2 Cor 12v9

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

House Rules

As soon as you have children old enough to do things by themselves, you need rules. The intention of course, is always to keep rules to a minimum, but in practice, because children are not born with common sense, you have to add a whole bunch of more complex rules on top of the basic rules because of the way children and adults interpret things differently.

I had hoped that as the children got older, the rules would become less, but as I’ve asked them to help me out more, I’ve discovered that there is more than a dozen ways of misinterpreting basic instructions. There is a method in their madness. The more complex you can make an exercise, the less likely it is that you will be asked to repeat the exercise. And when there is an able-bodied adult in the house who is willing to repeat herself infinitely, and actually seems to care about the stuff you are supposed to be doing but don’t really care about, the slim chance that she will give up on her goal of getting you to do the stuff is enough to make you keep trying the “Oh, I’m sorry, I had no idea that’s what you meant” method until one day she may give in (it hasn’t happened yet, but there is still hope).

So the rules have become more and more complex, and if I were to actually write them out, the "Behave well at the table" rule, for example, would now look something like this:

“When you are sitting at the table, you must:

Keep your chin over your plate/bowl so that the food that misses your mouth doesn’t fall onto your shirt but instead back into the plate/bowl (and oh goodness if you use the wrong word in your haste to say this one, they stare at you as if you’re talking about something that’s not even in the house and you’ve lost your mind, never mind a slightly different shaped piece of tableware in front of them).

- Not touch anyone else. No poking, no cuddling, no arm wrestling, no leaning, no kicking: just a blanket ban on touching of any kind.

- Not speak with food in your mouth (unless you’re a parent, because you have no control over when your kid is going to do something spectacularly dangerous involving the water jug or a sharp implement and sometimes you’ve just got to yell through the mouthful you’ve just taken in order to avert disaster).

- Keep your mouth closed when you chew, or no one will want to marry you ever.

- Not make weird random noises. There’s a lot of us sat round the table and sometimes my head feels like it’s going to explode. I can cope with the conversation, because my maternal instinct is strong enough to want to listen to what you have to say, even if I would secretly rather be sat upstairs reading a book with my meal, but I can’t do all the extra noises too. It’s too much.

- Talk about real stuff. I get that in order for us to connect I have to show an interest in the stuff you like, but I want to hear about your friends, your feelings and the highlights of your day, not about the most recent level  you got to on Skylanders, or to hear the same three lines from SpongeBob repeated over and over again because you all think it’s funny. I’ll do you a deal. While you’re doing your jobs afterwards, I’ll listen to you rambling on about all that stuff, so long as you’re actually working while doing it. Only then is it worth it.

- Not ask if you can go and get yoghurts/fruit/ice pops as dessert, until everyone else has finished, so you don’t distract people who haven’t finished their meal yet. Everyone needs to be finished. Everyone. Please don’t make me repeat this to you every meal time.

- Keep your plate flat. You know this because whenever I see you tip your plate at the end of the meal, I ask you the same question: “What is your plate for?” and you tell me that it’s for keeping food on so the food doesn’t go on the table, then I ask you, “So what happens when you tip your plate up when there’s crumbs or bits of food on it (even if you can’t see the crumbs or bits of food because they’re really small)?” And you tell me they fall off the plate, onto the table, meaning you’ve just destroyed the purpose of having the plate in the first place, and you roll your eyes as if I’m really unreasonable for making you repeat this every time you do it.

That’s just mealtimes. On top of that, they have daily chores to do, one of which is to sort out the modern day blessing that is the dishwasher. The idea was simple. Show them what a neatly stacked dishwasher should look like. Tell them where all the stuff goes away in the cupboard. Now do it the way I do it. Voila.

Welcome to the additional rules of dishwasher duty:

You cannot put food in the dishwasher. A smear of gravy or the remnant of sweet and sour sauce, yes, but peas, rice, spaghetti, beans, porridge, breakfast cereal, and milk that has been left in your bedroom so long that it now feels like rubber and is stuck to the bottom of the cup – all these things need to be scraped into the bin. Not one time. Every time. Even if I’m not watching.

- If the person before you has ignored this rule and I was so bleary-eyed that I didn’t do a quality check before I switched the dishwasher on last night, and the filters have all gummed up with the above food items, and the plates and cups now all have heat-fixed smears of food baked onto them, do not put them away in the cupboards. Stop. Look at them. Are they clean? No. Then they need to be washed again, either by hand, or put back into the dishwasher so I can take apart the filter and clean it, and get all the food from the bottom of the dishwasher scraped out and into the bin, and we will try it again. I know you’re anxious to get your pocket money by fulfilling the job on your list today, but that actually is not the goal of emptying the dishwasher. The real goal is so that we have clean, usable crockery in the cupboard when we need them.

- You cannot use the same towel to mop up a spill of juice and to dry the clean dishes. I have even made a stack of old towels for you to use for spillages, and new ones for drying clean things. Please please use the clever system.

- If something came from a drawer and now won’t fit back into that drawer, here is the secret: you may have to spend a few seconds moving things in the drawer so the thing will fit. I know it seems like an absolute pain when you’d rather just open the drawer and throw the thing in, but it’s a bigger pain when Mum gets you back out of bed an hour later to rearrange the drawer for the thing, I promise.

- Glass things can break.

- Porcelain things can break.

-You are not a ninja. The knives go straight back into the knife block, via no other room, every time.

- You cannot read and stack the dishwasher effectively at the same time. You’re speaking to an expert. If there was a way, I would’ve found it. Put the book down and save it for later.

- Being in the same room as the dishwasher, hovering around the dishwasher, thinking about the stuff in the dishwasher while practicing karate moves or re-enacting movie scenes, or looking at the dirty plates on the side while sighing and wishing you were doing something else, is not actually doing the dishwasher. There is a reason your job is taking you so long and is wasting so much of your time. It’s because you’re not actually doing anything. You need to touch the stuff for it to move. It is at the mercy of your hands.

If those two tasks alone make you feel overwhelmed by the task of parenting, there is good news. I recently hit upon a new method of communication (as the ‘use good table manners’ and ‘empty and reload the dishwasher’ type lists we used to have on our wall have long since been considered redundant). I warned them that I would not keep repeating myself while they looked at me curiously as if they had never heard the instruction before in their life. If something needed repeating, from now on, it was they who would need to repeat it. 

I introduced them to good old fashioned lines. I made them sit at the table and write out the same phrase ten, twenty or thirty times (depending on the severity of the misconduct). And they hated it. They protested deeply. They moaned and complained and finally got an insight into what it feels like to be a parent.

And since then, things have got decidedly better. Not perfect by any means (the occasional bedtime hauling still needs to happen and I’ve managed to get early requests for dessert quashed by a glare now instead of the line of questioning), but much better.

And two days ago I caught a child washing up pans in the sink without having been asked to do it. Just because they saw there was a need and they decided to do it.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is hope.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

A Marriage Appreciation Post

I’m unsure about posting this as it’s going to sound like a great big pity party. I’ve started writing similar posts before and I end up deleting them for that reason.

But two things have struck me recently. One was listening back to a seminar I was doing a few weeks ago, where I shared my story. I was struck at how, when I talked about my loss, it might have come over as pretty matter of fact (though I know things generally sound different on a recording than they do when you’re actually there). I think it was partly because I wanted to move on to the points I was making, and also because I’m used to telling the story by now, but I don’t ever want to give out the impression that I am blasé about what has happened, or that losing your spouse is something that you can get over within a year or so.

The other thing is how easy it is to take those closest to you for granted. I know I take my kids for granted every day, and inwardly complain about the responsibility I have to carry. And I know that I did the same with my husband. As an introvert married to an extrovert, I definitely wished far too often that I could have more space and less conversation and I know I missed loads of opportunities to appreciate him as I was busy looking for “me-time”. I could have done with more reminders at the time of how amazing marriage actually is, and that’s what the purpose of this post is.

This post is not for everyone. It’s not for people who are single – it will depress you. It’s not a judgement on those who had to end a marriage for reasons I’ve never had to deal with. It’s for people who are married and have kids still at home, and who are busy under the weight of family life and sometimes lose perspective on what a blessing marriage really is. So if you’re not in that category, you might not want to read this. If you are, I hope it helps you to get a little more appreciation than you had before.

I want you to really appreciate it if you have someone in your life who was there right from the beginning of your babies’ life. From the conception (always the fun bit), through whatever crazy symptoms were endured through the pregnancies, through to the birth. No matter how much you clash over parenting this life you’ve been given, the fact is that if you were both there right from the beginning, the reason you fight is because you both care as much as each other about this little life. You carried it together, saw it into the world together, and were terrified together as you brought it home and wondered what on earth you were going to do to with it to get it to flourish. If you’ve been through tough times, from hospital admissions to fevers to close calls with running into traffic, you have someone who remembers (even if you have to remind them!) the rollercoaster of emotions you’ve been on together. This person has invested as much time and emotion into this kid as you have, and so you can trust their motives when it comes to making life decisions together, even if you’re wanting different outcomes. They have seen what you’ve seen, and walked the path with you (if you’ve been communicating with them well) and will help you see and remember things about your kid that you may forget in times of busyness or change.

I want you to appreciate the sense of team that comes from being permanently attached to another person. As frightening as that attachment may sometimes feel, there is also a reassurance of togetherness and identity. Even if you carry the weight of every day decisions, you have someone you can bounce some of them off on. When you’re not sure, you have someone (if you’ve been communicating well) who knows you, your history, what emotional triggers you struggle with, your financial situation, the likely responses of your friends and family – all the things flying round your mind in those moments when you have to decide on things, big or small, that are going to affect you. Even if you don’t need to consult with them much because your life runs like clockwork and you’ve divvied up the responsibilities to a tee, you still have that person.

I want you to appreciate the value of arguing (yep, I said that). To have someone who loves you and accepts you enough that you know you can let your guard down and blow your top with, and still be understood – that is a privilege. It might only happen once a year - and if it’s happening once a day then something’s wrong - but if you can blow off steam and be brutally honest about the negative thought patterns occupying your headspace, then this is a good thing. Once you’ve voiced that stuff and seen what it looks like outside of your head, your perspective on it can change drastically. Even better, if that other person knows you inside out (if you’ve been communicating well), they can also help you make sense of it. Of course, there may be an initial period of accusation and upset, where more stuff is thrown back at you because of what you said, but if you keep going long enough, with resolution, closeness and understanding being the goal, you can actually become closer and freer as a result of the argument. Unfortunately, this isn’t true when it comes to your kids – blowing your top and using brutal honesty usually has the opposite affect on your parent/child relationship. When it comes to your kids, reactions need to be thought out, carefully worded and not driven by negative emotion. That’s why parenting is so much better with two – you can filter through one another, applying wisdom and grace that kids just haven’t got yet.

I want you to appreciate what each of you do for one another. You may have a dynamic where one of you is away for most of the time. We went through a few seasons where one of us was away in hospital while the other was at home, or when Richard was working two jobs and coming home to a wreck of a house that needed emergency jobs doing for several hours every night. Sometimes it feels all you’re doing is passing a baton to one another. Praise God that you have someone to pass the baton to. Those seasons shouldn’t make up your whole life, but when they’re there, you both know what you’re working for. You’re holding up your side of the partnership to look after the kids or earn the money or do the housework or invest in the project. They may not appreciate every little thing, but if you can get past the who’s-more-tired-than-who debate, then you have someone who is able to occasionally say “Wow, you sorted out the car! Great!” or “Thanks for ironing that shirt,” or “Could you pick this up for me on the way home from work? Thanks!” It’s difficult for kids to see beyond just clothes in the drawer or food on the table to recognise and appreciate the work that goes into making a household run. Their simple chores can look like child slave labour to them because they don’t see the stuff being done while they’re at school or in bed, or wondering why you don’t have time to play their game or take them shopping.

I want you to appreciate that sometimes, even if it’s only on a Sunday morning or when you’re going on holiday, there are two of you to watch what’s going on in the house as people get ready. So that if you’re calling down the stairs that it’s ten minutes to go, you have someone else there to verify that you did actually say it. And someone who can count the chorus of “okay!”s that come from the various rooms so that the one kid who’s still wandering round with one shoe and jam around their face when it’s time to go out of the door wouldn’t get missed when you’ve asked them all to get by the door with everything they need. And maybe they might be passing by the kitchen at the right time when the light’s been left on and someone’s spilled milk on the side after you thought you’d left the place clean ready for your week’s holiday away. Then as you go, you have someone to repeat your mental list out loud to, so that the whirlwind inside your head of things to remember has someone else to check it off too (even if secretly they are smiling and nodding while thinking of their own mental list).

I want you to appreciate that no matter how often you argue about physical intimacy, and wish they wanted you more, or that you could sink into bed without feeling guilty about not wanting to do it after a long day, that there is someone there who does want you, even if it’s not the exact way you would like them to express it.

I want you to appreciate that even if you don’t go out very often on your own, that when you do, you don’t have to always leave the house “babysitter-ready”. You can leave at whatever stage of chore time or bedtime you want, knowing they already know the routine of the house and what needs to be done (even if that comes in the form of a list on the wall), without judging the state you’ve abandoned the house in. And if you’re out during the day and coming home at bedtime, that you’re not having to pick up the kids from someone else’s house on the way and starting the whole bed time routine at the time you want to be arriving home and finally relaxing.

I want you to appreciate someone who might wash up or hoover or clear the table not because they’re motivated by pocket money but just because they see there’s a need. They might pick something off the floor instead of stepping over twelve times and they might make you a (decent) cup of tea unprompted. And when you ask them to do something extra they won’t look at you blankly and say “But it’s not my turn!”

I want you to appreciate that when you see those same traits in your spouse that drive you crazy exhibited in your child, you have someone right there who you can say to, "I don't get it!" and they can explain why your child is thinking the way they do. You can even turn the kid over to them for a couple of minutes or hours and say "They're all yours!" while they work that thing out together. And when you have a kid who has the same personality traits as you (shock horror!) and you find yourself locking horns because neither one of you is going to back down and you're in a negative spiral of conflict, you have someone who can step in once in a while. Just their presence can diffuse the situation. You have back up on your authority, and your child has someone who can perhaps say the same thing to them you've been saying, but using different words or techniques to get through to them. Your authority has greater weight because you're not alone, your child finds it easier to accept it because they feel like they've been heard and understood, and you've had time to cool off. Everybody wins.

I want you to appreciate there is someone out there who sees all your flaws. That's right. When you're married, you can't hide behind a shield of reputation. Someone has seen you at all parts of the day, through illness, tiredness and frustration. Sometimes they can predict before you can when you're about to crash and burn. They can point out that the issue you think everyone else has may actually be more to do with your perspective than their behaviour. They can help you (if you've been communicating well) to walk through those worst aspects of your personality and the character traits that have been dragging you down for years and bring them into the light. They may not do this well. They may point out flaws without having the ability to do anything about them, or bring emotions to the surface that you didn't know were there because their behaviour drives you crazy. But no longer can you deny those flaws. Once they're out there, you are able to do something about them. Your spouse may be the key to revealing them, but a friend, or working through resources, or therapy, or time with God may be the key to dealing through them. What your spouse is giving you is true self-awareness, which leads to authentic character, which means your marriage is making you more into the person you are supposed to be.

I want you to appreciate that if you’re feeling down and overwhelmed, even if they may not say the right thing, or totally get what’s going on in your head, you have someone to lean on. That you can squeeze a hand or have a wordless hug and shed some tears without wondering if you’re placing an emotional burden on them that may damage them, because they’re an adult too, and they get that sometimes being an adult is a very scary thing, and really none of us are 100% sure of what we’re actually doing. And appreciate that on a bad day, that’s what your kids see – a loving supportive unit that makes them feel secure and that they can draw from that unit too without fear of it breaking.

And I want you to appreciate that you have someone to share life’s victories with. When a sick friend gets better, when a debt is paid, when someone joins your church, when your is kid is in a show or does something so kind and loving that your heart wants to burst with pride, when someone compliments you, when an idea has paid off, when you see something hilarious – you get to pick up your phone and send a text, or beam at each other over the top of your kid’s head, to double your joy.

This is marriage – it is awesome. Don’t get tired of it because your spouse isn’t living up to the ideal you’ve set for them. Don’t fall into the trap of looking round and picking attributes of other people and comparing them to your partner. Don’t forget what it was like before you had them in your life and all the situations you’ve come through together. Don’t make your own happiness the focus of your decisions – work on building each other up so that you become the best versions of each other. Don’t forget that even when it feels like you have one more person to think about and give out to when you feel exhausted, you also have one more person who is thinking about you, and multiplying what you give back to you, and to the rest of the family too.