1. Can you share a little about your and Jon’s story? It’s one of my very favorite love stories, and it’s one of the things that instantly brought you to mind as the “expert” for this month.

Yes! We got married young—I was barely 20—and had a baby right away. Within two years we added another and had moved several states away and back. It was really stressful and in a lot of ways, we were still growing up while trying to raise kids and learn how to be married. I was dissatisfied with life—for reasons I couldn’t even fully articulate at the time—and finally decided that Jon was the problem. We separated when the boys were 3 and 1, and were divorced a little over a year later.

However, you learn a lot about yourself when you’re alone, especially when you’re parenting alone. I dated a little and found that all the things that really mattered to me in a partner were things I had already had in Jon: mostly, mutual respect and a strong friendship. At the same time, he’d been working on growing up in a lot of ways. After some time apart to figure ourselves out, we realized that we really just wanted to be together. We wound up reconciling and remarrying—and of course, now we have three more kids!

Our second marriage could not be more different from our first. I think because we’ve both been on the other side, we are 150% committed to never “go there” again. We don’t let little things take root and grow into bigger things, and we address big things head-on. We just know too much now to ever go back.

2. You have teenagers, a young daughter and two boys in between. How does loving your kids look different at those different stages?

Wow, so different! Now that I have big kids (my older three are 11, 15, and 17) and can look back on the baby and toddler phase with some perspective, I realize that there is nothing easy about parenting very small children, but there is simplicity in it. Their needs are usually predictable and easy, if exhausting, to meet: feed, diaper, bathe, soothe, repeat. Older kids are different. A big part of my job now is to help my teens and tween to know themselves and how to be part of a bigger world. I have to let go of controlling their choices and environment so much, and let them make mistakes and learn from them. That can be tough, but it’s so necessary. At the same time, I want them to know how much I not only love, but like them: to realize that they are valuable and awesome human beings who have a lot to offer the world.

My five- and nine-year-olds are in such a golden time: little enough to still love me and look up to me like crazy, but big enough to use the bathroom on their own, fall asleep on their own and old enough to get themselves a sandwich! There really is nothing like these in-between years and I’m just trying to enjoy this honeymoon phase like crazy and smother them with affection—they certainly won’t always allow it the way they do now.

3. What do you think is the first sign for many women that they’re not really loving themselves? How does this affect their satisfaction with their life?

Besides the obvious ones, like a health issue due to neglecting yourself or putting off necessary care, for me the first sign is always a sort of low-level irritation that seeps into everything I do as a mom and wife. When I start to feel like nothing in my life is truly my own, or that everything I do is simply an obligation, I know it’s time to refocus. Yes, life can be overwhelming and sometimes we don’t really have a choice but to put our heads down and push ahead, but at some point we really need to come up for air and make sure we’re caring for ourselves, too.

4. I think the concept of taking care of yourself first is one of the hardest to wrap our heads around as mothers. Practically, how do you think our families benefit when we carve out time and attention to really love ourselves?

“If mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy” has become such a cliché, but I’ll tell you what: I have noticed over and over how much parents set the emotional tone for the whole family. If Mom or Dad are grumpy, exhausted, stressed, overwhelmed, etc., everyone knows it, and everyone is affected by it. I tend to think that in my house my mood has even more of an effect than my husband’s does, because I’m less likely to withdraw or leave the house to recharge, and much more likely to just keep plugging away.

Our kids are looking to us to learn how to be whole, happy, fulfilled human beings. In 15 years your children won’t be put out that you left every Tuesday night to go to book club (or whatever) but they certainly might remember watching you have a lively discussion about your favorite novel with a friend or your spouse. They won’t miss the hours that you spent exercising or napping but they will remember the feeling of being nurtured by an energetic, well-rested mom. And they’ll learn by example how to take care of themselves as they grow and start families, too

5. I love your description of love as a verb and not a feeling, and I do think our feelings follow our actions. How do you love Jon when you don’t feel in love or when he does something that makes you frustrated or angry?

One of the most loving things I think anyone can do is forgive, even when we don’t want to. And that doesn’t mean I sit back and accept or allow myself to get walked on—not at all! It just means that I don’t dig into the anger and instead make a conscious choice every time to turn the situation around, even when I have to take the lead and don’t think I “should” have to.

I spent our first marriage ruled by “should.” “Why should I ____ when he _____?” or “He should be the one to say he’s sorry first.” What I came to realize is that who “should” do this or that is completely irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what actually happens, and I would much rather be married than right, happy than justified.

When one person stops digging in and waiting for the other to do what they “should,” it’s catchy. It’s much easier to quickly apologize and forgive if you know the other person will do the same. And I’ve found that now, if I just let the initial rush of anger pass, and then come back with an apology and physical contact (a kiss, a hug) it is almost always reciprocated immediately. Best yet, he’s even more likely to be the first to apologize these days. So those little fights, disagreements or resentments never really have a chance to take root and grow into something big and ugly. It takes time and a lot of effort to get there, but it’s so, so worth it.

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