- Melissa Petro is a freelance writer based in New York with her husband and two small children.
- Petro says that it’s been challenging to balance parenting while working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and she’s struggled to develop a good ‘flow’ during work and personal time.
- After much trial and error, Petro and her husband made a schedule where they take turns parenting and working — so that they each can have their own uninterrupted time.
- ‘Flow’ can be whatever you make it, Petro says, whether cleaning, exercising, or doing something creating — just as long as you’re ‘in the zone.’
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One of the hardest parts of marriage and mothering has been the constant demands on my attention.
A typical morning looks like this: I’m wrestling my toddler into a diaper when I glance down at my phone and see an email from my editor with a time sensitive request. At the same time, my husband is trying to discuss that day’s schedule and the baby is screaming to be fed. When I pick up my daughter Molly to breastfeed, my husband apologetically asks if I could put a piece of toast on for him the next time I go downstairs into the kitchen, just as I notice one of the dogs has peed on the floor.
I go to put the baby down to clean up the pee and answer my editor’s email, only I remember I need to add floor cleaner to the Target order — and have the dogs been walked? Now my son Oscar is shoving a plastic dinosaur in my face, demanding that I play with him, and Molly is screaming, hungry, and probably also needing to be changed. The dogs are whining, too, so I say “C’mon Spud, it’s time for your walk,” and Oscar realizes I’m thinking of leaving, and so he throws himself around my legs.
Parents of young children can probably relate. If you’ve got a demanding boss and a chorus of coworkers pinging you at all hours, your morning may feel similarly hectic. Sheltering in place and working from home alongside others, we’re all likely to face constant interruptions. It’s a rare occasion that we find ourselves “in the zone,” feeling a singular and energized focus — what social scientists call “flow.”
Finding flow is difficult, especially in lockdown — and yet, according to experts, creating opportunities for flow and cultivating an ability to do so is essential for our mental health.
What is flow?
The term “flow” was coined by Hungarian psychologist and founder of positive psychology Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Used to describe the mental state in which a person is fully immersed in an activity, it’s a feeling of total engagement in the present moment. Free from interruptions, you are in complete control, so absorbed in whatever you’re doing that you lose track of time and place.
High-flow activities require skill and concentration. In other words, mindlessly pounding down a tub of ice cream while zoning out to Netflix doesn’t count. Instead, high flow activities are challenging (but within one’s abilities), and they result in some immediate payoff in the end.
Putting together a puzzle, playing a video game, repairing a bike, baking bread — as well as creative pursuits like painting, writing, or playing a musical instrument — are all considered high flow activities. Exercises such as running, swimming, or strength training count, too, so long as there’s some challenge and they get you “in the zone.”
Personally, I find household tasks like organizing a closet, preparing a meal, and even Fabulosoing the floors to be deeply satisfying. Although not particularly challenging, loading a dishwasher or tidying a playroom requires a certain amount of skill; if my husband has the kids, I have the joy of not being interrupted; and when I’m finished, I feel a certain satisfaction from a job well done.
Courtesy of Melissa Petro
Flow is linked to happiness
Research on flow explains why parents of young children often quip that cleaning the bathroom can feel like a break.
While a flow state is characterized by the absence of emotion — a complete loss of self-consciousness — studies positively correlate flow with happiness. You may not be thinking “oh, this is fun!” when you’re in the middle of cleaning the basement, lost in the act of sorting seasonal decorations, but when the chore is over, people rate such experiences positively. According to one study, people who experience a lot of flow regularly develop other positive traits, too, such as increased concentration, self-esteem, and improved performance. Other research has found the experience of flow in both professional and leisure activities leads to increased positive affect, improved performance, and commitment to long-term, meaningful goals.
A lack of flow can lead to mental health problems
Following strict nap schedules, and working a full-time job on top of negotiating childcare with my partner and managing a household, there’s little opportunity to lose track of time. It’s nearly impossible to immerse yourself into an activity while a newborn is rapid cycling through the five states of arousal and you’re negotiating a toddler’s constant demands.
Looking back, I think one reason I became so miserable my first year as a stay-at-home mom was because my baby was constantly interrupting my flow. Now that I’m working from home and sheltering in place alongside my husband and two small children, the challenge returns.
According to experts, parents who don’t get enough “me time” are at risk for mental health problems, including depression and parental burnout. By the time my son hit toddlerhood, I had become a master multitasker — a skill that’s served me well during the pandemic. Still, experts warn that multitasking isn’t good for our mental health either, and can lead to memory problems, increased distraction, and chronic stress.
How to find more flow under lockdown
Since the start of the pandemic, my family is functioning better than ever and I’ve actually found more flow, not less.
Here’s how: At the beginning of lockdown, my husband and I set up a schedule to take turns parenting during the workday, thus affording one another as much uninterrupted time as possible. I get three glorious hours a day where I can sit on the porch and just work — three hours more than when, prior to the pandemic, I was solo-parenting all day by myself.
Sometimes, miraculously, both children are sleeping simultaneously, so my husband and I can work side by side. When this happens, we’ve learned to curb the habit of interrupting one another. If, for example, one of us wants to bounce a work idea off of the other or share something funny we’ve seen on social media, we’ll preempt ourselves with “Is it OK if I interrupt you?” instead of simply demanding the other person look up.
It’s not easy, but I’ve learned to turn my phone on silent and flip it upside down so that I can’t react to every notification. I resist the urge to trawl social media or online shop when I’m supposed to be focusing.
For those of us with children, experts recommend trying to find flow as a family. The kids and I color together, paint, and play with modeling clay. While I weed the flower beds, they play in the dirt.
Making the bed, putting away the groceries, giving the dogs a bath — with enough focus, you can find joy in any of these activities. I’m learning to appreciate the most menial of tasks. But by far, the best part of my day is my mid-morning run. Ten blocks away from the tantrum-ing toddler, fussing baby, and well-meaning but occasionally demanding husband, I’ve found my flow.
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