Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage: 7-year cycles


Continuing down the list of suggested blog topics, marriage was a recurring suggestion in different forms:

– Maintaining a healthy marriage despite the chaos

– Grey divorces

– That time you were thisclose to divorcing your spouse

– Sex after marriage (as in sex in a long term committed relationship with children, not as in abstinence until marriage)

Writing about marriage is a tall order, especially when it involves sex, because, well, I have other people’s feelings, perspectives and boundaries to respect. Anyone who has ever bought me coffee — and even some I bought coffee to — knows that I hold nothing back in private conversations. Blogging is a different kettle of fish but I’m ready to tackle it (tackle, fish, geddit?)

I learned a lot about marriage through my own experience and through watching other people do it. Some are inspirations, some are cautionary tales, everyone has something to teach everyone else. In my writing about parenting and family life, I strive to avoid the word “should.” If I learned anything in my 22 years of parenting — and as many of married life — it’s that there is no recipe for a happy and well-adjusted family life. There are broad lines — don’t hit or shame people, give plenty of physical affection and healthy foods — with room to adapt our own circumstances. Families are made of a mish-mash of different personalities, temperaments and life experiences. Some apples don’t fall far from the tree, some apples are adopted into foreign orchards, and some apples pull DNA three generations removed. And of course, as my children noted with horror, you marry someone you’re not related to. (Lucas, when told he could not marry his twin sister: “I’m not marrying someone I don’t know!!!”)

The truth is, there is more I don’t know about what makes a happy marriage than what I know. One thing I noticed is that when couples find an easy magic solution to marital bliss in a book or at a conference, it’s almost always the calm before the final storm. Because there is no easy path to long-term marital happiness. It’s a work of constant reinvention and acceptance

One of the keys to maintaining a healthy relationship through the ups and downs of a long-term commitment is to accept this constant reinvention, of ourselves and of the other. It takes resilience and flexibility to accept that the person we married will not always be the same, and to make the decision to love whoever this person becomes. In one of the better-known scenes from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Rochester tells Jane:

“I have a strange feeling with regard to you. As if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you. And if you were to leave I’m afraid that cord of communion would snap. And I have a notion that I’d take to bleeding inwardly.”

I love this image of commitment as attaching to something deep within the other person, something essential that exists independently of appearances, goals, and ambitions. As the years pass and life acts on us like a river molds its banks, what matters to us may change. The ability of a marriage to withstand this constant reinvention is to connect somewhere under the left ribs, to the heart of the other. It’s to accept the other for the other’s sake rather than for what the other brings us.

When we fall in love, the dance of hormones and emotions makes connecting easy. It makes connecting necessary. We love, we thirst, we need the other to feel complete. As we age and family obligations take their toll, we look back on the ease of the early days and wonder “If he/she hadn’t changed, would things still be easy?” and we answer in the affirmative because our minds are like water, always rushing through the path of least resistance. But the dance of hormones and emotions was never supposed to last. Its purpose was to get us naked and reproducing. Now that the deed is done, the rest is up to us, and it’s hard work.

Marriages turn on a 7-year cycle. Breakdowns — whether they are permanent or not — happen at the 7-year mark, the 14-year mark and the 21-year mark. These cycles are not written in the stars, they correspond to inflection points in our personal growth. The first 7 years are a blur of babies, chaos, and sleep deprivation so deep we’re not even allowed to impose it on hardened criminals. The next 7 years are spent getting to know the new adult version of ourself and our spouse. At the 14-year mark, our children are now teenagers. After 21 years, the children are leaving and we take stock of where we are, sometimes wondering if this is really where we were meant to be, with a crushing sense of the merciless march of time.

Paul and I often joke that we front-loaded all the marriage trouble at the 7-year mark, so we didn’t really feel 14 and 21 pass us by. But what I think really happened is that having failed to love the other for the other’s sake through the first 7 years, having relied too much on the forces of attraction and too little on hard work and understanding; having made a decision to stay together and do it better for the next 7, we gave each other permission to change. We supported each other through questionable choices, new ambitions and sharp turns. We gave each other permission to stumble and a hand to grab on the way down.

Falling and flying are almost the same until you hit the ground. The difference between a thud! and a smooth landing is a bit of air, moving at the right speed, in the right direction.

 

 

 

Daily M.E.D.S. — Minimally Edited Daily Stuff


I retitled my daily blog to Daily MEDS because we’re military-adjacent and nothing says family like a good acronym. Also, I want readers to know that these daily posts are a discipline in leaving well-enough alone. I don’t need to learn how to write like Steinbeck, I need to learn how to ship. I mean… writing like Steinbeck would be nice too…

“You’re bound to get idears if you go thinkin’ about stuff”
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

 

Daily Blog: Change, Change, Change Part 4


You may be wondering why I titled my series “Change, change, change”. Everything comes to me with a song and this one was the melody to Aretha Franklin’s Chains of Fools. It just occurred to me that she’s singing “Chain, chain, chains” and that my series title made no sense to anyone but me.

In my previous post, I wrote that children can withstand a lot of life-altering change without trauma when the fundamentals of attachment are well in place. But, you ask, what do you do if you are not starting from a place of perfect attachment? Last weekend, I reposted two old posts about spanking and in the ensuing discussion on Facebook, many mentioned that a swat on the bottom, applied in an otherwise loving relationship, was of no consequence. Love and attachment are not the same. We can love our children fiercely while leaving attachment gaps the size of Eurasia in our relationship. Love is what motivates neglectful parents to pull all the stops when their children are the object of a removal hearing. Love is why abusers apologize and beg their victims to stay. Love is imperfect and subjective. Most of us wretched sinners would be well advised to approach questions of attachment with a droplet of humility and assume that we are currently messing-up our children in all sorts of harmful and harmless ways, just like our parents did before us.

Listen, none of us get into this parenting thing hoping to mess people up but many of us will. Forewarned is forearmed, that’s all I’m saying. When our families are facing life-altering changes, can we take concrete steps to guard our children’s little hearts and make it as easy as possible for them?

In my previous post, I mentioned Gordon Neufeld’s “Hold On to Your Kids”, which should be mandatory reading for every parent. In fact, they should make parents read it before discharging them from labour and delivery. Like a car seat check for children’s hearts. But Neufeld is talking in broad lines: don’t hit your kids, don’t shame them and remember that children need a large quantity of quality time to attach properly. For practical input, I turned to Kim John Payne and his book “Simplicity Parenting. ”

Kim John Payne is an educator who studied the cumulative effect of small stressors on cognitive disorders and mental illness in children. His studies revealed that when parents were able to reduce the bombardment of stimuli on their troubled children’s brains, cognitive disorders such as ADHD, ODD and OCD became manageable to the point of becoming a quirk rather than a dysfunction. He identified 4 paths to simplifying our children’s lives. When I started reflecting on what our family did to ease our children through moves, new siblings and general life adjustments, I realized that our approach lined-up with Kim John Payne’s paths to simplicity.

1. Predictability and routines. Children thrive on predictability, it’s one of the pillars of attachment. A child’s life is built on answering two recurring questions: Am I safe? and Can I trust? When these questions are answered positively, children are freed to be creative, innovative, attached and secure. Based on their temperaments, some children require more predictability than others. As parents, we must accept the hand we’re dealt and avoid dealing in “should’s.” When our lives are in upheaval, when our families enter periods of instability, we cannot always maintain routines but we can always be predictable. The instability and upheaval can be predictable. Even when routines are difficult to maintain, small routines around meal times, bedtime, and points of transition can be upheld and go a long way in grounding our children in what they know, even in the middle of the unknown.

2. Declutter toys and books. When I wrote about Kim John Payne in 2o12, he mentioned that the average North American child had 150 toys, in which a 3,000-piece Lego set counted as one toy. An over-abundance of toys and books and our inability to declutter reveals more about our state of mind as parents and resistance to change than our children’s. When we explore why we need to provide so much for our children, we often have to address deep-seated fears and insecurities. When our children watch us — and eventually help us — declutter toys and books with a focus on quality, they learn that our identity as a family doesn’t come from what we own but from who we are. It flexes the change muscle in small ways every day so that we are trained when big changes come our way.

3. Media. Our family went through a screen detox almost a year ago and we still limit our children’s exposure to screened entertainment. Overuse of screened entertainment and media rewires our brains, stunts our creativity and shortens our attention span. It may not be immediately obvious how over-exposure to media can affect our children’s ability to weather changes with equanimity but bear with me. When we cut our children off screens last winter, we realized how much mental energy they used thinking about their video games or TV shows, even when they were not watching them. Media of all stripes — especially media directed at children — is designed to be addictive, to grab us and make us come back for more. As parents, we appreciate the calming effect of screens but this stupefying effect comes at a cost when our children come to need screens as a coping mechanism, as a tool of emotional self-regulation. To face challenges and to adapt, our children need mental agility. Over-exposure to media ribs them of that agility.

4. Protecting their innocence and sense of wonder. Sometimes change is imposed on us by circumstances and sometimes we need to make changes that are difficult to comprehend for children. We need to use extreme caution in sharing details they are too young to understand. It doesn’t mean that we lie to our children but we need to use judgment when exposing them to the motivations and possible consequences of a change. To be able to embrace change positively, our children need to believe that the world is a beautiful place. Children are naturally able to see beauty and goodness in every circumstance and we must protect their sense of wonder as long as we can. If we do that, they will show us the beauty in the mess and help us see the world through their eyes.

Daily Blog: Change, Change, Change Part 3


Do you sometimes think about the grown-ups who existed in the periphery of your childhood and wonder who they would be if you met them adult to adult? I often remember them through their children: the kid whose parents were on-again-off-again, the kid whose parents were in an open relationship, the black kid adopted into a white family, the kid whose mom was always unto the next fail-proof business opportunity, the kid whose parents went bankrupt, the kid whose parents didn’t speak French, the kid whose parents chased an ideal larger than themselves, and so on.

I sometimes get a glimpse of how our family is seen from the outside based on the comments people make about the size of our family or about the number of times we’ve moved or changed cars.  The assumptions that people make reveal so much about their on fears and foibles. There is a world lurking behind an innocuous: “I would have had more children but Little Joey is way too attached to me,”  “We only wanted two children and now we really want a third one and we don’t know what to do!” or “We want to sell this house but this is where we raised our children.”  People wed themselves to things and ideas, it’s little wonder that everything feels like a divorce.

Paul and I don’t change for the sake of change. We make decisions that we revisit when circumstances change. Paul and I were expecting our first child within a year (almost to the day) of meeting each other. I was 21 and had just finished my first year of Law School. We were expecting our second child a year later. If that doesn’t school you in expecting the unexpected, nothing will.

If you look back at your twenties, you might find that the time you spent in University was a time of intense questioning. You may not have finished the same degree you started. You may not have been in the same country anymore. Maybe you took a temporary placement in a new city and stayed with a full time job, maybe you followed someone somewhere and liked the place more than the person. People seem to partition their lives between a time of self-discovery during which change is expected and a time of settling down after which change is to be avoided. Paul and I went through the same iterations as anyone else, but we had to discover ourselves with a family in tow. We had 4 children in our twenties, 4 children in our thirties and one in our forties. They were along for the ride while we made money, lost money, built things, tore them down, started businesses and went back to school. But through it all, we always kept a focus on our relationships with each other and the primacy of our family.

I’m no child psychologist but I read Gordon Neufeld often enough to teach a graduate class on “Hold On to Your Kids”. From Neufeld, I learned that children can withstand extraordinary change in their lives as long as the essential of survival are met, and this includes the first survival mechanism: attachment. Listening to your children, you might get the impression that a lot of niggly things are necessary to their survival, like junk cereals, video games and fingerling monkey things. But if you look past the pyrotechnics — and read Gordon Neufeld — you will discover that children have deceptively simple needs: care and affection. We can get away with a lot of topsy-turvy when the fundamentals are in place.

In many ways, change is like a form of exercise. There is exercise that strengthens and exercise that injures. And the degree to which a certain exercise can traumatize your body is not a function of the exercise itself but of the state of your body. Walking may be good for you but if you have a broken leg, it will ruin everything. The same goes for change in family life: the degree to which our children can be traumatized by a change in their circumstances is more a function of their emotional health and sensitivity going in than the material circumstances of the change.

Throughout the changes in our lives, we have worked to maintain a strong family identity and nurtured a sense of belonging, not to a place, or a school, or a level of comfort, but to each other. Our children trust us to love them and keep them safe in good times and in bad. They may not always welcome change with enthusiasm but we remain steadfast in our commitment to them.

I’m leaving you with this wonderful scene from “Bridges of Madison County” about change, and making the most of it:

 

Daily blog: Change, Change, Change Part 2


I started this blog post yesterday by sharing a condensed version of our move to and from the country. A friend asked me to write about change and it may be trite to say that change is the only constant in life but when we see how much energy people expand to fight or avoid change, maybe we haven’t explored it as much as we should.

Let’s have a little brain lesson. I’m not a brain scientist, neither do I play one on the Internet. From my board-book level of understanding, our brains have three parts. The lizard brain is responsible for primary functions such as fight, flight, freeze, feed, fear, and fornication. The limbic brain is responsible for emotions, habits and motivations, the things you do automatically but not out of survival. And finally the frontal cortex, responsible for higher order thinking. So imagine that you’re driving your car. Your lizard brain makes sure you are breathing, your limbic brain is fastening your seatbelt and driving the car, and your neo-cortex is worrying about your grocery list.

The lizard brain hates change. The lizard brain doesn’t do the higher thinking. It’s not triangulating competing information. It identifies changes in patterns and reacts to them. Imagine you’re driving again. It’s dark and windy. Suddenly a leaf blows across your windshield and you slam the breaks. That fear response is your lizard brain reacting to a change in pattern, protecting you from the saber tooth tiger about to pounce. You didn’t take time wondering if this was a leaf or a deer, you just reacted. Your lizard brain hates change. Your lizard brain needs a steady state to be able to see the subtle move of the saber-tooth tiger among the branches.

Everyone who has ever accomplished anything has had to overcome their lizard brain. The lizard brain is the little demon on your shoulder telling you not to go for it. It’s the voice threatening you with loneliness and destitution if you speak-up, if you follow through with an idea, if you show your art, if you share your music. It’s the fear that keeps you in an abusive relationship or in a dead-end job. It prevents you from challenging the status quo, from pushing boundaries, from believing in yourself.

Every time I sing in public, my lizard brain is hard at work trying to get me off the stage. It’s stiffening my diaphragm, tightening my throat, reminding me that I am a fraud and wondering who the heck I think I am. Every time I get on stage, I remind myself that there is no threat. That my lizard brain evolved to protect me from saber tooth tigers and sharks, not from embarrassment. “There is no shark” is my stage fright mantra.

Some people are more beholden to their lizard brain than others. Some people are terrified of change while others seek it out. There’s something about challenges, like poison, that builds strength in increments. We train for the day we need to lift a car by adding 10 lbs to our back squats every week. We build a tolerance to Iocane powder by taking a little bit in our drink every day. Flexibility and resistance take practice.

When I started thinking about writing this post, I reflected on the changes our family had been through over the years. Our nine children are very resilient to change, each in their own way. They have wildly different temperaments, personalities, and challenges and they have been born over an 18-year span, meaning that we changed as parents between having Clara and Damien. Our circumstances have changed, our parenting style has changed, we got older, fought our own demons, thought better of things. Looking back on 11 moves in 22 years, switching from school to homeschool and back to school, changing priorities, correcting course and, of course, adding more children as we went along, I’m starting to see lessons emerge. Things we did — not always intentionally — to help our children manage big changes without losing themselves.

I’ll share them in Part 3 of this post. Tomorrow.

Daily blog: Knitting and baking.


I put a Facebook request for a blog topic and within the requested 5 minutes I received two suggestions: knitting and baking.

I not a good enough knitter to write something useful about knitting (like tips and tricks or maybe a made-from-scratch pattern?) but I can certainly share what I’ve been up to. As for baking, this is a little bit more up my alley although needing to eat low carb and gluten-free has put a damper on my baking ambitions. There isn’t much that ruins my will to live like baking something I can’t eat. I always end-up eating it anyway (gotta make sure no one dies) and since I’m a decent cook, I end-up eating most of it. Half a pan of banana oatmeal chocolate chip muffins is as potent as a whole bottle of antidepressants except that it won’t kill you. It will kill your keto streak, however.

In the knitting department, I finally finished the Martin-Storey Mystery Knitalong from 2016. I purchased all the wool in a kit and tried really hard not to see it as a $200 blanket. Because I would never spend $200 on a blanket unless I was making it myself, which makes no sense whatsoever. Why do we expect knitting and sewing to make sense? They’re hobbies. All hobbies are expensive and useless, that’s the point of having a hobby as opposed to a job. We don’t expect horseback riding to make financial sense from a transportation point-of-view, do we?

First, I was supposed to finish the blanket for Clara’s 20th birthday. Then as her Christmas gift, then as her 21st birthday gift, then 22nd and finally, I decided that it would be her graduation gift. I was still finishing it at 1 am the day before her graduation party and blocking it the morning of. It might have been wrapped-up slightly damp but it was given as a graduation gift and that’s that.

Then I made a bunch of striped Barley hats with the leftover yarn. No one will wear them because they are itchy but eh.

Here are the patterns:

Barley hat by tin can knit.

I added the stripes myself. To properly stripe the garter stitch section, you have to make sure to change colour on a knit row and from a knit row. So you’re knitting the new colour unto a row of knit stitches or else, ah, hum, I can’t describe it but if you purl the new colour or knit the new colour on a purl row it will look like you’re wearing your hat inside out. Don’t take my word for it, try it if you enjoy frogging your work.

Martin Storey 2016 Mystery KAL

My personal religion is that sampling is for the birds and that’s not always a good idea when you are knitting an afghan. I learned so much putting this thing together! It took me two-thirds of the sewing the squares together to finally understand how sewing worked (it’s a little more subtle than the Montessori lacing toy would have you believe).

Baking-wise, I suffer from cooking fatigue. I haven’t been baking much but I have been learning Indian cuisine. I started following recipes but I decided that I wanted to learn how to cook the way an Indian mom would in her own kitchen. And from what I could see, women learned cooking from other women and not from books. I found this guy on Youtube who cooks on an open fire in his garden. He doesn’t say a word but his videos are mesmerizing. I still use recipes but I’m also learning about the order of things in Indian cuisine — what goes in when, how big should the chunks be, how long should you pound the brains out of that ginger — from his videos. I love that he is using one knife (I get laughed at because I also use one knife for everything) and sitting on the floor. Living in a real Indian or Pakistani family just to learn how to cook is a bucket list item for me. Let me know if you know someone who will have me. Man, I love palak paneer…. Gotta go!!

Daily Blog: What’s not on your resume?


 

I have been looking for work lately. We moved back to the city last May, my children are all in school and my husband is working from home. Sounds like as good a time as any to finally launch into a career. I’m 45 but I don’t feel it. Maybe that’s why not finding work easily never crossed my mind until now?

I spent the last 20 years getting two law degrees, a patchwork of unrelated experience and, oh, raising productive members of society. One of my children asked me once if they would get a reward for graduating high school. I said, “With the amount of privilege you have, I expect you to graduate high school!” There is no virtue in finishing high school when you have been given every advantage society, geography and history can throw at someone. You have to put your back into squandering this much unearned advantage.

My three oldest children have gone beyond graduating high school. All three are serving in the Armed Forces, all of them have achieved a certain measure of academic and personal success. All of them are fluently bilingual, polite with waiters, kind to children and animals. Not to detract from their own merit, all this didn’t happen in a vacuum. They grew-up in a loving and nurturing environment that gave them the space they needed to blossom. They didn’t have to worry about their physical or emotional safety, they had good role models and a cohesive extended family. This nurturing environment came at a cost to many people over several generations and served to my children on a silver platter.

But of course, I can’t really write this on my resume. It’s real though. Providing a stable environment for children to grow-up in happens over years. It happens over the job opportunities we turn down because the commute would add 4h of daycare to our children’s days. It happens over the promotions we refuse because we can’t make the 7:00 am issues meeting. It happens over the internships we don’t apply for because we can’t move to a different city for 8 months. It happens over the travels we can’t make and the reputation for not being a player we earn for ourselves. It happens over taking the boring translation job we can do from home over the stimulating speechwriting job we cannot. All the forks in the road where we put our families ahead of our ambitions amount to children who grow-up with parents who are physically and emotionally available to them. It also amounts to a very. boring. resume.

Someday someone will see my resume and wonder what’s in the negative space around the bits and bobs of disjointed items. And that person will hire a motivated, engaging and emotionally intelligent person who will take their mission and make it hers because that’s what raising a family teaches you. Someday, someone will see the young girl while everyone else is still looking at the old lady.