Thursday, April 17, 2014

On Marriage and Shorthand Arguments

Just before I got married, the women in my mother's ward--though they didn't know me all that well--were kind enough to throw me a bridal shower. Somehow the conversation turned to marriage advice, and I still remember just about everything the bishop's wife said about marriage. My impression of her prior to that shower was that she was quiet and smiley and not particularly "real"--if you know what I mean. But she was more than real that night, and I am still so grateful. Just about everything she said has proved true of my own experience in marriage.

Among other valuable and down-to-earth advice, she told me that eventually our arguments would whittle down to shorthand. That after awhile we'd know each other so well and we'd have had the same conversations and disagreements so many times that we'd be able to say, "Hey, could you ...?" And the other person would know instantly how we meant to finish the the sentence and be able to say, "Yeah yeah, okay. I know." And there, that would be it. A entire fight that previously would have brought tension for several days would be over in eight words. At the time, I confess, I couldn't really imagine what she meant, but now, over five years in, I think Sam and I are beginning to reach shorthand.

There's this memory I have of our first few months of marriage that can, without fail, make me feel like giggling at how cute and misguided I was as a new bride. I had decided that I wanted more help around the house, that we really could be sharing more of the burden of running a home. We were both working full-time, and it seemed there was no reason why we couldn't split the tasks more evenly. And I geared up for the conversation and prayed about it and thought about how I would say it and sat Sam down on the couch and told him how I felt. I was so earnest! And I can't really explain why this makes me feel like giggling, except that somehow I thought this would be the end of the conversation--that I just needed to communicate how I felt and Sam would surely agree and then we'd maybe make a chart of chores or something (?!) and then we'd be more equally yoked in this matter. That's not exactly how it worked. Sam was like, "Okay, sure, whatever." And then he asked what specifically I wanted help with, and I realized I didn't really know. We were so new together, and just making sense of our home and our lives, and I had no idea that it would just take time, lots and lots of time, years and years to really figure each other out.

Of course, this is a conversation we've had since then. And I confess I haven't exactly handled it better. In fact, the problem is that I usually wait until I'm good and resentful before I bring it up. And then, sadly, I'm not really praying and thinking very carefully about how I say things. It's late at night and I'm tired and I make accusations and I'm not very nice at all. Most recently, I accused Sam of ruining my opportunities to work on my writing because he didn't help around the house more.

Sometimes I'm a terrible person.

After that conversation, I was pretty much immediately sure I had been a fool, and that I had handled it all wrong. And in the middle of the night I remembered what the bishop's wife had said, and realized this conversation was probably one that would benefit from shorthand. Sam knows I'm always anxious about the house, he knows I'd love more help. And I know he's willing, but that he's not always sure exactly where to pitch in. And why fight about it, again? Why not just say--before I'm angry and resentful and before I've attached all sorts of other frustrations to this particular problem--"Could you help me a little more around the house? I'm feeling overwhelmed by it." And Sam could say, "Yeah, okay. What do you want me to do?" And hopefully I'd know. And we wouldn't have to pull out the big guns to make our points. We could carry on, sit down to dinner, put the baby to bed, and hang out on the couch--all heavy conversations accomplished--and talk about the really important stuff, like what to watch on TV.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Strange Art of Trying

I once told a woman I didn't know all that well that I was "trying" to do something. She immediately said, "You're trying, you're lying." And the rhyme was so catchy and she seemed so sure of this truth, that I thought she must be right, even as I hated her for saying it.

But motherhood has changed my sense of "trying," and now I feel sure that this woman was wrong. To me, trying--especially when divorced from concern of outcome--is a noble art. And the most difficult and important one I practice as the mother to Henrietta. For Henrietta and I, it doesn't work to force it, and it doesn't work to give up entirely. It only works to come at it from somewhere in the middle, to approach it as gently as possible, as unemotionally as possible, yet still with a great deal of persistence. 

Here's what I mean: Henrietta is not, sadly for me, an eat-everything-on-her-plate kind of girl. She's picky, and it seemed for awhile she was getting pickier, and I was worried we were going to end up with a white diet kid--the kind of kid who only eats cheese, white bread, pasta, etc. I'd offer her a strawberry, and she'd spit. I'd offer her a piece of broccoli, and she'd politely hand it back to me. I knew it would do no good to shove the broccoli down her throat or express how disappointed I was that she wouldn't eat it. I've read enough to know that adding my emotions to what she chooses to eat is a terrible idea. And for awhile, I sort of gave up. I stopped making real meals. I'd throw her a quesadilla or some Mac & Cheese--things I was pretty sure she'd eat--and call it a night. But I could feel that this wasn't the right approach. I had to try, even if she never willingly put broccoli to her lips in her life. I read somewhere that a kid has to be exposed to a food 10 times before she's comfortable with it. So I kept telling myself that--10 times, 10 times. And some days I'd feel more like trying than others. But I tried to share my own food with her, and show her what I was eating and enjoying, and not get upset when she outright refused whatever I had prepared. And last weekend, she grabbed a strawberry from my own bowl of strawberries (though she had her own on her plate) and ate the whole thing, and now she can't get enough of them. Strawberries three times a day! And she's eating peas again, and dipping crackers in peanut butter, and it seems, suddenly, like her food adventurousness is exploding. Cross my fingers, knock on wood. 

These babies, they change so quickly. And it's hard to have this job of guiding someone whose tune changes, and who can't yet communicate exactly what she wants or needs. I sometimes want so badly to enforce my sense of what's necessary--to hold her down and brush her teeth as she screams, to give her nothing but celery until she learns to love it, to shout that yesterday she seemed to love eggs, so what's wrong with her today?! But I'm learning that it's no real use, and that it's more useful to save my shouts for when things are really dangerous, like when she's standing on the chair with one leg up on the table, two seconds from cracking her skull on the tile. 

This is such a strange art of trying--to try with tenacity, but without a goal, and without a demand, and without a sense what what success might actually look like. To let her guide me, more or less. To follow her lead. 

And I'm finding this is--as so much of motherhood is--a larger lesson. I'd do well to be this gentle with myself. To try tenaciously to establish better habits as a human--eating better, exercising more, writing more often, keeping my house cleaner, living a more humble and spiritual life. But doing all I can to divorce those attempts from expectations, or a sense of shame or failure. 

I think about that woman sometimes, wishing I could find her and tell her: You are dead wrong. Trying isn't lying. It's the only real truth.