Little ThreeYear and I spent a little time counting our blessings yesterday as we talked about his New Year’s Resolution, to work on his anger issues. Sweet thing, he hardly has any anger issues. He has major anxiety and sometimes that causes him to freak out a little. But he’s gotten so much better this year! So we talked about that and about all he’s good at, and all we’ve got to be thankful for. And I spent time counting my blessings after reading Mr. Money Mustache’s really honest and thoughtful post on his divorce.
Mr. ThreeYear and I have a best friend who’s a divorced, single-parent dad. For years, we watched many things happen with his former spouse and have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly that came from his divorce.
It takes such strength of character to be able to write about such a wrenching and difficult subject, with all its associated social baggage and judgment, in a way that’s designed to help others get better with money and life, and I admire MMM for writing about such a hard topic. I’ve read plenty of posts lately about people getting divorced, but not as many about staying married, and so here I humbly offer my own situation and lessons for better or for worse (no pun intended, of course).
The most helpful part of Pete’s post for me was where he gave tips on how to stay married. Staying married is really important to me. I remember in middle school, telling a classmate that I was never getting a divorce. She, with much more maturity and insight than I had at the time, reminded me that it wasn’t always within your control. I told her I’d do everything I could not to get divorced. I feel the same way twenty-eight years later.
My dad’s parents, my grandparents, got divorced after 34 years of marriage, and it kind of wrecked the family. It really messed up my aunt and uncle, who were born much younger than my dad. They were little kids at the time and got shuffled between two homes, one of which contained their mother who was losing her mind to grief and booze, and the other of which had their self-absorbed father who was more involved with his new wife than worried about his kids.
Mr. ThreeYear and I have a really strong marriage, but when I read about couples getting a divorce, it always wakes me up a bit to my own complacency. I find that a helpful thing and a good thing. I want to be present, loving, and involved in Mr. ThreeYear’s life and my kids’ life. That is the ultimate achievement to me, to have a life filled with functioning and healthy relationships.
I’m a pretty hard-charging, Type A personality, so that may sound strange. I realize that the world we live in, the culture that we’re a part of, values hustle. It values working as hard as you can on your side gig to make something of yourself, to create a business, reach a goal, become more than you are right now. The ultimate life of achievement looks something like Elon Musk’s, where you’ve devoted almost all your time to your business, to your dreams, to your company.
A part of me calls bullshit on those values. I love goals as much as the next person (more, probably). But I also spent three years in a Latin American country where I saw the beauty of valuing relationships, and I decided I wanted that in my life. I don’t want a life where I work 100 hours a week, sacrificing all of my close, personal relationships as collateral damage. Instead, I’d rather build a family.
When Mr. ThreeYear and I became a couple, I spent most of my time with him, for better or for worse. I had less girls’ nights, less gab-fests with my girl friends, more time with him. He became my best friend. I still had girl time, because I needed my female friends in my life, but honestly, they became less important than before. (As I age, and as I’ve moved back South and am closer to old friends, they’ve become more important. But I think you can rely too much on your friends to the detriment of your marriage, so I’m trying to be careful to maintain a healthy balance there).
When Junior ThreeYear was born, I quit my job to stay home and take care of him. I never, ever, ever, in a million years, thought I would do that. I wanted to get my MBA and take over corporate America when I was in my 20s. That dream instantly lost its appeal when I became a mom.
Probably because it wasn’t really my dream. It was someone else’s dream that I’d co-opted because I wasn’t clear on my own true wishes and desires. It was my American society’s dream for me, and I, since I had done so well in school and on standardized tests, college and clubs, I had decided it was the logical next step. But it wasn’t what I wanted my life to look like, not really. I wasn’t willing to pay the steep price for that dream–more time at the office, subjugating my family’s needs for a company’s needs, being the “yes” woman, eating dinner at work, not being home for most of the day.
I should mention that having the option to work or no is a luxury that not everyone enjoys. I grew up with loving parents who gave me an excellent, paid-for college education, access to international travel, and the expectation of a job with a certain income. All of that upbringing led me to a man with similar values (despite a much dis-similar upbringing). He had a job that brought in enough income that I had the option to be a stay-at-home spouse.
Through the years, I’ve made choices again and again that put my family first, because I could. I became a stay-at-home mom to Junior ThreeYear. I stayed at home for seven-and-a-half years while the boys were small. When I did go back to work, it was on a part-time basis. Then, I quit the part-time job that I loved, as the Marketing Director of an opera company, because it took me out of the house nights and weekends, and I took a new job as a teacher in my kids’ school.
I stayed home with my kids this year instead of getting a job so I could help them get settled (full disclosure–it hasn’t been much of a hardship). All of this was possible because of Mr. ThreeYear. He was on board with me staying home and makes enough income that I don’t have to work. In return, I take care of most of our kids’ activities and appointments and keep the house running smoothly so he can focus on his job (okay, except the cleaning. I really don’t clean and he does pretty much all of that part except the laundry).
Some of the hardest work in our almost-fifteen year marriage has revolved around our roles, especially after we had kids. When we got married, Mr. ThreeYear expected me to get an MBA and be a large income earner. I totally changed my mind, and it was hard for him to have the rug pulled out from under him, so to speak. I’ve also had to come to terms with the fact that he doesn’t really “help out” with the kids. He doesn’t take them to activities or appointments, unless I specifically ask him to, and on the weekends, he doesn’t have “dad duty.” I am the main one who takes them places and organizes activities for them. Neither of us expected the role of sole income earner or sole kid wrangler, but we ended up with them, and we’ve adjusted to them as well as we possibly can.
I’ve never written at length on this blog about Junior ThreeYear’s specific disabilities, but we’ve spent years working through them. We began to notice that something was wrong when he was in preschool. He didn’t play with friends exactly the same way his peers did. While his preschool teachers said it was nothing to worry about, I worried. When kindergarten started, at our prodding, his teacher observed some learning and social difficulties. We had a full psychological battery done, meetings with a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, and many sessions with a counselor.
Finally, he was diagnosed with social pragmatic language disorder, which is a bit like Asperger’s, although he’s not on the autism spectrum. He was also diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety. Poor kid. Our genetics weren’t his fault, but he was stuck with them.
We also found out through the years that he has a really high IQ, a wicked sense of humor, and an extremely loving and compassionate personality (his New Year’s resolution was “to be a better brother”). Through the years, we’ve had dedicated and wise educators, counselors, and health care professionals working with him. He’s such a cool kid! And when he finds teachers that really “get” him, like this year, he does really well in school.
There are also hard moments for Mr. ThreeYear and I to navigate with his disabilities. He’s never really had a good friend, except for his beloved younger brother. He’s had sort-of friends, but it’s hard for him to sustain friendships. It was painful to work at his school and walk by the cafeteria, seeing him eating alone yet again. And he can be difficult. He interrupts a lot, insists on getting his thoughts out, though he has a stammer and can take ages to express himself, and can be downright maddening to his peers when he won’t compromise. Through the years, we’ve wondered if invitations to dinner come a little less frequently because of that, if we have less friends because it’s difficult for other families’ kids to have him over. Maybe, maybe not. We know the friends we do have really love us, warts and all.
The Stuff of Life
Those challenges, along with challenges that Little ThreeYear has, mainly anxiety and ADHD, add to the inevitable life stuff that Mr. ThreeYear and I navigate. While our kids’ challenges are so tiny in the scheme of things (they are otherwise healthy and thriving, thank goodness), they do sometimes make it hard to focus on our relationship. It’s easy to be swept up in the issues that our kids are facing and forget to take time to nurture our own marriage.
That’s why we went on an epic, two-week anniversary trip to Southeast Asia back in February 2016. I’ve never written about it, mainly because I don’t know where to start, but maybe this year I will. It was and is the best trip we’ve ever taken, even better than our honeymoon to Greece (which was also epic). I remembered how witty and cool Mr. ThreeYear is on that trip. He remembered some good stuff about me that maybe he’d forgotten. We made a vow to take such a trip every five years in our marriage.
The Small Stuff
Mr. ThreeYear is really good at focusing on the small stuff. Every single day before the kids leave for school, he gives them a kiss and tells them goodbye. If we forget, he chases after us and makes sure to give them a kiss.
Every night, he touches my foot in the bed, as a way to say, “I love you.” Every night, without fail.
Since he’s been working at home, I’ve tried to have a similar focus on the small stuff, by bringing him coffee to his office, making sure the house is clean when he gets home from a work trip, and just thanking him for everything he does for me and the boys. Instead of reading my book, I’ll put it down and watch what he wants to on TV. I try to respond to those “bids” he gives me for connection, even if I can’t give him attention in that very moment.
The Big Stuff
There’s also big stuff we’ve dealt with in our marriage. I noticed, about three or four years ago, that when I’d had a couple of glasses of wine, I could get really mean and nasty with Mr. ThreeYear. I noticed we argued the most after we’d been drinking, and I realized that it was wreaking havoc on our relationship, not to mention my health (when you feel bad, you’re not as nice). It also affected my relationship with the kids for the same reason.
One of the biggest reasons I stopped drinking was because I wanted to have a better relationship with Mr. ThreeYear and the kids, and I knew that not drinking would give me that. I kept telling myself, “What will life look like a year from now if I’m not drinking anymore?” And the answer to that questions was, “Better.” Countless people that I’d read about reported better, happier relationships with their loved ones after giving up drinking. I read that your kids’ relationship with alcohol later on is largely based upon their parents’. Hmmm. And a longitudinal study from Harvard reported that the study subjects who did the worst, long term, in their relationships and life, drank too much. Author and lead researcher George Vaillant said, “Alcoholism and major depression could take people who started life as stars and leave them at the end of their lives as train wrecks.” That was partly because the quality of their relationships deteriorated. And strong relationships are a key indicator of long-term health:
“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”Robert Waldinger, The Harvard Gazette
Although I was far from an alcoholic, I definitely depended on alcohol. I looked forward to my glass or two of wine each night, and I got mad if I couldn’t have it for whatever reason. That didn’t feel healthy to me. And the more I read about alcohol, the more I was reminded that it is a drug and therefore, addictive. The more I drank the more I wanted. And the worse I felt. I remember asking myself, “Why do I drink alcohol if it always, always makes me feel like crap later, even if I have just one beer?”
It was hard to give up alcohol. Like any habit that I have, good or bad, this one had firmly entrenched cues and behavior responses, so I had to work very deliberately and hard to give it up. But having a better relationship with Mr. ThreeYear and the boys was a worthy goal.
From the vantage point of two and a half years of not drinking any significant amounts (I’ll occasionally have a sip or two of wine), I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this big decision has improved the quality of my relationship with Mr. ThreeYear a lot. It’s mainly in small ways, but those small ways add up. Gone are the silly arguments, the wine-drenched pettiness, and the guilt following.
I’m so grateful to my past self for making this investment in my marriage. It’s 1000% worth it.
This is Personal
This post is really a reflection on where my head is right now. It’s highly personal, and is just a compendium of thoughts about my own relationship and marriage (and family, which is a big part of my marriage). It’s certainly not meant to be a how-to post for anyone else, or a judgement if your relationship is in a different place. I could just as easily have gotten divorced, had things gone a little differently, or Mr. ThreeYear or I made some different decisions, and as hard as that is to write, I know it’s the truth.
This post is meant to be the opposite of smug. I take my marriage seriously, but I certainly don’t take it for granted (or try not to). I can get complacent and lost in my own headspace, which doesn’t make for a very good marriage, so I try not to make assumptions about where my marriage will be in ten or twenty years. I try to retain a healthy dose of humility about my marriage, and I truly believe that a large part of my happiness is based on the dumb luck or extremely good fortune, whichever you believe in, of having married a really great human being.
Right now, though, I’m grateful for the large and small decisions Mr. ThreeYear and I have made in the past decade that have helped our marriage thrive, and I know it’s one of the most important relationships of my life. It’s helped our finances to have a happy relationship. It’s helped us do a better job of raising children, and it’s made us day-to-day happier and more joyful.
Since moving to the South, Mr. ThreeYear and I have been more focused than ever on all of our relationships. We want to nurture healthy and happy friendships, family-ships, and partnerships. And we’ve noticed that we tend to spend less when we make time for each other, friends, and social activities, because we’re happy and fulfilled.
I hope we can look back and count deliberate, intentional focus and work on our marriage as a reason why we’re happy ten years from now. Because I know that will be the most important work of my life.