The key to a successful and happy marriage? Lowered expectations.

I never expected any of this.

When we were least expecting it, we found each other. Out of the universe of people, somehow we were the only ones on that rooftop in Soho eighteen years ago. The whole city receded from view, and there we were. That party led to dinner and dinner led to ice cream. A national tragedy brought everything into focus. We just went for it. We traipsed uptown and downtown, spent hours in Central Park, ate bagels and pizza and read the Sunday New York Times and listened to the guitar guy in Central Park. Every month that passed, we jokingly recommitted to one another. “Want to keep going?” one of us would ask. We always agreed to forge ahead.

We didn’t set any expectations for ourselves. We didn’t plan too much. Life was easier maybe–we were responsible for ourselves and no one else. But we didn’t push it or rush it or make our relationship into something it wasn’t. We took our time.

And then we took a risk and spent time apart, staying tethered through late night phone calls and emails and halfway meetups for dinner when we couldn’t find time for a whole weekend. We shortened the distance little by little until we were back in the same zip code. You proposed and we got married within the year. And even though I wanted to get married marginally earlier, marriage wasn’t some tectonic shift.

But marriage is weird. As we amass marriage experience, I often wonder how it all works. We’re each growing and changing as people. We live in a world that’s chaotic and unpredictable. We’re trying to raise and love two little humans who are growing and changing. The ground is always moving underneath of us. We’re wobbly, always wobbly.

Why would anyone do this voluntarily?

We learned early on that being married is easier when you’re in the same boat rowing in the same direction. It would be easy to say, it just works. Like there is no explanation for the complexities and nuances of surviving 18 years of friendship. That’s the easy way out.

The real secret sauce: we sweat the small things. We really sweat them. I’m not talking about the minutiae of everyday life (we sweat that, too). I mean we make sure we’re on the same page, that we feel heard, that we feel seen. We don’t crowd each other out trying to be the alpha person. Our commitment to consensus building is at times completely paralyzing, but the payoff is deep, abiding trust.

We’ve been doing this co-piloting for so long that in times of stress, when one of us has to back down or step away, the other simply takes the wheel. I never worry when it’s me who takes a back seat. I feel fine when you’re the leader. I hope you feel the same way.

But the real real secret sauce: Lower your expectations.

Better yet, ditch expectations altogether.

Every day and every year something new happens to take our otherwise settled life and turn it upside down. I’m reminded of how much life can change in looking at photos from every wedding anniversary 13 years running. That first anniversary on a family trip just after my mom died. I was suffering but you just held my hand. Two years in we went river tubing (knowing that we were pregnant). Three years in with a new baby. Four years, five years….Each picture, it’s us. A year older. We look the same but things have changed. We’re parents now, we have ever-changing careers. We have celebrated with our family in good times, buried relatives, walked side by side with loved ones and dear friends through difficult times. We’ve found our footing in a community of people that we love. What’s the secret? We just don’t know what it’s going to be yet. We expect very little.

And we become more like ourselves as we age. We know we won’t magically become someone else: our strengths become our best qualities and our faults grow with time. I don’t expect you to be someone you’re not. I know you don’t expect me to suddenly be someone else, either. In living and loving and maneuvering through this life we’ve created together, I know that if I want to make myself happy, I don’t need to rely on you. Life is happier with you in it, but I know that I have to buy my own flowers.

It feels like we just got started and yet here we are parenting two little girls. We’ve been together for nearly two decades. How can it be 18 years since that party? Or 14 years since that rainy Saturday when you proposed? Or 13 years since that impossibly sunny, hot day in July when we got hitched? Or ten years since we started parenting? How?

I don’t know. It just is.

Here we are.

Want to keep going?

I do.

Super. Onward.

 

 

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Posted in advice, blogging, everyday life, family, friendship, marriage, parenthood, personal, thinking, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Snuggling: A Parenting Practice

Snuggling has become one of the most meaningful (and accidental) parenting practices I never meant to adopt.

For me, every day starts and ends with snuggling. It’s perhaps the most intimate and meaningful part of my relationship with my daughters. It’s our time to be together, reflect and reset.

My oldest daughter starts her day by coming into our room, saying hello and reading in bed with us. Sometimes we’re sleeping, sometimes I’m coming back from the gym. But every day like clockwork, she walks in and starts her day. This routine is a holdover from the days when I would nurse her in the earliest hours of the morning and leave her beside me. The sun would come up and there we were together. But now she and I both need that small moment in the morning to connect and head off.

My youngest, on the other hand, could only relax with me beside her. As a baby she fought sleep and only relented when we co-slept for several months. Every day of co-sleeping I worried that I was setting her on a path for poor sleep like she would never be able to sleep alone. Six years later, she’s the deepest sleeper of us all. At the start of every morning, she sleeps so late that I have to wake her. So once I send her sister on her way to get dressed, I slip into her bed and snuggle up beside her and whisper a good morning.

At the end of every day, I do the same thing in reverse order. Snuggle the little one and then snuggle the big one and then call “Good night, love bugs” to both from the landing at the top of the stairs.

On weeknights, we don’t rush the snuggling, but I have to be careful not to slip off the edge of consciousness into sleep, too. I’m up earlier than everyone so by the time I am ushering them off to sleep, I want to follow right behind. The pull of the household chores and the hum of life usually keeps me from heading right to bed.

They need this connection and so do I. It is part of the evening routine and it’s often a remedy for emotional moments throughout the day. Recently, we were snuggled on the couch on weekend afternoon and I told my daughter that I appreciated her closeness, that not all children liked to snuggle their parents. Her response: Who are these kids?

She doesn’t realize yet that being close to your parents isn’t always en vogue. Neither of my girls do. They are not self-conscious, unaware of what’s considered cool or not. And to be frank, we’re not the hippest of people. But we are fun and life at our house is exuberant and colorful and most of the time, we want to be together.

But they’re growing. Their lives are moving at a faster pace. A few early morning commitments have piled up, necessitating alarms and independent self care routines. The pace reminds me we won’t have them forever. They aren’t promised to us indefinitely. That tether holding us together will lengthen, fray, slack.

I wish I could freeze time.

I didn’t realize it but snuggling keeps us connected. Snuggling gives me a little space to slow down the frenetic pace of life, detach from the ticker tape list of things to do, and just be present with them. It’s probably the most present I can be.

I can’t freeze time.

So, on a recent Friday, as the appliances in the kitchen hummed along, washing the dishes and drying the clothes, we lingered doing family things, looking at old pictures, delaying bedtime because there was nothing in the morning tomorrow. Eventually the girls made their way to bed and knowing full well that I would never stay conscious while snuggling beside them, I folded my glasses and tucked them on the nightstand and just relaxed. First with the big one (who had worn on everyone’s last nerve this particular evening) and then the small one (who just rebuked her father’s offer of a good night kiss).

In that moment, I thought about the times I worry about getting it right, the fear that they will look back and think that somehow I never expressed to them how much they mean to me and then I realized that these small moments are the ones they will conjure up one day when they talk about the things we did together.

And on this particular Friday, I did the thing I never do but wish I would. Drag myself away from their incredible little faces and put myself straight to bed.

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The difference six years makes….

Six years ago today, I defended my dissertation. I faced a room of inquisitors, answered questions and opined on future research before I was asked to leave the room. While my committee deliberated, I stood in the library hallway with family and friends and held my breath. Not much later, my advisor invited me back into the room and announced her congratulations to Dr. Leventhal-Weiner.

I have never been more relieved. I was finished.

Finished for the moment.

If anything, I am a finisher. I like the neat (or sometimes messy) end of things. I like when a project stretches out in front of you, the juggle of moving pieces and deadlines, and the satisfaction of calling it done. I like to check things off of lists I make. I like to do things.

My graduate work, though, was a different kind of doing things. Whereas most work leads to a feeling of accomplishment, a feeling of confidence and competence, most of the time, I felt like a complete impostor. I hated the exercise of standing in front of a panel of mentors and defending myself. Writing academic research studies did not come easily to me. I was bashful to admit I loved teaching. The entire graduate school enterprise felt like a poor fit and I was worried that others thought I didn’t belong.

I kept doing the graduate work even though the long term job prospects seemed bleak. I began my graduate work just before the entire labor market tanked during the great recession, and the academic labor market was already unsteady. I became a parent twice over in graduate school and the possibility of moving my family far from our community made it more difficult to consider an academic job. Most of all, I knew I wanted to work out in the open, doing something with people where my work made a difference in their lives.

I knew I was not alone in my thoughts. I was not the first graduate student turned parent who worried about what they would do next. So, seven years ago, I started blogging. I knew the name of the blog for months before I ever typed one word. I bought the domain name. I wondered if anyone would read what I was writing, if what I wrote would mean anything to anyone, what was the point of being public on the internet.

Then I tried to quiet all of the thoughts, and I just went for it.

This blog was a place for me to try out ideas, catalogue experiences, and leave myself glances in the rearview. While I wrote posts here, I looked for other places to share my essays. I started to see myself as a writer even after years of academic training had made me feel like a failure in that department. WordPress picked up one of the essays, a few landed on Huffpost, and I started to think bigger. I was building towards something.

I thought I had something to say about life outside of academia. I wondered how it would be perceived. I sent a draft essay to Inside Higher Ed and they published it. Consider Staying is still one of the things I advise grad students to do. Saying the words out loud–you don’t have to be an academic–emboldened me, made me feel less crazy and alone in negotiating what to do after graduate school.

Five years ago, I saw a call for a series on pregnancy, motherhood and the academy from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s newly launched Vitae site. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and after wondering whether I should say it out loud, I just went for it. The Perfect Academic Baby was my first attempt at memoir style writing. It was personal. For all the journal articles I struggled to write, this came easily.

Saying the words out loud, seeking some validation and putting one foot in front of the other set me on a new path. I was doing new things, and little by little, I could see new places to be a sociologist. First in the state legislature, then as a policy advocate. I didn’t miss being a traditional professor because I was teaching and learning all of the time. I took a right turn and built a public education program and started to learn about open data and data visualization. All of a sudden I was back in front of a panel of inquisitors, but now I felt more confident, speaking with an expert voice (and tap dancing when I couldn’t). In the doing of these new things, I worked through that impostor syndrome.

With every transition, my work life is less about closing one door fully before opening another. The curve balls never stop coming. Doing things makes more work and brings new adventures. I launched a podcast and started storytelling. In 2018, I thought I had peaked with a memoir style book chapter in a publication about leaving the academy. My chapter, Reframing Success, is a long walk through graduate school, the start of my family and the path I have been on.

And then came 2019. A new professional opportunity–this time it found me. Two months ago I started a new position in state government. In starting this new role, I am doing all of things I do well. I am truly a public sociologist at a time when we need sociologists in the public sector more than ever. If you told me six years ago on my defense day that this was the future, I’m not sure I would believe you.

The breadcrumbs on the transition out of the academy have served me well. For all of the writing I have done about surviving the end of something, I need to capture the start of something. And the start of something after that and after that.

If we keep doing things, we’re never truly finished. And that’s just fine.

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Mindset reset: Be easy on yourself

I love a plan. I LOVE goals and to do lists. I know in my heart of hearts that I will not achieve all of them. At least, I know this intellectually. But emotionally, I am committed to getting things done. So, in 2018, I was determined to make 6 blood donations, and I aggressively pursued my goal. I posted about blood donation on social media, talked it up to people in person, made it my business to make people aware of the importance of giving blood (if and when you can).

At the end of 2018, though, I failed.

Or, I thought I failed.

As the year came to a close, it was clear I was not going to make six blood donations. I spent the year timing each donation and knew I had several weeks at the end of the year for the 6th one, but life got in the way. I was up to my ears at work and could not carve out time before the last ten days of December. I found a blood drive right after Christmas that ended up getting cancelled. And when I went to another three days before New Year’s, I was turned away because they were suspicious of my sniffles.

I was annoyed. “I’m always a little congested in the winter,” I told them. The phlebotomist did not seem sympathetic.

“We’re giving your blood to cancer patients and little babies. You might be able to fight a virus but they can’t.”

She was right. The whole point was to help people–not to put them in harm’s way or compromise their already precarious health so I could congratulate myself.

“See if it turns into anything,” the Red Cross phlebotomist told me.

That was four days before the end of the year. No time to find another drive. So that was that. I failed.

It’s a terrible attitude to have. To look back and say I failed. Because I didn’t exactly fail. So this year, I’m flipping my own script.

I felt disappointed that I didn’t make a sixth donation but I ALREADY MADE FIVE BLOOD DONATIONS IN ONE YEAR! (That’s what my husband told me–he is wise. I should listen to him more often). I was being selfish and self-centered. At that point, meeting the goal didn’t seem to be about helping people. It was about checking a box and taking a victory lap.

I should already be taking a victory lap. All year I posted photos after I donated blood and heard from friends who decided to donate blood again or for the first time. At year’s end, I loosely calculated the connections made about blood donations over the year. I made 5 donations and at least 9 people told me they were encouraged to donate blood. If each blood donation helps up to three people, that’s 42 people across the eastern seaboard who will benefit.

42 people.

This year, I knew 4 people who needed transfusions.

Somewhere out there, someone gave blood so that people I love could heal and recover. Knowing someone else in the world had given their blood selflessly motivated me even more.

img_20190105_095927_0179892459568270915.jpgI am not failing at this one. I am winning. Big time winning.

So as we reset the calendar in the new year, I am resetting my thinking. I am giving myself credit and celebrating what I am able to do rather than punishing myself for what I did not quite finish.

On January 5th, I got back on the table and made my first blood donation of the year. Health permitting, I’ll be back in 56 days.

And we will go from there.

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Cataloguing 2018: On to the next (2019)

For the past three years, I’ve used the final day of the year to reflect and catalogue things.

In 2015, in 2016, in 2017, I counted workouts and books and hikes. Acts of kindness, blood donations. Those years helped me focus and hone in on routines and choices that make me a better partner, parent and person.

2018 was a mixed bag for everyone, it seems.

For some people I know, it was they year they found health, a new home, a new partner.

For some people I know, it was a year of worry, anxiety, bargaining.

For some, it was full of joy and friendship.

For some, it was lonely and empty.

Net net, we have had a fine year. In 2018, we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time as a family. We all biked at the beach and swam in the deep end of the pool. We took our first family cruise, saw fireworks in the middle of the ocean. Our oldest spent a month away at summer camp and our youngest started playing ukulele. The kids got back to skiing. The adults turned 40 and were able to celebrate with family and friends. Our work kept us busy and (mostly) fulfilled. I got the chance to tell a story in front of a massive audience in a real theater and in the final days of the year, I climbed a literal mountain.

It is hard to think that the year was fine (at times) for us when we know many people who struggled and pushed uphill. 2018 was all of these things because no one year is all one thing.

Sure, no one year is all one thing, but it’s the new year and this is when I’d set up my 2019 plan. I love a plan. This year, though, I’m struggling with goals because many things in my life are working out fine. I have a great fitness routine (roughly 200 workouts this year). That fitness routine inspires me to try bold things (like snowshoe up ski mountains and jump on 30″ boxes). I am happy professionally and being happy makes space for challenging yourself to stretch and learn new things. I am reading more than I ever have (24 books–up from 16 last year). We volunteered for a political campaign and with a dog rescue organization at least once a month and found time to make 5 blood donations.

I was puttering around the house with my husband on the last day of the year, saying, what kinds of goals do I need in 2019? Goals are important to me, so my husband had gently reminded me that “the calendar is a social construct.” You don’t need a new year to start something new. The new year is a nudge to lift up your head, get your mind out of the daily grind and reassess.

What do I want out of this year? What should this year be all about? The exercise and volunteering–those are things I would do whether I was counting or not. But the bigger goals, that’s where I need to focus energy. I have come up short on a few goals in the last few years and in this year, I want to commit to them.

So in this year on this arbitrary day, I am laying out a few loose goals for the year:

  • Turn my NaNoWriMo words into something real (I’ve written >11K words on a project I’m figuring out)
  • Buy the podcast equipment (I have things picked out but need to do more research)
  • Pilot one of 2-3 podcast ideas
  • Re-do the girls’ bedrooms (they want to freshen up their rooms)
  • Finish off our office (we NEED a dedicated space at home)
  • Find a meaningful way to volunteer regularly (our volunteering this year has been inspirational–want to keep that going)
  • Get outside as often as possible (my recent snowshoe hikes have been incredible)
  • Spend time with my family as often as I can (reading, making art, being outdoors)

Each of these goals will have its own little action plan and timetable. In the meantime, I’ll be building on all of the good habits I’ve put in place in these last few years.

Having measurable, SMART goals is not the same thing as self improvement or self care, and in this year, I need to take care of myself. I want to spend the year being a little easier on myself. I’m the one that sets the pace. I’m the one that raises the bar. And I’m the one that has to relent when things don’t work out, that has to reassess when things aren’t practical. I’m fighting myself and I’d like to make life a little easier for me and for the people I love around me.

I hardly know what the year will look like so there could be new achievements I never dreamed about. I never set out to jump on a big box or climb a rope or speak in front of a huge crowd. So I remain open to the possibility that some goals will find me. I feel conflicted about leaving 2018 behind because it was so many things. But if 2018 is any indication, 2019 will be many things, too.

So let’s get to it….

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December 2018, check.

The final countdown is over. I’m flummoxed at the pace of the year, especially this last month. We saw family, spent time out-of-town, and celebrated holidays. Most Decembers are shiny and bright and this one did not disappoint.

I checked a few things off the list:

  • Exercise (make room for one non-WIP workout per week): 15 WIP workouts plus two snowshoe hikes.
  • Allowance for the kids: Nada times ten. Need to plan for next year.
  • Read 30 books this year: Read 2 books this month.
    • The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
    • Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
  • Write regularly: As in every month, I have been writing. This month I finished a few short essays with thoughts on the year in friendship and reading. I am looking forward to developing a good writing practice in 2019.
  • 1 hike per month, preferably with the kids: 2 tremendous hikes: 1 mid-mountain snowshoe hike with a group and a solo hike up the summit at Stratton Mountain. Felt super proud.
  • 1 date night: We had a day date on more than one Sunday morning while our girls were at Hebrew school. This counts as alone time.
  • Donate blood 6 times: I did not make this final blood donation. Though I was eligible after the 5th of the month, life was crazy and towards the end of the month I got shut out of donating because of a cold. Even though I am disappointed, I am proud of making another five donations this year.
  • Volunteer once a month: Dog rescue volunteering at an event early this month.
  • Self care (once per quarter): Got a great massage while away with my family. The therapist said I need them regularly. That’s the price I pay for waiting all year.
  • Experiment with podcasting: Pricing out equipment. No movement.
  • Find new opportunities to speak in front of an audience: No progress this month.
  • Capture my “best thing all week” every week all year long (52 total): Going strong.
  • Financial planning for the household: Holding.
  • Get our unfinished rooms completed: This is now officially a 2019 project.
  • Crochet regularly: Lots of crocheting while we were traveling this month.

Additional December highlights:

  • Family trip with sister’s family to the Poconos
  • Banner event at work
  • Girls’ dance showcase events
  • Seeing oldest’s first concert
  • Celebrating Hannukah
  • Trip to Stratton Mountain with my littles
  • Incredible overnight visit from my oldest friend and her daughter

Time to set some goals for 2019…

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Being friends: reflections on friendship in 2018

I know myself well enough to know that as a person and a friend, I can be exhausting. I also know that being exhausting and exacting is a gift of mine, too. And when it comes to friends, I care a lot. I’ll wear you out and love you endlessly in the process.

Adult friendships are tough–you do not have the security of sharing simple things like a love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to sustain things. Adult lives are complicated and staying friends takes work. Life gets in the way. A good friend once told me that friends can come and go but if you’re lucky you walk together on a path for as long as you can.

I have loved that image. The road stretching out in front of you, the solitary journey punctuated with tremendous people who appear and recede from view. If we are lucky, the universe keeps us together but we will never know exactly how or why. This is not to say that people don’t also keep people in their lives. I have written to several friends this year alone about how lucky I feel to share the road with them. I think about this scene nearly every day, wondering the how and why and when of the people in my life, especially in the last twenty years.

I have no answers, though. I do know that the last year has been one of transition for people I know. The world is constantly changing. People have battled illness. Families have grown apart and together. It has been a year for my family and friends and as the year winds down, I am reminded that having friends and being friends is easy and not easy at the same time. I keep thinking thoughts about friendship that 2018 has taught me.

So I wrote them down:

Be friends. Real friends. Do not worry about whether someone needs more friends or wants more friends. Just be friends. Get them a coffee or an ice cream. And when you have ice cream, do not complain about the ice cream going to your hips. Eat cheese and drink wine and do not complain about how you are wrecking any good habits you have. Ice cream and coffee and cheese are necessary parts of friendship.

Fill in the backstory. Wonder about them and pay attention to the details. Sometimes, you become friends in the wake of a life event or a change in circumstances, and you will realize there are things you do not know. Take time to learn those things. The names of people in their lives, their history. Ask them questions. Their stories will enrich your life. Your stories have not overlapped until now but they will start to grow together and you will share things you did not share before.

Show up. Bring flowers or coffee. Or show up with nothing because you did not have time to stop because stopping means you could not simply show up. Just be there with them. If you cannot show up in person, let them know you have them in your heart and in your thoughts. Do not call yourself a bad friend if you do not show up. Just do what you can when you can.

Celebrate them. Be proud of them when they are proud of themselves. Be proud of them when they are feeling like they are worthless. Build them up. Push them. And if necessary, wallow with them.

Listen to them. Be present for them. Do not try and solve their problems. Do not let them denigrate you to make themselves feel better. Do not make their problems into your problems. Do not play chicken with them about their emotions. Do not make their worries about you. Listen. Be there. Be friends. Do not worry if you are overstepping. If they are not interested in your support or advice, they will tell you.

Do not compete. People come in and out of your life. It takes a long time to realize this especially if you have had the same friends for a long time. Do not worry if they spend time with other people. Enjoy the time you have together because that time is a gift.

Most importantly: tell them they matter. Let them know what they mean to you. Do not worry how your sentiment lands. Do not worry whether they feel the same way. Just tell them. Because knowing you mean something to someone else is also important. And people are not mind readers, so they will never know how you feel about their presence in your life. So just tell them.

I have no way of knowing if I lived this philosophy of friendship all year but I honestly tried. It is a long road and we have no way of knowing the why and how and when of people come into our lives. But as the year closes–and it has been a strange and special year for being friends–I needed to capture this moment in life and friendship.

And above all, I needed to say thank you.

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