Monday, March 9, 2009

Stress and the Wisdom of Children

by Julia Buckley
A nostalgic look at my sons, back when they were my chief advisors.

Despite the fact that I write books about people who can survive all sorts of tension and intrigue, I have found that I myself am terrible under pressure.

Saturday, for example, I got a notice from my mortgage company telling me that my payment was overdue. I immediately went into high-stress mode, tearing through my records and trying to contact my debtors by phone (naturally, they were closed). I then tried some of the online options, none of which worked because they kept detouring me to a “late payment” page, while I was convinced that they had lost my check.

During this problem-solving stage, I basically threw a fit, snapping at my sons, who had stopped goofing around to loiter around the computer and ask me what was wrong. Eventually I managed to solve it (I hope) via electronic means. Then I thought about how rotten I am at dealing with stress.

I was reminded of a similar occasion about ten years ago, when I was trying to transition back into the workplace after spending a couple of years with my children. I had gone on an interview at a local high school and met with both the principal and the English department chair. They had given me some forms to fill out and return to them the following day.

I came home with my forms and promptly lost them–I have a tendency to lose very important things in a way that would interest Sigmund Freud. Under stress I become a fool; I throw away checks, recycle tax forms, spill food on crucial documents.

On this particular day, my sons (one still in a diaper) sat watching me as I tore around the house, raging about my lost paper. Ian, my oldest, tried to counsel me through my panic attack. Graham, a baby, sat in his high chair and played with a plastic toy.

“What did you lose, Mom?”

“A really important paper!”

“Did you put it on the table?”

“I thought so, but it’s not there! I put it right here, and now it’s gone!”

“You’ll find it. Just keep looking,” he advised.

“Do you know how bad this will look?” I yelled. “They just interviewed me, and now I’ll have to tell them that I lost the papers they just gave me! Do you know how unprofessional that will seem?” I was beyond the point at which I might notice the irony or the inappropriateness of sharing this problem with a little boy and a baby.

My son came forward and put a calming hand on my arm. Back then they had skinny little bodies and large round heads, like Charlie Brown characters or Precious Moments figurines. Ian’s pudgy face was serious as could be as he said, “Mom, everyone loses things. All you have to do is go to them and say ‘I’m sorry, but I lost the form, and I wonder if I could have another one.’”
Of course. It was true, but coming from a four-year-old it seemed especially wise.

“You’re right,” I said, hugging him. I could feel my tension level ebbing as I let go of the notion that I had to find those forms.

Naturally, once I ceased freaking out, I found the missing papers within the hour.

This is still pretty much the way I deal with stress. When I write mysteries, I tend to give my characters far more stressors than I’ve ever had to deal with, but I also make them much stronger than myself. I suppose this is one of the many ways that writing is wish fulfillment for me. I wish I were as strong as the people in the pages of my books, but at least I have sturdy young men who can tell me when I’m having one of my episodes and put things in perspective for me.

The mortgage crisis averted, my sons returned to their toys–-computer and army guys, respectively–and are none the worse for wear. I'm hoping their ability to deal with my "episodes" will help them in their careers one day.

Maybe they'll end up being air traffic controllers or crisis counselors. :)

How do you respond to stress?


Mary Elaine Kiener, RN, PhD said...

Thanks for your lovely post. Such wonderful wisdom from the young (very often without them realizing it). My 2 1/2 year old great-nephew has recently started riding an imaginary horse: walking sorta bow-legged, while announcing: giddy-up, giddy-up. Then, when he's ready to "dismount" (i.e., walk normally again), he pronounces: giddy-down, giddy-down. A great reminder that we all need to include some "down" time in our constantly "up" lives.

Interesting that you create characters that seem stronger (more resilient?) than you believe you are. Perhaps you can call on them playfully for advice (e.g., what would "my character" do in this situation?).

Many years ago, I was taught to manage stress by "making like a duck," only to learn much later why that strategy wasn't exactly all it was "quacked up" to be =>

Meredith Cole said...

The other day, my husband lost his temper and my five-year-old son said "daddy, you need to calm down." So funny, but yet so right.

I don't lose important papers, but I always manage to misplace/lose my movie ticket in between purchasing it and getting to the ticket taker. I blame it on too many pockets...

Julia Buckley said...

Mary, this is an interesting question of psychology--although I think many authors will contend that their characters have virtues they themselves do not possess. And that is very good advice!

Meredith, I do the same, and because I let my family go in early while I get the snacks, I have to stand there balancing the popcorn, drinks and candy while I try to find my darn ticket. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

How do I respond to stress? Exactly the way you do, Julia. I freak out. I go nuts. I wail that the world is coming to an end.

And, like you, I give my heroines and heroes much stronger emotional constitutions than I possess. I have to. Who on earth would want to read about somebody who acts the way I do under pressure? :-)

Judy Alter said...

I'm intrigued about your comment that you give your characters way more stressors than you could handle and they are stronger than you. Probably you're stronger than them but don't recognize it.
But when I write young-adult novels with girls at the center, they are always tomboys who can ride any horse any time--things I never could do in all my seventy years! Maybe we put in fiction the things we miss about ourselves.

Julia Buckley said...

Sandra, let's hope we're never in a crisis together! :)

Judy, what a great phrase--"what we miss about ourselves." I have to think about that one.