Family Harmony, Marriage, Parenting

The Dance

shadow dancing by Kevin Harber on flickr

 

When you go to a dance, do you know what to do?
Swing your partner, swing your partner, swing your partner to you…

-lyrics from ‘Swing Your Partner Round and Round’, by Judy Garland

It’s a dance, parenting (when there are two of you) – sometimes a waltz; sometimes a jitterbug; sometimes a good ol’ country square dance; but always an exercise of partnership, of moving together in harmony and avoiding stepping on each other’s toes.

Good parenting involves teamwork.  It involves communication and co-operation. It requires us to extend ourselves beyond our selves and figure out how to bring out the best in someone else.  Needless to say, this isn’t accomplished by pointing out one another’s faults.  And yet, just the other day, I found myself telling West, “Well, I hope you enjoyed playing with Buzz Lightyear while your son sliced his fingers to ribbons.”  It felt good, for about a nanosecond, and then I realized that it was neither true nor helpful; the baby had only picked up a dull table knife, and West had only been momentarily distracted.  All I had achieved was the fleeting satisfaction of being snarky.

It’s so easy to get into the habit of making sharp little comments or criticising one another; it’s too easy to see all that you do and miss the things he does…  And the thing I’ve found with this kind of interaction is that it breeds discontent and causes more sniping, and more unkindness, and more ingratitude towards your spouse.  I’ve been guilty of perpetuating that kind of atmosphere at times – when I’ve been extra-tired or hormonal or otherwise emotional – and it’s just not nice.  All of a sudden we find we’re at odds more often than not.  Neither of us can anticipate or appreciate what the other is doing, and it’s hard to find some common ground; indeed, without effort on one or both parts it would be easy to see that any common ground would soon be lost.

Good teamwork –  having an effective parenting partnership – requires us to maintain a healthy balance in a few main areas.

One of the most important areas couples need to work on is figuring out an agreeable division of labour.  We have to share the workload.

I’ve often heard women complaining that their husbands don’t carry their weight around the house, or that their men act helpless when it comes to looking after the kids – and often this complaint comes in the same form: “It’s like I have another kid to look after!”

But what do we do with our kids and chores?  We all know that our kids will happily accept the status quo if we regularly do all the work around the house.  If we pick up their clothes from the floor, put away their toys, clear the table, make their beds, etc – even if we grumble and gripe while we do it – it’s unlikely that they’ll have an epiphany about the injustice of it all and motivate themselves to help out a bit instead.  If we haven’t trained our children to do so, we wouldn’t expect them to see what needs to be done and just do it without being asked.  So why do we expect that of our spouses?

If we want our husbands (or wives) do to something more, or to do something differently, then we need to communicate that.  Most of us would never actually make a decision to avoid teaching our kids the life skills required to live healthily and happily in community; but by failing to instil helpful habits (tidying, clearing up, and contributing in other ways to the household) we do just that.  And in the same way, we make a choice not to have an equal partnership when we neglect to communicate our feelings to our spouse.  He might not spend time with the kids unless he understands that it’s something you feel is part of his responsibility as a Dad.  She may not voluntarily clean out the car of all the kiddie-debris unless you mention that it bugs you when it gets so filthy.

This communication is best accomplished with a healthy dose of grace.  Sometimes the little things should just be done for the other person as a kindness, without resentment.  But when the scales start to tip – or even if we just feel overburdened by our share – then we need to talk about it.  This may not always change much in the actual division of chores, but more often than not it will expose areas in which we need to support one another.  Parenting can often be an exhausting job; both partners can feel like the workload is too heavy, and both might be right.  But sharing the burden of caring for the family and the household does lighten that burden and make it manageable.

It must be said that communicating our needs as partners is not the same as nitpicking.  It’s very easy to point out what the other person is doing ‘wrong’, but in focusing on someone else’s faults we often fail to acknowledge our own weaknesses.  I remember hearing some great advice to think of the acronym THINK before we speak to our loved ones, to determine if what we’re about to say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.

The way we support one another is also key to a good partnership.  It’s not enough to lend lip-service to the concept of being a team; our actions need to prove that we’re working as a unit.  This means having one another’s back when the kids are trying to play us off of one another; it means standing up for each other and intervening on the other’s behalf when the kids are disrespectful or unkind.  When one of us is unable to function at our normal ‘best’, we need to exert an extra effort to cover the difference – without allowing ourselves to become bitter or resentful.

This is an area of weakness for me, I must confess; when West is sick I am a crabby and impatient nursemaid.  I can’t wait for him to get better, but it’s not altruism that motivates this desire – it’s selfishness.  The very best relationships are those in which patience and kindness accompany the partnership even when the burden cannot be equally shared.  This is the perfection to which I aspire, but for now each time I’m not functioning at my best I am reminded of my need to be patient when Westley isn’t able to contribute in the way that I’m used to.

Finally, we need to honour and respect one another’s roles.  If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then maybe a little bit of interplanetary diplomacy is in order.  We all do things differently; because men and women tackle the same jobs from different perspectives, and because we are all individuals who have our own take on how to accomplish chores.

I may have chuckled at how silently and solemnly West changed a nappy (without any of the chatter or tickles or kisses I bestow during changing), but I’d never have criticised him for performing the task in that manner (and as the years have gone by, nappy-changing has become more of an interactive activity for him).  Likewise, West might never understand why I’ve occasionally made the kids late in leaving for school just so that I could scribble their lunchbox love notes and tuck them in with the sandwiches – but he respects me and my role as ‘chief nurturer’ enough to be patient with the process.  Westley has never come upstairs from his home office and questioned why the house is still a mess and why dinner’s not ready.  Maybe one of the fringe benefits of having a work-from-home hubby is that he knows what goes on all day to prevent me from getting stuff done – and thus he knows better than to ask for an accounting of my time…  He’s far more likely to pick up the vacuum and attack the dust-bunnies than to open his mouth and criticise me for not having done my share.  I’m more likely to answer a question he hasn’t heard or give a hug to soften his discipline than to nag him about listening or question him about giving one of our boys a time-out.

Ultimately, it is impossible to keep an accurate tally of everything each of us contributes to the household – to try to do so is not only pointless but detrimental to the relationship.  Partnership – a good partnership, that is – requires us to share the workload; communicate effectively (especially remembering to THINK before we speak); support one another; and honour and respect one another’s roles.

When we parent as partners, we move together in harmony and grace.  It’s a beautiful thing.

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Grace, Motherhood, Parenting

This Is What Love Looks Like At 3AM

1-Corinthians-13-6-web

OK, so D. hasn’t been sleeping that well lately.  We’re not in the cry-it-out camp – I always figure that there’s something up if they’re bothering to cry about it – so it’s a matter of taking time to do the pat-pat, hush-hush, soothing noises, and top-ups on his warm milk before bed.  Last night it took me an hour to get him down.  I think it may have to do with the fact that he has begun to realize that the two of us are separate entities – that we can actually be physically apart from one another – a fact that he finds understandably disturbing.

I don’t know how long these sleep issues have been going on for – the strange thing about disruptions to their normal sleep patterns is that when you’re going through a rough phase you almost can’t remember the last time bedtime was easy, and when it’s going well it’s hard to remember a time when you struggled.  But although it seems to have been going on forever, if I had to hazard a guess I’d say that we’ve been having trouble getting him down at night for a few weeks.  Before this (sometime in the distant past, my sleep-deprived mind is insisting), bedtime was a breeze.  We had this sweet little routine of pj’s, sleep-sack, soundtrack (crashing waves) on, lights out, cuddly bottle and tooth-brushing – and then we’d kiss his sweet head, pop him down in his cot (in his preferred position: face down, bottom up) with his dummy, and he’d be asleep almost before we’d closed the door.

No more.  Now it is routinely taking an hour or more to settle D. down for the night.  To add insult to injury, some of the time he has also been waking up in the wee hours, ready to party – and it has taken up to an hour of cuddling, extra water/milk, and back-rubs to get him settled back to sleep again.  Now, believe me – I have read all the theories about how to (and how not to) deal with night-waking and how to get them down for the night.  I know that there are those who will maintain that we are, in providing such nurture and sustenance, in a mire of our own making.  So I am not writing this to elicit sympathy – you would be right that we have options; but we choose not to exercise those options.  This is not negotiable, in my book.  So, if I am not going to allow my baby to ‘cry it out,’ what options have I got?  Well, to me the best option (borne through many similar experiences with my three older boys) is to change myself and my attitude to the waking.

From the first, when I am nursing my newborn, I am making every effort to savour that special one-on-one time together.  Do not believe that this means I’m impervious to the toll of sleep deprivation on a person – it is truly torturous!  But I choose to believe that it is circumstance and need that dictates the necessity of my presence with my nursling, rather than some capricious demand orchestrated by the child himself.

As he gets a bit older, I try to follow his cues about what he needs in the night; sometimes a baby might go through a phase of disturbed sleep because of teeth, or tummy upset, or some subconscious anxiety – the origins of his discomfort might be difficult for me to pinpoint, but that doesn’t negate the fact that he is uncomfortable.  And so again, my response is to do what I can to meet his needs as best I can, no matter how inconvenient the timing of his crisis.  I try to respond to his need with nurture and love.

But that’s all philosophy.  What does it look like in practice?  That’s the challenge.  Luckily, I had lots of time to think about it between 3 and 4AM last night.  One of the readings at our wedding was the classic Bible verse on love (1 Corinthians 13), and as I struggled with frustration at D.’s wakefulness and exasperation at this ongoing inconvenience (having already spent over an hour putting him to bed in the first place!) I began to wonder, What does love look like at 3AM?

Love is patient, love is kind

This means gently returning him to the prone position over and over again to remind him that it’s sleep time. It means not muttering or growling or gnashing my teeth, even when I’m getting frustrated.  It means actively seeking solutions to comfort and soothe my baby.

It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud

No, “Why can’t you just sleep like X’s baby, and sleep all night?!” – and no bragging about it when he does sleep well.  No being arrogant about being the new Baby Whisperer when I luck out and get D. down in less time than it took Westley the previous night.

It does not dishonor others (it is not rude)

I don’t get a thrill from thinking about how much better a mother I am for doing this pat-pat, shush-shush when others might choose to shut the door and give their babies more time to self-soothe (this means respecting other mothers as they lovingly choose their own paths).

It is not self-seeking

I am not up in the night for me – I am up for D.; my needs come second.  If West is sleeping too deeply to be aware of the baby’s wakefulness, or if he’s choosing to let me take this watch in the night, I am not going to sigh loudly or bounce back into bed when D.’s settled so that I disturb his sleep (tempting though it may be!).

It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs

This means taking a deep breath and reminding myself that D. is NOT trying to be malicious by being awake.  It means willfully forgetting how long it took to get him down in the first place, and ignoring the urge to count up the number of times he has woken in the night lately.  ‘Keeping no record of wrongs’ means that even if I think I’ve mostly been the one getting up in the night, I’m not going to begrudge Westley the extra sleep.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth

I won’t allow myself to wallow in self-pity or anger or other destructive emotions; I will delight in the fact of this precious little person who is in my life, even when he causes pain or inconvenience to me.  I won’t lose sight of the fact that this is a temporary problem and I am equipped by Grace to handle it in a loving fashion.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres

What kind of Mamma would I be if I didn’t have that instinct to protect my young at all costs?  I am not protecting D. from physical harm as I rock him and kiss him at 3AM – I am offering him the security of my love and the comfort of my presence at a time when he is feeling needy.  I am protecting him from unnecessary stress and anxiety.  At the same time, I am trusting in my heavenly father for what *I* need; this patience, this kindness, this humility, this perseverance.  I am trusting that the dawn will come, and with it a new opportunity to find rest and renewal.  I am trusting that my Westley will let me sleep a bit longer when the other boys get up, because he loves and protects me.  I am hoping that this little phase won’t last much longer, and I am hopeful that I can continue to rise to the challenge of D.’s sleeplessness with patience and compassion.  I will persevere; I won’t give up on helping D. feel safer, more settled, and more at peace.

Love has many facets to it.  As a visiting pastor recently pointed out in a Sunday sermon, ‘Love Does.’  Love is action; love is intentional.  And to me, this is what love looks like at 3AM.

Trix and D.

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