together (low interest). Or if they love dinosaurs (high interest), use them as a launching point for learning about other subjects like writing or math (low interest). If your teen wants to drive the car (high interest) then pair it with the responsibility of cleaning it and filling it with gas (low interest). Make sure the low interest responsibility is accomplished first, because once they have what they want, the motivation is gone.

So, basically, we need to dangle the car keys or computer mouse in our son’s face and tell him that he’ll only get them once his chores, homework, and other obligations are finished. But we should also let the small things go. Like maybe we shouldn’t care if his room is a pigsty, even if his damp towels and food-encrusted dishes are a bacterial hazard that seem poised to give him a respiratory infection.

3. Imagine a Butterfly

Parents can model emotional regulation. It is not easy to raise a child with ADHD, but responding to challenges in anger rarely ends well. Conflict is fueled by emotion, and emotions are contagious. Anger increases escalation, while calmness creates an anchor and helps maintain control. When you are experiencing anger, imagine that a butterfly has landed on your shoulder and you want it to stay. What do you need to do to keep it there? Be still, don’t make sudden movements, lower your voice volume, talk less, and observe what is happening around you.

Kids learn by example. When the child’s caregivers model mindfulness and emotional regulation, they are giving their child tools to regulate and modulate their own emotional responses in difficult situations. Learning mindfulness skills is an important key to a child’s success. 

I tend to be calmer than my husband when it comes to our son’s little lapses of judgment and small peccadillos. But when I do get angry, I’m known to climb up on a lectern and not descend until I have run out of oxygen and so has the entire room. All the butterflies have flown away to quieter pastures. I think I might singlehandedly start them on their biannual migration. There is clearly lots of room for improvement for me if I hope to be a Butterfly Whisperer.

4. Support Them Where They’re at

Parents can help their children form habits. Children with ADHD often have mind blindness. They are probably not paying attention to things that are boring or mundane. They may not even be aware of what they are doing until seconds after they have done it. That is because their powerful emotional and instinctual brain is way ahead of their slow-moving prefrontal cortex. Parents can support their child in creating effortless habits through “point of performance support.” This means that life skills are coached in baby steps with extra support in the beginning.

For example, the parent can hang out with their young child while she cleans her room. Someone could greet the teenager at the car with a trash can and tell him cheerfully that it’s time to tidy up. Maybe the kid has decided that it would be helpful to have a small bright trashcan in the car. Whenever possible, make the hard task easier to accomplish. Also, create systems for compliance and buy-in on more important things. Visual reminders and predictable schedules are another form of support that, over time, can instill habits in kids.

As a special educator, I am used to tailoring the level of support to my students that they require. I just forget that even kids who are perfectly capable of doing something—like my son removing trash from the car—may need a bit of guidance getting it done. Even if it just means that I’m waiting on the porch while he does it. I think my husband would say it’s preposterous to baby our teenager, but this Point of Performance Support may only need to happen for a short while before it becomes a habit that our son accomplishes independently. I’m really not sure when to expect independence, but as long as he’s semi-autonomous before he runs off into the sunset (or the basement bedroom), I’ll consider my job done.

5. Be a Guide

Parents should adopt a coaching mentality. A good coach has empathy, is understanding, and is a collaborative problem solver. They are not opponents or authoritarians. We’ve all had coaches who yelled, shamed, and punished, and we’ve also had coaches who nurtured, encouraged, and mentored. We know which ones we preferred.

Coaches are also not rescuers, they are guides. So don’t swoop in with a fabulous solution. You are stealing your child’s opportunity to learn that they can solve problems. Let your children have the fun and reward of discovering what works for them. Don’t do it for them, teach them how to do it. Repeat often. Teaching good habits is the key to success with ADHD. As much as possible, parents, help your child invent and create solutions on their own.

It’s hard to use an encouraging tone of voice when it’s the five thousandth time we’ve asked our kid to take his dirty dishes to the kitchen or pick his wet towels off the floor. I’ve found that saying “LBY” in a peppy voice has helped me feel like more of a coach and less of an angry nagger. LBY is our code for Look Behind You, because each and every time he moves from one room to another, there is guaranteed to be flotsam and jetsam left behind that needs tending to. Now the trick is to let our son come up with his own strategies to manage his ADHD. He’s about to be a full-fledged adult, and pretty soon his parents won’t be there to constantly coax, remind, coerce, nag, reward, or discipline him. Or, if he lives in the basement for decades, at least our voices will be significantly muted when we coax, remind, coerce, nag, reward, or discipline him.

In Conclusion, Have a Growth Mindset

I suppose Cannon didn’t directly help me and my husband on the issue of merging our divergent viewpoints. She didn’t give advice on how to dole out consequences to our child for his peccadillos. She didn’t really bolster my arguments as lead defense attorney. Instead, she gave us preventative tips to reduce conflict in the first place. This makes a lot of sense, I suppose.

Our judicial system, like our homes, focus too much on crime and punishment. Which side is guilty? Which side is victorious? What are the consequences? But if we would just create a better environment in the first place—one that focuses on nurturing, awareness, mindfulness, problem-solving, teamwork and success—our society would have a lot less parental bickering and a lot fewer court cases. The case of Stephens v. Stephens would be settled long before it comes before a judge.

But it’s not about the fictional attorneys or which parent won. It’s about the kids who we are trying to raise up into functioning adults. This endeavor is no easy feat. Our children have to learn by trial and error, and the trials and errors are extra when ADHD is in the mix. Fortunately, according to Cannon, “We learn in the struggle. If you deny the child the struggle, you deny them their growth, which is its own reward.”

Forget crime or punishment. Let’s focus on growth, for the parents in particular. I’ve got a pet butterfly that I am determined to keep perched my shoulder.

Lara Cannon, M.A., LPC is a child and family therapist and owner of ADHD Child and Family Services in Tigard, Oregon. She can be reached at: info@adhdchildandfamily.com

Photo by Boris Smokrovic

My Experiment to be Mindful and Live in the Present for One Day

by Megan Taylor Stephens

Is there gas in the tank? Is there money in the bank? What should I make for dinner? Is this lottery ticket a winner?

Living in the Future

“I can’t wait until Vancouver, B.C.!” I proclaimed in my childhood diary. “Only 52 more days til Europe!” I shouted. I grew up with a single mom teacher who loved to travel and show us the world during school holidays. We didn’t have a nice car or fancy things, but we had exciting vacations. In a way, I think this backfired.

Looking ahead to the starred day on a calendar truly got me through lots of tedium at school and in life—boredom with classes, low level friend drama, breakups with boyfriends. Small things didn’t matter because pretty soon we were off to escape the confines of this uneventful town. I looked expectantly toward summer vacation like I did the final countdown on my student loan payoff date or the birth of my very past due and excessively large firstborn child.

As an adult, I can see that I am firmly future-focused. And I’m starting to wonder if too much foresight is bad for the psyche.

Identifying the Problem

The other day, I checked off a day in my calendar at work, which happens to be at a school—the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It goes without saying that I am very much looking forward to summer vacation, even though it’s only December. As I marked off another day in the calendar and scanned to see how many were left, I felt a pang of guilt. Why am I so impatient to get through 24 hours and move on to the next day? What am I trying to get one day closer to? If I’m honest, why do I often wake up hoping for time to speed up and the day to be over? This does not seem like a good way to live.

Apart from general pandemic malaise and the wear and tear of parenting teenagers, I think two major issues interfere with my ability to live in the present. First of all, travel is in my DNA and without a trip in the future, my life has felt aimless. I’m fully aware that this a super snobbish, entitled problem. Poor Megan grew up seeing the world, and she suffers so without a trip planned for the future. My point is that it’s somewhat detrimental. This “I can’t wait for the trip around the corner” mentality is now just my way of getting through life. Ticking the days off the calendar feels like getting one step closer to a glimmering pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. You never know if you’ve made it to your destination, because: Oh my gosh! There’s another rainbow over there!

My second problem is that I am not very Zen. I’m more mindless than mindful, more Tigger than Pooh. Try as I might to be Type B, my Type A, mildly ADHD reptilian brain is having not of it. The most mindful I usually get is something like, “Look, a squirrel!” It’s kind of like smelling the roses, right? Kinda sorta? Anyhow, my hypothesis is that those are my two biggest challenges. And because I have no trips definitely happening in the future (I blame COVID), that leaves me with exploring how to be more mindful and in the moment.

The Research on Being Present

We can’t avoid the need for some amount of future thinking. Our success as Homo sapiens relative to Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis probably comes largely from being able to plan ahead. Coolidge and Wynn (2001) postulate that executive functioning skills such as planning were a central factor in Homo sapiens’ superior cognitive development and success. As far back as 150,000 years ago, our well-developed prefrontal cortex started letting us build animal traps, paint hunting diagrams on cave walls, and migrate around the world. All activities based on “prospective thinking”!

That said, all of us have heard about the benefits of rooting ourselves in the present by incorporating mindfulness and stillness into our lives. Studies show that mindfulness boosts our immune system, improves sleep and concentration, increases compassion, and decreases stress and depression, to name only some perks mentioned in “Five Ways Mindfulness Meditation is Good for Your Health” (Suttie, 2018). Sitting quietly while we feel the inhale and exhale deep in our core. Naming three things we’re grateful for every day. Noticing five things around us that go with each of our senses. I feel less Tiggerish just writing about these.

The opposite of mindfulness, mind wandering, is correlated with less happiness. After developing an app called Track Your Happiness, Matt Killingsworth wrote a paper in 2010 with Daniel Gilbert entitled “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.” The title gives away the conclusion: that mind wandering makes people less content than those focused on the present. Moreover, the researchers discovered that people think about what is not happening as much as they do what is happening. (I may have found my people!)

My Experiment

Like a good researcher, I decided to study how bad my “prospective thinking” or “mind wandering” problem really is. For 12 hours, I journaled about my effort to remain in the present and to try not to have thoughts of the future. How hard can it be for me to notice and smell the roses? My goal was to not let my mind or actions wander into more than one hour ahead of my present time and space. Well, here’s how it rolled out from 6:30am to 6:30pm (condensed version):

6:30am. The alarm goes off. It makes my heart rate lurch and my eyes shoot open. I am certainly living in the present now with my life-affirming cardiac palpitations.

7:00am. I thought about what to bring for lunch and banished it from my brain. I’m sure there’s some stale snack in my office drawer. Or I could eat an overpriced lunch in the cafeteria. Stop thinking about future food. Remind your primitive brainstem that you have ample fat reserves to protect you from starvation.

7:30am. I rode my bike to work while playing groovy 80s music on my speaker. “Don’t stand so, don’t stand so close to me,” sang The Police. Kind of creepy and pervy when you really listen to the lyrics. Hall and Oates interrupted my thoughts with: “I can’t go for that. No, no can do.” Seems like a good statement for teachers who are pushed to the limit. Then Fleetwood Mac crooned, “Saaaara, you’re the poet in my heart. Never change. Never stop.” Who was this paragon of a woman?

The songs kept coming. While listening and sometimes singing along, I noticed the intricate blades of dewy grass that sparkled in the morning light. I inhaled the fresh morning breeze and savored it deep in my lungs. The music brought a smile to my pedal.

8:15am. I scan through my schedule to see who I will work with today. Oops, don’t scan ahead. Just find the students as you wish to work with them. It will somehow work out. I catch up on emails and get some lessons ready instead.

9:00am. I grab two students from their self-contained class and we work on social and communication skills. We practice staying one arm’s length apart while we walk to my office. We role play how it feels to be too close and why it’s not appropriate for the time and place. We then do a language game where they answer WH-questions. They enjoy rolling the dice, picking out the shapes and numbers on the cards, and trying to answer the questions. My brain is in the present with these two boys.

9:30-11:00. More lessons with other students: a Wheel of Fortune style game and a 45-minute class lesson on verbal self-advocacy. The students are doing great. High interest and good participation. My students with autism are loads of fun. Being a speech-language pathologist is loads of fun.

11:45am. Lunchtime. I skipped food in lieu of doing some paperwork for an IEP meeting tomorrow. Is this a forbidden future action, or is it just me doing my job in the present, much of which involves prepping for meetings? I daydreamed about going on a trip to Hawaii, my old stomping ground. I could squeeze a week in with my daughter during winter break. She has been asking. She visited once as a baby but doesn’t remember it.

12:15pm-3:00pm. I worked with one student on her speech sounds and another on his speech fluency. Then more paperwork. Then some scattered thoughts. Who knows if the Omicron variant of COVID-19 will shut our lives down later. I imagine basking on the beach and can almost hear the whooshing waves.

3:00-3:30pm. I thought I could intermittent fast until dinner. Nope. I’m starving. I walked to a food cart and got a bite to eat. Burmese food is delicious. It packed some serious spice. The sun felt nice.

3:30-4:00pm. More paperwork, emails, bureaucratic frivolity. I thought of appointments I should schedule. When was my last pap smear? I think I should do teeth whitening. The dog really needs a nail clipping and that other gross thing I didn’t know about until I got a dog: expressing anal glands.

4:00-5:00pm. IEP meeting. The parent was intense. She had lots of concerns and complaints (not about me, but still…). I did a lot of querying, explaining, appeasing, defending, assuring. It was a relief when it was over.

5:15-5:45pm. Bike ride home. On goes the 80s playlist. Back on goes my smile. “Say you, say me,” sings Lionel Richie. “I had a dream, I had an awesome dream…”

5:45-6:30pm. The husband made pasta for dinner. We ate and talked with the daughter. The son was at work. We talked about whether or not the youngest and I should go on a trip to Hawaii. What activities would she want to do? Where would we stay? We happily imagine the sun, surf, snorkeling. The pasta didn’t disappoint. 

The Analysis

How able was I to stay in the present? It was pretty mixed. Riding my bike and listening to music was the pinnacle of my feeling in the moment. Working with students was a close second. Teaching requires focus, vigilance, adaptability, theatrics. There’s no time for zoning out. I also felt present while eating. No surprise. Food is delicious and food is life. Paperwork made me focus, but I didn’t feel much while doing it. Other times, I mind wandered uncontrollably.

It was a battle for me to stop drifting and fantasizing. But, to be fair, our society makes it very hard to live a satisfactory life based on the present tense alone. How do we balance mindfulness and appreciation for the present with our lifestyles that are manufactured to make us plan ahead? Is there gas in the tank? Is there money in the bank? What should I make for dinner? Is this lottery ticket a winner? How can we possibly live in the here and now and still have a decent life?

The Take Home Lesson

A reminder to myself and everyone else is that satisfaction and joy can only be felt in the present. Satisfaction is doing a good job at work. Satisfaction is checking off duties from checklists. But joy makes you feel alive. Joy is pedaling to work singing along to Journey. Joy is on a baby’s face when you coo at her. Joy is in a toddler’s gallop at the park. Joy is the dog chasing a stick and bringing it back all slobbery. Joy is not planning for or fretting and dreaming about the future. Planning is essentially joy deferred.

The next time you catch yourself counting down the days to an exciting event, a better life, a hypothetical point in time, remind yourself about the counterpoint. Fantasies are fun but rarely fulfilled. Optimism, positive expectations, and plans for achieving goals are all fine and well. But life is not lived later. It is lived right here, right now.

So enjoy thinking about the airplane trip you will take later, but balance it with the trip you are taking to the post office right now. Fantasize about how calm and clean the house will be when the teens leave, but laugh with them today. Shop for the lasagna you will make for dinner, but don’t you dare forget to savor each bite of the creamy, cheesy, garlicky goodness that hits your taste buds. And don’t forget the wine. In moderation, wine is joy too.

***

Post script: We ended up buying tickets to go to Hawaii! To justify this, I’m sure my next article will be all about carpe diem and the virtues of living spontaneously. Before the trip, I vow to live fully every day. I am here…experiencing now…and noticing this drizzly, gray landscape with ungodly chilly temperatures.

Sources

Coolidge, F. L., & Wynn, T. (2001). Executive functions of the frontal lobes and the evolutionary ascendancy of Homo sapiens. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 11, 255-260.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T., (2010). A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind. Science, 330, 932. https://wjh-www.harvard.edu/~dtg/KILLINGSWORTH%20&%20GILBERT%20(2010).pdf

Suttie, J. (2018, October 4). Five Ways Mindfulness Meditation is Good for Your Health. Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_ways_mindfulness_meditation_is_good_for_your_health