What is a Marriage Made of?

UnknownOn Valentine’s Day this past year, my mother told me my father bought her a necklace she liked in the store. I asked what she bought him. Mom said she bought Dad a Kit Kat bar.

“Dad gave you a necklace, and you bought him Kit Kats?” I asked.

“He likes Kit Kats,” Mom replied. “And I bought him a giant, king-sized Kit Kat.”

Today is my parents’ 48th wedding anniversary—two years away from their Golden anniversary. Dad offered to make reservations at a swanky restaurant in Laguna Beach. Mom suggested they get noodles at a local strip mall restaurant instead, which suits my father just fine.

Theirs is the marriage that formed some of my earliest notions of matrimony, the marriage I’ve been most privy to, next to my own. My parents are closing in on 50 years. Mine officially ended on what would have been our 14th wedding anniversary.

I think a lot about what makes some marriages last and others fail. I’ve read stacks of marriage and relationship books after my divorce, which is a bit like going through your car’s owner manual after you’ve signed the pink slip transferring ownership.

I’ve often thought it would be interesting to gather couples married for 50+ years and ask them how they’ve made their marriages last. No doubt, some couples just endure. But I’d like to know about the marriages that last and grow richer through the years.

My parents would tell you their marriage has not been endless walks on the beach and handholding at sunset. They’ve fought over in-laws and spending priorities…and everything else under the sun. They’ve had long, drawn-out arguments that started over who forgot to do something or why something was done, or not done, a certain way. And they often don’t seem to notice how short and sharp they sound talking to each other, in private and in public.

Over the years, I know they have come to places in their marriage where they’ve wondered about the very essence of the other, the impossible finality of traits that drive them insane…and likely won’t change.

But somehow, teetering on the precipice of calling it quits, they’ve managed to step back each time and stand by the vows of “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…”

My father is the romantic one in their relationship—the one who still buys tickets to Broadway plays, where they both complain that the show isn’t as good as “The Sound of Music” or “My Fair Lady.” Dad plans dates to the Hollywood Bowl, or hires a singing telegram to show up at a house party, or surprises my mother with long-stemmed roses while she is just as happy with a flat of flowers from the nursery to plant in the backyard.

One year, Dad went through extraordinary efforts to surprise my mother with a designer dress she liked, talking her out of buying it at the store and having the sales woman quietly send the dress to his office. A few weeks later, on my mother’s birthday, Dad insisted he needed to pick up something from his office before they went home to get ready for an evening event, which infuriated my mother. She sat in the car mumbling and grumbling about how little time she would have to get ready. That was the afternoon the elevator in Dad’s office building malfunctioned, and Dad got stuck in the elevator with Mom’s “birthday suit,” waiting for someone to rescue him.

Mom gets Dad Kit Kats for Valentine’s Day. She also counts out vitamins and keeps track of any medications Dad needs to take. Over the years, as my father built his own business, my mother—an introvert who is shy until she knows you well—stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him as they met with his clients over dinner and entertained an endless stream of business colleagues at our home.

She’s not overly sentimental by nature, but I’ve watched my mother zealously stand in Dad’s corner throughout his career.

“Your Dad has so much integrity. He cares very personally about the welfare of each of his clients,” she’d tell me. She admires my Father’s work ethic and his honesty. She’d watch him handle the stresses of a fluctuating stock market and anxious clients watching the fluctuating market, and she would look for ways to help him manage the stress. Mom handled all of his packing for business trips, took him out on long walks in the evening where he could disconnect from persistent clients who wanted to reach him at home (in the pre-cellphone days); offered an empathetic ear when my father just needed to talk about his frustrations at work.

Two years ago, Dad was hospitalized with pneumonia and other health complications during a family vacation in Hawaii. Mom stayed up several nights, washing and changing his sweat-drenched pajamas before he was admitted to the hospital. She called family doctors for advice and stayed at his hospital bedside. Mom took active care of him through his convalescence. She may not be a romantic soul, but Mom loves people through her actions and her unwavering commitment.

At the worst points in their marriage, someone could have said, “Don’t stay in it for the children. If you’re not happy, your kids won’t be happy. Kids always know when their parents are miserable, and everyone is better off if you end a bad situation.” It’s the advice I hear offered up to people regularly these days. And I’m sure that in some situations, it might possibly be true (although social-science research would say divorce might be positive for adults but often has long-term detrimental effects for children*)

I look at 48 years of my parents’ marriage, and I’m both grateful and glad they stuck it out. For my sister. For me. For them. I don’t believe I’d be better off today if my parents had opted to divorce. I would have hated a parenting plan that divided my life between two houses. The financial resources stretched to cover two households would have closed off all kinds of opportunities I enjoyed growing up and through my college years. I can’t fathom the emotional upheaval I would have experienced if my parents had divorced, except by watching the life my kids have had to navigate.

Mom & Dad & Grandkids
My mother and father with their six grandchildren.

Today, my parents’ union also serves as the intact marriage my children get to see up close. My kids witness their romantic gestures. The spats. The respect and empathy. My children see commitment and sacrifice and partnership.

Grandma and Grandpa’s marriage is an example to my kids of what it looks like to live out the vows of “for better, for worse,” with both scenarios present on most days.

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*Judith Wallerstein, who passed away in 2012, was a clinical psychologist and a researcher on the impact of divorce on children. Wallerstein, who conducted longitudinal studies over 25+ years on children of divorce, ignited a firestorm when she published findings on the long-term negative impact of divorce on children.While parents often claim their kids will be better off if they divorce because of the negative effect of marital tensions, Wallerstein’s research published in “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25-year Landmark Study” presented a different picture.

Another interesting article on children and divorce is this older piece from journalist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. 

Going Solo

Earlier this week, I was trading text messages with my friend Tim, a widower raising three sons and a daughter on his own. We were commiserating over parenting issues (I have the inverse of his family, with three daughters and a son) when Tim mentioned that he knew a thing or two about raising daughters…and had the toe nails to prove it. Hmmm…toe nails?

Tim’s 8-year-old daughter, Mary, wanted to gain some experience with nail polish and decided to practice on her Daddy’s toes. Bright pink polish. (You need to know that Tim is 6’ 3” to fully appreciate the image of him with flamingo-colored toe nails.) Mary finished his left foot and decided to stop. One foot was all she wanted to do.

Tim’s been walking around for a few days with his pretty, pink toe nails. I guess he’s enjoying them too much to find or purchase some nail polish remover.

That’s life when you’re both Dad and Mom to your kids. Parenting is full of some of the sweetest moments of unrehearsed whimsy, but single parenting can also be a bit like having fewer hands than you need, and two left feet, minus the pretty polish.

Sure, my children have their Dad in their lives, an evening a week and every other weekend, but it’s not the same as living in a household with both Mom and Dad.

I have no argument over the value of two-parent families. I believe two parents are optimal for children, wherever possible. But it’s frustrating to have single parents, particularly single mothers, held up as the causal factor of various societal ills such as gun violence.

Like it or not, single-parent households are a reality in the United States where 13.6 million parents are raising 21.2 million kids on their own, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics. That number represents just over a quarter of the children under the age of 21 in the U.S today.

Those single parent households statistics include families like Tim’s, who’ve lost a spouse and parent through death. And those single parent household numbers include my family, through divorce.

I wince over the label “single mom.” I’m afraid it conjures up negative images and (shall I say it?) binders full of women: Unemployed women. Women on welfare. Undereducated women. Promiscuous teens.

The term elicits disparagement or pity from people, and I cringe over the thought of being the recipient of either sentiment. But it’s my reality; the label that technically fits, even if the stereotypes don’t.

I don’t intend to delve into measures and programs and policies that might help to lower the number of single parent households in America. Interesting topic, but not one for me to take on right now. Instead, it might be helpful to share some thoughts on what I’ve learned about being a single parent.

It takes time—and time for yourself—to get it together

You know that speech flight attendants give about securing your own oxygen mask before assisting those around you? It’s relevant to single parenting as well. In the immediate aftermath of death or divorce, there’s so much to handle….everything from legal tasks, to household issues, to your kids’ needs. Unfortunately, there’s no child-pause switch to activate when you’re overwhelmed by it all.

I came down with pneumonia a few years ago and, in desperation, planted my kids in front of the television so I could sleep for a few hours. I awoke to my 4-year-old, Katie, standing by my bed poking me. “Are you done being sick yet? I’m hungry,” she told me.

A friend listened to me share my concerns about my divorce’s effect on my children and my fears about not having enough time and energy for them. Then she said to me, “The best thing you can do for your kids is to take the time to be solid and stable yourself.”

She was right. You can’t assist your children with their oxygen masks if you’re passed out on the floor. I had to be sure I was exercising, eating well, and getting enough rest (ha!). I’ve learned to streamline household tasks and decline extra activities that just can’t be maintained in a one-parent household.

Initially, it felt selfish to hire a sitter to go out to eat or to see a movie with friends, but then I remembered that these actions are my way of securing the oxygen mask to my face. Sure, there are extremes: Parents who are constantly out taking care of their own needs while their kids struggle through on their own. It’s a fine balance of making your kids your priority, but taking care of yourself in the process.

It takes a village

More than ever, I’ve needed a village: a community of church members, neighbors and friends who help to fill in the gaps. These are people like my girlfriend Judy, who drove 30 minutes to my house and then 40 minutes over to Gig Harbor to take my daughter Megan to a Halloween party when I was down with pneumonia.There were neighbors who came over to my house to stay with a sick child when I needed to be in the office for a meeting.

I don’t know what the mom/son equivalent is to dads-painting-toe-nails-with-their-daughters, but I do worry about raising a son in a female-dominated household. My son, Ryan, might have been 3 or 4 years old when he came up to me one day and told me he couldn’t find his panties. Yikes.

I wish that was the last of it, but just last year I discovered I didn’t know a thing about boys’/men’s underware. I thought there were boxers and there were briefs, only to find out there was a third category: boxer briefs. How did I not know this? And which ones to buy for Ryan?

I consulted mom friends with sons and husbands who know these things and was advised that Ryan needed boxers or boxer briefs before he gets to the locker room.

I know, crazy example. But it’s the stuff that keeps me up at night!

(By the way, I laughed my way through a recent story on public radio’s The Vinyl Cafe where the mom was utterly perplexed when her son told her she neglected to buy an item on his sport’s uniform checklist: athletic support. She had checked it off assuming she was his athletic supporter!)

Moreover, I need a close community of families where my son and daughters can interact with other fathers; where they can see how husbands and wives relate to one another. Keeping my own circle of friends ensures that I’m not tempted to turn my children into my confidants. I love spending time with my kids. They’re funny and mature, and it’s a blast to talk with them. But end of the day, I’m their parent and they are my children—children who need to be kids without having to be my friend or assume responsibilities for me.

It takes hope 

Finally, I’ve learned my kids can adapt and even thrive despite adverse situations. A relative of mine sighs and murmurs to my Mother every time she sees her over how sad it is that my kids will be “so damaged” because of the divorce. She means well. She’s full of sympathy and pity for us, but it’s hard for her to fathom how much power we have to choose our response to difficult things.

I wish my children got to experience growing up with both of their parents under one roof. I wish my nieces’ father didn’t pass away when they were so very young. I wish Mary could paint Tim’s toe nails…and her mother’s as well.

It makes me long for another home; A different world. But for now, perhaps what my kids gain from the losses is a clearer understanding of what it takes to make a marriage last from their parent’s mistakes. They’ve watched me struggle, but maybe they’ve also learned that it’s not the end of the world when people leave or someone dies. In the hard stuff, maybe they’ve witnessed what it means to have a peace that passes understanding and composure regardless of life’s circumstances. I don’t know, but this gives me hope.

No, Katie, There is No Santa Claus

Kids, cousins and Santa in 2009Katie has been asking to take a picture with Santa for the past few days. She usually avoids pictures, so I was perplexed until I heard her whispering to Paige that she wanted to sit on Santa’s lap and pull his beard to see if it was real. “I’m also going to see if the elves’ ears are really pointed,” she told Ryan.

Tonight, Christmas Eve, Katie talked her sibs and cousins into a slumber party in my sister’s family room. They’re sleeping by the fireplace so they can wake up and see if Santa really comes down the chimney.

At bedtime, they were rolling around in their makeshift bed like puppies (puppies dressed in Christmas PJs) when I realized Ryan wasn’t in the picture. My sister went looking for him and found him eating Santa’s Christmas cookie.Ooops! This cookie was for Santa?

I haven’t cultivated the notion of Santa with any of my kids, but Katie’s sorta playing that she’s a skeptic of a cherished belief. You have to know Katie for that to make any sense. She’s the kid who relishes dispelling myths, even as she wants to believe…

With or without Santa, I love Christmas. While I hear others sigh over the traffic and bustle and seasonal stress, I happen to relish it all. Busy downtown sidewalks. Crowded malls. Bring it on. I love decorating the house and wrapping presents. I’m game for the double- and triple- booked days of parties and festivities with everyone!

Even so, I am keenly aware that the real tidings of great joy remain in the proclamation: For unto us, a Child is born. Unto us, a Son is given.

Christmas took on a particular significance the year Eric and I celebrated our first Christmas as parents. It was profound to hold little Megan at 10 months and contemplate the birth of Jesus as a baby in our world.

Today, with a dozen more years of life and motherhood under my belt, my understanding of Christmas continues to change. Sure, it’s still a celebration of our dear Savior’s birth. It’s God’s magnificent gift to this world. It’s only lately that I’ve started to grasp what this joy to our world really meant for God.

According to the parenting plan drafted in our divorce, our kids spend even-year Christmases with their Dad; odd years with me. When school let out for the holidays last year, the kids, their friends, and I baked and decorated cupcakes. My mother was visiting for her birthday, so we brought out a cake, sang to her, and then the kids left for their first Christmas with their Dad and his new wife.

I had never spent a Christmas without them since they were born. The house was too quiet. Too empty. My sister and nieces were stuck in Portland’s snowstorm. My Dad wasn’t flying up to join us until Christmas morning. There was little energy or enthusiasm to cook a big feast, so Mom and I went out to eat at the Lobster Shop for Christmas eve. I was so thankful to have my Mom in town, but it was awful to spend Christmas without my kids.

We didn’t read the Nativity story or open our stockings on Christmas eve. No one pestered me on Christmas morning to get up to open presents. There were no squeals and shrieks and hugs of joy over long-desired gifts. No demands to find batteries or play a new game or assemble something for someone.

I ached. And I fumed. I hadn’t wanted a divorce; hadn’t chosen this. And yet the standard legal agreements for children of divorce pretty much divide all major occasions without regard to who wanted out. It seemed so unfair. So unjust. Half of me understood that Eric should spend time with his children. And they should spend time with him. But the emotional side of me felt that he chose to leave, that he voluntarily walked away from our family for another one. So why should he get his new wife and his kids while I spent Christmas without them?

I tried very hard to put myself in Eric’s shoes and imagine the Christmases he spent without the kids. I tried to put aside the “he chose this” and find a place in my heart that wanted his joy and his happiness. To be honest, I couldn’t get there.

Our kids kicked a fuss about going to their Dad’s when Eric first moved out, but eventually they settled into the routine. They still balk about the disruption to their lives, the back and forth nature of it all, but I know that they’re mostly okay when they’re with their Dad.

As I trudged through the holiday last year, I thought about how difficult it is to wish someone well when they’ve hurt you. I thought about my kids and how much they mean to me, and I wondered how I’d feel if I knew my kids were going to struggle or suffer when they were with Eric. Suppose I knew they would be mocked, beaten or killed if I sent them there? Would I voluntarily hand the kids over at Christmas out of sheer concern for Eric’s happiness and well-being if it meant my children would be mistreated?

It was the first time that I really began to comprehend that “joy to the world” meant aching sorrow in heaven. In order for us to receive the gift of the Son, the Father had to hand over his beloved child. And He did it. Willingly. For a people who had rejected him…and would reject him again. He did it voluntarily, without a parenting plan telling him he had to. His Son suffered, and God didn’t swoop down to shield him from our harsh world. He was nailed to a cross, and God seemed to have forsaken Him.

Christmas will never be the same for me after last year. I listened to Ryan and Katie’s slumbering breaths as they shared a room with me last night and was profoundly grateful that I had this Christmas with them. I wrapped their gifts and anticipated all the fun they’d have with their cousins ripping off the paper in the morning. I played the game Around the World with Megan and reveled in the fact that she knows a lot these days…and beat me.

I have a tendency to be skeptical about so many things. A bit cynical at times. It’s work to have “faith be my eyes.”

No, Katie, there is no Santa Claus, but still, we can believe. We can believe because while we rejected him, God put our happiness above His own. While we were yet sinners, Jesus came to save us. And so, a weary world rejoices.

Unto us a Son is given. Unto us a Child is born. He is our Wonderful Counselor. Everlasting Father. Our Prince of Peace.

Pain is Beauty

I talk to my mom on the phone most evenings. The frequency of our phone calls tapered to once a week conversations during my marriage and then re-instituted itself as an almost daily routine upon my divorce.

It’s too lonely not to have someone to share things with when the kids are asleep at night. We talk about work, my kids, and life in general. Besides your spouse, who else wants to hear excerpts of your kids’ funny conversations except grandparents?

[My kids watching silkworm moths mate today.]

Paige: What are they doing?

Ryan: They’re mating.

Paige: What does that mean?

Ryan: It means they’re married, Paige.

Paige: But they just hatched! How did they get married so fast?

Mom and Dad took off this week to see the cherry blossoms in Japan, so even with email and skype, it’s been difficult to maintain our daily chatter. Our last conversation, however, was about the unexpected good that comes from losing things. Not “I-lost-my-car-key” kinds of things. The significant things like losing one’s health; a spouse; a marriage; or even a child.

Losses like these are beyond horrible, yet I’m frequently surprised at the number of people I’ve encountered who eventually emerge on the other side of grief and say they were oddly glad for the painful experiences they’ve been through. I think I am starting to count myself among the ranks of those who have experienced loss and yet find myself grateful for the perspective.

It’s not that I celebrating the demise of my marriage. I just believe that hard experiences are fertile ground for growth.

What is the good that’s come out of suffering? There’s so much. A short list might include: Empathy. Humility. A realization that we’re not in control of things. A recognition of the false gods we’ve instituted into our lives. A heightened sense of what’s really important. A closer relationship with God.

In my own life, I’d say that, historically, I have not been high on the empathy scale. I’m not sure if that’s a genetic predisposition or perhaps the result of too much ease in my life, but I haven’t had to struggle for much. Academic success. Good friends. Work/promotions. Most things came fairly easily to me without a lot of striving.

I suspect that those who have to work harder at life develop more empathy for other’s struggles. Growing up, I had this mental checklist of sorts: succeed in school; get into a good college; land a meaningful job; get married; buy a house; advance at work; become a mom. Amazingly, life cooperated with me. Instead of recognizing these as undeserved blessings, I took a ton of credit for it all: Wow, I’m good. I made all the right choices and look at how on-course my life is!

It would be fair to say I was arrogant, and it’s difficult to develop empathy for others when you haven’t struggled or failed at things.

My divorce was possibly my first real, significant failure. Ever. In retrospect, I think failure humbles you and helps you develop new lenses through which to understand the sorrow and suffering of others. Today, when I encounter someone’s pain, there is a greater understanding for what the person is experiencing and possibly a greater sense of what will help and what won’t. I still have a long ways to go, but the process has begun…

The end of my marriage also helped me finally realize that other human beings (and events) are not in my control. I had some odd notion that I could persuade, coerce, require, demand that people cede to my will. It was eye-opening to discover that it takes two people to decide to get married and one person to end a marriage.

(In the process of our divorce, Megan once asked me if I could just refuse to be “de-married.” Seems like you should be able to, doesn’t it? Then again, would you want to be married to someone who doesn’t want to be married to you?)

Suffering rarely limits itself to one individual. It spreads along the lines to anyone who loves a person in pain, so my family walked through the hell of my divorce as well and had their own refinements in the fire. My mother says the whole thing helped her realize how much she fixed her happiness and joy on her children and grandchildren. We were her magnum opus, her “great work.” Watching two daughters and precious grandchildren struggle and suffer through one son-in-law’s death and the other thru divorce in the span of a few weeks was akin to Job’s servants’ multiple announcements of catastrophic loss. But pain has a way of pointing out what we’ve made too important in our lives and gives us a chance to take people and things out of the center of our hearts where ultimately only God belongs.

Mom grieved with my sister and me, but she also learned to walk with peace and a certitude that God was still in control of all of our lives.

For my father, obtaining financial success has been a goal to insulate him and his family against the harsh things of life. When my father graduated from college in the ’60s, an Asian person couldn’t buy a home in Orange County, CA. (Incomprehensible to me as today, Orange County possibly has a higher population of Asians than Asia itself!) Dad worked three jobs to get through college, including cleaning out dog kennels in order to have lodging at a veterinary clinic.

Success meant that you didn’t have to accept menial, hard jobs. Money often wore down prejudices and paved the way for societal acceptance. And a good financial portfolio afforded your children privileges and opportunities you were denied.

But money can be a deceptively manipulative force that can make you seek its power and convince you that it can control life if you have enough of it. If the end of my marriage was my first significant failure; my divorce and my sister’s widowhood were perhaps the first time that my father came face-to-face with the limits of his bank account.

No amount of money could bring my brother-in-law Richard back to life; no dollar amount could preserve a splintering family. Sure money can cushion the blows, but it can never speak to the things that are the most fundamental to our hearts.

Suffering makes us realize how impotent and false our “gods” truly are. We worship strong families, loving marriages, happy children, secure bank accounts, good looks, strong health, career successes and enduring friendships. My favorite pastor, Tim Keller, would say we take good things and make them ultimate things. No matter how good these things are, they eventually fail us, if not intentionally, then eventually in this life.

Children grow up and lead their own lives. Friendships ebb with distance or time. Even the best of marriages have their ups and downs. Sometimes they end or spouses die.

Yes, very cheery thoughts. But actually it doesn’t depress me much these days. There’s lingering sadness from time-to-time, but once you face down grief, you discover that there’s a new-found strength on the other side of suffering; a resilience and a grace that bears up under even intense pressure. If pain takes you down to the ground, you might find that God is the one you’re wrestling with, and there’s a good chance you’ll emerge from the struggle with a new identity.

Sleep beckons, but one last comment. In the absence of family phone calls this week, I took the time to catch up on some filing and came across a note to me from one of my mother’s best friends—one of those Chinese “Aunts” who’s not really related, but honored with familial titles for her closeness to our family. She sent me these quotes from Parker Palmer:

“People who have been penetrated by darkness and suffering, they will lead the rest of us to a place of hidden wholeness because they have been there and know the way.”

“Crisis, the whirlwind in our life, is a sacred opportunity for God to take me somewhere. A passage. A separation. The trouble is, in the midst of crisis, we are hardly aware of God’s holy doing. We feel crushed. Abandoned. Bemoaning our loss and grief. Crisis is a holy summon to cross a threshold. It involves a leaving behind or stepping forward. A separation or an opportunity for redirection; soul-making; a turning; a holy beginning, a sacred opportunity for inner transformation.”

Perhaps one of my favorite quotes is from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross:

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”