If you could take your family away from the hustle and bustle and experience a different lifestyle together, would you do it? City-dweller Dana Fitzpatrick (a blogger at Pip & Posy) and her husband Matt decided to take a year-long sabbatical from their busy lives and do something to bring them closer to each other and connect more deeply to their values. I hope you enjoy this next installment of Parenting Against the Grain!

Fitzgerald Family
Welcome, Dana! Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your family. 

Until recently, my husband Matt and I were living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I was a healthcare consultant and he was a physician. We have four children:  James, 4 1/2, our sensitive, sweet boy; Deirdre (Daisy), 2 1/2 , our spunky, confident captain; Simon, our latest joy, who joined our family through international adoption as a one-year-old last summer; and sweet Moira who is brand new — just born on July 6.

I grew up in Minnesota, and although I spent time traveling internationally with a job as well as studying abroad during graduate school, I really hadn’t lived anywhere else — but always wanted to. Matt grew up moving frequently and has lived in Africa, Jerusalem, Sweden, and various places in the United States. His parents settled in Minnesota when he was in college, so he decided to attend the University of Minnesota for medical school, which is where we met. Matt is a med/peds hospitalist, which means he practices in internal medicine and pediatrics, but only in a hospital setting.  He also has a public health degree with interest in tropical diseases and international healthcare.

Dana with New Baby
You and Matt decided to take a “sabbatical” year as a family to Ketchikan, Alaska. What does this sabbatical mean — are you still working? Have you kept your house in the Twin Cities? What made you decide to embark on this adventure?

Looking back, our life was insane. We started our family while Matt was still a resident, working long, long hours, while I needed to work to support the family. Once we were used to that pace, we never really questioned why we were living that way; it simply became the status quo. Although people would joke with us about the craziness, we still thought all families had both parents working sixty hours a week. It never struck us that we could have a different life.

Annually, on the anniversary of the day we met, we would return to the same restaurant, share a meal, and reflect on our relationship. This past year, the conversation brought us to a realization: As a couple with a newly adopted child, we had been talking more and more about how we wanted to raise our children. We married each other because of a shared love for experience, travel, adventure, and bringing joy to our daily routine. We didn’t feel like the life we were leading reflected those values anymore; there just wasn’t time. So we asked ourselves: What’s the point of having these values if we’re not practicing them? That’s when we decided to hit pause.

We think of our move to Alaska as a “sabbatical” because of the intention it implies. For us, it’s a time of reflection, quiet, and progress. My husband has a schedule where he works seven days straight and then has seven days off, which gives us 26 weeks a year where we can both be home with our kids. I work about ten hours a week now, but with our goal of bringing more time to our family life, I work less during the weeks Matt is home so we can do the things that we didn’t have time for when we both worked full-time — like making awesome waffles on a Wednesday morning!

Ketchikan, Alaska
We kept our house in Minneapolis and intend to return or move on after a year or so. We have found the best things in our life seem to happen when we’re flexible, so I know plans can change. In the spirit of this sabbatical, we have looked at this as a defined period so that we can really focus on our specific goal of bringing time and love to our family unit.

What made you choose Ketchikan?

Alaska was really secondary to the decision. Once we made up our minds to do this, we looked at programs or areas that were of interest: valuable medical experience for Matt, family bonding opportunities, access to outdoor activities, and a strong arts community for me. In the past we had talked at length about spending an extended time in Africa, but with our student loans it would have been difficult to swing. Matt has friends who spent time in Alaska, and one in particular spoke highly of Ketchikan. The nature of the community here and small-town living suits us well.

Ketchikan
Tell us a little about your life in Ketchikan. What’s it like to now live in the woods on an island and experience daylight at 3:30 a.m.?

It’s been really interesting. When we got here, we had to adjust to many things after living in a big city with a lot of amenities. First of all, we chose to live on the ocean in a cottage. Being far from town meant planning our meals more intentionally so we could purchase groceries on a weekly basis, watching our water supply since it was collected from the roof, and generally living life in a quieter way.

The weather is very different than Minneapolis — far more temperate, but very rainy.  The community embraces the rain and has a lot of opportunities for kids — library reading groups, art projects, athletics, etc. And yes, the sun has been interesting: In the winter, the low sun seems to start setting at 10:00 a.m., which made me feel like the days were always slipping away before I’d even had my cup of joe. And now the sun goes down at 11:00 p.m. and rises at 3:00 a.m. Thankfully, with an infant, I have an easier time sleeping when I need to, so it’s worked out fine.

How have your three young children responded to the move and the changes? What do you hope they’ll take away from this experience?

In general, they’ve done well. We were most concerned about Simon since we worked so hard at attachment and stability; we didn’t know how it would feel for him to be uprooted so quickly after joining our family. We’ve tried to still be very intentional about our family unit — just as we were during the initial bonding period.

Simon

You just gave birth to your fourth child and made this move while pregnant. Were you nervous about being far from family and friends, familiar pre-natal care, etc.? Have you been able to find support as a newcomer in Ketchikan?

Absolutely. Living in community is a big value of mine, and leaving friends and family was a difficult choice.  Ultimately, we decided that this opportunity may not present itself again and, despite the risks, we’d make it together.

Dana Pregnant
Two gifts have emerged through the pregnancy. One is the incredible people here in Ketchikan. As an island, it’s very self-sufficient, and there’s an incredible network of women who support and love each other here. It’s extraordinarily welcoming. The other gift has been the relationship with my husband: Going through pregnancy or adoption is a wonderful time for reflection and introspection, and I’ve been able to share thoughts with him on a more regular basis. Growing a family together is fabulous marital therapy!

What do you hope this sabbatical will do for your family life, and how intentional are you being about what you’re doing (and not doing) during this time?

We try to reflect every morning on what the day will bring — a practice we never had when we both worked. Our values exist much closer to the surface of our minds now. Naturally, there’s still daily living to be done — paying electricity bills, enrolling kids in school programs, running errands — but we try to wrap those tasks around our greater priorities. Not that we call hiking or play time a “to-do,” but we have an easier time pausing during our tasks to make sure we are living the value of time each and every day.

Matt and I have both gravitated to activities and experiences that couldn’t be achieved when we worked 60 hours a week: I’m interested in completing my first triathlon this year, and learning to play the ukulele; Matt has been learning about salmon fishing and has even started having some success! Given that our primary goal was creating and using time better in order to bring our family closer, we try and use our time for meaningful experiences.

Fishing in Alaska
So far, how has your time in Ketchikan affected you and your husband as parents? Has it brought out different qualities or given you new perspectives?

We both notice greater patience. Having two toddlers and a pre-schooler can certainly wear on your nerves, but slowing down our lifestyle has given us more time to laugh. I feel less fried and like a better parent when I’m not swearing in the morning because I need to get three kids into a car in less than five minutes while juggling a to-go mug of coffee and three five-point harness car seats.

What have been the greatest challenges of taking this year away from your “regular” life?

It’s been challenging not to creep into old habits. Because I’m a consultant now, I sometimes struggle not to be the first to raise my hand in the spirit of being a “team player” and thus over-committing myself. In the past, I could slip into a workaholic mode pretty easily, and I’ve struggled to un-learn this practice so I can maintain balance and protect my family time.

In Alaska
So, do you really think this will be one year, or do you think your time in Ketchikan could stretch into something much longer?

We’ve had discussions about this. We’ve met several people who are on year five of their six-month Alaskan stint. We really like what this lifestyle has brought us and could see staying for longer. I do think at some point our goals may change. There are times when I miss my career and can see myself wanting to do more professionally, but we will cross that path when it feels right.

What would you tell another family who is attracted to the idea of taking a sabbatical year like this? What steps would you suggest they take to get there?

My best piece of advice is to create specific intentions for a defined period so that there’s something concrete to focus on. We thought about this as a sabbatical – not a permanent move, which made it easier to create lifestyle changes in the short term. Also, jump in, but give yourself just enough time to prepare. There are a lot of details to think about (especially with kids) — schools, housing, healthcare. Give time to get through the logistics, but not so much that the spirit of the adventure wanes. Lastly, ignore the Naysayers!

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A big thanks to Dana for sharing their sabbatical adventure with us. (I was amazed she had the time to respond to my questions in the midst of attending to a brand new baby!) I love this idea of giving the gift of time to each other as a family; it’s so key to bonding and making memories together, don’t you think? If you’re interested in reading more about Dana’s adventure, be sure to check out her blog.

I’m curious: Does this idea of a family sabbatical appeal to you? If so, where would you go?

PS — If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to check out Going Furniture-Free and The Modern Nomads.

Images: Dana Fitzpatrick

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Ben and Holly's Little Kingdom Image
We keep TV time to a minimum around here (in fact, we don’t even have a television: We download and stream things on our iMac), but when S and H arrived, we noticed that watching programs helped them to learn English more quickly and was (still is!) a lifesaver for me when I was trying to get dinner on the table.

It didn’t take long for B and me to realize that the best kids shows are the ones that don’t make the adults want to commit harakiri. (It’s no fun to have the Strawberry Shortcake theme song playing in your head over and over again when you’re trying to fall asleep, believe me.) Thankfully, there are a few shows that our daughters have loved that we’d be tempted to watch all on our own.

The first one that comes to mind is Peppa Pig, a British animated series for preschoolers that is created, directed, and produced by Astley Baker Davies. Each episode is about five minutes long and features a young female pig named Peppa and her family and friends — but the writers clearly throw a lot of bones to the grown-ups they know are watching. This is one of the very first shows our daughters watched, which would explain why they still call Santa Claus “Father Christmas.” (If you watch it, keep your eyes out for Miss Rabbit, voiced by Sarah Ann Kennedy. Her inflection is a work of comedic art – indescribable, really; it has to be heard.) Here’s a favorite episode:

Next up is Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom. This is B’s all-time favorite. Another British animated series created for preschool-aged children, it’s set in a magical kingdom of fairies, elves, and insects. The characters are sweet, the art design is charming, and the humor works both for kids and — at a different level — for adults. One of the highlights is the hysterical rivalry between the rationally minded Wise Old Elf and the air-headed fairy Nanny Plum (whose is also voiced by Sarah Ann Kennedy). So many quotable lines in this show… Here’s a fun episode:

Last but not least is Doc McStuffins. A Disney Channel program produced by Brown Bag Films and created (and executive produced) by Humanitas Prize and Emmy Award–winner Chris Nee, it chronicles the adventures of a six-year-old girl named Dottie “Doc” McStuffins who wants to be a doctor like her mother. She sets up a clinic to fix broken toys and dolls, who come to life when she puts on her stethoscope. With help from her best stuffed animal friends — Lambie, Hallie, Stuffy, and Chilly — Doc helps toys get better by giving them check ups, diagnosing their illnesses, and fixing their boo-boos. Each episode is 11 minutes.

The characters and story lines in Doc McStuffins are cute, but our favorite part of this show is its original songs, which are super catchy (check out Everybody Gets Hurt Sometimes). Doc McStuffins now has lots of spin-off products (and yes, we have a few), but it’s screaming for a musical; you can easily imagine many of these songs in a Broadway show.

The other reason we love Doc is that she’s a brown-skinned girl, and we’re always looking for good shows with main characters who look more like our daughters. Here’s an episode, in case you’ve never seen it:

Any kids’ shows that you secretly (or not so secretly) enjoy?

Image: Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom via uk.eonefilms

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Pull Up a Chair

July 18, 2014

Organic Cabbage
We decided to participate in a CSA this year, and so far it’s been great. In case the acronym is unfamiliar, CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture”: You pay up front for a share of the produce a farm grows during its season, and once a week you get a delivery of whatever is ready to be picked. Our CSA farm grows organic produce and delivers to our neighborhood; their stuff is top notch and well worth the cost — less expensive than buying high-quality vegetables at the grocery store each week.

We did a CSA a few years back, but we were deluged with so many greens I didn’t know what to do (given there were only two of us, including my picky vegetable eater of a husband, and one very small freezer). Now, however, I’ve got two kids and a VitaMix, so I felt equipped to jump back on the CSA train and try again.

I love planning meals around what’s in season (and in my fridge), but it can be hard to track down recipes this way. (If you know any great sites that organize recipes based on ingredients, do tell!) I’ve had beautiful cabbages recently, and while I love the idea of cabbage, I’m often at a loss as to what to do with them. Sautéing it wasn’t much of a hit in my house, and traditional cole slaw gets a little dull. But I’m grateful to an Instagram follower who recommended this Thai crunch salad from Against All Grain. I made it last night and it was a big hit. I didn’t include the snap peas (hubby’s not a fan) or the cucumber (girls don’t like them), but I did everything else pretty much verbatim (except for the coconut amines in the dressing — who has those lying around?). Anyway, yum!

Also, I made raw broccoli salad for the first time this week. We eat a lot of broccoli in our house, usually steamed, and I’ve been getting bored with it lately. The raw salad was simple: three cups of raw broccoli shredded in the food processor, toasted cumin seeds, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, raisins, and sliced almonds. Sadly, the rest of the family didn’t end up being fans, but I really liked it (and felt vindicated when my sister-in-law tried a spoonful and asked for the recipe).

Anyway, I’m not sure what’s on the menu this weekend, but I do have a fun girls’ night planned tomorrow to celebrate my sister-in-law’s birthday. (Have I mentioned how great it is to have family in the hood now? I’m loving it!) Since Noemi is from Spain, I’m offering some Spanish red wine today in her honor. Grab a glass and tell me about your week! Here’s my high and low:

Low: This past week I was very sad about the loss of a friend’s baby in childbirth. And I can’t stop reading the news about the recent jumbo jet disaster — so awful! My thoughts and prayers are with all those mourning the loss of loved ones this week.

High: Sometimes I stop and marvel at just how far our girls have come since they arrived not even two years ago. It’s easy to forget, but I like to really let it sink in every now and then. I’ll have to post an update soon on how everybody’s doing around here.

Have a lovely weekend, wherever you are, and I’ll see you back here on Monday!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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by Margaret Cabaniss

How to Mend a Sweater
Earlier this week, an article popped up in my Facebook feed that I just couldn’t resist clicking: “11 Skills Your Great-Grandparents Had That You Don’t.” (Gotta love some good old-fashioned “kids today” moralizing under a snappy BuzzFeed headline!) And, sure enough, I don’t have most of those skills: I have never foraged (unless you count mystery pantry meals on days when I forget to go grocery shopping), and I wouldn’t have the first idea where to begin making lace. Duly noted.

But! I was pretty pleased with myself when I got to No. 6:

Darning and mending. Nowadays if a sock gets a hole in it, you buy a new pair. But your great-grandparents didn’t let anything go to waste, not even a beat-up, old sock. This went for every other article of clothing as well. Darning socks and mending clothes was just par for the course.

Yes, and they had to walk uphill, both ways, for those beat-up old socks, too. We get it: We are not hard core.

How to Mend a Sweater
But it just so happens that I recently learned some mending techniques from a very 21st-century source: YouTube. I had a practically brand-new sweater with a small hole near the neckline (that was getting progressively less small with every washing); exasperated that I had only worn the thing three times, I figured I had nothing to lose by giving this darning thing a try.

I ended up combining the tips in this video with some instructions from Martha Stewart and wove a (very imperfect) basket pattern over the hole — first making parallel stitches in one direction, and then the other — to close everything up and provide a little stability to the fabric. After a brief 3-minute tutorial, I was able to do a serviceable job on my sweater:

How to Mend a Sweater
Ok, so possibly not as elegant as my great-grandmother could manage, but not bad for a first go! It’s definitely motivated me to practice on some other items of clothing that have been languishing in my “mend it or toss it already” pile — and I have to admit, it was pretty satisfying to tackle the job myself. Next up: butchering my own meat…

Are there any old-timey skills out there that you’ve been wanting to learn, or that you’ve recently taught yourself? Share in the comments!

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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S in Tunnel
It seems like we’re constantly comparing different parenting techniques these days – think Bringing up Bebe and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – and though it can sometimes fuel the Mommy Wars, I think there’s something to be learned from other culture’s parenting styles.

A recent article along these lines in HuffPost caught my attention. Christine Gross-Lo, who wrote Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Ussays she changed as a parent after being a mom for 12 years, living in Japan, and doing lots of “research, investigative trips to Europe and Asia, and dozens of interviews with psychologists, child development experts, sociologists, educators, administrators and parents” in over nine countries.

While Gross-Lo says that her goal as a parent hasn’t changed — to raise self-reliant, self-assured, successful children – American parents like her have it backwards, despite their best intentions. According to Gross-Lo, much of our modern parenting does not — and will not — produce the kind of kids we truly want to send out into the world. Gross-Lo throws out some questions to make her points: Would you give your 5-year-old a sharp knife or let her go hungry from time to time? How about letting your 3-year-old climb a tree? What about your attitudes about co-sleeping with little ones, or the amount of time your child should spend in school?

Differences in parenting styles reflect predominant cultural values that result in various strengths and weakness – and  it’s not a black and white thing. But I wonder if Gross-Lo is right, that American parents too often go about their child-rearing backwards — overprotecting, overreacting, over-scheduling, and misunderstanding the best ways to instill responsibility, creativity, self-confidence, and success in their children.

What are your thoughts? Do you feel torn sometimes between giving your kids greater freedom and wanting to protect them from harm? Where do you think your own parenting style comes from, and do you ever feel like it could use some tweaks?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul

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by Ann Waterman

Wedding
My husband and I celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary this week. Ten years isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of things, but in a world where so many things are fleeting and temporary, I think it’s something worth celebrating. And celebrate we will – with a visit to the church where we were married, followed by dinner, where we’ll toast to 10 wonderful years together and hopefully many more.

I’ve learned a lot in the past decade – not only about marriage, but about myself. Here’s some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned along the way:

An argument isn’t the end of the world — or your marriage.

As a child of divorce, marital arguments (even small ones!) terrified me. My instinct was to view every argument as the beginning of the end — not necessarily of our marriage, but of our happiness. My husband’s perspective was completely different: He saw arguments as mere low points in an ongoing continuum of peaks and valleys that mark normal married life. It’s what he saw in his own parents’ marriage. Over the years, as we’ve passed through various highs and lows, I’ve learned that healthy relationships can survive and thrive in spite of the occasional disagreement or argument.

Extend an olive branch…and If you’re offered one, accept it.

It may come in the form a joke or a change in tone, but if we’re frustrated with each other or arguing, I’ve learned to recognize my husband’s signals that he’s looking for a truce and is attempting to make peace. I may still be raging, but I’ve found that accepting his olive branch is the first step in moving out of our disagreement. We’re both able to reset, gain control, and be productive in resolving our differences.

Focus on improving yourself, not your spouse.

It’s easy to see only your spouse’s shortcomings while overlooking your own. I’ve learned that honestly assessing my own weaknesses and working to improve myself is much more productive. And if I find myself griping because he forgot to empty the kitchen garbage or left the toilet seat up, I remind myself of all the wonderful things he does do (which are many).

Don’t become too dependent.

One of the wonderful things about being married is dividing labor according to your individual strengths and weaknesses: I handle detail-oriented tasks like bills and scheduling, while my husband manages facilities — computer maintenance, lawn care, and home repair. The downside is that you can all too quickly become incompetent in those areas in which you’re weak: As the luddite in our marriage, I found myself relying more and more on his computer know-how to the point where I would call him the moment my computer started acting up. One day, he asked me what I would do if here weren’t around to help, and I didn’t like what I envisioned — a woman who couldn’t do anything for herself. I still ask him to help me out with technology glitches, but not until after I’ve taken a few stabs at it myself. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that, often, I can solve my own problems.

Physician, heal thyself: Take time for self-care.

One of the things I love about my husband is that, when he notices I’m stressed or tired, he encourages me to do whatever I need to remedy the situation (or at least mitigate it). Now, instead of persisting in a state of stress, I’m much more likely to look for solutions, whether it’s something as simple as stepping out for a walk to clear my head or asking for more involved help — and we’re all happier for it.

Marriage can be an incredible catalyst for personal growth. What important lessons have you learned in your own marriage?

P.S. — You might also enjoy reading about my wedding splurge and what I did with my wedding dress.

Image: Thomas Zeeb

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Giant Buddha by SiamSawadee
According to a new Gallup poll, people 65 and older feel better about their appearance than any other age group. Not by a lot, mind you, but it’s noteworthy: 66% of seniors feel good about their looks, versus 54% of 35-64 year-olds and 61% of 18-34 year-olds. (The poll also found that men feel better about their looks than women in every age group.)

This makes sense to me, based on our culture’s messages about youth and beauty and what I see around me every day. The 35-64 age range is when people — especially women — seem to struggle most with their appearance, because it changes so much during that time. It’s fair to say I don’t know any woman in that group who doesn’t have some complaint about the way she looks (though some are more obsessed than others).

I consider myself to be fairly laid-back in this regard, though I’ve never had any weight issues, and thanks to some good genes and a healthy diet, I’ve always looked younger than my age. But it’s not the externals that determine satisfaction; inevitably, the women I know who struggle the most with their appearance, as well as with aging, are those whom society would consider very attractive. I’m guessing one reason is that the more your identity is rooted in your physical appearance – and the way people respond to your appearance — the more difficult it is when your appearance changes. Add to this the images of “beauty” we’re bombarded with all the time, and it can be hard to accept wrinkles and sags, a changing body, and society’s preference for youth.

I’m guessing that, by the time we reach senior-hood, we start feeling differently about ourselves. We’re grateful just to be here. We’re more at peace with what’s happening physically and more focused on what brings us meaning — time with loved ones, the memories we’ve made, creative pursuits, staying as healthy as we can, our spiritual lives.

Now that I’m well into my 40s, age and beauty are things I think about more often. I’d love to know your thoughts: How happy are you with your appearance, and what makes you feel beautiful? How do you confront the idea of aging, mentally or otherwise, and how have you dealt with changes to your looks and body so far? What do you think are the secrets to being happy with your appearance and aging with grace?

Image: SiamSidawee via etsy

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Pull Up a Chair

July 11, 2014

Superstar
Has anyone got any ideas for a controversial post I can write that will kick my current most controversial post to the curb? My piece about “comfort nursing” my daughters, which I wrote over a year ago, was picked up yet again on a large Facebook group, and I got called mother of the year and child abuser within a span of minutes. I am neither, but I’ve got to admit, the former is a little more edifying.

On the one hand, I don’t mind that post getting more mileage — but on the other, it’s been such a small part of my parenting so far that it’s weird to be out front and center on the issue. That’s how it goes in cyberspace, I guess. I’ve probably got some other hot topics up my sleeve to write about, but nothing seems to get attention like breasts — and babies.

Speaking of breasts (sort of), I finally ordered a bathing suit — a recommendation by a SlowMama reader, actually — and I’m hoping it comes today; I’m a little tired of swimming in public in sports bras. I’ll let you know how it works out, but don’t hold your breath for a photo!

And speaking of babies, we got to meet a brand spanking new one on Wednesday: Friends of ours had a beautiful baby girl last week, and we brought them a meal. The girls were thrilled to hold little Lucia, and she actually fell asleep in H’s lap, which H was mighty pleased about.

It’s been hot here this week, so today I’m offering a refreshing drink my brother made us last weekend: a caipirinha. It’s very summery, and an ode to Brazil, who could probably use a little love after that thrashing they got in the World Cup. As for my high and low of the week:

High: I’ve been trying out some new parenting strategies, and they seem to be working — or working better, anyway. I’ll write about them eventually when I have a better grasp of what exactly I’m doing.

Low: Feels like I haven’t seen my husband in, I don’t know, forever? We’ve been like two ships passing in the night lately.

Bonus question: Do you enjoy posts about controversial/hot topics, or do you prefer lighter reading when you’re perusing your favorite blogs? 

Grab one of those Brazilian drinks and enjoy your weekend, friends. See you back here on Monday!

Image: Zoe SaintPaul

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by Margaret Cabaniss

happy_relationships_elderly_couple
As the unmarried “mama” of our bloggy contingent, I’m the last person who should be giving marriage advice — but psychologist John Gottman is a different story. His decades of research into what makes for happy relationships translates today into an ability to predict, with 94 percent certainty, whether a couple will split up or stay together, after observing them interact for only a few minutes.

Not only that, but Gottman says there’s one very basic trait that separates the “masters” (those couples in happy relationships) from the “disasters” (those who are unhappy, or who eventually split up). The secret sauce in happy marriages? No secret, really: It’s kindness.

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

“It’s not just scanning environment,” chimed in Julie Gottman. “It’s scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or scanning him for what he’s doing wrong and criticizing versus respecting him and expressing appreciation.”

Sound familiar? Read on:

Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued….

Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved.

It seems so obvious, and yet relationships today fail at a depressing rate. Maybe because we tend to think of kindness as a concrete act: giving a gift or a paying a compliment, say. But according to the Gottmans and other researchers, the kindness that makes for lasting relationships is an attitude built into every interaction — particularly those times when we’re stressed, angry, tired, or generally feeling anything other than kind.

As the Atlantic author points out, kindness is better viewed as a muscle: The more it gets exercised, the stronger it becomes. And there are a couple of concrete habits we can cultivate to build the kindness muscle:

One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there. An angry wife may assume, for example, that when her husband left the toilet seat up, he was deliberately trying to annoy her. But he may have just absent-mindedly forgotten to put the seat down. . . .

“Even in relationships where people are frustrated, it’s almost always the case that there are positive things going on and people trying to do the right thing,” psychologist Ty Tashiro told me. “A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it’s executed poorly. So appreciate the intent.”

So true — and equally applicable in every relationship (with coworkers, siblings, friends, parents), not just romantic ones. Another:

Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy. One of the telltale signs of the disaster couples Gottman studied was their inability to connect over each other’s good news. . . .

We’ve all heard that partners should be there for each other when the going gets rough. But research shows that being there for each other when things go right is actually more important for relationship quality. How someone responds to a partner’s good news can have dramatic consequences for the relationship.

This one surprised me, but it makes sense. As a congenital worrier who sometimes greets other people’s big plans with a list of questions about what could go wrong, the article was a powerful reminder of just how damaging that sort of response can be.

There’s lots to think about here, and I’m curious to hear what you think. Does Gottman’s research ring true to you? How do you practice kindness? What do you find critical in building strong relationships?

Image: via Pinterest, source unknown

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Palm Tree Swing
I was reading a post recently — can’t remember where at the moment — and the blogger mentioned that she remembers her mother being “stressed out” a lot, so she consciously tries not to be like that herself as a mom. It got me thinking: How stressed out do I come across to my daughters, and what can I change in order to be more relaxed and cheerful with them?

Parenting can be stressful, of course, and some people are more prone to anxiety than others, but I think there’s a lot we moms (and dads) do without even realizing it that make us stressed out around our kids. I know I can get into a habit of being grumpy, waiting for the next whine session or challenging behavior, and get lost in expectations and routines that aren’t serving anyone. You?

So what are the things we can stand to chill out about? The list probably varies, but I’m guessing many of us feel stressed about similar things. Food is usually a big one: Getting good meals on the table is hard enough, but add to it all the issues that can come up with kids relating to eating and nutrition, and it can get a bit crazy. I think one of the things that helps me the most is putting things in perspective. Talking to moms with a lot of kids is one way I do this; they’ve usually learned a thing or two about kids and food, including how to deal with tough issues that come up.

A big area I stress about is mess. I’m not even close to a neat-freak, but when there’s stuff everywhere and I can’t see the floor, it affects my sense of well-being. I try to let go and detach, but I also need to have strategies to make tidying up easier for all of us. That means finding new storage solutions, as well as helping my daughters pick their things up when it’s so out of control that they don’t even know where to begin.

Speaking of mess, I decided a while back not to care too much about how my girls look. I let them dress themselves (except for church and special occasions where I get more involved). If they get dirty, they get dirty; they can change if it bothers them. They wash up in the evenings, but only shower once or twice a week. Taking a more carefree approach to this kind of stuff means I’m not after them all the time about staying neat and clean, which means happier kids — and happier mama.

Generally, I think being less stressed as a parent is about regularly examining my attitudes and habits with my kids. Stress is inevitable, but I want my children to remember me as joyful, fun, and peaceful, rather than a giant ball of anxiety.

What stresses you out most as a parent? How do you manage it? Any tips to share?

Image via LoveThisPic

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