(Photo credits by: Photo Pin)
After almost 10 years of marriage and eight deployments, sometimes it seems like it’s harder to live with my soldier than without him. Reintegration is always tough. The joy of the homecoming is amazing, but it is short-lived and, often as not, within weeks of my husband returning home we find that we are bickering over the little things and having a hard time rearranging our lives to again include each other.
So I read with great interest Gretchen Rubin’s new book, “Happier at Home”, a self-help/memoir in which Rubin tries a bunch of little ideas all aimed at making her home life, well, happier. Rubin also wrote the mega best-seller “The Happiness Project” several years ago and her new book is similar in style and tone. The book isn’t specifically geared towards military families, but her ideas seemed so easy and practical that before I knew it, I’d committed to trying some of them for myself.
The book features efforts with names like, “Kiss Good Morning, Kiss Good Night”; “Welcome Greetings and Fond Farewells”; and “Wednesday Adventures”, as well as many others, in an attempt to make her family life more harmonious. The ideas seem to work so well for her that I couldn’t help but wonder how they’d go over in my own life.
I mean, what’s the worst that could happen if I turned a blind eye to the crap he leaves in the floor and just kissed him goodbye each morning? I reasoned. And if I can manage that, perhaps I could even manage to look up from my laptop for three minutes and give him a welcome home kiss at the end of the day, right? “Fake it ’till you make it,” I thought, and gamely signed myself up for the gambit.
You know what? It totally worked, right from day one. The goodbye kisses were hard for me to pull off because working for Uncle Sam means his mornings are early. Really early. Like, dark early. But I did it – half asleep, maybe – but still, I showed up, and that counts. The first time I did it he looked at me expectantly, like I was supposed to say something, but he still seemed happy enough to be walked to the door. He texted me an hour later (I had gone back to bed) to tell me how much it had meant to him.
A warm greeting was an easier maneuver than a warm goodbye in some ways. I was wide awake by the evening hours, sure, but I also usually deeply engrossed in doing something, either working on a writing project, scouring the kitchen for possible meals or prepping the kids for lessons and practices. But, honestly, saying “Hey! How was your day?”- or mine and kids’ favorite variation, yelling “Daddy’s home!” followed by jumping and wild cheers – takes all of 27 seconds (I timed it) and then I could go back to doing, whatever. But seeing his face light up at the small crowd of Sanderlins who were happy to see him, made those the best allocated 27 seconds of my day. I interviewed Rubin and asked her about this phenomenon and here’s what she had to say:
“Every time you come and go, every morning, every night, everybody gets a hug and kiss. This makes everybody feel acknowledged. I just think it’s really important that people feel acknowledged. It’s very hard to be angry when you do this.”
Next up: “Make the Positive Argument”. Rubin, a former lawyer who once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, is an arguing expert. She contends that you can actually talk yourself out of being angry by making an argument that is contrary to your own position.
“We are all very capable of making arguments in support of things and as you’re arguing you convince yourself that you’re right,” she told me over the phone when I called to talk with her about the book. “But if you argue the opposite, usually you’ll find it’s true, too. Instead of saying ‘He doesn’t help around the house’, say ‘He does help around the house’ and then you’ll think of lots of examples.”
As it happens, I’m the Tony Robbins of the internal monologue, so this idea really resonated. My opportunity came, well, every day. My husband is prone to calling and texting dozens of times throughout the day, which I find to be disruptive. I decided to apply “Make the Positive Argument”. Instead of throwing my phone across the room and cursing him for breaking my concentration – again – I remind myself that … oh, who I am kidding? I throw the phone. But I have tried this strategy on chores. And, he really does do the dishes quite often. Who knew?
The next idea, “Go on Wednesday Adventures”, is all about the kids. In the book, Rubin says she spends a few hours each Wednesday doing something fun with one of her children.
“It’s great if it’s just one child at a time so that you can do something that is at that child’s level,” she told me. “It can be short, just one or two hours, maybe, and it doesn’t have to be costly.”
I like fun. My kids like fun. We were going to knock this one out of the park, I thought, with enthusiasm that failed to account for our life situation.
In true military spouse fashion, I decided to embark on this part of the experiment just as my husband went TDY. The trip lasted all summer and while he was gone the kids and I had to find and move to a new home in another state and sell and move out of the house we’d owned for eight years, as he was being sent to a new base. And did I mention that our youngest child was just three months old at the time? Needless to say, adventures only happened a couple of times. But my 4-year-old daughter and I had great fun on our “princess day” (manicures and shopping) when my mother visited and stayed home with the other kids.
Rubin said weekly adventures are an especially palatable way for dads to get involved with children, making this a great suggestion for soldiers looking to rebuild connections with their children.
“Have a mission,” she suggested. “It can be anything. You could say, ‘Every week we’re going to go to the flea market and look for snow globes that cost less than $10,’ or ‘We’re going to eat in every diner in town to find the best burger.'”
She continued, saying, “Spending time with kids is a lot more fun for everyone if it’s something the parent enjoys. Enthusiasm is really catching.”
Rubin also said that it’s very important to get enough sleep, something that can be hard to do with children and erratic military schedules.
“I think so many people feel overwhelmed and angry because they just aren’t getting enough sleep,” she said. “Most people don’t get enough sleep because the end of the day is fun. But it’s not quality time. If your are too tired to do anything but watch TV – if you are too tired to knit – just go to sleep.”
She also recommends tidying up the house and said that it is amazing the effect an orderly, organized home can have on happiness.
“Outer order contributes to inner calm,” Rubin said. “Get rid of clutter. Get organized. It seems insignificant but it makes a big difference. Don’t let clutter accumulate. Everybody has these places in their home – the dining table, by the door. Tidy areas tend to stay tidy, messy areas get messier.”
She says even the messiest house can become clean if we will just “suffer for 15 minutes.”
“You can do anything for 15 minutes,” Rubin said. “If you feel like you can’t even begin just set a time and clean something for 15 minutes and you’ll be amazed at how much you can get done.”
As for marriage, in the book Rubin emphasizes the importance of what she calls “giving gold stars”.
“It is really important for people, especially husbands, to get positive feedback from their wives. With women, we give each other gold stars, even strangers give women gold stars. Men don’t have as great of friendships so getting praise from their wives is even more important.”
I tried several more of the ideas in the book and all were easy and effective, but my favorite, by far, was “Celebrate Holiday Breakfasts.” Rubin said she buys holiday decorations on sale and puts them out for breakfast on minor holidays. She even uses food coloring to dye the food to match the occasion. (Think: orange oatmeal or muffins for Halloween.) “It makes you feel like the days aren’t just slipping by,” she said. “And you know it can’t last more than an hour because everybody has to go to school.”
We did this for my daughter’s birthday. Since we weren’t bound to a holiday color scheme, I made green eggs and bacon (a la Dr. Seuss) and pink pancakes. The kids were thrilled with the break from the ordinary. Which, I suppose, is the point of the book.
Happiness efforts, just like reintegration efforts, don’t have to be huge, they just have to be. Ordinary can quickly become drudgery, but extra-ordinary – even if it’s only a little extra – can truly be extraordinary. Baby steps towards bliss. Sometimes just making an effort is enough to bridge the gap.