By day, Andy Molinsky is a professor of international management and organizational behavior at Brandeis University’s International Business School, with a joint appointment in the Department of Psychology. He’s also author of the forthcoming book “REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence.”
Usually Molinsky spends his time studying cultural adaptation, helping CEOs deliver bad news, teaching doctors how to cope with performing painful procedures on pediatric patients or counseling police officers who have to complete home evictions. That kind of uncomfortable stuff.
But the dad of pre-teens wanted to talk to JewishBoston about what’s probably the most rocky shift of all: becoming a parent. Here are his top four outside-your-comfort-zone scenarios and how to cope.
The Trap: You’re Running on Absolutely No Sleep
It’s a familiar plight for most new parents: You look like a scared raccoon, and your chief fantasy is checking into a hotel room to pass out for 72 hours straight. But you can’t! You have a new baby! Oh, and a job! Lucky you.
The Fix: A sleep-deprived Molinsky actually started hallucinating once while teaching a class of 50 MBA students. “I was afraid I was going to pass out,” he confesses. But he soldiered on, taught the class and even laughed about it later. The positive reinforcement helped propel him forward. No, teaching on no sleep isn’t ideal, but it also didn’t make him a laughingstock. The biggest hurdle, he says, is taking the leap in the first place. You might convince yourself that you’ll flub a meeting or miss a call or say something inane during a conference due to being an absent-minded new parent, and it might keep you from performing your best. “Don’t let fear take the wheel,” he says. “You might surprise yourself.” Really, parenting might not render you zombie-like. Don’t assume it will in advance. The reality is probably far less scary than whatever you’re envisioning.
The Trap: You Have No Idea How You’ll Sacrifice Your Needs for a Kid
This is tricky. You’re used to working late, if asked. What day-care late fee? You’re accustomed to ordering Chinese food at 10 p.m. and sleeping in after too much wine on the weekends. This is a lot less fun when a child is howling for you at 5 a.m. What are you going to do?
The Fix: Hypothetical children are scarier than actual children, Molinsky says. Anticipation is always worse than reality. “For me, the identity shift and actually holding my child created a whole new set of important values that trumped the dogged professional focus,” he says. “You’ll shift things around. You’ll make it work. You’ll balance better than you think. Instead of thinking, ‘This is going to be a disaster!’ or thinking, ‘I need to do this perfectly!’ strive for some middle ground.” Molinsky remembers a senior colleague with grown children counseling him before the birth of his first child: “You just learn to be more efficient.” And you will. Simple as that. Don’t catastrophize.
The Trap: You Have to Make Small Talk With Other Parents
Ugh! Strangers! The forced “Hi! How are you?” over birthday cake. The awkward playground chatter. Being thrust into a whole new social arena driven by your kids can be hugely painful, especially if you’re an introvert.
The Fix: Get real with yourself. Think about your spouse, your close friends, everyone important in your life except for your family. “Chances are, those relationships began with small talk,” Molinsky says. You never know who might become a lifelong friend, so don’t go into a situation automatically assuming that your social quota has been used up now that you’re an adult. Many lasting adult friendships develop over soccer practice or bouncy houses. And if the situation is truly horrible, think about it altruistically: “You’re modeling socialization for your child,” says Molinsky. And, really, even if you think you have nothing in common with these people, there is some middle ground when you have similarly aged children. “Paw Patrol.” Legos that somehow mate and reproduce on their own and then bury in your carpet. The price of preschool. Something.
The Trap: You Have to Confront Another Parent About Their Kid’s Behavior
Some things are worth ignoring; with others, you have no choice but to speak up. Everyone has their own threshold for tolerance, but there’s something about being a parent that summons the protectiveness in all of us. Even the biggest adult introvert might become fierce during a baseball brawl or a bullying incident. How do you know when to speak up?
The Fix: Don’t project your own issues onto your child, Molinsky urges. If it’s in your nature to speak up, ask yourself if it’s worth it. And if it’s in your nature to keep quiet, ask yourself if you’re acting on your own fears or your child’s interests. Many childhood squabbles are best left to the kids so that they can build resilience; others require intervention. Know which is which and approach it even-handedly, with courage and conviction, but without your own agenda.
If you’re at a loss, Molinsky recommends watching other parents and how they react to playground brawls and unfair soccer calls. “Then think about the emotional forces that you’re trying to balance and come up with a style that reflects your ideal self and your own values,” he says. Think of a script beforehand instead of reacting in the moment. And remember that there’s valor in stepping back and not saying anything at all.