How Parenthood Made My Marriage Stronger

Not actual parenthood, mind you, although I’m sure when we cross that bridge together we’ll both learn a lot.

But I’m talking about the TV show Parenthood.

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My husband and I started watching the show last year, after several of our friends recommended it, and after a brief hiatus, we’re finally back to watching an episode together most evenings. The reason we took a break from it is really just evidence for how great a show it is.

We got too involved, too invested. We (okay, okay, I) couldn’t get through a single episode without ugly crying. The characters, with all their various issues and mistakes and complications, became a part of our lives. And what with me publishing my second book and trying to get my ducks in a row for going back to school and us buying our first home and moving and facing the busy holiday season, it all became a bit too much.

But now we’re back. And, as I was beginning to suspect last year before we hit the pause button, watching it together has been exceedingly good for our marriage.

How can a TV show, especially one rife with such relational and familial drama, be good for any real life relationships? That’s probably would I would have said last year, before we entered what can only be described as the Braverman Family Circus. Divorces and delinquent teenagers and spoiled kids and brother-sister screaming matches all put together doesn’t exactly equal the relaxed, peaceful atmosphere I’m usually craving at the end of a long day.

But here’s the thing. This show is so real, from the situations to the acting to the breakdowns in communication to the consequences of everyone’s crappy actions. And through all this fighting and discord, I’ve discovered something.

The characters have fights for us.

That sounds weird, and maybe it is weird, so let me explain.

My husband and I have shared almost three wonderful years together as man and wife. We’ve had our ups and downs, of course–what couple doesn’t? And there have been plenty of family emergencies and situations arise during our time as a married couple.

But there is still plenty we haven’t experienced yet, like parenthood and the trials and tribulations thereof. There is plenty we hope we never experience, like layoffs, cheating, separation, a spouse with cancer, substance abuse, and divorce. And all these things play out on our television every night, an hour-long drama fest filled with mistakes and arguments and, yes, fighting.

After we’d been watching for a while, we started pausing the episodes so we could discuss what was going on. What was Julia doing wrong? What was Adam doing right? Without really meaning to, we started discussing the thought processes behind each character’s actions and whether or not we agreed with them. Oftentimes, at least starting out, we have wildly different opinions, but we talk through the situations calmly and thoughtfully, weighing each other’s comments with careful consideration until we reach a satisfied middle ground, a place where we both feel like we understand the other person just a little bit more.

Basically? We get the productive benefit of having a fight, without having to have a fight at all.

Thanks to Parenthood, we know more about each other’s personal communication styles, our more nuanced views of what’s right and wrong, and what we would like to do in various difficult situation, all without having to experience anything more difficult than sitting on our couch holding hands. Watching this show together has been a way for us to both step outside ourselves for a little while and just engage with each other intellectually. It has allowed us to wrestle with tough questions without us forgetting for a moment that we’re on the same team.

And you know what? Since we’ve started watching the show together, our fights have been fewer, farther between, and more productive.

I’m not going to give Parenthood all the credit for that. After all, we do work on our relationship outside of that one hour spent together on the couch. But it’s definitely helped. It gets us talking about things that aren’t superficial at the end of long work days when we’d both rather veg out. It makes us think about how we would act, and whether our instincts are correct. It makes us–or at least me–more mindful of our marriage, in the very best way. And in my book, something with results like that is definitely worth pursuing.

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How I Do It: 1 Not-So-Easy Step to Make Your Dreams Come True

I hear it all the time. “How do you do it?”

It’s not an unwarranted question. Sometimes, I even ask it of myself. How do I do it?

How do I put in forty hours Monday through Friday, while still squeezing in six hours of classes, and then turn around and work another eight hours on Saturday, and then spend Sunday mornings at church, and then spend Sunday afternoons grocery shopping and doing chores? How do I manage to do all of that, and still manage to be a homeowner and a wife, and hopefully a potential mother, and put in enough writing to churn out roughly one book per year?

People also ask this question of my husband and myself as a married unit. How do we work fifty plus hours a week each, and still find time for romance and companionship? How do we manage to put money in savings almost every month on such a low combined income? How did we manage to go from limping along from paycheck to paycheck to paying off component student loans and purchasing a house in less than three years?

The answer to both questions is really one and the same.

This answer is simple, although it might not be what you want to hear. It is not a simple solution, one tiny step needed to right the balance in an already stress-filled life.

Here it is:

I do what I do because I have to.

We do what we do because we have to.

Plan everything.

Skip lunch breaks.

Save receipts.

Stay home and cook, even when it would be easier just to go out.

Budget everything. Money, time, calories. Everything.

Brainstorm while driving.

Stay up half the night working on homework and reading assignments, and then stay up even later to put in work on my books.

Don’t watch near as much Netflix as my lazy butt would like.

Know when it’s time to take a night “off” to spend time with my husband, and I don’t mind working twice as hard the next day to make that happen.

I don’t have a ton of free time–in fact, I’m not even sure I understand what free time is anymore–but you know what? I am completely, totally satisfied. I might be sleep deprived and busy to the point of nervous breakdown on some days, but for the first time in my life, I am passionate about what I do.

My office job? Love it.

My fast-food job? It’s only temporary, I don’t hate it, and it allows me to spend time with friends.

School? LOVE IT.

Writing? LOVE IT.

Achieving dreams, no matter what they are, will always require work. It will always require discipline. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll pursue them later, when it will be easier, when it will be more manageable. Such a time will never come. You don’t have to do everything all at once, but you have to start somewhere.

Make a list of everything you need to accomplish in order to fulfill your dreams and start doing them as you can, baby steps, one by one. It will be frustrating and draining, and some days you will just want to give up because you feel like you’re standing still, but you’re not. You’re still light years ahead of the people who are not even trying.

Stop waiting for your fully-formed dream to drop painlessly into your lap. It’s not going to happen. It never happens like that. If you want something to happenstart that process now. You’ll be busy, and you’ll be tired, but you will be doing something you love.

If you need further inspiration, check out Zen Pencils’ wonderful illustration of a speech given by James Rhodes, “Is That Not Worth Exploring?” It makes me tear up every time I read it, because it is so true. Your dreams are worth exploring, no matter the sacrifice. No matter what you have to do. So get out there, and do it!

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a look back

If you are involved with social media at all, you’ve become acquainted with hashtags. More specifically, you’ve become acquainted with themed days brought to us by Instagram.  There is #ManCrushMonday, #TransformationTuesday, #WomanCrushWednesday, #ThrowbackThursday, and #FlashbackFriday.  I was skeptical about the use of hashtags at first, and I admit that the majority of the time that I use one, it’s because it adds a splash of irony or humor to my post (at least, that’s what I tell myself).

But I have to admit that I have grown to really enjoy these different themes throughout the week.  I like to see acquaintances, coworkers, friends, and family members sharing pictures taken during their childhood or their adolescent years with that silly little #TBT or #FBF thrown in.  It spurs reminiscent conversations, jogs collective memories, and sometimes even gives you a peek into the life of that person before you were a part of it.  I’m sure I am not alone in this sentiment.

Bearing that in mind, I have some things that I’d like to share with you, my acquaintances, coworkers, friends, and family members.  (We’ll call it #SelfReflectionSunday, just to make it feel more legitimate.)  As my husband and I approach the one year anniversary of our marriage, I have been thinking about some things that I have experienced, learned, or had affirmed over these past almost-twelve months.

To those of you who are impatient brides or grooms-to-be, consider this some unsolicited advice.  To those of you who have been married far longer than I, who have faced situations that I can’t even begin to comprehend, feel free to smirk at my youthful naivete and call me out if it needs to happen – I can take it, I promise.  To those of you who are single, I still feel like this stuff is important to know.  I could be wrong, but what’s the harm in reading, right?

Get premarital counseling. Lots of it.  Gather advice from seasoned veterans, newlyweds, divorcees, and those who aren’t that happy in their marriage.  There is a lot to be learned from all sides.

Don’t look forward to the wedding day. Look forward to the day after. Seriously.  The wedding day will be tons of fun, but there will be things that go wrong. Don’t be upset about that! At the end of the day, you will be married.  And being married is SO much more enjoyable than being strapped into a dress that hinders your ability to go to the bathroom by yourself.

Don’t try to change your spouse.  Change yourself.  I mean sure, if he leaves his towel on the floor or she never changes the toilet paper roll and that drives you bananas, then say something.  But if it is an issue of personality differences or communication styles, don’t try to convert them to your way of thinking or feeling.  Learn that when he says something logical, he isn’t trying to be cruel to you.  Learn that when she cries, she isn’t trying to manipulate your emotions.  Above all else, learn each others’ languages.  It will save you many fights.

Crockpots are your friend.  I don’t think I need to explain this.

Do not stop dating each other.  You have snagged a catch – don’t let them forget it!  It is too easy to let the romantic gestures fade away with time and familiarity.  Kiss, hug, and say I love you every day, and don’t forget to have fun. Period.  It’s important.

Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.  That being said, if the argument is spiraling into nonsense because it is 3:30 A.M., do both of yourselves a favor and get some sleep.  Nothing productive is happening.  Call a truce and talk it out in the morning.

In-law relations: navigate with caution.  It doesn’t matter if you really get along with your in-laws or your relationship with them could be a plotline on Everybody Loves Raymond, your spouse’s family will probably do something that really gets under your skin at some point.  When you vent about it to him or her, remember that while they side with you now above all others, that’s still their family.  Try to make your relationship smooth, even when it feels like you’re doing 99% of the work.

Fight fair This sounds so hokey, but trust me, it’s true.  You need to have boundaries when arguments arise – and believe me, they will arise.  Don’t bring up the “d” word – it doesn’t exist for you.  Don’t imply that you regret marrying your spouse or give ultimatums that imply separation.  Don’t fight in front of other people, physically or online – your marriage is sacred and so are your arguments.  Keep to the topic at hand.  Keep an open mind and be respectful.  And above all else, don’t be afraid to say that you’re sorry first. Even when you believe you’ve done nothing wrong.

Having the same worldview is not an option.  Conflicting religious beliefs?  Contrasting political views?  A great friendship can be born out of such diversity, but not marriage.  Be on the same page about the important stuff, and save the differing opinions for movies you want to watch or restaurants you’d like to visit.

Spousal telepathy is not a myth.  It is, however, a great time saver.  I predict that by our forties, my dear husband and I will no longer have the need to physically speak to each other.

Love really is a decision, not a feeling.  It’s actually way more romantic than it sounds.

I’m not even sure if my ramblings will strike a useful chord with anyone, or if they even made any sense.  I guess what I’m trying to say here is that marriage has been, in my very limited experience, both easy and difficult, exciting and mundane, romantic and ordinary.  The decision that I made 345 days ago is easily the best one I have ever made.

I love you, John Daniel Ard, jr.  And in the words of Howard Wollowitz, “I’m your idiot. FOREVER.”

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i am part of the problem

The other day, my husband and I got into an argument.  I won’t bore you with the gory details, but what it boils down to is this: I was being very petulant, short-sighted, and selfish, and some things that I said were very hurtful to my husband.

While we were trying to work the situation out, my husband looked me in the eye and said: “You write on your blog about how it drives you crazy when women have princess complexes, when they’re selfish and they act this way.  It drives you crazy, but that is exactly what you’re doing.  Right now, you’re no different than they are.”

You are no different than they are.

It was painful to hear those words, I won’t lie to you.  My flesh immediately balked, flushed red with anger, and put its dukes up to defend itself.  But my heart sank as I realized that he was right.

As much as I wanted to be angry at him, I couldn’t.  He didn’t say that to me to make me feel bad, or to get a rise out of me.  It was a fair assessment.  It was accurate.  It was true.

I am part of the problem.

And that truth hurts.

This moment reminds me of a passage from Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat Pray Love.  While I wildly disagree with her worldview and don’t condone a lot of choices that Liz has made in her life, one line stuck with me after reading that book.  While talking about true love and soulmates, Liz’s friend Richard drops this bit of unexpected wisdom like an atomic bomb:

eat pray love

This is one of the truest things ever spoken.

As a little girl, as a teenager, and as a young woman, I would often fantasize about meeting my One and how wonderful our marriage would be.  Even as I was dating the man who would become my husband, I had these deeply emotional fantasies about how our life together would develop.  I imagined our dating relationship on steroids.  We would cuddle and stare into one another’s eyes and tell each other how perfect we were.  Even still, being a new veteran of matrimony as we close in on an entire year, there are days when that vision of marriage seems nice.

But the truth is, if that is what we want in a partner, we should not be looking for spouses.  We should be picking out puppies.

Living with someone, being constantly embroiled in their life and they in yours, does not encourage the good in us to show as we would hope.  Oftentimes, it is there in the comfort of everyday routine that our demons emerge and we show ourselves for what we are – sinful people living in a sinful world.  When that happens, if your spouse has the love and the courage to do so, they will call you out on it.

They will be your mirror.  And you will be theirs.  Because that is what we signed up for.

After this argument transpired, after grievances were acknowledged, apologies exchanged, and tears kissed away, I seriously considered deleting this little floating piece of narcissism I like to call my blog.  After all, what right do I have to point out the wrong in others when that same wrong dwells within me?

But here’s the thing: being selfish is wrong. It doesn’t matter if the perpetrator is my best friend, or my co-worker, or a person I strongly dislike, or even if it is I – this behavior is wrong, and it needs to be labelled as wrong, publicly and frequently, even though it is something with which I too struggle.

No…no, especially because of that.

So don’t cover the mirrors that are present in your life – don’t you dare.  I know that looking at an accurate reflection of yourself is never easy, but it is necessary.  Being honest with yourself and with others is vital if we are to rise above our animalistic brutality and become worthy of our status as followers of Christ.

unreciprocated: a valentine’s day post mortem

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A few days ago, my cousin Stephanie asked me to contribute to a piece she posted to her blog on Valentine’s Day (those who are interested – which should be everyone – can check it out here).  I was given a simple task: select my favorite quote about love, write a short quip about why I loved it and how it applied to my life, and submit a picture of me with something or someone that I loved.  I chose the quote above, and this is what she got from me:

(My wedding day, March 23, 2013)

I came across this quote for the first time a few years ago, when I had just gotten engaged. At the time, it seemed so beautiful, hopelessly romantic. It conjured images of days filled with endless joy and good feelings all around. Truthfully, it seemed almost too cliche for my favorite author, a man whose words are usually deeper than this.

And then I got married. I realized that perhaps this quotation was profound after all.

The truth about being in love is this: it’s easy in the beginning. As time goes on, there are days when staying in love is not something you feel like doing. There are days when work is rough, dishes are piled up and you can’t find clean underwear–the last thing you want to do is engage in small talk, but you do it anyway.

You stay in love because you made a decision that out of it you would not go. It may sound unromantic, but love is a choice to be made–not something decided by destiny or fate. If you ask me, that only makes me want to stay in love more than ever.

I firmly believe in this interpretation of love.  I have felt it.  I have lived through it.  I have and will continue to endure it, because it is worth it.  Love, and especially successful love, should be celebrated and admired.

So it may come as a shock to you that, as a whole, the celebration of Valentine’s Day leaves me a little empty inside. There are a few reasons why.

1. Valentine’s Day is not about love anymore.

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend amongst women in this society, and Valentine’s Day is the super bowl of that trend.  I see it everywhere, casually accepted and dutifully parroted, and it hurts me to my core. That trend is this: in modern American society, Valentine’s Day isn’t about relationships, or love, or affection.  It’s barely even a holiday anymore.

It has degenerated into an unfair gift-giving contest. It is unfair because the people competing for the prize are not in a relationship. They don’t necessarily even have to be close friends. They don’t even have to know each other.

Their connection? They are all female. And that’s what this day really has evolved into – a day for women to brag. Or for people to feel sad about the fact that they are single.

Growing up, I never thought of Valentine’s Day as a day to only express romantic love.  I always received gifts from my parents, made sure to share goodies with my friends, and saw the day as a time to express love to everyone in my life that I care about.  It would be nice if everyone could celebrate February 14th in this manner – no bragging about gifts, no moping about being alone, but using that day as an opportunity to acknowledge and give thanks for the blessings in our lives.

2. Women are horrible gift givers.

I’m painting with a broad brush here, so don’t get upset – I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about modern American women in general.

Just think about it.  All of the Valentine’s Day posts on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram yesterday regarding gifts were mostly from women, yes?  Photos of red roses or adorable stuffed animals or jewelry (because, as we all know, “if she said she didn’t want jewelry for Valentine’s Day, she was lying!”) captioned with “I have the best (husband/boyfriend/fiance) ever! Thanks sweetie!”  And of course those same women checked in to steakhouses or fancy dining establishments like The Melting Pot later for their nice meal.  But as for the men in those relationships – did they post anything besides an I love you message to their ladies?

Probably not, because unless it’s a box of chocolates or a tie or something equally underwhelming, giving men romantic gifts or showing them thoughtful gestures on Valentine’s Day isn’t really what is done.  If anything, the assumption is that your boyfriend/fiance/husband will take you out for a nice dinner, shower you with expensive and luxurious gifts, and when you get home the two of you will have sex.

Because apparently, in this society, sex is considered a gift.

We all know the trope, of course.  Women, especially married women, put up with the existence of sex, but they never enjoy it.  They use it as a manipulative tool when it suits their purpose, and whenever an occasion arises that necessitates a gift or gesture be given to the man in their life, why not sex? It’s all they think about all day, anyways.

Businesses have noticed it, too. I can’t count the amount of ads that I heard this February that went to this haunting tune: “If you want to give your man something special for Valentine’s Day, give him yourself! Come to [store] and find some super-sexy wrapping paper!”

I cannot, cannot, can. not. emphasize how much this premise disgusts me.

Sex is not a commodity.  It should not be traded away half-heartedly – “Well, he shelled out the big bucks tonight, so I guess we can have sex.”  This is a horrible attitude to have, regardless of your marital status.

If you are married, then sex is a gift not from you, but from God. It is to be treasured and enjoyed equally, with no personal ulterior motives. Just enjoy each other, and stop using it as a way to keep score or get even.

If you still are waiting for that ring to be placed on your finger, you shouldn’t even be thinking about it, but let’s get real. It happens, we all know it happens, so let’s discuss it. In your situation, you’re already misusing the holy gift of intimacy.  Don’t add to your list of troubles by twisting its purpose even further.  Nothing good can come from it.

Women expect thoughtful gestures from men all the time.  Why not return the favor once in a while?  I took a sex roles and gender course while in college, and I remember the professor exclaiming one day in the midst of lecture, “You know, I’m a guy, and I think that flowers as a gift would be nice. We like thoughtful gestures, too.”

Ladies, we reap what we sow.  It’s time to start planting seeds of thoughtfulness and kindness, instead of nagging and spoiled entitlement.

3. Women judge each others’ Valentine’s Day experiences.

See my previous post about engagements – it is the same nightmare over and over again, each and every year.  If you have a male significant other that doesn’t show you a breathtakingly good time on February 14th, doesn’t send you a teddy bear and a $200 bouquet of roses and something encrusted in precious gemstones that he probably had to finance, he must be a lousy (husband/boyfriend/fiance).

It doesn’t matter if he treats you with respect and dignity and love and affection every other day of the year. It doesn’t matter that he does the laundry on a regular basis because he knows you dislike it, if he gives you back massages on command, if he makes sure your finances are taken care of, if he never demands dinner be done at a certain time, if he never has a negative thing to say about anything you prepare for him to eat because he appreciates the time and effort you put into preparing it, if he makes sure your car is roadworthy, if he skips working out on Saturdays sometimes just because you want to cuddle a little bit longer, if he texts you to let you know he’s safe whenever he rides his motorcycle just for your peace of mind.  None of that matters.  If he doesn’t buy you chocolates or a stuffed animal on a certain date of the year, he must be a horribly abusive man and you deserve better.

Rubbish. Rub. ish. 

Love is not flowers and chocolate and poetry and champagne.  Love is staying fiercely committed when you have a migraine, your work day was a bust, the chores have hopelessly fallen behind.  Love is deciding that even when your significant other is annoying the living crap out of you, that you are going to get over it and love them anyway. It is not a feeling, it is, as CS Lewis insinuated, a place.  A place out of which I will not go.

Notice he doesn’t use the word “cannot” or “should not” or “do not want.” He says that he will not go, that he will not leave. It is a decision, a daily choice to be made.

So what’s it going to be?

no so great expectations

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fairytales and sitcoms as much as the next girl.  At any given spare moment during the week, you’ll probably find me either enthralled by Once Upon a Time or The Office.  My beef isn’t with the existence of these forms of entertainment. 

It lies in how we let them – both of them – color our view of how marriage, and really any type of relationship between the sexes, is supposed to work.

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The fairytale thing probably doesn’t surprise you. I think we can all agree that movies like CInderella and Beauty & the Beast, while entertaining, send less than stellar messages:

Marry the first man that shows interest in you.

A man doesn’t need to hear you voice your opinion – he just needs to appreciate your body.

It is totally healthy to develop an attraction to the man who is holding you captive. 

All that a marriage needs to be successful is mutual attraction.

And so forth.  I think that a lot of unhappy marriages stem from the expectations built from year after year of, for lack of a better word, indoctrination from tales of princesses.  Sure, we all know they are purely fun and fantasy, but isn’t there at least a tiny little bit of disappointment we face when we realize that our very own Prince Charming belches and snores just like every other man?

I say that in jest somewhat – and yet I cannot help but think that the disturbing upward trends of women expecting flamboyant marriage proposals, the pompous contempt so many of my peers hold towards the men in their lives, and even my own occasional feelings of superiority indicate that most of us, deep down somewhere, believe that we are a princess and should be treated as such.  

Which doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that most women’s definition of being treated like a princess boils down to being able to act like a spoiled brat, expressing petty rudeness towards their boyfriends, fiances, and husbands at the slightest sign of an imagined infraction.  I’ve heard friends and acquaintances say things like “I told him I’d marry him, but only if he bought me a better rock,” or “I really wish that he would bring me flowers at work sometime to surprise me, but I don’t want to tell him because I shouldn’t have to.”  Instead of treating men like equal partners, we expect them to be psychics who have nothing else to do but spend time at our feet in obedient adoration. 

We need to remember that if we want to be treated as equals, we need to leave our notions of a fairytale romance behind.

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SItcoms, on the other hand, couldn’t be more different in the messages they send.  They are everything that a fairytale is not – stories of imperfect people trying to live in an imperfect world. You’d really think that they would be closer to reality, and in some ways they are.  Although I’m not sure if that is art imitating life or life imitating art. 

There are some pretty dangerous ideas about marriage that leak out of seemingly harmless shows like Everybody Loves Raymond and According to Jim.  Sure, they’re good for a chuckle, but the messages they send are pretty abysmal.

Men are lazy.

Men don’t care about their families – heck, they barely even remember their kids’ names!

Men would rather golf or go drink beer with their pals than spend time with their families, and they will come up with a pathetic lie to try to cover that up.

Women are smarter than men, always. They are entitled to be condescending towards them.

It is okay to constantly tell your spouse what a failure they are, and wonder how your life would be different if you’d married your ex instead.

Sex is not an intimate act to be given and enjoyed in love. It is a weapon for women and a commodity for men. Women will never want to do it, men always wil, and it will always be a bone of contention between you and your spouse.

If your spouse does something that upsets or hurts you, never confront them about it. Instead, bad-mouth them to your friends and plot revenge. 

Obviously, some of these are only used as plot devices, and granted if sitcoms didn’t have these elements, there probably wouldn’t be anything even remotely entertaining about them. But I, who had recognized most of these messages as lies for years, was surprised to find that these stereotypes were pretty deeply ingrained when I entered into my first (and current) relationship. When my husband and I were dating, I would pout when I didn’t get my way. I constantly wanted him to prove what he would give up to keep me. If he wanted to do something that didn’t necessarily involve me, I’d get offended. I’d worry about him thinking of old girlfriends. 

Until one day, when I woke up and realized how stupid all of that was. (I may have needed some help from him to truly understand.)

If there is anything that you get from this rambling post inspired by some recent observations and a touch of insomnia, it is this: don’t let anything as silly as unrealistic expectations destroy the joy in your relationship.  Don’t use a faux cultural standard of worth to determine your partner’s value.  After all, it isn’t society that he or she is trying to please – it is you.