Strengthening Adult Relationships

Our primary relationships – with our partners, our children, and our immediate family bring us joy and enhance our life. Social connections are part of being human and our relationships with other adults offer important support. 

Social distancing during the pandemic has been hard on us all. It runs counter to our natural inclination and desire to spend time with others enjoying each other’s company and building relationships                                                           

That is because humans are social beings. We enjoy our adult relationships. Not only that, according to HarvardHealth, our social connections also contribute to our long-term health – in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking. Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.

But it’s not always easy to find time for adult relationships. Our children and their needs keep us busy from the time our feet hit the floor in the morning until we stumble, exhausted, and back into bed at night. 

But as challenging as finding the time for our friends can be, making time for our adult relationships can help us refuel and provide much-needed emotional support.

Here are a few ways to strengthen the adult relationships in your life:

Relationships with significant others/spouses

Spending time together is the number one way to build relationships. It’s easy to let our relationship with our partner take a back seat to all the logistics of family life, but being intentional about carving out time without the children, can go a long way to strengthening our relationships. The Gottman Institute recommends six specific steps you can take to strengthen your romantic relationship.

Relationships with siblings

Our siblings are the people who know us best and have been there as we’ve become adults. Says Janessa McQuivey, “In many families, sibling relationships make an abrupt shift when individuals enter young adulthood and leave the home. Some adult siblings find themselves spread across multiple states. Distance can be further complicated with differing life stages – college, work, marriage, and children. Many find they don’t spend as much time connecting with their siblings as they would like.”

She offers this tip for deepening sibling relationships later in life. “Little steps and deliberate moments of kindness can help siblings feel loved, have a greater desire to stay in touch, and lead to deeper, more satisfying relationships in years to come.” 

Relationships with childhood friends

Are there people you knew when you were younger that you’ve lost touch with? Take a little time to reach out. You may find you still have a lot in common.  Technology can facilitate friendship across long distances. When the pandemic started eliminating outside activities and keeping us at home, many people found time to initiate regular Zoom ‘happy hour’ gatherings with friends far and wide, virtually.

Making new friends

Parenting can be isolating. When we focus all of our attention on our children and their schedules we may be missing opportunities to cultivate new friendships with other adults. Where can we find new friends? Here are just a few possibilities:

  • Be open to getting to know the other adults in the lives of your children’s friends and your children’s school. 
  • Be active with groups that engage in activities you enjoy (running club, biking club, the gym). 
  • Consider volunteering with an organization doing work you believe in. 
  • Participate in small group activities at church. 
  • Take a class through the local community ed organization. 
  • Join a PSN parenting class, where many participants form friendships that last for years after the formal class has ended.

The Parenting Success Network offers opportunities for parents with children of all ages to gather with others who are at similar stages of their parenting journey. Classes are offered continuously, with every class posted on the events calendar of the website.  Join us for a class today. You might just meet your new best friend as you strengthen both your parenting skills and your adult relationships. 

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

A Parent’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, in his influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, drew from his experience as a prisoner in the concentration camps at Auschwitz to assert (and I don’t think anyone would argue) that the way in which we approach our lives determines our ability to find fulfillment and purpose within it.

He writes, “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

This conclusion is echoed by the Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, who in his long-form essay The Myth of Sisyphus attempts to imagine what motivates the king from Greek mythology whose eternal punishment in the afterlife was to labor to push a huge boulder up a hill, near the peak of which it would inevitably slip through his hands and roll back down to the bottom. Camus argues that, when faced with even incredible, incomprehensible hardship (such as that lived by Frankl, above), we must use direct our free will to the conclusion that “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Finally, noted (to me, anyway) writer Jeremy Anderberg, in the great blog that everyone should read, The Art of Manliness, lists a few of the many character-building aspects of fatherhood before hitting on this discovery of meaning. He concludes:

“No matter your position in life — CEO, cubicle automaton, day laborer, stay-at-home dad, entrepreneur, freelancer, trade worker, unemployed — it’s very possible, perhaps even probable, that your greatest, most important role in life will be that of parent. Of provider. Of protector. Of wisdom-purveyor. What that looks like can vary widely from man to man, but have no doubt that raising and loving your children well is one of the most significant things you will do in life.”

Parenting, as you know, can be joyful and full of fun and mirth. It can also be grinding, harrowing, even absurd, and in the march of sleepless nights and seeming lack of evidence that our children are learning or even paying attention, it can be hard to find the motivation to be nurturing, patient, humble, and persistent in our work. That’s when we must let the struggle be enough to fill our hearts. Unlike Sisyphus, however, we will experience the joy, the fun, the mirth, if not over this hill, then over the next, or the next.

A final thought, from Frank Pittman, author of Man Enough: Fathers, Sons, and the Search for Masculinity:

“These guys who fear becoming fathers don’t understand that fathering is not something perfect men do, but something that perfects the man. The end product of childraising is not the child but the parent.”

Disparate Youth

An interesting issue came up in our Nurturing Fathers class recently: is there a right time to introduce a concept to your child when they might not otherwise know about it? Some examples: terrorism, drugs, political protest, gender ambiguity, racism.

Granted, this is a disparate list of topics, and the answer is going to be different for each situation (and for each family). But in each case, the parent did not know what, or how much, the child knew or from whom they might have learned it.

I described the scenario a few weeks ago in which I took my daughter, 12, to the doctor and she got tangled up in a list of questions about substance use. She didn’t know what they were about but knew enough about how drugs could be harmful that she was upset by the questions. I felt like I should have prepared the ground for her, given her more of a context for what she was being asked to think about (she doesn’t go to public school, by the by). But what should I have told her? And how much? And when?

So many questions! What’s the best way to approach a difficult topic with your kids?

The first step, because it can determine what course to follow, is to turn it around:

Ask your kids what they know about it. What do they think? How does it make them feel? What’s important here is not to identify the source or cast blame, but to find out what your child has to work with. Listen non-judgmentally, for content and for emotion. You might be surprised at what you learn!

Now, remember not to render value judgments on what they have told you, even if it is inaccurate or offensive. You don’t what them to shut down and quit sharing. Instead, offer to help them to find out the truth behind the subject: look it up together on the internet or at the library. While you do this you can teach them how to discern good sources of information from bad (we know how to do that, right?).

What if your conversation is not pure research, but touches you or your family directly? How do you give difficult information? I came across a helpful post on this very thing.

By approaching the problem in this way, you get to teach your child that it’s possible to learn and process challenging or even scary topics. And you get to spend some time together, to boot.

Thanks to Santigold for the title of this post.

Rough Patch

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this lately, but my wife Kyrie is super well trained in child development. We’re talking the whole gestalt ball of wax: Waldorf, Montessori, Charlotte Mason, the regular OSU kind. So when she tells me that what is going on with our youngest daughter is not an extraterrestrial brain-swap or demonic possession or something equally drastic, but just an expected shift in the child’s growth (known in Waldorf arcana as “the seven-year change”), why then I believe her.

Never mind that we have seen nothing like this with her older sisters. The next one up went through a rough patch at around the same time (in fact, I covered it pretty thoroughly while it was happening). That one didn’t want to sleep without an adult in the room even though she had been doing so just fine for a couple of years now. My solution to that had been to 1.) shunt her younger sister into our bedroom and sleep in her bed, which required me to be quite a bit shorter than I actually am, or 2.) move the seven-year-old into the grownup bed and take hers, thus allowing the younger one to continue sleeping. Neither particularly worked, and the whole operation was almost certainly prolonged by my method.

So when this one adds an inability to sleep for more than an hour at a time to a complete loss of her words to express a need for help (the words having been replaced by loud grunting and yelling), I tried to wait it out. I can get up once an hour, no problem. Get her some water, get her a homeopathic lozenge, and pack her back into bed. Repeat.

The results were apparent after a couple of nights of this plan. She continued not sleeping and neither did I. Turns out that neither of us does well on sleep deprivation. Something had to change, but I was fresh out of empathy. We were both pretty sure that she was just never going to sleep through the night again. And we both felt terrible.

It was at this time that I was preparing for the Nurturing Fathers class and came across the following passage: that we as parents want our children to know that “you are lovable, and you are capable.” Let’s read that again.

“You are lovable, and you are capable.”

It was enough. That night I reminded her of how good a sleeper she is and that this was a temporary phase. We would get through it. In fact, it was already better. Her hard work had already paid off.

I’d like to say that it turned around right away. We’re kind of still working on it.

But boy, it does suck less. I’ll keep you posted.

 

The Case of The Pillow

Here’s something that happened.

My second youngest daughter, the quintessential middle child, was turning nine. I, who have never walked by a Star Wars branded product I didn’t stop to examine, came across a pillowcase that I thought would be a perfect addition to her bedroom array which includes the following:

One (1) poster from the Whiteside revival showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl;

One (1) giant poster of a kitty from a kids’ magazine that reads “Keep Your Head Up,” though my daughter doesn’t understand why it needs to say that;

One (1) color copy of the cover of a Princess Leia comic, given to her by her dad, depicting the character standing over a dispatched stormtrooper with a smoking blaster;

One (1) drawing of Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf from The Lord of the Rings, wrought by her second oldest sister;

Twenty-three (23) assorted stuffed kitties–including one (1) tiger–in a pile;

One (1) completed coloring page depicting Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia on Jabba’s sail barge.

As I said, I thought that this pillowcase I found at Target, featuring artwork from the original Star Wars: A New Hope film poster (the one that randomly added a pommel and cross-guard to Darth Vader’s lightsaber, I guess because it didn’t look enough like a sword?), would fit in nicely.

So, when the day came, I put the case on her pillow and left it for her to discover. When we got home that day we made up a pretense for her to enter her room. She came in, saw it immediately, said, “Hmmm,” and went about her business.

Later she sat next to me on the couch while I paged through a National Geographic. She began to cry softly. I have been parenting four daughters long enough to not overreact to this and just snuggled her closer. But I already had a pretty good idea of what was up.

Later I came into her room with her toothbrush and, gesturing to the pillowcase, asked, “Do you like it, honey, or is it a little much?”

After a moment she replied, “A little,” and burst into tears.

For goodness’ sake, I said, it’s okay if she doesn’t like it. It doesn’t hurt my feelings!

I emphasized that if she got a gift from some other adult it was best to at least pretend that she liked it, but that she didn’t need to worry about that stuff with me. I appreciate that she likes what she likes. Once she understood that this was true, she felt better.

And really, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. What could be better than knowing that she takes our shared fandom very seriously?

 

Volunteering

As much as I write about ways to guide and structure the lives of our kids (as much as that is advisable or possible), I am always surprised by the ways in which our kids can influence the course of our own lives.

On the most basic level, the fact of becoming a parent will (ideally, I believe) stop your life in its tracks as it takes on new passengers. No doubt (also, ideally), you have done your best to prepare yourself for what is to come.

But as you might remember, no amount of preparation really made you ready. Right? No reading, no financial reinforcement (getting a job, say), no supplies, and no advice (especially no advice) is sufficient for the journey. Learn all you want about an expedition to Mars, you haven’t done it ’til you’ve done it. And even then, having one kid (or two, or five) is no indication of what the next one will bring.

As the years go by, the compass continues to spin. Kids’ needs change and the ground keeps shifting. Keeping up with the routines, and figuring out what they need at each stage, can be exhausting.

What can a parent do?

Sometimes, the only thing to do is let go.

It took me a while to realize that when my oldest daughter kept asking to volunteer–at my work, at church events, in response to other family’s requests for help–it wasn’t a whim, but a trait.  And since she’s 12 and can’t drive, she needs someone to go with her. And that is me.

Eventually, I saw the pattern. Volunteering makes her happy. As someone who can barely cross the room without the expectation of a reward, I only came around to this gradually. It took me even longer to realize that volunteering is good for me as well. In fact, I’d say it’s still in process. My daughter’s easy selflessness reminds me of how self-absorbed I am.

And that I can change. Still! Who knew?

Parenting From the Bleachers

My favorite week of the Nurturing Fathers class is the one I spent a year preparing for. When it came up in my training, I knew I would be in trouble if I didn’t bone up on a sport. Any sport. This was desperate.

Let me back up a little. Usually, when discipline is brought up in a parenting class it’s on the level of, “how do I fix this behavior? How do I stop it? How do I get more of this or less of that?” There’s probably a bit about how discipline is not the same thing as punishment, as we tend to conflate them in our culture. And this class, just like its parent curriculum of Nurturing Parenting, takes care to emphasize that the root of discipline is disciple: it’s about teaching and learning, not retaliation. There will probably be time to discuss the merits of spanking (there are none) and time-outs (it depends).

All that is well and good. Where Nurturing Fathers tips over from “well” and “good” into “genius” is the part where it taps into the male brain and just tells it like it is. Namely, that discipline is a sport. Your family is a team. The parents are coaches (player coaches, to be precise). Behold:

Just like any team sport, your family has rules. Ways to win and ways to score points. There are do’s and there are don’ts; the don’ts are the penalties and fouls. And because you’re a team, you all want to win. Right? So as a coach, Mom and/or Dad, you want to be sure that everyone knows the rules.

And, um, they should probably make sense.

From this model, the game of discipline becomes ridiculously simple.

  1. Explain what the rule is. For example, “Be home by 10 pm.”
  2. Name the consequence of breaking the rule. “You won’t be able to go out next weekend.” Note that this is logical and follows from the rule itself.
  3. Follow through.

If each player follows the rules, it benefits the whole team.

Cool, right? The only problem is that we (as in, the class facilitators) are supposed to talk about this stuff in terms of the sport of our choice. And that’s where I was in trouble. Nothing is more an impediment to learning than a teacher who is obviously full of crap (as I learned trying to score points with some metal-savvy high schoolers with some discipline issues when I misidentified “Rainbow in the Dark” as Dokken [obviously it’s Dio!!]. Seriously, I still cringe when I think about it).

And I literally do not know anything about any sports. So I had to do some homework. I decided that baseball had the most going for it, socioculturally and aesthetically (I’ve always liked baseball movies, anyway). I read some books, and watched some Ken Burns. Then I mentioned casually at work that we should start a softball team. Interest was high (immediately and alarmingly so) and even more alarming was that somehow I ended up as head coach and manager. I started reading faster.

Our team is in its second season now, and going strong (the fact that I am no longer in any way involved with its functioning has, I’m sure, a lot to do with it). And in the bargain, I am now able to talk about discipline as baseball for a whole class period.

That’s all I have to say. Let’s get out there and win!

 

Fathers, Real and Imagined

So I know Father’s Day was last weekend, but we can still talk about them, right?

Fathers. We all had ’em at some point. Some of us are one! I mentioned a while ago that I was about to start teaching a Nurturing Father’s class at Family Tree Relief Nursery.  Well, we’re a few weeks in now and I am happy to say that it exceeds my highest expectations. There are so few places for men — fathers, grandfathers, stepfathers, godfathers — to get together and talk about the experience of being male and having children in your care. Every week I see light bulbs of recognition or the shock of the new. Both are valuable.

The currency of fatherhood is devalued in our society. Worse, this has happened even while the expectations for men to care for children and participate in household labor have increased. At least part of the problem is that it is easy–and largely tolerated, if not encouraged–for men to opt-out of parenting altogether. There is a price, of course (in the form of child support payments). But the real cost is borne by children. When it comes to fathers and male caretakers, any degree of (safe) presence and involvement makes an outsize difference.

There are a lot of mistaken assumptions about fathers and fatherhood (and many of them carried by fathers themselves). Here is an excellent piece from the Washington Post last weekend called Five Myths About Fatherhood. Among the takeaways is this explication of the dilemma of men who, like many mothers, want to “have it all:”

“Men with children say they feel continued pressure to be the primary providers for their families (in opinion polls, about two-thirds of Americans say a married man should be able to support his family), and at the same time, they want to meet modern fathering ideals (in polls, they are just as likely as mothers to say that parenting is ‘extremely important’ to their identity). Even when flexible schedules and other family-friendly work arrangements are available to men, there’s often a stigma associated with taking advantage of them.”

Workplaces in America obviously have a lot of catching up to do. But so do those very institutions–government and law–that have traditionally not exactly been seen as ignoring the needs of men. I, too, will be a post-feminist in a post-patriarchy.

But when it comes to the rights of fathers, misconceptions about men and children can skew things the other way. As a parent coach working with families seeking reunification, I sometimes have to explain to state agencies that a father engaging in wrestling and roughhousing with his kids is not necessarily “unsafe” (that’s what I’m there for), but a perfectly valid way for men to nurture their children.

Guys, I hope you had a good Father’s Day. Keep celebrating.

 

 

 

How to Have a 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, 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, the 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 scheduled 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, 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.