Buffy, The Medical Advocate (or, some helpful thoughts on role conflict)

lego figure juggling blocks“Be the daughter,” the oncologist told me as I sat with her, the chaplain, and the oncology social worker. We were sitting in the family waiting room and they were helping me navigate a difficult moment about five months into my mother’s lost-cause battle with cancer. These women felt like part of my family by now, and I was stung by the words even though I could feel the truth inside them.

At issue was my mother’s sudden bout of paranoia, during which she had accused me of conspiring with her doctors to keep her in the hospital. My initial reaction had been to try to argue logic with her, which had only made the situation worse. I’d left the room to collect myself, and that’s when her care team found me in the family waiting room.

“Be the daughter?” I thought to myself? “I am the daughter. What have I been doing here for five months if I haven’t been being the daughter? How can she say that to me!”

But she was right. So much of the time I spent by my mother’s side was spent in the role of medical advocate, and not in the role of daugther. This might seem like a strange distinction to make at first, especially given the fact that the role of medical advocate for aging parents so often falls to adult daughters, but it’s important all the same. What my mother’s doctor was telling me was that I needed to pay more attention to our mother-daughter need for affection, love, comfort, and the sharing of vulnerabilities. For at least the next few days nothing bad would happen if I let the task of collecting and organizing information about the tests, prescriptions, procedures fall to the side. Right now comfort and trust were more important than record-keeping. My mother needed a daughter, and not an advocate, right now.

We are often faced with exacly these kinds of competing demands on our time and attention. Sociologists call this role conflict. We occupy many positions in our lives, and the expectations that go with each are frequently inconsistent. In the memoir I’m writing about my mother’s last years, this “be the daughter” story is told in a chapter I’ve called “Buffy, The Medical Advocate“, in honor of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, whose myriad role conflicts were legendary: high school student, daughter, friend, saver of the world, vampire slayer, vampire’s girlfriend… the list goes on.

On a less fantastic level, as I read the assignments my students just submitted, detailing their time use over the course of a week, I’ve been struck – as I am every time I give this assignment – by how much role conflict they experience. Bosses expect them to be available for shifting schedules even though their professors expect them in class. Parents expect them to take care of younger siblings when something comes up at work. Their own children get sick and have to stay home from school on the morning we have an exam. When we talked about their findings in class last week one of my students said “I was surprised to learn how much of my time is spent doing things for other people. No wonder I have such a hard time getting my schoolwork done.”

In my case, the solution to the conflict was to temporarily put down one role so I could focus on the other. This was possible because I had the support of others who could help me negotiate role expectations (my own, mostly!) and shift gears. Sometimes that’s not possible. For many of my students, putting down work or family responsibilities to focus on school is not an option. For them, the solution needs to be creating a more realistic expectation about how many classes they can reasonably take without putting their academic standing in jeopardy. It means accepting the hard reality that if they want to do well they will have to move more slowly.

Solving the role conflicts that stress us out isn’t always easy, but seeing the roles for what they are, sets of expectations, is a helpful start. Negotiating role expectations can create a lot of freedom, but only if you know what you have to negotiate with. Some expectations can be changed or or set aside for a time. When we discover that they can’t, we see at least that the barrier we are facing is not a failing on our part, but a structural reality of our lives. We then need to look at the other roles we play to see if there is any adjustment possible. Figuring out when to delegate a role responsibility, when to ditch a role altogether, when to modify expectations associated with a role is tricky stuff, but it is essential to achieving happiness. There is little more frustrating than an unrealistic expectation. Our lives require triage-style decisions, and when we are doing that triage it’s important that we see all the pieces as clearly as we can.

What role conflicts do you face? Do you need to transition out of a role that no longer serves your needs? Do you need help transforming a role that you’d like to save but need to change? Is negotiating role expectations difficult for you? Drop me a note if I can give you a hand!


Image of the Lego juggler is by kosmolaut on flickr, used courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

How Will You Know When You Have Enough?

Image of a tree growing out of coins held in a pair of hands

Image of a tree growing out of coins held in a pair of hands

Enough might just be the most radical word in the English language. It’s certainly one of those slippery words that many of us have a hard time really getting a handle on. Even it’s meanings can be confusing. “I have had enough!” is a very different statement than “I have enough.” The first signals frustration and the second signals contentment. The difference? A single change of verb tense. Unless you’re speaking, and then tone of voice no doubt conveys a great deal.

A few weeks ago I gave my students an assignment. I told them they needed to record how they spent their time for a full week. Everything from sleeping to sitting in class to commuting to work to hanging out with their friends. Then I asked them to analyze their data and answer some questions about how much control they have over their time, how well the way they spent their time serves their needs, and how often their time use actually gets in the way of their achieving their goals. I ask them to think about what they’d change if they had a magic wand (in the past many have said they’d work fewer hours), and I ask them to think about what they’re most likely to be able to change if they needed to make more time for something that’s getting short shrift (often studying). My goal in the assignment is to help them examine the amount of individual power they have to attain their goals, and to see where social structure, cultural expectations, or economic realities get in their way. Once they’ve done that, we can talk about social changes that would be useful to them.

I’m about to give myself the same kind of assignment, only I’m going to do it with money, not with time. Here’s why: As I think about making big changes in my work life, and as my partner Will moves into retirement, I need to know how much is really “enough” when it comes to monthly cash flow, savings, and long-term security. I’m generally pretty good about keeping my check register in order, but I know there are lots of small cash expenditures I never remember to record. For one month, starting tomorrow, October 1, I’m going to make an effort to record every penny I earn or spend. I’m not going to make any effort to restrict spending, but just to record what comes in and what goes out. At the end of the month, I’ll analyze the data to see where my money goes, and after that, I’ll ask myself the same kinds of questions I asked my students: How much of this spending is within my control? How much of it is directed toward meeting immediate needs? How much is directed toward saving for longer-term needs? How much of my spending is on things that matter a great deal to me, even if they are not “basic needs”? How much room is there for me to shift spending from one category to another if I realize that I need to do that? And finally, how much could I cut back if I wanted to earn less and have more time for other work or other activities?

Many of us work long hours, or at jobs we don’t love, because we can’t meet our basic needs any other way. But some of us work long hours at stressful jobs because we don’t have a sense of whether or not we have enough. It’s that latter question I need to answer for myself. How much do I need to earn in order to be happy? Happiness is not all about money, though we need money to fund large portions of our happiness. Figuring out the balance between earning and enjoying, between accumulation and leisure, between long-term and short-term needs, these are the challenges.

How many of us would give fewer of our hours to our employers if we had a sense that we really could be happy with less than what we’re earning? How will we know whether or not we can unless we collect the information? It’s that knowledge that makes “enough” a radical word. It has the potential to inspire two kind of radical actions. One is the stepping back from unexamined work expectations. The other is a clarity that the system is rigged, unfair, and needs to be changed in dramatic ways. Either way, our current economic structure and cultural expectations are limiting many of us. Examining the question of “enough” is one of the first things we can do to fuel change.

If you’ve never done anything like this before, I encourage you to join me for the month of October. Let’s collect some data and then really analyze it. Don’t look away. Numbers are scary, especially when they’re connected to dollars, but we can’t make meaningful change or meaningful plans without real information.

I’ll post updates throughout the month and will share my results early in November. Join me!


Image of plant growing out of coins held in hands is by user 401(k) 2012 on Flickr and used courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license.