In my professional job at a Canadian University, I design and give seminars on a variety of topics that help students be successful at University. It’s one one my favourite parts of the job and it has some selfish benefits – I get to learn and experiment with these principles in my own life before I share with clients. I get to read books and research and then teach principles to others, that help me, too.
At this year’s class of 2020 induction the University brought in NYT best selling author, Psychologist & TED Talker extraordinaire Kelly McGonical speak to the class of 2020 on her new book, The Upside of Stress.
At its core, this amazing book is really about how to reframe stress and use the power of our own perspective and our own mindset, to reframe stress into a good thing. Chock-full of anecdotes and research, The Upside of Stress demonstrates the power of mind over body – and mind over life.
Those Books that Make a Difference
Often, the books that resonate with us the most, are the books that simply frame in English language, some kind of principle we’ve understood or known all along, but couldn’t fully frame. I think that’s why the book did so well. The Upside of Stress hit home in so many ways. I only wish I had read it when I was in undergraduate studies myself. It would have saved me so much self-imposed “I’m soooo busy!” drama.
I didn’t figure out my stress stuff until the age of 30, when I experienced really heavy stress.
In the spirit of this book, and the approach McGonigal takes on reframing stress, I wanted to talk about how we can re-interpret stress & the cult of “busy” in the journey of motherhood. We can’t change events or circumstances, but we can work on how we view, talk about and decide to interpret things.
Mom 1 to Mom 2: Hey…are you a member of the cult?
Mom 1: wtf?
Mom 2: The cult of busy of course! WE ARE SOOOO BUSY! (takes off chasing toddler)
Whenever I mention to people that I have two small children (toddler and 1.5 year old) the first thing they do is shake their heads and say “oh, that’s busy.” I often don’t even mention that I have children because I don’t want to induce such worry!
Sometimes I get “oh my god, you must be so busy” with a shake of the head, other times, slightly more worringly, it is with genuine concern / resignation. I catch myself thinking “oh?” and sort of start to doubt myself, like I should be more stressed than I am. Maybe I’m not working hard enough? Am I not doing something right as a parent? Because I feel actually ok? Am I being a horrible parent because I’m obviously taking time out of parenthood to work on some business goals and people don’t do that? Oh yes, they creep in. As much as I keep them out, they creep in when someone looks at me with an alarmed look on their face with the mention of two children under three.
The problem is, I kind of don’t want their perspective.
If bought into this whole “my life is so horribly busy and I work so hard and I am exhausted and omg” it would be a bit of a disaster. I would have immersed myself in the cult of busy. I’d probably be on a really high SSRI dosage. I’d be in counselling. I’d be struggling to deal with the left curve balls that sometimes get thrown my way.
It’s a devious cult, this cult of “busy” and it is hard to emerge from because it takes over the way you see things. It’s a mindset.
If my mindset is like this: MY LIFE IS MAXED OUT, I AM SO BUSY AS A MOM HOLY SHIT, I definitely would not be giving myself the mental space for anything else to happen, ever. Because I’d be red-lining on everything, all the time. I wouldn’t have done any of the things I’d done on mat leave, or started any businesses or projects.
It led me to wonder, how come everybody says “you must be so busy.”
Why? There’s tons of influences. In coaching we call it societal discourse. It’s the hum of conversation around a topic that seems to be widespread.
First, it might be a cultural thing. There’s a sort of pride, achievement in saying how busy you are. If you are busy you must be super productive and successful. I must be super productive and successful. Therefore I must be busy. That’s the underlying assumption that occurs out there in the world when you have a lot on the go. The ego likes that. Then it doubles down when you are a Mom, because we have this weird guilt thing where we feel like we have to justify our very existence with double the hard work, right?
Some people are genuinely maxed out with life, and that’s totally cool. I’m not judging. But I write this post to help others who want to “catch” themselves in the mindset and take the edge off of it, because I think a lot of opportunity opens up with just a shift in mindset.
Where else does this whole busy mom thing come from?
There’s movies about the harried, flustered Mum. Commercials that want you to think you are busy because then you’ll need their product. Capitalist society wants you to be busy and stressed, because then they have solutions for you for only $10.99.
Moms are always portrayed as stressed and frazzled, aren’t they? Everywhere we go, everything we see. And it’s kind of our fault. We don’t look up from our phones to pay attention to a mom calmly playing with their kids in the park – we only notice the exceptions. They’re more interesting. The 5 minutes in the day where the kid has gone bat shit crazy, and is about to take down a shelf at the grocery aisle, with Mum valiantly trying to save the kid from himself. But we don’t notice the quiet moments – not the other 1440 minutes where they are doing well and things are calm.
The exceptions become the norm, then media and society immerses us in that norm.
Because of reading books like McGonical’s – books from different people with different mindsets, who all experience the same things we do yet see them in a different way – I discovered that there is more to it. There are people out there who achieve amazing things as parents, and they think differently.
The key is if we want to be something, or do something, we need to study those who are successful at it, and look at their mindsets.
We are not resigned to this fate of busy, harried, stressed out moms. We can be busy, yes but we can be in control and cooly, calmly and pleasantly say no if we need to, or yes if it’s a priority. We can choose yes or no and make our lives as busy, or quiet, as we want to.
The luxury of choice also extends to our own minds. We have the luxury of making a choice of whether to believe we are busy or not. With two under three, I decided that I was not busy; I still had time. And with that time, I could pursue goals and dreams and projects and priorities.
Sure, free time was compressed from 3 hours (luxurious evenings pre-children) to 1 hour (while children or napping, or while I am on lunch break at work.) but I still had an hour free time each day in some form or another. Free time is free time. I sat down and looked at my week, and where the gaps of free time happened (6-7am, lunchtime at work, and 8-9:30pm) and decided what my most deeply held goals and values / priorities were. A crystal clear priority plan I still have on my iPhone notes when I need to remind myself what I want to say “YES” to, and as a source of strength when I have to say “NO” to things.
In this or that hour of free time, there went the goals and projects. Writing a childrens’ book. Running an Etsy store. Reading and learning. Finishing my coach training and launching a coaching business. But they weren’t OMG JUST MORE SHIT TO DO.
These were all consciously chosen and pursued dreams and goals that I looked at as my idea of fun on free time. I wanted to do these. That’s just me. That’s what I define as enjoyable and rewarding. Others may be Netflix or catching up on laundry, that’s okay too! But do you tell yourself “AAAAGH!” or “COOL, IT WILL BE NICE TO SWITCH IT UP AND DO THIS INSTEAD.”
Is your approach an “ I HAVE TO” approach or a “I WANT TO” approach?
I don’t mean to be a jerk but I do mean to give a cold hard dose of reality with this post – if you came back and said to me NO SERIOUSLY I HAVE NO FREE TIME I would debate that. I would want to see a week’s breakdown of your life, and I would ask you about your mindset. I would ask you about what you said yes to, what you said no to. I’d ask you to put “yes and no” in the box according to what you said when that opportunity came up.
What qualifies in your life as free time? What activities are you designating as “I have to” and as “I want to.”
Let’s take this external event, I’ll show you an “I have to” and “I want to” mindset.
Deciding to take the kids to the library. Two different experiences.
Mum 1: Agh I have to get them out of the house and this is my to do today. It’s just one more thing on this massive list of things I am supposed to get done today. Work work work! Busy busy busy! I have to get this done!
Mum 2: Ah awesome, with this hour I’m going to decide to take the kiddos over to the library, that’s a treat for us, a fun excursion and a break from the day’s routines. I want to do this !
SAME external life event for both moms. Two TOTALLY different ways of perceiving it. No wonder when you come across people in the library everyone is in a totally different state of mind; look at how different their beliefs can be.
Mum 1 is living in the “holy shit I’m so busy / stressed” narrative. Mum 1 feels that everything is outside of her external control and she’s just dragging herself along. Mum 2 is living in a more in-control narrative that doesn’t see everything as obligations and duties. Mum 2 is operating by choice. They may both have busy lives and the same schedules, but they have different mindsets and ways of perceiving the situation.
What do you think Mum 1 and Mum 2’s lifestyles look like? Do their thoughts serve them well? Do their mindsets move them closer to goals they have?
When you wake up in the morning and you have a particularly big day of activities coming up – whether you work or stay at home, do you feel that anxious energy and think “I JUST WANT TO STAY IN BED OMG LIFE IS SO OVERWHELMING AND THIS IS JUST CRAZY” Or do you feel that anxious energy and think “cool, this is a little tingle of excitement and anticipation getting me ready to execute a big day!”
The brain quite literally changes its wiring and neural pathways to accommodate your thinking patterns. Each time you choose to think a certain way, you are either reinforcing the pathways present – or helping the brain to reshape itself and habitually think a different way.
If you start reading books by all of these cool women who have kids and have achieved awesome things, youll notice that most them tend to go through the exact same scenarios that we moms do – but they frame it differently. They make the choice to think things, and form their brains in ways that will help them toward their goals. You as a mama know how quickly time passes, so think about what you want to achieve. Whether you use it or not, time will pass. You already know this better than anyone, as you sit with your baby and think “where did the time go?!”
If you want to join the cult of busy and the stress narrative, that’s your choice but ask if it serves you and gets you towards your goals. There’s an alternative that will help you take on new things and grow. You just have to choose it.
Extra reading *and viewing
Amazon link: https://www.amazon.ca/Upside-Stress-Why-Good-You/dp/1583335617
McGonical’s online course through Stanford University http://online.stanford.edu/course/upside-stress
Kelly’s personal website http://kellymcgonigal.com/