Marriage is Like a Mirror

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I get a lot of feedback when I blog about anything that has to do with my husband. He doesn’t read my blog, but I think he’s come to terms with this as we both hope that this venture will become viable at some point and that takes readers that are interested in what I have to say. (11 cents earned so far! Woot, woot!) While I, myself, am sometimes uncomfortable with the level of exposure that blogging brings, one of the joys of this gig is getting to write about things that mean so much to me.

I’m a student of people. I love psychology and understanding why people do what they do. I’ve always been intrigued by relationships and deeply committed to personal growth and providing a healthy home for my children, something that I often lacked as a child. This focus has driven a lot of my life, and I’m grateful for the perspective it’s given me.

While it’s cliche to the extreme, relationships are hard – I think anyone who has been in one more than five minutes understands that. But, why? Why are they so hard? An easy way that I’ve found to explain the dynamic is that marriage is like a mirror. After what I hope is some serious vetting on our part, we “fall in love with our soul mate,” and get married, handing them over the keys to who we really are. In this package, often overlooked and ignored, is the mirror that shows us who lives under our shell, naked, exposed and raw. We tend to hide from that person ourselves, so trusting someone else to care for them is a deeply intimate risk. But, I’ve found more growth and personal understanding in this process than in anything else in my life.

When we put things out into the world, those closest to us naturally reflect that back. Sometimes, we like what we see, but often, we very much do not. I think the thing that sinks most potentially great marriages is blaming the person holding the mirror, as if the messenger is responsible for what you see reflected there. There are definitely instances where our natural defensiveness finds us shoving the corresponding mirror into our spouse’s face and yelling, “Oh yea? You think I’m so bad?!” This is a sacred task, and when it goes wrong, it can be incredibly, devastatingly ugly because the ammunition available is so powerful. Still, no greater intimacy is created in a relationship than the one you find when you lean into this with a worthy partner, understand it and stop running from it.

I do not like to give people power over my inner life, and I like it even less so lately. People who meet me for the first time find me intimidating (If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told that, it would be way more than 11 cents. Ha!) I am a naturally boundaried and self-protected person, and few people can really shake me. Except my husband. The gift of marriage is that while I would never actively choose this, it happens constantly. Every new evolution of our relationship peels back a layer and leaves us both vulnerable. When things shift and change, and you see fear and panic in your partner, what they’re really saying is, “Can you still handle this job? Can I still trust you with this? Am I still safe with you? Is it even acceptable to be this naked?” When the answer is, “This is okay. We’re still okay. You’re okay,” there is room for the some of the most pure gratitude and connection that life offers.

Going through significant changes in a marriage is scary and quite difficult. I participate in an online space where the whole point is navigate this in ways that are healthy for families and relationships. This is a unique forum where the point isn’t who is right or wrong but how we can overcome the challenges and grow. One of the most beautiful things to watch play out in this group is the real life, in-the-trenches work of working it out. While changes will almost inevitably expose weaknesses in a relationship, there is a definitive silver lining as well. When it’s impossible to live in pretense, you either get out or you get better. If I could impart one thing that I’ve learned here, it would be this – I know this is scary. Take a deep breath, and look in the mirror. What you find will be priceless. Don’t run away. It will be worth it.

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The Recipe Analogy

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I’m a person who has always appreciated steps and methods. I learn incredibly quickly if I can dig into something, play around with it, see what happens and adjust. I have almost an insatiable drive to learn when I can see clearly what is expected from me and what the results of my efforts are. I’ll play around with this process indefinitely, dare I admit – obsessively, when I’m seeing results, but I have a short string of patience when something is awry. This analogy, I think, is a good explanation of how this moves in my life.

When I was young, I was raised in a family that had very specific tastes. I was fed every day from a rotating menu that didn’t vary much, and I didn’t really mind. The consistency was nice and even though it wasn’t all my favorite, I knew what to expect. As I got older, I was given the opportunity to choose a recipe of my own. My parents made sure I knew that there were other recipes but that our family recipe was the truly right one for us, and I would be making them proud to select it as my own. I trusted my family, and I did.

Soon, I had a kitchen of my own. I was excited to take out my gilded recipe card and prepare it for my own family. I carefully read, painstakingly measured and put everything in the oven to cook. When I pulled my dish out after the allotted time, my heart sunk – something was wrong. It looked soupy, mushy, not properly cooked. I tasted it; it wasn’t delicious. What had I done wrong?? Still, this initial failure didn’t set me back too much. I was inexperienced. I would try again.

And, I did. I believed in my recipe – it was a family heirloom, spanning generations in my family. So, I spent months, years, decades trying to determine why I couldn’t recreate it properly. I became frustrated with my self, frustrated with my family for not wanting to eat what I made and frustrated with cooking in general. Maybe I just wasn’t a good cook. Had the gene skipped me?

Then, I stepped back. Maybe? Maybe the recipe was off? Maybe it hadn’t been transcribed very well? Maybe the ingredients I was provided were rancid. Maybe the kitchen assistants I’d been assured were the best money could buy were actually spiking my sauce with something gross. Maybe it just wasn’t to my taste. Maybe I had been given a wonderful marinara sauce when the truth was that I actually really, really prefer Mexican cuisine. Maybe it wasn’t me at all. Could I look at other recipes? Was it okay to even ask these questions? I felt like I had to because if I didn’t serve something, we were all going to starve. Either way, that recipe was getting tucked firmly on the back of a shelf because I wasn’t going to keep wasting ingredients when I didn’t even know how to fix it. Anyone who I couldn’t solidly identify as a kitchen helper was getting fired, at least temporarily until I sussed out what or who the issue was.

It’s not that spaghetti is bad. It’s that there comes a point when it’s okay to choose to not engage in processes that clearly don’t work for you. I don’t mind when people eat spaghetti. I celebrate people who have an aromatic marinara sauce and have mastered it. I don’t need to order the same thing from a menu to love, respect and sit down to dine with my Italian-loving friends. Choosing to put away a recipe that has failed me doesn’t mean that it can’t work for you. It doesn’t mean I gave up or didn’t try hard enough. (I would venture that recipe failure makes you even more precise in following instructions to the letter.) And, the fact that spaghetti is your favorite food in all the world doesn’t mean that it will be mine. The truth is, I’m a Mexican gal, through and through. When I have the space and the freedom and the ability to play in the kitchen without the pressure to be an Italian goddess, I make very, very good food. I’ve chosen to direct my energy in the kitchen to recipes that I’m able to work with more successfully. I AM a good cook, but I’m making different dishes than what I thought I would when I was a child.

Personally, I think variety is the spice of life in and out of the kitchen to bring the analogy full circle. It’s beautiful to embrace your personal food history, but it’s also really, really nice sometimes to visit other people and try new things. And, when you’ve tried for so long to make something fit, it can be downright refreshing.

Get Out and Vote!

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I first registered to vote in my government class as a high school senior, and I’ve been a responsible citizen ever since. I wasn’t always well versed on the issues, I have to say. I vividly remember my future father-in-law getting pretty annoyed with me when I matter-of-factly wondered why anyone wouldn’t vote for a school bond. Schools are good, right? We need schools. I understand his frustration 25 years later – even things that are good cost money, and that has to come from somewhere.

We’ve struggled a lot this year, both emotionally and financially, and election day today is a good reminder that I have so much to be grateful for. My husband watches a lot of YouTube, and he picked a documentary the other day about kids fleeing from South American countries. I had to call my often-difficult 15-year-old son into the room to watch because the perspective check was so glaring. Kids as young as 8 or 10 forage in the local landfill, are without the protection of families and many choose to flee their country because they are in constant danger, and the risk of illegal travel truly isn’t any worse. In one country they profiled (Guatemala, maybe?) the government shut down all the schools because they could not control the gang activity, making their access to even basic education minimal. Suffice it to say that it makes our own stresses look distinctly like first world problems.

It’s true that we’re barely making ends meet, but in the good old United States of American, that means that I can’t have every thing I want right when I want it. There is always food on my table. We have so many vehicles in our family right now that the fact that mine isn’t really working has been hardly noticeable. Everybody who is able to manage a job right now with their schedule has one. We own a beautiful home that still makes me want to pinch myself. I don’t take any of this for granted and try to remember that not everybody in this world is as fortunate.

I know that immigration is a hot-button issue, and this isn’t necessarily about that or how to fix the system. I don’t have the answers, really. My heart goes out to people that aren’t able to sustain their families in relative health and safety. I guess my larger point here is that we should appreciate both our rights and responsibilities as Americans. If you are registered, please consider taking the time today to find your local polling place and let your voice be heard. (Or, vote early with a mail-in like we did!) Whatever your political leanings, it’s important that you look at the issues and support solutions and candidates that resonate with you. While the media would have us believe that there is no common ground, my experience talking to people with various viewpoints is that we are more alike than we aren’t. Today, I’m proud to be an American with all of you – get out and vote!

The Double-Edged Sword of Dogma

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For the first five years that we lived here, we were in the middle of a small, cliquish town about 15 minutes from our current house. I vividly remember the missionaries showing up at our door one day and knocking. From across the house, I hollered at my kids, “Do not answer the door, or you’ll be grounded!!” It wasn’t until after they’d given up and left that I realized that, being the middle of the summer, all the windows on our 1919 house were open for ventilation. They probably thought I was a complete and utter nutcase. (I plead the fifth. Ha!)

We don’t get many Mormon missionaries here. I think the local wards have an APB out on our subdivision as a “no-fly zone.” However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked the other day. I opened the door to a father, an old man and a little boy. The father reminded me of one of our neighbors – a tall, teddy bear of a man that is incredibly kind and soft-hearted. He introduced me to his young son, flashed his pamphlet and asked me a leading question about how don’t we all want to be happy. I told him I was in the middle of something (I was), but I would take his pamphlet and look at it (I didn’t, really.) Before he left, however, I looked him right in the eye and told him very sincerely to have a good day.

What else do you say when you can’t say what you would really like to? I can’t bombard strangers at my door with invasive questions like, “Why can’t that little boy have a birthday party? Why does Jesus care?” “Why would I trade one dogmatic culture for another that is probably even worse?” “What would happen if that old man didn’t approve of something you said or did?” “What if you had questions? Would your spouse stand by you?”

See, the red pill is a fearful thing, and you can’t force feed it to anybody. You wouldn’t want to – you didn’t want to. In most instances, changing perspectives happen on accident. Still, that last question encompasses a gigantic elephant-in-the-room in Mormon culture. Who am I outside the paradigm, and will my spouse, especially, still love me there? I consider myself incredibly lucky in this area. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve wrestled and fought and wrenched our hearts to sort this out, but we’re still here – together. It is never certain, even now.

I have a dear friend who I’ve known for several years. We met well before our lives were turned upside down, but became close because we found ourselves walking side-by-side on very similar paths. As my own marriage has weathered the storm in a way where things are looking up, hers has not. I have such a range of emotions about this. I’ve watched her do the absolute best that she knows how in brutal and unforgiving circumstances. My husband has been inoculated with perspective and nuance, and it’s saved us quite literally. He had already cut the figurative apron strings in many ways before we found ourselves swept up on this ride that has become our life. Her husband is still tightly tethered by a cord that is suffocating what used to be a very loving and fulfilling marriage. She has held on much, much longer than I think I could have in the same situation, and I admire her more than I can say no matter how her story plays out. This was weighing heavily on my mind the last time I went to church. I sat in that congregation and mentally looked around the room and thought, “They own these men and, by extension, they own these marriages.” I wanted to cry.

This is the double-edged sword of dogmatic religion. I know without a doubt that the structure, expectations and rules work incredibly well for many, many people I know. I have friends and family that are baffled by the shifts in our life. I envy them in many ways. I know that things look very black and white from that perspective because I lived there for a very long time. However, the truth is that it cuts incredibly deep when you find yourself unexpectedly picked up and plopped down behind the curtain. Real people are here. Real families. Real marriages. And, they are really hurting from the complete and utter lack of context that allows for them to remain safe and flourish in their families in such an unforgiving cultural narrative of conformity. What used to feel safe and comforting and sure to me now leans sinister and controlling and threatening. If you’re not with us, you’re against us feels much less friendly when you find yourself outside the circle.

I’m genuinely not trying to rain on anyone’s parade. If you’re happy where you are, I am so, so glad. Stay there! Do what works well for you and your family. However, please realize that not everything is a good fit for every person in the same way, and have charity when you see outliers. (I really am still very much the same person I was before my life became a public spectacle.) Above all, if you do ever find yourself in the situation that my own husband has, please, for the love of all that is holy, please look at the bigger picture. Love each other. Turn toward each other. Let the peripheral people, pressures and parts of your life go for a bit until you find yourself grounded again. Do not make permanent decisions that will affect you and your children out of fear or tradition or dogma. Ultimately, you and your loved ones will pay the price, and it makes no sense to leave that in the hands of people, priorities and organizations that can wash their hands of it and walk away. Put the sword down before you find yourself using it against the people that love you the most. Give yourself and your family that gift.

Parenting is Blind Man’s Bluff

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Please, for the love of all that’s holy, tell me I’m not the only one that has a consistently difficult child. I suppose I should feel grateful that I have this little thing called parenting perspective, so I’m not a jerk to other moms, but the truth is that I just mostly feel like crap about it. We’re supposed to shower our kids with love and care, not count the days until they move out. This is the sentiment that started this blog and it is definitively #notpinterestworthy. :/

I’ve made a lot of progress in dealing with my challenging, 6-foot-tall teen, and I still just mostly want to stab my eyeballs with an ice pick most days. I honestly don’t see a lot of options beyond riding out raising him and hoping for the best. Parenting is this really (sometimes) crappy conundrum where you’re solely responsible for the actions of another person when the truth is that you have zero control over their choices. I can lecture myself hoarse, and he will still, ultimately, do what he wants.

This is crap for me. Torture, really. I am probably one of the most reasonable people you could ever meet, but it makes zero difference when you’re a mom. If I had a “real job” as a manager, I would never be expected to sit and smile and be constantly patient while the people around me treated my attempts to accomplish things with all the respect of a talking Charlie Brown head spouting utter nonsense. The logical part of me knows that parenting really is an other-worldly environment full of unrealistic expectations. There is no other place in the world that an adult interacts in that is held to a higher standard, and I live in this space all. the. time. I don’t have a “day job.” I don’t send my kids off to school for most of the day. I’m with them, 24-7.

I’ve always been told that we’re all the “perfect parent for our kids – just what they need,” and I truly hope this is the truth. In reality, I wonder every single day if it is. Did I coddle him too much as a toddler? (He was the baby of the family for almost five years before his brother was born.) Did I not hug him enough? Is he difficult because I have come to expect it from him, and he just lives up to that? Would he be insufferable if I didn’t try so hard to teach him respect for others, boundaries, responsibility? I have no clue. I have no way of knowing, but I still torture myself with the questions and sometimes feel utterly sunk in self hatred of my inability to be the Perfect Mom for him.

I think the hardest part of this is that I know he’s a good person. There is so much potential there, and I can just taste how amazing that would be if he would point things in a more healthy direction. I have no way of seeing the future. I have no way of knowing if any of my minute adjustments to my approach or my creative attempts to reach him will hit the mark. I won’t know until he’s grown and gone and it’s much too late to fix any of it. This fact is so, so hard.

If you know anything about me, it’s that I like to be good at what I do to probably a ridiculous extent. It took my therapist about three sessions to peg this as an inherent quality of mine. This is probably the number one reason I’m crafty. I can’t throw in the towel and “change hobbies” when it comes to what I actually spend the majority of my day doing. Parenting is a labor of love, and it twists my heart and turns me inside out with the sheer hard work of it. So, when you see me pouring gallons of soap or sewing new wardrobes in a month, it’s not because I’m superhuman. It’s because I need to feel a sense of accomplishment. I need something in my life where there is a method and a process and a consistency that I can count on. In this long-term game of blind man’s bluff, little successes along the way remind me that I may, just maybe, have what it takes.

It’s Been a Swimming-Through-Jello Day

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Today is a bit nuts. I have a million balls in the air. I had to send (and resend) a few invoices for our family business, there is some loan paperwork that I need to upload (we’re refinancing), my kids are all on homeschooling protest today, and I can’t figure out how to get some tech stuff for both the blog and my Facebook business page to work properly. (Check me out at The Essay Assistant on Facebook! I’ll make your writing sing, too!) Truthfully, I’m doing way too many things right now, and it’s all just frustrating me.

I’m not even going to lie. I like instant gratification. Raising kids and building businesses is anything but. Some days everything that flows from my fingers is gold, and sometimes I painstakingly wrench the words from my keyboard. I remember being sick as a kid and drifting in and out of feverish, twilight sleep. My brain would register the experience like I was swimming through jello. I could see and hear and remember everything, but it was sluggish and in slow motion. To be fair, I think I had a vivid imagination as a child because I also remember jerking awake from the brink of sleep and having it scare me – I somehow convinced myself that the devil was touching me. (This may be a sign that you’ve been raised in extremism. Just maybe.) While I have outgrown the latter feeling that was largely a product of superstition, I still have days where I recognize the sensation of swimming through jello.

Having kids is one of the most surreal experiences in life. I guess it’s all I know, so I can’t say how it would be different it were, well, different. I can imagine, however. When my day goes south, it’s like I’m mommy Edward Scissorhands – don’t get too close because I’m likely to accidentally-on-purpose (figuratively – calm down) cut you on my sharp edges. It’s disconcerting when this happens, but it’s also motivating. I’m not perfect. Some days I’m not even close to adequate, but I have a built-in motivation to get up, dust off and try harder.

I am well past the boot camp years of parenting, as one of my friends describes those endless, long years where your kids really don’t pull any weight themselves. I’m lucky to have older kids, even a few adults. This is amazing not only because I get a break and some freedom and some help (and access to their cars because mine is iffy), but because I get to see the product of my many long years of work. All my adult kids, well, like me. I like them. They’re good, responsible people and don’t hate me. They see the bigger picture now and can grant me grace for days where I was barely keeping my head up. I think (I really hope) that they even admire me and want to be like me in my best ways. (Please just get rid of the less admirable stuff. Ha!) They know ALL my weaknesses (do they ever!) and still love me. This is one of the most amazing gifts of motherhood, but it doesn’t come from picture-perfect moments that make good Instagram and Pinterest posts. It comes from swimming-through-jello days.

I just put my youngest kids to bed, and the words are flowing a bit easier than they did earlier. My husband is home which usually means the kids are magically angels, and I’m about to close my computer, relax for probably the first time today and snuggle under a warm blanket. This day is already fading into a memory, and I am so relieved. Tomorrow will better because days that hit bottom can, after all, only go up. That may well be the greatest gift of a bad day.

 

I Wouldn’t Trade This For a First Kiss

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I had a dream a few weeks ago that took my breath away and has made me thoughtful. It was one of those convoluted dreams where random things are jumping all over the place, for the most part. However, right before I woke up, I dreamed that some guy kissed me. (Don’t worry, it was a faceless, nobody man – nobody that I know or that actually exists.) I woke up with this lingering feeling of, I don’t know, being seen?

My husband and I dated for two years before we got married, and it was a passionate and intense courtship – even volatile at times. We’re still very much in love. He’s my best friend and a man of impeccable integrity. But, a romantic he is not. We’ve been married for going on 23 years. Things change over time, and it’s very natural and expected. Still, I have twinges occasionally where I long for what the past was. It’s an illogical feeling in a lot of ways because what was amazing about it came with a lot of uncertainty – things that I am so glad to see gone in our daily life. But, humans are sometimes ridiculous, aren’t we? We fail to see that the good comes with some bad, and the sometimes boring is infused with a softness, a quietness, a peace and a comfort that no amount of excitement can replace.

We went on a date this weekend. We haven’t been out for a bit. We don’t have a set schedule because, well, we’re having a rough year financially (ha!), and we tend to both hate that sort of structure anyway. He’ll just randomly text me with, “Where am I taking you tonight?” We didn’t do anything fancy, but I put on makeup and cute clothes and spent an evening away from our kids with the man I love. This morning, my husband got up and got in the bath. (He’s a bath guy; I’m all about showers, so we have both a big, soaker tub and a walk-in shower in our master bath.) Our water heater is on the fritz, and he hasn’t gotten around to replacing the element that’s out, so it runs at about half heat and is particularly bad first thing in the morning. After about 10 minutes, he called my name, and I walked in the bathroom.

As I opened the door, my husband looked very sheepish, and he was kind of laughing at himself. Raising my eyebrows, I asked him what was up. After a bit of hemming and hawing and berating himself for not fixing the water heater yet, he tentatively said that he thought he should just ask me to boil him some hot water so that he could get warm. He had no real expectations that I would get up and do this. I could have laughed as well at the thought and walked back to what I was doing. But, I didn’t. I graciously boiled him water and brought it in and dumped it in the tub. I didn’t have to. He knew it, and I knew it. With laughing eyes as he reveled in the luxury of the hot water, I commented that this little favor was better than buying him a gift, and he wholeheartedly agreed as he sunk into the water.

In the moments where I feel that twinge of longing for a relationship that is young and new and exciting and actively romantic, I could miss these moments. I could make the mistake of thinking that I have a lack because life ebbs and flows. We’re not young anymore. We have kids that are growing up and riding the edge of moving on with their lives. Our history runs incredibly deep. He has hurt me like no one else I’ve known and loved me to depths that I could never have imagined were possible when I was a young and naive 18-year-old bride. It is true that we don’t always see each other. He can walk in the room, and my brain doesn’t always register that my stomach should flutter. I know it’s the same for him. The reality is that my brain, my heart, just sees him as a part of me after almost a quarter-century of knowing him. There are times where I look deep in his eyes, and it all comes flooding back, but most moments are a quiet knowing that he’s my person, and I can’t imagine it being any other way.

Right now, he is putting on a tie and getting ready to go to church, and I am writing my blog and not getting ready at all. He knows this, and we don’t really talk about it. It’s not like it’s festering under the surface; it just is. This could be a major issue for us. But, see, I can smile and boil this man water for no other reason that I don’t want him to be cold. So, he can give me space and time and love in our unusual circumstances. Kisses that take your breath away are a moment, and they can be surrounded by a million things that aren’t healthy or beautiful or useful. I suppose this might sound sad to couples who are in younger relationships. It is not. (We still kiss.) It is quietly, peacefully and comfortingly beautiful, and I wouldn’t trade it for a hundred breathtaking first kisses. I’ve lived enough to know how very lucky I am.