Is My Marriage Solid?

January 3, 2009

I just came back from having a few drinks with a close friend.  We didn’t know each other five years ago – we met when our oldest children were in kindergarten together – and have managed to build a strong friendship since then.  It always amazes me how difficult it is to form close friendships after college.  There is something magical about the intense, shared experience of college coupled with the fact that that is the time when we are finally coming into our own as people (I hesitate to use the term “adults” since I didn’t display a whole lot of adult behavior between the ages of 18 and 22).

Anyway, we were talking about our families and our relationships with our wives and we stumbled upon this startling conclusion:  Every man we know is grappling, struggling with the same fundamental question in his personal life:  Is my marriage solid?  There are two facts of life conspiring to make the lives of American men aged 30-50 more challenging right now.  Forgive me the gross over-simplification, but I think it’s necessary to make my point.

First, as we age, most of us slow down; we have a decreasing amount of energy at our command.  There may well be exceptions, but I haven’t met them.

Second, as we move from newly-weds to empty-nesters, the demands on that diminishing energy pool change dramatically.

slide21Early in marriage, our robust energy is focused on the marriage and budding careers.  As we move into our late thirties and forties, careers get more time-consuming and kids hit the stage.  Not a lot of time to focus on our wives or even ourselves.  This is the stage when most of us fall out of shape and out of love.  Love in the romantic sense; our marital relationships are more important than ever, but for many of us our passion for our kids is more evident than our passion for our wives.  As the kids mature and gain independence – and here I’m conjecturing since I am not there yet – the kids consume less energy which means we can begin to focus on our wives again.

I saw my own parents go through this evolution.  There was a time when 110% of their time was consumed by kids and work, but now that they are semi-retired grandparents, their marriage seems to have regained a richness and levity that didn’t exist when I was living at home.

Why am I bothering to write this?  Because I think this is a universal issue associated with all young families.  It is easy to give up hope, to forget why you married your wife in the first place; to figure that your marriage will go downhill as time passes.  But that’s doesn’t have to be the case.  In fact, there are things you can do today to rekindle your optimism and commitment to your marriage.

  • Don’t give up the faith.  Recognize that the doldrums you may perceive have more to do with your stage of life than your connection with your wife.  At some point you and your wife will both have more time to devote to your relationship.  I can’t say when, but I know that kids become more independent over time which restores energy to your marital relationship.
  • Re-prioritize your relationship.  If you can see a light at the end of the tunnel – a rich, bright light – it is easier to commit more attention to it.  Dare to believe that you will turn a corner at some point, and you will find yourself putting more thought into maintaining a good marriage.
  • Look for the easy wins.  Most of us overlook chances to score huge points by doing the little things.  Take out the garbage without being asked, buy some flowers on the way home from work on a Friday, surprise her with a babysitter and a night out… These things don’t take a lot of time or energy, but they help our wives see that we are committed to our relationships.  And that, in turn, will inspire them to respond.

I’m no marriage counselor, but I’ve talked to enough friends to believe what I’m telling you.  I think women discuss the state of their marital relationships with their friends all the time; men never do.  And because we don’t, we have no support system to bolster us when we tire.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we men dared to talk about the universal challenges we face as fathers and husbands?  We’d all feel a lot better.

Make the Most of the Holidays

December 4, 2008

img_0226Tonight was the annual Fifth Grade Holiday Concert at my kids’ elementary school.  71 fifth graders took the stage and did a bang up job singing an assortment of holiday songs from a variety of cultures and faiths including Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah.

There were no solos and nobody stood out as a future American Idol winner, but I left the concert feeling really good about our school community.  As a father, I walked away with a few thoughts that may help me to help my kids as they mature:

  • Instill the courage to try something new.  The stage was full of kids who probably don’t think of themselves as performers or musicians, and many of them looked awkward and nervous, but they were all immensely satisfied at having been part of the show.  I’m guessing that given the chance to sing in a chorus again, many of them would jump at it.
  • Accept them for who they are.  The auditorium was full of parents and younger siblings who were smiling the whole time.  Why?  Because they were all proud of the fifth graders who invested the time to learn the songs and took the risk of performing in front of a crowd.  There was a palpable feeling of unconditional appreciation for the kids on stage.
  • Motivate them to enrich their community.  Elementary schools organize small-scale events all the time that adults may think are a little corny.  Pajama day, crazy hair day, school spirit day… these are the types of events that hold diminishing interest for kids as they get older.  Our kids grow up too fast.  In general, most first graders are psyched to wear their pajamas school, but by the time they are 10 or 11 far fewer students are willing to play along.  They don’t want to risk looking silly.  An enthusiastic adult (in this case, the music teacher) has the ability to inspire those reticent students to take those kinds of risks, and in so doing they build a sense of tradition and shared experience within their school communities.

img_0243These are the kinds of values that are best taught experientially and they represent classic “teachable moments.”  As you roll through the holiday season, you will have many opportunities to influence how your kids spend their time.  Seize the opportunities to let your kids experience the impact that they can make on the world through their generosity, love, and participation in holiday traditions.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Carve out some time to make (not buy) presents for friends and family.
  • Go shopping as a family to buy presents for Toys for Tots or similar organizations.
  • Gather up old hats, mittens, and clothing to be donated to Goodwill.
  • Set aside one night for the whole family to decorate your house for the holidays.

These types of activities too often fall by the wayside during the busy holiday season, but any one of them can make a lasting impression on our kids and equip them to make the world a better place.

Kids and the Economy

November 25, 2008

index1Discouraging economic news is everywhere; nobody knows where the US economy is headed. These are incredibly complicated issues that few adults fully understand. How can we help our kids through these times? Whatever we can do to avoid transferring our own stress onto them is worth consideration.

Here’s my first suggestion:  Shield your kids from what’s happening.

Mitchell Rosen is a family therapist who recently posted on the importance of parents protecting kids from their own economic worries.  Here’s an excerpt:

Kids aren’t stupid; they can sense the anxiety in their parents’ voices.

What I tell the mothers and fathers is this: “If you are OK, you’re kids are going to be OK. If you panic, your kids will panic. What they need to hear is not how everything is rosy but rather they will always be provided for. They may not get an iPod for Christmas, the family home may be in foreclosure but mom and dad will make certain they have a roof over their heads and food in their bellies.” The family will be fine.

The children, however, don’t need to hear parents arguing when a bill comes or deciding which obligation to pay and which to put off. What they need to hear is that mom and dad are still in charge and they can continue being kids. Source

This makes good sense and is consistent with some advice a friend gave me last week.  Because we cannot control the stock market, we should limit the time we spend consuming bad news, following the daily ups and downs of the stock market, and tracking our own portfolios.  And he’s right.  Consumers who try to time stock market fluctuations usually sell low and buy high.

As parents, we have no control over these unfolding events, and our kids have even less.  I’m going to do whatever I can to shield my kids from the ups and downs.

Want to talk about this?  Visit Helping Kids in a Tough Economy on SchoolPulse.

“How Much Do I Cost?”

November 10, 2008

Two unrelated stories with similar origins:

#1:  My family and I were walking through a furniture store today and I overheard a boy (probably 9 years old) asking his father, “How much do I cost each week?”  The dad chuckled, but I couldn’t hear his reply.

#2:  I was in a board meeting last week at which the company’s management presented a budget for 2009.  As we talked it through, we realized that none of us had the foggiest notion how much growth to expect next year.  And this from a company that doubled revenues in 2008 vs. 2007.

What’s the common thread?  It’s the economy, and our kids know something big is amiss.  We have a bunch of friends in financial services; a couple have already been let go and the rest are understandably anxious.  At a dinner party on Saturday night a woman revealed that her husband’s dream of retiring five years from now would have to be pushed back at least 5-7 years.  I know two families looking at selling their houses to move into apartments.  Think their kids know what’s going on?  I bet they do.

The angle that’s not getting much play is the impact on kids.  I posted recently on the stress that American kids are under – and that post had nothing to do with the economy!  Kids are perceptive and even the young ones are sure to understand that something big and bad has happened in the outside world.  It will be difficult for we parents to shield our conversations and concerns from our children.  I haven’t been through this kind of a crisis before, but I have three suggestions that may help protect our children from bearing the brunt of all this uncertainty:

  1. Listen closely.  If your child is stressed about the economy, she needs your help sorting through those concerns.  Don’t let your own anxiety eclipse your children’s fears or questions.
  2. Speak carefully.  The vocabulary of this crisis – liquidity, interest rates, mortgage backed securities – is foreign to our children.  If they ask, answer their questions in words they understand that won’t inflame their fears.
  3. Be patient.  We are never as patient when we are stressed.  Make an effort to maintain an even keel around the house.  Remember:  It’s not their fault, so don’t take it out on them.

Our kids are depending on us more than ever.  Don’t add to their stress!

The American Dream is Back!

November 5, 2008

img_00082The networks just declared Barack Obama as winner of the presidential election.  This is a watershed moment for America, with power shifting from the previous generation to the next generation.  The most encouraging aspect for me is the turnout of young voters, including all the elementary, middle, and high school students who were involved in mock debates and elections.

All three of my elementary-aged kids had the chance to vote for president yesterday.  The result in our school was directionally accurate – 376 votes for Obama vs. 89 votes for McCain – and reflects the enthusiasm our kids feel for this dynamic new president.  Whether you supported McCain or Obama, you can’t understate the impact this election will have on our kids and their perception of what this country stands for.

img_915240% of the “millennial generation” – kids born between 1977 and 1995 – are minorities.  For years we have heard about a growing wealth gap, low performing inner city schools, and a variety of glass ceilings that have stubbornly refused to be broken.  This election will restore the idea of the American Dream.

This morning I brought my two older kids to our polling place to give them the chance to participate in the making of history.  They couldn’t vote, but they had the chance to see our democracy in action.  I hope it is a day they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Don’t Overdo It

November 2, 2008

Halloween ranks #2 in my house (a surprisingly close second to Christmas) and we have a blast every year.  Last night, I realized that Halloween is a microcosm for one of the parenting issues that challenges me most:  How to give our kids rich experiences without overdoing it.

I rolled in just after 4:30 to a kitchen full of excited kids.  My four were dressing up as a bumble bee, Darth Vader, a scary clown, and Sarah Palin.  My wife was a witch (no reflection on her personality!) and I was a “class nerd.”  I can’t imagine why my kids picked out that politically incorrect one for me, but the photo will convince you that I am dedicated to Halloween!

After painting faces, finding the candy buckets, and about a million photographs, we walked down the street to our neighbors (Daisy’s good friend’s) for dinner with four other families.  Oh – we didn’t all walk down the street, just the three younger kids and me since Johanna had to bring our 11-year old to her friend’s house for dinner and trick-or-treating (they live in the neighborhood that is Halloween central in our town).  There were 14 kids at the Vaughn’s (one told me that their ages total 80, so you can imagine the age range) and they were all excited.  We had less than an hour (Johanna only had 42 minutes) to feed, eat, guzzle a glass of wine, and try to squeeze in a bit of adult conversation.  I managed to fit in about 10 minutes of quality conversation with a mom whom I don’t see enough of, and we were just getting into it when we realized we had to leave if we were going to meet the other families with whom we were going to trick-or-treat (Tucker’s posse) in another neighborhood.  “Come on, Toby is waiting… Daisy, we’ll see Fallon again soon… You can do the scavenger hunt here next year… Hurry up!”  We hustled up the street, decided to take two cars since the little guys might need to get home earlier than the olders, and convoyed over to Independence Road.  As we cruised the neighborhood, assuring Tucker that no, we weren’t late and no, he wouldn’t miss any of the fun with his friends, we found the group.  “Hey Tucker – we’ve already been to like 25 houses!  Look how much candy we have.”  Ouch.  “Mom! You promised!”  He piled out to join his buddies, we left our SUVs on the side of the road, and quickly realized we should have made a better plan.  Tucker ran off ahead, Johanna and Daisy joined the back of that pack, and 4-year old Chester struggled to figure out what the hell was going on.  He and I hung together, within view but perpetually behind everybody else, and were having a good time when word filtered back that the third graders had exhausted the supply of houses on Independence and were going to relocate to another neighborhood.  Four families piled into six cars and drove two miles to Halloween central – Hubbard Street – which  was a ZOO.  I drove past Scout (Sarah Palin) on the way to the hastily agreed point of departure, so I couldn’t stop, but I arrived too late to embark with Tucker (who had traveled in another vehicle) or Daisy (who traveled in yet another).  Chester and I meandered from house to house, occasionally catching view of my other kids, clinging to my wife’s iPhone (she had taken my Blackberry and gone to find Scout) for text updates on who was where, spending no more than a minute at any particular house… It was a frenzy.  I didn’t do any trick-or-treating with my older three (they were always ahead of me or somewhere else) but they had a great time.

Halloween a family event?  I hardly saw my kids or my wife.  Did they have fun?  Absolutely, but in my opinion we crammed too much into too little time.  Am I just getting old?  Perhaps.  Maybe this is simply the way kids start to develop independence from their parents… I guess the first neighborhood was aptly named.

If my kids had fun, what’s the problem?  The problem is that kids rarely (ever?) say “no thanks” to an opportunity to do something fun, and yet (I believe) constant activity without downtime contributes to stress in a big way.

I don’t know if this is making sense – it’s a complex set of issues that I’m just beginning to come to grips with myself – but let me offer an observation that is top of mind for me the day after Halloweeen:

Don’t try to do too much.  Less truly is more, and our kids shouldn’t be overly conscious (let alone slaves) of the clock.  If we are asking our kids to measure their days in minutes, we are not doing our jobs.

Last night, we tried to do too much.

American Kids are Stressed

October 30, 2008

Yes, it’s true.  Those of you who are familiar with SchoolPulse know that we are trying to simplify life for busy families.  Our focus is on parents – including the parents who volunteer their time generously to lead extracurricular activities for their children – and we are focused on bringing some sanity to their busy schedules.

Over the past few days, I have developed a new sense of awareness of the unintended (and underappreciated) consequences on children.  Consider these experts:

  • “According to the most recent data, the lifetime prevalence for anxiety disorders as a whole in adults is about 25%; the frequency in children is unknown, but felt to be significantly underreported and under-diagnosed… What does seem to be developing in the medical literature is the consensus that many “adult” psychiatric disorders have their first (although perhaps subtle or ignored) manifestations in childhood.”  Source
  • “The combined prevalence of… anxiety disorders is higher than that of virtually all other mental disorders of childhood and adolescence (Costello et al., 1996). The 1-year prevalence in children ages 9 to 17 is 13 percent.”  Source
  • “If your child has too little free time, help him or her change his or her schedule to make time for relaxation and play… Parents may want to examine their own schedules. Often a parent’s hectic schedule will cause a child to be stressed or nervous about the things he or she is doing.”  Source

The evidence among families I know is decidedly less scientific, but no less alarming.  Over the past few days, my wife brought up the topic of childhood anxiety with four friends, and three of them (that’s 75%) revealed that one or more of their children had seen counselors for help with anxiety issues.  It’s no surprise, really.

  • Most public schools give kids 20 minutes or less to eat lunch.
  • Many kids participate in co- and extracurricular activities before and after school.
  • We are all too familiar with the challenge of assembling the whole family at meal times.
  • Weekends are a blur of sports, birthday parties, and play dates.
  • The quantity of homework heaped on students of all ages seems to increase every year

In short, our kids are constantly on the go and have very little downtime.  What they need is the opportunity to unwind, to relax, to hang around the house, to experience less structure in their lives.  Family time is highly valued because it is so scarce.  It’s a sad commentary on the age in which we live.

Until recently, I hadn’t really focused on the opportunity for SchoolPulse to improve the quality of our children’s lives, but you can be sure I will in the future.

** UPDATE ** The 10/31 Boston Globe carried an AP story saying that as many as 20% of American children and teens may be affected by anxiety disorders.