Multi-tasking: Mission Impossible?

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Several months ago I was on the phone with my sister and got repeatedly distracted during the conversation. Although we customarily chat while doing a chore, she could tell  my attention was more divided than typically.  She paused and said, “You know, Carol, multi-tasking doesn’t work. It just makes you feel like you are accomplishing more when you try to do several things at once.”

I have thought about this often during December.  Regardless of the countless studies that scan the brain and provide evidence that humans can only perform tasks sequentially, as a mom during the holidays, I know better. Multi-tasking is a not a myth, it’s a must.

An often-cited Stanford study on multi-tasking was performed on university students. It measured their ability to filter irrelevant information, manage working memory and switch from one task to another. The study concluded that multi-taskers were worse than focused taskers at all of these. I was disappointed by the results and a bit skeptical.

The study’s conclusions were based on multi-media measurements using a sorting problem with blue and red triangles. I would like to see a practical study performed using a group of moms responding to real-life scenarios. In a narrow timeframe, require the subjects to make dinner while assisting with homework, paying bills, checking email and answering the question, “Where is my practice jersey?” Then the scientists will get my attention.

Other studies point out that the brain cannot fully focus when multi-tasking because it takes longer to complete an individual task and the amount of errors increase. This does resonate as I remember the day — before motherhood — when I could complete projects with ease.  Multi-tasking, however, or at least rapid-fire “tasking,” is a daily exercise for most moms. Our duties create the sensation of juggling live grenades with an undersized catcher’s mitt –  and that is just the scheduling part.

However, I did take note that perhaps I spend too much time talking to my kids while simultaneously trying to accomplish something else. It occurred to me that the real damage of multi-tasking may not be more errors and fewer completed tasks. It might mean that people I care about don’t think I am truly paying attention when I listen but don’t look them in the eye, a human demonstration of care and concern.

So, my one and only New Year’s resolution this year is to provide each family member completely focused, undivided attention daily. Then, I can spend the rest of the day defiantly demonstrating that I can indeed multi-task.

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Carol Lewis Gullstad, December 26, 2011

Frazzled Mom Gives up Laundry, Gains Religion

Two decades ago, Susan Goldstein (not her real name) was your typical frazzled suburban mom of two toddlers. The East Coast native stayed home full time in suburban Seattle, using her Ivy League engineering degree for her “household engineer” position: changing diapers, cleaning bottles, stacking up blocks, picking up toys and folding endless loads of laundry.

“My husband was working overseas for a tech firm, coming home every three or four weeks,” Goldstein recalls. “I was home alone, without any family around, and my only social interaction was a Mommy-Baby class once a week.”

Exhausted and stressed, Goldstein realized something needed to give, so she decided to take a break from laundry just one day each week. “I just got sick of it, so I started saying, ‘I’m not doing laundry on Saturdays, because it’s against my religion.’ “

Ironically, before long, it truly was.

Raised in a non-practicing, “reformed” Jewish family, Goldstein completed her Bat Mitzvah but, she says, “I was not serious about religion. As an adult, I would do the major holidays with my family, schlepping the kids out east, but it wasn’t until my daughter started preschool that I really started thinking about Judaism.”

At two years old, Goldstein’s oldest daughter began preschool at the Jewish Community Center, where on Thursdays, during the weekly Shabbat observance, parents were invited in for candle-lighting and challah.

Intrigued, Goldstein started reading children’s books about Judaism, and soon moved on to the Torah and Rabbi Kornfeld’s Monday-night lectures.

Soon, she became engrossed in learning about and observing Judaism.

“In the Torah, there’s a whole section on Jewish law, explaining the 39 categories of work [that are forbidden] on the Sabbath,” Goldstein explains. “The list includes writing, making a fire, creating or destroying, planting or fixing. I didn’t want to take on the whole thing at first, so I focused on [not doing] any chores on Saturdays, including cleaning, laundry and shopping.”

She felt renewed, both in finding her religion and in lightening her load.

Goldstein took small, cautious steps on her route to Conservative Judaism. First, she started inviting friends for Friday night Shabbat dinners, but she struggled to let the dishes sit unwashed until Saturday evening. However, “I [soon] learned that the dishes weren’t going to go anywhere,” she says.  

“I gradually took on more restrictions, which eventually meant attending services every Saturday morning, and then cutting out electricity from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown,” she says. Soon, the Goldstein household had no TV, music, telephone or driving on Saturdays.

“The best thing I did was stop answering the phone on Saturdays, not even for my mother,” Goldstein says with a smile.

For Goldstein, Saturdays became a time to relax, a “timeout” from her overwhelming household duties. “It became my chill time, when I could do what I wanted to do and eat what I wanted to eat,” she says. “I started doing a lot of reading, not just the Old Testament, but also Jane Austen and Harry Potter books. I also did a lot of walking on Saturdays, sometimes eight to 10 miles.”

Along the way, Goldstein made peace with her family’s past. After her grandmother passed away, Goldstein wrote an essay (excerpted here), as an effort to understand that woman’s experience during the Holocaust:

Her childhood was difficult. She lost a sibling to starvation. There was sawdust in the flour to make the bread go further. Her family snuck under fences to leave Hungary for Vienna. At 15, she had to leave home because her family could not support her. She opened a sewing shop in Vienna. Then the Nazis confiscated the shop and told her she had two days to leave….She did not practice or understand her religion, but she was persecuted for it….[She] came to this country in 1939 with…four dollars in her pocket and an 11-month-old baby in her arms….[She] and her baby slept on a mattress on the floor.

It was a year before Goldstein’s grandfather could travel across the ocean to join his wife in New York, but the couple gradually built a secure life for themselves, and watched their three grandchildren and four great grandchildren attend college and find fulfilling careers.

And, Goldstein writes, her grandmother “instilled in her daughter proper values and beliefs, and her daughter, my mother, passed these on to her children. She also opened the door for us to learn about our religion, [although] she had no religious training.”

While Goldstein has since relaxed somewhat in her practice of Judaism, she still steers clear of cars, chores and phones on Saturdays. Shabbat “is something to look forward to all week,” she says. “It changes the rhythm of my life.”

So, at the advent of both Hanukah and Christmas, I think mothers practicing any religion could take a page from Goldstein’s book: Don’t feel guilty about giving yourself breaks, time to recharge or permission to put off chores; and remember to cherish and celebrate family, faith and community.

– Linda Williams Rorem, 19 Dec 2011

How Many Holiday Cards to Send?

As holiday cards trickle into my mailbox this time of year I always feel ambivalent. Should I send cards or not? Who should I send them to? Should I do a chatty letter or just sign my name? Should I select a picture of just the kids or one with my husband and me in it?

Last week Linda wrote a piece on over-the-top Christmas cards ( This week I am turning to the vexing question I go through each year: Should I send cards at all and to whom?  Is a card redundant if everyone on the list is already a Facebook friend?

For some reason the holiday greetings tradition hangs over me like a sword. I feel compelled yet reviled at the same time and that often leads me to procrastinate selecting and even ordering cards. The chore grows more daunting each day as more letters arrive.

First, there is the task of culling through the addresses.  Should the list stay the same just because printing labels is easy?  Should I really send one to the work colleague I haven’t seen in 20 years and might never see again, but I remember when she was pregnant with her first child? What a dilemma. Do I send a family picture out to neighbors and people I see daily, or should I substitute a serene snow scene? At some point does a long obligatory response cycle needs to be severed? My great effort might just be fodder for someone’s fireplace.

Then there is a whole other decision layer. Should I send my greeting the traditional postal method or via “green” email? I still enjoy tearing open an envelope and seeing pictures and stories each year, but I don’t like feeling the pressure to send.

There have been years where I did not mail any and years where I attempted to cut the list in half. There has been periodic procrastination that lasts into January so I can “respond” on an individual level. One year, I photographed the kids dressed in red shirts in an outdoorsy northwest setting, which allowed me to postpone “season’s greetings” until Valentine’s Day.

I started thinking that surely I wasn’t alone in this quandary. I wondered if sending holiday cards was a tradition on the decline due to social media.  As it happened, Vistaprint pondered the same question, although their curiosity must have been born of marketing necessity. Their survey found that 63% of adults planned to send a paper holiday card in 2011, despite the use of social networks. Darn, majority rules.

And, in spite of the solvency problems of the USPS (United States Postal Service), December 2011 is shaping up well for their business. The USPS estimates delivering 16.5 billion cards, letters and packages this season, up from 15.8 billion last year.  This information was surprising to me and bad news for anyone looking to taper the tradition. If you don’t send a card your friends will just wonder –as mine did the year I didn’t send any — if something is wrong or if you are sore at them.

I must confess that this year most of my cards went out early December. This one-time-only situation is unlikely to be repeated, but I consider it the crowning achievement of my card-procrastinating lifestyle. This momentous event prompted a text from a lifelong friend, “OMG you already sent out your holiday card? Help me with mine, I’m desperate.”

Most likely I will be deliberating over the same questions next year. But for now, my holidays just got less stressful with one major task off the list.

Carol Lewis  Gullstad   December 12, 2011

Let the Mompetition Begin!

‘Tis the season for mom- and pop-petition to click into high gear.

You know what I’m talking about: those wonderful Christmas letters detailing your friends’ unparalleled successes and their kids’ extraordinary achievements.

Over the years, I’ve received holiday mail recounting records broken, awards received, scholarships won and college-test triumphs. I’ve read of expansive remodels, expensive vacation home purchases, exciting trips to remote locales and tireless Mother Theresa-like volunteerism.

Don’t get me wrong; I really do love reading about my friends and their families, and I am truly happy for their wonderful lives. I’m just concerned that no one tells the complete story. When you only hear about the superlatives in one’s life, you miss the details that create a full, realistic picture of adulthood and/or family life.

And, I admit, I can get sucked into the mom- and pop-petition. “Oh, they think Bill Jr. is so amazing on the soccer field?  They should see our daughter’s tennis serve!”  Then, I catch myself, and let another year go by without writing a Christmas letter.

However, this week, I decided to draft an imaginary Christmas missive, to hint at the kind of issues real families deal with in any given year. (Okay, I admit, my letter is a bit exaggerated. And, please note—as my kids would urge you to do – that the following is complete fiction. It does not reflect real incidents in my household, although it probably could…)

Greetings, Friends and Family, Near and Far,

We hope this letter finds you happy and healthy, and enjoying the holiday season.

It has been a roller-coaster year for our family, but that’s life, isn’t it?

Martha applied to 38 universities—thanks to a wonderful list drawn up by her college coach – and after reviewing her options, decided to take a “gap year.” She is gaining a broader world view and a good lesson in tolerance at a downtown Seattle McDonalds. We hear that she may be promoted to assistant manager for the midnight-to-6 am shift, so we are of course very proud of our young lady.

Unfortunately, her engagement to “Skitch,” who she met several years ago at the tattoo parlor, has ended. She reports that it was just “too stressful” to maintain a relationship with someone who is incarcerated. However, she has met many nice young men at work, and her dance card seems to be quite full at the moment!

Our 17-year-old beauty Agnes – who now goes by Venus – is doing extraordinarily well, too. We are happy to report that our once math-challenged daughter now has an A-plus in algebra. We are so grateful for the many late hours her teacher has dedicated to helping her. He even took her to his cabin for a weekend-long study session!  No wonder our community gets accolades for its top-notch school system.  Agnes’ other grades are not as strong, but we do anticipate that with some extra tutoring and summer school classes, she can avoid repeating her freshman year a third time.

On the bright side, Agnes – or Venus – is already earning lots of money doing film work. We have not seen any of the movies yet, but hope to find “50 Ways to Enjoy the Men’s Room” on Netflix soon.

Winston Jr., or “Stoner,” as his friends call him, is off to a great start in high school! After spending much of the soccer season on the sidelines, due to some confusion about the school’s “Code of Conduct,” he quit the squad and decided not to join the swim team, either. Instead, he is focusing on his studies.

We are so proud of our little man. He is really a natty dresser, wearing designer shoes, an Italian leather jacket and a Rolex watch to school each day. Can you believe that he makes that much money selling homework to his friends? Our neighbors expressed concern about the steady flow of young men dropping by our house at all hours, but we think they are just jealous. We know our little entrepreneur will go far in life.

Winston Sr. is doing well.  He seems to have ironed everything out with the IRS and is happy for the opportunity to start over in a new field. You could not imagine the demand for gutter cleaning in our city! We will miss the vacation homes in Paris and Belize, but appreciate the togetherness we can enjoy in smaller quarters. We have found the key to happiness is “simplifying.”

I continue to enjoy the life of a typical suburban “soccer mom.” I count my blessings every day, and – although I no longer have a driver’s license (honestly, what’s wrong with a few drinks at lunch?) – I enjoy tooling around town on my electric bicycle. I get added pleasure knowing that I am helping the environment. On that note, we have gone completely organic at home. Our yard is a bit crowded – with all of the chickens, the goats, the bees and the vegetables – but we know we are adding years to our lives.

By the way, for those wanting an update from last year’s letter: Grandma Betty is out of rehab, has broken up with her boyfriend – who, it turns out, didn’t really have a medical degree–and has a new lease on life with her casino work.  Winston’s cousin is finally out of jail. We are sorry he can’t go back to his football coaching job or see our kids any more, but we are grateful for second (or third) chances in life.

So, we hope the rest of you enjoy a blessed holiday season and a profitable New Year!


The Mauves

Linda Williams Rorem, 10 Dec. 2011

If you missed last Monday’s post on how a suburban Scrooge deals with the holiday mayem, click here:

Survival Tactics for a Suburban Scrooge

Each December Andy Williams assures us daily that “it’s the most wonderful time of the year,” but I doubt everyone agrees.

In the over-hyped holiday season, some people resent constant reminders of lost loved ones and distances un-bridged, others feel the financial pressures of gift-giving  (not to mention feeding their families) and many struggle to find meaning amidst over-commercialization.

I’m a bit of Scrooge myself, mainly because I struggle with popular Christmas songs, premature store displays and the “gimmies and the want’ums.” I have found some survival strategies, but first, let’s contemplate the problems:

Many Christmas songs simply depress me. Darlene Love and U2 resonate remorse with the wordsIt’s not like Christmas at all, ‘cuz I remember when you were here”; Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra evoke tears when they croon “I’ll be home for Christmas… if only in my heart”; and Judy Garland’s quivering “From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow, so have yourself a Merry little Christmas now” is so sorrowful, the song’s lyrics had to be changed. Need I even mention Elvis’ vow:  “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you”?

What’s more, have you ever wondered why holiday songs celebrate adultery (“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, underneath the mistletoe last night,”) and the fact that a kid with un-medicated ADHD is “gettin’ nuttin’ for Christmas” (okay, so he “broke [his] bat on Johnny’s head”)? And, seriously, must we sing along to the date-rape anthem “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (“Say, what’s in this drink?… I ought to say No, No, No, sir…(Oh baby don’t hold out…).”

All of this Christmas cheer now starts in late September, when savvy retailers “get a jump” on the holiday season. And yet, it still strikes me as odd to see candy corn and candy canes sold side-by-side, and Christmas ribbon stashed alongside back-to-school supplies.

Sure, I recall pouring over the Sears Christmas Catalog and making wish lists when I was young, but I don’t remember the fervor, the frenzy and the early fall start. (Also, we didn’t have Costco, Wall*Mart and 2,500 TV channels’ for commercials…)

Now, with my own kids, I feel like a Suburban Scrooge. So, I came up with six survival tactics to help me through the season:

  1. Delay the Season’s Start. Just because retailers start hawking Christmas goods in early fall doesn’t mean you must buy into the madness. My kids know not to mention any “Gimmies and Want’ums” until the Thanksgiving turkey gets cold.
  2. Celebrate the Season. When my children were younger, we hosted annual cookie-decorating parties. Kids would come over to load sugar cookies and Gingerbread men with frosting and sprinkles, make festive paper chains, construct crafts and watch holiday movies. What ensued was utter mayhem, but the focus was on the kids’ presence, not their presents.
  3. Focus on Giving, Not Getting. Having children shop for others helps turn the attention from their own desires. We stress giving hand-made items to teachers and friends, and experiences (tickets to events, spa treatments, coffee cards, etc.) instead of material goods to relatives.
  4. Give for the Sake of Giving. My kids’ favorite holiday tradition is “Saint Nicholas,” which is our own rendition of a European custom. In late November, we send an anonymous letter to local friends and family, announcing that late on Dec. 5, St. Nick will visit the area to leave holiday treats in shoes that he finds on front porches. At dusk on that evening, I load the kids–dressed in dark clothing– and goodie bags into the car. Playing holiday CDs to help us get into the spirit, we drive around town, sneaking through yards to deliver treats. Some families leave carrots or hay for St. Nick’s horses, and a few pack up home-made cookies, but by and large, it’s an exercise in giving without expecting anything—not even thanks—in return.
  5. Clean Out before Cleaning Up. About a week before Christmas, I used to hand each of my kids a paper shopping bag, and tell them to fill it with unused or unwanted toys. They learned to make way for Santa’s loot by passing on treasures to kids who might not receive anything else.
  6. Volunteer Time. I hope my kids grow up knowing that time is the greatest gift of all. Several of my friends make holiday traditions of volunteering in soup kitchens, helping at food banks and working with “differently abled” individuals. This year one of my sons suggested handing out blankets and sandwiches at a “camp” downtown.

How does your family focus on what’s important during the holidays?

And, by the way, if the mom- and pop-petition found in holiday cards annoys you, too, you’ll enjoy this week’s bonus blog, which we’ll post on Friday.

Linda Williams Rorem, 5 December 2011

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