When Marriage Feels Like Work

Once upon a time there were a finite number of blogs and I read them all. You could do that back then, in the early days of blogging. There was a circle of secular bloggers I loved to read and I got really into reading them, all the time.

These days, of course, the blogosphere is a strange combination of over-saturated and also (according to some) dead. Which is to say, it’s hard to keep up with everything and I’ve mostly, this past year or two, gotten out of the habit of reading any blogs at all.

But here and there, lately, I’ve popped back on to these blogs, people I knew and was invested in once upon a time and imagine my sadness to discover that almost all of these great bloggers, ten years later, have had one or two kids and are also now divorced.

Today’s discovery was just the latest and for some reason it really stuck with me what this woman said, upon announcing the breakdown of her marriage, that she just didn’t really want to be married anymore and she had finally worked up the courage to tell the truth. She was celebrated by her friends and relieved to get that out of the way.

What a strange concept, I thought, and how very sad indeed. That was my primary feeling, just a profound sadness for someone I don’t know at all.

But don’t you think, I wanted to tell her, that we’ve all had moments when marriage felt like work? Don’t you know that there are no perfect marriages and just because you’re feeling like you want out, that doesn’t mean that these feelings will always be thus?

Of course I could never say those things to this person I don’t even know, and of course I don’t know the reality of that marriage. And that is the truth universally: none of us can speak into any marriage other than our own.

But it got me thinking, wondering, how many people out there feel trapped or unfulfilled in their own marriage because they have a skewed concept of what a happy marriage actually is. Which is to say that there are indeed happy marriages, but that who among us — even those in the happiest of marriages — has not had a season (perhaps as short as a few hours, perhaps a long, dry drought of a time) where this thing we got ourselves into is not exactly what we had in mind?

I can tell you when I had those feelings and they were very strong. In the days after having our third and then fourth babies, I felt trapped and alone and when Paul walked out the door to work every morning it felt like a spectacular betrayal. “How can you leave me here with all these children?” I would ask (some mornings through tears). It was not a pretty season and while it didn’t go on forever, I’d be lying if I said that every single day of every single year has been complete and utter bliss in the marriage and parenting department. It has not. Some days have been extreme sacrifice, ugly, gut-wrenching tear-stained work.

And here’s another thing: these feelings of boredom and ennui? They don’t necessarily happen in the “later years”. Paul and I recently celebrated our 21st (woah!) anniversary and I feel happier and more fulfilled in this marriage than ever. No, for me, the hardest times were much earlier on. Now they feel like a billion years ago but I was surprised when I experienced those bumps in the road, the times when it suddenly felt very hard and much too challenging.

The thing is, marriage is work. It must be if God uses it for our sanctification. Those of us who are married acknowledge that being married means we recognize this is how God is getting us to heaven — through our spouse. And part of that is through our own little mortifications — learning to die to ourselves, learning to grow, learning to acknowledge that sometimes, feelings are just that — feelings.

Paul has a story he shares when we talk at Engaged Encounter every year, a story about a friend of his who got a divorce when he discovered several years into his marriage that his wife had “changed.” She wasn’t the person she once was and that made life tough. Change must mean it was time to move on.

That part of the story is sad, but Paul loves making the point that he’s so glad that this, too, has been the case with us. Change isn’t a bad thing. “I’m glad Rachel isn’t still the 22-year-old she was when we got married.” And so am I!

It’s important to be cheerleaders for marriage. I love being married and I want people to know that happy marriages exist and they are worth the effort.

But equally important is to be willing to be honest with couples who are struggling — this too shall pass. You are not alone. Marriage can be very tough indeed, but that’s where grace and peace and prayer bring us forward. Seasons of hardship and growth yield good fruit that can help us be closer to who God wants us to be.

Perfect Family Life

This week’s column (written while on vacation!):

We are on vacation this week, staying at a beach that is popular with photographers getting a faultless family photo. Every afternoon, just as Paul and I are settled into our seats and the kids are working their latest archeological dig, a group comes traipsing down the boardwalk in matching khakis and perfectly coifed ‘dos.

It’s a funny thing to see that scene on the beach, a place where many people (literally) let it all hang out. You go to the beach to let salt whip through your hair and get a little sun-kist and watch your kids lay in the tide and get covered with sand. You come in each evening exhausted and messy and happy in that messy, exhausted way.

What a funny change of scenery, then, to look up and see a large group of people in coordinating outfits walking forward on the beach while staring at each other with unwavering smiles.

I got a little caught up in the scene at first, the contrast between photo-ready and real life. At one point I watched a family smiling for the camera and then turned to assess my own crew. One child was buried in the sand, another hunched over a recently-discovered (already deceased) starfish. The reality of life on the beach — of my little scene right here — was so different than what the photographer captured.

It might be tempting to feel bad about the contrast — this group walking towards me compared to the crew settled next to me. My family is a mess; these other people are looking pretty good.

I had a flash of envy, or perhaps fatigue.

“Would you look at that,” I might have said, pointing out the perfection. To which one of my boys replied, “they’ve put on their gold armor.”

And isn’t it the truth — gold armor. Best foot forward. Getting gussied up to look good for the camera. We all do it, it’s a part of life.

And of course fancy family photos are important and good — family life is one of the best investments you will ever make. Those photos are an important reminder of the gift of family and of the joy of time together.

But the reality of family life is that it generally doesn’t look as perfect as all that. The truth is that life, real life, has plenty of the dirty, sandy, wind-swept scenes. The perfectly-orchestrated moments are nice, but they are not day in and day out reality.

We treasure the perfect little moments, knowing that the messiness of life is what makes us stronger and better and closer to who we are supposed to be.

At the end of the day, as the sun sets and we head back in, we have to be at peace with who we are and with the travelers we’ve been given on the journey. It’s tempting to look out and see the perfection of those around you, but be careful.

We should never compare the externals of everyone else to the internals of ourself. Do that and you will never win.

Comparison is the thief of joy, and that is never truer than in our journey of family life.

There will always be someone whose outfits match better, whose child makes better grades, whose husband seems more organized and better at taking out the trash. There will always be someone who seems like they are doing family life better than you.

Don’t compare. Don’t be discouraged.

You are you, traveling on your journey with the people God has so lovingly given to you. Life is messy — and it’s also beautiful. There are moments when the beauty of someone else’s life, of their journey, seem to outshine the muck of your own situation.

But don’t forget: God sees you. He loves you. He cares for you and he has not abandoned you. The best way to find true peace is to be yourself and embrace with gratitude your own adventure, the one so generously given by God himself.

When Your Baby Goes to College

Tonight as I was walking through the kitchen doing my evening clean-up rituals, I looked out onto the deck and saw a pair of Ethan’s old tennis shoes in a pile of things waiting to be put away after vacation. For some reason, the sight of those shoes (and the immediate image of my boy wearing them) was a gut-punch lump in the throat moment that took a few minutes to get over.

“It’s weird how having a child move away feels like…grief,” I thought, or at least what I’ve read about grief. Unexpected emotions, fine one minute, a mess the next. That’s how I’ve felt the last few months, since back when our boy graduated high school and then almost immediately left for summer classes at college. Last weekend, we officially moved him up, this time with more swag for his room (a rug, more bedding, stuff to hang on the walls) but even that didn’t feel too official because this time around we didn’t all go up together. We did that in the summer, the whole family helping him move into his dorms. This time it felt like since he just left campus two weeks earlier, we didn’t need as much pomp and circumstance.

And as it was, Paul drove him back to school and once they got on campus Ethan was so excited about seeing his friends and getting ready for class the next morning, he hugged Paul and off he went. It was different because he had already been there, it felt a little less official.

I tell myself these things, I ease into the whole way of life — when he moved in the summer it was only for six weeks; when he moved back for Fall he had already been gone — but you can say all these things and there are still emotions that are there. Try as you might to shove them down, waaaaay down, because children have been leaving for college since the dawn of time, who are you (one might say to oneself) to get more emotional than the next mom?

But what I’m learning in this crazy new season, is that emotions are there and while perhaps you shouldn’t give into them or let them rule you, it’s okay to acknowledge them. “This is how I’m feeling,” I’m learning to say, “and it’s understandable.”

That last part has been a big step for me — admitting that it’s understandable.

Every step of the way with this college move, I’ve tried to downplay the feelings or quantify them. “Other kids go further, he’s right down the road.” “He’s only going for six weeks this first time.” And my favorite, the one I cling to the most, “it’s such an awesome opportunity!”

But two hours, while very close indeed, is definitely not right up the stairs. It’s a very weird, strange, CAHRAZY thing to not have all your babies in the nest. And yes, as I have said AD NAUSEUM it’s exciting and what a great thing my son gets to do, what a thrilling new season for him — well I can say all that and in the same breath admit that I’m happy for him and outrageously proud and also hurting just a little that he’s not here.

It’s just. so. complicated.

I don’t want everyone to be home always and forever, I don’t. But it’s also just plain strange to already be at the place where my children are big enough to leave. The first one anyway. It’s just a mystery. How can we already be here, at this stage of the game?

And so I see those shoes and I acknowledge the lump in my throat and maybe I say a prayer for my boy — and a prayer for us too, those of us here missing him. But not in a way that makes him ever think for a minute that we are lost without him. I want my children to have every adventure God has in store for them — life is so wonderful, there is so much to do and see in this great world of ours! And I don’t want all these feels I’m having during this new season make my children feel bad about living life.

It’s just, well, this is what it’s like to be a human and for me, to be a mother. In this new season that no longer includes all of us together always, this is what it’s like. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s complicated.

Bye, Felicia.

It’s that time of year, when I’m equal parts mourning the end of summer and mourning that fact that it’s not over yet. How can I miss you, Summer, if you won’t go away?

Our school superintendent was sharing at a meeting recently that “our school has the longest summer in town” to which a few weary parents nodded in fatigue and a few happy teachers looked around well-rested and giddy. Oh yes, I’m looking at you Miss Fresh Faced Elementary Teacher. You look great! Are you resting well?

Oh, summertime, you be a beast.

This summer has actually been pretty great, I won’t lie. I haven’t cried in my beer too many times, not for the usual reasons anyway. Maybe I’m just focusing on things other than all the usual shenanigans these children of mine pull, things they do to send me to search engines looking up “three-month summer camp in the foothills of New Hampshire.” We live in Georgia, so the geography works well.

But our oldest left for college two weeks after high school graduation, and the day after we moved Ethan to school I left for a week in Boston. And things feel like they’ve been a whirlwind since about three months before that. It’s been crazy and while I was on family vacation last week and finally, for the first time all summer, enjoying some downtime, I couldn’t figure out why a nagging feeling of anxiety was shadowing most of my moves. I shook it off, most of the time, but I was frustrated.

“You’re through all the hard stuff,” I told myself, all the while realizing that the day we returned from vacation we would be bringing Ethan back to school, this time for the real deal.

Also, today I was talking to a friend about all this and she shared how her experience is often that she handles the crazy great, only to have the stress and anxiety catch up to her a little later. I’m wondering. This Spring and early Summer were some of the most intense weeks I’ve ever had, on a personal level and professionally too. So many milestones (which are just so, so much the first time around) and also things like taping an entire season of our talk show and co-hosting a few days of radio with Lino Rulli, and speaking at Edel — all awesome, all with some intensity involved.

Anyway, tonight when the kids started whining and nitpicking and Isabel bemoaning the fact that she neeeeeded a bllllaaannnket and could someone just get her one, I may have ordered someone to the shower and he didn’t want to go and he questioned my authority and I might have muttered something about being the “mother loving boss of this gin joint that’s why” and that’s when, upon hearing those words tumble secretly out of my mouth, I knew.

I knew it with all the truth of a century of truths: that summertime needed to be over and it needed to happen fast.

But of course, I can’t make time move faster so I’ll just decant this here vino and take a chill pill and all will be well. It will be well and it shall be well and every thing shall be well. Isn’t that how it goes?

Yes, yes it is.