Sunday, April 6, 2014

My Husband Project

A little over three weeks ago, my husband told me he thought maybe no one in our household liked him very much. It wasn't true. 

What was true, however, was that Jeff was (and is still) outnumbered. Three emotional females reside in this house with him, and two of them are trying to grow up. One of them is sort of  "grown up" already, but still growing. 

And Jeff, the rock that all our emotional waves crash up against, was feeling unpopular. He was feeling ill-equipped to deal with some of the stuff our girls are going through. His macho tool box just doesn't have everything he needs to make his daughters feel loved and understood.

But in reality, Jeff is not unpopular despite being sometimes annoyingly male. He is our hero. The other day the girls and I were watching Despicable Me, and when Gru starts vaulting bombs to rescue Margo, Edith and Agnes, my 10 year old turned to me and said, "That's what Daddy would do for us." And he would. 

So I decided Jeff feeling unpopular was not acceptable. I decided to do "The Husband Project." 

Author and Speaker Kathy Lipp wrote "The Husband Project: 21 Days of Loving Your Man On Purpose and With a Plan." Basically, the book has 21 small acts of kindness that I, the wife, undertake to make my spouse feel loved. You're not supposed to tell him you're doing it. You're not supposed to do it with an agenda: to get him to change. The intention is to change yourself as a wife. I first bought the book and did the project about five years ago. My children were smaller, and my resentment against my husband was bigger. After meeting children's needs all day, I wanted him to come home from work and meet mine. 

That time, when I did the project, I started with gritted teeth. I prayed for God to please, please let me do these nice things for Jeff without expecting him to start doing nicer things for me. I was desperately afraid my resentment would get worse. The process worked. It made me realize that I had forgotten why I liked being married, and that the kids and their needs had totally eclipsed my husband's. By doing nice things for him, I remembered that I not only loved him, I liked him. And then I liked myself better too. 

This time, I found the labor of love to be more fun, and less labor. And this time, I had a support system. I brought up The Husband Project to three girlfriends at school pickup, and they immediately wanted in. Then they invited people to join us, then others invited us to join them. Ultimately, I think we had 10 women on a facebook message loop sharing their stories, impressions and ideas of the process. Some women did something every day; some cherry picked their favorite. We gave each other and ourselves grace. And we all learned something I think.

We aren't all of the same faith, we are aren't all in the same stage in our marriages, but we're sort of all in the same boat. We forget that we are blessed to be women with families and that our families wouldn't work so well without our men. It was both touching and hilarious to hear how their projects went. My favorite days were  as follows: 1)  when we were supposed to dress nicely with our husbands in mind -- some women did the works and no one noticed, while others wore matching pajamas and their husbands were in shock and (2) when we were supposed to send a flirty text or email -- and our facebook comments went just a little past PG-13. 

My big take-away in my own marriage is that I am actually able to give my husband what he needs, most of the time. I worry that I am not emotionally even enough for my sweet, stable man. I worry that if I go on a crying jag at the end of a bad day that I've really let him down and burdened him. Having a history of anxiety and depression, I can still experience a lot of shame sometimes when I'm struggling with this predisposition to have to fight a little harder than most for emotional stability and metal clarity. And I hide it from my husband when I'm struggling. Half way through the project, I had a few really hard days, and it wasn't until I blubbed like a baby to my husband that I felt better. And it didn't seem to bring him down at all. What a relief!

On the other hand, the fact that I did things like take out the trash when it was his turn, cleaned out the inbox on our desk, made an extra effort on a couple of dinners, and bought him a bag of black licorice went a long way toward making him feel like he is happily married and well taken care of. Who knew? Being a good housewife, actually makes me a better wife. I sometimes feel sort of "above" caring for those little things, thinking they don't matter. But apparently they do, to Jeff at least. He receives those things as love. And now that the kids are in school all day, the little housewifely things aren't nearly as hard to do as they used to be. 

And meanwhile, though I really went into this without an agenda to change Jeff, I noticed changes in him anyway. When he was feeling unloved in our family, he made the courageous decision to ask himself why.  Being pretty stable himself, my dear husband is coming to a realization that life as he knows it is going to continue to flux around him, so more flexibility on his part shall be required. People often see that they have room for improvement and either shame or apathy or selfishness makes them choose not to try. 

Jeff tried. He's been carving out more time to just hang out with the girls, to make them feel loved, and to listen to them. It's pretty hard to be more loving when you don't feel loved. And who knows but that bag of licorice or that flirty (PG) text I sent him at work didn't help him have the energy to do it? Maybe I made him feel less like the odd one out, and more like our hero.

The 21 days are up, but I hope I'll keep it up anyway. I like having a hero in my house.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Year of Joy, in Review

"Here's to feeling good all the time."
~Kramer, "The Sniffing Accountant," Seinfeld 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. ~Jesus, Matthew 5:4

In mid-December, on a day that fell in "that time of the month," I had breakfast with my friend Gina and I asked her an important question. 

"Gina, do I seem normal to you?"

Gina, God bless her, did not laugh at me, but, in her quiet way considered it, seeing in my eyes that I was serious. "Yes, you do," she answered.

"Do I seem like I'm doing okay? Like I love God and am happy about my life?"

"Yes, you do."  

"Okay, well let me ask you something else then. Do you feel happy for a couple of hours in the day and then for an hour feel bad? Like bored or discouraged or irritated?"

"Yes. That's life."

Oh. Yes. I believe I've heard that concept before. Why has it not sunk in? 

Well, part of why I didn't know this on that particular day was because of hormones, which make my brain whisper, "The reality is, you're nuts," about two days out of 30. (My cousin Kelley posted on facebook recently that she didn't know which was the real her: the PMS version or the non-PMS version. I wanted to send her a box of chocolates.) But really, deep down, even during hormonal stability, I would really rather not have emotional ups and downs and do my darnedest not to.When I experience "negative" emotions, I jump to bad conclusions about myself, the state of my life, and even the state of my standing with God.

In January of 2013 I heard God say: This will be your year of joy. I wrote a blog about it a year ago (, and I wondered how that would shake out in reality. The Bible often says that joy will come through trials and suffering. I learned that lesson this year, but in a different way than I expected.

Here is the number one lesson I learned about myself in 2013: I want to feel happy all the time.

The number two thing I learned: I don't. And when I don't, I feel both guilty and afraid that I don't.

Number three: Being preoccupied with feeling good all the time makes the moments of good less satisfying and the moments of feeling bad much worse.Trying to feel good all the time also really hurts my relationship with my heavenly Father, who tells me that He wants me to be truthful, all the way down, even in my emotions: "Surely You desire integrity in the inner self, and You teach me wisdom deep within." Psalm 51:6.

I was raised by a dad who had great faith and always seemed to be happy. Having observed him and misinterpreted his example and teaching (as children of even the best parents are apt to do), I thought trusting God meant always feeling good and being grateful. Hence, the guilt when I don't feel good.

And having a history of anxiety and depression (which could be partially caused by the fact that I often felt guilty any time I felt bad growing up), I fear sadness. What I learned this year through study and experience is that sadness -- unlike clinical depression -- is productive. Sadness is an indicator that something is not right -- in a relationship for example -- and may lead to change and healing in the relationship.

Or sometimes, when sadness is caused by something unchangeable, like an incurable illness in a loved one, a loss, or a death, sadness is a necessary part of healing. Fearing that sadness in those instances is destructive. When I push sadness or mourning away from me, it crops up in other ways as anger or irritability or numbness. I can't feel compassion for others if I'm afraid to feel sad and so I cut myself off from others. But, when I allow myself to feel grief,  I've found it to be true what Jesus says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

One of the funniest scenes ever in the Seinfeld series is when Kramer goes "undercover" to try to find out if his accountant (who always seems to be sniffing)) is doing cocaine and squandering his money. Kramer sits next to him at the bar and assumes what he assumes to be the attitude of a drug user. With a cigarette hanging from his mouth, he looks at the sniffing accountant, holds up a pint of beer and says, "Here's to feeling good all the time." Then he chugs it down in one take.

As much as this scene makes me laugh, it also makes me think of some sad realities. Trying to feel good all the time is what drives us to addictions: drugs, alcohol, business, eating, excessive exercise, work-a-holism. We end up in those places running from sadness and loss. God can't comfort us when we have numbed out our pain.

As far as boredom, frustration, anger, apathy, jealousy, anxiousness, fear, insecurity, and all the other less-than-blissful emotions that I experience on a weekly basis go, the more I'm willing to name and recognize them, the less scary they become and the faster I get over them. And here's the most radical concept I've discovered in the Year of Joy. Sometimes a little wallowing doesn't hurt. A little sitting around feeling kind of crappy doesn't hurt you once a month.

When I was depressed, I had all kinds of tools to make myself get out of bed and keep moving, be productive, active and social in order to keep from sinking. I would sing to myself Dory from Finding Nemo's refrain "just keep swimming, swimming, swimming." That was right and necessary at that time.

But now, five years later, in a much healthier place, if I wake up with the blues -- hormonally induced or otherwise -- sometimes I haul my sad butt off to the gym and salsa dance, and then shower and blow dry my hair. The fake-it-till-you-make-it approach.

But sometimes I put on my yoga pants, don't do yoga, and watch three hours of "Downton Abbey" while eating cereal with my greasy hair in a ponytail.

Whichever approach from above, I also include simply telling God how I feel. "Lord, I'm so anxious right now. I think [insert name of friend] might be mad at me." Or, "God, I am cranky and sick of housekeeping." Or, "Lord, I have very hurt feelings. I feel angry and misunderstood."

Never, never, never is God's response, "Come on, Amanda, suck it up." Never is it condemnation. Instead, always it is comfort. Sometimes in the form of a brotherly pat on the head. Sometimes, on the level of strong arms wrapped around me. Sometimes, a surge of courage or well-being. And always, always, a sense of restored joy.

Negative emotions do not disqualify us from a life of faith. Adverse experiences don't separate us from God's love. But honesty in the inmost parts: this is my path to joy. This is the wisdom and freedom God gave me in 2013. The year of joy indeed. 

For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. 
Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. ~Psalm 30:5

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What I Got for Christmas

At the beginning of December, in a burst of motherly wisdom, I sat down with my daughters one-on-one and asked them what they most wanted to do during the Christmas season. 

Sophia, age 9 and three quarters, surprised me. 

Her answer was, "Less." 

She wanted less parties, less activities, and time to just hang out at home and enjoy our house. (Which, I have to say, is pretty spectacular at Christmastime.) 

Olivia, age 6, wanted more. 

More parties, more outings, a house full of friends, and as much sugar as I would allow her to eat. 

In mid-December, we hosted an open house for our neighbors, kids included, from 6 to 7:30. At 7:30, Olivia was in the living room, ankle deep in Tinker Toys, passing out dress-up clothes with a cookie in one hand. Sophia was whispering in my ear: "It's 7:30. When are people going home?"

This is my life. I'm raising two children at the opposite end of the introvert/extrovert spectrum. 

The gift I got for Christmas this year was the ability to see this as a blessing. These walking polar opposites under my roof  force me to move toward balance as a parent and a person. 

Over our Christmas break, I made a very concerted effort to meet the girls' disparate needs, balancing adventures with rest, social time with solitude. The result was more harmony, family togetherness, fun, and peace than we have had in a long time.

If I'm honest, I'm with Olivia in the more-is-more corner. I want the same things as her, right down to the sugar. Especially in December. I love people, especially in my house; I'm happiest when I have an excuse to bake 48 cupcakes and hang decorations. 

I want to tie on my Christmas apron, wear my scissors around my neck and then sew, craft, cook and party until I drop. But the thing is, I will drop. I will, in fact, possibly drive myself to the brink of hysteria following the more-is-more plan. (Olivia, too, is likely to crash into a weeping heap after the party she begged for.)

Thank God for my introverted eldest, who acts as a human Busyness Alarm. Though I might not self-regulate for my own benefit, I will for my introverted eldest; I'll drive myself crazy, but I'm not willing to send sweet Sophia into anxiety and overstimulation. 

I'm grateful for the way marriage and mothering has educated me. I've done enough reading and research now to understand that being an introvert -- a quality not much valued in our outgoing American culture -- doesn't mean anti-social or unemotional. Sophia is a wonderfully passionate and relational person. She just wants to relate one-on-one and for shorter amounts of time, and then retreat to her bedroom to recharge. And unlike her mother and sister, she doesn't use people as mirrors; she knows who she is without having to take a survey of public opinion to be sure. I want to be more like my daughter in this way.

On the other hand, Liv and I are good for her. We draw her out of her room, her books, her inner world and force her to relate to people in groups, to cut loose, to be hospitable. 

I hold up Jeff as her model. Also an introvert who would be almost totally content to spend all his time with me and the girls, he is also profoundly generous and hospitable, ready to open our doors to the entire neighborhood should they happen to show up at the door. But then, he's been living under the same roof as me for 14 years, so perhaps the gift I've given him -- challenging though I may be -- is also balance. 

I'm grateful for the blessing of balance I got for Christmas. God grant me the ability to hold onto it all year.