Fall is a time of endings, as the leaves drift down from the trees and the daylight hours ebb. But fall is also a time of beginnings, with students starting a new year and, more generally, individuals flocking to new ventures, from yoga to Spanish classes. As prelude to the end-of-year holidays, fall can also be the busiest season, the placid pace of summer replaced by a frenzy of work and personal activities.
Michael Ungar, a professor of social work at Dalhousie University, sums that all up with two phrases that give new clarity to the work-life balance issues of fall. Working with families, he has found it’s “a time of transition” and a “time of renegotiation.”
Although spring is considered the season of renewal, beyond farmers and gardeners he says, “I don’t see much renewal in spring. There’s the Christian mythology of Easter. But often in May and June you’re ending things [ahead of the summer holiday season].” In fall, however, people start over again. It’s a time to rethink what you’re doing and the roles in your family.
Children start new levels of education, some of them momentous like the first year of high school or university. The new grade level signals a new maturity – or expected maturity – and parents and children renegotiate roles, sometimes not so easily. “Over summer, the rules were suspended. But now parents feel the child is older and ready for more responsibility, or the parents haven’t changed but the child feels ready for more responsibility,” he says. “It a renewal of vows in families. It’s time to rethink how we relate, what we do, and reciprocity – who will do things.”
A parent might say: “Now that you’re in Grade 5, you should be doing the laundry.” Or a youngster might declare: “Now that I’m in Grade 10, I should be able to stay out later on weeknights.” Not all the negotiations will work out well, of course. Fall, he notes, sees a spike in referrals for children “at risk,” struggling with issues that parents or authorities worry will derail them.
It’s also a season for planning. People unhappy with their careers don’t start a job search in May or June. They put it aside, take their vacation time, and address the issue in fall. Senior students in high school have deadlines for postsecondary school applications that makes fall a time for the whole family to be discussing options and perhaps undertaking campus visits.
With so much new, pressures increase. “Things speed up rather than slow down in the fall,” he observes. New courses, meetings with counsellors or schools, and the holiday season kicking in with Thanksgiving and gift shopping for Christmas. “It stresses people. Summer can be stressful as everyone is home. Now the stress is not proximity to each other but the decisions that have to be made,” he says.
As the days get noticeably shorter – waking up in the dark, or commuting in dimmer light – it can also disrupt our body rhythms. Kate Harkness, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Queen’s University, says the biggest onset of seasonal depression comes in winter, but it can also occur in November. “I do tend to hear reports of people noticing early warning signs that their mood is getting lower at around this time. Work-life balance is particularly important for people who are vulnerable to seasonal depression because disruptions in work schedule – for example, working late, and shift work – can further disrupt these people’s circadian rhythms,” she says.
If the season seems to be disrupting your sleeping or waking rhythms, try to maintain a consistent schedule, says Prof. Harkness. In particular, keep your sleeping cycle the same, since that can trigger mania or mood disorders. Also, eat regularly, keep exercising, and try to spend time in the sunlight, which can ward off seasonal depression.
Here’s some advice from Prof. Ungar on coping with the transitions that fall often brings:
- Embrace the transitions as your family starts to change in the fall, rather than resisting. View the changes as progress.
- Negotiate new rules with an open mind. Expect to be disappointed – everyone will want different things, and you may not get exactly what you crave. “Be flexible,” Prof. Ungar says.
- Maintain continuity of relationships, since that builds resilience in stressful times. If you’re changing your job, try not to change relationships as well, since the support of your family could be crucial.
- Try to take control in the transitions. A student might think vaguely: “I’m graduating from high school next year and I will have to do something the year after.” Better to take the more directive attitude: “I don’t know what I want to do after I graduate. I’ll therefore take a year off and stay home for the first few months with my parents while I deal with that transition.”
- Give your children what Prof. Ungar calls “the risk taker’s advantage,” not overprotecting them, but opening them up to manageable risks. Let them cook one night a week while you’re at the gym after work. Allow them to buy their own sneakers. Maybe this is the year they can go out unaccompanied on Halloween. “Think of what is in the long-term interest of the child in taking responsibility for themselves and consider how you will build a stepping stone,” he says.