Category Archives: Family

No Easy Out: Here’s How We’ve Stayed Married

My husband and I married in 1985. Ronald Reagan was president, Intel introduced a 32-bit microcomputer chip that year, and Amadeus won the Oscar for “Best Picture.”

Thirty years later, “we are still married,” to borrow the title of one of Garrison Keillor’s books. Our lives are intertwined physically and financially. We are parents and partners and, on the good days, good friends.Marriage 1

We are family, and — like a growing proportion of college-educated couples in which women are financial and decision-making equals — we have chosen, despite the odds, to remain married.

I don’t believe in divorce once children are part of the equation. And so, as a belated anniversary gift to David, and a reminder to those bored and frustrated marrieds who see uncoupling as inevitable or an easy out, I’ve articulated three reasons why.

Cherish your history

We met in a Shakespeare class at the University of Minnesota taught by the gifted Toni McNaron, then a newly sober and recently “out” tenured professor who challenged us to see the Bard through a contemporary lens.

David loves to tell the story of eyeing me from across the room but thinking I was too young to date. I remember being drawn to him in a way that was inexplicable till our first son, Sam, was born in July 1990.

Together, we have invested in property, made homes, made friends, made joint decisions on causes and organizations to support. We both come from small-town, middle-class families with professionally employed, well-known fathers. Born into privilege, we take pride in living frugally.

David and I sometimes muse that we were brought together for the divine purpose of creating our sons. Every mother may believe that. I know it to be true. Sam and Nate are strong, intellectually curious and kind-hearted young men — and our greatest achievement has been raising them well.

Yes, we’ve stayed together for the kids. That is the legacy and lesson of my parents’ divorce, which they announced the day I turned 14.

“Parenting has been a tough haul, but we’ve worked hard at being a team and have started to reconnect on date nights,” says a neighbor, 52, who has been married 20 years. “We both come from divorced families, and that has left a lasting impression on both of us, so we are cognizant of the reason we are together — not just for each other, but for our whole family unit.”

Work through anger

I remember the door-slamming, plate-throwing fights of our younger, more passionate years with detached amusement. Who has time for that now?Wedding_2

In our 30 years together David and I have buried (or scattered) one parent, three siblings, two dogs and even some friends. Time speeds up with each passing decade. Experience has shown me how little we control what twists and turns our lives will take, or how our sense of security may be uprooted.

A boss once told me she feared losing her “edge” as she got into her 50s. Not so for me. I like the softness and compassion that have come with age.

Invariably, when either David or I gets moody or short-tempered, we shift gears, forgive quickly and move on. We don’t have time for sharp words or prolonged resentments, the drama that once fueled what we took for romance.

Laughter and companionship are key in long-term marriage. “We talk, always,” says a friend who has been married 15 years. “We’re honest. We laugh a lot. We take care of each other, not because we have to — but because we want to.”

Love the one you’re with

Stephen Stills’ paean to infidelity has a different meaning to me after three decades of marriage.

David and I are under no illusions that we were “made for each other.” In fact, our temperaments and interests often diverge. His relaxed approach to agendas and timelines drives me crazy. My quick-paced brainstorming and tendency to think aloud set him on edge. He smokes and loves sugar. I eat consciously and exercise daily.

Each of us has friends of the opposite sex and could be happy with someone else — or contented on our own. We’re both readers and contemplative types at heart. But we found each other, and that’s the clay we shape and mold.

Our differences coalesced into a surprisingly congruous approach to raising our sons. Aside from religion — I don’t think we exposed them to enough of it; David went on too many forced marches to Mass ever to inflict mandatory church-going on his kids — we have few disagreements about values in our household.

Growing up together helps. “John and I have a long history together,” says a friend and former coworker who has been married for 23 years. “We met at age 18 and got married at 24. Our life histories are intertwined.”

When I told my husband I was writing a blog post on how long-term marriages endure, he objected. “You didn’t ask me!” he cried.

So, what’s kept us together? His response touched and surprised me, even after 30 years: “Love.”

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Lessons from Beyond: the Short, Sad Life of a Small Dog

I barely know the woman whose dog I agreed to foster so she could go to inpatient treatment for alcoholism. We have a good friend in common. I already own two dogs. So I impulsively said “yes” when she sent out an SOS e-mail to find a caregiver for Max, her mini-dachshund.

Three weeks later, Max is dead — by my decree — and I am left with an empty dog bed and the uncomfortable reality that doing the right thing is, often, a lonely enterprise.Max the Dog

Pets as playthings

I picked up Max at his suburban townhouse on a bitterly cold Thursday afternoon in February. His owner had been drinking. Bright-eyed and chatty, trying desperately to appear normal, she apologized for the messy living room and the urine stains on the carpet.

I collected Max’s things — a kennel, a tattered leash, a grocery bag full of canned dog food and pricey treats — and wished the owner well. I was eager to get out of there and get Max home.

I didn’t ask her about the peculiarities of mini-dachshunds. I didn’t know, for example, that they’re not supposed to climb stairs or jump on and off furniture, something my own robust dogs do routinely. All she told me was that Max hated the cold and that he loved to snuggle under blankets, contradicting the Wikipedia site that pronounced the breed “very active” and thus requiring “frequent walks.”

An inveterate exerciser, I envisioned getting this dog on the right path.

Only 5 or 6, Max had a swaying, tentative gait that suggested he was uneasy — or unfamiliar — with a simple walk. He laid in his bed for hours and seemed to be composed of what my son dubbed “flab and bones.” In fact, the slipped disc that paralyzed him, seemingly overnight, “is often caused by obesity,” the Wikipedia site says.

The pads of his feet were as pink as a baby’s bottom. When we’d lift him outside to pee — before the rear-end paralysis took away that function, too — Max would stand in the snow, frozen in place. I attached a leash to his collar once and he refused to move.

I reached the owner at her treatment facility in California prior to putting Max down, and she told me Max had been “horribly abused” when she rescued him at 4 years old. I didn’t want the details — visions of hind-end kicks have haunted me since I had the dog killed last Thursday — but I ask myself whether overfeeding and inactivity don’t constitute some form of abuse as well.

Bred to be hunters of small animals such as badgers and rats, dachshunds require muscle strength to support their long spines. But in an era when “sedentary” seems to define the human condition, dachshunds have become house dogs, playthings — dressed up in silly sweaters for their owners’ amusement.

“Loved for his long round body and cute stumpy legs,” one website reads, the dachshund nevertheless must be nurtured with fish oil and exercise and specific handling in order to remain healthy.

Maybe we need to enlarge the definition of animal cruelty: Is it only hitting? Starvation? Chaining a pet in a cold, dark basement? Or is it also ignorance and benign neglect?

Life’s lessons

Ultimately, Max’s death will matter only to the woman who adopted him and never got to say goodbye. But I’d like his life to stand for something. Maybe one day, the monsters who made his early years hell will reflect on their actions and feel regret. Maybe his owner will find the strength to stay sober because she’ll want to foster another dog

Maybe I’ll find the courage, finally, to do more than wring my hands and actually volunteer on behalf of abused and abandoned animals.

Unlike giving birth — which is painful, traumatic and yet joyous — witnessing death is just hard and mysterious, and very sad.

It’s my 98-year-old father-in-law thrashing in a hospital bed, hours before he died of pneumonia in the facility where he once was chief of staff. It’s my sons’ godmother, my sister-in-law, lying in a hospice and progressively losing the ability to talk or breathe.

And it’s Max, quietly curling up to die — not “going to sleep,” as we like to tell ourselves to sidestep the moral quandary — only seconds after the vet’s lethal injection. “Bless you,” I told her, “you have a hard job.”

“It’s not all puppies and kittens,” she replied.

A friend who used to work for the Animal Humane Society called to comfort me the next day. She quoted a former colleague who had euthanized many animals: “She told me it was the most important moment for an animal,” my friend said, “and it was her responsibility to give them comfort and dignity.”Countryside logo

My family did that for Max. Dr. Signe Wass of Countryside Animal Hospital did that for Max. And in her own way, his owner did that for Max, too. She rescued him, and loved him the best she could.

What Gen X Can Teach Boomers about Parenthood

At a time when the necessity and affordability of high-quality child care is back in the news, two Generation X mothers — educated, ambitious and deliberately underemployed — exemplify a model of work-family balance that provides a different solution to a persistent problem.

Who takes care of the kids when both parents work?

In the households of Julie Reiter and Liz Boyer, the answer is: It’s a family affair. “The most important job in the world,” as Chelsea Clinton recently described motherhood, is the work of mothers and fathers alike, in Reiter and Boyer’s respective marriages.

The “balance” in their families is less about women juggling responsibilities alone than it is both partners dancing daily through a life that is contradictory and complex, with trade-offs and rewards in equal measure.Juggling Woman

A recent conversation with these two Gen X moms convinces me they have learned from my workaholic generation — and that it’s not too late for us Baby Boomers to learn from them about priorities and possibilities, teamwork and trust.

Lesson 1: You can’t “have it all.”

Born between 1965 and 1980, Generation X was raised during what one analyst calls “one of the most blatantly anti-child phases in history,” when feminism, greater career opportunities and more access to birth control (and abortion) gave women a new range of options.

Gen X mothers are more skeptical than we were about the messages that society — and advertisers — are trying to sell them. (Remember the slim, sexy “24-hour woman” in the Enjoli perfume ad who brought home the bacon and fried it up in a pan?)

“You can do anything, but you can’t do everything,” says Boyer, 39, executive director of Macalester-Groveland Community Council in St. Paul and a Master of Science candidate in environmental studies. “You can be an astronaut, but then you can’t be home with your kids. You can be a lawyer, but then you can’t be PTA president.”

The mother of Ellie, 10, and Alex, 6, Boyer longed to be an at-home mom — a role that my generation shunned as old-fashioned and professionally limiting. But that dream was financially impossible given her husband’s career in education and nonprofits.

After spending two years “pissing and moaning” when Ellie was a baby, Boyer has made peace with having to be employed. “In retrospect, it’s made me a better mom to work part time all those years,” she says.

Having only recently started working full time, however, she acknowledges the career sacrifice she’s made, too: “I’d be at a different point in my career if I hadn’t had kids.”

Lesson 2: Share roles and responsibilities.

My husband and I used to call ourselves “Ozzie and Harriet in reverse,” with me as family breadwinner and him as self-described “Mr. Mom.” It was new wrapping on an old package that limited one partner’s family time and the other’s earning potential.

Now that our two sons are grown, I remember — and try not to regret — how much mental and emotional energy I gave to my career. When I wasn’t literally at the office, I often was thinking about work, or I was engaged in the freelance writing and aerobics teaching that helped me feed the family (and my ego).Gen X road sign

Reiter and Boyer, like other Gen X mothers, have a more fluid, seamless approach to life and work. They are present with their children, holistically, in a way that I couldn’t seem to manage. And while they care about their careers, work is not their first priority.

“I like to work hard. I love challenge,” says Reiter, 42, executive director of Union Park District Council in St. Paul and a Berkeley-educated attorney. “But I clearly don’t care about the career path, or I would have followed that route.”

Her husband jokingly calls her his “downwardly mobile wife.” Reiter was planning to practice in a prestigious downtown law firm when they met, and she still has more earning capacity than he does as a human resources specialist.

Today, they are partners in a shared endeavor to raise and support their son and daughter — Beyen, 8, and Beena, 7 — whom they adopted from Ethiopia as toddlers. Reiter’s husband works from home most days, giving her flexibility and him access to the children, and her office is two blocks away, allowing her to be home with the children after school and at dinnertime.

Lesson 3: Accept that life is unpredictable.

If I could do anything differently, I would worry less and enjoy the moment more. (My older sisters tell me that’s the benefit of being grandmothers.)

Between them, Boyer and Reiter have lived through job loss, pay cuts, ill children who spoke no English, arguments about whose turn it is to cook and buy groceries, and, currently, full-time jobs with tangible rewards but no benefits.

And yet: They laugh easily. They see the big picture. When Boyer was commuting from St. Paul to Chaska with a colicky baby at home who refused to take a bottle, she lamented to a friend that the life she’d created wasn’t working.

“You’ll keep tweaking things till it does work,” the woman told Boyer. “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.”

Reiter’s mother was home full time until Julie was 15. “And she resents it to this day, the fact that she never had a life of her own,” Reiter says wistfully. “My mom says now: ‘It’s so good that the kids see you go off to meetings. It’s important for them to understand your work ethic.’”

She grins. “When we walk into the Neighborhood Café, my kids see people give me a hug and thank me for my work. I’m investing in this community, and it’s benefiting my family.”