Mona Lisa Smiles
[By L.R.Knost, author of Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages, Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood, and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]
I’ve been ‘single-parenting’ it for almost two months now as my amazing husband has been gone day and night, working his day job and then heading nearly an hour away to help his family renovate an old home. It’s for a single mom who needs a place to move with her son because she’s losing her home to foreclosure, so there’s a time pressure involved. My husband is a skilled builder, so the renovation has fallen mainly to him, and with the narrow time frame he has to work with, the pressure has been pretty intense.
Nearly every day after work he heads straight to the reno house and works late into the night, often just staying there and sleeping so he can get up and go straight to work again. Between all of his extra driving and the times the children and I have driven over just so we can see him for a few minutes and get a tour of the work he’s doing, our gas budget has nearly doubled. That’s just not sustainable for a one-income family, so we’ve had to stop going to see him.
What that’s meant for me is a hubby who’s absent most of the time (read: no breaks for mama!) and who, when he does come home, is stressed and tired and tapped-out. Now, by ‘breaks for mama’ I don’t mean time away from my children. I don’t want or need to leave my little ones. But normally along with all of the sacrifices, compromises, and hard work that goes into keeping a long-term marriage healthy, there is companionship, caring, support, and a sharing of responsibilities.
In our family, mama having a break means daddy is the one who listens, at least for a little while, to the endless stories about snails that our little mud-magnet is into sharing at the moment. It means daddy takes a turn at the helm in helping our SPD girl cope when she gets overwhelmed. It means daddy takes our currently teething, clingy, diaper-rashed, sad little milk monkey out in the evenings to sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to the moon (she’s a bit confused, but it’s adorable) so mama can take a shower alone. And, of course, all of that’s in addition to him running to the store, helping out around the house, fixing what’s broken, grilling dinner occasionally, etc.
But for the last two months all of the myriad details that go into running our home…homeschooling, juggling teenagers’ schedules, shepherding a high-spirited kindergartener, keeping up with a toddler, handling the bills, doing the banking and shopping and cleaning, coping with a broken dryer, and on and on and on…have all fallen entirely to me. Add to that some pretty hefty life-stressors we’re dealing with at the moment outside of our marriage and home…
And I’m tired.
And my hubby is tired.
And we’ve unconsciously fallen into the ‘my needs vs. your needs’ vicious cycle. You know the one:
First volley: “This is what I did all day.” (Translation: I need you to acknowledge me.)
“Well, this is what I did all day.” (Translation: I need you to acknowledge me.)
Second volley: “These are the reasons I did what I did all day.”
(Translation: I need you to understand me.)
“Well, these are the reasons I did what I did all day.”
(Translation: I need you to understand me.)
Third volley: “This is why what I did was harder than what you did.”
(Translation: I really need you to hear me.)
“Well, this is why what I did was harder than what you did.”
(Translation: I really need you to hear me.)
Fourth volley: “You didn’t do this.” (Translation: I’ll make you hear me.)
“Well, you didn’t do this.” (Translation: I’ll make you hear me.)
Unmet needs result in an ever-escalating cycle of attempts to get those needs met. And, as long as those two little letters ‘vs’ stand between ‘my needs’ being met and ‘your needs’ being met, the cycle will continue. Someone has to break the cycle, and the solution is always the same: Sacrifice.
Someone has to step up and stand down. Someone has to let go of their own needs and focus on meeting the other’s needs, not in an attempt to manipulate that person to meet their own needs, but with an honest generosity of spirit, a choosing to lay down self, a living expression of love.
And ‘someone’ will. Our marriage wouldn’t have lasted for twenty-five years and counting, otherwise! But I wanted to share some of the dynamics of breaking the ‘need standoff’ in a relationship while they’re fresh in my mind.
There are endless contributing factors to who stands down and when, from the differences in love languages, to past hurts and experiences, to upbringing, to the circumstances of the conflict itself. And standing down can take many different forms. It may mean moving on without receiving the apology you believe you deserve. It may mean letting go of the need to explain your position. It may take the form of an apology from you or a verbal indication that you are choosing to let go of the conflict. Or it may take the form of a favorite meal, flowers, a back rub, a gift, or some other loving act.
Sometimes the one who chooses (note: an active choice, not a reactive/self-protective response as in an abusive/controlling relationship) to stand down in a relationship is the same person most, if not all, of the time. This is often the result of a peacemaking personality. If you feel you are ‘always’ the one to stand down, consider these two things:
1.) Are you really the one to always stand down or is that just a perception you need to work through?
2.) Do you have a peacemaking personality? In other words, do you tend to be the calming factor in most of your relationships?
If you do, in fact, have a peacemaking personality, be aware that it is a rare gift that comes with great responsibility. Someone once asked me why they always had to be the one to “put out the fires” in their relationship. Knowing this person to be a peacemaker in all of their relationships, I said, “Because God gave you the hose.”
While it can certainly be frustrating to be in that position, instead of letting it cause resentment to take hold, imagine how difficult life can be for those who don’t have that inner calm, and try to focus on the strengths they do have rather than fixating on the gifts they don’t have. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and focusing on people’s strengths (as well as being aware of our own weaknesses!) helps us to give them grace for their weaknesses.
*Take note, when it comes to parent/child relationships, the parent must always take the role of peacemaker, regardless of personality or gifts. Children not only don’t have an adult’s capacity for self-control, but they also don’t bear the responsibility for maintaining the relationship.
And so, in our home, with both parents tapped-out, tired, and out-of-sorts, we’ve found ourselves in that place of competing to get our needs met. Our children have, of course, joined in the ‘needs games,’ little reflectors that they are. It’s made for a less-than-joyful interval in what we typically refer to as the joyful chaos of our lives.
Then, last night as my miserably teething little milk monkey woke me up for the zillionth time with her crying and whimpering and tossing and turning and climbing from one side of me to the other and nursing and nursing and nursing and nursing until I thought I might explode, she suddenly stopped mid-climb, mid-cry, and pressed her ear against my heart. And then, with her tiny body draped across my belly and her head cradled between my breasts, she sighed and relaxed, a little Mona Lisa smile curving her sweet mouth as she finally succumbed to a peaceful sleep.
And in that moment, that tiny, mysterious, contented smile called me to surrender. To surrender to heart-meltingly sweet moments. To embrace again the extraordinary loveliness of ordinary life. To marvel at the littleness of the issues that set us apart and the bigness of the love that holds us together.
Love is a choice, not a feeling. Feelings shift, flowing now hot, now cold. They lead nowhere, and instead are misleading with their mercurial, capricious nature.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13
I choose love.
L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood , Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages , and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline the first three books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.