Relationships, Self-awareness

Continuing on with this blog series about the couple’s workshop that my husband and I attended, this timelarge-home we’ll examine what helps to make a relationship work (last time I covered what doesn’t). There are seemingly subtle things that two people can do to help build what the Gottmans’ call the “Sound Relationship House.” If you have a sound house, then you will have a positive relationship, even when conflict arises. Following are three parts that contribute to the foundation of that house. The Gottmans’ point out that these three levels make up the “friendship domain” of the relationship, but they are also the basis for “romance, passion, and good sex.” Well, okay then, let’s get to them!

Build a Love Map – a love map is essentially a map of how well you know your partner. You might say, “Well, yeah, I’ve known him for like twenty years, so I don’t need a map!” But in this case, a map is more of an understanding your partner’s past and present, your history together, his likes and dislikes, current challenges and dreams, etc. It’s not just knowing that he doesn’t like anchovies on his pizza (though that helps), but what are his current struggles, what are his goals, and what is your role in it all?

And the same goes for him. Does he know those things about you? During the workshop, we did an exercise in which we read cards with open-ended questions and took turns answering in term’s of how we thought our partner would answer. (The other person would either agree or disagree about the answer.) Some examples were: What is your partner’s biggest dream, as yet unachieved? Who is your partner’s least favorite relative? What was your partner’s favorite vacation?

The idea was to see how well we know our spouses. We might think we know exactly how they will answer every question, but sometimes we’re wrong! (I was a couple times.)

Another exercise we did, and one you can do every day, is to ask open-ended questions to each other. Examples would be: If you could re-do any decade of your life, which would you choose and why? What are your biggest worries about the future? If you could live in another country, which would you pick and why?
The idea here is to ask questions that require thought, beyond a yes/no answer, and it’s a way to keep in touch with your partner’s interests, ideas, and goals.

Share Fondness and Admiration – this one seems obvious, but how often do we actually acknowledge the positives about our spouses, and then actually tell them! You also might find that he has something nice to say back if you start with the first nicety. The idea is to build a positive outlook about the other so when certain trouble spots show up, like contempt, it doesn’t hurt so much or come up as often. During this exercise, we looked at list of sixty adjectives, anything from loving to funny to careful to gentle to sexy or kind, circled those we thought fit, then shared them with each other. It was nice to know that we still think of each other with certain positive characteristics. This is something anyone could do at home if you really wanted to, but also just telling each other positives (like “Thank you for helping around the house” or “You look great today”) will work towards building the foundation in your relationship.

Turn Towards – the last level is to turn towards your partner in everyday interactions. The Gottmans’ say that we all make “bids” to one another, which are gestures (either verbal or nonverbal) in which we are seeking attention or connection from our partner. These can be small, like calling your partner’s name or asking “Did you buy toilet paper yesterday?” to large, “I need help scheduling this upcoming busy couple caringweek” or “I need affection.”

There are three ways we can respond to these bids. The first is to Turn Towards, which means acknowledging your partner in a positive way. This can be in answer to the above questions or in small ways like helping him or her out, making a favorite meal, giving a spontaneous hug, or bringing out the garbage. The second way is to turn away, which means ignoring your partner completely (we realized in this workshop that giving no repsonse to a question is still turning away, that one of us does this, and it’s really annoying!). The last way is to turn against. Turning against means responding angrily like, “No, I didn’t buy toilet paper. Go buy it yourself!”

From research and observation, the Gottmans’ saw that newlyweds turned towards each other 86% of the time. Of those newlyweds, who got divorced six years later turned, they turned towards only 33% of the time.

The Gottmans’ say that each interaction in which we turn towards contributes to an Emotional Bank Account. Positive interactions are small deposits in this bank account. When we run into trouble (i.e. conflicts or fights), this emotional bank account of positive interactions helps us through. They say “small things often” can help our relationships overall.

To me, this idea applies not only to our spouses, but to our kids, family, and friends as well. What do you do to contribute to the Emotional Bank Accounts in your relationships?

Relationships, Self-awareness

Last month, I posted about a couple’s workshop that my husband and I attended. It was called “The Art and Science of Love,” created by John and Julie Gottman. They have studied and researched couples and marriages for years, and they have learned a lot!

To continue on with what I learned during the workshop, following are problem-causing behaviors and what the Gottmans’ call the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Apparently, they are so detrimental to a marriage that their namesake says it all. They are as follows: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, Stonewalling.

Criticism – we all know what that is; we’ve all given it and received it at some point! They are referring to statements like, “You’re so boring (lazy, annoying, stupid, etc),” and using statements that begin with “You never” or “You always.” Essentially, these criticisms imply there is something wrong with your partner’s character. They found that women often criticize more than men (don’t worry, men aren’t perfect either). Their guess is that women may feel ignored by men with they complain then these complaints escalate to criticism over time.couple fighting

Defensiveness – is any attempt to defend or protect oneself, as well as to ward off any perceived criticism. It can be seen in righteous indignation or the innocent victim stance, as well as counter-attacking or whining.

Contempt – is the worst of them, according to the Gottmans, and the most harmful to a marriage. To be contemptuous means a spouse will put the other down and feel superior. They label it as a position in which one thinks “I’m better/smarter/kinder/stronger/etc than you are.” They also find a certain mindset that can accompany contempt: a negative pattern or habit where the spouse scans the situation or environment for the other’s mistakes rather than what can be appreciated or what is positive (thus leading to criticism). By observing contempt, they found it to be the best predictor of divorce or break-up.

Stonewalling – is the last and the one they found that men do more than women. Essentially, it means withdrawing from the conversation/interaction, etc. The spouse would stay in the room, but not give any cues that he is listening. He might turn his body away, look down, or cross his arms. He is basically shutting the other person out. They point out a common pattern here with the woman criticizing while the man stonewalls.

Are you good friends with any of these horsemen? Being critical and defensive stands out to me as things that I probably do. The Gottmans liken criticism and contempt to fighting, being defensive as a form of flight, and stonewalling is like freezing up. I guess I’m willing to fight then run away!

Thankfully, they offer antidotes to these buggers, and I’ll post them next time. In the meantime, you can observe your own relationship (or others) and see if any horsemen are hanging around. An interesting experiment!

Self-awareness, Self-improvement

Last month, I convinced my husband to go to a couple’s workshop with me. “Couple’s workshop?” you may be thinking, “Why would you ever want to go to one of the those? We don’t need that kind of help.” Well, we’ve been married for fourteen years, and together for nineteen. We are used to each other and our own, personal, quirks. We also still like each other, thankfully, but after kids come, so does the lack of time spent together. When you have babies, forget about it, then, even as they get older, the carefree days of taking off to do something fun, just the two of you, ends. And distance and disconnection can grow instead, things we have both felt.

This idea all began because I heard a podcast with an interview of a psychologist named John Gottman. He and his research partner had been studying couples and divorce for years. They could observe a couple for an hour and predict with over 90% accuracy if that couple would get a divorce in the coming years. I thought that was incredible, and although I didn’t want to sign up and be observed, I looked more into Gottman and his methods. Turns out he has numerous books on the subject, co-authored with his wife, Julie Gottman, and they also have formed seminars and workshops about marriage. Again, I was interested in what they teach and what they have learned over the years by observing and researching couples. After digging around I discovered that there was a couple’s workshop, entitled, “The Art and Science of Love,” created by the Gottmans and it would be in the Bay Area, somewhat near us and fairly soon.

I approached my husband with the idea who looked at me with skepticism. “A couple’s workshop?” He wasn’t too excited about it, and thought that he and our relationship would be under a microscope. I honestly wasn’t too sure about what would happen, but I thought it couldn’t hurt, maybe we would feel better about ourselves as a couple, and if anything, I would have a topic for my monthly blog! I didn’t think our marriage was in any danger to begin with, but we also were pretty stuck in our ways of seeing each other briefly between work, kids’ practices, performances, sports, etc. We both felt a little disconnected. He agreed (because he’s a nice guy and a good husband) and we both waited, with some anxiety, for the weekend workshop.

We walked in on an early Saturday morning of an overcast day to a room full of many different couples: old, young, various ethnicities and backgrounds, a same-sex couple, but everyone had the same sense of interest and apprehension of what was to come. The room was set up with rows of chairs and a projector. It was more of a classroom setting than a group therapy session. I think we were both relieved! Over the next two days we were taught by two marriage/family therapists many things about what the Gottmans have learned over the years. What helps couples stay together (being good friends, and doing small things for each other often were some examples), what predicts divorce (more negative interactions than positive, feeling alone, unable to resolve conflict), and how to resolve those conflicts when they arise (or what to do when you can’t).

Overall, it was an interesting lesson in what makes marriages work, according to their research, and what causes them to slowly disintegrate, then ultimately end in divorce. If we all started out learning these things, the rate of divorce would surely be less! (If anything, because a person might decide not to marry a potential spouse in the first place.) I’ll be posting more of what I learned because I think it can be helpful in any close relationship. As for my husband and me, we still like each other, even after sixteen hours of examining our marriage!

So long ago!
Near the beginning, so long ago.
Fear, Self-awareness, Self-improvement, Technology

I recently bought the book, How to Break Up with Your Phone, by Catherine Price. I felt like I was spending far too much time looking at and preoccupied with that screen in my pocket when I could be doing many more productive things (like writing for instance, or reading, or even, dare I say it, doing nothing!). The studies that Price present are astounding and frightening, like a New York Times analysis that calculated that Facebook users were spending collectively 39,757 years’ worth of attention on the site, every day; or that as of 2017, Americans were spending an average of more than four hours a day on their phones. We really are becoming a nation of phone zombies. My family is no different. I try to limit my kids’ screen time, but it’s probably far more than what is recommended.

What is really interesting in the book is how much the phone (looking at it, checking it, scrolling endlessly) is simply a habit. She describes Charles Duhigg’s definition of a habit (from his book, the Power of Habit, it’s a good one), which is “a choice that we addiction-phones2deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day.” And how habits are loops made up of three parts: the cue (or trigger), the response, and the reward. In the case of the phone, it could be me bored while waiting in line somewhere (cue or trigger) so I check my phone (response), and find that I have email I could read (reward). And so it goes. First in situations of boredom, then in times of avoidance (say, when I don’t want to hear my kids complaining), and finally, just because. How many times have you looked at your phone simply because someone else did? Or checked your email or texts, thinking you heard that little ding, but it was just your imagination. (If you can believe it, the term for that is phantom ringing syndrome.)

I haven’t finished the book yet because it is broken up into two parts that take a while. The first is just information about how hooked we have all become, the second part is a 30-day plan to break up with your phone (I’m about halfway through) with tasks to do each day. She recommends small daily changes like turning off notifications so you’re not constantly checking every email when you hear the ding, or installing an app that tracks your usage so you truly know how much time you look at your phone, or even just pick it up.

It all accumulates into taking a complete vacation from your phone for twenty-four hours, meaning turning it off completely and putting it away for a full day and night. For some people, that’s seems impossible and anxiety-producing. For me, I’m not so sure. At first, I think,phone addiction “No problem,” but then I seem to think of reasons why I might need it on (my mom for instance, or some excuse I think is “important”). In the end, it’s just silly anxiety running the show and making me think that the world will end in those twenty-four hours simply because I (the all-important legend in my own mind) don’t have my phone on (in reality, I guess, it is the phone running my show). I will post a follow-up when I complete my thirty days of phone withdrawal and let you know how it went!

Grief, Self-awareness

My donkey died last month (no, really). He was nearly thirty, which is about their life span, and he went very quickly. In the morning, Marcus was eating his hay breakfast with this buddy Olivia, and our two goofy goats, then by late afternoon, he was laying down at an odd angle (which isn’t typical) and looked dead. But he was still barely breathing.

By the time the vet got to our house, Marcus was staring vacantly, and she realized that he was a goner. She went to her truck to get the medicine to put him to permanent sleep, but in that short time, he had died. He gave one last breath while I sat next him, and was gone. We buried him in the dark. Mercifully, it had stopped raining that day during our very wet winter, but the mud and muck remained and we sloshed through it to his grave site.

My family said their last words to our donkey as he lay lifeless in a five-foot hole (tractors are a tool to be grateful for). Both of my kids were upset. Both of our donkeys have been around since before my kids were born. Marcus was a constant presence, even if it was in a pasture braying for his breakfast. He was always around, following his lady, Olivia, in a humdrum kind of fashion. A.A. Milne wrote Eeyore well because both that donkey and Marcus shared many characteristics.

donkeys
Marcus in the front with his buddy, Olivia, in the back.

I was sad about it all, especially the speed at which he went down. Could I have done something more? I wondered. Were there warning signs that I didn’t notice? These were my thoughts that night and the next day.

Then, by the third day, I cried. And cried, and cried some more. I questioned why I was getting so upset over a donkey? I mean, I liked this donkey. He was a good donkey, as far as donkeys go, but I didn’t have a special bond with him like people do with their horses. I told my best friend the news who put it all into place. “You’ve had him since you moved there,” she said. “It’s like the end of something.” Aha! She was right. It was the end of the something – the end of the beginning.

We moved out to the country almost fourteen years ago. We got Marcus and Olivia soon after that as adoptees. They were there at “the beginning.” It was when we decided to move from Southern California after only living there for a couple years (we didn’t care for it there), when we decided that we wanted “some land” (and five acres was a lot to us, suburbanites), it was the beginning of a new phase of a newly married couple’s life.

It’s funny how time can pass so quickly once you live in a place you love, how having children accelerates time, and how you don’t notice that all of us are aging – human, dog, donkey, it’s all going by so fast, you don’t take note. With Marcus suddenly dying, and me realizing that he had reached his actual lifespan,  I had to accept that it was officially “the end of the beginning,” and I cracked.

marcus1
Marcus featured on our Christmas card.

Like the death of any pet or person, the end of one’s career, the milestone of a graduation, they are all endings to beginnings. “The end of an era,” my dad always says. It certainly was with Marcus. But with the end of things comes the paradox of a new beginning.

So, though I do mourn the death of my donkey and the beginning he represented, I know this means the beginning of something new. Possibly a place with only one donkey to bray at us in the morning, or maybe welcoming a new donkey  into the family.

R.I.P. Marcus – we will miss you.

Health & Diet, Self-improvement

This January I embarked on the Arbonne 30-Days to Healthy Living Cleanse. I did this last year too and wrote about it (the Power and Pain of the 30-Day Cleanse). However, this year I was not alone. Somehow, I managed to talk others into doing it too (besides my husband who probably felt that he had little choice). Four other couples and two additional women did it with us, and oh, what fun it was!

green smoothieFor those who don’t know about this cleanse, the following foods are cut out for thirty days: wheat, sugar, dairy, peanuts, corn, soy, caffeine (except for green tea), canola oil (which is in many foods and is inflammatory), all vinegar except apple cider, pork, beef (except grass-fed, once a week), starchy foods (like potatoes), and sugary fruits (bananas, pineapple, etc). Why, you might ask, would anyone voluntarily cut out ALL of these foods? And, what does that leave a person to eat?!  I did this cleanse again because last year it helped with my migraines, my husband did it to lose weight (and he’s a nice, supportive guy in that way), it’s also a good way to get rid of the guilt-ridden pounds and general yuckiness felt after overindulging during the holiday season (which we both did). Those who joined us did it for a variety of reasons: for some it was to lose weight, others wanted to get rid of the guilt too, some wanted to get a good start on the year by eating right, and one other person had mysterious pain issues and wanted to see if a diet change would help alleviate some of the pain.

The cleanse did help with all of these issues. Everyone lost weight. My migraines improved. All of us felt “good” in general (either from not eating so crappy anymore or for paying penance from the month before, we don’t know), and the person who had the pain issue said her body felt better (though it didn’t all go away). If that’s the case, why don’t we eat like this ALL of the time, then? And here is where the list of drawbacks begins.

Convenience: it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to eat out or grab something quick during this cleanse. No restaurant or quick eatery has entirely cleanse-compliant menu options (Chipotle is the one exception, and even then, there is one or two items on the menu to have). Meal-planning is essential, which was good in some ways because it forced me to plan, but for those of us who aren’t very creative or enjoy figuring out meals, it was hard. Which leads me to the next one:

Lack of variety: there are only so many ways to cook a chicken, especially when most marinades, vinegars, or any type of sauce is forbidden. I don’t eat meat, so it didn’t bother me, but others who did the cleanse groaned, “Chicken…again?” Grass-fed beef is an option, a very expensive one. Most chicken sausages have a pork casing. And for me, the vegetarian, beans – yet again – got pretty old. After it was over, though, we definitely appreciated some simple foods that we couldn’t have – regular old potatoes, for instance, or tofu in my case.hungry with donut

Missing out: many of us had certain foods or beverages that we realized were hard to let go of. For most it was the beloved coffee, but after the three to five days of withdrawal, many were okay (some weren’t). My nightly cookie with tea was dearly missed, or a Friday night beer (a glass of wine for others). How much of this was habit or actually hard to give up? We’re not sure.

The length of the cleanse got to me in the end. I was flying through it for the first two and a half weeks, finding that it wasn’t so hard because I had given up a lot of these foods anyway (mostly wheat, dairy, and coffee), but after fifteen days, I hit the wall – hard. I was tired of eating the same old things. I wanted chocolate. I wanted my old salad dressing back. I wanted to stop thinking about what to eat for the next week. I asked my husband why we ever decided to do this stupid cleanse (and he said, “I don’t know, why did you decide that we would do this stupid cleanse?”).

But we got through it, just like we did the first time. And, like before, we felt better – all of us did. Now, nearly a month has passed, and some of us are slowly going back to our old foods, others have dived in headfirst (with G.I. payback), and some have given up a few foods entirely. Last night, I asked most of the fellow cleansers if they would do it again, and many said yes. Despite the pain, the inconvenience, and the difficulty of following such a restrictive diet, we would do it again. (Well, I might change it to twenty days instead!). I think that shows how many of us knew we were making the right choices, filling our bodies with real food, and not feeling guilty for eating things that we knew satiated just our brains, not our stomachs. There must be something to that. I’ll let you know next year. Or would you care to join us? 😉

Kids, Self-awareness

Two days before Christmas last month I went to a Walmart store in an unfamiliar neighborhood in hopes of finding Queen’s Greatest Hits for my son (“We Will Rock You” had become his anthem). According to Walmart’s website, it was in stock at this particular store in an area that I did not know. In the past few years, my shopping has mostly been done on-line – no lines, no cranky people, but also no interesting experiences.shopping-carts

This particular Walmart was chaos contained in 50,000 square feet. The parking lot itself was a challenge with people zooming all over, all trying to get the best spot; there was a truck sitting in one of the main lanes not moving, possibly not running, while everyone tried to get around or figure out how to back up. I was driving our big truck because I had to get hay for our animals. I already felt out of place maneuvering this huge vehicle and trying to squeeze myself into a spot at the very end of the lot where I could hopefully get back out again without damaging other cars.

“Get in and get out,” I told myself walking into the store.  I sucked in breath as I saw the madness of Walmart near Christmas. The register lines were endless with people of every nationality looking frustrated and stressed, the displays at the front had been damaged from so many people going by, and the chorus of children crying drowned out the bad Christmas music over the speakers.

“Music section, music section,” I directed myself through the throngs of assorted disgruntled shoppers. I had no idea where that would be. My luck usually dictates that it would somewhere completely across the store and I was not disappointed: it was in the very back corner. I finally reached it only to find the CDs in absolutely no recognizable order; if one happened to be in the right alphabetical spot, it was only by chance. And, as I guessed, Queen was nowhere to be found. In fact, there was were nothing in the Q section that started with such a letter. I halfheartedly looked through the surrounding area and the closest I found to classic rock was Poison.

An overweight and bored employee attempting to put CDs in their rightful places asked me if I needed help.”Have you seen any Queen around here?” I asked doubtfully. He laughed as though I asked him if there was a pot of gold at the end of aisle six. I told him that Walmart’s website said that it was in-stock here. This made him laugh harder. He then went on to tell me about an outside website where I could buy an entire MP3 album for $1.50 instead of playing $10 at iTunes. I told him thanks, noted that there was no employee loyalty lurking here, then went to get a gallon of milk so I could get out of this place.

Throughout my adventure in the store the loudspeaker kept announcing that “Giovanni has lost his mom” and would she please come to the front to find him. At first, I was concerned for both parties, being a mom myself I would be distraught if I lost my kid. After the fifth announcement for poor old Giovanni, I started to think that maybe his mom didn’t want to find him. Finding the milk, I politely said “excuse me” to another shopper who was staring into the case. I opened it, got my milk, then held it open for her as I assumed she was getting some too. She looked at me, rolled her eyes, and kept going down the aisle. “OOOkay,” I said to myself, resolving to leave this place and not linger another moment.

I walked up to the registers to find that the chaos had settled somewhat. I found a line that looked promising and watched as a mother and a teenage daughter argued over going back to get something. The girl’s attitude suggested that she was not doing it, but the mother’s bigger attitude prevailed, and the girl went to get whatever missing item they forgot. I noticed that they were next in line but the woman did not look like she was willing to let anyone past, even if that meant she held up the line for the next half hour. “Next line,” I said to myself. I went over one register and found a person trying to buy something with no price and attempting to argue with the cashier over the real price of the item in broken English with no success. Another woman in back of me kept sighing very loudly and saying things to herself about the scene.

This went on for another five minutes. I noticed that Giovanni had finally been reunited with his mom, who had four other children with her and looked like she didn’t care if she had ever found him again. Finally, another cashier opened up and I dashed for it only to find another woman trying to get there faster. As usual, I heeded to the other shopper, not finding it worth the effort to argue over who was there first. To my surprise, she told me that I got there first and to go ahead. “Really? Thanks!” I said looking over at the line where the teenager had still not returned and the people behind the mother getting thoroughly pissed off while the mother looked completely unperturbed, if anything she was seeking a challenger to fight.

The cashier was an older African American woman who was very friendly and helpful, and didn’t seem to mind the Christmas craziness. I paid for my milk and got out of there as fast as I could. The line with the mother and absent teenage girl was starting to get very heated, eyes were starting to bulge and chests heave. “Thank the lord!” I said to myself, dashing to the truck only to find three carts piled up behind it. I got them lined up and moved them to the overflowing cart return, not seeing an employee in sight who would be taking them any time soon.

Getting in my truck, without the CD that I originally sought, I watched as the public transit whizz by, heard horns honking in the distance, and just wanted to leave this store and this place and never come back. I wanted to go home to our very quiet and nature laden neighborhood, where I don’t see another house next to mine, where three cars constitutes a traffic jam, and where animals are more prevalent than people. And I did, after squeezing through the parking lot where the same truck from earlier had not moved; I drove forty-five minutes north east of there, and breathed in the country air, and was glad for it.

Visiting this Walmart in this an unfamiliar neighborhood was good for me, however, because it truly made me appreciate what I have and where I live. I unloaded the hay and was glad for the sweat and effort that it took. I realized that it would be very hard for me to live in an area anywhere near a Walmart, even though I have lived in suburban and somewhat urban areas in the past. We worked hard to get here and it suits me; it would be difficult to live any other place.

It also made me realize that living on five acres in the country is my attempt to hide from reality. In this case, I was trying to hid from Christmas insanity, and it showed me why I should shop ahead and on-line where I deal with no people. But what are the countrysideconsequences of that? Besides getting to maintain my sanity, am I depriving my children and myself of seeing other ways of life? Will my kids be unable to handle a chaotic situation surrounded by unfamiliar people one day because I avoid these places?

In truth, I barely take them to any retail store beyond the grocery store because I don’t want to hear about all the things they want. We often avoid retail entirely so they can’t see and don’t know what they don’t have.  However, I do think that my way of life “in the country” is a shield from other realities; and I have found that I am not the only one. Most of the people near us live out here for a reason: for some it is their retirement and they want to “get away from it all;” for others, it is wanting their kids to grow up in a place where they can get dirty, and some have just lived here their entire lives and are content with that way of life.  Either way, I’ll take my isolation, be glad that I am not Giovanni or his mom, and next year, shop ahead on-line, at least near Christmas time!

Health & Diet, Self-improvement

So many moms out there experience these debilitating headaches, and so many of us find little relief. For those of you who have never had a migraine, here is a brief description: extreme, throbbing pain, usually on one side the head, that is relentless. It pounds away minute by minute and is accompanied by heightened sensitivity to light, sound, and even smell. Almost anything will make it worse. Some experience nausea or vomit, some have a weird halo (or “aura”) that obscures their vision, others must hide away in a dark room, and the worst must go to the E.R. because the pain is so great. Most get no relief until they go to bed that night and hope it’s gone in the morning. For many sufferers, it has miraculously disappeared after a good nimigraine1ght’s sleep; for others, it can continue for two to three more days. The pain can be so excruciating that most people are willing try anything to make it go away, and most things don’t work. Adding children to the mix (especially young and needy ones) when a migraine hits tests the strength of the strongest moms!

I have suffered from migraines since the age of 26 (I am now 42). I have researched the topic, tried almost any and every suggested remedy, gone to doctors, acupuncturists, and herbalists. Here is what I learned over the years to hopefully help anyone with these mega-headache blues:

Causes and Triggers:
Following are some common causes and triggers that contribute to a migraine occurring. Note that it isn’t just one of these that will cause the headache, it is typically a combination of them. I spent many years trying to find that one culprit, thinking that I could eliminate that and be cured; and it took me a long time to realize that it’s not the case. Too many triggers experienced at the same time will cause that dreaded pounding to start; there isn’t one source.
– Migraines are typically hereditary. If you get migraines and start asking around your family members, you’ll probably find that someone else gets them too. My dad does occasionally, as well as my aunt who experiences them often, and now my younger cousins. Unfortunately, we’re a migraine family, but they also have been a good resource for me when trying to discover my common triggers. Often, they are the same.
– Getting too little sleep. This is a big contributor to the onset of a migraine, and I know that if I have multiple nights of no sleep, a migraine is sure to follow. Sleep can be nearly impossible with little ones, but try to make it up where you can. Go to bed when your babies do, nap when they do too, or try to find some time during lunch breaks to just close your eyes and rest that poor brain.
– Having too much caffeine. Caffeine, our lifesaver in the morning or when we don’t get that beloved sleep, can also bring on a migraine faster. It constricts your blood vessels and increases your heart rate. It feels good in the moment, but can also make that incessant pounding worse. I finally kicked the coffee habit after many loving years with my darling java, but it has really helped. I still drink tea, a combination of black and green, so I still intake caffeine, but not at the same rate or in the same concentration.
– Not eating regularly, or drinking enough water. In combination with healthy sleep, migraine sufferers also benefit from eating at least every three hours, as well as drinking plenty of fluids (ideally water). The drop in blood sugar really affects those with migraines. Lacking these two essentials just adds fuel to the migraine fire.
– Menstrual cycle migraines. Some women find that the dips and dives in their hormones due to their period cause migraines to regularly occur. At least two moms I know have found that their menstrual cycle is the major contributor to their monthly migraine.
– An onslaught of stress. We all know that stress is unavoidable in our lives as moms, but an influx due to family problems, illnesses, financial worries, and more can add up fast. Taking a break with some relaxation or even a short meditation can help. It might not solve your problems, but can give you a little distance for a short while, and maybe keep that headache at bay.
– Red wine, some cheeses, dark chocolate. That just doesn’t seem fair, does it? All of those delicious foods can cause migraines? For some, yes. Red wine has been a culprit for a long time. Tannins and a substance called tyramine is supposed to contribute to those who are prone to migraines. The same goes for aged cheeses, they contain tyramine, which helps that headache along. Dark chocolate also contains it, and chocolate has caffeine from the higher content of cocoa. My aunt discovered that dark chocolate is her biggest trigger (along with caffeine,) so she avoids it completely.
– Food allergies or intolerance. Foods that your body cannot tolerate or has a reaction to will cause inflammation in your body. Inflammation can help that migraine come into being. After doing a food intolerance test, I discovered that I am intolerant to milk, lactose, cheese, and many types of seeds. I have completely cut those out of my diet and seen positive results.
– Weather changes. This trigger might seem a little silly, but it can be a contributor. Drops in the barometer mean changes in pressure, which can be painful to an already sensitive head. Major changes due to the changing of seasons affect my headaches, as well as visiting other places where the humidity is vastly different (like the southern states). There isn’t much that we can do about the weather! But being aware of it might cause you to not have that extra cup of coffee or stay up a little later.

How to help your head:
– Healthy lifestyle changes: do your best to get enough sleep, don’t overdo it on caffeine (or drink it at all if possible), always be aware of when you ate and when to eat again (do not go over three hours, carry snacks in your purse, always have water with you).
– Track your menstrual cycle along with your headaches. If you notice a pattern, avoid your other triggers when you know might start your period (or whenever headaches occur in your cycle). You also can visit your doctor to discuss trying birth control pills, which has helped those moms I know who get cycle-related migraines.
– Keep a headache log and note any patterns: did you have red wine the night before, what did you eat, did you get little notebook-and-pensleep, are you particularly stressed, is your period coming or did it recently end? The goal is to narrow down any little pattern. That will help you untangle the triggers that bring migraines on.
– Get a food intolerance test. Knowing what foods your body reacts to can help your entire system (from your G.I. to your head). I had no clue that my body doesn’t tolerate milk products, and I’ve been eating them my entire life! You may not like the answers, but if you’re desperate for relief, you might be willing to try.
– See your doctor to get a prescription for migraine medication. There are options out there for us migraine sufferers and I have tried many of them. There are meds to take when a migraine starts to attack and there are some to take on a daily basis to ward them off. Choosing to take medication is personal and entirely up to you, but know that options exist, some of them might be helpful.
– See an acupuncturist who can get you back in balance. Acupuncture is beneficial for chronic pain or any other problem, which is often due to an imbalance somewhere in your body. The right acupuncturist can treat this imbalance, and in turn, alleviate some of your headaches, or make the pain less severe when they occur.

What worked for me:
First, please note that everyone is different and what has worked for me may not work you in the same way. Everyone’s migraine journey is unique; still, some of my solutions might help you too.
– Adequate sleep, eating healthily, and drinking lots of water. If I miss out on any of these, especially in combination, I’m in trouble.
– Exercising on a regular basis – it helps my body and brain, even short walks are something.
– Changing my daily diet. After getting the food intolerance test and cutting out my body’s major reactors, in my case, milk, lactose, many seeds, and some alcohol, I noticed a marked difference in my headaches. As a family we also cut out gluten (due to my daughter’s intolerance), and that has helped too.
– Acupuncture – it took me awhile to find the right practitioner (every acupuncturist has their own theory for your ailment, like a doctor), but once I did, she worked wonders in clearing out and detoxing my body and helping my energy level overall, especially my headaches. I went from having migraines a few times a month to having one sporadically every four or five months. She worked wonders for me, but again, everyone’s experience is different.
– Prescription migraine medication – I have tried a variety of these as well, some with varying success. In the end, I take a common medication (Imitrex) when I feel a migraine coming on. Since I have eliminated most triggers, that medication usually stops the migraine before ballooning into a full-blown attack. Prior to my lifestyle changes and acupuncture, the medication didn’t always work and I would take it much more frequently than I liked. Now, I am not waiting anxiously to fill my prescription.

The migraine problem is a hard one to solve, and it might be that you will always be prone to them, but know that you can cut out some of the major contributing factors and, if anything, reduce the times that you get them (and the severity). Good luck, migraine mamas!

Self-awareness, Self-improvement

My favorite Yogi tea (Vanilla Spice – Perfect Energy) had this message for me recently: Happiness is an accomplishment. This led me to ponder this elusive state called happiness that we are all continuously seeking in some way. I’ve been trying to just “be happy” for most of my adult life. happy teaWhat job would make me happy? What material item can? How much more money do I need to find happiness?

Here are a few things that I have picked up over time about happiness.

Happiness is a temporary state. We can never reach the final destination of happiness and stay there (unless, I guess, we cease to exist). It’s temporary. I always thought that if I did the right things, then I would be happy. And my husband has often said, “I just want you to be happy,” as though it were something I could turn on and keep on. Happiness doesn’t work that way. It isn’t permanent; each moment can be a happy one, or not. The good old Dalai Lama says, “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions,” and I believe this to be true. We cannot depend on others for it, nor can we expect it to last forever. It’s up to us to create it, regardless of what is happening around us.

Happiness is a practice. The first statement about the impermanence of happiness leads me to the second – that happiness is truly a practice. It’s not something we arrive at; it’s work – all the time, every day. And that’s okay. If we can add up all those little things that make us happy (for me some are: a hot shower, sleeping in, good coffee, having nothing to do), then we will find these little moments of joy. And if we multiply them, then we might just find that we are, well, happy, for now anyway. The Dalai Lama’s buddy, the Buddha, says “There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path.” That might be a little tougher to swallow, and understand, but my interpretation is that we won’t find the place that lsmiley-and noteads to happiness, we must practice it all the time.

We do that by knowing that we won’t ever stumble upon happiness and stay there. We won’t reach that point where, finally, we’re happy (though part of me still wants to believe that). We will have some good moments where we feel it, then some that are really far from it too. So, if my Yogi tea bag is correct, then happiness is an accomplishment, but one that we can’t hold onto forever. As Thanksgiving is a day away and we are all supposed to be happy with this holiday of gratitude and surrounding ourselves with family, maybe we just try enjoying those little things instead: the gravy that came out right, the weather, or relishing a day of food and rest because it’s a small break before Christmas looms upon us.

And we can use the words of Ellen DeGeneres for that day, and others: “Do things that you make you happy, within the confines of the legal system.” Sage-like advice.

Kids, Parenting

This is an article that I wrote and was originally published in the April 2018 issue of Sacramento Parent. If you want to read it there, visit this link and go to page 12.

Let’s face it, moms, having a new baby can be tough. The constant feedings and changings, the wacky sleep schedule that you must follow, the new upside-down world you now call yours, it’s hard on the body and the spirit! Your little one is here and you love that baby more than anything, but this life change comes with a new set of challenges. Even moms who don’t have babies anymore and are accustomed to their lives with children still need downtime to unwind and recharge. Here are some tips from You Made It to Motherhood: A Guide for New Moms for those who have new babies or those with old “babies”!

cup-of-tea

  • Make time for self-care. This one might seem obvious, but it also can be so hard to do! A new mom, especially, is often happy if she gets to take a shower, let alone anything extravagant. Sometimes, it just takes a little creativity to find little moments that are just for you. When your baby is napping, for instance, instead of doing laundry, cleaning the house, or trying to get all those thank-you notes out, take an hour just for yourself. That can mean anything that you enjoy: reading a brain-candy novel, having a special treat all to yourself, relaxing on your deck with eyes closed and drinking in the sunshine – whatever you wouldn’t normally do because “there’s never enough time.” Take that time now for you, just you. (You’re worth it!)
  • Find support – it makes all the difference. This can be very hard to do too, but if you make the effort you can find people willing to help. Often, the support is there, but we just don’t want to accept it (a mistake I made). Discard all of those ideas of “I can do this myself,” “I don’t want to bother them,” “No, really, I’m fine,” and just let people help! If someone offers to watch the baby for a half hour, and you’re comfortable with that person, do it (and go have a cup of coffee baby-free). Other means of support could be a new mom’s group (invaluable advice for free), church groups, reaching out to other new moms, or letting your aunt or moms you know with grown children have your son or daughter for a while (they love to hold a baby since they don’t get to often). Keep your mind open to different ways of finding support; it’s out there, just remember to say, “yes!”.
  • Spend time with your spouse or partner. This tip is another one that is really important and is so difficult to do once a baby enters the picture, but it’s worth making the effort. Your relationship has probably changed now that you are a family of three (or more), and it’s important to stay connected to the person who took part in creating it all with you. The two of you originally had a life together “pre-baby” and going back to that via date nights or just hanging out together without a baby constantly interrupting really lets you just be a couple for a short time. It can be tricky to find someone to help you make that happen, but if you can call upon that support system, you’re nearly there. It doesn’t need to be an expensive restaurant outininfantg, and if a movie feels too long then just go for a walk together. Re-connecting by spending alone time with your spouse or partner will improve your relationship, re-establish intimacy, and reinforce the foundation of this family you created together. (You’re both worth it!)
  • Remember that is this all temporary. Having children, young, old or in-between, has both incredible and amazing moments, and extremely difficult and want-to-give-up times too. The key is not to forget that it will all change, and then change again. Babies grow (faster than we realize) and these hard times of sleeplessness and fussiness will give way to an independent cbaby to manrawler then walker then a toddler to a kindergartner and so it goes. It probably feels like light-years away, but it’s not. So when the times are really tough (and having an infant is hard even with an “easy baby”), know that this is all temporary. It will change – you will get to sleep normally again, your world won’t always be consumed by baby concerns, and then once you get used to it, the march of time will slowly transform things yet again. This is good news (to me). Just remember to savor those wonderful moments and breathe through the hard ones!

I want to extend best wishes to all moms out there, regardless of where you are in your motherhood journey. We have the toughest job on the planet, but we still show up every day with love in our hearts and the willingness to be there for our kids – and that’s not easy, at any age!

If you’re interested in reading more, you can find You Made It to Motherhood at my website or on Amazon.