Home Work

Suggestions for those times when it feels stressful just to make time for stress relief.

My sister-in-law, a nurse practitioner, tells me that stress does “terrible things to your body.” Symptoms like fatigue, irritability and headaches are common, but prolonged stress can lead to menstrual cycle disruptions and heart and bowel complications. In addition to well known stress relievers like exercise and a healthy diet, medical practitioners are encouraging overwhelmed patients to practice mindfulness, meditation and gratitude.

But for many women, the idea of making time to deal with stress just creates more stress. And women are already at peak stress capacity, according to a 2010 survey by the American Psychological Association, which found women are more likely than men (28% vs. 20%) to report having a great deal of stress (8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale). It might be that women are simply more likely to talk about the physical and emotional symptoms of stress, but female respondents consistently described having more physical manifestations of stress, like headaches or indigestion, than men. Married women report more stress than single women.

Kate Northrup, entrepreneur and bestselling author from Yarmouth, found herself forced to slow down during her first pregnancy. “I was totally brought to my knees by exhaustion,” she says. When she wasn’t able to work at maximum capacity, she assumed she would take a revenue hit (she runs a business with her husband). To her shock and (pleasant) surprise, Northrup’s annual income didn’t change.

She describes the resulting do-less philosophy she developed in her latest book, Do Less: A Revolutionary Approach to Time Management for Busy Moms. One of the biggest takeaways is learning to ask for help. “We have been raised in a culture that has us believe if we ask for help, it’s a sign of weakness,” she says. “Needing help is a sign of being human.”

When Dana Gold, 50, found herself totally overwhelmed after shifting from part time to full time work, she asked for help from someone very close to her: her husband Robert Morrison. Gold is senior counsel and director of education for the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit. She works remotely from Portland but the job is full time. So were her duties at home, where she was operating “the great white board that’s my brain” solo, even after she stepped up her hours. “Our allocation of household responsibilities had not changed,” she says. Gold and Morrison made a commitment to communication and divided duties in a way that felt equitable and specific.

The most significant shift was Morrison taking on dinner preparation and most of the grocery shopping. For Gold, that was a tough change at first; she likes to cook and plan meals. Also, the deal put her in charge of dishes. But, she says, when 5:30 p.m. rolls around and she can keep working or go for a walk, she’s grateful.

Kate Odden, 25, needed to adjust her dinner routine for a different reason. The South Portland resident works in communications at WEX and her busy schedule doesn’t leave much time for cooking. Plus, she says, “I’m no great chef.” But eating out all the time was causing financial stress. Using a meal kit service changed that. “It’s a way to treat myself to a new recipe without needing to do any planning.”

Odden uses Hello Fresh, which offers a lot of promotional coupons, and it was cheaper than eating out, at least initially. She may not be saving as much money now, but when she walks in the door after work, she is saving time and energy. She’s also learning a lot.“It’s a way for me to eat good food at home and get comfortable with new cooking methods,” Oden says.

Beyond enlisting help from loved ones or professionals, Northrup cites getting enough sleep as “the ultimate time management hack,” because it significantly increases productivity. She is also a proponent of tracking menstrual cycles. “There’s a time [during the month] when you’ll feel the most mentally focused, or the most intuitive, or the most social,” she says. By organizing life around these natural hormonal rhythms, Northrup says, “You get more done in less time, because you’re doing the right thing at the right time.”

Even with the best time management tools in place, life is bound to throw curveballs. Northrup encourages women to come back to their tools, seek support and adjust as needed. When Gold, on dish duty, realized her husband is “like a hurricane hit the kitchen,” she revised their plan. She insisted he learn to clean as he goes (which is how she cooks) or the division of labor could not continue. “And lo and behold,” she says, “he does a pretty good job.”

Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.

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