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Strategies For Women Balancing Family And Career

A Pew Research Center study released last month found the share of two-parent households in America in which mothers stay at home has dropped to just over one in four, down from nearly half in 1970.

Families with two working parents are better off economically, but trying to juggle life and work is stressful – especially for mothers, who surveys show still bear the burden of child care.

Beth Cabrera, author of “Beyond Happy: Women, Work, and Well-Being,” offers some guidance on how to balance work and family life.

Book Excerpt: ‘Beyond Happy’

By Beth Cabrera

I was at the base of the Durango Mountain Ski Resort in Colorado on December 31, 2009 when I got the call. It was my husband, who told me that our son, Alex, had fallen while snowboarding. He asked me to meet them at the Urgent Care Center. An X-ray revealed that Alex had broken his upper arm. Back in Phoenix the doctor put a heavy cast on with the hopes that it would pull the bones back into place.

A week later Alex had a follow-up doctor’s appointment. Another X-ray showed the cast wasn’t realigning the bones, so Alex was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital for surgery. My husband was in New York on a business trip, so I sat alone in the waiting room for what they told me would be a one-hour procedure after which Alex could go home.

The book I happened to have with me was Mark Thornton’s Meditation in a New York Minute: Super Calm for the Super Busy. I had recently been reading about the benefits of mindfulness meditation and was curious to learn more. My natural tendency in the situation I was in would have been to be beside myself with worry. I would have been thinking non-stop about all of the things that could go wrong. But I didn’t. As I read the book, I tried out some of the exercises. I breathed deeply. I repeated calming words. I stayed in the moment, trying not to let my mind wander to what-ifs. I focused on connecting with the “ocean of calm” that I learned is within us all.

When a nurse came to tell me the surgery was more complicated than the doctor had anticipated, I took several more deep breaths and continued reading about strategies for staying calm. Three hours later, Alex was out of surgery. We spent the night in the hospital, where I finished the book. Alex was on the mend, and I had discovered a new way of being. My experience had given me an immediate appreciation for the impact that mindfulness could have on my life. I decided that I would make every effort from that day forward to live more mindfully.

The aim of mindfulness is to be completely focused on what you are doing, not thinking about the past or the future or other distractions. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leaders of the mindfulness movement, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Learning to pay attention moment to moment without judging increases positive emotions.

Many of our negative emotions come from ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Focusing on the present moment can help you to keep these negative thoughts at bay. What is happening right now is most likely neutral or mildly pleasant. If you start to think about things that didn’t work out well in your past, you might generate negative emotions such as regret, blame, anger, and guilt. These thoughts can ruin this otherwise pleasant moment.

Being mindful can keep you from useless worrying about the future as well. Many of the things we worry about never come true, and time spent worrying creates negative emotions. As columnist Mary Schmich so eloquently put it in an essay for the Chicago Tribune: “worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.”

As you go through your day, try to notice when you have checked out and are diving into your past or fretting about the future. Each time that happens gently bring your thoughts back to the present. Pay attention to what is going on here and now.

If you are ever around children, you have probably noticed that they spend much of their time focused on the present moment. Watch them as they play on the playground, build a Lego tower, practice tying their shoelaces, or savor a chocolate cupcake. If they do get upset about something, it is usually pretty easy to calm them down by drawing their attention to something else.

Our tendency to worry more as we grow older became very clear to me when our family moved across the country. We sold our house in Arizona, packed up all of our belongings, and sent them to our soon-to-be new home in Virginia. Then we left for what I thought would be a fun-filled summer visiting family and traveling with friends. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to enjoy our summer as much as I had hoped because we were all so anxious about our move. Would we love our new house as much as we loved our home in Arizona? Would the kids like their new schools? Would we find new friends who we enjoyed as much as our old ones?

Of course it is normal to be worried about the future when everything is so new and uncertain. But what’s interesting is that when we moved from Spain to the United States eight years before, our children showed absolutely no signs of anxiety, even though it was a much bigger move. It took three months for our belongings to cross the ocean, and we were moving to another country with a different language and culture. But at five- and seven-years-old the kids weren’t worried about the future. They spent the summer swimming, eating ice cream and playing games without a care in the world. At that time they were still blessed with the gift children have of living in the present moment.

Sometimes it is helpful to think about the future. I’m a big planner, which requires thinking about the future and even considering things that might go wrong so that I can be prepared just in case. I feel much more comfortable knowing what’s going to happen. Planning things gives me a sense of control. Yes, I know, I can’t control everything and even when I have a perfect plan things don’t always go the way I expect. Remember, I have children.

But I still like to make plans. And so I spend a good bit of time thinking about the future. I plan a week’s worth of meals so I only have to go to the grocery store (which I hate!) once a week. I plan our vacations in advance so plane tickets are cheaper and there are more hotel options. I plan my presentations carefully so they go smoothly. Planning is important for my peace of mind. The more prepared I am, the less stressed I get.

The problem is that it is easy to cross the line and go from planning, which is productive, to worrying, which isn’t. Thinking about problems you might encounter is good if it helps you prepare for handling them. I’m always careful to pack the things I know I will need in my carry-on in case my luggage gets lost. But stressing about what I will do if the flight I’m taking next week gets canceled is pretty useless. Nor is it productive to think about even worse things that could, but most likely won’t, happen to me or to a loved one.

When I catch myself thinking about something in the future I ask, “Is this helpful?” This lets me know whether I’ve crossed the line. If I can do something about it, then I’m planning. If I can’t do anything about it, then thinking about it isn’t useful. I’m worrying again. It’s time to bring my focus back to the present moment.

Excerpted from the book BEYOND HAPPY by Beth Cabrera. Copyright © 2015 by Beth Cabrera. Reprinted with permission of Association for Talent Development.


Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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