When a New Mother’s Joy is Entwined With Grief

WHEN A NEW MOTHER’S JOY IS ENTWINED WITH GRIEF

Claire Zulkey

Maggie Nelson’s Mother’s Day tradition is to take a family photo at the grave of her daughter Emily, who was stillborn.

Every Mother’s Day, Maggie Nelson, her husband Mike, and their three young children head to the cemetery to take a family photo at the grave of their daughter, Emily. She was stillborn in 2010, but her twin, Mikey, now 7, survived.

“People say, ‘That’s kind of sad,’ but I can say, ‘I’m a proud mom of four. Here I am with all of them,’” Ms. Nelson, 39, said of the photos of her and the kids gathered on the grass by Emily’s stone plaque. A Bloomington, Ill., kindergarten teacher, she is a member of an unofficial sorority of women who experienced acute grief while postpartum.

The grief of fathers, adoptive mothers and other relatives after a family death is no less real, but postpartum women in mourning endure a particularly complicated blend of physical and emotional duress.

First, there are factors that can affect any new mother: the physical discomfort of childbirth, the lack of sleep and anxiety about the baby.

After giving birth, a new mother experiences rapid drops in levels of estrogen and progesterone and steep increases in prolactin. This can result in strong feelings of fatigue, irritability, insomnia and sadness known as the baby blues, which the National Institute of Mental Health says affects up to 80 percent of women.

This is not the same as the more intense, ongoing postpartum depression, which doesn’t reveal itself immediately, says Christiane Manzella, a senior psychologist who specializes in bereavement at the Seleni Institute, a women’s counseling center in New York.

Grief disrupts the body in different ways, with effects that can include a weakened immune system, a perilous situation for a new mother.

“I was a mess, to put it in a nutshell,” said Gayle Brandeis, 50, a Nevada writer whose mother committed suicide in 2009, days after Ms. Brandeis gave birth to a son. She experienced bouts of dizziness and had difficulty catching her breath. “I was really worried that my milk would dry out. I had a lot of stitches and walking was very painful,” she said. “I felt so disoriented in my body.”

Bereaved new mothers need people to remind them that there are no wrong feelings.

“It feels incredibly isolating because you’re supposed to be happy,” said a Boston-area 47-year-old mother of two who works in marketing and asked to be identified only by her first name, Susan. In 2012, when Susan was on bed rest with a high-risk pregnancy while living overseas, her mother died unexpectedly. She could not travel for the funeral and was able to attend only via Skype. When Susan eventually gave birth to a daughter, her relationship to her baby was not what she expected. Her daughter had acid reflux, screamed a lot and slept little.

“I thought there would be this bond that I wouldn’t want to break because she was somehow my mom incarnate. It wasn’t that at all.” Throughout this experience, Susan, like most grieving new mothers, wondered, “Is this normal?”

Pediatricians are on the front lines of spotting signs of postpartum depression in new mothers, since they see babies and mothers sooner and more frequently than obstetricians. Dr. Dafna Ahdoot, a Los Angeles pediatrician, has helped grieving new mothers who were anxious about their surviving baby’s health, concerned over whether they could take their newborn to an out-of-town funeral, or worried that their grief would negatively affect the baby. She advises grieving new mothers to prioritize their own eating and sleeping by securing help with night feedings and switching to formula feeding as needed if breast-feeding is too difficult.

Many therapists specialize in postpartum depression or grief and can address both. “It’s so hard to tease those symptoms apart,” says Juli Fraga, a San Francisco psychologist who specializes in postpartum depression.

A woman may think: “‘Why wouldn’t I be crying? I’m not sleeping.’” She helps her patients try meditation or breathing exercises to reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and then discuss, as needed, next steps like seeing a psychiatrist or integrative medical options.

Not all women have access to or even desire professional support. With initiatives like Therapy for Black Girls, the mental health community is working to build a bridge to African-American women who may mistrust medical institutions.

“African-American women are at higher risk for premature birth, and so we are losing our babies,” says Keisha Wells, a counselor in Columbus, Ga. “If you’re dealing with that and you don’t have anybody to talk to and you’re a person of color, that’s added sorrow.” Ms. Wells did not have access to this type of mental health care 11 years ago when her twin sons, born prematurely, both died. But she said she found comfort in faith-based support.

In the first weeks after a birth paired with a death, close loved ones can lighten a new mother’s load by making thoughtful executive decisions. Ms. Nelson’s twins’ room was painted half pink and half blue, and set up with two cribs. Friends repainted it and removed Emily’s crib. “Nobody asked,” Ms. Nelson said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be asked. It had to happen, and friends and family had to take care of it.”

More than anything, most grieving new mothers need to express their grief. After Ms. Nelson took Mikey home, a friend brought over a picnic dinner.

“She put the basket on the counter, took both my hands in her hands and said ‘Tell me about Emily,’” Ms. Nelson recalled. She said she appreciated that opportunity. Other well-intentioned people misunderstood and said, “I didn’t mean to make you sad,” when she’d start to cry. She said she wanted to tell them: “Emily’s death makes me sad. You talking about her makes me hope-filled, it makes me proud. The tears are going to come, but let me do that.”

Many grieving mothers find solace in the stories of others, be they in books, online or in groups.

Ms. Nelson was intrigued by the show “This Is Us,” in which the main characters lose one of their triplets at birth and impulsively decide to adopt an abandoned baby. “The first episode made me angry that they were like, ‘We’ll just take this baby home instead,’ but when they later showed the raw emotions that she had, I was a little more on board,” Ms. Nelson said.

Mourning new mothers eventually find a way to honor both their lost loved one and their child using what is known as a continuing bond grief paradigm. Dr. Manzella said that it can be compatible with the ongoing waves of grief many mothers who have gone through loss experience, and that the thinking about grief has evolved from the “accept and let go” ideas in the classic “five stages of grief” model of the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. “Why not continue loving in absence and getting solace from the sense of love?” she said.

Sometimes, finding a way to mark the loss can help.

Each year, Ms. Nelson and her family honor Emily’s birthday a day before Mikey’s, since her heart stopped beating the day before he was born.

“I have my day to be sad,” Ms. Nelson says. “We go to the cemetery with balloons. The kids are fully involved. Then the next day is all about Mikey.”

My Marriage Has a Third Wheel: Our Child

MY MARRIAGE HAS A THIRD WHEEL: OUR CHILD

Jancee Dunn

Jancee Dunn, left, with her daughter Sylvie and husband Tom.Creditvia Jancee Dunn

An only child can make the relationship between Mom and Dad uniquely complicated.

Here’s a typical weeknight scenario in our household: My husband, Tom, our 9-year-old daughter, Sylvie, and I feel like ordering in, and after a lengthy debate, we decide on pizza. Later, while the three of us are eating pepperoni slices and playing Bananagrams, Sylvie reminds Tom that our wedding anniversary is coming up and offhandedly mentions that my favorite flowers are peonies. After a few rounds of the game, we consider a movie. Sylvie proposes “Escape From New York,” a film that has piqued her curiosity after hearing her father repeatedly imitate Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken.

“I’ll look it up on Common Sense Media to see if it’s appropriate,” she volunteers, opening my computer. Unfortunately, she reports gravely, it’s for ages 16 and up. “‘Except for a severed head,’” Sylvie reads aloud, “‘there’s little explicit gore. An atmosphere of cynicism and darkness pervades, including a negative depiction of a U.S. President.’”

Tom points out that this sounds like his Twitter feed. But I balk at the severed head, which is a pretty big except for.

I would never have predicted that the hardest part of parenting would be that our only child would come to fully believe she is the third person in our marriage. This arrangement began roughly as soon as she learned to talk.

As family psychologists such as Dr. Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D., point out, only children often feel like one of the adults. As with our tripartite system of government, they view the daily running of the household as a three-way power-sharing agreement. This is an issue more parents may have to deal with, now that one-child families are gaining ground. According to a Pew Research analysis of 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, today 18 percent of mothers at the end of their childbearing years have an only child — up from 10 percent in 1976.

Tom and I have fully enabled Sylvie to feel like one of the gang, because we go almost everywhereas a trio. We’re usually too cheap to hire babysitters, and tend to travel with Sylvie, too, as she slots fairly easily into our itineraries. As a result, Sylvie has gotten used to being included, consulted, part of our in-jokes. This is not uncommon, says social psychologist Dr. Susan Newman, Ph.D., who has spent decades studying only children — a term I loathe, as it calls to mind a kid alone in a shadowy room, whispering quietly to his sock puppet “friends.” (I think we should revive the much more sprightly “oneling,” used by 19th century author John Cole in his book “Herveiana.”)

But our efforts to “empower” our oneling and make her voice heard have begun to backfire. To paraphrase Princess Diana when asked about Camilla Parker-Bowles: There are three of us in this marriage, so it’s a bit crowded.

One reason for our fluid boundaries is physical. It’s almost impossible to maintain them in a Brooklyn apartment a realtor would euphemistically call “charming and cozy,” one with bizarrely porous doors that actually seem to amplify sound. But it’s also emotional: Tom and I, like many parents of our generation, make an effort to be open and communicative with Sylvie. (“You can tell us anything, sweetheart!”)

When I was growing up, I would never have dreamed of sharing anything remotely personal with my parents. I had two siblings, and our family dynamic was solidly Us vs. Them — my sisters and I were one unit, my folks another. I wanted a different kind of relationship with our daughter.

But one consequence of all this closeness is that our child feels insulted if Tom and I go out to dinner alone. If we’re on vacation, she balks at being “dumped,” as she puts it, in the Kids’ Club. She would be happy to Photoshop her picture into our wedding photos. If Tom and I give each other a hug, she has gotten in the habit of jumping in between us.

Jancee Dunn and her family. 
Jancee Dunn and her family. Creditvia Jancee Dunn

At least she doesn’t referee when we fight, as she did when she was smaller. A couples’ counselor put a stop to that when he advised me to put a photo of Sylvie in a drawer by my bedside table. Whenever I was about to lose my temper with Tom, he told me, I was to run to the bedroom, pull out the photo, and say to it: I know that what I’m about to do is going to cause you harm, but right now, my anger is more important to me than you are. I only had to repeat that brutal phrase a couple of times.

But Tom and I still squabble about minor stuff, like whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher — and when we do, Sylvie jumps in and takes sides. (“Mom, you did it last time.”)

As a self-flagellating parent, I was recently drawn to a book with the dire title “The Seven Common Sins of Parenting an Only Child.” Ooh, sins — what am I doing wrong? Among other iniquities — overprotection, overcompensating — Sin No. 6 resonated with me: Treating Your Child Like an Adult.

“It can become so pleasurable for parents of an only child to have a miniature adult by their side that they may lose sight of the fact that their kid needs to be a kid,” writes author Carolyn White, former editor of Only Child magazine. I read this aloud to Tom as Sylvie, nearby, perused the latest issue of Consumer Reportsready to counsel us on our next car purchase.

Sylvie may be comfortable around adults, but she is still a child, one who lacks the reasoning abilities and experience of a grown-up — so I must catch myself when I absently reply to her questions about money, or other parents, before realizing, whoops, shouldn’t have told her that.

As Newman advises, “Before you allow your child to weigh in, take a pause and ask yourself, ‘Is this really a topic or an issue that a 9-year-old should be involved in, or is this a decision for adults?’ ”

Sylvie needs time away from us to be a kid — time to act silly and make jokes about butts and drone on about the intricacies of Minecraft. She has a group of good friends, but I do see her picking up on her middle-aged parents’ habits, such as calculating how many hours of sleep she got every morning. Her posse at home is squarely in midlife, as evidenced by her choice of songs for her ninth birthday party — among them, Barbra Streisand’s LBJ-era “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” We are not the kind of posse a 9-year-old needs. Maybe she hasn’t yet subbed out her school backpack for a WNYC tote bag, but the danger is there.

And all of this coziness hurts our marriage, too. So I have to remind myself, sometimes daily, to cordon off our relationship. Our marriage has needs that deviate from my needs as an individual, as well as our needs as a family. I have to constantly ask, what would be good for the marriage? It’s important, as a couple, to have your own roster of in-jokes. It’s refreshing to drop F-bombs with impunity, and to gossip freely about other parents without having to hastily turn it into a teachable moment for your eavesdropping child about How Gossiping Is Really About Feeling Insecure About Your Own Life Choices. And it’s nice — no, essential — to go out to dinner, just the two of you, and speculate on which members of the waitstaff are sleeping with each other. You know, grown-up stuff.

Preparing My Family for Life Without Me

PREPARING MY FAMILY FOR LIFE WITHOUT ME

Mary Bergstrom

After eight heart attacks, a young wife and mother with an uncommon condition curates her legacy while decorating a new home.

Putting up pictures in our new house last fall, I opted for nails, not tape. My family had just relocated from California to Brooklyn, our fourth move in five years. With so much change, it had been hard to feel settled, but it was my job to try.

I wanted to create a sense of stability while my children, then 8 and 11, were still innocent enough to believe that life could be stable. I wanted to create a sense of hope while my husband, Jonathan, was still young enough to start over.

Although I was only 45, my precarious health had taught me to use time wisely. On the agenda that day was to get settled in our new home, a wide brownstone with big windows, just like I had always wanted. With light reflecting against high ivory walls, the house had a familiar feeling of peace. As Jonathan tended to the unpacking, I charged myself with decorating, a job that sounded frivolous, but I knew better.

With the children at school, I sat at the kitchen table, digging through boxes. Over the years I had taken thousands of photos, wanting to document every moment of our time together, make each one extend as far as possible. I was looking for pictures that had the power to turn bitter memories into sweet. Images that said, “I love you more than anything.” Images that whispered, “I can’t express how sorry I am to leave you.”

I headed upstairs with photos, nails and a hammer. My children had their own bedrooms, each with a window looking into the garden. I would start there and work my way through the house. By the time they got back from school, our new home would be filled with cozy memories. If I couldn’t make my family feel safe, I could at least create some level of comfort.

I flipped through options, looking for shots of us touching skin and smiling wide to convey happy intimacy, of us camping to hint at the natural cycle of life and of them with family and friends to show that love is always available.

Every day, I prepare. I take a slew of medications and supplements. I go to this doctor, that psychic. I pray. I keep nitroglycerin in my car, in my backpack, by my bed. My hospital basics are packed. After eight heart attacks, I have learned to be ready.

Jonathan ducked his head in. “How’s it going in here?”

“You scared me,” I said.

“Join the club.”

Jonathan is seven years older than me. He has a stressful job. He doesn’t take vitamins or exercise regularly. Even so, my health has been the primary focus for our entire marriage. Nothing can compete with spontaneous coronary artery dissection, an uncommon and incurable condition that has taken over my left, right and diagonal arteries. I could have a fatal heart attack tomorrow or I could not. It’s the not knowing that has made me live in the present.

“How does this look?” I said, holding a wooden frame against the wall. In the photo, my daughter is a baby asleep in my arms. I’m kissing her forehead, wrapping my sweater around her tiny body. I remember this moment and, because I have told her about it time and time again, so does she.

“It’s not just good,” he said, “it’s good enough.” Of course, he was right.

Since I had my first heart attack at 32, we have opened up to each other in ways that wouldn’t have seemed possible before. We no longer indulge in setting and not meeting expectations. We stay present and keep moving forward. We help each other get on with whatever comes next. With uncertainty, we have become confident partners.

The first time I had a heart attack, no one took me seriously. The emergency room doctors assumed I was having a panic attack. What could be wrong with the newlywed with a Pilates body?

No one paid any attention until the blood test for troponins came back positive. Troponins are proteins that are released when the heart has been damaged. Looking me up and down, they asked if I had taken cocaine.

One by one, the doctors walked away from my case, prescribing medication for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, problems I didn’t have.

We turned crisis into opportunity. The universe, we reasoned, was inviting us to live our dream life. Jonathan and I moved to China. We adopted two children. I started a business and wrote a book. Life was a glamorous adventure; I got everything I thought I wanted.

Then, eight years into that perfect life, I had another heart attack. My heart stopped for 10 seconds.

When you count them, 10 seconds isn’t long. My children can’t get their shoes on in 10 seconds. Sometimes it takes 10 seconds for me to remember where I parked the car. But 10 seconds is long enough to see what’s on the other side of life — to feel my grandpa again, to see the light, to find peace.

Those 10 seconds changed everything. After my near-death experience, we moved back to the United States. I gave up my business. I never went back to my old life. I never wanted to.

Because of my condition, I feel an urgency to help my family understand who I am and what I believe in. Shedding old ideas about work and success, I have been able to show them what matters most to me, and I have been present as they explore what matters most for themselves.

This way of life is work. It takes double doses of spirituality, optimism and pragmatism. Every day, we practice. We talk about what life would look like without me, we joke that I am the Health Queen, we pray. Their confidence is my greatest achievement. In our bubble, I’m just a mother and a partner, and for that, I’m both grateful and proud.

Over the years, we have shared more about life and what I have experienced in death. We have learned to accept what is and release what isn’t. We have had time to make plans for this life and also talk openly about wanting to be a family again in the next. After this incarnation, we hope to be hawks.

So far, our luck has stood up; I have recovered from every attack. My heart’s ability to pump blood actually increased after the last five heart attacks. Its ejection fraction went from 47 to 36 to 50. A normal range is 55 to 65. With so many unknowns, there is a lot of room for miracles.

Through the window, I saw the neighbor feeding an impressive congregation of squirrels and birds. Our dog raced to the fence. “Stop barking!” I called out. I rapped on the window to get her attention.

When I yell, my chest tightens. I sense heart attacks long before doctors can. I have learned to trust myself and so I do. I put down my tools, sat on the edge of my daughter’s bed. Heart attacks have shaken me while I was working out, house hunting, sleeping, getting ready for yoga and helping with homework. My heart makes no guarantees.

The tightening across my chest stretched like a rubber band. There was a pinching close to the defibrillator that was implanted near my heart. A new discomfort but not an attack. As soon as my heart relaxed, I returned to selecting pictures.

More than decorating, I was curating my legacy. These images would surround my family the next time I went to the hospital, and they would provide comfort if I didn’t come back. These pictures would become priceless.

“I love you from here to Paris to Ubud,” I say to my children when I put them to bed, calling out places we used to go before I anchored us closer to home. My interests don’t extend so far anymore. I stay with my children until they fall asleep, and, in the morning, they crawl into bed with us. We are so lucky. I wouldn’t give up this intimacy for anything.

To stay with my family, I have tethered myself to new ways of doing things. I have stopped eating and sleeping the way I want. I have exercised more, then less, then not at all. I have learned to rely on doctors more, then less, then not at all. I have hunted for possible cures more, then less, then not at all. What matters most is already in front of me.

This heart has provided complete clarity, become a trusted instrument for focus. Fear is a distraction; love and gratitude are my true purpose. That morning, all I could do was stay clear on what matters most. I picked up the hammer and nail. I could see it come together: a house filled with happy memories, a place we could settle.

The Surprising Benefits of Relentlessly Auditing Your Life

THE SURPRISING BENEFITS OF RELENTLESSLY AUDITING YOUR LIFE

Amy Westervelt

We tend to think that good marriages and happy families are born of love and care, not spreadsheets. But what if that’s wrong?

My husband had been trying to sell me on his method for years before I finally relented. An efficiency consultant who had once worked in the car industry in Japan, he wanted to “Toyota Way” our lives. I wanted him to keep his spreadsheets to himself.

But a house, a baby and some career changes later, as I was folding tiny T-shirts while doing an interview and rocking the baby’s chair with my foot, I gave in. I was overwhelmed. Maybe a spreadsheet could help after all.

The method, as my husband would be shouting right now, is of course more than just a spreadsheet. It’s based on the Japanese notion of “kaizen,”or continuous improvement, made famous in 2001 when Toyota singled it out as one of the pillars of the company’s success. You pick a goal, figure out the main components behind it, collect data on those components and work out what you can do to move closer to the goal.

In the case of Toyota, the goal was higher quality and increased profits. When we translated the idea to our home life, the goal was a little simpler but also a lot more complicated — happiness. We weren’t sure what drove it, so we decided to collect data on everything: how many hours we were sleeping a night, how long we spent on housework or child care, the amount of alone time, social time, commuting time, you name it. We assigned a score from one to 10 to each day, and then gave a primary reason for each score: not enough sleep, work sucked and, sometimes, “relationship bad feeling.”

Soon enough, we began to spot patterns: It turns out that the minimum number of hours I can sleep without wanting to run away from my family is five and a half. Less than an hour a week of personal time also sent me to a dark place. My husband found that his happiness rose and fell with hours spent hanging out with friends or sitting in traffic.

And so we started trying to improve our scores. We started small. I tried to shift around my workload to include more time to read and think. My husband began commuting by train so that he could bike from the station to work, incorporating exercise into his day and eliminating time spent in traffic altogether.

The project led to a major life change. Our spreadsheets hammered home that what contributed most to our happiness was time spent together or with friends — while, crucially, not working — and there was no way to get more of that if we continued to live in the Bay Area, one of the most expensive parts of the country. So I proposed an idea that would have seemed radical were there not so much data backing it: “I think you should quit your job, we should sell our house, and we should move somewhere cheaper,” I told my husband matter-of-factly one day. So we did.

Feeling uncomfortable right now? I get it. There’s a lot to feel anxious or eye-rolly about. I fully admit that in the first weeks of the project, I found it preposterous. I groaned about the time required to type in data, assign a score, all of it.

But a funny thing happened as I huffed through weeks of data collection. In addition to leading to a better understanding of what made us happy as a family, I also found the spreadsheet to be an incredibly useful tool for expressing things I might have otherwise avoided. It made the invisible visible. Instead of arguing about housework, for example, both feeling like we were doing more than our fair share, we could talk about it relatively objectively. On a day where I spent 14 hours taking care of the kids and doing house chores while my husband spent three, I was going to be unhappy, obviously. But we could just look at the numbers and then divvy up the chores evenly. Easy. No fight, no resentment. (Others have recently attempted more high-tech versions of a similar approach: One man, for instance, invented a chore-splitting app intended to keep track of who’s doing the bulk of the household work.)

It also enabled us to talk about what the transition to parenthood had meant for both of us — fewer work hours and loss of alone time for me; an intense commute and loss of social time for him — in a way that helped us stay away from competition or blame.

Before the spreadsheet, I had an idea I think many share: Marriage and family should more or less work. If you’re with the “right” person and you’ve made the “right” choices, your family life shouldn’t require a lot of discussion or effort. Your spouse should know that you need alone time and should give it to you. The appointments you keep in your head, the family social schedule you juggle — all of it should be noticed and appreciated. Good marriages and happy families are born of love and care, not spreadsheets and a daily happiness score.

But in the years since, I’ve reconsidered. Far from making our marriage seem cold and robotic, the spreadsheet sparked more honest conversations than we’d had in years. It also reminded us that we had more control over our lives than we had been exerting.

We stopped the project after a year or so, but started again last month. It’s five years since we first tried it, and we’re both feeling overwhelmed again. We’re in a much more precarious place financially now, after a few non-spreadsheet-related surprises, but we’re still determined to make whatever decisions we can to improve our lives.

In the course of researching a book on the history of motherhood in America, it occurred to me that this sort of exercise might be helpful for a lot of families, onerous as it may seem. Because the really intractable problems — like the social expectations placed on mothers, the gendered division of labor in homes, the invisibility of all sorts of care work — are not going to magically disappear. They’re not going to be erased simply by getting the right politicians elected or the right policies enacted (although those things will help).

People’s weird ideas about gender, about mothers and fathers and marriage and nuclear families, about who should do what and how much of it, about what really makes us happy, are deeply entrenched, often in ways we don’t even recognize. And so sometimes, when the baby is crying, when no one has thought about dinner, when bills need paying — when we’re caught, in other words, juggling some of the most fraught areas of our family lives, feeling emotional, ready to lash out — sometimes it really helps to have a set of calm, cool numbers on a spreadsheet.

Humility in Relationships

HUMILITY IN RELATIONSHIPS

Os Hillman

“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'” – 1 Peter 5:5b

I’ll never forget the first time I discovered what a feeling was. It was in my early forties. “Surely not!” you may be thinking. Yes, it is true. Since then, I have discovered many men still live in this condition. It took an older mentor to help me understand the difference between information and a feeling.

Wives are frustrated because their husbands share information, but not their feelings. They want to know what is going on inside their man. The fact is, most men have not been taught to identify feelings, much less how to share them. It is something that men must learn to do because it is not a natural trait. If they do share their feelings, society often portrays them as weak. No man willingly wants to be portrayed as weak.

In order to become an effective friend and leader, one must learn to be vulnerable with others and develop an ability to share feelings. It is a vital step to becoming a real person with whom others can connect emotionally. This is not easy to do if your parents did not teach you to share your emotional life with others. Emotional vulnerability is especially hard for men. Author Dr. Larry Crabb states,

Men who as boys felt neglected by their dads often remain distant from their own children. The sins of fathers are passed on to children, often through the dynamic of self-protection. It hurts to be neglected, and it creates questions about our value to others. So to avoid feeling the sting of further rejection, we refuse to give that part of ourselves we fear might once again be received with indifference. When our approach to life revolves around discipline, commitment, and knowledge [which the Greek influence teaches us] but runs from feeling the hurt of unmet longings that come from a lack of deeper relationships, then our efforts to love will be marked more by required action than by liberating passion. We will be known as reliable, but not involved. Honest friends will report that they enjoy being with us, but have trouble feeling close. Even our best friends (including spouses) will feel guarded around us, a little tense and vaguely distant. It’s not uncommon for Christian leaders to have no real friends. [Larry Crabb, Inside Out (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress, n.d.), 98-99.]

If this describes you, why not begin on a new journey of opening up your life to others in a way that others can see who you really are? It might be scary at first, but as you grow in this area, you will find new freedom in your life. Then, others will more readily connect with you.

The Many Faces of Family and Love: There Is No “Best” One

THE MANY FACES OF FAMILY AND LOVE: THERE IS NO “BEST” ONE

Bella DePaulo

A commonsense manifesto for valuing all families, relationships, and life paths.

Never before have people in the U.S. and other nations around the world organized their personal lives and their family lives in so many different ways. In the U.S., for example, nearly as many adults are not married as married. The most sentimentalized family type—mom and dad, married with children—now accounts for fewer than 20 percent of all households. There are more households comprised of one person living alone.

Children are living in many different kinds of families and households. A full 40 percent of them are not being raised by two married parents. Many are living with one parent, or with cohabiting parents, or with stepparents or grandparents, to name just a few of the most popular permutations.

Family” is a many-splendored thing and it can take all sorts of shapes and sizes. Twitter embraced that notion when the writer Lucy Huber posted this tweet:

Stop saying “start a family” when you mean “have kids”. A couple is still a family. A single person and her cat is a family. A couple and their plants are still a family. Three weirdly close roommates could be a family. You don’t need kids to be a family.

Within a week, the tweet had been liked more than 185,000 times and shared more than 47,000 times.

Scholars have been writing about diversity in relationships and families and some of the most unlikely terms have been catching on. Take amatonormativity, for example. That one was coined by Elizabeth Brake. It refers to:

“the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.”

Professor Brake argues against that assumption. She thinks that other kinds of relationships and social circles, such as friendships and care networks, should not be valued less than romantic relationships.

Though growing in popularity, the valuing of many different kinds of relationships and families and life paths is still an idea that meets with considerable resistance. A new and important report recently released by the think tank, Family Story, documents the ways in which marriage has come to be privileged and promoted as the ideal family form, even as fewer and fewer people get married or have children.

Elsewhere, I described some of the key take-aways from the report, “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism: Embracing Family Justice for All.” Here, I want to describe the values espoused in the Family Story report, and the principles of family justice that follow from those values.

Values at the Core of Justice for All

“The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism” argues that respect for all of our relationships, families, and life paths is built on four core values.

1. Equality “requires the reduction of social and economic inequality within relationships and between family types, as well as legal equality among different types of families and relationships.”

2. Autonomy “requires making it possible for people to freely choose their relationships and family types—including, but not limited to, marriage—by reducing structural and other barriers that stand in the way.”

3. Interdependence “means acknowledging we are all interconnected and dependent on countless other people (not just ones to whom we are biologically related or with whom we have a legally recognized relationship).”

4. Care “requires acknowledging all the ways that these different forms of relationships are supportive and meaningful, and the positive impact they can have on our lives and well-being.”

Principles of Family, Relationship, and Lifestyle Justice

The conclusion of the report spells out the principles of family justice. They include:

There is no hierarchy; stop saying that certain people, relationships, or families are better than others

  • “A person’s marital status, relationship status, and living arrangements say nothing about their character or value.”
  • “Unmarried people should not be treated as less mature, less valuable, or less accomplished than married people.”
  • “Families and relationships should not be ranked from best to worst based on their structure.”
  • “Marriage is neither more nor less important than other close adult relationships involving care and commitment.”

There are lots of ways to create a family

  • “Neither children nor marriage are necessary to create family.”
  • “Co-residence is not necessary to create relationships of commitment and care.”

People who live in ways that are not normative (or not perceived as normative) deserve respect

  • “There will always be people who prefer to live alone, to not have children, or otherwise opt to live their lives in ways that are not consistent with whatever the norm is at the time.”
  • “None of this is a reflection of their self-worth, and they all have a right to equal respect and concern.”
  • “An adult’s ability to freely choose a particular relationship status or living arrangement should not be restricted or blocked.”

For children, relationship quality matters more than the other factors that get so much attention

  • “Children do not need to live under the same roof as a same-gender parent (or same-gender role model) for proper development.”
  • “Children flourish in a variety of family types and living arrangements.”
  • “Relationship quality is more important than household structure.” (Examples of different household structures include single-parent families and nuclear families. This principle means that having a loving and secure relationship with a parent is more important to children’s well-being than whether they have one parent or two, whether their parents are married, or whether their parents live under the same roof.)

Family Story maintains that the marriage fundamentalists, who believe that “a family composed of a man and a woman in their first marriage is ‘the best’ or ‘ideal’ type of family, especially for children,” have promoted their ideas by distorting and weaponizing social science research. I have spent much of the past two decades critiquing that research and explaining what it really does show. It is good to have other prominent voices joining in.

Living and Loving Genuinely

LIVING AND LOVING GENUINELY

sheqoz

I’m sitting by the fireplace watching the flames make patterns as if dancing to some silent music which only they can hear. l cannot help but replay the day’s events. Today l had an extraordinary chance to show love. It was a moment filled with sadness and joy at the same time.

l went in a certain restaurant for lunch because l just felt the need to have a complete meal. Seated in front of me was an elderly couple, perhaps in their late 70’s or early 80’s. Their food was already served but what caught my attention is the gentleman.

He seemed very hungry but couldn’t get his food into his mouth for some reason. It appeared as if his hand and brain were not coordinating. He tried hard but each time his folk missed his mouth. Aware of my gaze, his wife said to me, “He’s so hungry.” Her eyes filled with compassion and helplessness.

I kindly asked if l could join them and they accepted. I offered to help feed the man but he was too embarrassed to accept. l then introduced myself a little more which helped break the ice. Finally l started feeding him, he had a good appetite and ate to the last spoon.

They told me his medications do that to him on regular basis. l couldn’t help but wonder how safe we all are with the pharmaceutical giants legally distributing medications with such side effects. Anyway to cut the story short. l offered to pray for them which they gladly accepted.

We also exchanged phone numbers as they insisted right before they left. I honestly believe that in order to live a meaningful life, one must help enrich the lives of others. For the value of a life is measured by the lives it touches. Those who choose to be happy must help others find happiness.

For the welfare of each is bound up by the welfare of all. It is the power of collectivity, none of us truly wins until we all win. Learn this secret as you move forward with your life. When you do good, you achieve the best.

It is important to love one another, for that is how the soul of the universe is brought into our world. It is how the vast energy of all that is brought into the being of each one of us. It is how the soul’s infinity is focused here in our lives. To love is to experience the mystery of the soul with our being.

There is a greater image that would have us love one another thus. It is the image for which the soul reaches out, from which it had created us, and with which we are creating in our greater reality.

Perhaps when l am 80 years old someone will show me some kindness too. The love l felt and still feel for that precious couple is priceless. We all need to love and care for one another because we’re all sailing in the same ship. When all else fails, love will forever prevail.

l love you all, please pass some love and kindness whenever you can. 

Why Does Dating Get Harder When You Reach Your 20’s?

WHY DOES DATING GET HARDER WHEN YOU REACH YOUR 20’S?

Waverly Smith

You’re older and wiser. You know what you want from life. You want a relationship, but there’s none in sight. Why is dating so hard in your 20’s?

Dating through high school and college is one of the most challenging experiences. These periods mark the beginnings of love, trust, sex and heartbreak that shape the way your future-self deals with relationships for years to come. You’re finally out of school with your new adult job, and things are going great, but there are no romantic prospects in sight. What happened?

There are many emotional and situational difficulties in finding a mate as you get older. Not only has the world changed since you took a break from the dating world, but your priorities have changed, and now it seems like you’re destined to be single forever.

Reasons why dating gets harder as you get older

We’re looking at 10 reasons dating gets harder from 20 onward, and what you can do about it!

#1 You’ve become set in your ways. It’s true. The older we get, the more stubborn we become about what we do and do not like. Working through college-age relationships, while frustrating and sometimes emotionally crippling, also taught you exactly what you’re looking for in a mate, as well as all those little flaws you’re simply too old and too wise to put up with now.

However, it also causes you to become slightly jaded and less open to new types of people. Like it or not, you’ve become “old” and set in your ways, and not even Mr. Right can seem to break your stance.

#2 You have more emotional baggage. When you’re a teenager, you feel like your whole life is ahead of you. Love is blissful, life is free, people are genuine, and you have all the naivety in the world. It’s that same naivety that gives you the balls to trust in love and continue putting yourself through relationship torture for years and years. It is also during this time in our lives that we begin to develop emotional baggage.

Suddenly the way our first love hurt us sets the pattern for how we handle future relationships. By the time we’ve hit our mid-20s, 30s and 40s, our emotional and physical baggage only grows, and if you’re dating within your age range, then that would mean your potential partner has some baggage of their own, creating a sticky situation for your future relationship.

#3 It’s way harder to meet people. Ironically, once you’ve matured and feel like you’re finally ready for a serious relationship, there seems to be no avenue to find one! Once you’re outside of high school and college, your dating pool seems to shrink drastically.

The simplicity of taking a chance with that cute girl in class has now turned into you trolling the gym or your workplace for someone to date. This only gets harder as you get older, as you’re not exactly keen to go clubbing for potential partners when you have a 7AM meeting.

#4 You’ve gotten too used to casual dating. On the flip side, perhaps you’ve spent a little *too* much time in the dating world, and not enough time in the world of relationships to remember how to do it. As silly as it sounds, sometimes jumping into a relationship isn’t as easy as riding a bike, if you haven’t done it for a while.

After 3 years with my serious long term boyfriend, I suddenly felt like I had no clue how “kids” these days were pursuing each other. This can be incredibly discouraging to those trying to jump back into the dating pool, but don’t give up! It may be hard, but it sure isn’t impossible.

#5 It’s harder to meet someone with your goals. The fabulous thing about getting older is that you only become surer of what you want out of life. The only bad side? It becomes harder to meet someone who shares your life goals after college, especially when life becomes tangled with demanding jobs, children from a previous relationship, ex-wives and husbands, and other familial obligations.

#6 It’s awkward approaching someone new. While you realize you’re not in elementary school any longer, the thought of approaching someone new with the thoughts of dating can sometimes be overwhelming. This may be easier when you are still in your 20s. However when you hit your 30s, 40s, and 50s, the thought of approaching a stranger for a date becomes as uncomfortable a thought as approaching a child on your first day of school and asking: “Want to be friends?”

#7 Someone else has had a chance to shape your potential mate. Your potential new mate has already had a handful of relationships, and may even be divorced or separated, meaning they’ve had dozens of opportunities for someone else to shape their likes, dislikes, intuition, trust, and everything else in between.

This doesn’t mean your potential mate has entered a “no-go” zone. It is simply a fact of life. Still, you can’t deny how awesome it would be to have someone at least a little impressionable to roll in the hay with.

#8 Social media and cell phones have ruined our social capabilities. This is especially true of those in their 20s. The hard fact is that while technology has created a fun, diverse, and explorative spin on the current world we live in, it has also drowned our abilities to properly socialize.

Phone call, anyone? Instead, youths today would rather communicate impersonally via text message than actually get to hear their new crush’s voice. Ever seen a couple on a date at a restaurant, yet both of them are glued to their cell phones? Point taken.

#9 Looks have faded. You’re not getting any younger. A ridiculous thought for those in their 20s, but true for the rest. Don’t deny checking yourself out in the mirror studying your face at the sleep line that takes just *that* much longer to go away than it used to, or that one gray hair that seemed to have five friends attend its funeral.

When you’re young, shallow as it is, you feel like you can skate by on your looks to at least hook in your man and eventually make him see how awesome your personality is, too. The same goes for younger guys who subsist on beer and ramen noodles, and still look like they jumped out of a Chippendale’s ad. Now you may be finding you’re working your magic the other way around.

#10 The good ones are taken. This applies to most generations after 20. It seems all the good, cute guys who still have hair, or the smart, attractive women without children are already committed to someone else.

Don’t sweat the small stuff when it comes to finding relationships in your later years. You may be set in your ways, but you know what you want, and when you do find that special someone, they’re going to be of the highest quality, because you won’t accept any less.

Try not to dwell too much on the negatives when it comes to aging and meeting people. The process may be a little more difficult than when you were in your teens, but the result of a mature, loving relationship is totally worth the struggle.

By the time you hit your 20s, 30s, 40s and so on, finding that one guy or gal whom you can spend the rest of your life with may be tougher. But don’t lose hope! Someone out there may be thinking the exact same thing as they wait for your opportunity to meet to finally arise!

This Simple Communication Rule Can Rescue Your Marriage

THIS SIMPLE COMMUNICATION RULE CAN RESCUE YOUR MARRIAGE

Harriet Lerner

The columnist Ellen Goodman once quoted a friend who gave her daughters terrific advice:

“Speak up, Speak up, speak up!” this mother said. “The only person you’ll scare off is your future ex-husband!” What an improvement over the pre-feminist advice I was raised on:  “Listen wide-eyed to his ideas and gracefully add your footnotes from time to time.”

All ways of speaking up, however, are not equal. One of the challenges in marriage is to make authentic “I” statements that express our beliefs and feelings without judging or attacking your partner.  This may be easy enough if your partner is nodding vigorously in agreement (“I thought you were brilliant tonight”) or if the subject matter is a neutral one (“I know you like vanilla but I prefer chocolate”).  But when you’re dealing with a defensive partner or a high-twitch subject, nothing is simple or easy.

“I” statements, however, can keep a difficult conversation from exploding into an all-out fight. An “I” statement starts with “I think…” I feel…”  “I fear…”  “I want…”  Practice making these kind of statements.

Most importantly, remember that a true “I” statement:

* has a light touch

* is nonjudgmental and non-blaming

* does not imply that the other person is responsible for your feelings or reactions

* is only about you—not about your partner.

Every “you” statement (“You’re being controlling!”) can be turned into an “ I” statement. (“I need to make my own decision here”). Keep in mind, however, that changing the grammatical structure of your sentences is only part of the challenge.  You also need to get the edge out of your voice. An intense, reactive tone will “undo” even the most carefully constructed  “I”-statement” and may come across as blaming.  So hold off until you can state your “I” position without the edge.

A note of caution:   Beware of Pseudo “I” Language!

We may think we’re talking in “I” language when we stick “I think” or “I feel” in front of a sentence, but that doesn’t do the trick.   Sometimes it’s easy to detect a pseudo “I” statement  (“I think you have a narcissistic personality disorder”) that judges or diagnoses the other person.  

In many cases, however, the difference between a true “I” statement and a pseudo  “I” statement can be subtle.  My friend tells this story about his wife Jill.  It’s a good example of his wife making an “I” statement that was really a “you” statement dressed up in “I” statement clothing.

My friend writes:  My home office has been a mess lately and Jill, who shares the space, is a much more organized person than I am.  After glancing at the stacks of papers everywhere on my desk and floor, she said to me:

 “When I walk into this room, I feel like our household is totally falling apart.”

Totally falling apart! Our household?  I’m her hardworking faithful partner of 14 years and because my half of the office is a mess she feels like everything is crumbling around her? And yet when I said, “That’s a pretty extreme statement, she simply responded, “Well, it’s how I feel.”

How can I possibly respond to that?

A partner is unlikely to have the space to consider his behavior, much less apologize for it, if he feels he’s putting his head on the chopping block and taking responsibility not only for his behavior but for your unhappiness, as well. 

Remember this:  An “I” statement should serve to clarify our position, not act as a Trojan horse for smuggling in judgments and accusations.

How to Ask if He’s Seeing Someone Else Minus the Awkwardness

HOW TO ASK IF HE’S SEEING SOMEONE ELSE MINUS THE AWKWARDNESS

Nicky Curtis

If you’ve dated someone for a few months, you’re now wondering how to ask if he’s seeing someone else. There’s a way to do it to minimize embarrassment.

Relationships aren’t exactly easy. Confusion abounds no matter what stage of the game you’re in. If you’re in that early stage, it can be even more mind-boggling. The problem is, most of us want to know how to ask if he’s seeing someone else.

Finding the right time to have this conversation and doing it in the right way can be extremely difficult. It’s vital that you don’t do it too soon. Timing is everything!

Finding the right time

Generally speaking, guys don’t want to be pressured into thinking about the future too soon. That might be a huge generalization, but most of the guys I’ve met fall into this category. You might be lucky enough to meet one which has his eye on the future and can’t wait to get past that awkward stage. If so, hold onto him! For most, we walk that line of confusion for a short while at least.

Getting this conversation right could be the difference between going with the flow in a more open minded way, and blowing it all too soon. Never fear, there is some very useful advice you can follow, which should calm the waters somewhat.

How to ask if he’s seeing someone else in the right way

Figuring out how to ask if he’s seeing someone else is nerve wracking, but you must keep it casual, that’s the vital part. Coming on too strong at this point will make him panic and run. Guys are like that for the most part.

Again, if you find one who can’t wait to jump into a full blown relationship, assuming that’s what you want too, great! For most of us, we should follow several unspoken rules to make this conversation far less of a panic.

The most important thing lies within you. Be sure what you want from the very start. If you want a relationship, know that and find out what he wants. If you know for certain that he doesn’t want a relationship and he wants to keep it casual for a prolonged period of time, ask yourself whether you’re happy with that.

In the past I’ve made the vital mistake of going along with it in the hope that he’ll change his mind and suddenly want a full relationship, yet almost two years on I was still going around the same hamster wheel of casual hook ups. Not something I would recommend for anyone. Knowing what you want and having a general idea of where he’s heading, and where he’s at, will help you avoid wasting time and breaking your own heart.

Once you know what you want, go with the flow for a short while and see what happens. Perhaps after the first few dates, you’ll decide that you really don’t want to take this any further. It saves you having the conversation and thinking about how to ask if he’s seeing someone else!

Assuming everything is going well, wait at least a couple of months before approaching this subject, and make sure that within those couple of months you’ve been hanging out on a regular basis, i.e. a few times per week.

Personally, I would say two months minimum of regular dates, three months if you can. The longer you leave it, the less pressurized the situation, and the higher the chances of a positive answer in your favor.

How to have the conversation

Now you know when to have the talk, we now need to cover how to ask if he’s seeing someone else in terms of what to say and how to say it. I can’t stress enough that the way you say this is more important than the words you choose.

Seriously, he’s not going to love you jumping down his throat with a demanding conversation. So, it’s vital that you not only approach this in a casual way, but you keep the tone of your voice light and cheery too.

Ease into the conversation and don’t make your meet up entirely about asking this question. Don’t jump straight in with the conversation when you first meet up. Wait a little, so he can tell that you haven’t arranged to meet up solely to interrogate him on his dating habits!

When you’re ready to do the asking, keep it light once more. Something like “Can you believe it’s been three months we’ve been seeing each other? It’s crazy how fast time goes.” That’s a generalization and a conversation starter, and he won’t suspect that you’re going somewhere with it. Then follow up with another line, again stay light, “I’m not seeing anyone else you know” and use a shrug as another casual body language aid, and then “are you?”

As you can see, casual, calm, and the shrug shows that you haven’t made this entire date about getting a serious answer to a serious question. This breezy attitude is far more likely to get him to open up and be honest, than if you sit him down and shine a light in his eyes, demanding to know answers!

Stay in the present

It’s also important that you keep everything about the here and now. Don’t let your words or your voice venture into the future. Keep it present tense. If you start bringing the future into it, you could freak him out; not always, but it’s possible.

Don’t mention what you want to happen in the future, or what you see on the horizon. You’re not a fortune teller and you have no clue what’s going to happen. All you want to know right now is whether or not he is seeing anyone else as well as you. The answer is all you need for the here and now.

Dealing with the outcome of what he says

I hope that you get the answer you want. I hope that he says “no, I’m not seeing anyone else either”… and that he means it. If you’ve been seeing each other for a while and things are going well, you’ll probably be able to tell whether or not he’s telling the truth. Don’t question it, take him at face value.

What if you don’t get a straight answer? In this case you do need to push a little. A few extra probing questions will give you a bit more information to go on. This is vital because, well, why should you waste your time at this point?

If you want this to go somewhere, you need to know he’s on the same page. If he’s still seeing other people, he’s clearly not on the same chapter as you, let alone the same page. At this point, you have permission to be a little firmer.

Keep it semi-light at this point, but get the answer you need. Something like “I just think after this amount of time we should be at least exclusive.” You also have to think about your sexual health here too. If he’s seeing other people, does that mean he’s sleeping with others too? Are you being careful? These are things you need to know.

Understanding how to ask if he’s seeing someone else might be full of pitfalls, but it’s the only way to get the answers you need. Time to take charge of your own dating life. 

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