Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Marriage

(Hello, it's me, Natalie. I'm never sure how to word introductions to posts because while the answers on this site are written by my mom (Jane), I am the one who formats and posts them. Often we discuss the answers before posting and then I make any changes we agree on. Sometimes it is necessary to write a brief introduction, and I am the one who does that. So, when I say "we", please understand that play no part in writing the answers.)

The Question:

We received a question regarding marriage recently and while we aren't including the question per request of the author, she had no problem with the answer being posted here. She is LDS (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), as are we, so some of the content refers to those things specific to our faith. We talked about editing it to make it more universal, but decided that the general messages are clear and that one wouldn't need to be LDS to apply the principles in her own way.

The Answer:

I've spent a lot of time thinking about you. In many ways, your question is beyond me. It's much easier to address questions about parenting. The parent/child relationship is actually very pure and simple. A marriage is complex with so many variables. I've decided to answer you, not as any kind of an expert, but as though you were my daughter.

There is nothing more important in your life, than your marriage. It lays the foundation for everything else that will follow. To me, the ideal marriage is described in Moses 7:18

"And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them."

I know this description doesn't usually apply to a marriage, but think about it. It contains all the conditions we really want--to be completely unified, to have all of our needs met and to gladly and joyfully meet our spouse's needs. I think that the key to achieving that goal is in that tiny phrase "and dwelt in righteousness". As we seek to keep the commandments together, magnify our church callings, pray and study the scriptures together, attend the temple, and give service together, we invite the spirit into our marriage. That spirit brings with it patience and a deepened love and regard. It overcomes a multitude of differences. I don't know where you both stand spiritually, but I can promise you this, that any efforts either one of you make together or individually will bring you closer as a couple.

On a more practical note, you can change the tone of your marriage immediately by changing the way you argue. No sarcasm. No accusing. No blaming. You might address this with your husband if the time seems right. Or you might just need to slowly turn the tide by eliminating this yourself. Simply express your needs. "Do you have time to help me for a few minutes?" If he refuses, try not to hold a grudge or blame. Serve and care for him. This gesture of love without manipulation will invite him to reciprocate. Maybe he is refusing to do the things you ask him to do because he doesn't want to feel like a child. Maybe he will find his own way to serve you. Maybe he'll completely miss the mark. But when you notice his small efforts and express your appreciation, he will like the feeling of making you happy. If he feels that he can't, he'll stop trying. Plan on being the more giving one for a while and don't keep score. Don't try to set him up to disappoint you by asking him to do the things that you have argued about before. It's tempting sometimes to gather negative evidence. You must start gathering positive evidence instead.

It is impossible to do what I'm asking you to do without the Lord's help. He wants your marriage to succeed. He will soften your heart, soften your husband's heart, bless you in unforeseen ways. He will recognize your efforts to "overcome the natural man" and help you to be a saint.

Finally, I am all for getting professional help if you feel that you need it. Sometimes just a few sessions with a counselor can give you the skills you need to work together and communicate in ways that build rather than tear down.

Don't give up. Marriage is an amazing adventure really--a huge challenge, but you married this man because you loved him. I have pondered your situation for many hours and prayed for help in answering. It dawned on me how much, even though I don't really know you, I want your success. Imagine how much the Lord, who knows you perfectly, loves you completely, and has paid a price for you, wants you to succeed. Pray continually for his help.

All my love,

Monday, January 25, 2010

Feeling Overwhelmed?

The Question:

my question has to do with with feeling overwhelmed. i always wanted a big family, but i have 3 children now & often feel "how could i have more? i'm so overwhelmed." i try to stay simple, but it seems that no matter what "stuff" enters in. the worst part is that when i get overwhelmed i feel that i'm not the mother i should or want to be. i get impatient & do not cherish the beautiful time in my life that this is. i want more children, but i sometimes fear that i become less of a mom to each child with the more i have.

so i guess my question for you is how do i not get overwhelmed? there are so many things to take care of, to think of, to plan ahead for, etc. how do i stay peaceful amongst it all?

thank-you! thank-you! -courtney

The Answer:

One of the things that makes motherhood so overwhelming is that it never stops. It keeps coming at us day and night. We wake up to the same routines, sometimes having had only a few hours of sleep. Often, we heap on that-- financial worries, an argument with a husband, feelings of isolation or troubles with extended family. We may find ourselves feeling not just overwhelmed but disillusioned with the choice we’ve made and, worse, disappointed with ourselves because we aren’t better at it.

These feelings, when you give in to them, are actually the greatest threat to your success. I repeat, it’s those feelings that are the greatest threat—much more than your actual circumstances. They halt you in your tracks. You want and need to be propelled forward! Here are my suggestions.

Do something about it. Don’t you love the scene in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers where Millie turns the pig pen of a cabin into a real home and revolutionizes the table manners and brings civility to the chaos? In much the same way, you can step back from your overwhelming situation and ask, “What is it that’s getting me down?” Is it the clutter, the disobedience, the lack of support, my appearance, the dirty kitchen floor? List everything that’s bothering you and then change things. You are creating a little world here. You can improve relationships, plan a weekly night out, organize a play group, clear out clutter, rearrange the bedrooms, put flowers on the table.

Somewhere along the line, I made the discovery that what I didn’t do actually overwhelmed me more than what I did. Walking by that weed-filled flower bed twice a day was so much more overwhelming than just going out there and weeding it. It took 20 minutes. It felt good. I felt better. It usually led to sweeping the sidewalk and washing the front door. If your overwhelmed feeling revolves around lonliness, find a walking partner--just 20 minutes in the evening does wonders, start a book club or have an honest discussion with your husband that lays out concretely what you need and what might help. "I need to go out with you every week." "I'd like some time to myself for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoons." I've learned that most husbands aren't good at guessing but they're willing to support us when we're clear about our needs.

Here are a couple of practical habits I adopted at some point, that changed everything for me:

*Do something toward dinner in the morning. Just decide what you’re having and thaw the chicken or start the salad. There is nothing worse than 4:00, tired kids, husband coming home and no plans for dinner. You’ll feel better all day if dinner is in the works.

*Whenever possible, Don’t wake up to yesterday. When the kids are finally in bed, do a quick pick up of the house, make sure the kitchen table is empty, and start the dishwasher. I know….you’re too tired for that. But just do it anyway. You’ll get your second wind and it will feel good to do something that will not be undone while you’re doing it. You’ll be able to start the day fresh. Maybe your husband will help you and you can watch a movie afterwards (while you fall asleep.)

*If at all possible, get up a half an hour before the kids do. Have a good prayer, make your bed, get dressed, start breakfast. Just plan that you'll rest in the afternoon but there's no substitute for productive mornings.

I know what you’re thinking. That I’m one of those Chihuahua type women with boundless energy. Not so. I’m actually quite anemic and even sort of lazy. But I’ve learned that a little energy well-placed changes everything.

One final and perhaps the most important thought is this: Never lose the vision of what you’re really doing. It’s big. There are no shortcuts to the family you want. It’s going to take all you’ve got. But the whole process is a good one and the whole outcome is amazing. Keep before you, the vision of what you want your home to be today and what you want the final outcome to be. Then keep reaching for it. As the days go by, you'll have more and more satisfying moments. Home really can be a heaven on earth. Pray aways and be believing.

Love, Jane

And, by the way, three children was my hardest phase by far.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fatherhood and Bonding?

The Question:

My question is about dads. I have noticed that my husband distances himself from our 2 year old daughter (only child). It absolutely breaks my heart to see her be ignored. He isn't mean or anything, he just doesn't pay much attention to her. How do I help him connect with her? He is not a naturally affectionate/emotional person. I have learned to recognize the other ways he shows his love for us, but I just think that toddlers and children need lots of hugs, affection and encouragement. She gets it from me, but I think she needs it from both parents. I have explained this to him as best I can, but not much changes. He says that I am just trying to force him to do things my way, and that she "doesn't like [him], so what's the use?" I think we are both at the point where we don't know how to fix things. -Anonymous

The Answer(s):

What a great question. I have thought about it all day long! I'll bet there are many who share your frustration. My own father was a very quiet and gentle man but definitely not affectionate. He didn’t know how to relate to little children very well. I feel like we discovered each other when I was a teen-ager. He was kind and accepting and easy to talk to. My mother, always the more affectionate one, was a bit high-strung when I was older. All of that emotion I enjoyed in her when I was a child, was a bit annoying when I was 16. My dad was a great stabilizer.

I think that your husband may feel inadequate and awkward as a father of young children.. You can help by down-playing his awkwardness and appreciating his small efforts. Don’t make an issue of it. This will only make him feel worse about his abilities. Just be patient and know that he will be a father for a long time. He will develop his own relationship with your children, that is unique from yours. They don’t need another mother. (They already have a superb one of those, right?)

Try to do all you can indirectly to help his affection for his daughter grow. Enjoy her together. Laugh with him about the cute things she says or does. Orchestrate encounters that are pleasant—when she’s rested, doing things she enjoys. If he senses your disapproval, he may give up. If he senses that you see him as a good father, his confidence will grow. Resist the temptation to compare him with more nurturing fathers. That isn’t his style.

I really think that the feminist movement brought with it, unreasonably high expectations of men. Their role is primarily to preside, provide and protect. They are pretty good at that. We want to add our role of teach and nurture—things that are natural for us. And we often hand them our tired, worn-out children at the end of a long day and ask them to deal with them. No wonder they struggle.

I shared your question with my husband and I was really quite fascinated with his answer. Anyone who knows him now would say he’s a “family man” if there ever was one. But his answer shows me the journey that it’s actually been for him. I’m going to include it here so that it might give you a glimpse into a man’s mind.

From Bruce:

My wife, Jane, asked that I take a stab at answering your question, so here goes:

I remember a talk given once by the president of the LDS Church then, President Spencer W. Kimball, about sharing the gospel. In it he mentioned that some of us may not be inclined to engage others in conversation or see ourselves as outgoing. I was surprised when he said, in essence, we need to become more outgoing so we can fulfill our responsibilities to share the gospel. I thought of the many people I knew who were in that category of being more quiet, keeping to themselves, or unskilled in conversation. It would take a lot of concerted effort for them and definitely would take them out of their comfort zone to be the kind of people who could be more effective as missionaries. Yet the expectation was clear. They would need to stretch themselves, give up comfortable habits, and develop some new skills. Some things come with the territory.

I think it is the same with parenting. While we all have our strengths, weaknesses and personalities, based in large part by how we were raised, there are still some minimum requirements expected to be effective as parents. For some those skills and attributes come naturally; for others it will take some effort, practice and patience. I agree that 2 year old daughters need affection, one of those things that comes with the territory, but also recognize that even at that early age they often have developed preferences for one parent over the other, making it tough to connect and engage if you aren't the preferred one. And if you aren't naturally prone to showing affection it makes the challenge that much greater.

My experience has been that a child's preferences for one parent balance out over time and at different stages can shift quite a bit. So don't sweat it if you aren't currently the chosen one, or they don't seem to like you, and don't read it as a sign that you will never be close to them. Do what you can to connect, be grateful for those things you find that work and have patience.

As a new parent to young children I gained a lot of help from Jane's views about our children. She would teach me about how our kids see the world--how they view things and what they are likely feeling at any given point in time. I began to watch how she was with them and to look at our children differently. I would try various things to better connect with them and overtly make an effort to find what they enjoyed doing with me. Over time I found things that were unique to that child that they really liked and used those times to build bonds of love and strengthen our relationship. Routines developed so that when it was our reading time, for example, I would let them choose a book and we would read it together. It became one of those things they would look forward to, as did I.

In between those activities I would frequently pick up our little kids and lift them in the air so they were weightless, then catch them, having done it from near infancy so it was something they really enjoyed. Or I would spin around and around while holding them in my arms then sit on a couch or chair and hold their eyes closed for a few seconds after and ask them if they thought they were still spinning. Then I would let them open their eyes so they could adjust and see that even though they thought they were still going around they were actually not. Sometimes this would lead to tickling (which not every child likes) or jumping on the couch or bed or some other thing they liked to do. Piggy-back rides around the house or outside usually work well. Another, seemingly dumb thing, I do that kids that age like is to lightly pound on their backs while they are saying, "Ahhhh" like singing and holding on a single note, so it comes out in a vibrating sound.

So far as showing affection when it doesn't seem to come naturally, I would suggest practicing it. As I said, I learned a lot from Jane by watching how and when she would show affection--hugs when she came in the home after being gone awhile, squeezes occasionally during some one-on-one time, glowing compliments on the pictures they drew, telling them that she loved them when they were having a particularly enjoyable time together, and bedtime routines that included telling them she loved them. The more I tried to find appropriate moments to show affection the better I became at it. I think it helped me that Jane would share her genuine love for the kids to me which made me examine my own feelings for them. Did I really love them that much? Was I as charmed with their antics as she was? Could I be better at developing a deeper interest and admiration for them? I wasn't raised with a lot of overt affection. Compliments were few and far between. So while I enjoyed children, I didn't always show that, and sometimes, when I was honest with myself, I realized that I was fairly indifferent about them. They were part of my life, and I appreciated them, but nothing to get excited about, they were just kids. Seeing them through Jane's eyes opened up some wonderful perspectives and helped me see them for who they are: beautiful, creative, tender spirits who blessed my life and our home. As those perspectives grew it became easier to respond to them in loving ways.

Hope there was something in my thoughts that is helpful. Parenting is a never-ending challenge, but worth whatever it takes to succeed.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Find Time for Spirituality?

The Question:

How do you maintain your spiritual life while in the trenches of motherhood?

It seems like I can just never find my groove to make personal worship consistent. You know how it goes, you finally find a quiet minute and you're asleep two verses in. I go back and forth between thinking I just need to cut myself some slack, and thinking I just need to try harder and stop making excuses for myself. You don't ever hear other women talking about this, I think, because we all feel guilty that we aren't doing more. I guess I'm just sick of pretending and hoping that showing some honesty and humility by asking the question will help me find what I feel like I'm missing.


The Answer: Growing Spiritually As A Mother

I've developed kind of a mental image about our spiritual education. To me, it's like a college class that contains both course work and lab work. We learn about things and then we're put in situations where we have a chance to apply them. Motherhood is the most intense lab work known to man. We are taxed in every possible way. We're tired, stretched and often pushed right to the edge physically and emotionally and in that state, we strive to respond lovingly to our family. And, more often than not, we actually succeed. We "suffer long and are kind". I was never very successful at having a regular study progam at your stage. I've always read from the scriptures almost every day--but sometimes just a few verses. I read an article here and there. My Sundays were more exhausting than uplifting. But my days were absolutely saturated in service to my family. And that "lab work" is more valuable than hours of study.

Don't feel guilty about falling asleep with your scriptures after a long day of "bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man". That's what motherhood is. It's God's true work. What you want is his help in doing it. Pray each morning for his help. Dedicate your service to him and seek the spirit so that you can teach your children. Don't mentally make your spiritual progress a separate thing from your life. It's happening. You are not only staying on the path, you're bringing these little ones with you.

You'll come to my stage and you'll have an hour or more a day to study and ponder. You'll be able to attend the temple regularly and read the whole conference Ensign. (That's course work.) But you'll see that your real growth took place in the trenches. The scriptures, prayer, the meetings are tools to strengthen you. Use them instead of "how to" books. I eventually tossed every parenting book and just studied the gospel instead and I found that even a few verses gave me the eternal perspective I needed. They invited the spirit.

I learned to pray often as I went through my days--for patience, for ideas, for all kinds of help. I would pray about one of my children and then I noticed that during the day, as I thought about the problem, an answer would come into my mind. I learned without a doubt, that the Savior is real and that I wasn't on my own. So I emerged from those really intense years with a spiritual strength I didn't have before.

Natalie was just here over Christmas and I was really in awe of her growth as a person. She can't see it at all, but the rest of us can. She was concerned like you are that she isn't getting much time for spiritual education. I just wanted to laugh. I really did. It's like watching someone arrive at a destination and then feel bad because they hardly had time to look at the map.

I hope this helps you. It's not eloquent but it's my honest experience. I know the Lord loves you for your humility and I also know, he will help you every day.

With Love, Jane

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Strong-Willed 3-Year-Old?

This site is new and definitely a work in progress. I know it's not Monday, but we received this question from a reader (our first!). SO, we got all excited and are double posting this week. Maybe it will be helpful to you. And, as always, we'd love to hear what advice you may have for this mom.

The Question:

My 3 year old daughter is in the "me no want to" phase right now where I feel her goal is to do the opposite of what I would like her to do in almost any given thing. Any advice?

The Answer:

One of the little pieces of advice my mother gave that was always echoing in the back of my mind was, "a misbehaving child is a discouraged child." The reason I like this, is that it gives a parent something simple and concrete to do. Build your child up in any way you can. It says that general misbehavior is not that your child hasn't been taught how to behave, it's just that they are in a downward spiral. You can turn it around in two days.

Determine that everything you say to this child is going to be positive. You are going to notice every tiny good thing and downplay or ignore every negative thing. You are going to double the one on one time. Cuddle up and read. Lots of warm physical contact. She will start to remember how good it feels to please you. This never ends. When my teen-agers start to be uncooperative and moody, I use the same formula. I watch a movie with them and scratch their back. I ignore the unmade bed or arguing. I redouble the nurturing.

I know it goes against your natural instinct to do this. You feel like tightening the screws and disciplining harder. But, trust me, this perpetuates the downward spiral. Simple, trite, but keep on the sunny side. Good luck. Jane

Monday, January 11, 2010

Siblings Who Get Along?

The Question:

It is very important to me that my boys are kind to each other. I want them to be friends for years to come and I want to get off to a good start. They have been fighting more lately and this concerns me. What things can I do now to instill in them a love for each other? What should I do and what should I avoid when helping them to resolve their arguments?

The Answer: A Peaceful Home

My sister Susan used to say that children (especially boys) reminded her of puppies—playing and romping one minute, then growling and fighting the next, then back to playing and romping. My other sister, Judy, instituted a program one summer in which she charged her children a small fee for her services in settling their disputes—one price for acting as referee, slightly more for judge and jury and the maximum to play the executioner. It was all in fun, but it was comforting to remember their efforts when I began raising my own children, who occasionally disagreed about things—ok, often.

And I’m sad to report that there is almost nothing that I’ve found to entirely eliminate contention. But here are a few suggestions.

1. Make sure children are rested and fed. (Remember how combative you are when you're low on either of these things.)

2. Establish a hard and fast rule that there will be absolutely no, under any circumstances, angry physical contact. No hitting, biting, scratching, kicking, pushing, etc. Respond quickly when any of these things occur—even before you know all that led up to it. Look straight into your child’s eyes and say, “We never hit. Never.” and remove them from the situation. I also draw the line at name-calling or words that belittle or demean. There is plenty of that in other places. Home should be safe. This teaches children a valuable lesson—that they may not agree, and there will always be conflicts, but these can be settled with a degree of civility and care for the feelings of the other person.

3. Compliment them often when they share, cooperate, help one another, say kind words and exercise self-control when conflicts arise. Comment on what good friends they are.

4. Set an example for them in the way you settle conflicts with your husband, friends and especially with them. Address the problem without attacking.

5. Don’t force children to share things that are theirs. Let them have complete ownership. “I’m sorry. That belongs to Peter. He doesn’t have to share it with anyone unless he wants to.” Nine times out of ten, they will share after a minute or two when the choice is truly theirs. If there is a community toy that is causing contention, I sometimes use a timer, but often, I take it away altogether. I just say, “This toy is ruining your friendship right now. Let’s put it away for a while. Being friends is the most important thing we can do.”

6. Teach them to serve one another, secretly or openly. Make a simple sticker chart and let them add a smiley face every time they do something for a sibling—get a diaper for the baby, help a toddler up, share a treat.

Try to establish a warm, generous, loving culture in your home. As your children mature, incidents of contention will nearly disappear, and they will emerge friends because you didn’t allow them to cross lines that might have left scars.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How Do You Stay Motivated?

The Question:

You are a very disciplined person. You set goals, come up with things that will make your family better, decide to make a change, and you stick with it. Talk to me about this ability. How do you do it? How do you not allow the craziness of life to throw you off course?

The Answer: Staying the Course

That's quite a compliment and I'm not sure it's deserved. You know better than anyone the many programs I've instituted that have been short-lived. But I have two thoughts about this that I hope will be helpful.

First, commit. I run most every morning with two or three partners. We meet at 6:00 am and go five miles. I've been doing this for about 5 years now. Running has taught me something very important about goal setting in other areas of my life. It's the great, wonderful secret to success. You have to absolutely commit to the chosen goal for 21 days, no matter what. So many people have joined our little running group over the years and they are very excited for about three days. Then they push themselves and stick for another three or four days. Then we never see them again. The reason 21 days is such a magic number is not just that you've formed a habit. It's that you begin to feel the benefits in your life. You really start to look forward to it. The soreness subsides, the hills don't bowl you over, you start to enjoy the fresh air, the birds, the sunshine. You've crossed that terrible chasm of rationalization and excuses and made it to a truly pleasant place.

The same formula applies to everything. Scripture study "beginneth to be delicious". Your family begins to enjoy the benefits of doing daily chores, caring for a garden or keeping the Sabbath Day holy. After you begin to experience the true benefits of your goal (the things you were hoping for when you set the goal in the first place), you don't have to keep motivating yourself. You look forward to doing it.

Just plan on a rough 21 days. Maybe it will be surprisingly less. And don't set too many goals or resolutions at once. This year, I decided that rather than form a huge list, I'd decide on one thing---just the one single change that I know will be the most life-changing for me. It might sound silly but it's to spend 10 minutes every night planning out the next day. Not really a schedule but a list of things I really want to accomplish. I've loved it so far. Spending those quiet moments thinking about what to fix for dinner, what my children need from me and how I might extend service beyond my family. It hasn't been even close to 21 days--just 5 and I'm already hooked!

The second thing I'd like to say, is that during the years that our homes are filled with little children, it's easy to feel that we aren't personally going anywhere. It's all we can do to maintain the balance of our lives. If we heap upon ourselves a lot of guilt about what we should be doing--running, studying, serving others, taking classes-- we can be debilitated.

If at the end of the day, you have not accomplished one single thing that seems permanent, if you have spent yourself rocking babies and wiping off countertops and changing sheets again, let me assure you that something truly wonderful is happening. Not only are your children growing and developing by invisible degrees, but you yourself are becoming a saint. I really mean that. Raising little children is selfless and sanctifying. You are developing the attributes of godliness--patience, long-suffering, temperance, brotherly kindness, charity--the very things we're on this earth to learn.

Keep setting goals and reaching for better things for yourself and for your family. But remember that the best things are already happening in your everyday life.