Our keys to marriage happiness

14 February 2023

On our tenth-anniversary marriage summit, one of the questions we spent time plucking at was: what are our keys to a happy marriage? That might seem like a strange thing to discuss, but when we name what matters, we solidify it – which is the beginning of getting more of it. It was a deeply satisfying conversation, and something I knew I wanted to share in part here.

Of course, sharing feels a little squishy, and I don’t necessarily write to encourage you toward the things that bring us happiness – we are two unique people with unique wiring and a unique history, and what speaks to our deepest needs and desires might not move the needle for you. There are a million ways to have a good marriage. I share in the hopes that it might inspire you to name the keys to your own marriage happiness – to spark a conversation across your dinner table or on your next date night.

And also, selfishly, I’m sharing for my children. I hope they look back one day and think, mom and dad really loved each other, and they enjoyed each other. I hope this post helps them understand why that was so.

Without further ado…

It’s been too long since we looked at some wedding photos, no? I narrowed myself to black and white ceremony photos for today :) All by the inimitable Tanja Lippert!

1. We share a faith that compels us to help each other become more holy. This is the only place to start (and as you can see, the title of this post is a bit of a misnomer). While we desire happiness in our marriage, at our best, we aim for holiness. Happiness, we are believing, will be a byproduct of this pursuit.

From The Meaning of Marriage: “What, then, is marriage for? It is for helping each other to become our future glory-selves, the new creations that God will eventually make us. The common horizon husband and wife look toward is the Throne, and the holy, spotless, and blameless nature we will have. I can think of no more powerful common horizon than that, and that is why putting a Christian friendship at the heart of a marriage relationship can lift it to a level that no other vision for marriage approaches.”

When John and I are each pursuing God, by His grace we will find it easier and easier to love each other well. If we are aiming for a standard of marriage and to treat each other in a way that is not of this world, we might expect to find greater marital happiness than most do in this world.

2. Our core values and virtues are aligned. Long before we were married, someone influential told us that “compatibility” is less important in marriage than shared core values, and we’ve found that to be true. We are bound by the things that we hold most deeply and reverently: our faith, integrity, generosity, loyalty, optimism, delayed gratification, personal responsibility, gratitude. Knowing we are united in what’s most important bridges a lot of gaps day to day.

3. We cast vision for our future together. John and I both score highly for the Futuristic StrengthsFinder theme (“People exceptionally talented in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be. They energize others with their visions of the future.”), and so we make time to dream together. We talk about what we hope to do next week, month, year, in ten years and fifty years. We talk about what we want our future summers to look like, future anniversaries, camping trips, financial goals, even our retirement. Believing we’re going somewhere good together keeps us united and happy.

4. We started young and have grown in the same direction. In my marriage vows, I promised John that we would always grow toward each other, not away. I know God was with me when I wrote those vows, because this has only become more true and important over time. When you inevitably change (and you will, especially when you’re high school sweethearts), you have the choice of growing toward your partner or away from him. At every juncture, we’ve tried to grow toward each other (though always imperfectly), and it has led to joy and beauty we never would have known had we dug our heels in.

Finding each other young was also a gift we did not deserve – our similar backgrounds and almost non-existent dating history basically took a whole category of potential landmines off the table, and that has certainly aided in our happiness.

5. We regularly reflect on our life together. At Cultivate, one of our core phrases is “reflection reaps rewards,” and it is certainly true in our marriage. Not only do we regularly (at least annually) set aside time to reflect on what’s working and what’s not in our marriage, but we try to act on what we uncover – for example, banning certain phrases, or setting thoughtful intentions. Tiny nudges in the right direction, when extrapolated over time, have made a big difference in how happy our life is day to day.

6. We treasure and celebrate our marriage. We only reflect and dig in and fix things when we believe they have value. And in the case of our marriage, we do – we believe it has great value, that it’s important (see no. 1). We remind each other of that regularly. And we spend time and money celebrating what we have, whether through an end-of-year dinner or a 10th anniversary trip.

7. We want to look good for each other. Some might chafe against this one, and I get it. Of course our love is not conditional on outward beauty, and we are not aiming for perfection. We have plenty of slouchy days. He has seen me and loved me at my most vulnerable, and would do so a million times over if needed (as would I, for him).

But – I am honoring the body he fell in love with just as I am the soul and mind and spirit he fell in love with, and he is doing the same for me. And we cheer each other on in this by doling out frequent compliments (John is exceptional at this; I try to keep up.). The things we love become lovelier when we love them, and we both believe that complimenting each other regularly has helped wire our brains to see each other’s loveliness. And of course it makes the other person feel good! There’s probably some brain science that could back me up in this :)

8. We spend time together. I wouldn’t say date nights are foundational for our marriage – we could survive without them – but as this is a post about happiness, they can’t go unmentioned. Spending time with John and talking with him is one of my greatest delights! As parents, we don’t have a ton of free time, but what we do have, we try to spend with each other. We go for walks. We watch the same shows. Neither of us have hobbies that eat up large chunks of our time. We of course have our own interests, but we make what we have in common the priority.

9. We never give each other a reason to doubt our love. I wrote these words in 2014 and they are equally true today: I’m not sure if I’m qualified to give marriage advice, seeing as we’ve only just passed our first anniversary, but perhaps I can offer some relationship advice — we have been together for almost ten years, after all. There are a lot of things I could tell you about what works for us, but I think one of the strongest things about our relationship is that we trust in it without reservation. We’ve never given each other a reason to doubt it, and so we’ve never been tempted to do so. We don’t treat our love for each other like it’s conditional, or could be threatened to be taken away, or withheld as a bargaining chip. Even if we are angry or frustrated, at bedrock, we both have always known without a doubt that we are acting from a place of unshakeable love.

10. We believe and act like we are a team that’s a force for good in the world. We believe our marriage has a purpose larger than just ourselves, our children, or our happiness. We know we can do more together than we can apart, and we’re curious and expectant about what that might look like in the years to come. And having purpose makes us happier, just like most humans.

I read through a lot of old blog posts as I was writing, and this quote (from John!) stuck out to me: “People often talk about how marriage is so hard, but we’ve found it to be the most comfortable and best thing ever. I think the world (and people thinking about marriage) need to hear more messages about how great marriage can be, and we are happy to do that.” Writing about marriage is not the easiest thing, but I think it’s a good thing. I hope you agree :)

I’m curious: is there one of these keys you’d like to hear more about? Even though this post is long, I had to restrain myself, because each felt like it could be a blog post of its own! And if you’re in a relationship, I’d love to hear a key to your happiness together!

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Working part-time as a mom, part three

21 November 2022

When I started writing this series, I was mainly focused on my reasons for transitioning to part-time work, which were personal, not professional. I was surprised, then (but delighted!), by your many wonderful questions about the work side of this transition, and so it was an easy decision to dive into this angle with an extra post. (We’ll look at how I’m spending my Fridays in the fourth and final post.) Let’s take your questions…

Part One: Background on my work history and some reasons (or not) for shortening my work week
Part Two: Why we chose me over my husband to make this change, why we chose going part-time over other solutions, and the financial impact
Part Four: What my days off have actually looked like (so far)

Annie’s first visit to the Cultivate office earlier this year

Was your decision influenced by Cultivate’s acquisition?

Those of you who have followed closely may be aware that Cultivate was acquired in June of this year. My decision to go part-time was not in response to the acquisition, but it did put a point on the process. After I went back to work following my maternity leave in late fall 2021, the squeeze at home became more and more apparent. By the spring, I knew going part-time was the right decision, and I was eager to confirm my new schedule before the acquisition closed, knowing that negotiating with a brand-new boss could be far more challenging. The new owners agreed to my hours as part of my signing on to their company despite not having many part-time employees, for which I am grateful.

How did you negotiate this arrangement with your boss?

I remember so clearly the first time I broached the idea of reducing my hours – I was standing in my boss’s kitchen, heating up my lunch :) This was in 2016, when I was pregnant with June, and she had mentioned several times that we should talk about what my maternity leave was going to look like. I was nervous to have the conversation, because I worked for a small company with no clear blueprint for leave – I wasn’t sure where we’d land, and it felt like there was a lot riding on the outcome. I also knew I wanted to ask for a shortened schedule (9-4 versus 9-5) at the same time, and I had NO idea what the response to that request would be.

My boss met my requests so graciously, which should not be a surprise to anyone who knows her. With that first change of hours, my promise was basically that I would continue to produce the same amount of work with five fewer hours by trimming “fat” anywhere I could throughout my days – and that’s pretty much what I did.

When it was time to arrange this most recent transition of my schedule, the situation was very different. I did not feel nervous about approaching my boss – we were both in new places in our lives and in our relationship with each other, and I knew she would immediately support this change, which she did. I also knew that if for some reason my request was turned down, I could walk away and our family would be fine – it wouldn’t be what I wanted, but we were in a very different place financially and in our lives than we were in 2016, and so the outcome did not feel as pressure-filled. What did make me nervous, however, was breaking the news later to the rest of the CWM team, as I worried they might feel I was abandoning them in the midst of the upheaval of the acquisition (they, too, were very gracious).

I recognize that my situation is unique: I’m a key (though not indispensable!) cog with a very niche role in a small business. I had major longevity at the company and had demonstrated long-term loyalty. I work for a business whose purpose is to help customers live out what matters most, and wants that for their employees, too. And most importantly, I had a boss who cared deeply about me as a person and is a woman of great compassion, integrity, and love for God. (I know you’re reading, Lara – what a gift you are to me!)

Is anyone watching the fifth season of The Crown? Towards the end of the first episode, the Queen requests funds for refurbishment of the royal yacht from the Prime Minister. He initially balks at the expense, which prompts a forceful response from Her Majesty: “I hope we can agree that as sovereign, I have made very few requests, let alone demands, in return for the service I have given this country. Perhaps the reason I have held back is in the hope that when I actually do, people don’t just take it seriously, they do as I ask without question.” Wowza.

I’ve talked about this before, but staying at Southern Weddings and Cultivate for as long as I have is not an accident – among other reasons, I hoped my tenure would allow for exactly the flexibility, trust, and latitude it has when I needed it most. Though I would never have spoken with such imperiousness (yipes!), I did recognize a bit of my situation in the Queen :)

What had to change in my role, or what has changed, for this to be possible?

This is an astute question. It’s not possible to go part-time in every role, and even if it is, many roles (and individuals, and company cultures!) are just not suited to it. Though I have worked for the same company my entire life, my role has changed several times over the last decade, and when I look back, I can see the ways I consciously and subconsciously nudged it toward a shape that is suited to part-time hours. Here are a few of those ways:

  • I am an individual contributor with long-term projects. My main responsibility is devising and writing the content for our printed products (PowerSheets, conversation cards, Reading Journal, etc. – almost everything!). I interface with designers, editors, and occasionally higher-ups, but it’s largely just me at my computer, writing and thinking. I have very few daily deliverables, as most of my projects take several days or weeks to complete. Since the projects are more long-term, I have more choice over how I structure my time each day.
  • My role is not driven by immediate metrics and generally does not require immediate responses. This is very different than, say, a job in marketing, which has daily data points that might require pivots, changes in strategy, or new initiatives. I also receive almost no email. (Seriously – probably fewer than five emails a month that require responses. I do have Slack to keep up with and chatter in our project management system.) In my Southern Weddings role, by comparison, email was a HUGE part of my job and I responded to (and sent!) hundreds of emails a month.
  • I have bowed out of managerial responsibilities. Over the years, by choice (and sometimes not by choice!), I have shed my more unpredictable responsibilities – namely leadership and HR roles. This has given me more autonomy and control over my time at work, since I am less buffeted by the needs and whims of other people. It also means I have very few meetings.

And here are a few things I have had to accept to make this work on my end:

  • I have to look WAY far ahead in our project management system to see what’s coming down the pike for me. I work on big, long-term projects that can’t just be dashed off in a few hours if I didn’t see them coming. With fewer days and hours, I don’t have as much room for error in planning my time.
  • I live and die by time blocking. At the end of every week, I look ahead at my calendar and in our project management system and block my time in half-hour increments. This is the only way I can be realistic about what I can and cannot accomplish in a week. As I adjust due dates in the project management system, it helps others with expectations, especially since I’m not always available to answer questions. Time blocking also helps me stay on task and avoid distractions during the day, which is always important, but even more so with shorter hours.
  • I have had to release control. As my hours have shortened, I have had to give up projects to other people. I can’t weigh in on as many decisions. I just don’t have time to have my fingers in all that I’d want to, which can be hard. (But it has been good at the same time!)
  • I turn off notifications and don’t check Slack (or anything else) outside of my hours. This is counter-cultural in our world and in many workplaces, but it’s a key to actually enjoying the time away from work I have carved out for myself.
  • I have sacrificed being a star. Though I play a key role and am respected, I am outside the power structure. I’m not a manager, I’m not on the leadership team, my employers know I am not interested in “moving up the ranks,” I have limited hours, I’m not the first one tapped for new opportunities. I don’t think I will ever be the most beloved employee. All of this can be hard, but it’s a trade-off I’m making with open eyes.

How do you structure your six hours on days you work?

I generally block off the first and last half hour as “check in” and “wrap up,” respectively. Because I work shorter hours, there’s usually chatter that I need to catch up on (in Slack, email, and our project management system) that happened while I was out. If a small, last-minute ask comes up, I’ll usually tackle it in those windows, too.

I currently have a one-hour meeting on Mondays, and will occasionally schedule one-off meetings as needed – but other than that, it’s largely up to me how I schedule my time. Depending on deadlines and what I’m working on, I like to have a 2-3 hour block of deeper work – writing a chunk of a longer product or writing curriculum for a class – in the morning, then a break for lunch and a 10-minute walk around the neighborhood with John. In the afternoon, I schedule shorter blocks for blog posts, teaching emails, product descriptions, scripts, and similar tasks. I might use my final wrap-up half hour to finish a task I need a little extra time on, respond to messages, or take care of admin tasks.

I hope this sheds a little light on the other half of this transition! I’d love to hear how our work days are similar or different – it’s always interesting to learn about different experiences than your own!

Part One: Background on my work history and some reasons (or not) for shortening my work week
Part Two: Why we chose me over my husband, why we chose going part-time over other solutions, and the financial impact
Part Four: What my days off have actually looked like (so far)

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13 Tips for the Fourth Trimester After 3 Babies

11 February 2022

1. If what you’re doing is not working, try something else.

2. Feed –> Wake –> Sleep. For baby novices like John and I, this advice from Babywise was a lifesaver (and three babies in, it’s still working). It goes like this: when the baby wakes up, you feed them. Then you play together. Then they go to sleep. When they wake up again, you feed them again. The length of the sleeping and playing changes as they grow, but the basic rhythm was SUCH a helpful place for us to start in learning how to care for our babies.

3. All the babies I’ve ever known are obsessed with ceiling fans (especially if the blades are high contrast with the ceiling color). If you need a few minutes to get ready in the morning, lay your baby on the bed, turn on the fan for a few seconds, then turn it off and let it spin lazily. Baby magic.

4. Take the paternity leave. In the long arc of your career, you will never look back and wish you had worked those three days or two weeks or four months instead of being with your wife and baby. If you have a paternity leave benefit and it’s not your work’s culture to take it, be the change. (This one’s from John.)

5. Fun story: a few weeks after June was born, my Dad was changing her diaper. He called John and I into the room and said (very kindly), “This is not what her bottom is supposed to look like. Do you have any diaper cream?” Apparently a baby’s bottom is NOT supposed to be bright red? Right, got it. We did have and apply diaper cream, but after that, I also gave her an extra minute or two en plein air after wiping, fanning the diaper at her bottom to help things dry out (bonus: babies think this is funny).

6. Learn together. (THIS! This this this this this.)

7. I have never scrolled anything while nursing, and this is less because I am anti-scrolling and more because I was taught a two-handed hold while at the hospital. This has turned out to be a huge blessing. While nursing over the last six years, I have been present, yes (which has been its own gift), but I have also been very tuned into what was happening with my babies because there was nothing to distract me, and I think that’s made them all efficient, successful eaters. If they need a gentle nudge to keep sucking, I notice right away. If they’re in a good rhythm, I can help them keep that rhythm with a simple thumb stroke on their head (also taught to me at the hospital). And good feeding leads to good sleeping which leads to good feeding – the most wonderful virtuous cycle, especially in the early weeks.

8. Right after your baby goes down for the first evening stretch, get ready for bed – hop in the shower, do your beauty routine, get in your jams, whatever it takes. That way, especially if the baby is sleeping in your room, you’re not sneaking around trying to be super quiet when they’re about to wake up (or worse, showering when they’re already crying to be fed). Even if you’ve previously been a morning shower-er, I’d highly recommend the evening shower in the early days – mornings are just much less predictable, and if you’re home alone on maternity leave, you have less support. And every day is better with a shower.

9. Put olive oil on your nipples. For the first two babies, I used lanolin, but the feeding consultant at the hospital with Annie said they’re no longer recommending that (apparently it’s drying, what the heck?!) and recommending olive oil instead. She handed me a little vial (of the cooking stuff) and instructed me to rub a little on after every feeding. I did, for the first three or so weeks, and had zero bleeding or cracking.

10. Unsure what to do with your baby once they actually stay awake a bit during the day? I was. Turns out there are lots of things you can do together, but here’s one of my favorites: sit on a couch or comfy chair and prop your feet up on a coffee table, making a vee with the tops of your legs and your torso. Rest the baby on your thighs. In this spot, you’re comfortable, and they’re perfectly positioned to look at your face (babies love faces!). From there, you can read books, look at toys, gently sway them back and forth, sing songs… whatever you’d like.

11. Like a secret service agent, get ready to scan every situation you find yourself in to see how you can activate white noise if it becomes necessary. I kid, but only just. Here are some of our favorites: this machine for the bedroom, this one for on the go, and this app in a pinch.

12. Watch the movie About Time, ideally within a month of your child’s birth. It will wreck you emotionally but it could also change your life. (It changed mine.)

13. Just enjoy it. It passes so quickly, and it can be hard, AND even the hard parts can be enjoyed with the right perspective. Caveat: I’m not sure if this perspective can fully be realized until you’re on your last baby. With Annie, I truly, actually enjoyed getting up in the middle of the night to feed her, because I knew it was fleeting and I just felt lucky to be there with her. The first few weeks don’t have to be the best part of your life or your favorite part of your child’s life, but they are a unique and precious time. In the words of my grandmother, just try to enjoy it.

A few months out of my last fourth trimester, I wanted a spot to capture everything I write out for friends when they ask for advice… I hope you might find a nugget here that blesses you, too. What would you add? What resonates with you most? xo

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December 2020 goals

2 December 2020

Honestly, friends, November was a bit of a disappointment for goals. Not so much because I got nothing accomplished, but because for the one goal I really wanted to knock out of the park – my Advent calendar – I barely nudged the needle. November is usually my last chance to make big progress on yearly goals, because I mostly focus on reflection and fun in December, so it stings a bit to feel like I’m ending with a whimper instead of a bang. BUT – reminding myself of a truth I know – not reaching an expected finish line doesn’t negate the good stuff that came before it. It just means there’s a little more to roll over into 2021 :)

On my calendar this month:
— Dinner out with John for our 2020 review and celebration. This might be a bit of a last-minute event, because we’re still not eating inside at restaurants — so fingers crossed for a warmer evening where we can sit outside (hopefully next to a heat lamp!).
— An appetizer and Christmas movie night! (Planning to do family Christmas movie nights every Friday this month, and this will be a special edition.) We started with the original Grinch last week, and have The Star, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Olaf’s Frozen Adventure also on the list!
— Completing the Write the Word | Worship journal (a Cultivate collaboration with Proverbs31!) as an Advent devotion

What I’m loving right now:
— My PowerSheets prep work! The best reset and chance to dream.
— I’d never listened to an episode of the hugely-popular Armchair Expert podcast, but when I saw Lenore Skenazy (of COTAM fame) was a guest, I had to give it a listen. Worth the two hours.
— These are not new, but I love my L.L. Bean slippers so very much, especially in the colder months. A perfect gift, too!

As a reminder, you can find allll the things I’ve loved over the last few years neatly organized right here!

What I read in November:
Save Me the Plums | A delightful read – and perfect for the month of Thanksgiving, as I expected. Ruth’s writing is simple but rich, and as a former magazine editor, it was so fun to get the behind-the-scenes details of her time at Gourmet.
God and Money | This was a thought-provoking read, and has already stimulated conversation between John and me. The authors focus a lot on wealth and consumption “finish lines,” ideas I both chafe against and want to embrace. I hope to write a Marvelous Money post sharing more!

A little update on my 2020 reading list: it’s been a joy! So far, I’ve read 15 of the 24 books on the list. Hoping to finish 3 more before December 31st!

Revisiting my November goals:
Begin my 2021 PowerSheets prep
Complete the Advent calendar backer
Order and complete our 2010-2014 family album
Hang mirrors in the bathroom
Order our Christmas cards
Make decisions about all gifts for all the people
Clear the decks for holiday decor
Make our holiday plans
Hang our bikes in the garage

December goals:
— Have fun with our Christmas reading calendar
— Help June make/choose and wrap gifts for John and Shep
— Set our 2020 budget
— Finish culling and sorting our 2020 photos
— Order and complete our 2010-2014 family album
— Neaten the laundry room

Let’s talk appetizers. If you were planning an appetizer dinner, what would you make?? On my list: pizza rolls (!). Baked ham and cheese sliders. All the dips – onion dip and chips, cut veggies and ranch dip, queso and guacamole. Buffalo wings. And the delicious nuggets of goodness, famous in my family, called sausage stars… maybe I’ll have to share the recipe sometime :) Now tell me yours!!

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