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Sometimes impatience isn’t just a lack of virtue

Por Nong Mars/Shutterstock
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The problem may actually be how you're prioritizing your time.

When we overschedule our lives and don’t have clear priorites, lack of patience can actually be a manifestation of emotional distress

Since my very first days of motherhood, patience has been a struggle. Children, especially babies and toddlers, don’t run on an adult schedule. They throw fits at inopportune moments and inevitably have a diaper blowout when you’re walking out the door for a doctor’s appointment. I’ve always known I’m not a particularly patient person, but nothing has highlighted just how lacking I am in this particular virtue like motherhood.

Over the years, I’ve developed some good strategies for being patient in moments of stress and upheaval. When we’re running late and my toddler starts wailing because I made him put a sock on, I’ve learned to take a deep breath and remind myself that frustration will only exacerbate the situation and make us even later. When traffic is bad or a road is closed, I often have to force myself to accept reality by breathing deeply and saying, “We’ll get there when we get there, and it’ll be okay.”

But there’s one situation in which no amount of deep breathing or accepting reality has managed to prevent me from spinning totally out of control. None of my strategies has proven useful or effective in that high-stress hour twice a week when my kids come home from school and I’m preparing to leave for work. For almost a year this hour has been fraught with impatience, irritation, frustration, and tears — both on my part and my kids’.

Much to my chagrin, I finally realized that there was nothing I could possibly do in the moment to have more patience and lower my stress level. To change the dynamics in that hour, I would have to change everything leading up to it. As writer Anna Goldfarb points out in this New York Times article about developing patience, sometimes impatience is a direct result of unrealistic expectations:

Finally, Nedra Glover Tawwab, a licensed clinical social worker based in Charlotte, N.C., recommends being more sensible about setting achievable aims. “Sometimes we overbook ourselves or we don’t allot enough time to do things,” she said. “Be reasonable in setting your own goals for yourself because there’s only so many things that you can do in a time frame or any day.” If your to-do list has 10 items on it but you can only reasonably accomplish five, then you’re sabotaging yourself. Any inconvenience has the potential to throw you off-track when your day is planned down to the minute.

I can’t fast forward time and I can’t make people move faster,” she said. “I can’t manipulate those things; the only thing I can manipulate is me.”

Within that stressful hour, I kept trying to accomplish too many things. On the work front, I was getting myself ready for camp, loading my car, finishing last-minute texts to campers, and making sure I hadn’t forgotten any equipment. On the home front, I was welcoming kids home from school, getting them snacks, listening to stories about their day, checking and helping with homework, and signing folders.

Is it any wonder that by the end of that hour my stress level was through the roof, my temper was short, and I often found myself pulling out of the driveway perilously close to tears, convinced I was failing both at work and at home?

There was no way to hack my way into having patience during that hour. The only way to avoid impatience was to plan ahead, and remove as many potential stressors as possible.

Of course, my kids aren’t stressors I want to remove, and that hour of connection after school is vital for them and for me. So I needed to remove all work-related obligations, which meant doing them well in advance. At first, I tried just starting them earlier, around noon instead of 3. But inevitably, things would happen and I would find myself in the same situation.

What finally worked was putting everything work-related at the beginning of my to-do list and doing it as soon as I dropped my kids off for school in the morning. Sometimes I even started the night before, if my to-do list was particularly long or I had meetings in the morning. Basically, I made giving my children undivided attention after school my highest priority, and everything fell into place around it.

I can’t quite express how much this has changed our lives. My kids don’t have to fight for my attention anymore, and I don’t leave for work feeling miserable and guilty. That hour after school, while not exactly peaceful (I do have 5 kids!), is at least reasonably calm, and I have the time to connect with each of my children. It turns out that my lack of patience wasn’t actually a lack of virtue, but a manifestation of emotional distress over competing priorities. Once I put my kids back at the top of my list of priorities where they belong, my impatience disappeared … no deep breathing required.

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