My hairdresser insists she can read her clients’ strands to learn their story. Stress, she told me at my last appointment, shows through the hair.
As she combed and parted, I held my breath, wondering exactly what she was seeing. Were my follicles exposing my personal anxiety as of late? Were professional stressors from work peaking back at her through my locks as she worked? If she could see my stress, what story was my hair telling?
My full-time employment as a community college instructor in a small Texas town requires weekly work that exceeds the hours I clock for pay. Then, my motherhood responsibilities have no time clock. I manage my days with to-do lists and calendar commitments. I enjoy being busy, as I’ve never had a personality or drive to be content with idleness. Still, I know that stress is a byproduct of what I do.
Such is the life of professionals, parents, and those who pursue both paths.
In my professional world, I teach students of all levels at an open-enrollment institution. It’s a wonderfully rewarding profession but also a personally draining one. So I start each semester with a haircut, which is a small step to help me look and feel ready. That day in the salon chair as the hairdresser smoothed her palm across my tresses and readied her scissors, I mustered the courage to ask what she saw.
She considered my inquiry, tilted her head in consideration, and leveled her assessment. “You were more stressed last year at this time than you are now.”
I felt my eyebrows crease. “How?” I had new class assignments at the college, with more responsibilities there and at home than I could count. I was juggling so much: creating a new online class, managing an overload teaching assignment, handling plagiarism cases in triplicate. And those were just some of my work responsibilities. At home, I struggled to keep my head above water. Just that morning before I left the house, I almost walked out with no shoes until my son pointed out that I needed them for work. I was grateful for the extra set of eyes.
I told my hairdresser as much. “I don’t feel less stressed.”
She shrugged. “Maybe you’ve gotten better at handling stress.” She started her work on me with a smile.
I considered her comments as she cut.
Do we cope better with stress as we age?
And are parent-professionals at an advantage with being able to compartmentalize?
Or does it all boil down to gratitude?
Peeling back the causes of stress in my life, I have realized that stressors are a side effect of what provides the greatest joys of my life: teaching and mothering. If I didn’t have those jobs, I might not have stress . . . but I also would be lacking so much more.
This Thanksgiving, as I send my students off on their holiday week break and gather with my family around our bountiful table, I will remind myself of all for which I am thankful.
And stress will make that list.
Stress is a sign of all I do and all I accomplish. Though there are downsides, I am grateful to have the opportunities I do—and a hairdresser to help when my stress starts to show.
Audrey Wick is a professor of English at Blinn College in Texas. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, and academic journals. She’s a frequent presenter and keynote speaker at English composition conferences. Learn more at her website or follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @WickWrites.