Integrity in Institutions

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There’s a common narrative when somebody renegotiates their relationship with religion that says that they were offended or weak or just couldn’t hack the expectations. I think it’s an easy way for people to organize their environment. The truth, however, is much, much more complicated than that. I think people side-eye me thinking I’m super sensitive and bothered by how things have changed for us, but I’m actually quite philosophical about the whole thing.

Institutions are living things, and they have their own priorities, politics and ways of being. While people breathe life into them, they also take on a life of their own. Recognizing this has made what we have experienced much less personal. I was talking to someone the other day and explaining to them how I’ve come to understand the people that we’ve dealt with in our church and some of the things they did. They’re not “bad men.” They would prefer to be nice and will if they can. However, their number one job is always to perpetuate the needs, priorities and politics of the institution. When people come into conflict with that, they have no choice but to choose the institution. It’s a very, very simple equation, and they believe wholeheartedly that it’s for the best to do it this way. This isn’t at all unique to churches, though I think there’s dynamics there that make it particularly hard for people to identify honestly.

Many, many people I know quietly move within this construct with absolutely no adverse effects. There are benefits to actively engaging in religion and things about it that I distinctly miss. However, when you identify institutional priorities and realize that they aren’t in line with your own values and priorities, it is virtually impossible to unsee that. I have mad respect for the people around me that I interact with on a daily basis. I have zero regard for the integrity of the institution.

According to Wikipedia, “Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, or moral uprightness. It is a personal choice to hold one’s self to consistent standards. In ethics, integrity is regarded as the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions.” The thing is that integrity to an institution is different than personal integrity. People interact with religious communities with expectations based upon their own means of measuring integrity. For many people, these never come into conflict. For me and many others, they have. And, once they do, you never look at it the same again.

I kind of raised my eyebrows a bit when my husband came home from church this week and said that he’d been called on to speak. He said that he didn’t think he had offended anyone or said anything too out there. (I think he just talked about getting the neighborhood round robin Santa sock – please don’t gift it to us again! It cost a million and four dollars to fill two of those. Ha ha!) He hasn’t been for a few months, you see. I would guess that a lot of people think that has something to do with me, but the truth is that we’re both navigating our relationship with church in our own way with pretty much zero interference or influence from the other. We’re getting better at differentiating and acknowledging that we’re both adults that can make our own decisions. He’s dealing with his own issues and working through his own feelings, some of which have to do with me and some of which don’t. He’s most definitively not weak.

I like to think, in theory, that it’s possible to have institutions where organizational integrity is in harmony with personal integrity and firm morals and values. I hope there are still spaces in this world where a people and community can come first over politics. I don’t know anymore, but I’ve made peace with my own relationship with the reality that I see, and my husband will, too. In his own way, and in his own time.

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Sometimes You Just Have to Wear the Snow Boots

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As a rule, my girls aren’t particularly dramatic. My older daughters are the best kinds of girls – the friends to everyone that just avoid all the peripheral drama in their social group. My youngest daughter, however, is only seven, and it happens sometimes. My kids also naturally don’t really like change, so this was the perfect storm and made for a S.U.P.E.R. fun morning!

We’ve had snow here. It went from being pretty dry to looking like a winter wonderland in about a week. The day before this event, my little girl had thrown her shoes on and went outside to hang out with her daddy, so I knew that she had them just hours before. However, when we got up on Tuesday morning with places to go, she couldn’t locate them. Seeing as they are the only shoes she has right now, this was a problem. After digging through mountains of unused/too small/where do these belong? shoes, we found a pair of green and black snow boots that looked like they would do the job. BOY snow boots. GREEN and BLACK. Nope. R.E.J.E.C.T.E.D.

Except, we had places to go. And, we were late. So, of course, a 20-minute, full-on battle of wills ensued about whether or not my little girl was going to be caught dead in those boots. Her vote, of course, was h#!! to the no, and I went for the practical approach – wear it or stay home! I have to go! There was a tiny bit of negotiation (No, you can’t wear the heeled church shoes that are too big for you in the snow) before I finally got them on her feet on threat of being left. She wasn’t happy at all and there was stamping and crying and general disgust at being forced to wear boy shoes.

And, then she got over it. She wore them into class and nobody noticed or said anything, really. When she got home she put them on voluntarily so she could go outside. We still haven’t found her shoes, and she’s been wearing them now for days like it’s just no big deal.

My kids aren’t divas or stuck up or pretentious, really. (They live with me. Ha ha!) They don’t, however, take to sudden changes in expectations well. (Again, my kids!) I always try to remind them that things are rarely as bad at they imagine, and it’s sometimes necessary to just roll with things. I give them the option to choose in as many situations as I can (she could have stayed home), but there are times when I can’t stop and explain or convince, and we just have to wear the green boots anyway.

I really hope that she didn’t leave her shoes outside to get subsequently snowed on. If that’s the case, we won’t see them until spring, and they’ll probably be ruined for good. Luckily, there will be a new pair of boots under the Christmas tree in just a few weeks. I promise they’re not boy boots.

 

Trying to Build a Better Boat

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Sometimes the one thing that it takes to become healthy is to acknowledge what isn’t. I consider myself to be pretty proactive about being aware and keeping things balanced, but healing takes time.  We are horrible travelers. It’s always been a weak spot in our marriage. When we travel just as a couple, it’s great, but we’ve had some of our worst arguments when we were traveling as a family. It’s not pretty to have a family conflict in a closed car which is all I’m going to say about that. We had a really, really bad blowup a few years ago on the way to my niece’s wedding (we were good company that day. Ha!), and both my husband and myself made a decision that we were done with this bad, toxic habit, and it hasn’t happened since.

The funny thing is that you can fix the issue, but there is still baggage and emotional reactions there. I still have anticipatory anxiety when we’re getting ready to travel. It’s softening over time and fading as I get used to what has become a new normal for me, but it’s taken several years. This concept is really hitting home for me right now. We get used to things, don’t we? And, they aren’t always healthy or things that you want to keep around, but we crave the familiar.

The fall and winter have been very quiet for our family. Very peaceful after the turmoil that carried us well into 2019. The peace is nice. The quiet is good. But, it’s also seeps into my psyche as boring. See, our marriage has been marked by tension for about seven years now. I have friends that have never seen our relationship in a season of quiet. My husband has been my hero as we’ve plowed through this year, but he didn’t come to that overnight. There was arguing, ugly-cry tears, very real fears that divorce was imminent, pushing, pulling and just general angst that was a very real presence in our lives. It wasn’t healthy. Our kids saw it and lived through it and have their own baggage from that experience. But, it was what I’ve come to know. It became normal to me to take the temperature of my husband’s mood every day when he came home. If it was less than chipper, it became my self-appointed job to cheer him up and make him happy/grateful. Please understand that he didn’t give me this job. He was dealing with things in ways that prompted me to feel like it was, but the truth is that I took it on myself.

I’ve spent a good part of the latter part of this year working on this issue. There is less angst there. Less tension. More quiet. But, I still find myself doing this. It’s softening over time and fading, but I have to be very mindful that I’m not responsible for my husband’s emotions. I’ve heard it said before that we only do things that work for us in some way, and I’m really trying to untangle this part of our healing and sort it out. The truth is that high tension creates a bounce-back that feeds strong connection. (This is why makeup sex is great. Just saying.) The logical part of my brain does not miss the arguing or the tension or the angst, but my emotional brain is so used to it that it feels empty and lacking and just not there.

Before you get the idea that we’re a total mess that is imploding as we speak, we’re very, very normal. We have a very normal, net-healthy marriage, a very normal home life and very normal, great and well-behaved (for the most part) kids. This is just our baggage – we all have it. Our Achilles heel. Our mountain that we’re climbing. We’re getting there.

This year has been cathartic and revealing. It doesn’t make me comfortable to realize that I’m missing things that I’ve been begging to be without for years. It’s a bit embarrassing, frankly. But, realizing that there is an emotional hole from an extraction site, so to speak, is a good thing, I think. We’ve cut a cancer out, and it’s empty there. Healthy things are growing in its place, but it takes time. The missing it will soften over time and fade as it’s replaced by healthier patterns and habits. It hasn’t all been pretty, but I’m determined to use every lesson for good. Ultimately, that, I think, will be the secret to our success. Not that we haven’t waded through some really crappy stuff but that we didn’t tap out too early to see what there was to learn in it. When you see an old couple sitting on a park bench holding hands, it’s not years of Pinterest-worthy moments that you’re seeing, it’s the aftermath of just this hurricane.

I heard this song for the first time when we were driving home from Thanksgiving. (A trip that was quiet and calm and altogether unremarkable. I barely remember feeling anxious at all.) It really struck me, and it felt like an anthem for my journey. I immediately had my almost 20-year-old daughter look it up and send it to my husband who had been home for a few days already. Building makes a mess, and it can sometimes be hard to see the results in the middle of sawdust and streaked faces. At the end of the day, however, what we’re really trying to do is just build a better boat.

 

An Eye For an Eye, Bro!

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I really think I should have just been a girl mom. Except, then I would be completely insufferable to everyone around me. I mean, what’s your problem?? Kids are EASY! Just kidding. I couldn’t pass up the photo for today because that’s seriously what parenting boys feels like. You have to just laugh, or you’ll cry.

I took my daughter in for dental surgery yesterday morning. She got the short end of the gene pool with her teeth, and this is the at least the third time she’s had sedated dental work. (I always love trying to convince dentists that she actually does brush and that we aren’t completely negligent in her oral care. I’m never sure that they actually believe it though she’s honestly my best brusher.) Yesterday, it was a root canal on a permanent but immature tooth, so we had to go to a specialist and spend more than twice our entire Christmas budget for a family of nine so that she wasn’t down a permanent molar at age seven. Whee!

I got home in the early afternoon and tucked her in bed to sleep it off. After a bit, there was a scuffle with my 11-year-old and 15-year-old. Apparently, when I was gone, my older son was hogging the computer so that my younger son couldn’t use it to complete his math lesson. Said younger son got angry, went up to their room and threw all his brother’s stuff all over which was an undeniably jerk move. When I sent my younger son upstairs to make amends and help clean up the mess, he was instead upset because my older son decided to break all his brothers things as well. So, the 11-year-old slammed the bathroom door and, in the process, broke the light cover in the adjoining hallway. Yay.

Luckily, that was the end of the altercation. I sent my older son to the bedroom to clean up the room on his own while my younger son had to get a broom and sweep up all the glass from his angry outburst. The 15-year-old then got a lecture about taking things into this own hands and not allowing me to take care of my own kids with an emphasis on how disrespecting other people’s things doesn’t teach them to be more respectful of yours. Instead, it just teaches them that you can break people’s crap as long as you’re bigger than them. Bad life lesson.

So, fun day, all around. I counted it as a success, though, because 1. I effectively worked through it without escalating everything, 2. I threw a life lesson in there that sunk in, and 3. I didn’t lose my shit in the process. Win – win – win! See, when you’ve been momming for a long time, that’s pretty much all it takes to count it a good day. Maybe they won’t hate me when they grow up after all.

Differentiation With a Side of Turkey

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Spending time with family always makes me introspective. We had a fantastic Thanksgiving. We stayed with my dad and had dinner with my husband’s family. I had several conversations that got me thinking about a concept that I first heard discussed in the Facebook marriage group I participate in. “Differentiation is the active, ongoing process of defining self, revealing self, clarifying boundaries, and managing the anxiety that comes from risking either greater intimacy or potential separation.” In the most simple terms, differentiation is becoming comfortable with people being different than yourself, especially people that are close to you. It is human nature, a survival mechanism really, to want to be similar to your community.

People have varying tolerances for differentiation, and I have apparently lucked out in this category. I sat with my husband and his brothers on Thanksgiving and had a conversation about this. My husband is one of the most religious people in his family. He has siblings that range the full spectrum all the way to atheists that have left-leaning politics. My brother-in-law said that when he first brought his now ex-wife to a family function, she was amazed that we could all sit in a room and get along peacefully without making a scene. This is, I suppose, unique in such a diverse crowd. (And, maybe why she’s the ex-wife. Ha!)

We almost didn’t go to Thanksgiving this year. There is a lot of junk floating around in our family right now, and I was worried that there would be drama at our gathering that we really didn’t want to be in the middle of. (It doesn’t involve us directly.) There wasn’t. It was fine. Nobody aired the dirty laundry publicly, and we had a nice meal and visit. Because the truth is, you don’t have to be just like someone to love them or respect them or just associate with them generally. You can even have hard feelings and not make a scene about it.

My dad is what you might call a “true believing Mormon,” though his path there was a bit, ahem, unconventional. He only has one child out of his dozen that is active in the church. I know that this makes him a bit sad because he posted about it on Facebook after we went home. This is the most I have ever heard him say about it. (I’m going to struggle with wording this because I have such deep feelings for my dad.) What he did say was how much he enjoys my visits because my kids are well behaved, and I never bring drama. He is one of the best men I know. He would literally give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it. Case in point – We had a bit of a transportation conflict during our weekend. My daughter and my husband needed to bug out early to work, but the rest of us wanted to stay. The problem was that we had only brought two vehicles, and the one I was bringing home only seated five people, and seven of us wanted to stay. While we were discussing how we might be able to make it work so that my two middle sons wouldn’t have to leave early, my dad offered to drive home with us. We live 3 hours away. He literally spent his Saturday driving home my sons so that they could spend a few more days with their grandparents. Goodness, I love that man.

I have heard dozens of stories as I’ve navigated this year that are less happy than my own. People who share about how afraid they are talk to their family about renegotiating their relationship with religion. People who are uninvited to family events, shamed, talked about in less than flattering ways, lose lifelong friends and just generally are pretty devastated with the inability of others to differentiate. This not only hurts my heart but makes me realize how unbelievably lucky I am in this department.

I spent a bit of time talking to my aunt (step-mom? aunty-mom? My aunt – as in my mother’s sister – it’s complicated – is my dad’s current wife.) this weekend about what I’ve experienced this year and how I feel about life and religion. I think she was surprised about my strong reactions to some things. However, when it comes down to the brass tacks of it, I’m still her daughter. She loves me and she understands that I’ve been through a lot and, more than anything, she and my dad just want to offer me love and support. They are not inherently dogmatic people, and they live their religion quietly and in a way that works for them. I wish this was true in all Mormon (Jehovah’s Witness, Catholic…) families. I wish that I didn’t know so many people who struggle to differentiate, who take it so personally when someone experiences a shift. I wish that there was a cultural narrative that allowed for someone to step up and say, “Hey, I love you and I value our relationship, but this thing, this part over here, just doesn’t work for me right now.” I wish there was a standard reply that said, “Oh. Okay. Thanks for the information. We’re still family/friends, so don’t worry about it. You’re always welcome here.”

In the end, the truth is that we aren’t really all the same. People in the same family, the same church, the same community are incredibly different, and people change over time as they move through life. Even when we don’t feel at liberty to express our differences of opinion or belief, they are there – the sameness is an assumption. We are all unique. Our experiences are unique. We have unique histories and needs. The truth is that I haven’t changed all that much and certainly not overnight. What has happened is that I’ve found the freedom to say things out loud that many people don’t have. I imagine that is one the draws of this blog.

I’m lucky that I have friends and family who are good at respecting boundaries and offering support in my unorthodox situation. I’m glad that I’ve learned about differentiation this year. I’m even more glad that I didn’t have to learn about it the hard way. One of the kindest, most Christian things that any believer can do is offer this gift to the people in your life. I like to think that it’s what Jesus would do.

My Ride-or-Die, Zombie-Apocalypse Team

backlit-dawn-dusk-862848.jpgIt’s halfway through November, and I’m seeing all my friends post on Facebook with their daily gratitudes. Frankly, I’m bad at this kind of thing. Not because I’m ungrateful but because it would require 30 days of unaccountable consistency. The fact that I have published this blog like clockwork, twice a week, with nothing behind it but a wing and a prayer is a bit of a miracle. I am a get-it-done type of person if I’ve made a promise or someone is counting on me. If it’s just me, meh, I’d probably rather be doing anything else or will suddenly be missing my motivation. I get that this is a rather stupid mental game I play, but it mostly works for me. Shrug.

Still, today was a grateful day, so I would be remiss not to throw my hat in the ring in at least a minor way. This year, to put it mildly, has been transformative for me. As it comes to an end, we’re getting back to a place of stability, though this looks so very different than it did before January 2018. I’m grateful for the quiet and peace again. But, I’m most grateful for what I’ve learned. I posted this on my Facebook page in April when we were pretty much in the thick of things with our church and our decision to take a stand against abuse.

“When you go through something difficult, you inevitably learn about yourself. But, you also learn an awful lot about other people – what their values are, what their priorities are, what their agendas are. I have experienced a juxtaposition of warriors and weakness, servanthood and self-service, integrity and ignorance. Eye opening doesn’t even begin to describe it, but if you pressed me on who I would want on my ride-or-die team for the zombie apocalypse, you better believe I know.”

Today, I got a surprise visit from two of my very most favorite people in the whole world. I’ve been good friends with my one girlfriend for at least five years. We’ve lived in the same community since she moved here, and she is one of the most fun, selfless, upbeat and accepting people I know. My other friend is a newer connection, though we’ve been acquaintances for years. These two women make up the core of my truest tribe: women who have walked through fire with me this year. They are the ones (along with my mom – a very new addition to this list. Love you, Mom!) who have seen me fall apart, cry and wonder if I had it in me to fight the battle I was taking on. They are the ones that assured that I did – that I was brave and strong and capable. They’ve embraced my mess and loved me straight through it. They’ve shared their stories and listened to mine, found resources for me, and showed up on my doorstep at a moment’s notice. I have shared with them my deepest fears about the struggles in my marriage, and they have heard the rawest truth about my current relationship with faith. I would imagine that looking in from the outside, it might seem that I have changed a lot, but these women just see me.

I’m a bit of a homebody, and the fact that my one girlfriend is pushing like gangbusters to finish her house means we haven’t done a girl’s night for a long time (it just wouldn’t be the same without her.) Adjusting to how things have changed is challenging. I feel isolated sometimes. While the truth is that everyone is probably busy living their own lives and they don’t really care, I wonder what people think of me. Sometimes it feels like I’ve lost a lot in the way of easy belonging and the ability to just blend in and be a part of the, uh, collective? (Ha.) The truth is that the superficial has merely quietly faded away, leaving me with just the relationships that mean the very most to me.

I’m convinced that I have the very best friends in the whole wide world, and I mean more than these two. The silver lining of this year for me has been connection. I have met so many amazing people and had the opportunity to offer support and be supported by a deep, meaningful tribe. The beauty of this is almost overwhelming when I stop and think about it like I did today. So, I might not be able to sustain a full 30 days, but I would be remiss not to give a shout out to one of the things in my life that I am the very most grateful for – my ride-or-die team for the zombie apocalypse. I hope you know who you are, and I love you all so incredibly much!

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.