Parenting and Parkinson
January 16, 2015
Posted By: Shaunescy
Time off is bad for me, and near-regimental routines are good.
I am not a morning person by nature, but I’ve become one by professional training (and because my son is an early riser, which led to some creepy moments when he was young, moments where I’d suddenly jerk out of sleep to see him standing next to the bed, looming over me and patiently waiting for me to wake up). Regardless of my natural tendency to sleep in, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I only accomplish work in the early hours of the day. So I set the alarm on my phone, drag myself out of bed, and work…because I only have until about 3:00 pm to finish anything in any sort of attentive way.
If I’m not finished with a task by then, the odds are against the task being finished at all. Until the next morning.
This personal/professional rhythm works alright most of the time, though. It means I’m up and alert when the kids are getting ready for school; I can keep them on task because I can keep myself on task. I can remember that my son needs to take an empty shoebox to class for some kind of diorama project. I can remember where last week’s library books were stashed. That kind of clear recall won’t happen as the day goes on.
Vacations are the worst. I still get up around the same time, and the kids still get up and moving, too. But then I have a tendency to just let the day take me. That’s ok if I don’t need to do anything more taxing than watching the Patriots and drinking four nap-inducing beers.
I don’t live a beer-and-a-nap life, though, not with two almost-ten-year-old kids in the house. Under these circumstances, my days are filled before I ever start them. They’re filled no matter what work I do—or don’t—need to complete. John and Sam are young enough that they still enjoy spending time with me, so while Sam and I might spend an hour shooting hoops, John and I are as likely to spend an hour (or more) playing Xbox One games. They like to go with us to the YMCA, either to swim or to exercise in the gym. They need to be shuttled to and from their friends’ houses.
Sleepovers need to be planned. Meals need to be cooked. Homework must be done (and then checked by my wife, since I’m apparently operating at a less-than-fourth-grade level when it comes to math, geography, and science). The bath/shower schedule needs to be choreographed so that no one runs out of hot water. A half hour or more of reading, mostly aloud, needs to be done, which requires a certain amount of flexibility as we move to different parts of the home (since reading at this level involves a heavy amount of sound effects, alternating voices for different characters, and side conversations on topics ranging from my daughter’s boyfriend (shudder) to my son’s YouTube channel.
But I see other families operate, and they’re just as busy. They’re just as busy whether they have six children or only one. They’re just as busy if only one parent works outside of the home or if both of them hold multiple full- and part-time jobs simultaneously. Some of my friends—just as overworked as I claim to be—watch the same television programs I do and still read multiple books for pleasure, often for hours each day. The fact that we’re all so busy, so stressed about the time we have and the tasks we must complete, despite such radical differences seems nonsensical.
I hate asking questions as a way to make statements, but how, exactly, can I seemingly be as stressed by the “work” of my four-person family as is someone with twice as many children? Or no children at all?
The answer finally hit me last month.
Just before Christmas, I took down my daughter’s heavy bag—she loves boxing as much as I do—in the garage and re-hung it in the house. This project involved only a few steps, from locating the studs (with my stud finder that only works after I shake it and only if I hold it upside down) to bolting the mount to the wall. Before I was done, it took half a dozen trips between the house and the garage, the use of multiple hand and power tools, and a trip to Ace. A few hours, maybe.
Not long after that, my father and I installed a shower door in my upstairs bathroom. We were working on it when the kids went to school that morning, and we finished a couple hours after they came home. It would have taken longer, but I didn’t need to buy any new tools, could actually find my level, and found a YouTube video that gave much better directions than did the pictures-only nightmare that was taped inside the box. According to the manufacturer, the installation time should have been no more than two hours.
On Christmas Eve, my father and I put a basketball hoop together—an enormous regulation-size hoop that stands by my driveway and operates like a magnet on the neighborhood kids. The estimated construction time, based on several positive reviews on Amazon, was two or three hours. We took maybe six.
But we took six hours to put that hoop together—and nearly ten to install the shower door—for the same reason that I’m so often overwhelmed by the mundane tasks of my professional and parenting lives: Parkinson’s Law.
Best articulated in an article in The Economist in 1955, Parkinson’s Law argues that “ work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” That’s probably obvious to everyone other than me, but for me, this was nearly a revelation.
I still feel overwhelmed when I have work to grade, reading to do for class (followed by the actual teaching of each three-hour class), writing projects to finish (or to start), job interviews to conduct, committee meetings to attend and/or lead, math homework to pretend to double check, grocery shopping to do, laundry to sort, pets to take to the vet, bicycle tires to repair, lost ski gloves to track down, etc. and etc. and so forth.
Knowing Parkinson’s Law doesn’t make any of that work—and the thousand other shocks that each day is heir to—go away, but knowing Parkinson’s Law does help me put a new frame around my thinking. I tend to feel easily overwhelmed by my To Do list, especially when new tasks suddenly crop up (like fixing the garage door opener that unexpectedly broke this morning and/or engaging in my semi-regular fight with my daughter about drying her hair after her morning shower). I feel harried. And feeling like this—overwhelmed and harried—makes me short tempered and frustrated and a less-than-ideal father.
Which is exactly what happens to everyone else (minus that specific reference to fatherhood), whether they’re far busier than I am or have far more expansive and open schedules.
Parkinson’s Law is my new touchstone, a sort of unhappy place I can go to in my mind when the stress of competing demands on my attention and time is too much to bear. The work doesn’t get any easier, and knowing Parkinson’s Law doesn’t transport me to a Zen-like state. But it does remind me that I’m always too busy…whether I have a lot to do or not. That knowledge does help me be a better father.
With Love, Dad
Shane Borrowman is a native of Anaconda, father of twins, and professor of English at The University of Montana Western. He has published on a wide range of topics, including the development of boxing in Renaissance England, medieval Arabic philosophy, and American zombie films. He is editor or co-editor of four writing textbooks and six collections of original scholarship. Visit http://www.shaneborrowman.com , home of Shane's blog, Kairotic Palaver.