What Kind of Books Do You Love?

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I recently discovered the only podcast I ever get excited about: “What Should I Read Next?” with Anne Bogel. It’s a literary matchmaking show with lots of fun bookish conversation on the side. Anne asks her guests about three books they love, one book they don’t love, and what they’re currently reading, then makes suggestions on what they should pick up next.

It makes for fascinating literary discussions, and it’s such a great conversation starter in real life. My husband and I have discussed this about our adult reading lives and our childhood reading lives (our picks were somewhat different at different ages and stages). These have been some of my favorite conversations in our relationship to date.

I learned so much about what my husband looks for in a good read. He loves the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and a nonfiction work entitled, The Troubador’s Song: The Capture and Ransom of Richard the Lionheart. For him, he likes involved narratives that develop over the years between familiar characters within a richly-imagined culture.

Why on earth he listed Harry Potter as his book he didn’t love, I have no idea, as that series falls perfectly within those parameters. I’m still going after him to read Harry Potter. He stopped at the first book, a few chapters in, after scoffing at chocolate frogs and Bertie’s Every Flavor Beans — an absolutely ridiculous reason to quit a book, if you ask me.

But I’m biased, because the Harry Potter series definitely makes it into the “books I love” category. (I’m re-reading them this summer. They’re even better the second time around!) I adore The Help, by Kathryn Stockett — another perennial re-read. And the latest book that got me excited (and my husband teary) is The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, by Miranda Cuevas. A book I absolutely hated: Dietland, by Sarai Walker.

The common threads between all of these?

(1) They involve character development within a community — and by that, I don’t just mean that the characters are multi-faceted and grow as the story progresses. They learn about themselves and others through relationship — their biases, their strengths, their passions, their purpose — and we, the reader, learn about both the characters and the world by seeing different perspectives about the same events.

Though I’ve enjoyed plenty well-written novels in the first person tense, I generally don’t fall over myself to read books told in that way, especially if they focus too much on the interior life. The self is just too isolated of a viewpoint to truly understand the world. I’m too much of an interior person myself; exclusively reading another person’s interior thoughts gives me anxiety about human beings. But the self and the individual’s perspective make up part of the world, which is why I love books that combine different first person accounts (like The Help) or have a more omniscient narrator (as in Harry Potter).

(2) The authors slip in crucial plot points without fanfare. It drives me nuts when authors dramatize, over-describe, or frantically signal to pay attention to key moments. Books that do that often have underdeveloped villains and protagonists, as the villains are clearly marked as villains and the protagonists clearly aren’t villains, in a black-and-white sort of way.

I’m outgrowing the mystery genre itself, but I still appreciate plots that have you thinking you’ve figured it out and then dash your confidence in your judgment. J. K. Rowling does this exceptionally well. Re-reading her series, I find more and more information that seems like random fun facts at the moment but turn out to be critical points of information or key turning points in the series.

(3) These books are self-aware, even if their characters are not. I don’t mind reading about experiences and perspectives different from my own, or encountering dark or immoral elements, but I won’t get excited about any book lacking a strong moral core. The book needs to show awareness that the character’s perspective or actions are at least questionable or nuanced, if not downright destructive. Dietland failed on this account for me: it praised a violent feminist revolution and the protagonist’s hardening toward others, things I cannot get behind, things that weren’t exposed as destructive and wrong.

This is another reason why I dislike many first person accounts: I really have to like the narrator to stick with them for a whole book, and in order for me to like the narrator, she needs to be self-aware of her faults. If one of her flaws is that she isn’t self-aware, I won’t enjoy the narrative, no matter how accurate a reflection on the interior life it is. Books that drop hints that it’s okay to laugh at, dislike, be mad at, and get frustrated with even the main characters are my jam.

(4) There’s a foreign piece to the stories that initially peaks my interest — whether that’s a fantastical element, a well-described historical time period (like 1960’s Mississippi), another culture, or a character with a life experience completely different from my own.

(5) These books are wholistic. I was going to say realistic, but that often signals to people “dark, gritty, and hopeless.” While many perspectives fall within that depressing category, I think a wholistic view of life involves the dark, the gritty, the hopeless, and the humorous, the hopeful, and the quirky. Humans are weird and lovable and aggravating all at the same time. I love how Harry Potter, The Help, and The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole all deal with deep, difficult subjects but still make me laugh and inspire me to keep living.

But these aren’t cheap laughs — they have heart and substance, which is why I have a difficult time getting through books by Roald Dahl or Lemony Snickett or the Eddie Dickens trilogy — dark humor and ridiculousness alone give me a literal headache. I need to cry and rejoice and believe as well as laugh.

To clarify, these are the kinds of books that I most often get excited about — that I re-read — that I rip through and then beg all my friends to read them. There are many, many other books that are exciting, well-written, and worth reading — that have changed my life, even — that don’t meet all these criteria. (The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas is an example.) But when I’m looking for a book that I know I’ll enjoy, these are the kinds of books I turn to.

I no longer think in terms of “good” or “bad” books. (Okay, I do think some books are objectively awful.) That’s one thing Anne Bogel talks about often: just because a book isn’t for you doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. This changes throughout life, too. There are books I adored as a kid (and still do for nostalgia’s sake) that wouldn’t exactly fit every criterion above.

And it’s fascinating how two people can love the same book for different reasons. Many people love Harry Potter, for instance, but wouldn’t be remotely interested in reading the other two books I love. Myself, I don’t love Harry Potter for the fantasy genre, per se; there are many fantasy books that aren’t for me because they fail to meet the criteria I listed above.

If you enjoy the same kinds of books I do, check out some of my other recent favorites:

Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Wizards of Once, by Cressida Cowell

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Emma, by Jane Austen

What are three books you love and one you don’t? Have you identified the common threads between them? Do you have any suggestions for what I should read next?

P.S. Two of my favorite WSIRN episodes: an interview with Jen Hatmaker on “When your reading life is nothing like people expect” and a chat with Patience Randle about “The quest for the perfect coffeeshop read.”

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My Divorce-Proof Marriage

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Me, trying to pretend I’m a strong, independent woman who doesn’t need a husband to sleep

I used to hate sharing a bed with anyone. The few unfortunate sleepovers and vacations I got stuck with strange bedfellows, I ended up with a sore back from trying to sleep as close to the edge as possible.

Then I got married, a choice that left me dependent on my husband for several crucial sleep needs: (1) a personal bed warmer; (2) a back support, especially during pregnancy, when the only way I could sleep was wedged between pillows and my husband; (3) a kind and groggy ear to pretend to listen to my middle-of-the-night ramblings or disturbing nightmares; (4) a monitor of the duration and intensity of my snoring, hitherto unknown before marriage; and (5) someone else for the baby to claw at when he woke at six in the morning.

I cannot sleep well without my husband. This is, of course, a pain when he goes on vacation for a whole week with his college buddies. But it’s the magnet that forces our marriage back together.

Consider: When I get angry at him for something that seems much more important and unfixable at 11:02 PM, and storm out of the bedroom, and declare, “I’m sleeping on the couch tonight!”, it’s only a matter of time before I remember that I can’t actually sleep on the couch tonight without my bed warmer, back support, listener, snore monitor, and baby scratch post. Then I am forced by sheer necessity to slink back to the comfy bed and admit my overreaction.

When another petty midnight argument goes down, and he grabs his pillow to go sleep on the couch, I can go a max of 30 minutes before conceding that I’m not good at the silent treatment between 10:30 PM-6 AM. I slump towards my couch-sleeping husband to make up. I need a warm bed.

When I huffily roll over to my side of the bed, daring to let the sun go down on my anger, I end up huffily rolling back over and begrudgingly admitting to my husband that okay, fine, I love him and can’t live (or sleep) without him and yeah, let’s not try to address outstanding marital issues at two in the morning any longer.

I never get any sleep when he’s away, but at least my marriage is divorce-proofed!

Happy Couples Don’t Give 110%

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No.

It’s one of the most important, life-giving words for marriage, I’m finding.

No, I can’t. No, I don’t want to. No, I don’t like that.

Whenever I wanted to say “no” to anyone, Paul’s words always popped into my mind: As much as it is possible with you, live at peace with everyone. For the past twenty-four years, I interpreted that as a challenge. I would pride myself on my flexibility, on my limitless tolerance, on my 110% giving. It was possible for me to give it all and then some.

When resentment and burn-out poked their heads up (and they did, often, and more often), I took that as a challenge too. I just needed a new perspective. I just needed an attitude adjustment. I just needed to root out whatever sin was causing me to resent the recipients of my love.

How low could I go? Watch me.

It was possible for me to live at peace with everyone, at all times, in all ways. I could be all things to all people. I could swallow my opinions and blur my boundaries and run into another person’s life and fix all their broken pieces for them.

It’s more blessed to give than to receive — but the longer I lived like this, the more the resentment and burn-out drained me. I never felt blessed. I felt used and used up. 

I was missing a key part of love that many Christians don’t recognize: As much as it is possible with you is not just a challenge. It’s an acknowledgement of reality: it’s not possible to live at peace with everyone. There are limits to who you are and what you can give. There are moments when you come to the end of yourself. You max out at 100%. That’s a fact.

I believe that resentment and burn-out are rarely signs that you need a new perspective, an attitude adjustment, or a quick pick-me-up. They are signs that you have reached your limit. They are reminders that you need to say no to whatever is draining you.

Christians are often idealists. I am, at least. I live in light of what I should be doing. But the reality is that I am a broken, finite human. There are things I ought to do but cannot do ever because of the limitations of being human, and there are things I ought to do but cannot do now because of the limitations of being an imperfect human. 

In an ideal world, all things being equal, I as a good Christian wifey should be happy and willing to have sex whenever my husband wants, listen to the intimate details of my husband’s latest Fortnite game, pick up that random thing at the store for him, and take on extra work to give him a break. But can I do that thing on this day, during this period of my life, without reaching the end of what I can give? No, not always, because all things are never equal at any given time.

Like all my other fellow female mortals, I get tired, sick, overwhelmed, scarred, pregnant, preoccupied, burnt out, and other negative adjectives because we are limited persons.

As much as it is possible with you, make your husband happy in the ways he wants. But sometimes it’s not possible. There needs to be space in the marriage for the wife to say no, I don’t want to or no, I can’t. Burn-out and resentment are signs that she’s reached her limit. She needs to say no for her own soul.

And she needs to say no for her marriage. 

We all subconsciously know we have limits. Unacknowledged limits have a way of expressing themselves in destructive ways — like failing to follow through on our yes because really, we wanted to say no. “Yes, of course!” my husband and I will tell each other (I sometimes with an added, “Ugh, do I have to?”) — and then, because we don’t want to, we never do what we agreed to do.

This causes far more harm than if we simply said “no” at the outset. Now we have depended on each other, and we didn’t hold up. We have trusted one another, and that trust is broken. We have relied on each other, and now we’re inconvenienced and scrambling to pick up the ball the other person dropped.

Over time, these little betrayals add up until we don’t feel like we can trust our spouse. My husband has a list of things I said yes to and never intended to get out of. We joke about them, as they’re small things — I promised to play Fornite with him, I said I’d read the book series he really got into, stuff like that, stuff that I thought was little but turned out to be a big deal to him.

We’re left wondering why on earth our spouse keeps falling through — does he not love me anymore? Is something wrong? Is he not telling me something?

And, of course, since we’re too “nice,” and “obligated” to keep saying “yes,” we respond to our spouse’s fears and confrontations with more false promises that we subconsciously don’t intend to keep: “Yeah, I know I should have done that. I’m sorry. I’ll do it after I finish this.”

It affects our own sense of self, too. We beat ourselves up because we don’t understand why we keep falling through on our yeses. We’re just so tired, and burnt out, and busy, and disinterested, and we don’t want to be. We want to do the things we said we’d do. We want to make our spouses happy. And then we can’t, and we wonder what on earth is wrong with us.

Because we’re so busy feeling guilty and resentful and burnt-out by saying yes to things we don’t want to do (whether we do them or not), we don’t have any energy or emotional space to do the things we can and want to do for our spouses, or to work on why we don’t want to or can’t do the things our spouses ask us to do.

A simple starting place for fixing this whole mess is to be honest with ourselves and our spouses: say no when we mean no and say yes when we mean yes. For some of us, this requires more introspection and self-awareness than we normally use, so familiar are we with tuning out our guilt, resentment, and burn-out.

I think a lot of us ignore our limits because acknowledging our limits creates conflict — within ourselves (“It’s just a little thing! I should do it! I’m a horrible person for not wanting to do this one little thing!”) and within our marriages (“He’s going to get mad at me for saying no. I don’t want to hurt his feelings!”).

We often try to head off those conflicts by holding out for our spouse to let us off the hook. I want my husband to notice that I said yes with a long sigh. I’m waiting for him to immediately retract his request: “Don’t worry about, honey! I can see you’re tired and burnt out.” I want him to sense when I’m hovering at zero so that I don’t have to risk disappointing him or hurting his feelings. I want him to mitigate my guilt and take responsibility for my burn-out.

It doesn’t work that way — and now I’ve said I’d do something I don’t want to do and I’m grumpy about my husband’s lack of mind-reading skills.

It’s a huge relief to both of us when I take responsibility for meeting my needs and let go of responsibility for his emotions. He is not responsible for knowing my feelings. I am. And I am not responsible for controlling his reactions. He is. My no may disappoint him, hurt him, or affect him negatively. I can’t change that, and I can’t ignore my limits either, as giving out of nothing means I end up giving him nothing and causing more hurt and resentment.

But saying no has some beautiful affects on marriage that I didn’t believe until I experienced them myself, again and again. As I’ve been listening to my limits and saying no, I’ve felt even more eager and energized to give of myself. A little but significant example: Ever since I’ve set limits on picking up after my husband, I’ve found myself happily clearing away all our plates after dinner just because I know it’ll make him feel good. Before, I would clear the plates to be nice, yes, but also subconsciously hoping he’d catch on to my niceness and reciprocate by picking up after himself since his love tank was now filled — or whatever.

Didn’t work. Result: more resentment.

Empowered to say no, I feel energized to say yes. Now that my no means no, my yes means yes. We trust each other more now that we know the other spouse feels the freedom to say yes or no and mean it. There’s less passive aggressiveness and resentment and fewer unspoken needs now that we encourage each other to take responsibility for our own energy levels instead of hoping the other spouse will notice we’re running on fumes.

The other day, my husband and I had planned to meet at the park after work to fish and spend time as a family. As I was leaving work, he texted me several times to ask if I could pick up some leaders (whatever those were). I checked in with myself. I instantly wanted to say “maybe” and then make up some excuse — sorry, not enough time, work went late — because I really didn’t want to and I didn’t want to him to feel bad.

If I said yes, I’d use up precious family time wandering through the fishing aisle in Meijer and driving an extra ten minutes. I’d feel stressed trying to figure out what leaders were and which ones my husband wanted. I’d feel resentful because of all of those things. I just wanted to get off work and spend time with my family. At the risk of inconveniencing and frustrating him, I texted back: “I don’t want to pick those up today. I’ll see you at the park soon!”

Turns out it was absolutely no big deal. He picked up leaders himself the next day, and we enjoyed a stress- and resentment-free time at the park. (Well, a relatively stress-free time — e.e. did puke all over himself and eat rocks, but, you know.)

It’s important in marriage to give what you can, for sure, even if it inconveniences you.

When it is in your power, don’t withhold good from the one to whom it belongs.

As much as it is possible with you, live at peace with everyone.

But sometimes it’s not in our power to give. Sometimes it’s simply not possible for us to make others happy in the way they want us to. We all have limits. When we acknowledge those limits, we regain the power and the possibility to love freely and sacrificially. 

How Do I Get My Husband to Do Housework?!?! (Part 3: Giving Back Responsibility)

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While being unable to change your husband through your attitude or great communication skills may sound bleak, this doesn’t mean you’re doomed to handle everything by yourself. You still have power and control over your own actions. You can control what you will do and what you will not do. You can decide what you will tolerate and what you won’t tolerate. That is, you can give your husband’s responsibilities back to him, and you can reset your boundaries so that your husband’s irresponsibility hurts you as little as possible.

We can give our husbands back full responsibility for their actions: the mental burden of remembering and thinking about those tasks, the emotional response when it isn’t completed, and the hassle and consequences of dealing with undone tasks.

A great place to start is the responsibility of picking up after oneself. Even the smallest of children are responsible for cleaning up after themselves. It’s absolutely unacceptable for any individual, especially an adult, to delegate this most basic responsibility to someone else. A grown man is responsible for throwing his trash in the garbage, putting his laundry in the laundry basket, cleaning up the messes he makes, placing his dishes in the dishwasher, and putting away the things he takes out.

If you’re doing any of those things, stop picking up after your husband. Release the full mental, emotional, and physical responsibility of picking up to him. Don’t give a flying flip to his mess. Turn a blind eye. It’s his responsibility. Let him be bothered by it if and when he’s bothered by it.

And that’s key: you’re releasing the responsibility to him not as a manipulative move to get him to change but as a gift to yourself. The difference between releasing full responsibility and trying to manipulate him into changing is noted in your emotional response. If you’ve truly released responsibility over his actions, you’ll see the clothes he threw next to the laundry basket, shrug, and step over them. If you’re trying to manipulate him into changing, you’ll see those clothes, get agitated, and scream a long list of grievances at him when he comes home that night.

It’s not that it’s wrong to feel frustrated, embarrassed, maybe even a bit disdainful when you see your husband’s chronic irresponsibility. Feelings are feelings. But it’s a fine line between feeling and expressing legitimate feelings because that’s your emotional response, and feeling and expressing legitimate feelings because you still feel responsible for getting your husband to change.

For some women, it’s difficult to step over piles of laundry or see stacks of unwashed dishes. Those messes affect their emotional balance, or make taking care of their own tasks difficult. In these cases, not picking up after their husbands still leaves wives inconvenienced and suffering the consequences of their husbands’ irresponsibility.

Here’s where you get creative and come up with ways to disentangle yourself from the consequences and inconveniences of your husband’s bad choices. If he leaves trash, dirty dishes, or belongings strewn out in shared spaces and isn’t bothered by them, put them in a place where they will not bother you but will only bother him — his desk, his side of the bed, his lounge chair. If it’s really bad, you might move your belongings to the guest room so that you each have a space of your own to keep or not keep at your choosing without inconveniencing the other person.

This concept of disentangling yourself from your husband’s rightful consequences applies to things other than picking up after oneself. If you’re sick of scheduling your husband’s appointments, reminding him about them, and rescheduling them when he misses them, stop. If he doesn’t care enough about his health, his teeth, or his haircut, that’s sad and unfortunate, but it’s not your job to care for him. If he misses an important meeting because he failed to write it down, keep a planner, or check the planner regularly, that’s frustrating, but it’s his responsibility to face the consequences — whether it’s rescheduling, angering a friend, or missing out on an opportunity.

Does this sound cruel? It can look like cruelty if we’re used to believing the lie that a good wife will bend over backwards to take care of her husband. Our culture promotes the idea that men are helpless; that marriage is designed to make them better; and that good wives exist to do all the things those silly, dear men just plumb forget about.

This is ridiculous. Grown men are capable of doing everything their wives do for them. They may choose not to do everything their wives do for them, but that should be on them.

And on the receiving end, yeah, it certainly doesn’t feel great. But as a Formerly Horrible Homemaker, I can assure you that I only changed into a Fairly Decent Homemaker because my husband stopped picking up after me, and I was the only one living with the consequences of my mess.

Words, emotions, even guilt — none of those things changed my mind the way dealing with the consequences of my undisciplined life did.

Just as I took twenty-four years to feel the effects of my lack of discipline, our husbands have their own journey in becoming aware of their problem, feeling motivated to change, discovering the root of their issues, and finding the tools needed for their transformation. You can’t do any of that for him, and you’re not supposed to. 

We have to let our husbands make mistakes and feel the consequences of their irresponsibility. We have to let them make the journey toward responsibility in their own way and their own time. We can offer insight and support, but trying to change them will only cause us frustration and stall our husbands’ journeys. We also must relinquish the guarantee that our husbands will make the changes needed to be equal partners in household matters. Maybe they will never change. That’s heartbreaking, but it’s 100% their responsibility — which means you don’t have to feel responsible for it.

Obviously, the nature of marriage and living together means that wives will still be affected. Some irresponsibilities are so severe that a wife cannot disentangle herself from the consequences of her husband’s choices without separation. But I’m finding that in my particular circumstances, with a husband who cares about equality and my happiness, just freeing myself from the lies that drive me nuts, figuring out the real reasons why he doesn’t follow through, and giving back his responsibilities to him alone makes a huge difference in our marriage — and the household.

How Do I Get My Husband to Do Housework?!?! (Part 2: Why He’s Not Following Through)

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What with gender roles, enabling parents, uncommunicated expectations, and personal problems, sometimes your husband just doesn’t know what to do or how to do it. And wives aren’t immune to the same flakiness when it comes to certain tasks too.

There’s a lot to hash out when it comes to household responsibilities. These are the conversations I’ve found productive.

Decide what tasks need to be done, when they need to be done, how they need to be done, and who needs to do them. 

There’s often a big disconnect between husbands and wives about what even needs to be done, much less when and how. Your childhood households place emphases on different things. Different levels of tolerance for mess lead to one spouse pulling her hair, while the other doesn’t even notice a problem.

Upbringing makes a huge difference, too. Adults with enabling parents may not know even the first thing about what’s involved in running a home. Spouses who come from homes with gendered roles may be unaware of what’s involved in a “man’s job” or a “woman’s job.”

I used to scoff at the idea of homemaking being a full-time job. Scrub a couple of toilets, wash the dishes, throw in a load of laundry. No big deal. Once I became the full-time homemaker, however, I quickly sang a different tune. It’s not just household tasks. Scheduling appointments, staying on top of communications, finances, planning, organizing, shopping, researching, and learning new skills, as well as keeping up with regular chores, all involved more steps and time than I thought. Just when I thought I’d finally got on top of everything, another bill would come in, something would break, and the realization that I really needed to declutter the hall closet would come crashing down.

Just the mental load alone was enough to drive me batty.

All that to say, if your husband isn’t aware of what needs to be done, he won’t know to do it.

When and how those tasks should be done is another important conversation that involves laying out preferences. In any relationship, somebody is bound to be more bothered than the other about different sorts of things. After I yelled at my husband for being a slob, my visiting sister commented that my personal tolerance for mess would make me difficult to live with. Ouch. Were I living with my sister, would be the slob taking advantage of her neat ways.

It’s all about perspective and preference. There’s nothing intrinsically “worse” about leaving a full bag of recycling by the door for a couple of days if it’s not bothering anybody, and there’s nothing intrinsically “better” about taking out the recycling right away. You could make great arguments for and against those practices. Our differing preferences for what constitutes “clean,” “organized,” and “livable” are not necessarily better or worse than our husbands’.

We have to come up with timelines and standards that work for both spouses. This may involve letting go of some preferences, or agreeing to preferences you don’t really care about.

This solves the exhausting conversation we’ve all had: “I thought we agreed it was your job to take those boxes to storage!”

“I know! I’ll take them out eventually.”

“It’s been two weeks. Gosh, you are so lazy. I’ll just take them out myself.”

It’s not necessarily true that the offender is lazy or will never follow through on his promise — not anymore than we are, with all the things we procrastinate on. It could really be that he’s not bothered by the boxes as much as you are or is prioritizing other things.

If it matters to us when and how tasks get done, we need to communicate those preferences and agree on them. Otherwise, we need to give the other spouse space to take care of his responsibilities in the way and time he chooses — or do it ourselves without complaint.

The final component of this conversation is who does what. Permanent task delegation — transferring the mental and practical burden of doing certain tasks — has made a huge difference. I know exactly what I’m supposed to do, what he’s supposed to do, and what responsibilities we must hash out along the way.

This saves us from vague arguments over feeling like we do everything, as we can pinpoint exactly which task is causing problems, and we don’t exert any emotion or responsibility toward the things the other is supposed to do. If we want help with our task, the other spouse is usually willing to contribute, but the responsibility to delegate specific tasks within that area lies squarely with the person to whom that area belongs.

These sorts of conversations are especially key for stay-at-home moms married to working husbands. Since we’ve been dealing with the home and kids all day, we intimately know the routines, the needs, the finished tasks, and the priorities of the household. When our husbands walk through the door, they may feel out of their depth and uncertain where to begin, just as we would if we walked into their workplaces and were expected to know what, when, and how to do things. Since they haven’t been stepping over the pile of dirty laundry all day, it will likely not occur to them to notice, much less make it an urgent priority.

Even if you’re not a stay-at-home mom, it’s important to make our homes a truly egalitarian environment where you welcome your husband’s preferences as well as his participation. Sometimes I see wives complaining about their husbands’ lack of involvement while making it clear that they view their home as the woman’s domain — insisting on certain decorating styles, criticizing how husbands do things, keeping the home off limits to the husband’s projects, or relegating his “own” space to a den or garage.

If our husbands have no say in how the home looks, operates, or is used, they’re not going to take responsibility. Our husbands can’t feel a sense of ownership if we expect them to do everything we find important on the timetable we find important in the way we think is best, with no room at the table for their preferences. Micromanagement discourages responsibility. 

We all naturally fail to notice or ignore tasks that aren’t our responsibility. Deciding who does what and making space for both of your preferences for when and how those tasks are accomplished eliminates this problem.

Put yourself under the mental load of the other person.

The first breakthrough in my marriage surrounding household tasks was the concept of “the mental load.” The mental load is all the emotion, mental effort, and ultimate responsibility it takes to manage things. It’s not a big deal to physically get in the car, drive to Meijer, and buy things off a shopping list. But making the shopping list? That involves knowing what we have and don’t have; deciding what we want to eat; figuring out the ingredients necessary for those recipes; factoring in diet, nutrition, and picky eaters; perhaps planning around the sales at different stores; writing it all down; and choosing when, where, and who’s going shopping. That’s the mental load.

This is what’s so aggravating when husbands say, “Just tell me what to do! I want to help.” When wives are burnt out, they don’t need help with the physical tasks. They need someone to shoulder the mental load — which is why I think it’s so important to divide up specific tasks and their mental loads between each spouse.

Usually, the mental load of everything falls to the woman, and it’s hard for husbands to even understand what their wives are talking about because they’ve never encountered the pressures and expectations society puts on women.

I explained this concept to my husband multiple times, and it didn’t seem to stick. He still failed to contribute to the household in the ways we agreed, or understand how much his failure stressed me out. I chalked this up to laziness and lack of care for me.

One day, he complained about the mental load he was bearing alone. I almost laughed in his face, but asked him to explain what he meant. He listed a whole bunch of things — mostly related to finances, like investments, savings, planning for large purchases, insurance — for which he alone shouldered the mental burden. He reminded me of the many times he’d asked me to look up something in order to help him make a big decision, and I’d failed to do the research I’d agree to do, or contribute in a meaningful way. He felt overwhelmed, alone, and frustrated with my flakiness.

Finding myself in his shoes as the “lazy, uncaring” spouse, I realized our promises to take responsibility for a task often failed because of the learning curve the task required. We meant well, and we agreed that it was fair to split responsibilities, but the mental load was too overwhelming. It was far easier to face a spouse’s wrath than put in the effort to learn, especially if we knew the other person would cave and do it for us. After all, we didn’t really care about the task in the first place.

When I saw my own tendency to shirk responsibilities with which I was unfamiliar, I gave him the same grace and understanding I wanted him to show me.

It might not be the learning curve that’s holding your husband back from taking responsibility. Maybe it’s perfectionism, depression, discouragement, other marriage or personal issues, or just confusion about what’s involved in the task he agreed to. Continuing to harp on him for failing to follow through without talking about the underlying reasons will be unproductive and frustrating for both of you.

I also realized that communicating preferences, understanding where the other spouse was coming from, and agreeing on a task list would not magically get us to follow through on what we said we would do. It was a necessary start, but the real change came when we put the tasks back on the responsible party.

Check back tomorrow for the last installment of this series!

How Do I Get My Husband to Do Housework?!?! (Part 1: The Lies That Drive You Nuts)

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The number one complaint I hear from all wives, especially egalitarian wives, is that their husbands don’t equally share the mental or physical burden of household tasks. Sure, they may “help” if their wives ask them (or say they’ll help, but leave the task undone, or actually help, but do a haphazard job). Even more aggravating, many husbands don’t even pick up after themselves, unofficially delegating the family housework and their own mess to the wives’ task list.

This is obviously not a sustainable living situation. But how do you get a husband to take responsibility for his own stuff, much less his share of the housework?

Since I am a Formerly Horrible Homemaker, as well as the primary homemaker, I understand a bit of both sides of this hopeless mess. This is a series of thoughts in three parts:

Part 1: The Lies That Drive You Nuts

Part 2: Why He’s Not Following Through

Part 3: Giving Back Responsibility

Let Go of These Lies

These lies make your husband’s lack of involvement even more aggravating:

  • It’s selfish of me to want him to take care of his own stuff and pitch in with the housework. This is my opportunity to serve. Doing a kind deed for an otherwise responsible person is a great way to show love. Bearing a burden for someone who can’t do it on his own is an acceptable sacrifice. Doing someone else’s job that he’s capable of doing himself is enabling — even if it’s not that big of a sacrifice for you to do it for him.
  • But he works so hard and comes home so tired. You work hard too. You’re tired too. In fact, you’re so burnt out that you’re exploding at your husband over dishes. Your anger, resentment, and despair are all signs of imbalance. You don’t need to quantify who “works harder” or is “more tired.” That’s too subjective of a thing to be calculated. You’re both tired, you both work hard, and still the house needs cleaning, the bills need paying, and the kids need baths. All of those things are equally true. You don’t need to dismiss either one of your conflicting needs.
  • If he’s egalitarian, this shouldn’t be that hard for him! We all have blind spots and imperfections. Believing a thing and doing a thing are two separate steps in spiritual growth. Household tasks have a practical learning curve not covered in conceptual theology.
  • I can change my husband’s mind. You can’t. You’ve tried everything, after all, and nothing has worked. No amount of tears, calm, anger, or patience will get him to change. No matter how perfect your communication is or how many “I statements” you use, you will not talk him into changing. No length of silent treatments will convince him to get his act together. While expressing feelings, remaining calm, and communicating effectively are helpful, true change comes from inner motivation — something that nobody but he can muster.

Perhaps the biggest lie is this: If I do kind things for my husband, he’ll do kind things for me.

Popularized by books like The Five Love Languages, The Love Dare, and every patriarchal book directed at women ever, this law of reciprocity dupes us into thinking that we can change our husbands’ behavior through kindness. It creates more helplessness, and thus more frustration, because we’re stuffing our feelings, lowering our expectations, and surrendering our agency in order to passively control our husbands — and it doesn’t work, especially when it comes to sharing the burden of parenting and household tasks.

One time at work, I noticed a task wasn’t done, and I began doing it as a favor. Another coworker stopped me: “Don’t do it. If you do it for them, they’ll never learn, and you’ll be stuck doing it forever.”

If that isn’t the truest statement ever said about spouses and household tasks, I don’t know what is.

You’ll go crazy thinking that picking up your husband’s socks for him every day will inspire him to schedule all the outstanding appointments. He’ll be grateful, no doubt — so grateful, that he’ll gratefully let you continue to show him such kindness for the next thirty years of marriage.

After freeing myself from these lies, I realized my husband was probably just as confused as I was about which responsibilities were his and which were mine.

Part 2 is coming out tomorrow!

Meaningless Marriage Advice: “Put God First”

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At every wedding, I hear marriage advice that sounds Christian-y and spiritualish, but makes no intelligible, practical sense.

The advice I hear most often, taking up space somewhere in every Christian wedding ceremony, is this: “Put God first in your marriage.” That, we’re told, is the secret to a lasting, happy marriage.

What the heck does this even mean?

“Putting God first in your marriage” implies a dichotomy, even a competition, between loving God and loving your spouse. Does “putting God first” mean talking to God before talking to your spouse when you start or end the day? Does it mean spending more time with God than with your spouse? Does it mean heeding God’s call to ministry at the expense of your marriage? In what practical way should you “put God first” ahead of your spouse?

Oddly enough, marriage sermons never give specifics on what “putting God first” looks like, other than vaguely “prioritizing” your relationship with God. But it’s one thing to say that your relationship with God impacts your marriage; it’s another thing to imply a conflict between your marriage and your spiritual life. It’s one thing to say that your relationship with God is important; it’s another to say that your relationship with God is the key to a happy, lasting marriage.

I understand the concept of how a strong relationship with God can and does affect your interactions with your spouse. If you find peace, strength, grace, and joy in your relationship with God, you can be peaceful, strong, gracious, and joyful in your relationship with your spouse.

But that is an if. Sometimes the transference of of peace, strength, grace, and joy drawn from your relationship with God runs into a hiccup when applied to marriage with another frustrating human being. Strong Christians still have marital struggles, whether self- or spousal-afflicted. Strong Christians still get divorced or live unhappily together. Some strong Christians are utterly nasty, unloving people, or good people with toxic or dysfunctional relational skills. Prayer, Scriptural study, knowledge of doctrine, good character, and a strong relationship with Jesus don’t always give you a leg up in figuring out sexual dysfunction or communication differences or how to split the chores equally.

Even Christians with an admirable spiritual life have blind spots, wounds, and faulty ideologies that can make marriage difficult. And non-Christians have happy marriages without any relationship with the Christian God whatsoever.

It’s objectively not true that simply having a productive relationship with God guarantees a happy, lasting marriage. It’s objectively not true that you cannot have a happy, lasting marriage without a productive relationship with God. When Dr. John Gottman created scientific studies on happy couples, “putting God first” was not a universal factor among them.

My guess is that the advice of “putting God first” as an almost silver bullet to marriage stems from a simplistic view of spirituality and human need. As I already said above, devotion to God, whether in the form of spiritual disciplines or an emotional connection, can do wonders in transforming the self into a spouse more suited to love and more enduring in inevitable marriage problems.

But just as the Bible does not and cannot give the specific medical advice needed to cure cancer, just as a relationship with God doesn’t guarantee prosperity, just as adherence to Christian principles and spiritual practices doesn’t stave off starvation, “putting God first” (whatever that means to you) does not, cannot, and will not solve marital problems alone. Spirituality may not even be a major component of either the problem or the solution.

There are relational and pyschological wounds that require more technical and marriage-specific help than “putting God first” requires. Acknowledging this doesn’t deny the importance of spirituality or a relationship with God, but it puts more emphasis on identifying the actual issues causing problems in the marriage and thus the solutions to them. Plus, it acknowledges the obnoxious but unavoidable reality that often the faithful suffer and the unfaithful prosper, and that the faithful are imperfect and broken too.

Unless a wedding sermon defines and qualifies “putting God first” with the above conditions, I consider this pithy little phrase just another well-meaning but meaningless bit of marriage advice.

How I Kicked My Perfectionism

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Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a neat person. Once I was out from under my mom’s reminders, I never made my bed, washed my dishes in a reasonable time frame, or kept my room clutter-free.

It didn’t bother me too much at first, but by the time I became a mother, the guilt caught up with me. When company came over, I scrambled to pull a thin facade of cleanliness and discipline over the disaster zones. Something had to give.

I tried excuses: “I’m a new mom; I’m tired.” I tried adjusting my expectations: “Who says a disciplined person needs to have her bed made every day? Mess is a sign of genius, anyway!” I tried psychoanalyzing: “All those years as a stay-at-home daughter guilted me into thinking it’s my duty as a woman to keep the house clean above all else!” I tried prioritizing: “I’d rather spend time with family than keep my house clean.” I tried rationalizing: “The floor’s just going to get dirty again, so why exert too much effort to keep it clean?”

Nothing worked to either alleviate my guilt or motivate me to clean.

Drowning, I turned to Marla Cilley, a.k.a “The Flylady,” who promised to teach inept homemakers like me how to get their house in order once and for all. The very first step was getting my kitchen sink clear and shiny before bed, every day.

I thought that was a stupid and meaningless thing to focus on, but desperate times called for desperate measures. I shined my sink as baby step number one, eventually adding on other routines throughout the month — laying out next day’s clothes, making my bed every morning, and giving the bathroom sink and toilet a quick swish and swipe every morning. I followed her daily missions, decluttering and cleaning different zones in my house.

It’s been two months, and my apartment is in great shape. Not perfect, but I feel in control of the mess and free of guilt. If company drops by, I no longer rush to shove stuff into closets, slam doors to hide messy rooms, or apologize profusely for not having enough time to clean a cruddy toilet. I now can’t imagine not making my bed or folding up the throw blanket after I use it. I get up in the morning and immediately start putting away dishes. I’ve turned into my industrious mother — I, the girl who left a bowl of encrusted macaroni out in her dorm room for months.

What changed?

I figured out the root issue: I wasn’t undisciplined or lazy, per se. I didn’t need a new outlook on the joy of cleaning. I just needed to kick my perfectionism.

In all of her emails and articles, the Flylady constantly hammered perfectionism out of me. I did only a little each day. I couldn’t tidy up my house in one go like Marie Kondo insisted, but I could shine a sink. I religiously prohibited myself from doing any cleaning other than what the Flylady prescribed in the baby steps.

“We do what we can today, and then we do a little more tomorrow,” said the Flylady.

“Progress over perfection!” her emails reminded me.

Something over nothing, I chanted to myself whenever I wanted to throw in the towel.

This simple phrase has revolutionized my life.

Without realizing it, I had expected myself to be able to do the impossible (make your apartment look perfect all the time!), or the possible in an impossible time frame (clean everything even though your baby kept you up all night!). Again and again, I failed those impossible expectations, heaping shame, guilt, and discouragement over me until I was too petrified to do anything productive.

Subconsciously I was thinking, “Why wash the dishes when I don’t have the energy to keep the rest of the house clean?” The Flylady taught me to think, “I don’t have the energy to clean the rest of the house, but I can wash the dishes and be done for the day.” And not only “be done,” but to celebrate that small accomplishment, to focus on what I could do and what I did do instead of everything I couldn’t do or didn’t want to do.

With my perfectionist expectations exploded, I succeeded all the time. The successes gave me more energy and motivation to do a little more the next day, or to bounce back a couple days after that if I didn’t do much the next day, after all.

was disciplined! I wasn’t lazy! I could keep my house clean! And out of that newly-found self, I kept challenging myself without burning out.

“Your house didn’t get messy in one day,” the Flylady said, “and you won’t be able to get in clean in one day, either.”

Words I now live by.

I truly feel like I’ve kicked perfectionism’s hold over my life. And not just in the housecleaning area — I apply the mantra “something over nothing” to developing habits or tackling projects in other areas of my life, like using kinder words to my husband, writing, and working out.

“I don’t want to work out today,” I’ll say to myself. “I’m too tired. But I should work out today. Do I do something I hate, or do I feel guilty for the rest of the day?”

“No,” myself will say back, “it’s not that you don’t want to work out today. You just don’t want to drive to the gym and run on the elliptical for half an hour. What about cycling while watching Netflix? What about yoga at home? What about ten minutes on the elliptical? What’s something you do want to do, instead of doing nothing at all?

The biggest gift I got from learning how to keep my apartment clean wasn’t a clean apartment. It was learning that when I dodged my perfectionism and did something, I could do whatever I set my mind to.

Slowly. Imperfectly. But eventually.

And that’s something, indeed.

A Pragmatic Defense of Civility

nina-strehl-140734-unsplashCivility is a dirty word in social justice circles right now.

I understand why. It’s ridiculous to care more about being polite than about babies being torn away from their mothers. It’s backwards to worry about niceties when human lives and human dignity are at stake. And often “they” interpret passion as incivility, anyway. “They” don’t like how it makes them feel, so “they” call it incivility to no longer feel responsible for their uncomfortable feelings. To “them,” no form of protest, no matter how respectful, peaceful, or carefully thought out, will ever be seen as civil simply because the act of protesting, resisting, and making “them” uncomfortable is uncivil.

But let’s be honest: sometimes, many times, people in social justice circles are uncivil, out of control, and just plain rude. They attack people outside of their circles; they attack people within their circles. Say the wrong word, the wrong opinion, and you’ve unleashed your doom.

I understand that too. I want to scream when I see dismissive memes. I want to shoot back sarcastic and mean-spirited zingers when I hear callous and ill-informed opinions. I want to spew obscenities at the people doing disgusting and dehumanizing things. I often feel that rude people deserve rude responses, that jerks get what’s coming to them, that people who don’t care about others don’t require my care, either. An eye for an eye. Anger with anger. Hate with hate.

I could ramble a lot about my conflicting feelings regarding justice and mercy within the Christian tradition. Regardless of my philosophical and theological beliefs, when it comes to altercations with stupid, rude, and/or callous people, when it comes to trying to change people’s minds, I still cherish civility as a virtue.

People may deserve a good chewing out when they fail to live up to basic human decency. Maybe a good, loud, simplistic, angry rant fulfills some sort of cosmic justice. Maybe I shouldn’t have to police my tone due to all the unfair things I’ve put up with; maybe I should get to be as angry as I want and speak out of that anger as much as I want.

I mean this sincerely: maybe that truly is justice. It doesn’t seem fair to me that people who have already put up with so much hatred and discrimination, sometimes against their very personhood, should even have to think about their tone in voicing legitimate complaints. I support understanding where people are coming from and letting them speak unfiltered, hearing what they say even if the way they say it is offensive.

But my defense of civility is almost purely pragmatic. Basic human biology prevents anger, hate, rudeness, and anything of that nature from being an effective tool of persuasion. That’s not to say that love, kindness, and civility will change any minds either (see the second paragraph), but hate, rudeness, and incivility definitely won’t — or they’ll at least make it more difficult.

When we say whatever we want to say however we want to say it, we trigger fight or flight responses. It is nearly impossible for someone in a fight or flight state to meaningfully absorb information, much less change their mind and make necessary changes. Some particularly gracious, patient, or obtuse people can struggle against the fight or flight state to engage with and process what you’re yelling at them. But that’s a difficult thing to do.

It’s inevitable that saying uncomfortable things will make people feel uncomfortable. Showing emotion of any kind, even if not directed toward another person, may trigger offense or anxiety. Even saying uncomfortable things civilly may trigger fight or flight responses, especially if that person has had those uncomfortable things screamed at them before.

That’s not on you. That’s on them.

And honestly, you might need a space or a moment to just speak your unfiltered mind, civility be damned. You might need catharsis. That’s fine too.

But if you want the best shot at having the other person hear you, understand you, and change her mind, then it is on you to speak the truth in a way that circumvents that fight or flight response as much as possible. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. For this purpose, I defend civility as a virtue.

 

Setting Boundaries with Children

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“Do no harm, take no sh*t.” — my new parenting philosophy, via Kay Bruner

I get stressed over hearing my baby cry or seeing a student upset after I enforce a limit. Am I being cruel and unresponsive, I fret, or am I being the calm, confident leader children need to feel secure?

One way I’ve been processing that question is by thinking in terms of boundaries. In an interview on Parenting Forward with Cindy Wang Brandt, Kay Bruner describes boundaries as “what’s me and what’s not me.”

I personally struggle with taking responsibility for children’s emotions. If my baby cries, I feel guilty. I feel like a failure. I feel like I need to stop his crying since, somehow, I caused the crying. I feel like I need to make the crying stop at any cost, including my sanity. Parenting success means my baby is tear-free as much as possible.

This is an impossible parenting goal. It’s impossible precisely because I am not responsible for my baby’s emotions. 

It’s important that we meet our children’s needs and hear their desires. Not hearing desires or not meeting needs disrespects children. But meeting every desire leads to child-centric homes and frazzled parents. In order to avoid any of those parenting pitfalls, we must distinguish between needs and desires, and even further, identify their specific need.

Take the age-old situation of moms being unable to use the bathroom alone.

When your two-year-old is pounding on the bathroom door screaming for you to let her in, you might determine that her real need has nothing to do with you in the first place; she may be hungry, tired, bored, or upset from you telling her she couldn’t eat pennies.

But maybe she really does need time with Mommy. Nevertheless, her legitimate need for quality time with Mom does not mean you need to fulfill her desire to be with Mom right then in the bathroom in violation of your legitimate desire for privacy.

In this situation, nobody’s desire is “wrong.” It’s okay for you to want to go to the bathroom by yourself. It’s okay for her to want to be in the bathroom with you right then. It’s okay for her to express extreme frustration that she’s not getting what she wants. It’s okay for you to feel annoyed at her for feeling that way.

“What’s me”: holding the limit of using the bathroom by yourself, expressing your emotions in a healthy way, acknowledging and legitimizing her needs and desires, and meeting the correctly identified need once you’re done in the restroom.

“What’s not me”: preventing her from feeling upset, preventing her from expressing that upset, or being responsible for stopping her emotions.

“I’m not letting you come into the bathroom with me. I want privacy,” you tell her through the locked door. “I hear that that makes you upset. It makes you feel like crying and yelling. It’s okay to feel upset. I will come be with you when I am done using the bathroom.”

Maybe she stops crying and tearfully says, “Okay.” Great! Maybe you find her sitting quietly outside the door waiting for you. Awesome.

Or maybe she continues to scream. Maybe she even starts kicking the door in response to your calmly set limit. That’s okay too. All outcomes are parenting successes, because you set the boundary and held to it. You did what you were supposed to do. You were never responsible for making her emotions stop in the first place. 

Janet Lansbury reiterates that our responsibility is usually just listening, accepting, and acknowledging our children’s emotions without fixing them:

Instead of feeling responsible for preventing or fixing crying, we first accept it so that we can understand and accurately address what is being communicated.

Instead of perceiving feelings as a call to action, we work on staying calm and listening so our child can share and feel truly heard. …

Instead of acting out of fear, we lead with trust in our child’s basic competency.

This is why it’s important to set boundaries with our children: without boundaries, we disrespect their basic competency to navigate respectful relationships.

Without boundaries, we model an anxious, exhausting, unsustainable relationship.

Without boundaries, we teach them that it’s other people’s job to prevent their emotions and solve their problems, a textbook lesson in co-dependency.

Without boundaries, we imply that having emotions is undesirable, that a good life involves no tears, no inconveniences, and no disappointments.

It’s not about being a “tough” parent. It’s not even about putting on your own proverbial oxygen mask in order to help your child strap on his. It’s about supporting your child through the hard and necessary process of developing healthy relationships with others and with his own emotions.

In order to teach him respect for others, he needs to respect your needs and desires. In order to teach him respect for himself, he needs to see you respecting your needs and desires.

Of course, relationships are give and take, even parent/child relationships. Sometimes you say, “I’m not reading the Peppa Pig book again tonight because if I read it one more time, I will literally go insane.” And sometimes you read that Peppa Pig book again even though you will literally go insane.

Obviously, children require our support, especially the younger they are. They are more immature and less self-regulated, easily overwhelmed by their needs, desires, and the emotions accompanying them. If we ignore their bids for attention and support, we cripple them emotionally. But children are not helpless, and they rarely need our help in the form of fixing or eliminating their problems.

Yesterday, a student was building a spinner exclusively out of black Brain Flakes. He needed just a few more to complete his spinner, but another friend had the last three black Brain Flakes. She declined to part with them.

“Ugh, I want the black ones!” he cried.

“You could use different colors,” another friend suggested.

“No, I wanted it all black!” He looked to me, hoping I’d use my Magical Teacher Powers to force his friend into sharing the black ones.

I really wanted to. I knew how frustrating and disappointing it was to spend so much time creating something only to have it fall through. I could easily demand that his friend hand over the pieces, getting rid of the problem and his negative emotions in one fell swoop. It might spare me the annoyance of defusing a tantrum, too. But it’s important to me that children share willingly (another type of boundary) and that students not use my authority to coerce their friends into giving them what they want.

Trying to support him through this problem, I said, “That’s too bad that she won’t share with you. You could either use different colors like your friend suggested, or if you want your spinner to be all one color, you could start over with a new color.”

He sighed, visibly upset. Then he perked up and said, “I’m going to make an orange spinner!”

And he did.