5 Ways to Create Intimacy Without Taking Your Clothes off

While it’s the rare marriage that thrives without sex, she says there are many ways to be intimate without it.

By the time your kids are asleep, your mood is exhausted, not erotic. In theory, you want to connect with your partner. In reality, you’re too tired to make the effort. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
It is totally normal for your sex life to take a dive when you have kids, says Dr. Jenni Skyler, certified sex therapist and director of The Intimacy Institute. But that doesn’t mean you can’t – or shouldn’t – seek intimacy in other ways. According to Dr. Skyler, the definition of intimacy is quality connection and it is essential to a healthy relationship. And while it’s the rare marriage that thrives without sex, she says there are many ways to be intimate without it. In fact, Dr. Skyler co-created a model that identifies eight different spheres in which couples foster intimacy – and only one of those spheres is sexual.
Opportunities for intimacy might be less scarce than they seem – if you know where to look.

1 | Talking

Experts and couples agree uninterrupted conversation is an excellent way to create intimacy. While the first step is finding a sitter, putting the kids to bed, or scheduling a lunch date while the kids are at school, the second step is just as important: Put away your phones. “We’re so busy replying to texts or checking social media that we hardly hear the one we’re with. This is toxic to relationships,” says marriage therapist Jill Whitney, LMFT.
Once you create a distraction-free space for a conversation, you might be surprised where that conversation leads. Sarah Protzman Howlett, a mom of four-year-old twins describes a simple ritual she and her husband share. He says, “So tell me things,” and from there, they might discuss anything from work to travel plans to politics well into the night. Relationship expert Lucinda Loveland says research confirms, “couples who share with each other more, like each other more.”

2 | Kissing

Kissing (with all your clothes on) is something you can do virtually anytime, anywhere – even in front of the kids – and it’s incredibly intimate. I’m not talking about the chaste kisses Mike and Carol Brady exchanged before bed. I’m talking prolonged kissing with tongue. Skyler recommends what she calls a “kissing date,” in which kissing is not a means to sex, but rather the main event. Kelly Burch is a strong proponent of kissing. Though she and her husband have always enjoyed it, now as parents of a three-year-old and working opposite shifts, it has become much more important to them. Burch explains,“Kissing only takes a minute and builds that connection and intimacy.” As Natalie Rotelli recalls, she grew up thinking kissing was “first base” or just something to cover on the way to “home plate.” Now married with two children, she finds kissing is in fact, “the most intimate thing [my husband and I] could do.”

3 | Touching

The power of touch is huge. “Whether it’s a kiss hello or goodbye or holding hands, even non-sexual touching builds connection between partners,” says therapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW.
David Bennett, a certified counselor and relationship expert, explains this phenomenon in terms of neuroscience: “Any form of longer-duration cuddling and touching causes a release of oxytocin in the brain. This is the chemical that bonds couples together. So, any type of cuddling or hand-holding (just make it longer than 20 seconds) will build intimacy.” While Bennett maintains nothing beats intercourse when it comes to releasing oxytocin, touching is the next best thing.
Rhonda Milrad, LCSW, relationship therapist and founder of Relationup, agrees that while touch is no replacement for sex, it’s incredibly valuable. While many new parents are plain old tired, there is limited privacy with little eyes and ears at home. This is why Milrad recommends foot and hand massages as a way to connect: “Being touched and nurtured is sensual and connecting and can feel like the two of you are sneaking a guilty pleasure.”
Some couples just have a habit of touching. Chase McCann, the mother of a 17-year-old says she and her partner have a habit of holding hands whenever they’re out. “We hold hands on the street or in parking lots (also sometimes in the mall, if he’s afraid I’ll wander off). Sure, in our case it’s a practical thing, but it also means that even on days when we’re busy and not thinking about intimacy, we’re maintaining that touch connection.”
Marc and Stephanie Trachtenberg swear by the extended hug. With two sons, their home is busy, but there’s always time for a hug, whether it’s in the morning, after work, or any random moment. What matters is that the embrace lasts “at least seven seconds” according to Marc. (Stephanie estimated their hugs last a minimum of 10 seconds).

4 | Engaging your senses

If you’re not in the mood to be touched, or if physical affection just isn’t your love language, Skyler reminds us that the five senses include not just touch, but also sight, hearing, smell, and taste. She says sharing a sensual experience is an excellent way to connect. This could be listening to music together, enjoying a meal together, or looking at something beautiful. When a couple sits outside to watch the sunset together, all kinds of good things happen. “Stress decreases, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, neurotransmitters are released and your mood becomes calmer,” says Rhonda Milrad, LCSW. “Consequently, you both are more open to connection and communication.”
It doesn’t take much to create a sensual experience in your home. Relationship expert Lucinda Loveland encourages couples to use dim lighting, candles, and music. According to Loveland, “This is a great way to create a warm and romantic environment without doing anything physical.” Many couples I talked to enjoy sharing a meal after their kids are in bed. Amy Bailey, a mom of three, says she and her husband of 16 years look forward to their “date nights in.” Whether dinner is a meat and cheese plate or a steak dinner, they savor the food and each other’s company.

5 | Sharing a hobby

As parents stretched in many different directions and with a “scarcity of resources” as my husband is fond of saying, it’s easy to forget what attracted you and your partner to each other in the first place. Doing a hobby together can be an excellent reminder.
Especially when time together as a couple is at a premium, “sharing something novel helps keep your relationship from getting stagnant,” says Jill Whitney, LMFT. Julie Burton can attest to this. With two daughters, now ages 11 and eight, Julie felt that she and her husband Scott were moving in separate directions, until they started fishing together. Living in Kansas, it’s never inexpensive or convenient, but “it’s always like falling in love again.”
A hobby doesn’t have to be novel or exotic to create intimacy, though. Jacob Brier and his wife have a young son and a shared passion for fitness. For the Briers, working out together equals “heart rate up, sweaty, out of breath … clothes on. Plus, you’re helping to stay healthy together.”
Natalie and Matt Rotelli have a nightly ritual of doing the Sunday New York Times crossword together. “He knows all things mythological, vocab, history (US and world), locations and cute little plays on words,” she says. “I generally figure out the algorithm for the long answers associated with the theme of the crossword and all things pop culture.” Natalie says their mutual admiration for each other’s skills is a source of connection.
Intimacy encompasses so much more than sex. It’s about connection – whether it’s a game of tennis, a conversation, or a hug. It’s natural for kids to put a damper on your sex life, at least for a period of time. And while you can expect your kids to ruin certain things, (e.g., your sleep), your connection with your partner doesn’t have to be one of them.

Be a Guide, Not a Guard and Raise a Happy, Responsible Kid

As guides, we help children develop internal motivation to do what is right because it’s right, rather than to do what is right to avoid being punished.

“Be a guide, not a guard” perfectly describes the kinds of parenting behaviors that create happy and responsible children. It’s a term I learned at a recent training session focused on reducing controlling parenting behaviors.
When I ask parents “what have you tried to help change your child’s behavior?” little breaks my heart more than hearing a long list of punishments. The story will go something like “the rule is that he is to clean up his room but he never does it so we took away his tablet, then banned watching TV, we smacked him, we put him in time out all day, cancelled his play dates with his friends and then grounded him for a month. It doesn’t matter what we do, he doesn’t care.”
This is parenting like a guard. It is inflexible, rules-based parenting that requires punishment when a child doesn’t behave. The punishments often escalate and may be harsh, cruel even. In the worst case scenario, a child raised in a controlling environment will comply due to a fear of being beaten but will not do anything other adults say if there is no risk of being hurt. The most anti-social children are often parented in this way. They don’t care about the meaning of the rules set; instead they decide whether to comply based on whether they will get hurt. Controlling parenting practices are also correlated to poor mental health in children and youth.
When we parent like a guard we are trying to stop behavior through control and dominance. In an attempt to get rid of the behaviors we don’t like, we use consequences. A guard expects trouble and treats people as such. A guard does not care whether you feel sad, confused or don’t feel like you belong. A guard only cares if you comply. As a guard we can’t be flexible and this means if a child doesn’t comply, regardless of the reason, our only option is to escalate the consequences until they do. Even if this means excluding them from the very systems we want them to belong to.
When we parent as a guide we work to encourage behaviors we want to see in our children. We help children belong in our world and all the systems that come with that. We use care and compassion in our parenting practices. When we see unwanted behavior that cannot work or is unacceptable in our systems, we look at what steps we can take to help that child learn to fit better in our world. We don’t use harsh consequences that will exclude the child from the system; instead we see their difficulty as a skill deficit. We don’t use escalating consequences; instead we look for ways for children to want to be part of the system and to want to please us.
As guides, we help children develop internal motivation to do what is right because it’s right, rather than to do what is right to avoid being punished. We want our children to comply because they want to be part of our community, they want to help us and because they understand the value of their chosen behavior.

How to be a guide

See your child’s perspective

Being able to hold your child’s perspective is essential to being a guide. It helps parents understand how best to help their child. It helps us identify that difficult behaviors are often related to emotions or skills deficits. This doesn’t mean we accept all behaviors as ok, it means that we understand that there is a meaning to whatever behavior we are seeing.

Encourage behavior through praise and noticing

Children love receiving genuine praise and being noticed. If they feel you genuinely care about them rather than that you are trying to control their behavior, they are more motivated to work for you. Children are less receptive to praise that functions to control behavior such as “aren’t you a good boy for sitting up straight today?” A genuine “I can really see you are listening, and that makes me feel good” is more effective.

Promote values-based living

Show your child what matters through the way you live. If you want to raise a kind and responsible child, lead by modeling kind and responsible behavior. Notice when your child is kind and responsible and praise the behavior.

Be flexible where possible

Give your child opportunities to choose. Avoid controlling choices unless there is a good reason not to offer a choice such as safety or legality. Guides raise kids who choose to be responsible. Guards raise kids who conform to avoid a consequence.

Promote intrinsic goals over extrinsic goals

Encourage your child to do things for personal growth, for health, to create meaningful relationships and contribute to their community as opposed to doing things to achieve financial success, popularity, power or for their image. People with intrinsic goals are happier and engage in more pro-social behavior.
Next time you see your child doing something that you don’t like, whisper to yourself: “Be a guide, not a guard.”
Acknowledgement: Thanks and gratitude to Darin Cairns for introducing me to the helpful term “Be a guide, not a guard.”

Tragedy and Joy: Life as a Small Child

The pain she felt over the loss of her balloon was real, as much as I may joke about it.

There was a great tragedy in my family the other day. It came suddenly, while I was sitting at the kitchen table and my kids were playing outside. The idyllic quiet of early evening in the country was jarringly broken by my daughter’s hysterical scream.

I jumped up and, heroically abandoning the Facebook post I was working on, ran outside to save the day. But I was too late.

As I followed my son’s finger pointing up high into the darkening azure sky, I saw a faint speck growing smaller and smaller, and I understood my daughter’s pain.

Her balloon, Balloony as she so creatively named it, was making a frenetic escape to the stratosphere. As my daughter fell apart in my arms, I knew life would never be the same, unless I was able to find the other identical balloon that was somewhere in our house.

I had a faint idea of the existence of the renegade balloon’s twin, but the half-hearted attempt to find it was woefully insufficient and, due to the sedative effectiveness of the animated baby animals dancing on the TV, I soon traded that chore for more the more pressing and productive task of preparing the bedtime accoutrements.

As I lay in bed soothing my emotionally wounded little girl, she opened her floodgates of loss, expanding beyond the scope of the escaped balloon. “When is our dog going to die?” she pensively asked.

Fortunately I am an experienced and prepared parent, so I was able to give her the answer she needed to rebuild her fragile psyche. “I don’t know,” I replied, and with that cleared up she soon fell into her slumber.

The pain she felt over the loss of her balloon was real, as much as I may joke about it. I felt the depth of her pain through the anguished cries and emotionally charged declarations of never ever owning another balloon as long as life itself existed. I too have known loss, and it sucks.

Ah, but redemption came early this morning in the form of a photo my loving and far more capable wife sent me. My darling little girl, who had so steadfastly declared her recently imposed lifelong abstinence of balloon ownership, was proudly and ecstatically showing off the fugitive balloon’s estranged twin. All was right with the world.

Kids are so simple when they’re this young, and I love that about them. The grief, the joy, the frustration, the glee, the emotions they feel are all-encompassing and felt without analysis. Her world was rocked by the loss of that balloon, and there was no coming back from such a profoundly tragic incident. Until her world was righted again, and there was no longer any evidence of tragedy.

This ability to change with circumstances, to adapt oneself so completely and readily without thinking about it at all, is an incredible display of resilience. This is part of the miracle of childhood. Once we’ve grown and become set in our ways and our modes of thought, this resilience becomes far less pliable, disintegrating our ability to adapt and overcome.

Kids live in the present. Whatever is happening right now is what is important, and anything on either side of now is irrelevant. While this may not be absolutely true, it is a fantastic lesson for us stodgy adults who shift between reminiscing over the past and perseverating over the future.

Live in the now. Sure, you lost your balloon and it hurts. Feel that pain, live in that pain, express with great and boisterous emotion the hurt you feel. When the new balloon comes into your life, feel the joy, express the glee, scream out the ecstasy that overwhelms you. People might think you’re weird. When’s the last time you saw a three-year-old worry that people would think she’s weird?

The Surprising Way Horses Benefit Kids' Emotional and Social Skills

What does current science say about the benefits kids can enjoy from being with horses?

Many years ago, I read Mary Pipher’s influential text “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls”. Pipher speaks briefly and encouragingly about the positive benefits of horse riding as a hobby for teen girls’ emotional well-being. It’s one of my favorite parts of this engaging read.
Since then, equine therapy has become increasingly well-known. People who struggle in office based therapy, including children with autism, troubled teens, and traumatized adults, find being out in the open with horses a welcome alternative. Often the lessons learned from their therapeutic work with horses are those not found in spoken words.
Advocates of equine therapy claim many benefits from working with horses: confidence, a sense of self-efficacy, assertive communication skills, and developing awareness of emotional communication as horses are very sensitive to emotional and verbal cues.
My own experience of horsemanship resonates with the claims made by equine therapists. I grew up as a horse riding girl and still like to get out on the trail. The confidence and positive emotions I gained from contact with horses are the reasons I involve my children in the same way.
I was curious about what current science had to say about the benefits children can enjoy from being with horses. Do the positives that Mary Pipher noted and that I experienced apply to other children and teens? Here’s what I found.
In a 2013 study of the benefits of a horse-education program on children’s social competence, 64 children in the grades five through eight were randomly allocated to take part in either an 11-week horse activity program or remain on the wait-list as the control group. The program involved mounted and unmounted horse activity, including observations of horse behavior and grooming. Parents rated children’s social competence before and after the experiment.
Children who participated in the horse program made many positive gains. This included improvements in the children’s self-awareness, self-management, personal responsibility, decision-making, goal directed behavior, and relationship skills. When the wait-list group took part in the program at a later date, similar improvements in social competence were also found post-completion.
In a 2014 study, levels of the stress hormone cortisol in teenage participants of a horse-education program were measured: 131 teens participated in the study, with 53 teens randomly allocated to the 11-week horse activity program and 60 teens placed on a waitlist to act as the control group. Each week the teens in the program took part in 90 minutes of horse-related activity and learning, both mounted and unmounted. The study took saliva samples of the teens in the program and compared them to the samples from the wait-listed teens.
High stress cortisol levels indicate ill-health while lower levels of stress cortisol indicate positive health and mental health outcomes. The teens who had contact with horses had lower afternoon cortisol levels and lower total cortisol concentration per waking hour at the study’s end compared to the teens on the waitlist. The results suggest that regular contact with horses may help reduce stress levels and promote healthy outcomes for teens.
If you would like to explore the benefits of horse riding for your child, here are some pointers:

  • Make time to explore your local options. Visit the facilities and find out about the programs they offer. There are many options, including lessons, day horse-care camps, and trail ride.
  • Regular interactions with horses are better than one-off pony rides or trail rides to build up skills and confidence similar to those achieved in the studies.
  • Horse related activity requires space. Many urban children can’t have contact with horses easily due to transport and distance. If you live far from horses, consider lessons, horse-care day camps, or trail rides when you vacation in a rural area.
  • Horses and their upkeep are costly, which can make horse-related activities too expensive for some children. If affordability is an issue, riding schools are time intensive businesses and many welcome teen volunteers.
  • As with any activity involving children, if you are not present, please make sure your child will be in good hands and that all appropriate safety and welfare checks are in place.
  • If you can only spend small amounts of time around horses, use those opportunities to teach your child about horse-human relationships. When I am around horses with my children, I use those opportunities to help them notice the feedback they receive from a horse. I teach them first how to make contact with a horse, to wait for signals of trust, and to watch for the signals in the horse’s ears and the way their body reacts for signs of acceptance, anxiety, or irritation.
  • Horses are large animals, and there is some risk involved. If you’re feeling anxious about your child interacting with horses, please note that horse riding establishments vet horses for temperament to mediate the risk. They want your child to have a good and safe experience just as much as you do.
  • Why not learn to ride with your child? You may even experience some positives for your wellbeing, too.

Finding Beauty in the Brokenness

This brokenness, these outward signs of our experience so far, doesn’t make us less than others with different worries or heartbreak.

The accident was barely worth talking about.
I’d taken the trash out one night, early in the summer. I was 12. I hummed and bounced the bag against my knee. When I came back into the house, my mother gasped in horror. I looked down and saw my leg soaked in blood. A broken glass in the bag had acted like a knife, stabbing me deeply each time I bounced the bag. I never felt it because the first cut damaged a nerve.
The aftermath of that night was far more painful.
I had a large, angry red scar that the soaring temperatures made nearly impossible to hide. The scar criss-crossed my left knee – six separate scars actually – working together to form a garish butterfly.
In my black-and-white 12-year-old mind, my leg was ruined. Up until then, I hadn’t had plans to be a swimsuit model or star athlete, but my options were now severely limited. I was broken.
I confessed this to my grandfather one evening, sitting in the now-vintage rockers on his back porch, safe in the dimming of the day.
“I can’t dance anymore,” I said.
“But you’re so good at it! Why not?” he asked, curious. He was wildly enthusiastic about any grandchild hobby, quickly assessing our abilities as, in his expert opinion, far superior to those of the average population.
“People will see my leg,” I replied.
“They’ll see them both,” he agreed.
I huffed. Clearly he didn’t understand.
“They’ll see my scar, Grampa. The tights don’t hide it. I can’t dance because everyone will be looking at my leg. It’s awful.”
He smiled in the face of my earnest pre-teen angst.
“It’s unique,” he said. “If you’re ever lost and frozen on a mountain with your double, your scar will identify your body.”
I’ll pause and confirm: yes, he really said this. He was a colorful man and a terrific storyteller.
He continued.
“Everyone starts out exactly the same way. We are born perfect and boring. Then life starts, and we get stories and scars and begin to forge our own path. Your scar is beautiful. It is yours alone.”
I just looked at him.
I’d like to say that I understood, but I’d be lying. I was 12 and he was hopelessly old. What did he know about scars and brokenness and mourning a once-perfect leg?
I understand now.

We are all a little bit broken

My friend’s daughter, a cancer survivor, panics at the sight of a needle. A relic of her years of chemotherapy, she hyperventilates and nearly passes out while waiting for her flu shot. My sister, like me, spent years in Spanish-speaking countries. Too nervous and shy to answer the phone or venture out alone, she never learned the language.
My children carry the scars of our divorce. Like my the marks on my leg, they have faded to silver now, but they still exist. Caden fixates on our schedule, carefully checking to make sure the days are indeed even. Simon started to have friends over again in high school – for years our family was “too confusing to explain.” Transition days are still bumpy for Lottie.
Our blended family feels broken as often as it doesn’t: loyalty binds and pre-existing cultures and stepfamily dynamics are complicated.
This brokenness, these outward signs of our experience so far, doesn’t make us less than others with different worries or heartbreak.

This brokenness tells our story

In his masterpiece “Anthem,” the songwriter Leonard Cohen urges us to forget our “perfect offering. There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I played that song over and over and over again in the darkest days of our divorce and separation. That image is powerful. It became a kind of mantra, and created an idea I carry close to this day.
I think of the scars we carry, visible and invisible, as cracks in the glass of a window. Light shines through the glass, shifted and altered by the cracks. The light casts patterns on the wall, shaped by the cracks but not dimmed. Light through a perfect window? No pattern, no story.
I know this analogy isn’t perfect.
I know sometimes things are so broken no light gets in at all. I know that sometimes people carry scars and stories so heavy they can’t bear the weight of them. I know that some people escape life unscathed, and their light shines brightly unaltered on the floor.
I sometimes wish we didn’t carry these scars. I still sometimes consider the possibility of a perfect left leg. I sometimes sit with what if’s and if only’s.
But I have a choice.
This is our story. This is one of the ways our window cracked. And I can choose to stare up at the window or down at my leg and wish the cracks away, or I can look at what happened next. I can see Simon’s adaptability and watch Caden sharpen his wit, coping with humor. I can be grateful for the lesson my children learn as they watch their parents move forward after everything fell apart. I can appreciate the path our lives have taken and admire the pattern the light casts on the wall.
I choose to find the beauty in our brokenness.
This article was originally published on This Life in Progress.

Navigating the Tricky Waters of Kids and New Partners

Once you’re divorced with a child, that is a background fact for the rest of your life. Nothing will change it.

I was scheduling a business lunch when I saw it – a reminder I’d placed in my calendar 10 months ago. I hadn’t thought about her in a while.

I never write in capital letters, but there it was, all in caps. A note setting a reminder for me, in capitals, marking the first anniversary of our meeting. I didn’t know at the time that it would be reduced to a mere forgotten event, a part of my past, but that’s what had happened. My first post-divorce relationship of consequence, and like many such relationships, it had failed. In spectacular fashion.

That wasn’t really what I had in mind when things started up between us.

What would have been our one-year anniversary fell on Friday, October 13th. I guess if I’d looked ahead and noticed that, I may have had a better sense of what was coming.

It began with one of those meetings that felt like kismet. I had a buddy who worked in a men’s store that featured high-end watches and pens. His new boss was tall, polite, and lovely to behold. Her best friend was less tall, more my type, and taking photographs of an event I’d been invited to attend. I had my four-year-old daughter in my arms and the last thing on my mind that night was romance.

Of course, that’s always when those things happen.

We started to talk. She was not a photographer by trade but was helping out her best friend for just the one event. Conversation flowed naturally, and I could sense her innate intelligence. I introduced my daughter, who can be very shy, and that didn’t seem to put her off even though not everyone wants to date a single dad. So far, so good.

Three days later, we went out for the first time. It was a pleasant meeting that morphed into a five-hour conversation. Our dialogue wasn’t hard to keep up, just the opposite. That gave me a bit of hope. I left with her telephone number in my cell phone.

We met each other again for dinner and drinks in downtown St. Petersburg, taking a long walk afterwards. We stayed around the parking garage talking before we went our separate ways. After that, we spent a lot of time on the phone at night during the work week. All this was building up to something and, finally, it did.

I’d been so busy laying a foundation for a relationship, balancing it with my work and the rest of life being a single dad, that I hadn’t yet worked out the full implications of my new romance for my little daughter. Now, I had to pivot and think on the fly.

In one sense, nothing changes. You’re still you. You’re just you with a young child.

In another sense, this is the moment when the pas de trois begins. You, your significant other, and your child are together in an emotional ballet, striving for balance in a world of complexity. You’re not sure when your child should meet your new love interest for the first time. You’re not sure how that will go. Do the three of you stay over at her place? If so, when and under what circumstances? Will they like each other, or just tolerate each other, or neither? Will there be cooperation or competition? Will you be able to successfully triangulate any tense moments and convert them into domestic harmony?

Questions like these don’t normally come with easy, let alone definitive, answers. You feel your way through as you go along. Much depends on the personalities involved.

Culture can also play a role in today’s increasingly mixed society. I found myself eating Polish food, decorating a Christmas tree in the traditional red and white Polish colors, and otherwise pivoting towards a culture not my own as I performed my own parental and relationship balancing act. That I had a great-grandfather named Zubrzycki didn’t help. If anything, it probably raised expectations of a cultural fluency that I plainly did not possess. And there I was, in the middle.

Once you’re divorced with a child, that is a background fact for the rest of your life. Nothing will change it. Complexities may vary in their extent, but they’re always going to be there and will never go away. Your life is now officially complicated. By definition.

In this relationship, a pattern quickly emerged that was not of my making nor consistent with my intentions.

After an initial, apparently-positive acquaintance with my daughter, my girlfriend and I spent most of our time together without my daughter and very little time as a group of three. That didn’t strike me as much of a template for the future, even if I saw and recognized the value of our private time together. I couldn’t see why things evolved that way, and in the end I wasn’t able to fix it.

In my next relationship, my daughter got on famously with the lovely woman I was dating. That relationship didn’t work out either, but she and I remain good friends and always will, I suspect. You can have an abundant respect for a person and not have the chemistry with one another that will carry you through time and challenges for years to come. That’s just how it is.

Between the two relationships, I ask myself why the daddy-daughter combination didn’t work in one instance and posed no obstacle in the other. I don’t really have an answer.

One thing I do know: the best relationship will surmount any challenge. Life is long and filled with them. Being a single parent isn’t something you have to be nervous about. It may even be an advantage, when viewed in a certain light. The relationship that was not going to work will self-destruct faster when you have a child of your own. The less-than-meaningful-or-ideal partnership will conclude much more quickly that the game is not worth the candle, so to speak. You’ll be furnished with a pretext to depart even if there isn’t a good reason ready to hand. That can be really good for you. You won’t waste time on a person who wasn’t going to be right for you anyway, and you’ll just find out sooner. That leaves you free to seek a better destiny with the right person. Then, maybe, with a bit of luck, your family can grow and even blossom again.

There’s another thing I learned that I will never forget. My daughter has incredible radar. It’s spot-on. She has a better sense of who is a good person than I do. Perhaps that’s a benefit of the young, uncomplicated mind. I don’t know for certain. But the next time I see that radar go up, I’ll take notice. Adults should learn from children, most of all their own.

The Alternating Happiness and Grief of Life 2.0

I’m becoming more comfortable with the “both and-ness” of this life. I am both homesick for the life I once had and filled with joy at the life I am living.

It was well past midnight when my phone dinged urgently from the nightstand next to me. I debated not checking it: the kids were tucked safely in their beds upstairs and my work rarely requires an immediate response to client issues. I’m not a live organ transplant surgeon, after all. No message I get after midnight needs an answer before dawn.
But my curiosity got the better of me, and I rolled over to check my messages. And there it was, a note from a reader, also up much too late:
“I had to ask you this one question … I wonder when I will stop secretly grieving the loss of my ‘first family?’ It’s been four years and every now and again it hits me like a freight train that it’s over … that this ‘post first family, blended family life’ is really happening. Trying to coparent and trying to bond with step children and trying to ensure that everybody is ‘getting along’ is so overwhelming sometimes … nights like tonight, I just secretly wish that my ‘first family’ was still intact.”
I read it twice, quickly, and then once more as I thought about what to say.

I could’ve written the message myself

Yesterday I called my children to say goodnight and listened to their stories of the day at the beach on vacation with their father. Simon is relishing his freedom, old enough now to spend the afternoon at the pier eating ice cream and talking to girls with the casual, laid back attitude I also perfected at home in the mirror when I was 16. Lottie spent the day in the pool, practicing hand stands, and Caden continued his beach trench digging. For as long as I can remember, that child has spent his week at the beach digging a trench so long and straight it makes me wonder how long it will be before the army recruits him off the sand.
I know where they are and what they had for lunch and how it feels to sit on the deck of their family beach condo, salty air blowing softly at the end of a long day in the sun. I spent my 20th birthday with my beach chair sitting in that low tide, lost in a book before heading to the very restaurant where they ate dinner last night. I know the pattern of the cracks in the bathroom ceiling, and the soft murmured cadence of adult conversation after the children fall, sandy and exhausted, into their beds in the back bunk room.
But I’m not there. Someone else is now.
It was the background conversation that stayed with me longest after I hung up the phone last night. I could hear their father, Billy, laughing with his dad, and his mother’s murmured response. Suddenly, the adults all started laughing, sharing a joke I’m not a part of any longer and in that instant I felt overwhelmingly homesick.
Homesick for a time and place where I belonged, simply and wholly. Where I didn’t have to add a prefix and no one had come before me. Where people were free to love me unencumbered by grief and heartbreak. Where I didn’t yet understand what those words meant, really.
And yet, I wouldn’t choose to be there. I didn’t choose that, after all.
As I hung up the phone, I took Gabe’s outstretched hand and we left for dinner, hand in hand, walking in our now-familiar rhythm. We spend the night working through an investment strategy, diving deep into the details of our latest television obsession, and thinking about where we might find ourselves a year from now.
We spend the meal as we’ve spent our day: enjoying each other’s company and exploring the world around us. We are, like our stride, perfectly in sync. The joy I feel when I am with Gabe, secure in our partnership and overwhelmed by his love, is something I’d never experienced before. I wouldn’t have even said it existed.

I’m becoming more comfortable with the “both and-ness” of this life

I am both homesick for the life I once had and filled with joy at the life I am living. I am both overwhelmed by the complexity of raising six children and on-my-knees-grateful at the chance to bear witness to the miracle of their transition to adulthood. I both miss my first husband’s quick wit and remember its sting. I both worry about the effects of our choice to separate and know deep in my bones it was the right choice for my family.

I spent the morning on a new beach today

I watched the older couples walking, hand in hand, some deep in conversation, some silent. I watched the teen girls primp and preen, carefully adjusting their pose as they captured and posted the perfect candid moment. I watched the young moms and dads slather sunscreen and chase down lost yellow shovels and explain for the fourth time that sand is not for eating.
For just a moment, I want one more chubby toddler. One I share with the man next to me, one who will eat sand and learn to ride a bike in our driveway and belong to just the two of us. And in that same moment I remember that I never want to own another swim diaper or blue plastic bathtub or attend another endless kindergarten orientation.
I both want to wear that teenage-girl black crocheted bikini and not think twice about it and also know I never, ever want to be 16 again.
I both want to walk on the beach with someone I loved as a girl and also know the person I want beside me today joined me much later in my life.
Both, and.

Grief and sadness and gratitude and giddy joy wrap around me

They weave intertwined through my memory, tangled so closely I sometimes can’t separate the two. I’ve stopped trying. I’m learning the experience of one often highlights the other, and this swirling life in progress has enough room for both.
I’ve slowly stopped trying to rationalize or make sense of how I feel in any given moment, and just accept where I am. Feelings are not right or wrong or good or bad. Sometimes I am still sad about a decision we made I know to be the right one. Sometimes I am filled with joy I found only after making a decision that caused people I love pain. A complicated path sometimes yields complicated feelings.
And so, late that night, I respond to my new friend with the truth, the only wisdom I have to offer:
“I get that. I sometimes feel that way too.”
This article was originally published on This Life in Progress.

How to Make More Time to Tackle that Stack of Books on Your Nightstand

If all else fails, tell your kids you’ve given yourself reading homework. Chances are, they’ll be happy to hold you to it.

Make the lunches. Find the missing soccer uniform sock. Glue the toy’s head back on. Drive the car pool. Make it to work on time.
There’s nothing quite like a parent’s exhaustive to do list. After reading bedtime stories and overseeing school reading log entries, why add “reading books for my own pleasure” to your bursting schedule? Here are some compelling, science-backed reasons:

A book a day (or week, or month…)

Book reading is a well-documented brain boosting exercise. One study even suggested that regular book readers live longer. Someone recently pointed out to me that our time in the parenting trenches span fewer years than those we hope to enjoy in a relationship with our adult children. I’m up for anything that protects my brain from debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia so I can enjoy my family – without doing their laundry – for decades to come.

Add an extra “r” for reading

Parents need rest and relaxation as much as anyone. Pick up a book! One British study recorded significantly lower stress levels after participants read for as little as six minutes. You can’t even drive to a yoga studio that fast. Is there something specific dragging down your emotional wellbeing? Bibliotherapy is a growing field that uses book recommendations to help you conquer what ails you.

Break out of your parenting bubble

Brain imaging research shows that reading about an experience sparks remarkably similar brain activity as living it does. Reading can also improve empathy, which we could all use as much of as possible these days. I recently read “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley,” by Hannah Tinti, which tells the story of a father’s life through the bullet wounds from his bouts of crime – talk about suspending judgment long enough to take a walk in the shoes of a different kind of parent.

Show your kids that reading is worth your time

Most parents want their kids to be good readers. Even though your habit might be to collapse in front of the TV at the end of a long day, keep in mind that your kids learn to do as you do. Research shows that more time spent reading is correlated with academic success. You probably aren’t able to devote 80 percent of your day to reading like Warren Buffett, but even allotting 10 extra minutes per day for family reading time can make a big difference over time in children’s reading development. It’s clear parental reading is good, but so are exercise, nurturing your marriage, chocolate, and many other competitors for your limited free time. So how do you make it happen?

Find a book to hook you

I always read more when I become engrossed in a great book. One of my favorite family anecdotes is about my great grandmother’s tendency to become so absorbed in a book that her children would find her after school sitting right where they’d left her: at the table reading. She wasn’t known for her housekeeping but she lived a long and full life, so perhaps there’s something to be learned there. And for goodness sake, don’t waste your time trying to finish a book you hate. Gretchen Rubin, happiness and habit guru, urges those who want to read more to get comfortable quitting books they don’t like and moving on to ones they do.

Find the right time for reading and make it a habit

The stress-relieving powers of book reading make it a helpful bedtime habit – much more effective than screen time. Personally, I don’t need any help falling asleep, but enjoy waking up early to write or read during what I think of as my “Drinking Coffee Alone Time.”
You might work reading into pockets of time during your day. Keeping a book in your bag encourages you to read during wait time when you’d otherwise probably just look at your phone. While the benefits of traditional book reading don’t all apply to audio books, they can be a way to continue with a book you’re enjoying during your commute or while doing housework.

Find your accountability strategy

This year my sister and I formed a book group with some local friends. Not everyone finishes the book every month. After a little while, our conversations tend to turn to school bus drama, nap schedules and other parenting minutiae. Still, having the date on the calendar has motivated many of us to read when we might otherwise not have.
Your book-reading friends don’t even have to live nearby. Sites like Goodreads connect you to other readers in your social networks. You can get the satisfaction of adding a finished book to your list (and can even brag about it on Facebook, if that motivates you.)
One friend simply made a resolution to read one book a month for a year. She did it, and logged some great titles.
If all else fails, tell your kids you’ve given yourself reading homework. Chances are, they’ll be happy to hold you to it.

Proven Tips to Help Reduce Your Kid's Emotional Vulnerability

What if you could reduce your kid’s emotional vulnerability? Here are a few tips you can borrow from the ABC PLEASE method.

What if you could reduce your kid’s emotional vulnerability? Research suggests that you can. The Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) was initially developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan to help treat patients with borderline personality disorders, but it’s now commonly used by clinicians to help people struggling with various psychological issues.

Over the years, DBT has been found to be particularly effective in helping in the development of emotion regulation skills. Specifically, the ABC PLEASE program developed under the DBT framework provides tools to deal with emotional vulnerability. Although it is a specialized therapy that can only be applied by highly trained practitioners, some of its underlying principles can be easily applied at home to help kids learn to regulate their emotions. Here are a few tips you can borrow from the ABC PLEASE method.

Accumulate positive emotions

Kids accumulate positive emotions when they participate in positive events. Helping your kid focus on positive emotions can help reduce his emotional vulnerability. Encouraging your kid to do things he enjoys – reading books, hanging out with friends, playing video-games – helps him accumulate positive emotions. The more positive emotions he has, the less likely he is to suffer from emotional vulnerability.

There is also evidence that images that evoke positive emotions can help improve one’s moods. In other words, funny movies or humor can help kids reduce stress. Several studies also suggest that viewing positive images is an effective distractor from negative emotions. Thus harnessing the power of positive visualization (having your kid imagine things he likes or displaying images of things he likes) can help kids increase their positive emotions.

Build mastery

Your kid is more likely to develop positive emotions when she feels competent. A kid’s emotional vulnerability reduces when she develops a sense of accomplishment. It’s important to set reasonable expectations and gradually raise those expectations when she attains them. Remember that expectations set too high or too low can lead to frustration.

Cope ahead

Coping ahead begins by teaching your kid to identity different emotions. It also means helping him understand that different emotions can be described in different ways and are often interlinked. For instance, anxiety and insecurity are always associated with fear.

Once your kid is aware of the different emotions, developing an action plan for dealing with difficult emotions can help reduce his emotional vulnerability. Different, easy-to-adapt, emotion regulation strategies can help kids learn to cope when they encounter difficult emotions. In other words, a kid who is aware of the different emotions and how those emotions are manifested in his body is more likely to be aware of emotional triggers and to apply effective techniques to prevent a meltdown.

Effective techniques can include activities such as breathing exercises to help your kid relax, or activities that help distract from difficult emotions like reading, cycling, or listening to music.

Helping your kid practice different scenarios, especially focusing on how he reacts to difficult situations, also helps develop his “coping ahead” skills. According to the ABC PLEASE method, developing a plan to deal with difficult emotions ahead of time helps reduce emotional vulnerability.

Physical well being

Illness negatively affects emotional vulnerability. If your child is highly emotional, consulting a professional can help you ensure that her problems with emotions do not stem from her physical health. Physical well being means consulting a professional every time there is a need to, and respecting his or her recommendations.

Physical well being also includes issues such as fatigue and hunger. Your kid is more likely to be emotionally vulnerable when she’s hungry, thirsty, or tired.

Low immunity

Kids with low immunity are more emotionally vulnerable. Low immunity can be the result of poor eating habits, lack of exercise, and environmental issues. Ensuring kids eat right and get exercise can help reduce their vulnerability. Encouraging your kid to connect with nature every day can help create more positive emotions.

Eating healthy

According to the ABC PLEASE method, eating healthy foods can help reduce kids’ emotional vulnerability. It’s important for kids to eat regular and balanced meals.

Avoid mood-altering substances

Certain foods have an impact on kids’ emotions. An increasing amount of evidence suggests that cutting out certain foodstuffs from your kid’s diet could help reduce anxiety and hyperactivity. Non-prescribed drugs or non-respected medical prescriptions can also have an impact on kids’ emotions, and mind-altering substances can increase kid’s emotional vulnerability.

Sleep

Fatigue increases emotional vulnerability. To reduce emotional vulnerability, kids need sufficient rest. According to the National Sleep Foundation, missing as little as 30 to 60 minutes of sleep time can have a negative effect on kids’ behavior. The foundation points out that kids, unlike adults, don’t slow down when they need sleep, they wind up. The foundation provides useful information on how much sleep babies and school-aged kids need.

Exercise

Regular exercise can help kids reduce their emotional vulnerability. Even a few minutes of free play everyday can help increase kids’ positive emotions.

Although the tips presented above can help your kid work on his or her emotional vulnerability, they will not solve serious psychological issues your kid may be struggling with. Seeking help from a healthcare professional is a sign of strength, not weakness. A professional can help you develop an appropriate action plan adapted to your kid’s needs.

How to Get Gift-Givers on Board With Giving Experiences Over Things

Win people over to the experience-giving side by offering them the benefits of this approach, along with some easy ways for them to make the transition.

My husband and I tried early on to stem the massive flow of things arriving for our kids every birthday and Christmas. With four kids, large families on both sides, and two December birthdays, our house is overcome by mountains of trinkets, toys, and miscellaneous items, most of which are not used.
Everyone feels showering our children with things is an act of love, and it certainly can be. However, it’s also a sad reality that many of the material possessions they receive end up in a forgotten box, donated, or outgrown much sooner than anyone expects.
Still, we weren’t successful in convincing others to curb the gifts, maybe because we didn’t give them other options. When my mom took it upon herself to give our family a yearly pass to a local museum last year for Christmas, we realized that experiences were an obvious replacement for objects.
San Francisco State University conducted research that confirms experiences make people happier than things. The experiences don’t have to be extravagant, luxury vacations. They can simply be meaningful times that create lasting memories.
Memories have been made with the museum membership we received. We’ve visited the museum regularly this year, taking my mom with us on one occasion so she could see how much her gift meant to us. The kids talk about the benefits of this gift all the time, knowing we couldn’t pay for our family of six to attend so often any other way. Plus, every time we visit, my mom receives a picture of the kids learning robotics or digging for fake dinosaur bones in a sand area. It’s the thank you card that never stops coming.
The key to winning people over to the experience-giving side is offering them the benefits of this approach, along with some easy ways for them to make the transition.

Give time

What it means to give of ourselves comes truly into focus when we think of giving our time. It’s a cherished commodity, and encouraging our loved ones to spend time with our children helps them all create memories they can carry with them for life.
For family members who feel it’s impersonal or underwhelming for a child to simply receive a ticket to a ballet or to the aquarium, tell them to buy a second ticket and go with the child. Yes, that ups the expense, but just tell them to go with cheaper tickets – the experience of being with the gift giver will likely mean more to a child than having the more expensive option.
There’s also the option of spreading the time gift out over the course of the year. Offering children special one-on-one experiences like a meal at a restaurant or visit a local attraction sets aside time for the relationships with their extended family members to flourish.
You can seed the desire for experiences over things and gifts of time as early as setting up your baby registry. Think registering for donations to charities of your choosing, babysitting coupons, and home-cooked meal requests.

Go long term

There are plenty of people who opt for material items because they assume they will last longer than experiences. While this is true in some cases, it’s not in others, but still many well-meaning family members can’t get past the hurdle of offering an experience that only lasts for a couple of hours over something the kids can hold.
Recommend these individuals give long-term experiences, such as swim lessons, music lessons, or, like my mom offered, museum memberships. The giver can choose how long they want to pay for these experiences, obtain a gift certificate, and give a child a chance to go to class after class to develop a skill or take joy in a passion. Plus, those skills and learning experiences can have lasting impact on a child.

Buy the small, meaningful item

Everyone has that friend or family member who absolutely must put an actual item in each child’s hands on Christmas morning. They live for the wrapping paper and bows, and every part of them rebels against the idea of not having something material waiting for a child.
These die-hards are usually the last to even think of offering experiences, but there may be a way to turn them. Encourage them to buy a small item that relates to the bigger experience. A person who gifts a child swim lessons can throw in a nice pair of goggles. The child gifted with art camp can receive paint brushes. This way the items are sure to be cherished and used because they are relevant to the bigger experience being offered.

The harder, more rewarding path

Giving intentionally takes effort, and that’s what experience giving often is. Getting to know a child and learning what they are interested in doing with their time is an intimate process that strengthens the relationship. Investing the time to be a part of the experience for the recipient asks even more of us – and this is what makes the gift of experience all the more meaningful.
Keep the experience option in mind next time you have a loved one’s birthday or special occasion coming up. Clothing and toys all gather dust and get boxed up – memories last a lifetime.