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What My High School Sweetheart Taught Me About Love

My husband and I are high school sweethearts. We are thankful every day for the fact that we got to be each other’s first everything. We love that we grew up together and share more than a decade of memories already. And we have said more than once that God put us in each other’s lives early for plenty of good reasons—not least that we would both be terrible at dating.

In fact, sometimes we were terrible at dating—while we were dating each other. We weren’t always smart or responsible. We didn’t always treat each other well. Things were harder than they should’ve been for a while. We were selfish, silly, and ignorant on more than one occasion. But even though some of those memories are painful now, I’m thankful for them, too. Because they taught me all of this.

No one, at any point in life, is perfect. People aren’t unicorns.

Thanks to years of hard work and happy love, my marriage is strong. The soundness of my relationship with my husband is a permanent, comforting fixture in my life. We rarely fight (although we certainly bicker). We understand each other. We know each other so well that there is simply no doubt. Already, we’ve had half our lives to fall in love over and over.

But neither of us is perfect, and we are still very different from one another.

When he eats, it sounds (to me) like a water buffalo chewing mud. When I insist we each get our own meals when we eat out instead of agreeing to share one (even though we’ll never finish both entrees), it makes no sense to him. I can’t stand how he wants to listen to talk radio all the time. He is somewhat disturbed by my affinity for psychologically dramatic TV, movies, and books.

His opinions on the environment sometimes ruffle my feathers. My methods for quiet advocacy of my faith and morals sometimes aggravate him. Our minds work in vastly different ways.

In many ways, we don’t—and never did—hit many of the checkboxes on one another’s “list of desirable qualities in a spouse.” Before we started dating, I pictured myself with an artsy/alternative guy who would never condone hunting and would buy me flowers every day. He probably pictured himself with an athletic academic who loved physics and would talk politics for fun.

But you know what? Lists change. My old list sucked. My new list starts with “His name is Erik” and ends with “He makes me love myself almost as much as he loves me.”

You absolutely must fight fair.

Our first few years together were not easy. We swung on a pendulum between blissfully spending all our time together and fighting like cats and dogs at the slightest missteps. As we learned to handle our own maturing minds, bodies, and personalities, we also had to handle each other’s—and to be forgiving and intentional throughout that period of growth. It was hard. We failed a lot.

Looking back, we know that we wouldn’t tolerate each other’s behavior from back then if we were faced with it right now. We needed to be together as teenagers because only teenagers are stubborn and strong-willed enough to cling to what we wanted as tightly as we did then.

What helped was establishing some ground rules for fighting. Here are a few:

  • Do not yell at each other.
  • Never curse at or insult each other.
  • Always say “I love you” when you say goodbye or goodnight, no matter how you’re feeling.
  • If one person needs time to cool off, they should ask for it respectfully and the other needs to respect it.
  • When you say you’re sorry, mean it—and do something to fix whatever you did wrong.
  • Do not bring up past mistakes or hold grudges.
  • Don’t generalize; it’s not fair or honest.

It’s a long list (and that’s not everything). We don’t always follow them perfectly, but once we started making a real effort, our arguments became fairer, more productive, and less frequent. It kept us together.

The person you love should push you forward (and help you get there).

“Good enough” shouldn’t exist in a healthy relationship. That’s how you get stagnant and stop growing. For me, the goal of marriage is to be comfortable, but never bored—to be at ease with your spouse, so much so that encouraging one another to keep improving and growing is a natural and positive process instead of a stressful one.

My husband pushed me to work harder in school, and my work ethic now is so much better for it. I pushed him to be more forgiving, and he’s a gentler man for that. We push each other to be better parents, better spouses, and better people. We have high standards for ourselves and each other. While we are compassionate in the face of failure, we always expect each other to keep moving. And we are always there to walk the path forward, together.

Two people in a serious relationship should never be hesitant to call out a mistake, voice a concern, or talk about the future. These can be some of the most fruitful conversations you’ll ever have with your significant other or spouse. They should not be shielded by fear or shame, and you should never feel like you need to walk on eggshells around the person you love.

Happiness is made when respect is shared and the self is given.

Bringing all of this together are two core concepts: respect and generosity. For a relationship to be long-lasting, healthy, and positive, both people must give one another an abundance of respect and an abundance of themselves. You need to take on an “us” mindset instead of an “I” mindset. This is important while dating, but it’s essential in marriage.

Because we were teenagers, it was very tricky for my husband and I to focus on giving respect instead of demanding it early in our relationship. We were easily hurt, but we hurt easily, too. When you lose track of how you’re treating someone because you’re waiting for them to make some change or move to “prove” that they deserve your respect, you lose yourself—and you lose them, too. Love needs respect.

In marriage, we are privileged to offer a full gift of self to our spouse. We set aside our selfish ways in favor of living as a couple, ‘til death do us part. Of course, we’re not stainless—I often fail to give my time as selflessly as I could, or to keep my patience, or to accept a change in plans because my husband’s needs have changed. But I try. And letting go of the self is a crucial first step toward a strong and cooperative marriage. Spouses are inspired by one another’s gifts and eager to return that love. It’s a happy cycle.

There are fine lines everywhere.

Finally, I think it’s important for everyone in a relationship to know that love is grey—it isn’t black or white. Each of us requires something special to feel fulfilled in a relationship. Each of us tolerates differences in our own way. And each of us deserves respect and generosity as a matter of course. So, as you’re dating and deciding on whether the person beside you is worth your whole life, it’s important to be honest and demanding about your needs, with yourself and your partner.

Ultimately, fidelity to your beloved, authenticity with yourself, and humility before God will all lead to a happy life and a happy relationship. It can be tricky to balance all three, but that’s okay. That’s the adventure. If we simply live it and are kind along the way (to ourselves and the people at our side), we’ll come out just fine.

The Healthiest Habit of the Happiest People

There are some very chipper people in the world who just radiate joy. You know them when you meet them: they’re smiling, kind, and content. They’re sure of the goodness in their lives, and the goodness in you—even if you’re still a stranger. And they just don’t seem to see the gloom that simply must be around them.

Sometimes we see these people and envy them. How can anyone be so positive all the time? How can life feel so easy to them? Why can’t I feel like that?

We’ve all heard (and maybe told) the anti-sunshine-and-rainbows jokes. Because the fact is that, much of the time, life isn’t pretty. And that might make us think that viewing the world “with rose-colored glasses” is rarely the best idea.

But this tendency is, in fact, a very positive quality. Studies find that people who foster a positive outlook on life (in a realistic way, of course) are happier, more successful, and even healthier.

Gratitude as a Virtue

Anecdotally, every one of those joyful people I’ve met in life have one thing in common: thankfulness. Simple gratitude goes a long way, it seems, in building a happier, healthier mindset; a more meaningful spiritual life; and a more positive outlook with which to enjoy the good things in our world.

For me, gratitude is a habit. It’s the best habit, because it works on your heart in so many ways. Gratitude forces us to recognize the wonderful things around us. It encourages us to hold onto our respect for others, and to speak positively to them. It fosters a consistent, positive prayer life. It humbles us. And it inspires us to be better people.

Though not listed among the Cardinal or theological virtues by Catholicism, the concept of thankfulness has been top-of-mind for many of our saints, and it is all over Scripture. Christ Himself gave thanks to God many times, often during some of the most pre-eminent miracles and moments of the Gospels.

Gratitude is part and parcel of many of our cardinal virtues. It is woven into justice, in that it acknowledges and rewards the rightness and generosity of others; it is a part of prudence, in that it requires mindfulness, care, and wisdom in practice; it is supportive of temperance, in that it shows us how to be selfless; and it is rewarded by fortitude, in that a thankful person is often a courageous and strong person.

And what better way can we supplement our practice of the theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—but by expressing gratefulness to God for those gifts, and to our neighbors for practicing them along with us?

The Wisdom of Giving Thanks

What makes thankfulness so important to us, as humans? We are responsible for so much in life, and yet so little. We are gifted with so much in life, and yet deserve so little of it. The least we must do is acknowledge this generosity and show our thanks for it. We must take nothing for granted, lest we learn the hard way how fragile our lives truly are.

Here are some bits of wisdom I love:

“No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” – St. Ambrose

 “Remember the past with gratitude. Live the present with enthusiasm. Look forward to the future with confidence.” – Pope St. John Paul II

“The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for what He is sending us every day in His goodness.” – St. Gianna Beretta Molla

“Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve You as You deserve.” – St. Ignatius of Loyola 

How to Be More Thankful

I have met so many beautiful people whose positivity is unwavering. Their secret, I think, is that they always find something to be thankful for. They always choose to acknowledge and lift up the good that surrounds them, rather than focusing on their struggles. They know that, in the end, we can control very little—but we can be grateful for very much.

In learning from them and from my own experience, here are five ways I try to make thankfulness a habit in my life:

  1. Always acknowledge the little things. When you come across your favorite number by happenstance, give a little thanks for the small smile it brings. When someone holds the door for you, always thank them out loud and with a smile. Upon learning to recognize the tiny moments of every day for which we can say “Thank you,” we become much more grateful for the bigger moments, too.
  2. Pray with proper order. There are several key elements to prayer, and thankfulness is one of them. It should come before we make requests to God. Remember ACTS when you pray: Adoration, Contrition, Thankfulness, and Supplication. My humility and penchant for gratitude improves greatly when I keep prayer in perspective this way.
  3. Share your gratitude with people you love. Regularly telling your family and friends about what you’re grateful for in life can help you and them be more thankful day to day—but do it humbly, and not to brag. For example, try going around the dinner table to have everyone share one thing they’re grateful for more frequently than just once a year at Thanksgiving.
  4. Hold yourself accountable to say thanks. I recently heard a lovely suggestion that’s specific to marriage: each night before bed, thank your spouse for at least one thing they did for you that day—something that made you feel more loved. It might also help to keep a gratitude journal, or to fill up a jar throughout the year with notes on what you’re thankful for each day, week, or month. The important thing is to set a goal and be consistent. It’s excellent for your mental health!
  5. Resist gossip. I find that gossip and judgmental thinking tend to become habitual—and that’s really too bad. The way we think and speak of others is influenced by paradigms. If my automatic reaction is to say, “Boy, that barista was sloooow today,” I might not even notice that the person behind me paid for a stranger’s drink while I was waiting just as a random act of kindness. I’d be too busy dwelling on my coffee’s delay.

There’s Always Something

Although certainly there are some trials in life that, when we emerge from them, they remind us in no uncertain terms that we have a lot to be thankful for. Perhaps you’ve survived a horrific car crash. Perhaps your loved one beat cancer. Perhaps you got the job that makes providing for your family straightforward instead of stressful.

But if gratitude is truly a habit, then it’s the in-between times that call us to be most thankful—the times when no apparent miracle has occurred, but the simple pleasure of a 70-degree day in March left you feeling just a little warmer (inside and out). That’s something to be thankful for.

6 Rules This Mom Must Follow

When I pictured myself as a mother, I tried to imagine what my voice might sound like when I catch my toddler drawing on the walls. I wondered whether my husband or I would end up as the disciplinarian. I smiled while picturing myself saying “Go ask your father” to a 7-year-old begging for a new toy.

It turns out—at least while it’s still fresh and you’ve got an infant or even a toddler at home—parenting is much more about setting and enforcing rules for yourself than for your baby. Suddenly you’re accountable to a pudgy little person who screeches in your ear at even the slightest mistakes.

So here’s the list of rules I’ve built for myself over the last year and a half. It’s made my mom life much smoother.

1. Don’t be selfish.

This one is absolutely first and most important. It’s also most difficult sometimes.

In this season of life, my family needs my time, energy, and devotion a lot more than I do. I chose these responsibilities. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I love fulfilling them. So when I’m tempted to feel bad for myself because I don’t get to do whatever I want for a whole weekend, or because we can’t just pick up and go out at the drop of a hat, or I can’t have a glass of wine with dinner, I try very hard to catch myself. What is more important: Seeing a movie on opening weekend, or breathing in some already rare cuddles with my growing-too-fast little girl?

Of course, it is critically important to set aside some time for myself each day and each week. But I do those things for family almost as much as myself. Being true to who I am and maintaining my own pastimes makes me a better, more centered wife and mother, after all.

2. Keep things tidy (and that includes yourself).

There are very few things I hate in life quite as much as laundry day. But I know—and I’ve taught myself this lesson many times—that simply ignoring a task doesn’t make it go away. My husband has his tasks, and I have mine—and it’s my responsibility to follow through on them.

Of course, it’s not just cleaning. Everything from keeping an eye on credit card spending to keeping the cars properly maintained requires consistent attention. Same goes for personal care. It’s relatively easy to maintain my health one day at a time; it’s a lot harder to circle back after a week of eating all the wrong things.

The better I am at keeping these simple duties under control, the less stressful they are—and the more time I can devote to more important things.

3. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Especially for new moms and those who stay or work at home, it can be incredibly difficult to let go and watch someone else step in and care for your child. Sixteen months later, this sharing of duties is still difficult for me some days.

For example, my husband took over the bedtime routine not too long ago. He is an amazing father; he’s the best man I could’ve asked for, for my children and myself. But I still itch to tell him exactly how to do things from time to time, despite knowing he’s quite capable of doing them his own way.

I know this is detrimental not just to my husband and other caregivers, but to me and to the baby. When I get this way, I find myself irrationally resentful of all that responsibility—even though I’ve placed it on myself. So when I step back and chastise myself for that self-centered need to see everything done my own way, and admit that I’m fortunate to share the load with some truly wonderful people, I’m a better mom (and probably a much more tolerable wife!).

4. Tell the truth.

Motherhood is overwhelming. Even when I’m not nitpicking every little thing, the sheer number of tasks and the weight of responsibility can be daunting. Add to that the hormonal implications of being shortly postpartum with a newborn (or, later, pregnant with a toddler in tow), the mood swings that come with a lack of sleep, and the frustration of just “trying things out” every time your little one hits a new stage, and there have been many times when I felt I was drowning since my daughter was born.

It’s one thing to follow Rule #3 and admit to yourself that you’ve taken on too much. But it’s quite another to admit it to someone else. That’s what I mean by “telling the truth,” and it’s something I’ve really had to practice. It’s okay to tell my husband I need extra help when he gets home. It’s okay to seek support from a mommy group. And it’s okay to pray for a little more peace when I’ve started running low.

5. Don’t raise your voice.

This isn’t a rule about discipline; it’s one about patience.

Patience is my biggest struggle as a mom. When my daughter was a newborn, the seemingly endless nursing sessions and unpredictable nighttime non-patterns would wear me thin. When she was a little older, the inexplicable crying fits or angry nap strikes would wear me down. And now that she’s a toddler, her repeated tendency to reject every dinner I make for her (and furthermore, throw it all on the floor) wears me out.

For me, being a mom is a constant effort to catch myself before I wreck myself. I have learned to smile when I want to cry. I have learned to redirect when I want to dwell. And I have learned to shut my mouth when I just want to yell. These new habits make for a much happier home life for all of us.

6. Laugh!

Though most of these rules are meant to hold me up when I’m starting to fall down, this last one is for recognizing every beautiful moment that comes with motherhood. It’s not often easy to be a mom, but it’s always an immense blessing—there is no greater joy, when you get right down to it.

So when my daughter does something funny, I laugh. When she reacts with giggles of delight to me doing some terribly embarrassing thing, I do that stupid thing again and again and I laugh right along with her. When I’m tired and want to get frustrated at something irrational she’s done, I laugh instead. And I think every one of those laughs breathes a little more life into us both, and helps solidify these perfect moments into memories.

 

As we all learn, adulthood replaces the simple accountabilities of following your parents’ rules with the complicated necessities of living in the real world.

Pay your bills. Get—and keep—a good job. Feed yourself nutritiously and stay active. Take sole responsibility for your behavior. Be practical. Be frugal. Be self-sufficient. Don’t screw up.

The stakes are high enough when it’s just you; they’re much higher in marriage, and they skyrocket once you become a parent.

For me, this evolution in life has brought about two very important lessons: I literally can’t do this on my own, but I have to hold myself accountable for doing my very best. And that’s what these rules are for.

mommy image

Let’s Talk About Mommy Image

We women are hard on ourselves. We are hard on each other. And moms are often the hardest.

I recently read an article about women who regret becoming mothers. If given the chance, they would go back and choose never to have their children in the first place. Aside from being bone-crushingly sad and sharply heartbreaking, I find this so, so frustrating. Can you imagine what it must be like to wish your own child out of existence? To long for their permanent absence? To wish you’d never met them?

I can’t begin to unpack all of the baggage in those thoughts. To me, there is the obvious conclusion that many of these women could be suffering from untreated depression. How else can you account for such a disconnect with one’s own identity (because motherhood surely does change our identities as women, as well it should)?

There’s also the clear problem of selfishness in modern culture. Although we can’t really know it until we’re in it, we all know that having kids will mean a serious life change—one that puts some of our own pursuits, by necessity, on the backburner. It means we can’t just up and do what we want anymore. There are more important things to worry about. There should be a natural bond in motherhood that makes those selfish impulses less important than the wellbeing of your child. If that’s missing, that’s a tragic problem that deserves attention. But I think, in some of these cases, people are just so caught up in a culture of “Do what YOU want because YOU want to and forget the rest!” that they forget that life can’t be lived that way in the context of a family.

Many of the women who contributed to that article cite societal pressure—to work, to not work, to breastfeed, to sacrifice—to “do right” by their children. They feel “trapped” and “coerced” into a life they didn’t expect. They feel forced to accept a singular identity as mothers. And they feel resentful that their children’s fathers aren’t held to the same standards.

Very little about being a mom is easy. I would venture to say that many new moms cry at least as many tears as their newborns during the first several months of life—and probably at several other stages of life, too. And there is a lot of self-doubt. That’s natural, and in many ways, it’s unavoidable. But it isn’t the doubt or the tears that should be life-changing. It’s the ultimate beauty of it all.

That said, it is incredibly difficult to live a life that basks in beauty when you can’t see the beauty within yourself. And that is where “mommy image” comes in.

Mommy image is the mental lens through which we view ourselves as mothers. Like body image, it is often a skewed perspective that casts a certain shade over the truth—one that is defined by unreasonable comparisons and unrealistic expectations. Whether that shade is warm or cold is up to us, but it is very difficult to see objectively, and it’s even harder to change.

In fact, body image is a major component of mommy image—and I think it’s an important and underemphasized one. There is so much pressure for moms to look a certain way. Tabloids are full of photographs featuring celebrities who’ve trimmed down immediately post-baby, and look like they did before pregnancy—or celebrities who haven’t, and are shamed for it.

During pregnancy, we are sold products to prevent stretch marks. After pregnancy, we are sold products to get rid of them. We are told to apply wraps or wear body shapers that will “shrink postpartum bellies.” In short, we are expected by others—and ourselves—to take time away from getting to know our babies and settling into our new roles to implement intense workout routines and carefully crafted diets (which may or may not be breastfeeding-friendly) so that our appearance might “go back to normal.”

But if there’s anything I’ve learned since becoming a mom, it’s that you don’t “go back to normal.” You need to find a new normal. Your life has changed—and so has your body. And that isn’t a bad thing.

Of course, we must do what we can to stay healthy. It isn’t a positive thing to ignore good nutrition and cease being active out of laziness or even distraction. But the focus should be a well-functioning body—not a good-looking one.

The fact is that the female body is not made to be looked at. It isn’t made to fit a Photoshop mold. And it certainly isn’t made to stay the same as life happens.

Though it’s an unpopular notion, the female body is meant to be given. We give ourselves to our husbands in the marital embrace. We give ourselves to ourselves when we maintain a healthy lifestyle and appreciate our appearance. We give ourselves to our neighbors when we spend our time and energy serving them. And, in such a profound and unmatchable way, we give ourselves to our children as we grow, nourish, and protect them from conception and throughout their lives.

When we focus on what we can give—and what we have given—instead of what we look like, it is a lot easier to see the beauty in our postpartum bodies. Those stretch marks and the loose skin exist because your body grew beyond the bounds of itself to accommodate a growing child, and to shelter her, in a warm, safe place, from a world she wasn’t ready for just yet. The extra padding on your thighs is there as a cushion for your child—one that will help nourish her as she grows in the womb, but also give her a soft place to land and hold onto as she learns to navigate life. The breasts that can’t seem to decide on a consistent shape, color, consistency, or size are working hard to feed your little one—and it is okay if this effort permanently alters their look, because it has significantly altered their purpose.

Motherhood has taught me many invaluable lessons, but one of them is to see the imperfections of my body and appreciate the miracle that left them on me. I can’t wish them away without wishing away the real privilege that gave them to me, and I would never want that.

Aside from just the physical, mommy image can haunt our minds with constant questions. Am I doing this right? Should I have tried harder? What will the neighbor think? Why can’t I keep my patience? How many times will I screw this up before I finally just get it right?

It is so, so hard to get past these thoughts. The first step is tuning everyone else’s judgmental questions out—because, like an annoying song, they can easily get stuck in our heads, to be repeated in our thoughts thousands of times until we just can’t shake them. I have had to learn to take advice gratefully, analyze it personally, and set aside what doesn’t work—no complications involved. This exercise both helps ease my doubts (hey, I tried, right?) and tune out the outside influences that make me question myself.

In innumerable ways, many of us feel pressured, judged, and shamed as mothers at one point or another. This is a fault of modern culture—and we need to get better about withholding judgment against one another. However, we also need to know that motherhood is about toughening up and finding your own sense of confidence and natural ability. Do not let others’ judgments affect how you feel about your family and your inner and outer self.

So what does your mommy image look like? Is your view of yourself as a mother tickled pink, mottled brown, or queasy green? We can all work on ourselves, and we can all work on how we view ourselves. You are deserving of your own respect. If you’ve lost it, how can you get it back?

When you find a way—by meditating, praying, repeating uplifting mantras, seeking support from others, or whatever works for you—please own it. Own that self-respect and know that your mommy image is one that you truly deserve. Because you are among the world’s superheroes.

5 Places the Time Goes When You’re a New Mom

Scenario 1: Suddenly it’s been 3 minutes and there are two lines on that test, and the two weeks I’ve been waiting for this moment hardly even existed.

Scenario 2: That surreal day of labor and push, push, push! and first meetings was 2 months ago, and we feel like she’s been here all our lives.

It’s 2016. Where has the time gone? For me, 2015 was a big, wonderful, crazy ball of blazing-fast new experiences. And I think I must’ve asked myself that question a few million times.

So when I really think through it, I can follow the minutes down into these wormholes:

1. Into your body.

I have this theory that time is physically absorbed into your bloodstream. This is how aging happens. And how, when you’re pregnant, every day gets a little bit tougher (the last few weeks are the craziest) and yet spins by a little bit faster.

It’s because your womb is filling up with 9 months of new life. That means all those extra calories you’re consuming, the extra water you’re drinking every hour, and the all-encompassing thoughts of “I’m carrying a baby around with me right now. How is this a thing?” are adding up. The end result is a brand new baby who is much greater than the sum of all those days. Suddenly the last 9 months—which stretched out endlessly in front of you at the beginning—are behind you in the blink of an eye.

(I’m sure it’s also how moms “forget” the work of labor and, soon enough, look forward to a chance to do it all over again.)

Sammy&Erik-101

2. To the dogs.

Wasted time is wasted life. For the first few weeks of a new baby’s life, it’s vital for Mom and Dad to do absolutely nothing they don’t want to with the time between feedings. Two hours can pass by too quickly, and when you’ve got a newborn at home, sleeping is a wonderful answer to the “Where has the time gone?” question.

Fast forward a few months, though, and I can’t always forgive myself those wasted hours. Maybelle is sleeping well at night; I should be adulting during the day. If all of those 2-4 hour blocks are spent on nothing much more than Netflix and the couch, it’s my own fault. But if they’re spent on laundry, errands, and maybe blogging a little here and there? That’s a win.

3. Over the rainbow.

Here’s another cliché for you: hindsight is 20-20. Want another? The grass is always greener on the other side. Clichés are clichéd for a reason, and that reason is that they’re almost always true.

When you’re stuck in the middle of an ultra-fussy growth spurt, and suddenly your easygoing baby is inconsolable for hours at a time, and you’re wondering why you have to relearn to be a mom every single day because what worked yesterday isn’t doing the job today, you look back on the last easy week with nostalgic longing. I catch myself doing this all the time. What happened to my happy baby? Why can’t tonight be like last night?

But here’s the thing: Maybelle is the product of every growth spurt’s progress. When the last one was over, she started smiling and cooing at funny faces. The one before that left her opening her eyes to the world, instead of staying cozied up in her own dreams all the time. So what will the end of this growth spurt bring? Being a mom has taught me that no minute spent embracing this moment—even if you’re also looking forward to the next—is wasted.

Even the tougher minutes are worth your love and attention right now. Enjoy them if you can, endure them no matter what, and know that yesterday wasn’t objectively better just because it was easier.

4. Onto the internet (and, hopefully, some paper).

The absurd procrastinator in me is so, so thankful for smartphones and Instagram. If I raised my own family before this century—when parents had to remember cameras, their associated batteries and film/memory cards, getting the resulting images printed, and then sharing those prints with their extended families—I’d be a hot mess of forgotten moments and missed photo opportunities. In that way, the instant gratification and real-time results of social media are a blessing.

Still, nothing beats a thoughtfully composed, physical photo album or a well-documented baby book. And that’s something I need to get better at.

The reality of parenting is that you experience every moment thinking, “Wow, I will never forget this milestone!”—and then, a week later, you can’t quite recall the exact tone of voice that inspired that first smile in your little one. So don’t be ashamed and don’t lose those memories: document everything, and share the moments that fill your heart to bursting. You’ll be glad you did.

5. Into your family.

All that time I spent fretting over what I did (or didn’t) eat and drink, what vitamins I took and when, how I clocked in my exercise—all of that resulted in a healthy, happy baby born at term. The time my husband spent fixing up little things in our house, keeping me happy and comfortable during the pregnancy, and looking forward to fatherhood resulted in a wonderful foundation for our growing family. And the time we spent enjoying each other’s company—just the two of us—while we still could resulted in a stronger, happier marriage and a partnership that has saved us both more than once.

The time we share with others results in the most growth. When I obsess over myself for too long, that’s when my anxiety jumps, my energy plummets, and my confidence wavers. But when I focus on making my husband as happy as he makes me, helping my baby grow, and giving my family the best chance for bliss, that’s when we all come out on top.

 

The question only gets bigger from here. In 2015, my husband and I decided started trying for a baby, learned we were expecting our first child, enjoyed a healthy pregnancy, welcomed our daughter into the world, and began learning how to be parents during her first two months of life outside the womb. In sixteen years, I know we’ll look at her and wonder when this little baby disappeared and a young adult began to emerge.

Here’s the funny thing about life: the bigger the milestones, the smaller the clock. Love them—and live them—while you can.

(Photo taken by Roni Rose Photography of Huntley, IL. Roni and her husband are magicians with cameras; check them out!)

Defending Chastity (and the Feminine Genius)

I recently read an article vilifying the virtue of pre-marital virginity. The writer claimed that girls—and the families of those girls—who make a promise not to have sex before marriage are afraid of female sexuality, devalue girls and women who aren’t virgins, and perpetuate patriarchy.

I disagree on all counts. And so does the Church.

Catholic teachings on pre-marital sex are both misunderstood as patriarchal and misconstrued as outdated. To begin with, the Church’s teachings on sexuality apply to both men and women. In the eyes of the Faith, men are not held to any different standards, nor is their worth greater than that of their female counterparts. Any suggestion to the contrary comes from a skewed cultural perspective—not from the catechism. No one can dispute that pop culture glorifies men for sexual experience and mocks women for it, but that doesn’t make it right, and it certainly doesn’t make it the position of the Catholic faith.

In truth, the Catholic Church holds the feminine genius in incredibly high esteem. During his papacy, Saint John Paul II was outspoken and passionate about the unique character and contributions of women in the Church, and in society at large. I’d encourage you to read his writings in his Letter to Women and Mulieris Dignitatem, which discuss the feminine genius—and the many and splendid roles of women in the Church—at length.

Moreover, the Church is, herself, personified as the bride of Christ. She is an essential partner in the salvation of humanity, and is both devoted to Christ and loved by him. If you truly reflect on that imagery—which was established centuries ago, at the foundation of the Church’s beginning—and it still doesn’t convince you of Catholicism’s love for femininity, I don’t know what will.

While it may seem easy to quote historically significant theologians who touted anti-feminist teachings, it’s essential to remember one thing: no person since Christ and Mary themselves has been without sin, and no one but God is always right. Because many of even our greatest theological minds may been tainted by perspectives built by the societal hierarchies of their times, it’s critical to remember that the words and teachings of no Catholic—whether saint, sinner, pastor, or nun—are taken without question. We all must recognize that, humanly speaking, wisdom is selective, conditional, and not without influence.

One of the many beautiful things about Catholicism is that the Church, as the bride of Christ, is perfect—even if her members are not. Such is the structure that has kept her faithful for 2,000 years.

In addition to her teachings against patriarchy, the Church’s teachings say nothing to reject the worthiness of women—or men—who’ve lost their virginity before marriage. Is any one of us made less valuable by sin? Less loved by God? Less capable of being forgiven? Of course not. After all, our Church knows of only two individuals who spent their entire lives without bending to the temptation of sin: Christ himself, and Mary, his mother. No person, obviously, could ever match the perfection of God. But we haven’t even managed to emulate the devotion of Mary—a fellow human, through and through.

Without exception, “Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are” (Centesimus annus, #11).

Finally, the Church isn’t fearful of female sexuality—or sexuality in general, for that matter. A thorough, end-to-end education on Catholic teachings regarding sex can be found in the Church’s theology of the body, as well as the catechism. Neither resource refers to human sexuality alone as wrong, evil, frightening, or disgusting—or, in fact, any negative quality at all. In truth, the Church regards sexuality as one of God’s most precious gifts to mankind: it is a surreal, unique opportunity to express and strengthen the bond between a married couple. More importantly, it blesses us with the opportunity to take part in God’s greatest act: creation. There’s nothing dirty or unbecoming about an honest, truly committed, selfless, and open-to-life expression of sexuality by a man or a woman.

So what, then, does the Church say is wrong about pre-marital sex?

To understand that, it is essential to understand Catholic teachings on marriage. Please check out this post for a holistic discussion on that, but here’s an abridged version:

  • Catholic marriage is a sacrament—which counts it among the seven holiest experiences anyone in the Church could ever experience.
  • Among other reasons, marriage is treated as a sacrament because:
    • It was ordained by God Himself, who joined Adam and Eve together at the very beginning of everything humanity has ever known.
    • It is the relationship in which we take on an extremely blessed and sacred role in God’s creation: that of participants in the creation of new life, which is the formation of everything out of nothing.
  • The marital bond is permanent and unyielding. As a relationship of choice—the only permanent relationship we choose to experience with a specific person, as opposed to being born into a family of blood relatives—it requires the most profound commitment there is, and therefore cannot be revoked or undone. Thus, husband and wife “become one flesh,” and cannot be separated.
  • Because that permanent, unique union joined by God cannot be fully comprehended by our limited human understanding, the Church teaches that sex is a tangible, experiential way for us to begin to grasp its profundity, in that it is inherently bonding and there is no other experience like it.
  • The relationship between husband and wife is central to the family, and thus plays an essential and unmatched role in the Church.

So chastity outside of marriage is taught by the Church neither as the selfish command of an overprotective parent, nor the devaluation of sexually active single people, nor the rejection of female empowerment. It is a holistic approach to valuing oneself for all that we are worth, because a true spirit of chastity is about more than just withholding from sex. It is taught to be a simple, selfless decision to choose love over pleasure, permanence over brevity, giving over receiving, and life over egoism.

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Marriage can—and should—be comfortable, not boring.

From where I’m standing, there’s one big difference about love in marriage, as opposed to love in dating. I bet you can guess what it is.

It’s comfortable. In every good way there is.

Remember the last time you had a big, draining day, and it was rainy and dreary outside, and your work was piling up so much you felt like you might just fall over and be buried in it and no one would notice, and all you could bring yourself to make for dinner was a glass of wine and PB&J? Remember how it felt when, at the end of that day, you were so tired you couldn’t keep your eyes open long enough to watch a movie or read a book, so you just got into bed, curled up under the covers, rested your head on the pillow, and let out one long, luxurious sigh of relief—knowing you had hours of blissful dreaminess ahead of you?

That sigh. That’s what love in marriage feels like.

It’s like this big letting go of the tension and stress of your individual responsibilities, when you can settle into your special brand of relaxation, let it hug you and know you, and be welcomed into a deep, recharging feeling that only this matters.

(Sounds whimsical, doesn’t it? Silly maybe. But so is love, really. And anyway, it’s tough to explain, so I hope I’ve managed to get it across.)

But for me—and for a lot of us, I think—there’s a funny thing about that sigh: almost every day, I forget how wonderful it is until I’m actually experiencing it.

Most big, exhausting days, instead of looking forward to my head hitting the pillow, I think, Man, I can’t wait to go home and have a glass of wine. Or maybe Ugh, a Pretty Little Liars marathon would really hit the spot right now.

And sure, the wine and the entertainment are great, and they do help me relax. But then I check the time and it’s 11:15 and, because I’m basically an old woman, I think Oh no, only 5-ish hours of sleep left! and I rush upstairs to get ready for bed. By then, I’m so disappointed about how little sleep I’ll get, I can’t even enjoy that sigh, and I wake up the next day feeling just as zonked as I felt after work the day before. It’s basically the worst.

That forgetting, to me, is the risk of comfortable love. I think the folks who say marriage is boring or dull or lacks excitement have succumbed to that risk. Because love in marriage is comfortable, it seems like it should be a guarantee—but it isn’t. Just like any other relationship, it takes work. And when a husband and wife stop working on it—stop trying to luxuriate in it, stop setting the time aside for it, stop sacrificing for it, stop trying to make it the best it can be for each other—that’s when it’s in danger.

When we let ourselves get into the habit of putting our jobs, our own hobbies, or our individual interests first, it’s inevitable that we lose what time we need to devote to our marriage. To be sure, those pursuits are worth having, and it’s healthy for everyone—married or not—to have their own passions.

But once a habit of poor prioritization gets started, it’s easy to focus all of our energy on fulfilling those individual needs. Eventually you feel like all of your mental and emotional rewards come from a promotion at work, or a big paycheck, or a record number of Likes on your latest Facebook status. Because they feel so rewarding, you keep investing in them. And, because you’re not investing in it, your marriage feels less rewarding. So the cycle goes, until your relationship is in serious trouble.

Isn’t it funny how the word comfortable has such a different context in your personal life than it does in your love life? How many times have you heard the protagonist in a romantic comedy say, “But it’s comfortable…” and you shouted “Stay away! Move on! Find something more exciting!” right back?

Of course, we shouldn’t be encouraging ourselves to settle for a not-so-great relationship because it’s comfortable. But we also shouldn’t be discouraging ourselves from getting comfortable enough to settle down—with the right person and the right preparation, of course.

I guess what I’m saying is, in the context of marriage, comfortable does not—and should not—equate to easy or dull. The comfort comes from knowing, without any shadow of a doubt, that this is the person you’ll spend your life with, that they love you, and that they’d do anything for you. It comes from knowing that the person you know best also knows you best, and that they’ll always have your back. The fallacy is in forgetting that you have to be that person for them, too. And that’s not easy.

It takes sacrifice to make your marriage a happy one. But it’s well worth it when your blood pressure is up and your stress levels are through the roof, and a big crisis comes down to the moment when you can come home to your spouse, drop your burdens, and think, This is everything I need.

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Battling Shame to Promote a Culture of Love and Life

I have never labeled myself as a feminist. I’m well aware that most feminists out there feel the same way I do: that men and women should be treated equally, paid equally, and given the same opportunities. But many of the connotations that go with modern use of the term “feminism” don’t sit well with me (although I know of a growing and beautiful movement that embodies feminism in the best way).

That said, there are two prevalent issues that never fail to spark some kind of feministy flame in my belly: the culture of shame, and abortion. I believe with my whole heart that those are the injustices that are really waging the so-called “war on women.”

To see what I mean, stop and consider what’s happening to virtually every girl and woman experiencing day-to-day pop culture and media right now.

Slut shaming. Virgin shaming. Skinny shaming. Fat shaming. Pretty shaming. Ugly shaming. Online shaming. In-person shaming. Smart shaming. Stupid shaming.

And do you know who’s often perpetuating that shame?

Women.

We mock each other for eating, speaking, praying, exercising, socializing, dating, having sex, studying, and partying too much or too little. We judge one another mercilessly and aren’t afraid to share those judgments with others. We gossip. We bully. We pick fights and wage battles over boys we barely know.

That’s incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking to see, but the thing to remember is that this lack of mercy does not define us. Inside every one of us is a beautiful, powerful heart made of love, not stone. So why don’t we let it shine? Why do we lock it up?

It’s because we constantly engage in something almost as bad as shaming each other: we shame ourselves.

It’s a vicious cycle, really. We compare ourselves to airbrushed fantasies, think of ourselves as sexual objects, and consider ourselves lucky when we capture the frisky attention of a male counterpart. In our weakness, we point out the faults in our peers to make our “positive” attributes stand out. We adhere to pop culture’s definitions of beauty and femininity and know that we don’t always fit them (because we can’t), but neither do our peers (because they can’t), and so we place the attention on them to avoid letting it fall on ourselves. And they do it right back. So on and on the cycle goes.

Without question, much of that shaming comes from standards that were set by men seeking the impossibly “perfect” woman. But it is neither empowering nor honest to say that they are solely responsible for that; we set the same—sometimes worse—standards of “perfection” and continue to demean ourselves into thinking they’re reality.

In the same way, even if we look in a mirror and make the sincere decision to love our bodies’ appearance, popping a pill so we can enjoy a man’s body—and be enjoyed by it—is not empowering, either. It’s debasing and objectifying. It’s telling us that, by taking a magic pill to suppress the bodies we claim to love, we can use our sexuality to physically enjoy ourselves “trouble-free,” and be the experience that man wants for his Saturday night.

Taking that a few steps further, it’s not empowering to be able to abort a pregnancy created by that Saturday night—it’s the opposite. As mothers, we bear the burden of telling that man about an unwanted pregnancy. That sharing role should be a blessing, not a curse; we should be able to joyfully tell the men we’ll always love, and who’ll always love us, that our children are on the way. But an unplanned pregnancy out of wedlock robs us of that; instead, we must face a near-stranger with life-changing news or, worse, must face a man we thought we loved as he reacts with disdain. We are blamed for not taking a pill on time or reminding him to use a condom. And we are told, “Go to a clinic and get this taken care of.” That is an unjust shame.

Even if that man offers to be “supportive,” we must take the pills that make us cramp and bleed for hours, or lie down and open up for a doctor who will violate our most private space with steel instruments and tubes that literally cut and suck the life out of us.

There is nothing empowering about abortion. For some women, it is forced upon them by a “partner” who refuses to support a pregnancy. Others feel forced by economic circumstances, uncaring families, or their own doctors. Regardless of the reason, women often feel isolated and panicked—neither of which will help them make a decision they’re truly, lastingly comfortable with.

Sometimes it’s selfishness, yes—and that’s a reason for another blog post. But more often than we’d like to think, women get abortions because they feel they have no choice at all.

If you’re concerned about equality in the workplace but don’t see inequality in a woman saying “I can’t stay pregnant because of my career,” you’re missing something important. To be sure, being a parent will infringe on the amount of time you can commit to your career. But pregnancy doesn’t require parenthood—adoption is always a compassionate and merciful option—so that’s not really the argument here. The point is that, if employers aren’t offering sufficient prenatal care and accommodations to their female employees, we have a problem.

And speaking of adoption, there’s some kind of stigma around that, too, isn’t there? Adoption is an honorable, selfless thing. Abortion is violent and degrading. Though certainly not as severe a stigma as it once was, no woman should be embarrassed to say she’s given up a baby for adoption. Is it painful? Of course. But she accepted the consequences of her actions, took care of her baby while she could, and chose to give him or her the best life possible—not to mention giving two people desperate to be parents a family of their own. It’s hard to find a greater gift than that, and there should be no shame in such generosity of heart. How anyone could ever argue that a child will be worse off with a happy, loving family than they would be never being born at all is beyond me.

As women, we have so many unique gifts to give and share with the people we love. Instead of focusing on how we can or should look or what we should and shouldn’t do, we are capable of using those gifts to make this world a better place. Shame, violence, and stigma aren’t going to help us do that.

Love must come first. Not shame, pain, convenience, or ignorance. Only love.

Stay humble, be merciful, and keep family first.

The other day my husband told me that we’re “at that stage in our lives where every decision we make is the biggest decision we’ve ever made.” In our early/mid-twenties, newly married, with a home, changing families and friends, and fresh careers, he’s definitely right.

At the moment, we’re in a pretty stable place. But that could change quickly because, as young adults, we just never know what might come up. He’s waiting for the next step in his career to become available, and I’m settling into new and changing opportunities in my job. We’re trying to maintain friendships that are evolving as our lives are diverted, maintain close family ties while our traditions must change, prepare for the fact that our own little bundles are probably on the not-too-distant horizon, and doing what we can to start our married life the right way.

It still takes just a little perspective to make prioritize everything as they deserve to be.

My grandfather-in-law suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s for almost a decade. His wife met his every need unfailingly. When he lost the ability to hold a conversation, she never stopped telling him how much she loved him. When he lost the ability to speak at all, she spoke for him. When he couldn’t care for himself anymore, she barely blinked. She became not just his wife, but his nurse, his caregiver, and his lifeline. And she didn’t once complain.

Recently, his health took a serious turn for the worse. Bedridden, unable to eat, drink, or move, he was surrounded by his family within days. All three of their children—from opposite corners of the country—rushed to his side. My grandmother-in-law held his hand and kept him comfortable and told him stories.

He’d been suffering a long time. We all knew he was ready to go Home. And though the last five years, at least, had been far more work than she’d ever expected in her marriage, his wife still wept to see him on his way out. She still ached to keep him with her longer—to stay at his bedside.

As she told him stories, she laughed about the hard times they’d had as a young couple. She joked about the time she fled to her mother’s after an argument, convinced she couldn’t forgive him. The rest of us thought that sounded pretty serious, but she couldn’t even remember what the fight had been about. She giggled over the antics that had once driven her crazy. And in the quiet moments, when the somber mood overtook her, she explained how she could barely remember the bad times.

“They just don’t matter,” she said. “All I know now is how good it was.”

Half asleep and painfully exhausted, she alternated between staying by his side and fluttering around the house caring for her children and grandchildren. She rarely stopped smiling. And though you could see the hurt in her teary eyes, she told him it was okay to sleep. To rest. To go to Him. He did and, though she misses him dearly, she’s doing her very best to cope and know that he’s in a better place, waiting for her.

That’s what marriage is about: sharing the burden of strength in life’s darkest moments. Knowing your place as a servant to your spouse—no more and no less.

So, in the long run, career adjustments don’t mean much, do they? Neither do day-to-day arguments, annoying routines, or undone chores. We shouldn’t make them bigger than they are. We can only make the choices that are best for our family. There are bigger things in this life and the next. Stay humble, be merciful, and keep your family first. That’s all any of us can do.

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Altering My Body Isn’t Essential for My Health, and Here’s Why

Essential: absolutely necessary or extremely important.

When you hear the phrase “essential for your health,” what comes to mind? Water? Exercise? Decent nutrition? Regular check-ups?

What about “Essential for men’s health?” Probably most of the same things, with some adjusted cancer screenings and precautions tailored to their risks. The same would go for women’s health, right?

“The health care law puts women and families in control of their health care by covering vital preventive care, like cancer screenings and birth control. … We believe this requirement is lawful and essential to women’s health.”

That’s a statement from the White House regarding the contraceptive requirement of the Affordable Care Act (emphases are mine).

Let’s step back and explore it for a minute.

As I mentioned in a previous post, hormonal birth control works by suppressing the female body’s natural cycles. It works to prevent ovulation, alter cervical mucus and the lining of the uterus, and change the way the cilia in a woman’s fallopian tubes move. It changes the way her body works by adding artificial hormones.

I’m not a doctor, but I can’t think of a single reason anyone in perfect health would find added hormones essential to their health. Is ovulation an illness? Is your reproductive cycle, which occurs on its own, naturally, without intervention, something to be cured, reversed, or stifled for the sake of “wellness”?

Does interfering with a natural bodily function equate to regular cancer screenings when it comes to monitoring my health?

There’s a growing movement to shed light on the use of artificial hormones on livestock raised for food production because a growing number of studies may indicate increased risk of health problems resulting from those hormones. But in the same moment a young woman might opt for organic beef, she’ll pop her birth control pill with a glass of hormone-free milk. What sense does that make? To me, it doesn’t make any sense at all. But she’s been taught to think it’s not just safe, but essential for her health.

Preventive care: measures taken to prevent disease or injury, rather than cure them or address their symptoms.

Hormonal birth control doesn’t cure disease—it disrupts a natural cycle and, in fact, can mask underlying problems. Though the medical community hasn’t come to a consensus on all of the below side effects, some studies show it also puts women at increased risk for a host of medical problems, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Blood clots
  • Certain types of cancer (including breast cancer)
  • Ectopic pregnancy (the number one cause of maternal death)
  • Uterine perforation (with an IUD)
  • Infertility
  • Aches and pains
  • Painful intercourse
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Diabetes (among women with increased risk)
  • Stroke
  • Cervical cancer (among women with HPV—which is, sadly, about one-third of women in their twenties)
  • Weight gain
  • Emotional problems (including depression) 

(Much of this information I learned in several places, but these two are particularly helpful: this blog post includes extensive citations and references, as well as further details; and this website, while geared toward a specific message, is also very thorough and insightful. Check them out to learn more.)

And, even if some of those risks are small and/or inconsistently displayed among women, is it worth potentially compromising our health at all when natural, risk-free alternatives exist? People make the same arguments against eating organic, unmodified foods — but a lot of us choose to err on the side of caution there, don’t we?

Additionally, artificial hormones suppress a woman’s natural hormone production and, therefore, overrule her natural cycle. That means any undiagnosed medical problems—such as endometriosis or anovulation—can go unnoticed and unaddressed until they’ve had a serious effect. She may not even realize these problems exist until she’s actively trying to get pregnant and can’t, or discontinues the birth control and finally notices symptoms.

Often, women take hormonal birth control to “restore hormonal balance” and treat unpleasant physical symptoms, like irregular cycles, PMS, or even acne. But taking birth control only masks the symptoms—it doesn’t get to the heart of them. Especially in girls and young women, cycles tend to be inconsistent for a while as the body matures and adjusts to adulthood. It’s a fact of life, and altering it artificially doesn’t change that. When she comes off the pill (or other method)—often years later—her body may still have a tough time normalizing itself after years of inhibited functioning.

There are natural ways to balance hormones. Something as simple as a diet change, vitamin supplements, and exercise can make a big difference. Of course, all of this should be discussed with a doctor. But the point is that there are other options, whether we hear about them in everyday conversation or not — so you don’t need to take hormonal birth control. There are also non-hormonal ways to treat things like acne and cramps.

So how are suppressing a natural function, potentially masking health issues, and increasing risk for other health problems essential for my health? How is that preventive care?

Women should be well-informed about how to meet their unique health needs safely and effectively, instead of being immediately given a script for birth control pills just because it’s the common or easy thing to do. What do we have to gain, as women, by denying our natural state and altering the way our bodies are made to function? I’ve asked it before, and I’ll ask it again: what message does that way of thinking send to our sisters, our daughters, and ourselves?

No Flaw