Minimalism, Order, and Community: Why My Husband Makes Me Uncomfortable

I was overwhelmed. I had three tiny people who required all of me and left trails of you-name-it wherever they went. We were renting a 2,100 square foot house that was filled to the brim with stuff, most of which I didn’t even like.

My house was decorated with hand-me-downs from other relatives, dead or alive, and things I’d registered for pre-Pinterest and therefore pre-I-know-what-I-like-and-how-I-want-it-to-look. And I was DROWNING in housework even though my mom and MIL, God bless them forever and ever amen, paid for my house to be cleaned once a month (if you’re in need of a baby shower gift idea, that’d be the one).

So after reading a few books*, watching a few documentaries**, and sitting at the feet of friends a lot more like Jesus than me, I began feeling pulled toward SIMPLE.

That Time Jesus Got Buried Under Christmas: Just In Case You Need an Excuse Not to Decorate

This year, I pray that I may be content in the stable. That I may find beauty in the meekness of a humble manger and not try to manufacture it everywhere else. Jesus is easily found in spaces untouched by the desire to put our own greatness on display. I have to be careful not to hide him.

A Simple, Meaningful Advent Calendar for the Family

But the older I get (and the more children I have), the more tension I feel at Christmastime. How do I create the perfect Christmas without making it all about a mythical being and gifts? How do I strike a balance between nauseating consumerism and fun-sucking religion?

In a season that so easily overwhelms, how can I slow down, lower my expectations, and point to the manifestation of Grace and Love in a way that excites my kids and blesses others?

keeping our kids separate, keeping them from experiencing God

When I Realized My Family Was My Idol

In all of our protecting and in all of our keeping them separate what if we are not only protecting them from all the bad but we are preventing them from ever seeing God DO ANYTHING GOOD. They never experience any moments that make them say, “HOLY CRAP. Did you just see that? This God is AMAZING. Heck yes I believe!”

My Utopian Marriage

Clark and I, like most engaged couples with responsible parents, were encouraged to go to pre-marital counseling before our big day. I remember taking that test that diagnoses problem areas within the relationship — a way to pinpoint what needs to be discussed during each session. We had one problem area: that we had no problem areas.

Our counselor told us that we had something of a utopian complex, a “rose-colored glasses” syndrome. He feared we might naively skip into our marriage thinking it would be a lot easier than it actually would be. We assured him that we were prepared, that we knew this was going to be very hard, that just because we got along really well right now didn’t mean we always would. We weren’t unrealistic about the difficulty of marriage. We understood. Seriously. We were good.

But it ended up actually being perfect. We never had any problems.

Wait…. no.

“Stop. Just stop. Shut the H up. No you don’t.” Surely that would have been the appropriate thing for the counselor to say to us in that moment. Surely that’s what he wanted to say. Why didn’t he say that?

Because it wouldn’t have mattered. It is impossible to understand marriage before you are married. It is impossible to watch funny YouTube parodies on what couples fight about, to experience the ebbs and flow of your parents’ relationship, to walk through divorce with friends or family members, to see the tears of desperation from an unhappy spouse, and understand. Because no matter what, “We are different.” Or so you think.

I remember when we were dating, thinking, “Oh my gosh. We are SO similar. It’s crazy how alike we are.”

Then we got married, and I was like, “Um. He tricked me.”

Here’s the truth. When you get married, you are entering a battlefield. But you are up against an adversary much greater than your spouse.

Satan hates marriage. If he can destroy a healthy marriage, all the collateral damage is his to watch and smirk at. The effects of a failed marriage are much more far-reaching than just the spouses, or even the children. Its crumbled ruins tumble onto communities and schools and friends and faiths. From its ashes rise the lesser known Fruits of the Serpent: resentment, discontentment, anger, bitterness. It destroys faith in people, faith in marriage, faith in healthy relationships, and most importantly, faith in God.

This marriage deal sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? That’s the kicker. It totally is. All The Hard — the not-getting-your-own-way, the “intense discussions,” the crying, the pit in your stomach — it’s worth it. Because The Hard ends up being the heartbeat of your marriage. It’s the part that restores your faith in changed hearts and transformed people — and I’m not talking about my spouse, I’m talking about me. God turns The Hard into grace, compassion, patience, understanding. He turns “This is impossible” into “I am so thankful for him.”

So it’s hard. Don’t do it if you aren’t determined to make it work from the beginning. Because, did I mention it’s hard? But there are ways to help it function a little better. These are a few principles I wish I’d realized a long time ago.

You have to care more about your spouse (and your spouse’s needs) than you do about yourself (and your own needs). Deny yourself. Deny yourself. Deny yourself. This works really well when you both put this into practice.

Your spouse is not your enemy. So stick it to the real enemy by not giving up on your spouse.

If you keep complaining about what he/she is or is not doing, check yo self before you wreck yo self. Maybe you could change a few habits or do a few nice things first.

He wants respect. She wants to be taken care of. If there’s a vicious cycle of not offering respect because he won’t show affection (or vice versa) … find a way out. Quickly.

Prioritize. Your relationship with your spouse should be numero dos, only behind that with your heavenly father. Not your kids, not your parents, not your friends. Did I mention, not your kids? Your honey always, always comes first.

Pray like your marriage is ending, even before it is. Like, right now.

Marriage counseling is not a last-ditch effort. There is no marriage that is too healthy or too dysfunctional for a third-party. Best thing we ever did.

I hesitate to even post this because it might lead you to believe that I know a lot (or THINK I know a lot) about this topic. Trust me, I know I don’t. I’m still a rookie.

Obviously, we haven’t been married for 50 years, and we probably haven’t hit the biggest bumps in our road.  The only think I know is that the warfare against marriage is unrelenting. BUT, “…BUT thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 15:57-58.

Family Pictures: My Personal Hell

“If I had a choice between getting smashed in the face with a hammer or being a child photographer, I’d be smashed in the face with a hammer every time.” – Clark Harrell, following our most recent family photo shoot

The only thing enjoyable about a family photo session is (hopefully) the outcome. Everything else is like sitting in 104 degree heat surrounded by crying babies and cranky grown men. OH WAIT. That’s EXACTLY what it is.

Family picture sessions (and the hours of prep preceding) are what I’d imagine Hell to be like. There’s the toddler, at whom you make 173 funny faces and every animal noise in existence to elicit a smile. Who still won’t. Then there’s the baby, a total crap shoot. Funny faces won’t work (not that it would matter), so you can only pray that you scheduled the shoot for the right time of day. And don’t all husbands love to take family pictures? I’m sure yours is always excited when he hears you scheduled family pictures again and never says things like, “We just took family pictures” (our family looks a little different now) or “How long is it going to take” (not long at all) or “I don’t want to take very many,” (you’ll take as many as it takes to get four smiles) because he knows you’re stressed enough having to get yourself and the two minions perfectly precious AND perfectly perky. And I swear I start getting us all dressed 4-5 hours ahead of time but SOMEHOW I’m ALWAYS running around like a squirrel for at least 15 minutes before shoot-time.

Every time I leave, I say, “There’s no way she got ANY good shots.” And then wish I could just be left alone for the rest of the day.

Charlee’s one-year pics were awesome, in that we found out a few days later that she had an ear infection. You can just imagine how well it went. Hannah Vickers is AMAZING, though. For example, in this picture you’d never know my mouth was slowly filling with salty tears as they streamed down her fussy little face:

IMG_7255

She’s not kissing me. She’s trying to head butt me.

These are also winners:

This last session with Erin Davis was no different. This was the opening scene: We start off by doing some solo shots of Hattie while Clark holds the socially malevolent introverted child. Hattie is awake, but so far cooperative so I tell Clark to leave Charlee with me and run put his clothes on (because it would have been too easy for him to actually come dressed). Of course, AS SOON as Clark runs inside to change clothes, Hattie starts going ballistic. There’s no option to set down Charlee because we decided it was a good idea for her to go barefoot while out in the middle of this sticker-infested pasture. Erin, bless her soul, tries to calm down Hattie, but she won’t have any of it. Feeling terrible, I tell Erin she can hand her to me. Well, sweet big sister doesn’t want me to hold Hattie and makes this clear by crying in my other ear. So, I’m just bouncing both of them, sweating like I’m in the pits of Hell (or am I), makeup dripping down my face until it looks like we’ve all been crying … really looking forward to getting my picture taken. Erin and I just look at each other and  laugh, as if to say, “Whatteryagunnado…”

While it did get better, Charlee, just devil-stared at Erin the entire hour and a half. Every time we asked her to touch, kiss, hug, lay next to, look in the general direction of Hattie, she would say, in the whiniest, most pitiful tone, “Noooooo,” shove her paci in her mouth, and lay her head back down on Clark’s shoulder. This was the saddest part to me, because she ALWAYS wants to lay by Hattie and is so dadgum sweet to her. But NOT TODAY. No ma’am. Not the day it will be professionally documented for eternity.

Think of this as you see these pictures. While they turned out sweet, she was not, in any way, trying to be:

Afterward, I looked at my sister and said, “I feel like I just ran a marathon. That was totally exhausting. I just want to go to sleep.” I mean, has anyone EVER had a session where everyone cooperates and is happy to be there and smiles the whole time and leaves so grateful to have had such a wonderful experience together? If so, don’t tell me. I always leave saying, “This just isn’t worth it.”

But then I get the cd in the mail. And there’s these…

Worth it.

How’d she do it? I praise Erin (and Hannah) for the ability to squeeze out some of the most adorable pictures that capture us exactly as we are: the perfect family. 😉 I swear you would look at these and think it was a smooth, relaxed day of giggles, cool breezes, and glossy smiles as opposed to back sweat, hair frizz, and whines. Erin, thank you for somehow, SOMEHOW, making us look like we have it all together. I know it was really (REALLY) hard work.

Sidenote: as soon as she left, Charlee perked right up and put on a big show for all of Clark’s family. While she was being completely precious, I could have rung her sweet little neck. Where was this ten minutes ago? I’m going to have to hire a photographer to court Charlee the week before taking her pictures.

Dear Charlee: A message for you before the baby

Dear Charlee Kate,

You’re about to be 17 months old. And your life is about to change. Big time. But before it does… I just want you to know a few things.

When I found out I was pregnant with you, I was a bit nervous. Scratch that. I cried (sloppily) and thought I might crap my pants (don’t use that word until at least college). Don’t get me wrong, I have always liked babies. I mean, who doesn’t? I even love children. I’m a teacher for crying out loud. If choosing to love on 6th grade, pubescent, stinky, awkward 12-year-olds doesn’t scream “Lover of Children!” I don’t know what does. Even so, upon seeing that little plus sign, the idea of your father and me masquerading as responsible, adult, nurturing, prepared parents was a joke. We were anything BUT prepared OR responsible OR adult. We were two babies that suddenly found themselves creating (two) babies. Did I say were? I meant are.

I say all this to reiterate that God knew my heart better than I knew it myself. He knew that I was prepared to be a mother when I had just recently decided I couldn’t take care of a dog. I wasn’t exactly confident that I was ready for all the selflessness, the sacrifices, the duties of motherhood. But I didn’t realize how much you would change me. I didn’t know I was capable of being so completely enraptured by another human being — especially one so small… that does so little to earn it. I loved you wholly, infinitely when all you did was cry, sleep, cry, poop, and cry. Why? How? It really is beyond me. I don’t know how it works.

I didn’t feel like a mom at first. Having you around all the time was surreal, like I was the eternal babysitter and your REAL mom was going to come get you at any second. I don’t know when it hit me or when I began believing and truly acknowledging to myself that you were my daughter and I was your mother. Those maternal attachments crept up on me gradually until one day I found myself acting and feeling like a full-blown mommy. I’ll just give you some examples of my ridiculous (borderline obsessive) mommy-isms…

It’s literally difficult for me not to kiss you when I’m holding you. Your cheeks are so pudgy and sweet. I try not to constantly smooch all over you because I’m afraid you’ll start dodging my kisses or getting annoyed by them. That would break my heart.

I have a shameful amount of pictures and videos of you (and only you) on my phone. Don’t worry, I don’t share them with strangers or offer to show them to company or anything — I’m not THAT mom… yet.

I sometimes hold your hand while I drive. Not because you’re fussy. Just because I like you.

When you get hurt and cry on my shoulder, there’s a part of me that relishes it. Not that you’re hurting, but that I know I am your safety, your help, your person.

Sometimes you just want to lay your head on my shoulder and rock in the rocking chair. You’re not tired, you just want to cuddle. These are my favorite times of the day. Will you do this in high school?

It blows my mind to watch you learning new things. Even though I realize that you are no prodigy and every toddler does what you are doing (or more than), I think to myself, “I can’t believe she just did that. She is so _______ (brilliant, awesome, hilarious, precious… fill in the blank).”

Is it clear that I love you? Well let me be clear elsewhere as well: your father and I agree that you will probably earn a lot of spankings in the future. I am totally aware you’re not perfect and don’t expect you (ever) to be. You are a little toot sometimes, but it makes me love you all the more because I know you get a little (a lot?) of that from me. 🙂

With all this being said, you’re going to have a brother or a sister in 12 days. Honestly, I’m a little scared. I’m scared of how you will respond, of how to juggle both of you, of how to make sure you never feel neglected but also never become spoiled. I’m scared of how to be fair with my time and going through the tedious process of teaching you how to share (because you’re really bad at that right now).

But also, I’m scared that I don’t know how to love another as much as I love you. I know that God must add a chamber to the heart or an extra pump or ventricle or something to make it possible. But at my current state, I just can’t imagine it. You have captivated your father and me, and we love you with an intensity you won’t understand until you have kids. (And to have kids, you must have sex… so you’ll never understand, because you’re never going to do that.)

I just wanted you to know, ya know, before everything goes crazy and I don’t have much time to tell you, that you will always be the one that first made me a mommy, and that before any other title, I am most proud of that one.

Also, good luck with your sibling. I know you will be the best big sister… eventually…

Love,

Mom