If We Want to Protect Our Kids from Sexual Abuse, We Need to Change the Way We Parent

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In the wake of the Me Too movement, I hope every parent commits to making sexual abuse prevention an urgent priority. Our kids need to know they can say no! to anyone wanting sexual contact with them — whether that’s a teen from high school messaging your daughter for explicit photos, an older sibling intimidating a younger sibling into sexual acts, or a youth group leader grooming the middle schoolers in his care.

But in order for a child to say no! and tell an adult, and in order for that child to grow up into an adult who can say no! and contact the proper authorities, she needs more than the cognitive understanding that nobody can violate her body. She needs more than the knowledge of good touch/bad touch. She needs more than the know-how that she can come to tell Mommy and Daddy anything.

She needs self-confidence. She needs courage. She needs a strong sense of self-worth. And she needs the tools and the practice saying no! to anyone who violates her body or gives off an “ick” vibe. She needs an inner conviction that her bodily autonomy matters more than respecting adults or being nice.

None of those things come from a few conversations about inappropriate touching. Those things come from regular practice and experience in everyday life. My concern is, the parenting promoted in our culture regularly undermines the self-confidence, courage, self-worth, and bodily autonomy of our children. When it comes time to stand up for herself or run and get help, her mind will know what to do, but she will shrink in fear and confusion, scared to offend, uncertain of how to assert herself.

This is true for both the ten-year-old and the twenty-year-old: how we parent daily sends stronger messages about our children’s worth, bodily autonomy, and self-confidence than a couple talks about sexual abuse prevention.

Today’s parenting emphasizes compliance in children and ultimate authority in adults. We demand respect for adults at any cost — and by “respect,” I don’t mean treating all people kindly; I mean treating all adults as authority figures with more say over a child’s life than the child herself possesses. If a child crosses an adult by asserting her own thoughts, feelings, and needs, she is treated as less than a person. She loses rights to her personal property (taking away her things for an unrelated infraction), her body (corporal punishment, grounding, time out), and her right to be treated kindly (screams, insults, humiliation, anger).

As a viral Reddit post says,

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person,” and sometimes they use respect to mean “treating someone like an authority.” And sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say, “If you won’t respect me, I won’t respect you,” and they mean, “If you won’t treat me like an authority, I won’t treat you like a person.”

That’s American parenting in a nutshell.

This creates a dangerous power imbalance between all adults and all children. Adults feel entitled to treat children however they like in order to get the “respect” owed them. Children learn that their own ideas, values, thoughts, and feelings matter less than adults’. They internalize that adults always know better, even if the things they do hurt the child deeply. They learn they must always do what adults say, even if it hurts them, confuses them, or violates their sense of bodily autonomy or fairness. If they don’t do what adults tell them, they are “naughty” and will receive punishment. They fear questioning an adult, lest they be disrespectful. After all, what do they know? They’re just kids.

This is the sort of internal messaging driving a child or a grown adult into fearfully “consenting” to sexual abuse or feeling powerless to say no.

The people who are sexually abusing our children, both young and adult, are rarely strangers. They are older siblings, relatives, family friends, teachers, bosses, significant others, sometimes even parents themselves. They are the people we insist our children respect as authority figures, even if the child brings legitimate complaints about them to our attention. They are the ones about whom we say, “Yes, that’s not fair, but he’s your teacher, so you have to do what he says.” “Yeah, I know you don’t like Auntie’s kisses, but she’s your aunt. You’ll hurt her feelings if you don’t let her kiss you.” “No, it’s not right that Grandma spanked you, but you need to listen to her when she gives you a direction.”

Instead of standing up for our children’s bodies, feelings, and basic right to be treated as a person, we cave to social pressure, fearful of disrespecting or angering other adults.

Successful sexual abuse prevention hinges on dismantling the adult-as-authority/child-as-compliant power imbalance. We dismantle it by honoring our child’s limits; defending our child’s rights to control their bodies and property; respecting the real emotions hidden beneath inappropriate behavior; and giving children practice in conflict mediation.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Honor Your Child’s Limits

“Stop!”

“Don’t!”

“I don’t want to!”

“NO!”

Few things make authority figures angrier than hearing a kid assert her preferences in a way that shows she values her own thoughts and feelings over our own. In a culture where child compliance is the ultimate virtue, it’s embarrassing when our children refuse to participate in what other children are doing, and it’s humiliating when they do the opposite of what we ask them to do. We worry that other adults will be insulted if the child refuses to hug them, listen to the story they picked, or eat the meal prepared for them. We worry that our kids will grow up anti-social and rude.

But it’s imperative that we honor our child’s internal monitor of danger and dislike, no matter how irrational it seems to us. This is the same internal monitor she will have if someone tries to abuse her. All children feel an “ick” or “danger” factor when encountering sexual abuse. Not all children feel confident in the accuracy of that monitor. If we repeatedly insist that children disregard a strong dislike or fear in favor of social convention, she will learn to doubt the inner voice that helps her determine what’s safe and what’s not safe.

Honoring our child’s fears, dislikes, and assertions includes showing respect and support with our words, tone, and immediacy. It’s not enough to bargain with or bribe the child — “Oh, come on. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s okay!” — and then shrug in defeat. They need immediate validation and support without a hint of teasing, disapproval, or dismissiveness: “I see that you don’t want to join the library story time. Is there something worrying you? You said you don’t know, you just don’t want to. That’s okay. You can stand in the back and watch. I’m going to sit in the circle and listen to the story. If you change your mind, you can come sit with me.”

Any time we insist children ignore their fears and dislikes in favor of pleasing someone else or following social convention, we train them that other people’s desires matter more than their own safety, needs, or preferences. Conversely, every time we honor our child’s refusal to say hello, join the parachute play, or eat the meal Mom worked so hard to prepare, we teach the opposite: My wants, needs, and safety matter more than making other people happy. Mom and Dad won’t get mad at me for standing up for what I want or need. I can listen to what my gut tells me, and if I’m wrong about an initial judgment and decide that it’s safe and okay, I can change my mind. It doesn’t make me a bad or stupid person to listen to my intuition, even if it’s sometimes wrong.

This is exactly the kind of inner conviction and self-confidence we want to create in our children in matters of sexuality and consent: If I can’t give an enthusiastic yes, I will say no. I can always change my mind. I know how to assert myself respectfully and cope with other people’s disappointment. I know I am not a bad, disrespectful, or defiant person for valuing my needs, safety, and preferences.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Defend Your Child’s Right to Her Body and Property

“Be nice. Give her the shovel.”

“Oh, come on. It’s just a hug!”

“If I see you hitting your brother one more time, I’m giving you a spanking.”

“That’s it! Go to time out and sit there until I tell you you can come out.”

American parenting insists on generosity and respecting other people’s bodies and property, but we do so often at the expense of our own children’s bodies and property. We need a consistent ethic of bodily autonomy and respect that includes everyone, including our children and their property.

Children without a clear understanding of their own rights and property will not be able to give generously. They will clutch their toys and scream, “Mine!” They will hog ten cars and refuse to share one with their sobbing best friend. This vehement refusal to share stems from insecurity and confusion over what really is “mine.” Ironically, the same child who savagely protects his excessive number of toys can become a teenager who caves into unwanted sexual acts because he too isn’t clear on what’s “his” or if “his” is worth defending.

The difference lies in how parents treat this critical developmental stage where children need to differentiate themselves from others, and whether parents continue to support a child’s right to his body and property in the face of others’ disapproval.

Children need clear boundaries on what constitutes “theirs” and what constitutes “others’.” It’s sometimes a difficult line to walk, since parents, teachers, and babysitters are charged with tasks that involve children’s things and bodies. They must wipe and clothe private areas, physically block children from hurting others or themselves, and remove playthings that children use to hurt others or property. Children are more dependent on us for their belongings, safety, and impulse control than adults.

It’s all the more important that we give children as much control as is developmentally appropriate and that we defend our children’s right to control their bodies and property. In areas where it’s inevitable that a parent must intervene for a child’s health, safety, and well-being, this often looks like giving age-appropriate and parent-approved choices: “Do you want to lie down while I change your diaper, or stand up?” “What do you think are good rules for your iPhone?” “You may whack the stick on the ground or the tree, but not on the window. It’s not safe to whack windows; they can break. If you choose to whack the stick on the window again, I will take away the stick.”

Age-appropriate and parent-approved choices still respect children’s autonomy, and they make sense to children. A child will not like Dad taking away his stick and may throw a huge tantrum in protest, but it is fair: Dad gave him clear choices and consequences, and the child made a choice with an unpleasant but natural consequence. If he can’t use the stick safely, he can’t use the stick at all.

It makes less sense when parents take away property or infringe on bodily autonomy as an unrelated punishment. When a parent spanks a child for being disrespectful, it isn’t a fair or natural consequence. It’s an external punishment that leverages fear of pain to get the child to do what the parent wants. When a parent takes away a child’s Legos for hitting his sister, it isn’t a fair or natural consequence. It leverages fear of deprivation to get the child to do what the parent wants.

External punishment that violates bodily and property autonomy can work as a deterrent to bad behavior, but it also teaches the child that they should submit to unfair or illogical things if an adult says so. It teaches them that adults do not have to respect their children’s bodies or property and that it’s futile to protest punishment on those grounds. It also sends conflicting messages: Children can’t take things from others or hit others, but parents can take things from kids and hit children because they’re adults.

Forced sharing is another staple of American parenting that values the disappointment of others over a child’s rights. When a parent insists that their child shares, she sends the clear message that the other child’s feelings matter more than the first child’s right to her property and play. It also sends a dangerous message to the child requesting a toy that his wants matter more than another child’s rights.

Children need to see their parents defending their rights to their body and property. Immediately stop tickling or roughhousing the second the child yells “stop!” or appears in any distress, even if she’s giggling or wants to do it again a few minutes later. Give a child parent-approved choices if she balks at necessary caregiving tasks. Never give away or take away a child’s belongings without her permission, unless it’s for temporary safety reasons. Defend your child’s right to play how she likes, even if it makes another child sad or disappointed.

We want our children to give freely and wholeheartedly without compromising their safety or needs. By respecting their bodily autonomy and property now, we instill an inner conviction and self-worth that will serve them well in both consensual and non-consensual sexual encounters: My body is mine. I can do what I want with it unless it’s unsafe to me or others. I can stand up for myself even if that makes other people feel sad or disappointed. I will only let others touch me if I like it and feel safe. My parents will always defend my right to say no. I can go to them for help if other people will not respect my bodily autonomy.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Respect Your Child’s Feelings Even if Her Behavior Is Inappropriate

Why don’t children tell their parents if someone sexually abuses them? They’re terrified that they will get in trouble for “allowing” it or participating in it.

Many children feel that their parents’ love is conditional on their good behavior and that they are “bad” for making mistakes or acting inappropriately on legitimate feelings. “It doesn’t matter if he started it!” parents will snap at their kids. “You are the older one.”

“I don’t care if she yelled at you. You can’t hit her. Go to your room!”

“You know better!”

American parenting often sends the message that if kids do something wrong, their feelings, grievances, and reasons for the inappropriate behavior don’t matter. It also holds kids to an impossibly high standard: If they cognitively know something is wrong, they should be able to stop themselves from doing it.

Children are capable of a lot through practice and support. The key is practice and support. Impulse control originates in the prefrontal cortex, the last part of the brain to develop in children. This is why we can explain things until we’re blue in the face and our kids will still do stupid, inappropriate, or unkind things.

They’re not “being bad.” They’re impulsive and short-sighted because that’s their current developmental stage.

As adults who “know better,” we’re responsible for interpreting children’s behavior, meeting the need they’re trying to convey, and giving them tools to communicate more clearly and respectfully next time.

When we focus on the inappropriate behavior (for example, hitting or yelling “I hate you!”) to the exclusion of the feeling underneath it (“I’m scared,” “I’m mad”) and the cause of that emotion (“He tried to take my truck,” “She’s not listening to my point of view”), we push our kids away from us. This is especially true when we side with adults or our children’s friends, minimizing the harm they caused in order to focus on making sure our children show respect. Our child learns that Mom and Dad will usually side with other people. They won’t believe me, understand me, or support me. I have to be perfect in order for them to care about my feelings and grievances.

When we validate our child’s feelings and point of view and set a limit on inappropriate behavior, we build up an inner conviction in our child of self-worth: My feelings and thoughts matter. If I make mistakes, I can respond differently next time. My parents will support me and understand me even if I make a mistake. I don’t deserve bad treatment from others even if I’m not perfect or treat others badly too.

Abusers capitalize on children’s guilt: No one will believe you. You deserve to be treated this way. Don’t you dare tell anyone. Your parents will hate you for what you’ve done. You’re already a slut, so I can do whatever I want to you.

If a child knows her parents are on her side always, no matter what, those guilt messages won’t deter her. She feels an intrinsic self-worth and conviction in her parents’ support.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Let Children Practice Conflict Mediation

It’s terrifying telling people no. It doesn’t feel good. Many adults avoid it at all costs, going along with the unpleasant situation as long as possible. We operate on the conviction that we need to be as nice as possible and say yes as much as possible and just be a bit more flexible.

This messaging doesn’t disappear the second an intimidating guy starts giving you unwanted attention. If we set our foot down now, before anything really bad happens, we risk misinterpreting his friendliness as flirtatiousness and embarrassing him; we risk making a scene and looking inflexible and rude; we risk hurting his feelings or angering him.

If we’re not used to setting limits with peers, saying no or stop when it really, really matters will be a Herculean task.

It starts with spats over toys and the shrieks of “he looked at me!!!!” and the unwanted rough play. Parents often swoop in to rescue their child or their child’s victim, handing over the toy the other kid wants, yelling at the kid to stop looking at his sister, banning roughhousing completely. In other words, we set the limits and resolve the conflict.

While it’s great for kids to know that parents will be there to help, parents won’t always be there. Our job is to train kids how to handle conflict independently from us as much as possible.

I once supported two kids trying to cross stepping stones in the opposite direction. “She won’t move!” screamed one kid. “He won’t move!” screamed the other. “I want to go this way!” yelled the first kid. “I want to go the other way!” yelled the second. I could have easily required one or both to get off and let the other pass, but instead I coached them to ask the other to move or suggested that one of them get off and let the other pass. They stood there, asking and yelling at each other to move with no resolution, until they both got bored and ran off together to play.

Whenever a child gets hurt, either physically or emotionally, I ask them what they want to do. Do they want to keep playing but with a new rule against, say, throwing wood chips? Walk away? Confront their friend? If they decide on setting a limit or sharing their feelings, I go with them for support but require that they do the talking themselves.

I try to police kids’ interactions as little as possible unless there’s a real safety issue or a student is violating another kid’s clear or implied limits. When given the chance, they often work things out quite well, even if it’s louder, more disrespectful, and messier than I like. Instead of barging in and solving problems for them, even if kids are upset, I probe their self-awareness about their safety and feelings: “Are you okay with your friend grabbing your arm in this game? Yeah? Okay. You can always change your mind and tell your friend not to if you don’t feel safe. No, you’re not? Okay, tell your friend that you want to play but do not want to be grabbed. Are you okay with her tagging you but not grabbing you?”

This teaches skills clear confrontation skills and the importance of expressing their needs. It’s a courageous act to tell a friend no and mean it, even at the risk of the game ending or their friend’s anger. This also creates a culture where children learn that clearly set limits don’t mean that their friend no longer wants to play or thinks that they are bad people. Limits are good things that enable happiness for everyone.

Isn’t this the exact thing we want for our children when it comes to consent in sex — to values themselves enough to say no clearly, to value others enough to respect the other’s no, to be self-aware about what they like and don’t like and confident and articulate enough to communicate that?

If we want this confidence, clarity, courage, self-awareness, and respect for themselves and others, we need to start now, daily, by supporting peer conflict mediation and respectfully parenting our children.

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Can Abstinence Be Sex-Positive?

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Abstinence before marriage is decidedly unpopular these days. It’s not sex positive, people say — that is, it perpetuates negative views about sex and human sexual desire. On the flipside, just having sex is seen as sex positive because, well, it doesn’t require you to withhold your sexual desires and it allows you to express your sexuality however you want.

I think neither approaches are inherently sex positive. We’ve focused so much on can you or can’t you, should you or shouldn’t you, that we’re ignoring the real reasons people have sex and all the different parts that make sex either great or traumatic. A just-have-sex ethic fuels rape culture and exploitation of women and minors because it views the act of sex as good regardless of the different components of that sexual encounter. A just-don’t-have-sex-until-marriage ethic ignores the good things of expressing sexuality in beneficial ways even outside of marriage.

Bottom line: marriage isn’t a magical key to great, safe, consensual, meaningful sex, and merely teaching abstinence before marriage is a shell of a sexual ethic — just like having sex isn’t the magical key to great, safe, consensual, meaningful sex, and merely teaching “it’s okay to have sex” is a shell of a sexual ethic.

Instead of teaching either abstinence or participation, full stop, we need to teach sexual integrity — sexual wholeness — sexual regulation. Sexual integrity welcomes our sexuality even before marriage and understands its affects, good and bad, on both ourselves and our partners. Our sexual ethic needs to move seamlessly from before marriage into the marriage bed.

Abstinence education is notoriously incomplete. It’s goal is getting people to not have sex until marriage, and it doesn’t really care how that objective is achieved. It withholds information, spreads misinformation, and catastrophizes sex before marriage. As a result, lots of shame, ignorance, and abuse build up.

Sex before and within marriage is more complicated than that. There are many, many different components of sexual integrity, and when to have sex is only one of them. Those different components shape sexual experiences positively or negatively. They create radically different experiences.

Abstinence is incomplete when it lists “marriage” as the major component to safe, good, and holy sex. Marriage is the ideal, in my mind, but marriage ought to mean a set of specific things: a loving, committed, mutual relationship with the safeguards of supportive community pressure. Marriage at its best is the most committed, intimate, and loving of relationships, providing stability for children, individual personhood, and intimacy.

Not all marriages are like this. In fact, marriage often shelters some of the worst sexual ethics violations. Rape and consent violations occur in marriage. Domestic violence is a huge problem. Unwanted pregnancies can happen.

And conversely, committed, consensual sex can occur outside of marriage. A loving, committed couple having sex before their marriage or a lifelong cohabiting couple are radically different experiences than teens getting it on in the back seat for a one night stand.

Abstaining from what and for what? The answer to that is the answer to whether abstinence is sex positive or not. Abstaining from sex is not sex positive in and of itself, no. But abstaining from sexual relationships or experiences that compromise sexual integrity — whether that’s commitment, love, consent, health, or parental preparedness — that’s sex positive.

The problem is that many of us growing up in the sexual purity movement thought we had a sex positive understanding of abstinence. We were waiting for God’s glorious and good gift of marital sex! How much more sex positive can you get? But we didn’t know anything about sexual integrity or wholeness — about consent and our own sexual natures and truly giving a whole person instead of a girl desperate for male attention and favor. We only knew the goodness of sex in terms of “premarital sex = immoral” and “marital sex = moral.”

Without a concept of sexual integrity and wholeness, we brought a ton of brokenness into married sex — misinformation, shame, ignorance, trauma — and experience a ton of brokenness with married sex — rape, consent violations, manipulative arguments about whether to have sex that night. Shout out to everyone who’s had to Google “how to actually have sex” on their wedding night or shelled out hundreds of dollars for sex therapy or got blamed for their husband’s affair.

This is what happens when we teach abstinence from sex instead of abstinence from an unregulated sexuality.

People have sex for a host of reasons, ranging from really good, healthy ones like “I love and am committed to this person” to “I like sex” to “I only feel worth something with male sexual favor” to “I want to dominate someone.” Sexual integrity and wholeness teach us to be aware of the many reasons we desire sex and sex with this particular person and to regulate those desires in accordance with healthy, safe, loving, committed, consensual, beneficial sexuality. This could look like abstinence from sex or certain sexual acts or going for sex or certain sexual acts, depending on how the different factors line up.

It should be the same for both within and without married sex: considering the desires and needs of both parties, honoring those desires and needs, and using wisdom, love, and grace in responding to them. An unmarried couple deciding whether or not to kiss before marriage should be, in my mind, making the same sort of decision with the same sort of sexual ethic as a wife contemplating turning down her husband for sex that night or debating whether to allow porn in the relationship.

Sex is profound. It affects us and our partners deeply, both positively and negatively. It reveals much about our needs and desires, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Being a sexual person is a normal, good thing. Not all the ways we express our sexuality are normal, good things either for us or for our partners. Saying no or yes to sex is a good thing only in accordance with sexual integrity and wholeness.

 

The Practice of Loud Time

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I’ve been thinking a lot about how much of Christian spirituality overvalues the distinctly spiritual and undervalues the physical. There are plenty of reasons why this is, but one of them, I’m convinced, is because we’ve silenced or tuned out the voices of people who live an embodied spirituality — women.

Think about it. When you think of great historic Christians who influenced your understanding of spirituality, who comes to mind? Lots of men, who, even if married or fathers, dedicated themselves to full-time ministry or contemplation. Maybe some women, most likely single and dedicated to a life of celibacy and contemplation. People whose days revolve around thinking, reading, praying, silence, solitude. These are the people in our pulpits and seminaries and historical narratives.

The only spiritual experiences we hear are of those whose vocation sets them apart from the physical world as much as possible. Is it any wonder that when we want a closer walk with God, we think that quiet, solitude, contemplation, and Scriptural study are not merely critical components of devotion but THE THINGS that comprise a relationship with God?

Take the ubiquitous quiet time. We’re told that’s God’s time. That’s the place we meet God. If you don’t have that in your life as the TOP PRIORITY, are you even a Christian?

Jamie Wright, in The Very Worst Missionary, recounts her visceral reaction to a Christian mom’s group that encouraged young mothers to give up even more sleep to find quiet time with Jesus. The group was shocked at Jamie’s treasonous insistence that for these moms, sleep was more important than quiet time. But Jamie wanted to know why quiet time had to be quiet.

[W]hen the group leader made that little quip about quiet time needing to be quiet, an unexpected volcano of molten outrage burst forth from the depths of my soul. …

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, then call it ‘loud time’! Call it ‘chaos time.’ Call it what it’s supposed to be, which is ‘intentional time’! … I will not be getting up any earlier. Nope. I’m gonna honor God intentionally in my sleep, because I’m pretty sure God wants me to be the very best mother I can possibly be to my boys. I will listen for God’s voice in the wilderness, and at the water park, and under McDonald’s indoor play structure, because that is my daily loud time and God is faithful to meet me in the chaos” (pages 83-85).

As that mom group demonstrates, the female spiritual life is mostly about how to fit the vocation of the celibate, the contemplative, and the clergy into the insanely busy, physical, exhausting vocations of mom, wife, and housekeeper. Our spiritual reflections are on how to carve out a quiet time or wade through a busy season of life until you can get to another season with more quiet time. Hang in there!

There’s often a sense that our work is meaningful and eternal and spiritual, but only because of its future implications. We’re the cradle-rocking hand that rocks the world — that is, all our work matters because it raises kids who will change the world. We’re the great women behind the great men — our work matters because it enables men to do great spiritual things.

And that’s true. Behind every man who “dedicates his life to God” (as if laypeople don’t), there’s another person — most likely a woman — keeping him fed and cleaning his toilet.

What we women need to realize is that this work matters and is spiritual and eternally significant not just because it enables “greater” spiritual work. This is spiritual work. It is intrinsically meaningful because the human body and the everyday good life are intrinsically meaningful.

Redemption involves saving human souls and also tidying up the living room, bringing order to chaos, bringing balance and beauty to every aspect of life. Traditional women’s work is not lesser, merely a stepping stone to greater spiritual things. It is as great and as meaningful and as dedicated to God as joining a convent or taking priestly vows or shipping off to China as a missionary.

One of the church’s strengths is drawing from the experience of people with different vocations. I’m certainly not advocating that women shouldn’t listen to those with time and energy to contemplate, pray, and study, or that they shouldn’t try to incorporate these practices and insights into their own lives. I’m saying it should go both ways.

The everyday, physical, mundane spiritual practices women have faithfully lived for millennia are critical for a relationship with God. Women’s spiritual lives give unique insight into what it means to live an embodied spirituality. Our experience as mothers provides transformative information about the nature of God as love and about a sacrificial life. What other normal Christian experiences physical, emotional, and mental sacrifices than pregnant, nursing, and primary caretaking mothers? Getting up to a day full of exciting things like scrubbing the bathtub and wiping snotty noses forms the soul in unique ways. Dutifully doing things that must be done again the next day (or five minutes later) teaches us how to live with hope of the resurrection and restoration of all things, in defiance of the fallen world’s decay. There’s no better way of understanding sin and grace and salvation than raising children with love and patience.

The holy practices of cleaning, waiting for a slow toddler, budgeting, driving to a chorus of “are we there yet?” — these things are not only a meaningful, transformative spiritual experience for the women who live them, they are meaningful, transformative spiritual practices for everyone. Even the contemplatives, the celibate, and the clergy.

It is patently false that the contemplatives, the celibate, and the clergy have the edge on spirituality. That is not how an embodied, incarnational Christian spirituality works. All of us need the spiritual experience of women who are too busy and tired from motherhood and homemaking to preach sermons or write blog posts. Not just to hear how on earth they find quiet time for Jesus every morning at the crack of dawn, but how they practice loud time and how we can practice it too.

An Everyday Embodied Spirituality

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The thing that pushed me away from Christianity was actually the least Christian of Christian-y things: an ultra-cerebral, hyper-emotional, over-spiritualized spirituality that suppressed or demonized my human embodiment.

The Christian Savior took on flesh and lived thirty years of ordinary everyday life before doing anything remotely heroic. The Christian hope involves the resurrection of our bodies, even the weird, embarrassing, gross parts. The Christian liturgy involved all five senses — kneeling, signs of the cross, incense, weekly edible sacraments, music. The Christian spiritual life looked like loving the guy next door, even if you hated him, and taking care of your family, and living your life, minding your own business, and doing daily, mundane practices like prayer and drinking a little wine for your stomach problems. The most distinctly Christian things about Christianity — the incarnate life and death of Christ, the resurrection, our daily unspectacular worship — require the physical.

What passes as Christian spirituality today looks like none of that.

Long sermons catering to knowing the right things and long periods of worship meant to inspire strong emotions dominate churches. The church’s most common ministries, like Sunday school, involve teaching the right stuff about the Bible.

The evangelical Christianity of my youth saw our relationship with God as something separate than and primary over everyday life. Truly dedicated Christians spent as much time in relationship with God as they could, with daily quiet times (preferably right at the beginning of the day, since Jesus is more important than sleep). How often you consciously thought about Jesus was a sign of how mature you were in your faith, I was told. Moms and secular workers and kids in school got a pass, a pat on the head, an encouragement that “there are seasons when you don’t have as much time for Jesus, and God understands that; just spend as much time as you can with him; there’s grace; don’t worry.”

But I did worry, because when my relationship with God is something separate from the rest of my life, everything that I do ultimately becomes a distraction. Marriage, kids, brushing my teeth — all good but distracting things. And even though I knew there was God’s grace for stuff like that, I felt that everyday life — both its requirements and its pleasures — were guilty little sins that God turned a blind eye to. What did it say about me that I would rather read a novel that didn’t even mention God to shutting my door and praying?

Since my devotion to God was measured by how much I consciously thought about him, spoke to him, and set aside time to him, every time I chose to do something else with my time, I felt like I was betraying him.

Then there was the fundamentalist influence, that required a total separation from and/or spiritualizing of everyday life. Certain enjoyable things were off-limits (like drinking or watching R-rated movies), and enjoying those things revealed a crooked heart more interested in the things of the flesh than the things of the Spirit. It was confusing to get a hang of the exact rules, but I eventually figured them out: intellectual and artistic stuff was okay if it came to the right moral and theological conclusions; caring for your personal appearance was okay if it involved looking good for your husband, making sure men didn’t stumble, celebrating “femininity,” and showing respect to God on Sundays (otherwise it was vanity); hanging out with people was okay if you called it “fellowshipping.” Everything needed to have an explicitly Biblical stamp of approval to call it good or Christian.

Then there was the river of asceticism and dualism from which these evangelical and fundamentalist tributaries flowed: the life of the saints, who gave up everything to go to foreign countries or “do ministry,” or hole themselves away for a life devoted to quiet time. These were the super-Christians, the ones who took Jesus seriously and literally. Again, we lesser peons who drove to work and raised kids and lived in the suburbs got understanding pats on the head that our lives could kind of be like Jesus’s too — but the really serious Christians weren’t afraid to give up everything and go anywhere and dedicate themselves to Official Christian Ministry. That was the ultimate Christian life we needed to work up to.

In other words, our relationship with God was something separate from our everyday life. Our ministry was something separate from our everyday life (unless you were a super-Christian who gave up everyday life for an extraordinary, ministerial life). Our spirituality relied on the cognitive (researching, assenting to, and nicely strong-arming others into believing the right things; consciously thinking about, talking to, or hearing from God), the emotional (feeling the joy, happiness, connection to, and presence of God), and the supernaturally miraculous and huge (obvious ministry, inexplicable miracles).

Yes, yes, there was sometimes room for the everyday life, but it wasn’t the best use of your redeemed life. Maybe self-care was okay if it made you better able to do your ministry, or maybe reading that secular novel was okay if you made you think about God in a different way. Conscious thought about and interaction with God was the definition of Christian spirituality. Explicit serving of others was the definition of the sanctified Christian life.

All of that sounds awesome — but I just wasn’t cut out for that. Quiet times felt destructive to my faith, a place where I begged for God to show up and got silence. The constant giving and going of this always-happy, always-exciting, always-huge, always-others-centered spirituality exhausted me. The duality of wanting so badly to love and serve and worship God by putting him first but needing to brush my teeth or wanting to read a secular novel ate me up.

I felt God’s presence in relationship with people. I wanted my body and my daily needs and my desires and my humanity to be significant to God instead of distractions to my relationship with him. I wanted to unite the spiritual and the physical, the everyday and the supernatural.

Having tentatively lived this spirituality for a couple years, I’m confident in saying that this embodied spiritual life is transformative and healing and 110% Christian. It’s not that conscious theological thought or prayer or quiet times are un-Christian. We are spiritual creatures too, and God is Spirit. Those are Christian acts. They’re just not inherently “more Christian” than physical things.

I don’t hear God speaking into my soul. But I have gained lots of wisdom from the world and people around me, and that is the voice of God. I don’t do Official Christian Ministry. But with every relational interaction, I try to think about how to respect the other person and make peace with them. I don’t have a designated time for Jesus, because I have the opportunity to meet God in every moment and every person. I don’t consciously think about God every second of my life, because he is in all things, and all good things come from him. I don’t verbally pray without ceasing, because my “prayers,” my response to God’s goodness, come in the form of deep-belly laughter and tears and silence. I don’t experience God in a supernatural way, because he entered into the natural and made it holy.

I take care of my body as an act of defiance against death and decay, because I trust that my body will experience the resurrection. I enjoy sex and baby snuggles and stupidly insignificant conversations with my sisters, because God created me to need and find joy in people. He too lives within an eternally Triune relationship. I wash the dishes and make the bed and vacuum the crumbs off the floor, because I reflect God’s image in taming the chaos. I read secular novels and study art by crazy atheists and think about interesting things that non-Christians have said, because the image of God as creator resides in all of us. I take time to care for just me, because God loves me — not primarily as an instrument to serve him or others, but as a beloved child of God.

And I go to church every week, and say the same prayers I said last week, and have some awkward and not eternally significant conversations with fellow churchgoers, because the Christian life is not about the exotic and the emotional and the supernatural, but about the everyday and the repetitive and the incarnational. Sometimes the sermon is really inspiring, or the Eucharist makes me cry, and sometimes I just sit in the pews, unmoved, knowing that in this mundane act, I’m following in the steps of our Lord, who lived a totally ordinary life too.

Many of these thoughts stem from Tish Harrison Warren’s book, Liturgy of the Ordinary.

The False Spirituality of Those Who Deride “Me Time”

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In my formative days, I read lots of articles calling “me time” selfish. The job of a wife and mother was to give and give and give, these women insisted. Any unhappiness, resentment, or exhaustion about this endless giving was a sign of her pride and selfishness. She didn’t need a break. She needed to give more. The blessing of giving and giving and giving was the only satisfaction she needed in life, and the only respite she was allowed was one quiet time with Jesus — at the crack of dawn, of course.

This is spirituality at its falsest. This is the corpse-stinking spirituality that Jesus railed against when he called the Pharisees white-washed tombs. On the outside, this spirituality sounds so good: how selfless, putting everybody’s needs ahead of oneself! How pious, having all the needs you can’t ignore met by Jesus alone! How can anyone argue with a spirituality like that? But on the inside, it’s just death and decay: frazzled, resentful, tired, cranky, unfulfilled women, always striving and never satisfied.

The only reason they continue like this is because they think their sinful nature brings this dissatisfaction on themselves and that someday God will reward their selflessness.

They’re right that they bring most of this on themselves, what with their refusal to acknowledge their human limits. They’re wrong that God is passing out participation prizes for Most Burnt-Out Woman in the hereafter.

A False Humility

Christians get selflessness and humility wrong. Even C. S. Lewis’s famous correction misses the heart of humility: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”

Christian spirituality’s ultimate goal is not selflessness — that is, it’s not a negation or repudiation of self. It’s redemption, reunification, restoration: all things come together in shalom through Christ. Shalom means more than peace or the absence of chaos. It means wholeness. As one rabbi explains it, “In the Hebraic way of thinking, wholeness is the joining together of opposites. … [T]hat is the source of peace – the knowledge that all my opposing energies are somehow linked and part of a single whole.”

When Christ says he has come to give us life to the fullest, he is referring to this shalom. It’s a reordering. It’s a balancing. And in the context of shalom, humility is a reckoning of how my life affects others’ lives and how that in turn affects the shalom of the whole world.

A selflessness defined as unending giving is self-centered and proud. It ignores two important realities: you have limits, and you are not the driving force in other people’s lives.

A truly humble person recognizes and accepts her limits. She knows she is human. Just as she needs restorative sleep and good food, she needs meaningful self-care. While the anti-me-time articles bemoan the self-centeredness of today’s culture, frankly, I haven’t met a single person who practices intentional and meaningful self-care. We all seem to operate at half-power, eating junk, skipping sleep, burning the candle at both ends. We act like we can go forever, like illness and exhaustion and hunger and burn-out are just unfortunate little accidents instead of warning signs that we’re overextending ourselves.

From a purely utilitarian perspective, this is wasting our potential to serve others. We’ve all been there, pouring ourselves out as living sacrifices to one group of people, and then coming home to yell at our husbands and kids before crying ourselves to sleep.

From a perspective of shalom, this is about as unbalanced as we can get. We refuse to accept our mortality. We refuse to accept our bodies and minds as good things in need of love and stewardship, rather than annoying extremities getting in the way of real spirituality.

Besides, if we’re truly interested in other people’s well-being, constant giving is not everybody else’s default need.

There is a self-centeredness that says, “I am the center of the universe. Everyone must serve me.” But there’s also a self-centeredness that passes as humility: “I make the universe go round. I must serve everyone.”

Both share an inflated sense of importance in other people’s lives, while ignoring the actual impact we have on those around us. Giving indiscriminately often devalues others. It teaches us to see them as fundamentally helpless, in need of our particular help. It enables them to depend on us in areas they need to depend upon themselves. It takes away chances for them to develop skills and virtues. It’s critical for children and husbands to respect their mom and wife’s space and time: it teaches them generosity, patience, empathy, and, yes, selflessness.

A False Contentment

This is a really weird thing about humans: it’s sometimes harder for us to say no than to say yes. Again, while our culture may applaud self-care, few people practice it. Our understanding of love is codependent and conflict-averse. We’d rather give in to our kids’ and husbands’ demands than stick to our principles. It’s far easier to limp along with everybody else superficially happy than face their displeasure — or the reasons why it’s so hard for us to say no.

When women tell other women to give more as a solution to their burn-out, they’re peddling a false contentment. “It’s just the way it is,” they say. “This is just the season you’re in. Get over yourself and stop looking at other women’s green pastures.”

There’s a grain of truth in this. The world is broken, and life is hard and unfair, and sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it.

But as Christians, our work is one of redemption. We must see our restlessness and groaning and “ill content” as signs that the status quo is not God’s best. We must be prepared to do the hard work of redeeming and re-balancing that everyday brokenness around us. This starts with our own imbalanced lives.

Often our constant giving and our “just accept it and move on” attitude mask the true issues we need to work on. Do we really need to get over our “selfish” desire that our husband cook dinner once a week, or do we instead need some work on our fear of holding our husband accountable? Do we really need to check that attitude that wishes we could go to the bathroom without tiny kids tumbling in after us, or do we need to deal with childhood abandonment issues that make it impossible for us to disappoint our kids?

While ignoring our emotions and pressing on is difficult, it’s often a cop-out to the harder but more rewarding work of redemption.

A False Gratitude

These anti-self-care women are like the Israelites in the desert. They moan for God’s provision (even if they won’t admit it) when they can just walk out of their tents and collect all the manna they want. They want the relief, but they aren’t willing to take responsibility for getting it.

We often don’t acknowledge how desperately we need something until we get it. We ignore our needs and burn ourselves out and don’t realize it until someone comes along and meets that need. That conversation or that day off or that time when hubby washed the dishes for us provide us a relief we didn’t even know we needed. Thank God for a hubby who occasionally washes dishes!

We treat the meeting of our needs as a luxury instead of a responsibility. We wait for met needs as something that falls into our tent instead of something God requires us to go out and gather.

And by “gather,” I don’t mean ignoring the needs and trying harder. I mean acknowledging our needs and adjusting the balance of our lives so that they consistently get met. God’s provision is miraculous, but in a mundane way that involves our everyday work.

I once read an article by a woman who claimed me time didn’t work because it made her want more time alone. It made her more resentful toward her husband because she was the only one putting the kids to bed and making the dinner and doing the dishes. It put her in a fouler mood. Her solution was to stuff her emotions and maybe get some Jesus time.

I can guarantee you that’s not working for her. Needs don’t go away. They resurface as something destructive — like resentment or health failure.

God made provision for those needs: the hard work of learning to say no, to set boundaries, and to require and accept help from her capable husband. It’s easy to pine away in our tent, stuffing our emotions, waiting for a miraculous provision to drop in our laps. It’s much more difficult to take responsibility for doing our part to meet those needs.

A False Understanding of Sin and Grace

Many Christians believe emotional, relational, and mental needs are sins in and of themselves. And because they are sins, they require censure and punishment. Stop being discontent, be grateful. Quit your whining, be kind. God’s grace is sufficient for you, so be happy about it. Give more. Try harder.

But all sin arises from brokenness. We’re grumpy because we’re tired. We’re discontent because we’re not living the way God desires for us. We whine because we don’t know how to convey our needs in an effective way.

Brokenness is not evil. Brokenness does not respond to punishment or censure. And God’s grace is not a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of living life go down. God’s grace often is the nasty-tasting medicine, but it brings the spiritual life and spiritual health we most crave.

We wouldn’t expect a person on crutches to run at her full capacity. We wouldn’t yell at a cancer patient to get off her butt and do the dishes. We understand that broken and ill people operate on lower limits, and the only way they get better is to give them the time and space they need to heal.

This spirituality of stuffing your emotions and giving more is like demanding that a woman run on a broken leg. A spirituality that calls self-care “selfish” is like harassing a cancer patient for being sick.

Healing is not a walk in the park, to be sure. It involves waiting, inconvenience, tears, setbacks, unpleasant medicine, therapy, courage, and grit. It’s not all bubble baths and massages and shopping days at the mall (if any). But all healing takes understanding, time, and a break from serving others.

God’s grace invites us to acknowledge our brokenness in all its unloveliness. It allows us to prioritize our pain as meaningful and our healing as important. It allows us to take sick days, to slow down, and to ask others to help us in embarrassingly intimate ways.

A False Provision

Women who deride self-care as selfish say that the only thing they need is Jesus.

This is B.S.

Our physical needs can’t be met by the spiritual. Our emotional needs can’t be met by the spiritual. Our relational needs can’t be met by the spiritual. That’s not blasphemy. That’s how God designed us. We’re physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual creatures, with physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. And he has provided for those needs in numerous ways, often mundane, like working, being married, having friends, and developing into a mature adult.

The surprising thing about Christianity is yes, it’s a spirituality of giving, but it’s about God’s giving to us first. We love because He loved us. That order is important. The strong hold up the weak, the wise teach the foolish — and all strength and wisdom comes from God.

He is gentle with the broken. He values the burnt-out. His burden is easy. He prioritizes rest, to the point where he wrote it in stone: ON THE SEVENTH DAY YOU SHALL REST.

And as Jesus said, man was not created for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.

You were not made for spirituality — that is, for endless days of sacrifice. Spirituality was made for you, to heal you, restore you. Out of that healing, you heal others.

If you mix up that order, you get the hypocritical religion of the Pharisees that Jesus decried. The worst part? It’s a false righteousness, because all of us are broken and none of us can be strong without true healing. It sounds good to ignore yourself and prioritize other people’s needs and desires by default, but that isn’t even a real possibility. At the worst, you will die in some capacity. At the best, you won’t experience the fullness of a whole, healed life.

If you ignore your emotional, mental, and relational needs, if you rally to push through without true rest and healing, they will resurface again and again — or live just under the surface, in a pit of anxiety and stress.

Listen to your resentment and burn-out and angry fights with your husband. They are symptoms, God’s invitation to heal. And yes, that will definitely involve some “me time.”

The Care and Keeping of an Introvert Spouse

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I noticed something weird about a year ago. All day, while I sat at home, I had a million different things buzzing in my head that I wanted to share with my husband. I was dying for someone to talk to. But by the time my husband walked through the front door, that part of me shut off with the click of the closed door.

“Hi,” I’d say.

“Hi,” he’d say back. “How was your day?”

I thought of all the million things I had wanted to share with him. There were too many. It was too hard to catch him up. I was too tired. “I don’t actually feel like talking about it.”

And that’s how our evening conversations went. Those three boring sentences, followed by parallel lives.

What on earth was wrong with me? never stopped talking. I always wanted to blab on in detail. There was no conflict or hostility in our relationship. My desire to connect just dried up the second I saw him.

Clearly, yeah, I was burnt out. Some sleep would help, for sure; some alone time. But I’d been alone all day. I’d had plenty of “me time.”

As we’re both introverts, my husband and I naturally made space for each other’s need to be alone and separate — so much space that we couldn’t easily reconnect. When we forced conversations and dates on a burnt-out soul, we just got more frustrated with each other.

After awhile, I realized that it wasn’t just solitude and separateness that we needed. The fix wasn’t indiscriminate together time. We needed meaningful self-care.

Sarah Bessey says self-care is what makes you come alive, “what fills the well of your soul.” It’s the opposite of self-comfort, which she describes as “numbing”: “the Netflix binges, the bad food, the laying on the couch for a day of reading” (though those can be soul-filling in moderation).

This was our problem: we spent our “alone time” doing numbing things, and came up empty during our “together time.”

Why Date Night Doesn’t Work for Introverts

Have you ever scheduled a date night and found yourself wanting to do nothing instead?

Scheduled date nights are made for extroverted couples — couples who easily come alive just by being together. Together time for burnt-out introverts ends up exasperating both parties: the burnt-out introvert feels irritated by the energy and talkativeness of the other spouse, and then the “filled and alive” spouse, ready to connect, feels rejected. It’s like the classic husband-wants-sex-but-wife-says-ugh-please-no situation, except with everything instead of just sex.

Actually, female sexual desire is a great way to look at the introverted couple dilemma. According to Emily Nagoski, author of Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, every individual (even the guys) possesses a sexual “brake” and a sexual “gas pedal.” Sexual brakes are things that turn off sexual desire, even if your sexual gas pedal is held to the floor.

That’s exactly what was happening with poor old introverted me: I was gunning my relational gas pedal, what with all the excitement to share my thoughts with my husband — but unbeknownst to me, other things were slamming the brakes. Emotional intimacy felt nearly impossible, and the thought of trying to fight those brakes exhausted me.

More Then Solitude

I’ve thought for a long time that simply being away from people would release those brakes. That’s what worked in college, when we started dating. But what I didn’t realize is that the college setting provided me the stuff that filled my soul in a way that sitting at home alone with a sink of dishes did not.

When I was away from my then-boyfriend during college, I was having amazing conversations with my girlfriends, thinking about interesting things, and involving myself in activities I loved. Those conversations, relationships, and activities filled me up, helping me come alive and ready to engage with my then-boyfriend.

Now that we’re married, lots of things I did hit the brakes on emotional intimacy: working full-time, the stress of adult life, housework, small talk with coworkers or hardly any interaction with adults at all, and, ironically for an introvert, spending too much time alone or alone with a non-communicative infant.

Thinking I just needed more alone time, I spent evenings mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or bingeing Netflix. Those things numbed me from the exhaustion I felt, but they weren’t restorative.

For both my husband and me, unregulated screen time is the thing we turn toward as a numbing agent. He plays his computer games, I putz around on the internet. It not only fails to fill the well of our soul, it saps our desire for intimacy even more. It messes with our headspace, to the point where all I’m thinking about is drama on the internet and all he’s thinking about is Fortnite. Great, we think. We live the lamest lives, and we don’t feel like sharing those lame lives with a lame person who just does lame stuff all day.

Trying to connect with burnt-out, boring person is a big emotional brake in itself — as is trying to share your burnt-out, boring self.

The biggest thing we’ve done for our marriage is prioritizing self-care — not self-comfort, but meaningful self-care. We prioritize it individually, and we prioritize it as a couple.

So far, that looks like a few different things:

(1) Before launching into a deep conversation or another meaningful attempt at emotional intimacy, we check in with the other spouse about how they’re feeling. “Are you able to have this conversation right now?” I ask a lot (because I’m the talker in our relationship). Sometimes my husband will say no, not really, he wants to do this thing right now. I know that he means he’s burnt out, and trying to focus on a really intricate and involved thing like his wife’s conversations (cough) will not fill his soul. Sometimes he does his own thing all evening, and I put off the conversation until the next day. Sometimes he does his thing for a while and emerges a little later, refreshed and ready to interact. On rare occasions, sometimes he’s engrossed in a project for most of the week.

I respect his assessment on what he needs and is able to give. If I really need to talk to somebody, I either communicate to him the importance of my needs and let him reassess, or I find somebody else to talk to.

(2) Even though I respect his final assessment of his needs, I’ll check in to see if the activity engrossing him is really filling his well, or just numbing his burn-out. I can tell the difference between long hours that result in a buoyant attitude, excitement, and productivity, and long hours that result in grumpiness, irritation, and even more exhaustion. Part of prioritizing meaningful self-care is holding each other accountable to actually do meaningful self-care.

(3) Even though I think it’s important for couples to hold each other accountable, take responsibility for filling my soul well. I know that I can’t function in relationship with my husband if I’m burning myself out with busyness or meaningless “me-time.” I’m (trying to be) really intentional about knowing my limits, setting my boundaries well before those limits, and doing the things that make me come alive. I count meaningful alone time — intentionally not doing housework or playing with the baby — as part of the wife-and-mother job description. If I’m trying to be the best wife, mom, and human I can be, pooh-poohing meaningful “me-time” as selfish seems absolutely irresponsible to me.

(4) On Thursdays, we turn off screens. It’s not a date night, per se, and we started it simply as a way to kick our screen addictions, but it’s evolved into a night where it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll connect well. Our headspace is free, there are no distracting people or things via the world wide web, and we naturally gravitate towards each other. It’s almost too easy: merely removing screens puts us in a mental space where we share deep conversation, quality together time, and lots of laughs. I look forward to Thursdays every week.

Of course, since it’s not strictly a date night, sometimes being untethered to screens results in working on separate projects — that is, we get in meaningful self-care. Either way, it’s a good mid-week reset.

(5) Our introvert date night is technically Wednesdays, but we don’t call it date night, and we’re not really consistent about it. We just do not have the energy to plan or do the stereotypical date nights — dress up, go out, get away, or even plan a more structured night in. That’s not our style and never has been. Instead of fighting that, we’re embracing it. We’ve been trying out a date night at our speed — watching documentaries and discussing them. Mostly it’s not working, and I fall asleep halfway, but it’s a good thought. We connect more on the weekends when my husband isn’t trying to squeeze in his refueling time between family time, dinner, chores, and sleep.

That’s the care and keeping of an introvert spouse.

The Unmotivated Person’s Guide to Getting Stuff Done

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Update on my housekeeping streak: I kind of failed all through this month. I sat around in my robe longer than I wanted. I stretched out my morning coffee to give myself an excuse not to do anything yet. I stopped cleaning the bathroom every day and keeping my sink shiny. Sometimes the dishes sat for a day. And I didn’t even try to keep up with Flylady’s daily challenges.

I did a little each day and tried to do a little more the next, but I ended up doing barely anything today and next to nothing the day after that. That’s how my August went.

I was just so unmotivated, and bummed that I couldn’t keep up the motivation that made me such an awesome housekeeper once upon a time.

But I tried something new, something I’d learned from my obsessive study of childhood development: focus on the needs a negative behavior is communicating rather than the behavior itself. When you address only the behavior, the needs remain unmet and come out again in destructive ways. When you meet the needs, the behavior changes too.

What was the need behind my failure to do housework like a champ?

Sleep deprivation. Even though my baby regularly sleeps through the night, it’s taken me a couple months to adjust to that. I woke up at odd hours and couldn’t get back to sleep.

Armed with this unsurprising find, I focused on meeting my needs. I stopped beating myself and pushing myself to do more. I did the bare minimum, rested as much as possible, and focused on getting enough sleep.

And it worked! Once I got enough sleep, my motivation to get up and get going came back. I’m still getting back into a routine, but I’m confident I’ll get there.

Tl;dr: The secret to getting stuff done is meeting the need underneath why you feel unmotivated. Maybe it’s perfectionism. Maybe it’s depression, or sleep deprivation, or saying yes to the wrong things. Whatever it is, work on meeting that need first, and don’t beat yourself up in the meantime.

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.”

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.