Friday, February 17, 2012


February 17, 2012

I hope you smooched your sweetie earlier this week, made it through first round exams, and/or appreciated the almost record-setting amount of rain in February.  Speaking for myself, I have done two of those three plus a little more.

One of the "more" I have done is that I have spent some time musing about psychic resources and vegetables.  I have to say that I don't spend the bulk of my time sitting at my desk reading reports from behavioral economists.  I'm also not sure that I agree completely with this piece that came across my news feed: 

The premise of this report is that good parenting requires a good store of psychic resources.  It goes on to say that economically well-off parents probably have a bigger store of that than low-income parents.  Here's a relevant quote for context:

Being a good parent, even when you know what to do, is hard. It requires constant attention, effort and stead-fastness. Children need to be motivated to do things they dislike (like homework or learning their tables); appointments have to be kept; activities chosen and planned; children ferried to classes and games. Teachers have to be met; their feedback incorporated; tutoring or extra help provided or procured. Children’s social lives and how they spend their spare time has to be kept track of.

Good parenting requires psychic resources. Complex decisions must be made. Sacrifices must be made in the moment. This is hard for anyone, whatever their income: we all have limited reserves of self-control, and attention and other psychic resources. In that moment, fretting about the deadline, your psychic resources were depleted. Facing pressure at work, you did not have the freedom of mind needed to exercise patience, prioritize and do what you knew to be right. To an outsider, in that moment, you would look like a bad parent.

Low-income parents, however, also face a tax on their psychic resources. Many things that are trifling and routine to the well-off give sleepless nights to those less fortunate. To take a simple example, everyone may face the same bank overdraft fees – but steering clear of them is pretty easy for the well-off, while for the poor it requires constant attention, steely reserve and enormous amounts of self-control. For the well-off, monthly bills are automatically deducted and there is still some slack left over. For those with less income, finding ways to ensure that rent, utilities and phone bills are paid for out of small, irregular paychecks is an act of complicated financial jugglery.

I will say that at least part of this analogy made sense to me, not necessarily the specifics about income, but more about finding yourself in situations with depleted psychic resources.  Any cancer parent can tell you about that.  Do not confuse what I mean here.  I am not saying that having a child with cancer makes you a bad parent, or even tends you in that direction.  I'm saying that any living, breathing, thinking person can actually feel their psychic resources drain lower in the tank when they are navigating the waters of treatment decisions and therapy demands.  They/we might have to let other things slip.

I have also found that using depleted psychic resources holds explanatory power in other areas.  Take something very routine:  cooking supper.  I'm a pretty good cook.  I don't mind doing it.  I can afford it.  However. . . the more hectic the work week gets the more I shrink back to a narrow range of meal ideas--the same few vegetables, a couple of casseroles and some easy-to-grill items, carbs that I can store easily in the pantry.  Even if I have time to nip by the grocery on the way home rather than rummaging through the cabinets and fridge when I get home, my psychic resources are too sparse to think of anything beyond the old standbys.  Believe it or not, I don't browse the produce aisle at 5:30, imagining all the things I could do with bok choy or beets. 

I promise I know how to cook more than spaghetti, meatloaf, and grilled chicken breast, with rice or bow-tie pasta and steamed broccoli or asparagus.  But I just don't get it done when my psychic resources slump.

Recently, I joined a vegetable service Kelly's Greens where I receive a bag of organic vegetables on Saturdays.  This small thing has worked wonders on balancing my psychic resource depletion.  Instead of straining to think of what to to cook or what to buy, I have choices already at hand.  It becomes easier to cook and to cook in a healthy way.  Both of those things not only conserve psychic resources, but in many ways replenish them.

I think the analogy for cancer parents (and those who want to help them, but don't know how) is not to make them use one more ounce of energy or decision making effort to consider what might help them out.  Try making it easy for them.  Become that "bag of greens" that appears in my refrigerator on Saturdays. If you see someone stuck in the well-worn grooves of habit or someone barely keeping up with the demands their current life places on them, don't ask them what they need, throw them a life preserver or a metaphorical bag of greens.



  1. Very thought provoking! My neighbor recently suffered a house fire and I dropped by to ask what I could do to help? She responded, "in this type of situation I don't ask people what they need, I just do it." I was slightly taken aback at the response but this puts it into perspective.

  2. FYI. Other research shows that folks who are low income tend to reach out to
    community more than those with higher incomes. In fact
    this whole isolated life thing tends to be a middle-high income white thing in this country. That's
    not true of EVERYONE, but these are seen trends.