Hereditary Taint

November 28, 2011 at 6:58 pm (Uncategorized)

There is nothing quite so unappealing as discovering in your beloved only child an unlikable aspect of his personality—that he clearly inherited from you.

I can deal with Andrew being as stubborn as me and as argumentative as Jay. This weekend, however, confirmed my worst suspicion. Andrew is a procrastinator.

Those of you who know me in real life already understand that I am a world-class task putter-offer. I start with the best intentions, whether it’s turning in an article on time or hosting a dinner party. I always think I’m going to manage my time, plan ahead, and get everything done without the stress and strain of doing it all at the last minute.

There’s a saying about where good intentions lead. And there’s no doubt that my procrastination has brought me close to hell on earth—like when I wrote a 300-odd page reference book (and did all the research for it) in 17 days, or when I made 14 gourmet desserts for a huge Christmas party in a day, or when I packed up our Montana house to move overseas in three very long days and nights.

My procrastination is just as unpleasant for other people involved in my tardiness. My mother would get my high school term papers to type up in the dark hours of the night—the day before it was due. My editors surely know that when I email them around the time a project is due, my document will not be attached. Dinner guests expect a mad scramble (and some potentially undercooked poultry) when I invite them.

But now I’m getting a small taste of what it’s like to be in the support team of a procrastinator. For the past week, for instance, I’ve been trying to get Andrew to finish a very boring homework packet for his reading group. He was supposed to turn it in before Thanksgiving, but “accidently” left it at school twice. So we emailed his teacher (twice), using the same groveling tone I’ve perfected with my editors, asking for a little more time to complete the word scrambles and fill-in-the-blank worksheets on Ellen Tebets. At least I made Andrew do the typing. He finally brought the thick packet home on Tuesday. He had a long holiday weekend to get it done. Jay and I reminded him on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday—several times each day—to start. “Oh, right,” he said each time. “I will, I just need to…” finish this chapter in my much more interesting Harry Potter book/play another game on my toenails/do anything but this dreadfully tedious make-work. And then Jay and I would forget about it.

Finally, on Saturday, we made him sit down with the worksheets. He cycled through the following statements for about an hour: “Why can’t I start this tomorrow?” “This is boring.” “I hate this.” “This isn’t fair.” “I promise I’ll start it tomorrow.” “Please, please, please.” When he did stop complaining for a few minutes, he’d quickly throw down his pencil and moan, “I can’t do this. It’s too hard.” (To get a real sense of our experience, say that last sentence as slowly as you can. Draw out each word to last about ten seconds.) Jay and I said, “Pick up your pencil.” “Yes you can!” “It will feel good to get this done.” “Doing your work is important.” We sat with him and encouraged him. We helped when help was appropriate, and just held the line when it wasn’t. Those idiotic worksheets ended up cannibalizing the rest of our weekend. When he had finally finished, I said, “Andrew, you’ve got about 16 more years of homework ahead of you. We’re going to need to find an easier way to get your work done.” Inside I thought, “I am not going to be able to afford all the wine it will take to get me through 16 years of this.”

When the dust had settled—and the pencils weren’t being flung or bedrooms doors being slammed—I tried to have an honest talk with my boy about the dark side of procrastination. I told him how much harder I made my life by putting off things. I explained how many weekends I had lost to not working. As he knew from the reading packet ordeal, it can take a lot of effort and energy to not do your work. He said that I made sense, that he would try and do a better job with the next reading packet. He smiled and hugged me.

I doubt any of my words of wisdom will stick. I never listened to similar speeches from my mom, my dad, my husband, my editors, my friends. I had to learn it on my own. And this process wasn’t pretty. But eventually, I had to stop procrastinating. I’d like to tell you that it was all those combined words of wisdom crashing through my denial that led me to mend my ways. It wasn’t, though. It took getting sick and getting a kid to change my habits. I tried—more times than I’d like to admit—to keep procrastinating after I moved to Chronic Town. I’d put off writing an article until the day before it was due. I tried to work my old magic. Fueled by adrenaline, neuroticism, and caffeine, I’d force myself to stay up finishing the article. And I’d have to go to bed an hour later anyway because my health wouldn’t respond to stimulants or personality quirks. If I tried to grind through, I’d make myself literally sick the next day.

It took a couple of years of screwing up badly because of my procrastination to learn to just stop it. I am proud to say that I turned in my last High Country News article (yet to be printed) two days before my deadline. I got major kudos from my editor, I felt good about myself, and I hadn’t made myself sicker my inflicting a crazy schedule on myself.

A big part of parenting is wanting to help your kids not make the same mistakes you made. An equally big part of parenting is recognizing that sometimes you can’t. It hurt to watch Andrew suffer because of procrastination. But I couldn’t stop it.

Of course, I’m not giving up on him and consigning him to a life of missed opportunities and too little sleep. I’ll keep working with him on time management and the satisfaction that comes with knowing you’ve accomplished a job on time. I’ve got it all planned out. I’m starting early on this project.


  1. Allyson said,

    It is so frustrating to see our own flaws developing in our children! I see it daily in TyTy. I try to remember how I felt then and speak to him gently about it. Sometimes I even succeed!

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      It is so frustrating! We want them to transcend us. But sometimes they just don’t want to. Gently, gently is the way to go, but sometimes that’s a challenge to.

      Glad to hear you’re succeeding at least some of the time.

      Thanks for reading and take the time to comment.

  2. Martha Kohl said,

    “An equally big part of parenting is recognizing that sometimes you can’t.” This is the lesson I’m trying to learn–but it is taking a long time to stick.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Me too. It’s a daily lesson for me, and it never quite sticks. Maybe there’s something useful in the perpetual trying of it.

  3. Andrea Cross Guns said,

    Beautiful, Rebecca! So very true and wise! Andrew is very lucky to have such amazingly intelligent and thoughtful parents!

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Oh, thank you, Andrea.

      Don’t forget a huge part of Andrew comes from you too.

  4. Marianne said,

    I really hate having to be an example. I think that is the hardest part of parenting because you never know what they are seeing…

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      I know. It’s so hard to get past my own baggage.

  5. Randy Bekkedahl said,

    Wonderful stories, Rebecca. (I hate calling them blogs–so clinical sounding). Sorry I am just now catching up with them, I caught a cold virus and w/o an immune system, it laid me out. I’m just this evening feeling up to reading and writing again. I did manage to move some piles on my desk around and found a business card from Mark Putman with your blog address on it. So, mystery solved. Mark is the one who told me about you. And I do enjoy reading your stories and sharing parts of your world. If I ever see Mark again, I will thank him for it.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Hi again Randy,

      I also think “blogs” and “posts” have a clinical feel. Stories does sound so much better.

      I hope you are surviving the virus. Whenever I catch what other people think is “just a little cold,” it devastates my life.

      I’m so grateful that Mark passed along my blog address to you. He is a neat guy. We were in the same critique group. But I just recently had to drop out of it. I had missed the last three monthly meetings with colds that turned into nasty infections, and I felt like with my health being such a wild card, I wasn’t being fair to the group. It was a very hard decision. I hope I can stay in touch with Mark.

      Sending healing wishes,

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