The Marriage Meeting

Being married is hard.

That’s one of those statements whose truthiness gets lost in the repetition, like “they grow up so fast” and “even bad pizza is pretty good.” I may have made one of those up. But really, dude, it’s hard. So much so that 1/3 of married couples decide not to do it anymore.

As with any endeavor that comes with a lot of challenges and a lot of questions (parenting, for example), there is more advice out there than anyone could possibly absorb, much less put into practice. Leave it to The Art of Manliness, home of tutorials on hand-to-hand fighting techniques and beard care, to cut through the deluge of marriage advice and land a blow for good relationship sense. Their solution, via marriage therapist Marcia Berger: the weekly marriage meeting.

Most of us are used to meetings and what they entail (we even had ’em at Taco Bell), yet for many, myself included, the idea of sitting down for a structured chat with my spouse seemed–I don’t know–unnecessary, if not unnatural. After all, if we couldn’t share basic information through the course of a regular week, how would this help?

Turns out, though, that apparently I’m not the only one who will not make a request, or pass on a reminder or timely fact, just because it always seems awkward, or there’s not enough time to give it context, or it seems like it might just land wrong. And before I know it, that lack of communication or engagement is causing problems of its own. Is it just me? Am I neurotic like that? Probably. But so are a lot of other people, which is why marriage meetings, as laid out in this article, are so helpful.

We have started to hold these meetings in my home, and we are running on three weeks now. I can say with no reservations that this was an excellent idea.

Berger proposes a specific structure to the meetings, which can be flexible and serve the needs of each couple or situation. But they really should happen in this order. Briefly, it goes like this:

  1. Appreciation: bring up things about your spouse you’re grateful for. Something they did, some quality they possess, they way they looked in that thing that one day. This is a good way to start off any meeting, as it puts everyone in a positive and thankful frame of mind.
  2. Chores: this gets you right into the nitty gritty. It’s for scheduling, to-dos, financial thingies, reminders and deadlines. It’s the stuff that we usually manage to talk about eventually, in bits and pieces, if we’re lucky; but having a time and space to talk about it is just terribly helpful.
  3. Plan for Good Times: this is not something we would always necessarily bring up on our own, but it’s important. This is the time to talk about dates, but also self-care, and fun activities with the family. What, are more fun things going to kill you?
  4. Problems and Challenges: this is where the skills come in. We all have things we’d like to talk about that are just difficult, especially in the setting of a long-term intimate relationship. Berger recommends approaching this time with a positive, supportive and humble attitude. Topics in this area may cover difficulties in the relationship, but also in parenting, with extended family, work, spirituality, etc. The structure of the meeting gives a safe space to bring up the things that are bugging us.

I can’t recommend it highly enough. We’ve found ourselves taking 30 minutes from start to end. And that it’s good to have snacks.

 

 

Transitions

A couple of recent changes have come to our house. One is that my wife, in addition to her full-time homeschooling duties, has been leaving town every other weekend to help her sister. The other is that I have rearranged my schedule in order to have an extra day off. The upshot, for purposes of our family, is that I have been parenting solo quite a bit. Now that this is a more or less regular thing, I find that it is…complicated.

I have written on several occasions that being the dad in our particular household means that I figure out what the routines are and carry them out. In other words, their mother writes the script (and revises, and stages, and restages it) and I simply try to follow it.

So, I’m pretty good at making bedtime happen, and I have enough of a repertoire built up to make food for all three meals (and mostly different food, at that! Or at least, in different combinations). I carry out the housekeeping and repairs for which there is no time in the course of a homeschooling day. And as long as I don’t have to improvise too much, it’s fine. As long as nothing unexpected or unusual happens. Nothing different. No worries, right?

One way I know that this is the new normal is that, for my daughters, it has lost all novelty. This weekend I have been told numerous times that I’m not doing things right, and that “they wouldn’t behave like that if Mom was home.” I can only agree.

This experience has brought home the different ways that men and women nurture. And simply how different people do it. Try as I might, I can’t duplicate what their mother does that works. I’m lenient in some areas and strikingly uptight in others. Surely it has always been this way, but for some reason the repetition brings it out. “Wait, I have, like, a thing that I do?”

I’m not feeling terribly successful these days, as the transition continues apace. But I’m trying to be comfortable with that. It’s the nature of transitions.

Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to watch an old Popeye cartoon before dinner. Don’t tell Mom.

 

A Dinner Conversation

I’ll admit it. There are some weeks I just don’t know what to write about. I thought I’d quiz some of my coworkers (especially the ones that have promised to write a guest post and are still procrastinating) about a topic. There was a lot of interest in aspects of teenagerdom about which I’m simply not qualified. But I thought I’d go with it, and when I got home I tried something that has proved fruitful in the past: I talked to my kids.

At dinner, I asked my older ones (nine and eleven) what they were most looking forward to when they were teenagers. The nine year-old was pretty decisive. “Not a thing.” She went on to explain that she would prefer not to be any older than she is right now.

My eldest daughter equivocated. Finally I made a suggestion: “Learning to drive?” It was something we had been talking about recently. She was unsure. “It just seems so complicated.” This set my wife and I on stories about our misadventures experimenting with independence. Here’s one of mine.

When I was thirteen I was able to bicycle all the way to an area shopping mall, in which there was a diner we had frequented as a family. I was proud to finally have the chance to dine alone, sitting at the table with my book (something I still enjoy whenever I can manage it). I walked out when I was finished, only to realize several hours later that I had forgotten to pay for my meal.

I was mortified. Seized by guilt, I was not able to tell my parents what happened. I barely slept that night. As soon as I thought it might be open for the lunch shift I sped my way to the diner, cash in my pocket, and made my way, panting and dripping sweat, to the counter. I breathlessly explained what had happened and offered to make immediate recompense.

The boy behind the counter, by the looks of it not much older than I was, was not impressed by my story. He did not immediately have me arrested; nor did he seem to know what to do about it. He left me at the counter and returned with a waitress, who said that she had been working yesterday but didn’t remember any criminal activity. They declined to take my money.

At this point my five year-old interjected that she had no concerns about adulthood because she would immediately find a husband, have many children and collect farm animals. The seven year-old looked forward to having the opportunity to dress like a pirate and not have to wait in line, as she would just threaten to run people through.

Surely there’s nothing to worry about. Right?

Home for the Holidays (Postscript)

Happy New Year, everyone!

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about taking an extended vacation at home with my family. I wasn’t sure how it would work to have crash-landed into what, in my house, is a pretty stable set of routines and rhythms. I also saw a parallel between my experience of being at home in a homeschooling family and having kids home from school for the long haul (I understand, from social media, my own childhood, etc, that sometimes the haul seems looong for parents).

So, how did it go? I’m sitting here in the middle of the last day before work (weather permitting) and I have to say, quite peachy, thank you. Luckily my interventions in cooking, dishes and errands were well received. I now have a greater appreciation for just how difficult it is for a homeschooling mom to be “on” at all times. I would now like to arrange for a full-time teaching assistant as we start the new year. Any takers? I’m not paying.

I also learned that two weeks is a long time. As in, it is quite possible to settle into new routines in that time. Do I have a job? Do I know anyone else? I’m still going to be able to read two books a week, right?

What I’m worried about now (because there has to be something) is how we will all get back on track now that I’ve fixed my ship and I’m leaving the planet. Transitions are always difficult.

Plus, I’ve been sleeping in every morning until at least 7:00. Sinful!

Home for the Holidays

Through reasons that are mysterious to me, I had grouped all my vacation time into the last three months of the year. This year I was able to take two full weeks off for Christmas. It seems excessive in some ways, though my workplace, source of the generous time off policies, insists that this is the best way to take it. So, this will be an experiment.

As I have written recently, taking a vacation can be more work than leisure, at least on the sheer planning end. This holiday break will be much more…domestic. Where normally it’s the kids who are strangely home for several days, this time it’s me! (my kids are always home). Don’t get me wrong; I am looking forward to the change of pace, and I’m as much a homebody as anyone I know. And anyway, my taking more time off was a specific Christmas request from my daughters.

So why am I complaining? I think it comes down to the uncomfortable realization that my being home can be an unwitting disruption of my wife’s well-oiled routines. I can only imagine how I would go about my job with my spouse just sort of hanging around all day. I would be glad to see here, sure, but– my job is my job. This must be what it is like for a homeschooling homemaker (or, as Roseanne Barr once put it, “domestic goddess”) with the breadwinning husband at home. Sure, I’m around to “help.” Whether she likes it or not.

I’m going to try and make up for my presence by getting the kids out of the house for a couple of days. This way my wife can finish all the Christmas sewing, knitting, felting, Instagramming, online shopping with coupon codes, etc.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Happy Holidays to you!

The Food Post

corvallis_family_photographer-7

If there’s anything to get one in mind of food in families, it’s Thanksgiving. Don’t worry: I’m not going to offer advice about how to present leftovers in endless combinations (though I bet the internet has something to say about that). In fact, the only thing I have to say about our Thanksgiving is that we had four (4) pies. So clearly we won.

No, the reason this came up is that at dinner tonight (a completely non-leftover related affair) our five year-old was displeased by what was on offer and was invited to wait in her room until we were done and I could help her get ready for bed. I later learned that she had changed into her pajamas, brushed her teeth, made her bed, tidied the floor and made a drawing, so she was clearly not malnourished.

I won’t say that this is a common occurrence. It’s not. But nor is it unheard of. I can think of a time in the recent past when three out of four children opted out of a meal because of objections to a dish, an ingredient or a method of preparation. And that’s fine. As we say, “There will be food again at the next meal.” Reliably and regularly. And we will attempt to make that meal as balanced and healthy as possible (with the exception of ice cream for dinner, which I haven’t written about for a few weeks). So if a child refuses offered food, it’s really a drop in the bucket.

Growing up, my nemesis was onions. I would not eat them in any capacity, for any reason (though strangely I always liked onion rings AS LONG as the breading did not come off). My mom, who did most of the cooking, didn’t put a lot of thought into accommodating my prohibition but was pretty good about warning me. As a result, I learned to deal with it as much as I was able and only very rarely gave up on the meal. My dad would marvel at my ability to find every trace of onion in a slice of supreme pizza; I would leave a neat pile on one side for future use in landscaping projects.

The frequency with which we deal with refusals of food is related to the sheer number of new foods we introduce to them. We don’t expect kale or beef liver or spaghetti squash to “take” the first time. Or even the first five. It may not happen ever. But given the variety our kids have seen on their plates over the years, the number of times they felt they had to throw in their napkin and walk away has been statistically quite small.

So, food allergies and sensory issues aside, the reason a child may “only eat chicken nuggets and pizza” or whatever is that this is what keeps ending up on their plate. Might I suggest taking a gamble that they will eventually try something new–if not now, then at the next meal?

 

Decompressing the Home

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 preset

There are two kinds of parents (actually, there are at least three, but we are concerned here with those involved in the daily lives of their children). There are parents who work, and there are parents whose work is to parent. And this is, well, work.

As for the kids, they all work. Whether they spend their days at school, learning at home, or involved in some sort of apprenticeship such as ship’s boy or cooper’s assistant, they have been “on” for a long time, and when the family is together at home, everyone is spent.

In her article 7 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Their “After School Restraint Collapse”, Andrea Nair writes, “It takes a great deal of energy, mental motivation, emotional containment, and physical restraint to keep ourselves at our best while at work, daycare, or school for other people.” She goes on,

“One of my children used to love going to public school, but pretty much every day was in tears when he got home. He didn’t have a clue why he was in tears, but I knew that he just needed to decompress after keeping it together all day. I steered away from friend playtime or scheduled activities right after school so that he could have time to regroup.”

Nair presents some very useful tips for helping kids to ease their way back into the home environment. In addition to such universal advice as “Feed Them,” she advocates giving them the space they need to readjust their energy. Sometimes this means leaving them well enough alone for a while. Reducing noise and other stimuli, even conversation (even to the point of avoiding that classic parent question, “How was your day?”) can be helpful. It is important to remember that they are feeling all the accumulated stress and fatigue that we are, but with one crucial difference: they don’t have the resources that we as adults, ideally, possess to deal with it.

My situation is typical for homeschooled families in that when I come home from work, I enter what has been essentially the workplace for the rest of my family; for the mother as well as the kids. I try to be conscientious about this, because while coming home may be a relief for me (especially if I have had the presence of mind to decompress from my workday on the way home), it may well be that no one else has had that chance.

My job, then, is to help transform the space into something less stressful. If there is a way that I can help with dinner, I can do that (more often than not, if dinner is already underway I can be more useful by staying out of the way). In that case I start on preparations for bedtime. This involves finding pajamas, closing curtains, turning on lights. I am usually the audience for whatever artwork or projects the kids have been working on that day. And when dinner is served, their mother is officially clocked out.

I will confess that I sometimes envision the scenario presented in shows like Leave It to Beaver, in which my job would be to read the paper in my recliner while the dog fetches my slippers. However, this is a new century, and anyway I don’t think the world really worked like that in those days either. Also, we don’t have a dog, and the cat does not fetch.

So really, I’ll take this.

 

Family Tripping

Baldhill kids

For a family (and a parent) that relies so much on routines, going on vacation can be…complicated. A vacation means that, almost by definition, the rhythms and the certainties of day-to-day life are going to be altered, for the benefit of a new setting and a new set of experiences. One could argue that this is kind of the point. Nevertheless, this perfectly appealing and reasonable argument is going to fill me with anxiety.

Cardinal among the routines that drive our family’s engine has been bedtime. Our kids like their own beds, their own ways of arranging their covers and stuffed animals (and in the case of the oldest daughter, stacking her books next to her head so that they will not topple onto her face in the night but so that, I guess, she can smell them?). They do not as a rule share beds well. This came through during our big trip to my parents’ house in Colorado a couple of years ago, during which we all shared an upstairs room. Much sleep was lost. I still haven’t found it anywhere.

This year, we have planned a week in a cabin in a local State Park. Our goal has been to allow for as much relaxation as possible. There are no timetables; no obligatory trips to see things; no appointments with other relatives. We plan to hike, and play, and read, and that’s about it.

The planning itself has been underway since February. We spent an afternoon checking out all the rental cabins and picking just the one we wanted. We placed our reservation right away and deliberately set it out past Labor Day to our mutually favorite month in the Northwest, October. Once this was done, we slipped back into life and the year sort of whooshed by. Now here we are, on the cusp of our reasonably-sized adventure (State Park camping is just about my speed: a heated cabin, with paved paths and showers nearby. In a previous life I was a British officer who shaved and took tea every day in my tent).

All this leisure and sloth takes a surprising amount of preparation. There are meals to plan, supplies to gather, batteries to replace, books to decide on. And there is the question of keeping our cat fed and to be reasonably sure that she will be alive and still like us when we return.

One thing that was important to us was to get buy-in from the kids. As they know exactly what we are getting into, from the location and layout of the cabin to their fond familiarity with the park, they are excited to help shape our trip and to contribute to its fruition. They spent the weekend polishing boots, washing out coolers, cleaning out the car, and gathering books on birds, animals, flowers and mushrooms we are likely to encounter. They have been practicing being in the same room and making sounds and looking and breathing in each other’s direction without freaking out (more drills will be needed).

Regardless of the outcome, we will only be an hour away from home. We have picked the day with the highest probability of rain to come back into town, check on the cat, and replenish our groceries.

This trip is for them, after all, and their vision made it happen. As for me, I have books to read. And I won’t be checking my email.

The Right Time for Bedtime

iStock_000008328252XSmall

As I’ve written before, if there is one essential secret to our parenting, it is bedtime.

When the kids go to bed, and how long they sleep, is the foundation for the way everything else works in our family. And I say this knowing just how many things there are to keep track of as a parent: discipline, sibling relations, nutrition, rules, chores, dealing with behavior, keeping up with the changes as they get older. We decided to focus on bedtime.

And it wasn’t easy. In our house we have four kids divided into pairs, two to a bedroom. The two youngest and the two oldest each have their own bedtime and their own set of routines. It has taken years and a lot of experimentation (and thus, a fair share of failures) to hammer out something that works from one night to the next, and from one week to another. And it works, for now. Fingers crossed and nose to the wind.

It was nice, then, to come across some outside confirmation that what we had come up with was recommended by, like, science. This post on the Simplemost blog includes a chart put together (by an elementary school, no less) to show the optimal bedtimes for children, cross-referenced by age and when they get up in the morning (we can have a say in when they go to bed; they wake up when they wake up). Before we pause for a round of high-fives, let’s see how we did:

Here goes. Given that all four kids get up nearly every day at 6:30, our five year-old should be going to bed at 7:15. The seven year-old, at 7:30. I say my goodnights and walk out at 7:45. Not too bad.

Now for the older pair. Our nine year-old’s target bedtime is 8:15 and the 11 year-old’s is 8:45. We split the difference at 8:30 (typically, the younger of the two has more trouble getting to sleep, claiming that just laying there is “boring,” while the eldest is ready to pack it in whenever).

Why do we do it this way? Because we can. We willingly give up a lot of the socializing we could be doing at night because of the benefits that arise from a consistent (and according to many, a strangely early) bedtime. I suppose we’re lucky that a lot of our kids’ friends are also homeschooled, so they don’t know just how weird it is that they don’t stay up until 10 or later. Or for that matter, why they don’t stay up later on weekends.

Just how beneficial this consistent sleep is for them—and how harmful the lack of it can be—is a subject for another post. In that post I will also discuss what is found in their bedrooms at night and what is not (spoiler: no screens).

What is not found in the chart, and something we’re still working on as adults, is when we should go to bed ourselves. I should probably be there right now.

ABCs of Parenting

 

Baldhill kids

A is for Affection, with hugs extra tight,

B is for Bedtime, same way every night.

C is for Consistency, a rule that’ll guide us through the thick,

D is for Discipline, best when intrinsic.

E is for Even, in portions of fours,

F is for Fun, even when doing chores.

G is for Games, bringing families together,

H is for Happy in all kinds of weather.

I is for Ice Cream, for dinner, or part of it,

J is for Justice, no matter who started it.

K is for Kangaroos (they live in Australia),

L is for Laughter, for with jokes they’ll regale ya.

M is for Meter, never my forte,

N is for Nature, at least an hour every day.

O is for Outside, where everything’s better,

P is for Playing, all day if you let her.

Q is for Questions, of which they are full,

R is for Reason, ineffective as a rule.

S is for Stories, the currency of kids,

T is for Trust: if rules are jars, these are lids.

U is for Under, remembering they’re younger,

V is for Vittles, every two hours when they hunger.

W is for Water, always better than Juice,

X is for I Don’t Know, but it has to rhyme with Juice.

Y is for Yarn: sweaters knit by my wife,

Z is for Zest, which fills kids with life.