Getting- And Staying-Hitched

Look at those two crazy kids.

Look at those two crazy kids.

After Valentine’s Day last week, I started thinking a lot about marriage.  About yours, mine and those that surround us.  About the neurochemistry in our brains that causes two people to click.  About how marriage looks in the suburbs.  About the future of marriage as we know it.  I mean, is it important at all to even be married?  And most importantly, to me anyway, what it takes to keep a good thing going.

Recent brain science tells us some pretty cool stuff about coupling and why we are drawn to our partners.  There are four personality types as defined by preeminent “love” researcher, Helen Fisher, a bio-anthropologist at Rutgers University.  There are builders, who are focused on family and who they know.  There are explorers, who thrive on adventure and doing.  There are negotiators, whose passion is introspection and who are interested most in feelings and finally, directors whose focus is intelligence and thinking it through.  (Single ladies! Or not! Find out which you are here).  Mostly we are drawn to others of the same type but apparently any type can match up and be successful if you are willing to do the work you need to do.  Like swallowing the fact that you are not right all the time.  And ignoring that irritating little thing he does with his lip when he’s looking for a parking spot.

Does it sometimes feel like things are fucked up in marriage land?  When I was growing up, people waited to have kids until they got married.  Not many parents were divorced, but the numbers seemed to go up and up as I got older.  A lot of people waited until they got married to have sex.  (I don’t know many of those people, but I know they existed.)  Also, “cougar” type couplings were pretty rare and, at the time, men were still the expected breadwinners.  None of this seems to exist anymore, which mostly is a good thing.  Nowadays (do only old people say “nowadays?”), it seems, people have babies without getting married.  Or ever planning to get married.  They get divorced and remarry all the time!  It’s not even a big deal.  Women are heads of households all over the place!  In terms of female sexuality, it’s actually women who are more turned on by novelty than men.  Really!  Is everything I was taught about marriage passe?  Am I, in fact, a dinosaur?  Are my notions of marriage quaint?  While I think lots of these things are great, why do I cling to the whole “til death do us part?”  When I look at my wedding photo, I see a much less worn version of me: my hair it’s natural brunette without a hint of gray, my smooth skin, flat pre-baby belly and my lovestruck eyes.  Hell yes, I can see how my perspective is a little, well, dated.

Now, I am going to do some cheerleading here for long-term romantic relationships, so be prepared.  Yes, “hook-ups” with someone new are exciting.  Ah the stomach flipping, the obsession, the constant checking of your messages,  the staring at each other for hours.  There’s nothing like new love.  Except, as it turns out, old love.  In new studies on long-term pairings, Helen Fisher has discovered that some of the feelings we have when we are hot on that new stud are interpreted by the brain in the very same manner as those of us who remain with our tried-and-true.  This area, known as the VTA (ventral tegmental area) , is responsible for how we respond to food, money, drugs and other highly addictive goodies.  That’s right, babe.  Everything old is new again.

In the study, people were shown photos of their long term partners.  Their brains were hooked up to see which areas lit up and bam!  Neural activity jumped in areas of the brains that process rewards, motivation, reinforcement learning and, get this, survival.  This means that the same guy who can’t get a dirty shirt into the laundry basket to save his life actually sustains your life.  Wow.  The studies also showed that these partnerships were associated with proximity seeking (wanting to be together), alleviating stress, greater calm in face of adversity and improving responses to pain. As far as sexual frequency, the long term couples’ brains equated cravings like hunger with a need for sex.  So whether you get hungry once, twice or 7 days a week, you want it.  Bad.  Now, it should be stated that the couples involved in the study were actually in love and not in one of those marriages where you wonder, “how the hell did that happen?”

Anyone who has been in a relationship for an extended period of time knows that there are ups and downs.  Sometimes the spark gets dull.  And sometimes it is hot.  All long term relationships go through this, and it’s part of the natural ebb and flow of a relationship that stands the test of time.  After all, don’t the lows make you appreciate the highs even more?  Sometimes I think how great it would be if we were back to the time when we first met, with all the new gooey love.  Not being able to sleep or eat!  Sheer in-loveness!  Staying in bed all day! Starting a movie at 10 pm!  Sometimes I feel nostalgic for, even envious of new love.  But I wouldn’t trade our now for our then; looking at the fabulous humans we created, the home we built together and the wool socks-flannel wearing-cozy-newspaper reading on a Sunday morning-kind of love we have now.  So what that we are relics?  I’d do it all again.

You're the one I want to be with for all the days to come.

You’re the one I want to be with for all the days to come.

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen for the beautiful photos in this post.  

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Report Cards Are Coming Home Today

Ready to get schooled.

Ready to get schooled.

Here we are again!  Ah, the glowing lights, the familiar carols, the cookies.  But a different kind of treat comes along at this time of the year.  Something I used to dread:  report cards.  Now and at the new year, how would it feel if someone was grading me in all my subjects? How would I be doing?  What would my subjects even be?

Well, obviously I’d be taking a health course of some kind.  Given my natural inclination toward mind-body and helping, I am sure I would be acing that shit.  But not so with lots of American moms.  Over the last few decades, we have gotten more sedentary and less active than in past years.  According to an article by Melissa Healy of the Los Angeles Times, our lack of movement is causing our kids to become more obese.  Not only do we do less housework (not fun but burns a mean calorie), we sit in front of the tv far more often.  The study authors conclude that moving your ass is an “absolute prerequisite for health and wellness.”  As a physician, my husband bemoans the fact that so many common ailments could be treated with exercise, not drugs.  I don’t want to raise couch potatoes.  Plus, I hate the idea of being all creaky and out of shape.  My grade:  A-.

For the sake of our family, I am taking a lifelong financial course. This stuff does not come easily to me, and I need all the help I can get.  If it weren’t for my financially savvy husband, I may have gotten myself into some serious debt by now.  And I wouldn’t be alone.  He helped me understand how valuable it is to save, and hopefully, prosper.  The kids are getting schooled too.  They have their own checkbooks, savings accounts and allowances.  They have to keep track of it all on their own.  But for the grown-up stuff, I am utterly and completely bumblefucked.  I cannot speak coherently on topics ranging from money markets to 503B’s to the stock market.  I also spend in a haphazard way that could certainly use some tuning up.  For homework, I signed up to take an online course on investing.  Eek, I feel out of my element.  My grade:  B.  Okay, B-.

Currently, one of my favorite subjects is community.  We all know that fostering social connections helps to lengthen your lifespan, avoid depression and improve your general happiness quotient.  However, in the winter months, particularly in the upcoming months after the holidays are over, it’s easy to hide out in the house when it’s dark and gray outside.  We have also made a commitment to have happy hours at our house on a semi-regular basis to keep the friends in the same room.  It’s amazing how just those brief little get together’s help with the isolation of winter.  For me, writing and meeting new people help keep the desire to bury myself under my covers at bay.  It would be great to form a dinner club or something along those lines but right now that feels a bit overwhelming.  After the holidays.  Maybe.  My grade:  B+.

One subject that I am doing fairly well in is keeper of the family.  You know the one.  You are in charge of photos, establishing traditions, recording memories, collecting recipes, organizing schedules, ordering what needs to be ordered, grocery shopping, keeping track of hair/dentist/doctor appointments…The list goes on and on.  While managing to keep this ever-growing file going, I do drop the ball occasionally.  And when I do, I am reminded frequently by my children.  Sometimes I think they actually enjoy when I mess up.  Although I haven’t put the scrapbook together for the last 3 years (okay 4, maybe 5), I know where everything is and I just have to get my act together and do it.  Unfortunately I don’t get a study hall to work on this stuff.  Maybe I’ll apply for an internship!  My grade:  B+.

In the “taking time for myself” class, I have managed to surpass all expectations.  With girls trips planned and executed over the last year, time with my friends has been a necessary diversion.  Getting some alone time, it’s taken me awhile to learn, is also essential to the well-being of not only me but the whole family.  I need “buffer days” if I’ve been working a lot or if we’ve been travelling.  Others have ways to deal with the hectic pace of life, but a cup of tea in a silent house is a great way to rejigger the chaos.  Along the same lines, my husband and I have carved out more time to be together for quick dinners or beers when we need it, which is weekly.  Our kids are now able to be on their own for short periods (if my hands weren’t on the keyboard they’d be clapping).   My grade:  A.

Parenting class has it’s highs and lows.  Some days I wonder how I ever thought I could do well in this course and I have definitely pulled lots of all-nighters.  Sometimes I wish I had an advisor I could go to, but even if I did, I probably couldn’t make the office hours.  There are times I feel totally competent, rolling and grooving, like I am kicking this thing’s ass…and then…I’m a complete failure.  I mean, can I get any extra credit here?  The tests feel like they come every day:  friendship troubles, teaching gratitude, handling disappointment and hardest of all…being a good role model.  The biggest surprise, I suppose, is that two little creatures can serve so often as my teacher, instead of the other way around.  Like you, I get it right a lot.  And wrong.  But the essence of me is always that it matters to me more than anything in the world.  Anyway, I wish someone would give me a grade since it seems impossible to give myself one.  But in the meantime, I give myself a B.

Ah, fuck that.  Make it an A.

What courses are you taking?

Yeah.

Yeah.

Top photograph by the A+ photographer Barbara Paulsen.

Bottom from jumpingwithmyfingerscrossed.com.

Who is your person?

I'm thinking about all the people along the way who have believed in me.

I’m thinking about all the people along the way who have believed in me.

I lost my mother in law recently.  She was sick for a long time, and her death was something we knew was coming.  But when I think of her, there is an empty feeling in the hollow of my stomach.  It twists and groans and makes tears blink into my eyes.  Not as much for me, or even for my husband.  For my kids, only my kids.  You see, to Betsy, my children were perfect.  And everyone needs that kind of cheerleader in their life.

Maybe you don’t know it, but there’s a song from Snoopy the Musical  (I believe most of life can be easily summed up in some quality show tunes) called “Just One Person.”  The words are about one person believing in you, and then, like a cascade, others believe in you so you can ultimately believe in yourself.  Okay, it’s a lot of sentimental hooey, but it’s so sweet and true.  Studies show that support from others can help you rise above challenges that at first glance seem insurmountable:  think poverty.  In Oakland, a new program is demonstrating this paradigm.  Called  The Family Independence Initiativesmall groups of women get together.  They receive a monthly stipend, a laptop and very little else but have accomplished a 20% gain in income since the program started.  Why?  A variety of reasons, but quite simply, the members believe in each other.

Think back on your own life and who believed in you.  These are your people.  Your parents and your spouse are obvious choices.  The people who are most influential tend to be friends, teachers, bosses.   Because they are not obligated because of maybe, giving birth to you.  They are someone you look up to and want to emulate.  But they also have to listen to you, challenge you and you get an intuitive sense that they see the real you.  Just look at the growing field of “personal coaching.”   The ICF, or International Coaching Foundation, defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”  Wow, who doesn’t want one of those, right?  Too bad you have to pay to get it.  The magic really happens when it’s someone you already know, someone you already think is awesome.  And it’s your responsibility to be open to the truth of your person’s idea of you.

Certain attributes have been documented as predictors of success:  high IQ, emotional intelligence, and most recently self regulation.   However, it’s the connections you make and feel that result in the real world that make the difference.  In suburbia, we have things like Big Brothers/Sisters to help form these kinds of relationships.  In our community, there is a lunch buddy program to help kids have someone to look up to.  All parents know the importance of a teacher who pushes a kid to apply for a school they may have thought was out of their reach.  Or a sports coach who tells them they should try out for the select team.  A friend’s parent who lets them know that it’s a pleasure to have them come over to their house.  It’s important.  It matters.

All over suburbia I hear talk of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and her new book “Lean In,” and her crusade to change the dialogue about feminism.  She’s taken a lot of heat lately, mostly because your average suburban working mom can’t relate to Ms. Sandberg’s wealth and the amount of domestic help she receives.  I’m withholding judgment until I read the book, but she is struggling because many women don’t see her as their person.  To be someone’s person, you have to be accessible.  Your person has to be someone who you respect, but also feels a little like you in some way.  Someone who doesn’t have to scrub the fucking toilet?  Hard to relate to that person.  No matter how big or great her ideas.

So who is your person?  Your person doesn’t have to be in your life anymore.  They don’t even have to be alive.  They just have to be someone who laid a brick in the pathway of your life.

Some examples of my people:

My boss in Philadelphia:  He defended me to an angry professor when I unintentionally messed up some data in a research project.  I will never forget what he told me, “Everyone fucks up.  You have my permission to get over it.”

My biology professor in community college:  He wrote me a glowing recommendation for a university I didn’t think I could get into (but did).  When I read it,  I was stunned.  He told me, “It’s all true.  When you believe it is when you’ll succeed.”

My writing mentor in my writing group:  A phenomenal writer, she told me that someone who writes like me should read my work “loud and proud,” and that she was jealous of my writing voice.  Made my year.

The list goes on.. and I thank all of my people for their words.

So, when I think of my mother in law.  Well, she was a huge person for my kids.  As I said at her funeral, if they breathed, she was like, “Did you hear how they breathed?  The way it went in and out?  Wasn’t that fantastic!  They are so special!”  I saved all the cards from her proclaiming their absolute perfection, their sheer magnificence.  Her words were her honest appraisal of their gifts, albeit rose-colored.  I will continue to remind them how she was thoroughly and completely their person.  She was all in.  Just like I hope to be their person, too.

How about you?  Tell me about your person.

Who is your person?

Your person helps you move forward.

Thanks as always to Barbara Paulsen for her inspiring photos.  Visit her work at Mt. Hood Mama Iphoneography.

As a suburban woman, you are ____________.

Playing with stereotypes is one of my favorite pastimes.  Often they are woefully inadequate and often they are spot-on.  I wanted to start a conversation WITH you ABOUT you. Do you live in the suburbs?  Are any or all of the following true about you?  The media (entertainment industry, advertising, magazines etc.) tells us the the following about US:

Ahh, suburbia.

  • You like to have your house spotless, as you feel it reflects on who you are as a person.
  • You live in a cookie cutter house on a cookie cutter street.
  • You are homogenous, equal to all the other suburbanites.
  • You live in a McMansion with at least 5000 square feet of bliss.
  • You mooch off your husband, lie around on the couch all day and eat bon-bons.
  • You whine about being bored.
  • You are fat and stupid.
  • Your conservative exterior hides a sex-pot interior.
  • You watch Oprah, and now that it’s no longer on tv, you download old episodes from You-Tube.
  • You live your life vicariously through your children.
  • If you subscribe to the Mad Men archetype of housewives, you are frustrated, repressed, disturbed, martyred, unhappy and demanding.
  • You have a fenced in yard which contains your perfect pet and your stellar vegetable and flower garden.
  • You have dirty little secrets and dirty little lies.
  • You are less cultured and refined than city dwellers.
  • You are lazier than country dwellers.
  • Your extra pennies go to botox and plastic surgery.
  • Desperate Housewives.  Enough said.
  • You shop in strip malls, chain stores and big box stores.
  • You don’t walk anywhere, you’ll drive around the corner rather than walk.
  • You compare yourself to others always, and make every attempt to fit in.  Not belong, just fit in.
  • You are checked out, out of touch with your children, only concerned with yourself.
  • You are a clone, masochistic, classified and stereotyped according to the Descent’s “Suburban Home.”
  • You are a dreamer whose lies fell apart according to Kottonmouth’s “Suburban Life.”
  • You are divided into tribes where your friends don’t really know you per Arcade Fire’s “Suburban War.”
  • You are a big fat nothing where your dreams are out of reach and you work til you die in Hard Fli’s “Suburban Knights.

Wow.  The suburbs sure are a place we love to hate.  What is it about the place that elicits such vitriol?  Why all the haters?  The suburbs refuse to take that shit!  Some of the best people I know are suburbanites.  But I admit it, it is a little fun.  My friend Barbara and I have taken the liberty to identify some of our own stereotypes of suburban women.  Get ready… Here they are, along with what you might likely hear that particular stereotype say:

Five sample suburban stereotypes. Not an all-inclusive or even remotely scientific list.

Soccer Mom:  “We have a tournament all day on Saturday so I can’t make it.  Jennifer’s coach wants her there on Sunday too.  It’s only a two hour drive away, and she’s enjoying it so much.”  Soccer moms believe in nurturing their children’s athletic prowess and their car’s gas tank.  Once revered for their voting power, the soccer mom has taken second fiddle to this year’s media darling:  Wal Mart mom.

Working Mom:  “~~~”  They don’t have much time to chat.  On the career track, these moms work hard and spend the free time they do have with their kids.  Moms who work full time hold my utmost respect and all of us who work part time or less should help them out whenever possible.  As someone who has the absolute luxury of working part time, I believe we should all have each other’s backs.

Checked Out Mom:  on Facebook:  “Finally put those damn kids to bed and I’m sitting here with my bottle of wine.  Were parent-teacher conferences today?”  These are the clueless moms who worry more about their next night out than anything else.  I know very few, if any, of these types personally but have heard about them here and there.   They may even be an urban myth like the infamous Slut Mom of Desperate Housewives or daytime drama fame.  Maybe we have made them up to make ourselves seem better.

Stay at Home Mom (On a side note, I have always hated that term.  What the hell does that mean anyway?  I am sure a non-mother started that one):  “First I’m going to do some laundry then head to the school to volunteer.  After that I have to take the dog to the vet and then I have to pick up the kids from school and get them to practice.”  Yeah, that sounds like someone who stays home.

Mom for a Cause:  “I am on the board for the Children’s Society and we agreed that the best thing we can do over the holidays is give of our time.  I am planning on doing lots of networking and soliciting in the days ahead.”   I am grateful for the dedication of these gals who so generously devote so many hours to helping others.  They deserve our help, too.  And maybe some caffeine.  And your credit card number.

Also worthy of mention:

Fit Mom:  ” After I walk the dog and do some yard work, I have a personal trainer appointment.  Then I am hitting the sale at Lululemon!”  You know these gals.  They are out of sorts when they miss their daily workout.  They invest in sleeveless tops so we can all ogle at their ripped arms.  They kneel at the altar of fitness and leave the rest of us to wonder how they have sculpted themselves to such statue-like physique.  You are goddesses!

Walmart Mom:  “Thank God they brought back layaway!”  These are the moms who make the choices the nation watches:  her buying power and her voting power have the ability to change the face of our country.  Wal Mart moms know value when they see it.  They are uncompromising in their belief that they should get what they want in a reasonable and fair manner.

What stereotypes have I missed?

Which ones relate to you?

Which one pisses you off?

After all, this is one label we all share:


Thanks once again to Barbara Paulsen for inspiration.  Check her out.  Mt. Hood MaMa Photos.  Magic by I-phone.

YOU-meeting someone new

Glad to be back writing after a long holiday break.

Meeting new people can be an exciting, anxiety-provoking or downright boring experience (think your spouse’s work party).  Depending on the venue, meeting new folks sets your brain in motion in a clinical manner you may think is reserved for things like chemistry and quantum physics.   Think about the last time you met someone new.  As you were talking with this person, your frontal cortex was processing all the sensory information available at the time.  How did the person look?  Were they focused on you, or were they looking around the room?  Were they wearing make-up?  Did they wear perfume?  All this information is put into a mental image based on a checklist your brain has previously laid out.  Thus, the “gut feeling” you get about a person is really an emotional reaction generated by your amygdala.  Pretty cool.

Let’s take the example of the first time I met my husband.  Technically, the first time I met him was on the phone.   It was a blind date so he called me first.  I had a great conversation with him.  All the while we were speaking, my brain was drawing a composite based on his voice and affect and the description of him that my friend had given me.   The frontal parts of my brain were busy drawing social references and making judgments about his language and social ability.  Couples who have been married a long time always say it’s a good sense of humor that contributes to longevity.  Well my husband made me laugh on that first phone call and on the first date more times than I can count.   All this laughing and smiling was a direct result of my brain processing how it felt to just be with him.  Neurologically, I was very attuned to how connected he was to me and what I was saying.  I was subconsciously reading all his cues:  he leaned in closer than he needed to when the bar was noisy, he asked lots of questions and waited patiently for an answer and his facial expressions were warm and happy.

Can we change our first impressions?  Neuroscientists say no.  You can’t really update your first impressions of anyone.  Your initial associations and emotions are fairly persistent.  What you can do is learn additional things about a person.  A first impression is rapid and the first line of information for our species.  “It only takes a moment to make a first impression” is quite true.  It’s really a survival skill when you think about it.  You are making a very rapid and concise decision about whether this person is a solution to the “problem” you may have, such as needing another friend, wanting a mate, creating an alliance, needing a reference etc.

Once again, the brain is searching for relationships.  Once again, the people you meet every day challenge you to change the paradigm.  Is the relationship we seek with others a reflection of the needs of our neurochemistry or the needs of our soul?  Or are they the same thing?

Are our brains really the housing for our spirit and our souls?