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My husband and I dated for a few years before we got married, living in separate households and reveling in the excitement of coming together every weekend. We’d both been married before, and were now living as divorced single parents. I longed for the time when we could finally blend our households and things could become much simpler.

Boy, was I in for a rude awakening. Things were bumpy when we finally did move in together, mostly because blending a family is hard work. But the other hard part was learning how to work together as a team in every decision when both of us were so used to being independent.

Marriage only made this worse.

Our first year of marriage was really rough. I loved being married to Shawn, but I also recall the many fights we had, the loneliness I felt as I clung to stubbornness, the continued struggle of being two different families in one house, and the daily realizations over how different we were in so many areas.

Things finally did settle down, and our family has learned how to come together in many ways. We still have differences, as many families do, but mostly, we’ve learned which battles are worth fighting and which ones aren’t. I won’t pretend we’re perfect — we’re not. But the place we are now is paradise compared to the darkness we experienced in the beginning.

The biggest reason, I believe, things are much better is because Shawn and I have come together as a solid team through all of this. Every year I’m amazed at how much more I love him than the year before, and how there’s still so much we get to learn about each other. He’s my biggest champion, and I’m his. It makes me excited to see where our marriage will be by year 10, 20, 50 and beyond.

The other day I was thinking about the things that makes our marriage so wonderful, and the following things came to mind:

1. We compliment each other often. When I look in the mirror and am disappointed by what I see, he’s right there behind me to let me know how sexy I look. Just this morning I was bummed out about the number on my scale. He didn’t know this when he asked me to stop what I was doing and take a turn for him. “Damn, I’m a lucky man,” he told me. I know we’re supposed to love ourselves and all, but it sure is helpful when the man I love reminds me every day that he finds me sexy. It goes both ways, too. I think my husband grows more handsome and sexy every day, and I tell him so. It goes beyond looks, too. He’s my biggest cheerleader to the things that mean most to me, helping me to see the positive when I’m stuck in the negative. I tell him how proud I am of him, from the big things to the small. We both try really hard to notice what the other person is doing, and acknowledge those things with words of affirmations.

2. We respect each other’s seasons. Let’s just get right to the point: sometimes I’m not in the mood to have sexy time, especially at the end of my cycle. There’s a particular week when there is nothing he can do to awaken the sleeping dragon. What I love about my husband is that he understands this and is completely respectful about it. However, it would be completely selfish of me to let this mood control our sex life. There has to be a give and take when it comes to sex. Sometimes I fight through my “don’t touch me” feelings for his benefit. And vice versa, when I’m in the zone and he’s not, he’ll make sure I’m taken care of. The benefit? More times than not we’re in the same space, and I firmly believe it’s because we understand the give and take, and respect each other’s moods.

3. We spice things up. Right now, our lives involve a very busy household, teenagers, hectic jobs, and we just moved his mother into our home. All of that is a combination for passionless nights as we collapse into bed so we can do it all again the next day…even with everything I mentioned in #2. Luckily, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. I won’t divulge our secrets here, but if things are feeling fairly routine between the sheets, perhaps it’s time to get a little creative. Is there something you’ve wanted to try, but haven’t because it feels a bit too naughty? Maybe it’s time you let down some of your guard. You might be surprised at what happens. 😉

4. We plan for uninterrupted time daily (even if it’s just 10 minutes). Our lives have only gotten busier since our earlier days. Two out of three of our blended kids are in college, plus I started college two years ago. We both have demanding jobs. Plus, we’re caretaking for his mother. Life is crazy busy. There are some days I only see him in the morning while I’m getting ready for work, and in the evening when we go to bed. Still, we make it a point to ask about the other person’s day, and then LISTEN, phones away, completely focused. This is one of my favorite things about our marriage, that we still have so much to share with each other every day, and this uninterrupted time becomes some of our best conversations.

5. We support each other as much as possible. Shawn is a gardener. I am not. But I love the outcome of his efforts when we have fresh tomatoes in the summer. Usually, he’s the one out there watering. But (when I remember) I’ll go out and water, too, simply so he doesn’t have to. I wanted a dog. Shawn did not. Guess what? We have a dog. And despite his repeated insistence that he never wanted a dog, he still takes the dog for walks regularly. We’re both writers, and we are each other’s first readers. We attend events that are important to the other person, even if they’re not our personal cup of tea. We only talk kindly about each other to others, never slamming the other person (how many times have you been uncomfortable around other couples who do the opposite?). We build each other up and cheer each other on. I can truly say Shawn is my best friend, and he says that about me, and it’s because we truly support each other.

6. We put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. One of the secrets to our happy marriage is our level of empathy. I’m not going to lie, we still have our fair share of fights. But these fights never last long. One of the reasons is because we have a high level of empathy for the other person, willing to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. This isn’t easy, admittedly. However, we both know each other’s true nature. When I’m mad at Shawn, I also know he’s not a bad person. I know his reasoning isn’t to be malicious, but because he has his own reasons for acting a certain way. I try to see what that reasoning is, and if there is something I should bend on. Shawn is the same way. Even more important, he knows how to say he’s sorry when he’s wrong, and has been a great model for me so that I can learn to do that, too. And man, is that hard!

7. We recognize each other’s strengths, and remind each other of them. I’m the worst when it comes to knowing what I’m good at. I’m really hard on myself. That’s why it means so much to me when Shawn stops everything and tells me all the things that are special about me. I need to hear this, because I forget. In the same way, I often tell Shawn what I admire about him: his confidence, his way with words, how he carries himself, how personable he is, how much people appreciate his wisdom.

8. We date each other. If I had my way, Shawn and I would go on a date at least once a week, if not more. However, we live in the real world, and that is rarely possible. We do make time for each other regularly, though. This could be a movies date, or time at a coffee shop, or even, and I’m not even joking, a Costco shopping trip. It’s mostly about the time together without anyone else so that we can talk and have fun together. It keeps our friendship alive in our marriage.

9. We are social together. There’s something so romantic about being with Shawn among a group of friends, from quiet dinners to group outings, laughing with friends and having him close to me as we experience the same thing. I always feel so proud of him when we’re out together, and we often come home feeling closer than ever before.

10. We’re social apart. We don’t have all the same friends or interests, and that’s completely okay. I love that Shawn has no issue whatsoever when I enjoy time with my girlfriends or some solitude time away from him and everyone else. Likewise, I don’t have a problem with him going to the ball game or the movies with his friends while I stay at home. We both enjoy a healthy amount of time away from each other and by ourselves, which makes our together time that much more special.

11. We work as a team. Earlier this year, Shawn’s mom moved in with us. This change in our household held all the promises of stress on our marriage, and yet, I’ve never felt closer to him. We have divided the duties, trying to avoid burnout. We are talking so much more about real feelings through this, being open and honest, even about the hard stuff. We give each other breaks. We build each other up. We do every single thing on this list. I can honestly say that his mother moving in has brought us so much closer, which, seriously, astounds me.

12. Our shared faith is at the center of our marriage. I recognize not every married couple is lucky enough to share the same faith. I feel fortunate that Shawn and I do. I’ve been in relationships where the faith is different, whether because someone didn’t have faith or we shared completely different faith altogether, and it was HARD. I won’t say it’s impossible, but it definitely takes work to be in a loving, committed marriage, and share vastly different ideas about God and what that means for humanity. So in that, I feel very fortunate that God is our partner in our marriage, that we both view God through loving eyes, we see our duty as to love all people, and we do all this together.

What works for you and your spouse in your marriage?

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Eric and Charlotte Kaufman with their daughters, Lyra, 1, and Cora, 3. (AP Photo/Sariah English. File)

Eric and Charlotte Kaufman with their daughters, Lyra, 1, and Cora, 3. (AP Photo/Sariah English. File)

The Kaufmans are possibly the most talked about family in America. The family of four were recently plucked from their sailboat, The Rebel Heart – their home for the past seven years as they sailed around the world. The boat had lost all its steering and most of its communications six days ago, and was taking on water when rescuers found the stranded family. Making the matter most crucial was the condition of their 1-year-old daughter, Lyra, who was feverish and vomiting from possible salmonella poisoning. The family arrived in San Diego today, and will be taking time to recover before talking with the press.

See the full story here.

The fact that Eric and Charlotte Kaufman, parents of Lyra and her 3-year-old sister Cora, were sailing around the world with such young children is causing a passionate debate among families across the nation. Some are accusing the Kaufmans of reckless parenting, putting their young children in peril by staying at sea when they began having children. Others are applauding the young family for taking on such an adventure.

My take? Every family is different, and every family has their “norm.” For the majority of us, sailing around the world is not something that would be normal for our family. But for the Kaufman’s, they were sailing before the kids were even born. Those children saw being at sea as every day life. It’s no less normal than the families who live in huts in the middle of a jungle, families who have only one parent, kids who live in the projects, kids who live in mansions…. (speaking of which, you should check out the photo project of “Where Children Sleep” by photographer James Mollison for an eye-opening look at the economic differences in families around the world).

This was what the Kaufman family knew – sailing as a way of life.

And bad things happen in families, things we don’t plan for. The Kaufmans didn’t plan for their boat to break down, or for their toddler to get as sick as she did. Houses can burn down, leaving a family displaced. Pipes can break, roofs can leak, homes can be burglarized. Kids can catch colds, catch pneumonia, catch cancer. It doesn’t matter whether a family is on a sailboat around the world or cooped up away from germs in their home. The unplanned can happen.

Did being at sea make it more difficult for the Kaufman family to receive adequate care? Sure. But should they have stayed close to shore once they had kids? I don’t think so. Having been sailing for so long, I don’t believe the Kaufman’s were guilty of reckless parenting. I believe they were including their kids in a lifestyle they had already laid the foundation. And I hope that when little Lyra recovers, the family is able to take to the seas once again.

What do you think?

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In the morning, I am usually the last one to leave the house.  I kind of like it that way, because it gives me a few moments of quiet in an empty house.  Of course, it also means that I am the one who is left with a sink full of dishes to fill the dishwasher with, and hungry cats that still need to be fed.

This morning was no exception.  In fact, the sink was filled with dishes, despite the fact that the dishwasher was close to empty.  This included a container from yesterday that still held the remnants of warm tuna.  Totally appetizing.  And to the right of me sat the stove with leftover food chunks from everyone’s breakfast makings.

I could have gotten mad.  Admittedly, I was a little irritated.  But honestly, it wasn’t that big of a deal.

However, the appliances did not feel the same way.

Here’s the note the dishwasher left.

And the stove, not able to keep silent any longer, added its two cents as well.

I was concerned that perhaps my family might take offense to the appliance’s efforts to share their feelings.  But I didn’t want to stifle their voice either.  After all, everyone is entitled to their feelings.  So I left for work and went on with my day.

When I got home, however, apparently the loaf pans and my husband had a heart to heart while I was gone.  My husband heard I had made banana bread while he was away on a business trip, and none was saved for him.  The loaf pan felt bad about this, and felt the need to share its own feelings:

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And then, the calendar – who I keep forgetting to put the dang month on – decided enough was enough.  My daughter keeps reminding me to do my usual artistic month title, but I keep forgetting.  Guess the calendar felt a little slighted.

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I think my house has gone mad….

P.S. The teenagers in the house decided humorous notes totally beat out ordering them around.  When I came home, the stove was totally clean, and all the dishes were put away.

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Something strange has been happening in my house for the past few weeks. The kids have been getting along.

I know, weird, right?

On a recent afternoon, DQ had just finished asking me if she could bring Taz along with her some of the times she went out to hang with her friends. The two have never been known for getting along. DQ is usually bossy and mean to her 12-year-old brother. Taz, in return is generally a tease and nuisance to his 15-year-old sister. But now? The sibling bond has been holding fast. I couldn’t help questioning DQ about the sudden shift in their sibling relationship.

“Do you think it’s because the two of you got some time apart from each other?” I asked her, referring to Taz’ recent solo visit with their dad. She had chosen not to visit their dad for two reasons – because she had just moved back home after living there for a month and a half, and because it gave Taz a chance to hang out with their dad all by himself. At least those were the reasons she gave me. I had a hunch the biggest reason for staying home was to hang out with the guy she was dating.

“I guess,” she answered. “But I think it’s more than that. I guess I just keep forgetting that he’s going through all the same stuff I’m going through.”

And suddenly, I understood.

I have two sisters I grew up with. My sister, Melissa, is only a year younger than me, and we shared a room. My youngest sister, Heather, is five years younger than me – which isn’t a lot now, but felt like decades when we were younger. Growing up, we had our fair share of fights. I mastered the fine art of pinching Melissa so I could leave purple marks but not draw blood. And Melissa was a pro at pulling my long hair. But both of us would tag team Heather, ganging up on her because she was always getting in our way.

I was jealous of Melissa growing up. She had a lot more friends than I did, and was a lot prettier. She spent a lot of her time hanging out at other people’s houses since she was always invited out. I enjoyed staying home in my room, reading a book. She joined the cheerleading team and ran for track. I imagined secret passageways in my bedroom, leading to magical lands where no one could find me. She was tall and slender, I was short and pudgy. She was clean, I was messy. We were night and day, black and white, oil and water.

And despite all that, we were also the best of friends.

At night we’d lie awake while I told her made-up stories using shadow puppets. On long car rides, we held performances of every single song we knew while riding in the back seat. When our parents got into the occasional fight, we were there to reassure each other that we’d stand together through the divorce (my parents just celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary). And while we could argue like it was nobody’s business, we were also each other’s strongest allies. I knew all her secrets, and she knew mine. We held a million of them from our parents, covered for each other in times of trouble, and had someone to discuss all the weird stuff that was going on with us as we grew into our awkward teenage selves.

And now, as adults, we’ve all come into our own. We have our own lives, our own friends, our own accomplishments and struggles. And we’re all really good friends – even the “annoying” one (who ended up not being so annoying after all).

sisters

We also hold a bond that no one else could ever understand. We share the same history, come from the same mold, and were raised the same way. It’s hard to think about the time in the future when our parents are no longer around. But when that happens, my sisters and I will still have each other. We are each other’s link to a story no one else shares – and no one can take that away from us.

Taz and DQ have the same bond. Through all the changes, the one thing that has been constant is the common link they share to a history all their own. They may resort back to their fighting days. They may swear in their childhood that they hate each other. Or who knows, they may even remain friends from here on out. Regardless of how these younger days play out, they will still hold the keys to our past when I am no longer here. And no one can take that away from them.

This article will appear in the Press Democrat on Friday, May 3

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Vintage WC Mom – 2010. An impromptu misty evening of play at the Montgomery High School football field when they left the lights on and we just so happened to have a football in the car.

This article appears in the Press Democrat on Friday, October 6, 2012.

Last month I wrote about the importance of dating your spouse. Hopefully this resulted in some kid-free, uninterrupted conversation, and perhaps even a few steamy moments…. If not, let this serve as a note of inspiration to book a sitter for a much needed night out with your other half.

This week, however, I want to talk to you about the importance of dating other people – your children. That’s right, those little crumb grinders that are constantly hanging around your ankles looking for something to do would love to have some one-on-one time with their favorite person in the whole world – YOU*.

*Note: Level of strength in the word “favorite” as it relates to you directly depends on their age and whether they are going through puberty or not.

There are many sensible reasons to spend solo time with your child. Making time for your child tells them they’re important, helping to boost their self esteem. It gives you a chance to get to know your child as they grow, and also allows the opportunity for them to talk about anything they’re hesitant to mention in front of other family members. Feelings of jealousy and sibling rivalry are lessened as they learn they don’t have to compete for your attention.

Dating your child is an important practice to make at every stage in their life, not just when they’re young. As they grow older and start exerting their independence, it’s especially vital to insist on time spent with them to remain a positive influence in their life. By the time your child is a teenager, you will be in direct competition with your child’s peers, the media, and the community you live in when it comes to instilling values in your child. Every time you lessen your involvement in your child’s life and fail to spend quality time with them, you are taking yourself out of the equation during important value building years. But when you make it a point to spend time with your child, you are ensuring your voice is heard among all the other voices your child hears when making life-changing decisions. Even when it seems you have to fight your child to hang out with you, insist on at least one specified amount of time a week when the two of you can spend quality time together. It gives them the message that you genuinely care, even if they won’t say this out loud.

Here are a few tips to take with you as you plan some one-on-one time with your son or daughter:

Turn off all distractions, and ask them to do the same. This especially includes your cell phone. Unless you have a job that requires you to be on-call for emergencies, ensure that your child doesn’t have to compete with anyone else to hold your full attention. By making this a hard and fast rule, you are also teaching your son or daughter proper etiquette when they are spending time with anyone – whether it be you or somebody else – that it is important for them to treat the person they are with as their priority and not the person that is texting them on their phone.

Let your child take the reins on what you two will do. All too often we are guilty of dictating family activities. Sometimes we even choose things we’re interested in, but are totally boring to our kids. For one-on-one time, give your child the power to choose what the two of you will do. If they have trouble thinking of something, offer them a few choices to pick from. A date night can be as elaborate as dinner to a nice restaurant, or as simple as playing catch in the yard. The important part is spending time together.

Keep the conversation flowing. Ask them to share the best parts about the latest videogame they’re obsessing about. Play the “What’s your favorite” game when you both get to list your favorite things, from places in the world to things to eat, and everything in between. Learn more about them by taking turns listing the five worst things about the week so far, and then end with the five best things that happened this week.

Listen effectively. Listening requires more than our ears, but our eyes and our brains as well. When your child is speaking, pay attention to their body language. Are their movements saying something deeper than their words? When it’s natural, paraphrase what they’re saying so it’s clear they are being heard. As it becomes clear they’re being heard, it will be easier for your child to cooperate in conversation with you, as well as modeling proper listening skills for them to give you in return.

What are some things you like to do with your kids? Leave some suggestions in the comments. 🙂

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10 years ago today

It’s been 10 years today since my son Connor Marley was born to Heaven.  Just a few days before this date 10 years ago, I had no idea what pain felt like.  But on this day, I discovered firsthand what it’s like to have your whole life change in the matter of an instant, and the reality that even babies die suddenly stare yourself in the face.

10 years ago, I felt like the whole world had suddenly stood still.  I was shocked at how totally unjust life was that an innocent baby could die before he even took his first breath.  I learned what it was like to hold my newborn’s son lifeless body only moments after I gave birth to him, and how much the look of his face scared me.

10 years ago I was in a different world.  And every year after that, I relived the pain.  Days would lead up to his birth/death date, and I would be on edge for no reason I could think of.  And then it would hit me.  September 23rd was getting close.  In the past years I have learned how to be kind to myself as I near this date, allowing myself a day to remember and to grieve.  And each year gets easier and easier.

This year, I decided that instead of just remembering, I would celebrate Connor’s birth into Heaven with a day of family.  Mr. W and I took the kids to church in the morning, and then we went in our own separate directions so that I could spend time with DQ and Taz on my own.  I think it was fate that I accidentally left my phone at home all day, because there was nothing to distract me from giving my full attention to the kids.  We went to DQ’s soccer game first, where Taz and I sat on the sidelines joking around in between cheering on the girls.  During halftime, the three of us got into a game of football toss, where DQ and Taz threw perfect spirals and I tried to look as little like an unsporty wimp as possible and miserably failed.  When the game was over, we went in search of the nearest Starbucks and bought ridiculously expensive high calorie drinks, and enjoyed every single sip.

Then we went to Connor’s grave.

Taz doesn’t remember much from that time 10 years ago.  He was only a toddler.  But DQ remembers it all clearly.  She and I stood over the grave after I placed a bouquet of roses from our garden into the holder below his gravestone.  We talked about what it would have been like had he survived, what it was like back then, and how things had changed.  Taz came and joined in, expressing how he would have loved to have had a little brother he could teach things to.  Had Connor survived, he would have been a special needs kid, and Taz told us in all seriousness how he would have encouraged him.  DQ slipped a folded note she had written him between the stone and the flowers, tucking it in so that the words were between her, Connor, and God.  And then we went on our way.

Today was special.  It was just the three of us, sharing a moment about something that we experienced together.  It needed to just be us three honoring Connor while honoring the family that we are.  In less than three weeks, we get to experience another change in our lives – the day Mr. W and I get married.   Then we will officially be a family of 5.  And over the past few years, we really have become a family of 5.  But inside that family of 5 is still this family of 3.

Today, I celebrate that.

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The whole family went out to dinner last night, including my parents and uncle. The celebration behind the occasion was to get together before my dad went on a cross country excursion, and my kids left for another 10 days at their dad’s house. So we all met up at La Vera’s restaurant in Santa Rosa during the Wednesday night market.

Following the dinner, Taz and I went to the bathroom before he left, except he took a really long time to come back out. So we came up with the brilliant plan to disappear around the corner and hide from him as a joke.

Except there’s nothing funny about an 11-year old who comes out to an empty table and thinks that his whole family has abandoned him.

Vintage Taz (circa 2011)

At first we thought it was hilarious, and we stood silently giggling as his back was to us and he surveyed the area. But when he turned at us with a shocked look on his face, quickly replacing it with a wide smile when he saw our familiar faces, I could see the thoughts racing through his head. Behind that smile was a valiant effort to keep the tears at bay. And any humor I found in this was instantly replaced with feelings of shame. I had placed my son in a position of facing his biggest fear – of being forgotten. Beneath all his bravado, silliness, and attention seeking behavior is an effort to make himself noticed and remembered. And it’s possible that it’s all an act to ensure he won’t be overlooked. And here he was, shaken up by a mere 10 seconds when he felt the most alone at the expense of his family’s amusement.

Needless to say, I feel like a horrible mom.

The poor guy kept his smile plastered on his face, doing his best to not even let on the appearance of tears. But I wasn’t fooled. I’m not sure anyone else in the family besides me even knew just how hard he had taken it. I tried not to make a huge deal out of it so he wouldn’t feel embarrassed or start to really cry. But I couldn’t help but apologize profusely and then insist on holding his hand for most of the walk back to the car. I overcompensated by acting ultra silly until he was finally past the point of wanting to cry and no longer wanted to hold my hand.

Ok, practical jokes are normal in families, and our family is no exception. It’s a rare day when a sarcastic quip or humorous tease doesn’t occur. But that still hasn’t stopped me from reliving that moment, and then mentally bear hugging my still-so-young son in protection against his horrible family.

The kids leave today for their dad’s house, and this time I’m not ready. The first excursion I couldn’t kick them out fast enough. I just needed a break from being a mom, and welcomed the quiet a kid-free house would bring. During that time, I heard from my daughter several times about how she couldn’t get along with her dad, begging me to come home. And I even got a call from their dad who was at a loss about how to deal with a hormonal teenage girl. Naturally I wanted to fix it all. I encouraged my daughter to talk with her dad when they weren’t on speaking terms, and I gave my ex pointers on how to handle the emotions of a stubborn and delicate daughter. But I eventually took a step back and stopped absorbing their problems. It wasn’t mine, it was theirs. And it was up to them to make it better. By the time they came back, they had wordlessly patched things up, and they also had a new brother (their stepmom had her baby the day before they were to leave). I had thought they were going to fight me on going back, but both kids were enthusiastic about returning in 5 days time.

And here we are, 5 days later, and it’s time for them to leave again.

Vintage Wine Country Mom and kids (circa August 2010 in San Diego)

During the last few days I have felt the need to soak up as much time with the kids as I could. It seemed like both the kids were too. They each had their own separate times of spending quality time with me. DQ hung with me at the kitchen table, both of us perusing catalogs and gabbing about this and that. Taz took time away from his video games each night to hang out and watch the Olympics with us. He kept prodding me to play a board game with him during this time, but time just got away from us. Now I wish I had.

They’re only going to be gone for 10 days. When they’re back, they probably won’t see their dad for a few months. I’m starting to see a tiny portion of what he goes through when he says goodbye, because I’m really, really going to miss them. And it’s possible that for the first few days, I might feel just as lost as a forgotten 11-year old kid.

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