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All Posts by Jessica Allen

About the Author

Jessica is a writer, musician, entrepreneur, wife, and mom. Jessica's mission is to write "real" - shining light into the dark places of the tough stuff we all experience. She and her husband Jack live in Houston, Texas and have weathered the storms of grief, infant loss, adoption, and a marriage that almost fell apart. Jessica and Jack have 4 children, LJ in heaven, Grace, Jackson, and brand new baby Elisha.

stress of parenting on marriage
Feb 11

The stress of parenting on marriage

By Jessica Allen | Family , Marriage

The stress of parenting on marriage is insane.  Luckily, a good marriage will bear a lot of weight.  Its trunk is made to bend, sway, take on storms and the occasional freeze.  A good (and maybe even a mediocre) marriage will survive all these stress factors.  A struggling marriage might snap as it succumbs to the pressure. 

Ours broke under the stress of parenting (among other factors).  But we're growing back stronger than before.  

I had the funniest encounter at the jeweler.  I took my wedding ring in for repair after noticing I was missing a small diamond out of the setting (I was actually missing two).  After noticing my toddler covered in lollipop sticky and realizing that my ring was filthy and in disrepair, the jeweler diplomatically encouraged me, “You know, you might choose to put this on only when you leave the house.  Having children is really hard on a wedding ring.” 

I just started laughing.  Yes, ma’am, having children IS hard on a wedding ring.  Having children is hard on a marriage.  Having children is hard on your mental health, physical health, financial health, life goals, career goals, time management, emotional management, kneecaps, pets, countertops, wall paint, and car seats. 

Having children is hard on a marriage 

It’s the most incredible gift, to be entrusted by God (and in our case, another human family) to love and raise these tiny little people in the way of Our Lord.  To protect them, teach them, model for them, trust them, and finally release them to make their way in the world.  It makes my heart ache just thinking about it.

But LORD ALMIGHTY these children are hard on our marriage. 

We’re just so tired and stretched in every direction all the time. 

There are days where the sheer number of “things” I have to coordinate pushes me to near-or-actual tears.  And right behind that lump in my throat is the voice of the guy downstairs who loves to feed me B.S. like “you know, you don’t have any business having personal or professional goals right now.  This motherhood stuff is too hard.”

That is a lie.  And a whole different story for a whole different day.

But the point is that being a parent can drain the life, energy, spirit, drive, and confidence right out of a person.

That is not the kind of “me” I want to bring to our marriage.  And that’s not the kind of “him” I need him to bring to our marriage either. 

We’ve seen each other through the worst versions of ourselves, so I know we can make it through literally anything.  But as a general rule, we need the best versions of each other to make this circus run right. 

Good things we do to reduce the stress of parenting on our marriage:

  • Put our phones down when we talk to each other
  • Ask each other how we can help/support the other
  • Schedule a regular date night
  • Take care of our individual and collective physical health
  • Get enough sleep
  • Set boundaries with our work
  • Set boundaries with our friends/extended families
  • Set boundaries with our children
  • Read good brain food and talk about ideas instead of people or problems

Kids… even the world’s sweetest kids… wreck all of that.  The stress of parenting on marriage is no joke.  These kids need everything.  There is So. Much. Need.  Permission slips.  Water bottles.  Clean jerseys.  Birthday party presents.  Snacks.  Bigger underwear.  A bath.  A bandaid.  A signature.  A chauffeur.  A hug every 45 minutes in the middle of the blessed night.  (None of this is a complaint, and I wouldn’t wish one single bit of it away.  It just wears on a body!)

And our children are still little enough that their needs and problems are little.  I pray every day that as they get bigger, and their problems get bigger, that God will see us all through.  I have dear friends with teens and grown children and real big problems.  Life-changing stuff that brings true worry and heartache.  I can only imagine the stress that kind of parenting has on marriages.  Someday we will be there too and I will realize yet again that I don’t know jack squat about this marriage and parenting thing.  

We’re all just trying our best.  And when we're stretched to the max, something's gotta give.  

Bad habits we slip into when we’re exhausted from the stress of parenting:

  • Scrolling social media instead of talking to each other
  • Picking at the other person’s flaws or mistakes
  • Losing our senses of humor/snapping at each other
  • Letting the kids’ schedules trump our date night without rescheduling
  • Staying up too late, sleeping in, and skipping coffee club (this is usually the first red flag waving)
  • Overcommitting our calendars to work obligations
  • Skipping sit-down meals where we pray together
  • Assuming the other one heard/understood/received our communication
  • Binge watching bad TV or get sucked into politics (one of us loves the fire of political debate and one of us wants to cry over all the discord)
  • Failed connection in every area (mind, body, and soul)

Combine all ingredients, mix until volatile, and bake at a million degrees until it explodes.

No marriage can sustain that kind of unmitigated stress.

Which leads me back to our small-ish children: I’m a big fan of empowering our children to do just about any age-appropriate task they can, even down to their own laundry and simple supervised cooking.  They will likely make mistakes and as they are learning, the mess they often make in the process creates more work for me in the right-now.  But I am confident it will pay out in the long run.  (she says as she cries and dust-busters laundry detergent granules off the soles of her feet and scrubs peanut butter off the counter which is what likely knocked the diamonds out of her wedding ring in the first place)

Teach a kid to fish…

I can hear this in my mother’s voice: I am not my children’s maid and I am not their personal assistant.  I want these little people to make a way in the world and the best gift I can give their future spouses is an independent, capable, responsible human who sees a need and takes the initiative to meet it.  If they are capable of a task, I will ask them to do it, even if I need to trip around the misplaced shoes until they get home from school.  Not for a dollar, not for a sticker, but because we all live in this house and I expect it of them.  (For the record, I am absolutely not above bribery and incentives.  They work.)

This is not for the sake of standing on principle.  Rather I’m trying to help our children develop simple mindfulness – and confidence in their own abilities - that will eventually make adult life much more pleasant for them and everyone else in their space.  It’s work on the front end to teach kids how to do stuff but I’m playing the long game. 

Noble pursuit, sure.  But additionally, selfishly, I need their help.  Because when I am exhausted, I get frustrated, and when I get frustrated, I snap. And the first person I’m going to snap at is the one I’m married to.  He’s a safe snapping place.  Thank GOD.  But he shouldn’t always have to be, and I shouldn't have to be his easy target either.   The stress of parenting on our marriage shouldn't push either one of us to a meltdown.

When mama ain’t happy…

Everybody in this house has to pull their weight.  Because I can’t pull it all by myself.  You know that saying, when mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy?  It’s not because mama’s a miserable nag.  It’s because she’s flat out exhausted

The stress of parenting on our marriage is real but it doesn’t have to own us. 

The cost for the diamonds I needed replaced in my ring was so minimal it wasn’t even worth filing the insurance claim. 

The cost for peace in my marriage is so minimal – intentional time, intentional effort, intentional attention to what’s good between us.  Refusing to believe the lie that “I have to do everything around here.”  They’re not going to do it as well as I would.  But guess what?  I didn’t have to do it… and that leaves room in my mind and my heart for more rewarding things.  For snuggles, and compliments, and reading, and jokes, and peaceful bedtime, and good sleep, and coffee club, and presence, and real connection, and a marriage I love. 

HP,
J

PS: I shared a candid video of the jeweler story in our Facebook group.  Have you found us yet?  Come breathe fresh air at Heartfully Present on Facebook and @heartfullypresent on Instagram.  

  

Suggestion box | affair in marriage
Feb 04

Suggestions please

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

There’s this thing I think I’m supposed to write but I don’t want to do it.  I DON’T WANNA.

But things don’t go well for me when I run away.  To be fair, I reject ideas all the time, which I’m sure (in the words of Liz Gilbreth) get passed along graciously to the next willing steward of the gift. 

However, from time to blessed time God and the universe reject my rejection and instead relentlessly nudge me until I can either say yes or fall off the cliff I’m backing up towards. 

The last time I said no, I fell off that proverbial cliff, and wound up crying in the pool on my 36th birthday.  Like winners do.

So I think I’m supposed to write about this thing but I’m scared to do it.  I’m scared because I know it will force me to touch some wounds that are still tender and unearth some skeletons that weren’t even pleasant the first time around. 

So here’s where I need some help.  Your help. 

Just so I’m clear here and that there are witnesses: I am tentatively saying yes to God and the universe and I am willing to dip a toe into this project if and only if they (and you) will help me with the process.

The thing I think I am supposed to write is how to leave an affair behind.

I have been afraid to even tell Jack about this but I finally did and he was exceedingly gracious about it. His humble suggestion for the project title is “Why My Affair Was F***ing Awesome” but that’s not A) appropriate, B) my tone/style at all, or C) what this project is about.  I told him not to worry; that’s actually a pretty bitchin’ post title for some time down the road.  Or maybe a companion piece to this one. 

But what I think I’m supposed to tackle is slightly different.  This would be written from the betrayer’s perspective.  The twisted path through a marriage that broke, the distorted reality of the affair itself, the loss of love in both relationships, turning your heart back to your spouse (I think this is the most important key part), and how to rebuild - or build anew - a marriage and a life you truly love.  This piece would cover some big topics like trust, communication, money, relationships, faith, sex, family, therapy, honesty, shame, things that still hurt your heart and haunt your mind…. you name it, it’s part of the muck of an affair. 

I don’t talk a lot about the a-word here in this blog partly because it’s really personal and embarrassing and partly out of respect for all parties involved.  We’re all still healing and trying to find peace and closure and life on the other side.  Most importantly, it’s not just my story to tell and it’s not my place to put that story out there.  I learned the hard way there are people who will abuse it, distort it, use it as a weapon, seek personal gain from it, and judge unfairly because of it.  So I’m not going to allow that story to be exploited or used for harm, and that means keeping it sealed in the vault. 

But how my family and I healed from the experience is my story to tell and I think it’s an important one.  I cannot tell you how many people I’ve encountered who’ve said some version of “we just don’t love each other anymore like we used to.” 

I started to believe that was reason enough to quit.

But what I’ve learned is that you really can choose to turn your heart around.  It is a choice.  If you truly want to, you can turn your heart back towards the person you promised it to in the first place.  It takes two people (and the power and grace of God) to repair something as devastating as an affair, and it starts with eliminating any other options – especially the option of another person. 

I remember sobbing on my hands and knees in our counselor’s office, as she asked Jack to step outside after a particularly gnarly session.  The look on his face was priceless.  Kind of a mix of “Oh, $%&@” and “Now what do I do?”

She said, in no uncertain terms, “None of this is ever going to work if you aren’t willing to let him go.”  (Him being the other man.)

I dripped all over her floor and choked out, “BUT I DID.”

She let what felt like an eternity of silence pass and then gently replied, “No, you didn’t, and you know it.”  I just laid down on the floor and cried until there were no tears left.    

This pain of letting go is excruciating.  During that season of my life I felt like everything was one giant suffocating act of letting go, losing hold of the edge of that cliff one desperate finger at a time.  Everything I imagined my life would look like, everything I felt I needed and wanted and deserved, everything I ever dreamed for myself and my family, everything I thought I valued and would never betray… I had to let go of all of it.  And all that letting go felt impossible. 

I’ve never been a Marine but after reading a little about it (and subsequently having the craziest dreams later that night) I understand their process is to break you down through intense training and then push you to overcome your fears to become a warrior and a champion.  

This whole affair was kind of like that.  Except instead of running and pushups, my heart was ripped out of my chest and then sewn back inside.  It pushed me to my limit, broke me apart, and then built me up stronger, softer, more determined, and fearless.   

So after becoming a warrior for marriage and life and belief and redemption and faith, this running-scared feeling I have about writing this piece is starting to tick me off. 

This is why I need your help.  I guess what I’m asking here is twofold:

  • Would this piece – in any form – be something you see as helpful/beneficial for people healing from or facing an affair?  If so, what format would be most easily accessible and helpful – e-book, blog post, an actual book, article submitted to a larger forum i.e. Focus on the Family, etc? 
  • What questions or topics do you think could/should be covered to offer people a practical guide for focusing their minds and hearts and healing their marriages?  i.e. If you could ask me anything or learn anything from my experience, what would you want to know?  There’s much to learn even for people in healthy marriages or singles hoping to start out strong in a relationship. 


If you’d feel most comfortable sending me an email or a private message, please feel free.  Top Secret: Eyes Only.  This stuff isn’t easy, and sometimes it can feel really raw and embarrassing to ask about or talk about.  Similarly, if there’s a person you think might have valuable feedback to offer, I’d be so grateful if you’d share this with them. 

HP, and ever-grateful for you,

J

True Marriage Story | Marriage Help | Engagement ring
Jan 28

True Marriage Story

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

We've had a typical morning for us... coffee club a few minutes before the kids wake up, car line in our most fancy clothes (duds and my cozy robe), and dishing the day's agenda in the kitchen before we open our laptops and get to work.  Him at the kitchen table and me on the living room floor with the baby, with my computer wedged as far back as the couch will allow to keep the keys away from his slobbery little fingers. 

marriage | husband and wife | black and white

Ain't marriage grand?

Today I'm regrouping after a horrible night's sleep (I see you, teething) and resetting my mind.  Because once or twice a semester we get to share our story with a group of couples committed to growing their marriages through a program called ReEngage, and tonight's the night.  All ages, all stages; some are the most fulfilled they’ve ever been and some are there as a last-ditch effort to save their relationship. 

We’ve been in both those places.

Our marriage story is hard to tell but it’s important to share. It’s good for us to remember where we came from and where we still want to go.  And in the version we share at ReEngage, there is no black and white filter.  We share the whole technicolor version.  No edits.  No cuts.  The whole true marriage story, from happy newlyweds to stress, finances, an affair, #btp, renewing our vows, starting over, and how each of our miracle children shaped and impacted our marriage along the way.

The ugly parts of the story are still cringy for me, and saying them into a microphone puts me so far out of my comfort zone I have to pretend nobody's there.  That's saying a lot for someone who puts her whole life out on the internet on a daily basis.  But we don't sugar coat anything.  We call it was it was, and describe in vivid detail how we got there, what happened, and how we came through it (by the grace of God).  

It was a bloody battle but the outcome was worth it. We’re different people now and the understanding/respect/love we cultivated is more than I ever dreamed for. (It’s still really hard sometimes... marriage is hard because we’re all hopelessly humanly flawed. I’m grateful for all we learned. It helps us when old wounds and patterns come haunting.)

If you’re even a little curious about our story or ReEngage itself, come sneak in the back tonight and check it out. You’ll at least hear a story that will make you feel a little better about your own life and choices. 😂 6:30 PM at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, in the Harvest worship space.  If your spouse won't come, it doesn't matter - Jack and I each attended alone on separate occasions before we could agree to go together.  

Healthy people get help. I admire anyone willing to work on themselves and work on their marriage. It’s not easy, and it takes time, but it’s totally worth it. If your marriage is in great shape, it’s the perfect way to connect and deepen your love.  (It's a built-in date night and free child care every Tuesday!) . And if you’re at that call-it-quits point, I promise this program is worth the try. At the very least, at the end, you’ll know you gave it all you had. 

If you’re not local, I bet there’s a ReEngage happening in your neck of the woods. And if not, search for a program that helps you connect with your spouse, whether it’s a weekend intensive, a great counselor to help you work through some tricky topics, or a group of friends that will hold you accountable and encourage you as a couple. Nobody gets through it alone.

You are the only one responsible for your one amazing life.  Your most important relationship is deserving of every ounce of loving care and attention you invest in it.  Your marriage story will be full of lots of bumps and cliff's edges.  And if it haven't seen them yet, I promise they'll surprise you when you least expect it.

Send up a little prayer today, if you're so inclined... that the marriage story we share tonight will be a light and a blessing to each person and couple listening.  And while you're at it, pray for your marriage too.  You're meant for a union that has lasting impact for good.

HP,

J

marriage habits | crash and burn | rocket ship crashing
Jan 14

Marriage Habits

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

Marriage is hard.  Did you know that?

So is life.  So is parenting.  Adulting is hard all on its own even without any of the other variables thrown in. 

No matter how much we evolve as creatures of faith and compassion, we are still - more than anything – creatures of habit. 

Ultimately this is a good thing.

Because habits are just skills.  And we can “level up” literally any moment we choose. 

You can train yourself to do just about anything.  From drinking more water to walking across hot coals, the human mind and body and spirit are capable of limitless achievement. 

Yet drinking more water and even walking across hot coals are a piece of cake compared to the habits we need in our relationships.

Contradicting yet complementary marriage habits we all need to develop:

Selflessness yet also self-respect.

Patience and persistence.

Strength and vulnerability.

Courage and trust.

Honesty and respect.

Kindness and boldness.

Love and boundaries.

Communication and restraint.

Awareness and maturity. 

Just to rattle off a few… and those are the easy ones.

Practice makes permanent (how to build a habit)

Fortunately, or frustratingly, however you choose to look at it, these habits are built by doing.  If you want more trust, you’re going to be thrown into situations that will require you to trust more, or be more trustworthy.  If you desire better communication, you’ll be faced with circumstances that call for deeper conversations. 

With intention and repetition, these habits can all be learned, practiced, and even taught to your children, becoming instilled within your family to shape for good every generation to come. 

And they all lived happily ever after.  The End.

Just kidding.

Because at some point, you’re going to blow it. 

The time machine

Every once in awhile in the dark corners of our marriage, there appears a door to a little time machine.  Ours pops open when we’re working through pain or hurt or lingering/unresolved issues. 

It feels really appealing to step inside that time machine.  It’s comfortable in there, albeit musty and stale.  It’s equipped with a (broken) communication system, an (outdated) atlas and an (obsolete) operations manual.  Systems we used to use before we knew any better.  Old marriage habits that served us until we outgrew them, at which point they almost crashed the whole ship.

I know that time machine is a hunk of junk.  Yet any time either one of us is sitting in pain, anger, resentment, shame, or regret, it’s really tempting to get back in. 

Bad marriage habits

We can hop inside and start blaming each other for our own personal unrest.  And we revert back to the way we used to talk to each other – dripping with sarcasm and arrogance (him) and martyrdom and condescention (me).  We can forget everything we’ve learned about forgiveness and grace and self-reflection and patience and kindness and actual communication and instead behave like selfish children. 

And then, before we know it, we’re swirling in the muck of our past, lost in space, out of touch with any reality we now know.  I can hear the words coming out of my 5-years-ago-me mouth, and I can see the look on his 5-years-ago face.

But we’re not those people anymore.  (Thank God and His infinite mercy.)

And we’re not going the same direction we were 5 years ago. 

So why do we keep getting back inside that time machine?

Because charting a new course is scary.

It’s hard to use new skills in a new way.  Habits are HARD to break.  And we’ve each lived a lifetime using those old, broken habits. 

He likes to annihilate his opponent with arguments and trick questions.

I like to play the martyr and slink away. 

So it’s harder for him, and not nearly as comfortable, to listen and respond with kindness and care instead of planning his next crushing blow in the debate to mow over the competition.  And it’s the most uncomfortable for him to entertain the idea that he might not be the “winner.”  (Helpful hint: there’s never one “winner” in marriage.  You either win together, or you lose together.  Strive not to fight each other but rather to fight for each other.)

It’s harder for me, and super uncomfortable, to stay in the fray and respond with clarity and bold honesty instead of using vague words and then walking away.  It’s most uncomfortable for me to say what I really need, instead of what I think will simply smooth over the fight.  (If this hits home, practice asking yourself these questions: what I am I really upset about, and what do I really wish could happen right now?  And then say it, like a grown-up person.  In actual words that other grown-up persons can understand because “clear is kind.”)

Get out of the past

We’ve spent some moments in the time machine this week, staring at old versions of ourselves. It stinks.  And it always takes a few days to recover from the experience; lots of reflection and practice for me to remember who I really am, for him to remember who he really is, and for us to remember who we really are as a couple. 

I like who we are now, and who we’re becoming.  I'm proud of the new, better, healthier marriage habits we're creating.  And I think we’re both ready to haul that time machine out to the curb.  (Don’t come get it.)

HP,

J

Waiting | Advent | meditation | devotional
Dec 17

Waiting: an Advent meditation

By Jessica Allen | Faith

A friend encouraged me to write on Advent this December, which seemed intriguing, and truthfully a little intimidating.  I’m never shy to share my thoughts on faith but I’m certainly no expert.   

Yet while I have no formal theology education, or a single certification or qualification, I have my own real-life experience with God.  All of us do.  I have gazed into God’s eyes through each of my brand new babies, screamed at Him through broken plates of grief and anger, and cried on His shoulder when He showed up in the form of a friend. 

I have also doubted His presence.  He has, at times, felt very far away.  I’ve felt abandoned.  Betrayed.  Suckered.  This is the reality of relationships, yes?  Even (especially) my relationship with my Maker.  

But I’ve learned that God's perceived absence or neglect is simply my own ignorance to the way He's moving in my life.  Because no matter how far away God seems, I have always been held.  Protected.  Provided for.  Entrusted with gifts I could never have dreamed of.  Blessed by miracles unexplained, and certainly undeserved.  

I’ve experienced those precious glimpses into the Divine not because I am special – I’m not - but because I look for them.

And when there are no glimpses to be found, I’ll wait until they appear.    

Advent History 101

Advent is the season before Christmas, created by the early church to help prepare for the birth of Jesus.  For a brief and interesting history lesson, click here

In short, Advent was a period of four to six weeks (commonly in the modern church it begins four Sundays before Christmas) intended for fast and prayerful preparation.  Similar to the observance of Lent, which is a similar window prior to Easter, Advent is a time to joyfully wait on the coming of Jesus. 

Advent is a time to wait.

But waiting isn’t easy.

As a general species, we don’t wait well.  We get itchy.  Impatient.  Frustrated.  And arrogant.  We grab the reigns, take the wheel, and forge ahead with confidence we can do it ourselves.  Not just in our own spiritual lives but also in our relationships, our careers, our passions, and our pursuits.

To our credit, it’s hard not to barrel through.  Admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever found the right balance of entrepreneurial spirit (bulldog grit) and patiently waiting for God to direct my steps.  Those two ideas feel opposite to me… although I realize they are not.  I can follow God’s calling for my life and still work diligently to accomplish my (His) purpose.  Writing the book was the perfect sweet spot pairing of those two mindsets.  But that is a different conversation altogether.

Comfort vs. confidence 

I feel most comfortable when I lean to the bulldog side.  And I finally figured out why.  It’s because I feel powerful caught up in planning and doing.  Staying in motion, moving towards a goal, charting my course and checking it a million times to make sure every detail is still tightly gathered in my hands. 

Yet if I can pause to be still for even one small moment, I can see that the most miraculous shifts (miracles, even) have appeared when I have simply waited.  And that brings confidence that my life is heading in the right direction, guided by the right hand.  

Confidence beats comfort every time.   

Waiting isn’t easy...

As our marriage unraveled, my constant prayer was part statement, part request. 

“I will hold on one more day.  Show me what to do and give me the guts to do it.”

I wanted nothing more than to move.  Quite literally, actually.  But mostly I felt pressure to act, to empower myself, to make something happen in my own time.  To fix my marriage or end it. (Pro tip: the first mark of a poor plan is if it includes the words “me, my, or I” more than any other word.)

But after realizing my own flawed plan to fix my marriage myself fatally wounded a whole bunch of other people in the process, something (someone) held me back from any movement at all.

So I stopped dead in my tracks.  For nearly nine solid months.    

I drove people crazy in this standstill.  They did not – could not – understand why nothing was happening.  Why our marriage was sinking in the quicksand of anger and pain.  And in their frustration, many of them encouraged me to act.  Stillness bothers us. 

So be wisely discerning of who you allow to speak into your life.  Because during this standstill, I realize now there was only one voice I needed to listen to.  And that voice doesn’t shout.  It whispers.

...but I will wait anyway

Many times I started to believe the lie that “it really would be easier to quit.”  I can move forward, my children are resilient, I have the capability to provide financially for myself, my support group is solid, my feelings matter, I have a bright future, I can do hard things. (I… I… I… I… my… my… my… me… me… me.  That's )

But instead, as impossible as it felt at the time, I waited.  I have waited before, and I can do it again.

I have waited through pain.  I have waited through doubt. 

Through the heartbreak of miscarriage.

Through the agony of losing a son.

Through the fear of a fraying marriage.

Through the confusion of betrayal and loss.

Through the humiliation of my own mistakes.

Through the blindness of an unknown future.

I will wait. 

I will wait because my own self-contrived decisions are not necessarily the right ones.

The promise of Advent 

I will wait to hear God’s voice, which speaks differently to every person.  He speaks to me through people and undeniable signs on my path.  Go.  Stop.  Turn.  Move.  Pause.  Act.  Listen.  Write.  Speak up.  Hold back.  

I only notice God's voice, these undeniable nudges, when I intentionally listen and watch for them, rather than my own loud thoughts and the clanging noise from the rest of the world too. 

That’s what makes Advent especially important.  Because there are miracles everywhere.  And I don’t want to miss a single one distracted by the noise.

God sent His Son at Christmas with two assurances I hold to more tightly than any other: that He walks with us in the world, and that one day we will all be together again.  He lavished his greatest gift upon the most ordinary and unremarkable people - shepherds and peasants, and you and me - not because of anything we've done to earn it but simply because we belong to God.  This is hope.  This is love. 

So I will stand watch in this season of Advent, preparing my heart for however... and whenever... God is going to move. 

He's worth the wait.  

HP,

J

Need a last-minute and meaningful gift?  My new book Joy Comes in the Mourning is a true story filled with hope and encouragement perfect for anyone on your list, and small enough to tuck inside a stocking on Christmas morning. 

book launch | joy comes in the mourning | bonus thoughts on grief
Dec 10

Book launch, grief work, and thank you

By Jessica Allen | Grief

It’s been five days since the book launch and I think I have some organized words now. Or at least I have some words now.  Grief work is never through, even in the most joyful of celebrations.  

ICYMI, I released a book last week – a memoir, I suppose, although the easiest way to describe this has been “a grief book.”   It’s the true story of the birth and death of our first son and how his little magnificent life has underscored every step of mine ever since. 

I have always believed in LJ’s story, and in the message of hope it brings.  And I believe in that message of hope not just because it is a nice story (it is), but because it has brought me through the last ten years of my life.  Sometimes that experience has lit a very dark path.  Sometimes it has been the dark path itself.  But if I could boil what I’ve learned down to just one thing, it’s this: there is abundant life to be lived on the other side of grief. 

The other side of grief

“I realize now that there really isn’t an “other side.”  Rather, real people with real grief simply find a path moving forward and choose to walk it one step at a time.  Sometimes you can go quickly, sometimes it’s slow, and sometimes you have to sit down and rest.  Sometimes you get completely lost in the weeds.  Frustratingly, there’s no GPS for bereavement. Stopping to ask for directions, pausing to find your bearings, or even going in reverse for awhile, are all okay.  Quitting isn’t.  Your mind, body, and spirit will tell you when it’s time to recalculate and get back en route.  As long as you keep going, there’s light along the way.” – Joy Comes in the Mourning

Not surprisingly, I got lost in the weeds many times in the process of putting this book together.  I believe when we are making waves for good and for God in the world that the enemy will throw every distraction, every discouragement, and every weapon it can. 

The Grief Beast

Grief work is not easy.  It’s why so many people don’t and won’t do it.  Because grief can be a cranky, untrained dog.  Most of the time it looks okay and minds its manners.  But when provoked, it bites.  Its jaws are filled with pain, anger, regret, shame, guilt, disappointment, confusion, depression, doubt, and fear.  And the better you’re feeling when it lunges at you, the harder it’ll clench its teeth. 

I think those repeated wounds are meant to discourage us from ever healing.  We’re not much use for the kingdom of God when we’re bleeding.  Yet if you can stare your wild grief animal in the eye and over time patiently demand that it obey, you become a confident and capable master over its power.

Old dog... same old tricks

It’s admittedly hard to teach an old dog new tricks.  Grief will bite, when you least expect it, regardless of how much time has passed, or the nature of the grief itself.  As I put pen to paper (or really, fingers to keys) to tell LJ’s story, all sorts of grief came up.  Not only about losing our son but also about almost losing our marriage and our family too. 

When those memories and emotions rise to the top, I have two choices: I can stuff them down as fast as they appeared, or I can confront them, acknowledge what they’re hurting, and decide to breathe through it. 

What I don’t have to do is live in those memories and emotions for long.  THAT I believe is the fine line between healing and hopelessness.

Healing and hope

I believe I have hope because I found it.  I believe I can heal because I’ve felt it.  I believe I am meant for something wonderful in this life because I am still here.  And isn’t that the most humbling invitation to sort through the mess of grief?  To emerge from the ashes humbled, stronger, battle-worn, and even more convicted of our purpose? 

All this is to say, I live with this stuff every day of my life, rumbling around in my head and heart.  It matters to me.  So to put it into a book, and see that other people cared about it too, has truly been the most joyfully humbling experience of my life. 

Never since LJ have I felt so supported, loved, cared for, and believed in.  Five days have passed and I’m still teary writing this note. 

Grief is universal

The pain of grief and all those other “bites” it brings with it are universal heartaches.  Which is why I believe there’s truly something for everyone in this little book, whether it’s simply a chapter on anger or depression, or any quote ranging from infuriation with God to trust in His infinitely mysterious plan.  Something different has resonated with each person on our launch team and that’s been an incredible learning experience for me. 

So I guess what I’m saying most of all is thank you.  For reading, for caring, for being willing to touch all these tender ideas of healing.  It’s the only way I know how to come through the fire and it’s never as lonely when we go it together. 

Book scoop

If you didn’t get your copy of Joy Comes in the Mourning yet, here’s where to find it:

I’ve packaged every single book myself, and there are still (just a very few) signed copies left.  We’ve sent them literally coast to coast, and one even went to Pensacola to someone I don’t know yet.  If that’s you, please know that nothing made me smile more than knowing one of these little books is headed to my happiest place on earth! (It’s where this whole crazy blog idea was birthed, too!)  Someday we’ll meet in that beautiful white sandy paradise. 

It’s bound to be a crazy week, no matter your line of work.  We have “grab-and-go” meals ready for literally every single night through Sunday.  If your schedule looks similar to ours, take an extra minute today to breathe, pray, focus, and hold on tight to what’s most important.  The other stuff clamoring for your attention is just a distraction from loving your people – and yourself- well.

HP,

J

If you're local and would like to pick up your book rather than have us ship it, enter code "PICKUP" at checkout and contact me to pick it up!  Just head to www.getjoy.shop to get started.  

surviving the holidays | grief | divorce | marriage recovery | struggling marriage
Dec 03

Surviving the holidays when you’re barely surviving

By Jessica Allen | Family , Grief , Marriage

Surviving the holidays seems impossible when your life is falling apart.  (Spoiler alert: you can do it.  Keep reading and you'll see how we made it through too.)

Maybe you're grieving the loss of a loved one.  Maybe your marriage is on the rocks, or one of your children is troubled.  Your career or finances might be hanging by a thread.  All these things bring grief.  And grief is grief.  No matter the source.

Holiday grief

Waves come when you least expect.  Nine years after LJ died I had a meltdown on the floor at Hobby Lobby because I couldn't find six matching stocking hangers.  Everything came in sets of four or five... but not six.  

It came on like a panic - I could feel my heart rate skyrocket and my face get hot.  And I couldn't stop it from coming.  I was on my belly, face down, reaching for the back of the bottom shelves, when I finally just put my head down and cried.  People were sweet, mostly... scared, probably, but compassionate.  I pulled myself together, abandoned my cart, and left.  

There is no rhyme or reason for how grief manifests itself during "the holidays."

Surviving the holidays minute by minute

If you're approaching the holidays with a feeling of heaviness, anxiety, dread, or even despair, sentiments of "joy" or "merry" or "calm and bright" or even basic gratitude might be too much to hope for.  My prayer is that you will find simple pockets or even just tiny flickers of peace and comfort.  A good meal, a conversation with a friend, a book or song that speaks your heart.  

Those moments are treasures, like delicate shells to collect in your pocket.  Because the only thing that makes the anger and pain you're feeling even more distressing is the knowledge that the holidays are coming.  I remember starting to drown in the anxiety that I was going to have to swim in a sea of happy people when I was still such a wreck.  

Why surviving the holidays seems impossible when you're grieving

Entering the holiday season in grief is just about as hard as the loss you're grieving in the first place.  Regardless of the source of your grief, the holidays only magnify the pain grief brings.  What should be such a happy season just isn't happy at all.  

You wish you could close your eyes and wake up on January 2nd.  Skip it all.  Even the New Year, which feels ridiculous because the idea of a "fresh start" is insulting after your whole life has been upended.  If only a snap of your fingers could make it all go away: grief, frustration, confusion, Santa, the mall, the Salvation Army bell ringers, picture-perfect family photos, the Hallmark movie channel, and the blowups on your neighbors' lawn.  Everywhere you look are reminders that the world has moved on... and you're still stuck in sadness or anger.  

It's the most terrible time of the year

We had a rough Christmas once, more than normal.  Sadly, this one was even more awful than the year our son died.  This particular season was just weeks after our marriage detonated.  We both approached the holidays with heaping piles of disappointment, anger, resentment, and fear.  

Neither one of us was able to admit it to the other, but I know we were both terrified it would be our last Thanksgiving and Christmas together under one roof.  So surviving the holidays was especially critical, and doubly hard.  I was mortified to face his family, just as mortified as he was to face mine.  I was positive I was going to become a fold-over in the annual family Thanksgiving picture.  True story.  I think by chance I wound up on the far corner of the group in the photo… I’m sure I manifested that for myself.  (As far as I know, I didn’t get cut out!)

Make the holidays exactly what you need them to be

It was more important that year than ever before for us to create some special memories as “just us.”  We had to set some boundaries that season that confused and likely disappointed our families.  It was uncomfortable, and in many ways it probably would have been easier to just “do what we’ve always done.”  But that’s not what we needed that year, and I’m grateful we had the courage and determination to chart our holiday course differently. 

Surviving those holidays meant getting creative.  We intentionally established a new Christmas Day tradition in our home.  I knew after a full day of Christmas Eve services at church I would be exhausted, and trying to haul everyone out of the house with gifts and merriment strapped on would push me over the edge.  So, we didn’t.  And it is one of the best decisions we’ve ever made for our little family.  We stayed in our jammies, made memories and food together, and stayed present to enjoy what we truly thought was going to be our last Christmas together.  Tragically, if that had been true, it would have been our only Christmas together prepared and enjoyed with that much intention.

For more help on repairing your marriage, especially during the holidays, click here.  

I keep that Christmas in mind whenever I start feeling anxious about what each holiday is going to look like this time around. 

Things I learned from surviving that sweet and special Christmas:

The people who love you most will still love you. 

They will still love you even if you change all the plans and move all their cheese.  They will get over it.  Grit your teeth and wait them out!

Creating your own traditions is priceless.

These are memories you'll have forever.  If this isn't the year for traditions, go do or try something you'd never otherwise do.  Being together is the whole point.  Screw "normal."  There's no normal right now anyway.

Give your children the gift of present and loving parents on holidays.  

You can’t do that if you’re stressed to hell.  A wonderful funny friend of ours said, and I quote: “We don’t want our kids to think we suck at holidays.”  Our children really don’t want as much stuff as we think they do.  They just want us.  

Cook – or cater – a fantastic meal.  

We ordered a gorgeous prime rib, prayed we wouldn’t screw it up, and enjoyed the most incredible Christmas dinner.  One of my best memories of all time is sitting with Jack at the table after the kids had scampered off to play with their new toys.  With full bellies, and no run-around-town stress that day, conversation opened up that brought us some peace.  We were still a long way from reconciled then but I treasure that evening spent together with our guards lowered.  Magic really can happen over a great meal.  

Here are some easy ice-breakers if your relationship is so strained you don't know where to start.  

Thoughtful gifts don’t have to be expensive.  

Maxing yourself out financially only adds to your stress and mental garbage.  There are countless ways to say I love you that don't cost a penny.

But JUST SAY NO to anything that doesn’t bring you absolute peace and presence this season.  

Dragging yourself to and through obligations is a recipe for self-implosion. Saying no is harder for some people than others.  If that’s you, go back and read #1. 

It’s exhausting to stand on principle or try to punish or hurt someone you love on a holiday.  

Stick a pin in the feud; you can always come back to it later.  Be kind to each other, if for no other reason than to give yourself the gift of putting down the heavy weight of anger for just one day.

Don't make any big decisions

Your emotions, stress, fatigue, and blood pressure are all at DEFCON 5.  This is not the time to decide to split up, move out, quit your job, go skydiving, or get a tattoo or a puppy.  Those are all valid ideas that can wait until January.  That's when you'll think a little straighter and make better, more rational choices.

When you’re hurting, it’s time to circle the wagons, hunker down, and put your needs and the needs of your nuclear family first.  

This doesn’t mean shutting people out.  It simply means budgeting your time and energy so that you can give your most important people the best of yourself.  They deserve more than our "leftovers." 

Take pictures only if you want to.  

If someone else really needs a picture, suck it up and pose, while repeating to yourself you never have to look at the photo if you don’t want to.  Especially if it’s a painful reminder of a painful time. You DO have every right to request that it not appear on social media.  

Speaking of social media, STAY OFF SOCIAL MEDIA.  

You can “like” everybody else’s “perfect family pictures” another day.  I say "perfect" because I promise you, they yelled at each other trying to get the perfect outfits or the perfect location or the perfect shot.  And one of the kids probably got threatened within an inch of his life for acting exactly like a kid forced to take pictures in itchy new clothes would act.  When our marriage fell apart, I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said, "we just had no idea anything was wrong."  (It would have paid for all the therapy!)  WE were that perfect family on social media.  Proof that you never truly know what's going on behind the scenes.  

Holidays are not going to magically make pain or struggle disappear.  

But you can find moments of peace and glimpses of goodness if you’re willing to look for them.

Surviving the holidays when you're a mess means simply making it through.  And once you've done it, you'll breath a sigh of relief.  And you might even have a glimmer of hope and gratitude.  (It's okay if you don't, though.  Some years, surviving the holidays is the very best you can do.  We are meant to thrive in the right time, and that time will come.  Just not right now.)

All this being said, if you do feel up to making merry this Christmas in spite of your grief, let your people love you the way they know how.  This means they will feed you and hug you and make you take uncomfortable family pictures.  And even if you stand on the far back corner of the group, I promise they won’t fold you over.

HP,

J

PS: This will help you survive the holidays! 

My new book, Joy Comes in the Mourning, releases Thursday, and it's that kind of book that might bring you a flicker of peace in a difficult season.  It's a raw and real look at the grieving process, no matter your loss or struggle, and will bring you the reassurance that what you're thinking and feeling is okay.  I found the brightest light on my life's darkest path.  And it's my joy to share what I've learned along the way.  Check back here and our social channels on Thursday for where to find the book, and for more help on grief and the holidays.

Turkey | holiday stress | tips for managing holiday stress
Nov 27

Turkey and De-stressing: How minimize holiday stress

By Jessica Allen | Family , Life

I’m an introvert.  Which means even the sweetest gatherings with the people I love most can leave me feeling overwhelmed with holiday stress.  And even after almost 15 years of marriage and 19 total years of shared holidays with both sides of our family, we actually don’t have a set tradition or schedule for Thanksgiving.  It’s a little different every year.  While it always turns out sweet and special, that constant unpredictability is uber-stressful on a person who really likes sameness.

So after 19 years of near-tears and real-tears over what should be a lovely set of holiday meals together, I figured I’d do a little personal work and get to the heart of what stresses me out so much.  Once you can name it, you can solve it, or at least approach it differently so I can actually enjoy myself.  SO here’s my recipe for a big helping of de-stressing with your Thanksgiving turkey!

Tips to manage holiday stress

  1. Plan ahead – Shop early, chop and bag veggies and make the food you can ahead of time.  Pack clothes/supplies the day before.  Make a list and delegate just about everything that doesn’t involve fire or knives or your grandmother’s recipe you love to assemble yourself.  
  2. Ask for help – Even small children can perform easy tasks, like “scoop 6 cups of dog food into this Ziplock bag” or “empty the dishwasher.”  Don’t be a martyr.  I’ve tried it and all it does is make everyone miserable.  Turn the help list into a game if you want, or shamelessly bribe your people with allowance or ice cream or Hot Wheels or whatever you like to bribe them with. 
  3. Simplify – Do you really need the elaborate recipe, outfit, décor, etc.?  Or can you release some expectations and therefore manage your holiday stress level better?  Jen Hatmaker, one of my favorite authors, posted yesterday about the gorgeous green bean casserole she almost got suckered into making, until she remembered that her whole family would riot if if she didn't serve the classic canned cream soup version with crunchy onions on top.  Sometimes the simplest path really is the best. (Except for my mother's stuffing... sorry, mom.  We truly value the three entire days you spend making it and your sons in law will fight each other for the last bite.)
  4. You do you – Although it’s not characteristic of our particular families to engage in divisive political/religious conversations, it’s never beyond the realm of possibility that a sticky topic could come up. We’re all nuts just like the rest of you too.  So if you have some off-limits conversation topics, practice saying clearly with confidence: “Not today.”  Stick to your guns.  Nobody can force you to engage or respond to a conversation that is unkind, divisive, inflammatory, or disrespectful.  If all else fails, literally walk away.  You aren’t ruining anything.  So don’t accept that accusation if it starts flying your way.  If anyone’s ruining anything, they are, by disregarding and disrespecting a very clear self-respecting boundary you set.  
  5. Bring a game to play - Idle time is the birthplace of tricky conversations.  Keep the entertainment going.  Our favorites are Pit (a fast and funny yell-it-out card trading game from my childhood!!!), Spoons, Spades, Balderdash, Scrabble, Pokeno, Avocado Smash, or good old-fashioned War.  
  6. Arrive and/or serve the meal on time - This is my husband's #1 holiday stress hot button.  (actually, his stress hot button in general.). Don’t be late, and if you are, respect your people enough to give them an accurate expectation of your arrival time.  Hungry tummies are cranky tummies.  Full tummies are happy tummies and everyone feels their time - and hot, lovingly-prepared food! - is respected.  (I've ruined many a beautifully grilled pork tenderloin by not being ready for dinner when we decided we'd eat.  We're all works in progress.)
  7. Set technology expectations with children and spouses before you arrive.  Nothing hurts my feelings more than seeing people’s faces buried in screens when we’ve all made such an effort to gather together. 
  8. Realize there is no “perfect” holiday gathering, so….
  9. Get your mind and heart right before you walk in - If relationships are strained, pray for patience, compassion, understanding, love, and restraint.  You can be an agent of war or an agent of peace, no matter what the other person chooses.  What version of yourself do you want to bring to the literal table this holiday season?

To ease holiday stress, absolutely invite these things around your table:

  • Gratitude
  • Patience
  • Peace
  • Simplicity
  • Presence
  • Confidence in yourself
  • Boundaries
  • Gentleness of speech (Think of the children!  Little ears are learning.)
  • Willingness to listen more than you talk
  • Love for your people

Leave these things at home: 

  • Sarcasm
  • Old childhood patterns that don’t serve you any longer (i.e. muting your confidence/capabilities to make someone feel better, deferring to your loud brother, letting unacceptable comments fly unchecked, not standing up for yourself, arguing for arguments’ sake, etc.)
  • Anything hinting at passive-aggressive behavior
  • An ax to grind with someone (Make like Elsa and let it gooooooo)
  • Overindulging (except garlic mashed potatoes and pie, that’s okay)
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Heads buried in devices
  • A need to prove anything to anyone
  • Shame or embarrassment

If you really just can’t even…

If you’re a mess this holiday season, I invite (implore) you to simply be exactly as you need to be.  I also give you permission to blatantly eye-roll the first person who tells you to cheer up or look on the bright side.  SOMETIMES YOU LITERALLY CANNOT DO THAT.  If you’re deep in grief, of any kind, this is the year to practice lots of self-care and maybe even tell your people NO I am not coming.  I have other plans.  And as my dad taught me so insistently when I was young, it is 1000% okay if my “other plans” are simply “not going to that thing you want me to go to.”  

I have forced myself to suit-up-and-show-up when I had absolutely no business doing so.  And then I paid the price with a physical and emotional crash in the days that followed.  

That’s not being a hero.  That’s being ridiculous.

So save your brave heroics and any holiday stress for another day, and instead ask the people who love you to save you a plate of food from the party.  Put on your favorite jammies, curl up in bed with the best coffee and movies you love, and let this be a day you live in gratitude for quiet and stillness.  Plans can look different.  It's just one day, one meal, one tradition. So it’s okay to do something that goes against the norm.  Breaking the status quo generally makes people really uncomfortable but it doesn’t mean you’re disrespecting them.  It means you’re respecting yourself.   

HP, and may you have the most blessed and heart-filling holiday week,

PS: Is your shopping list giving you holiday stress?  I can help!Joy Comes in the Mourning is coming TO THIS SITE in just a few short days, in perfect time for the holidays!  It's a book that contains light and hope for every person, grieving or not, and it's small enough to tuck inside a stocking on Christmas morning.  The first 500 copies contain some sweet surprises!  More details to come!  For a quick peek at the backstory, and the "why" behind the book, click here.

who made you the expert | inferiority complex
Nov 21

Who made YOU the expert?

By Jessica Allen | Life

This is one of my favorite graphics of all time:

day in the life of an entrepreneur | emotional wheel | emotional management | personal growth

I love this graph for the reassurance and laugh it gives me as an entrepreneur but I really do think it resonates with every human person on the planet - not just business owners.

How many times a day (a minute?!) do we all go through that mental and emotional cycle?  

A friend corrected me yesterday when I let some verbal self-abuse come pouring out of my mouth.  My children know to correct me, and their daddy, and each other, when this happens too.

There’s just no reason to beat ourselves up so.  

The meanest person I know

If I had to honestly answer the question: “Who’s the meanest person you know?”, I’d have to say…. MYSELF.

I am meaner to myself than any other person in my life.  Well, almost any other person in my life.  We all have those poo-poo-list people who have done us a doozy or two.

I can rationalize that self-criticism away by reminding myself I am an aspiring high-achiever, a first-born, a recovering perfectionist, and I want to be the best at everything.  (This is a recipe for the world's version of success but really super unhealthy if it’s not balanced by self-care and perspective and compassion for others, btw.)

But ultimately the reason I’m so hard on myself is because of lingering insecurity.  I want to be taken seriously, I want to be seen as an authority or a leader in my field, I want to make a difference, I don’t want to feel left out or left behind.  I’m constantly self-scanning for points of weakness and building armor over them so I won’t be picked apart or found out or criticized or debunked.  

OUCH THAT IS HARD TO SAY IN REAL LIFE.  But it’s the truth, and that’s what we tell here.  The truth.  

Who made you the expert?

Rachel Hollis, the famed speaker and author behind Girl, Wash Your Face and Girl, Stop Apologizing, recently experienced a major troll on her social media.  Someone asked her essentially, “who made YOU the expert?

Her response stuck with me, because it is strong, inspiring, honest, and right on the money.

She replied, I DID.  (Now I'll paraphrase here:) I made MYSELF the expert.  I built a business from the ground up, with blood, sweat, and tears, and learned it all the hard way with good honest hard work. 

Essentially, you don’t need the fancy degree or the title or the certifications – what qualifies you in any field is hard-earned, nose-to-the-grindstone, elbows-dirty experience.  

I grab onto this idea EVERY DAY.  

I wonder sometimes who would ever take me seriously in the realms of grief, marriage recovery, and personal development.  I have a music degree, for goodness’ sake.

But do you know what else I have?

EXPERIENCE. 

  • I walked (still walk) the broken road of losing a child.
  • I have bloody knees from a nearly-failed marriage.
  • I built a business from the ground up, have relied on it as our sole income, and have shown other people how to do it too.
  • I have taken a leap of faith to follow a crazy wild-hare dream.
  • I have made mistakes, some private, and some very, very public.
  • I have gotten a lot wrong in the pursuit of learning how to get it right.  
  • I have worked on myself.  I have allowed other professionals to help me work on myself too.
  • I have gussied up courage to tell my story, with nothing held back.

We're all experts

So who made me the expert on grief and heartfully present living?  I DID.  By simply living my life with determination, humility, willingness, faith, courage, fear, confidence, love, and an open mind and heart.  

Which begs the question: who made YOU the expert on your magnificent life’s pursuit?  Whether it's child-rearing, relationships, education, politics, business, ministry, health care, sales, service, or art?

YOU DID.  And you’re continuing to prove your expertise every day.   

Keep going.  What you’re doing matters.

From one expert to another, 

HP,

J

OMGOSH my book is almost out into the world and I can't wait for you to read it! If you want to be part of the launch team, drop me a note, subscribe to our Happy Mail Club, and mark your calendars for December 3!  XO&HP, J

And, if you're not on our Heartfully Present Facebook page yet, we miss you and we need you and we hope you'll come play.  :). The world and the internet are a mess of wildly strange and confusing things, and our little community is a sweet breath of edifying fresh air!

failure | fear | f words | marriage | affair recovery | marriage help | relationship quotes
Nov 12

Failure, fear, & other F words

By Jessica Allen | Uncategorized

Fear is real, and it’s universal.  Everyone feels it.  But before I get to fear let’s talk about failure.

I made a really bad judgment call at our family retreat this week.  I grabbed onto a rope swing, got a running start, took a flying leap, lost my grip, and landed hard face down in what could have been a really terrible accident.  (By miracle alone, my head is fine… but my ribs and my neck are not.  I’m propped up like Frankenstein just to write this.  Nothing a few days’ rest and ibuprofen can’t handle.)

No big deal, really; just a dumb lack of common sense.  The rope isn’t even rated to hold my weight anyway.  Furthermore I could have broken the tree branch if I had actually gotten off the ground.

As we were making breakfast the next morning, I did something else goofy and asked Jack, “do you ever catch yourself mid-action and think, this was a really bad idea?”

He of course said no (teasing me) and asked if I do that.  I answered yes, about 9 million times a day.

This is a slight exaggeration but it holds truth.

How many times do I act without thinking, move without planning, speak without filtering?  Only to look back immediately and cringe, “GOSH, I wish I would’ve…”

Failure as teacher

Some of this is just how we learn.  We are all hopelessly flawed and ever-evolving.  Every mishap is an opportunity to learn and be better next time.  If you’re not failing, if you’re not even in the arena to begin with, you’re not growing at all.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizens in a Republic” speech, 1910

EVERY BIT of my marriage is this – dust and sweat and blood, falling short, striving for a worthy cause, enthusiasm, devotion, moments of triumph and failure, and most importantly daring greatly to grow a marriage that models love, forgiveness, boundaries, strength, and humility to my children.

The “man in the arena” reminds me of this scripture too: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” – Revelation 3: 15-16

The scripture is a specific calling upon our spiritual lives.  But I love the imagery and it’s a great reminder to never get complacent.  “Good enough” or “fine” (or in my tendency “coasting”) is not where we’re meant to stay.

We’re meant to care.  To act.  To move.  To stay awake, alert, ambitious, and focused on growth.

The paradox

The crazy paradox about ambitious goals is that we’re also called to be still… be content… rest in the knowledge that we are enough just as we are.  Is anyone else as confused as I am by all this?  The tug-of-war between staying content and striving for more breaks my entrepreneurial-Jesus-girl brain a little.  I really do think we need both, in equal parts, in order to become our best without losing our marbles in the process.

Growth road map

Growth requires change,
Change requires overcoming fear,
Overcoming fear requires risk, and
Risk inevitably results in pain from time to time.

The short version?  Growth = Pain. (So sayeth my neck and ribs.)

So too sayeth my marriage, my parenting, my professional business, my bank account, my waistline, and my actual self.

But because fear shows up the moment I have an opportunity to grow, it’s easy to disguise that fear of growth and change as “contentment.”

I love my life.  We have all we need.  Why rock the boat?  Why strive for more?

Because I am capable of more.  Because we are meant for more.  Because God is counting on the living instruments he placed on the earth and I want to be a useful one.

Does that mean every leap of faith will be rewarded with a victory story?  Nope.  Most big leaps involve at least one painful face plant.  Probably many, actually.

It’s easy to dismiss that failure, that pain, as “a sign it’s not meant to be.”

What if we’re wrong about that?

What if the failure is the invitation to keep on keepin’ on?  Only smarter this time?

Choosing resilience over fear

It’s nearly impossible to embrace that kind of bold resilience in the moment.  For example, my first thought face down on the ground, after “I hope I don’t have a concussion” was “NEVER AGAIN.”

Now that’s fair, on many levels.  The rope wasn’t strong enough, and neither was the branch.  I didn’t go in with careful thought or any kind of backup plan.  I was doomed to fail, actually.

I think what helps me make the shift from “wish I wouldn’t have done that” to “I’ll do better next time” is what I choose to do after I blow it.

I have two choices: wallow in the setback, or learn from it to be better next time.

If we wallow in failure, we’ll stay stuck forever in a murky swamp of regret, pain, embarrassment, shame, fear, and even more scarily intense feelings like anger and depression.  Wallowing requires no action at all.  That’s Door Number 1.

But behind Door Number 2 is the choice to learn and do better next time.  This also involves pain, embarrassment, and a bunch of crappy fear too.  But the difference here is that learning uses those negative emotions as motivation OUT of where we landed.  This choice requires action.  It’s harder.  Which is why lots of people are scared to do it.

Fear is real… but it’s not your master

If I had to boil down the near-death of our marriage to one thing, I would say it was FEAR.

Fear of a fight.  Fear of feeling unheard.  Fear of realizing our problem was bigger than I imagined.  Fear the problem was too big for us to fix.  Fear I wasn’t who I wanted to be.  Fear he’d never change.

All those fears were valid – little red flags trying to get my attention and spur me into action.  Yet tragically, because I didn’t grab those fears by the horns and wrestle them down, they bypassed me altogether and invited my worst fear to come out to play instead – the destruction of my marriage and family.

In the initial aftermath, I sobbed over and over that I DID speak up, I DID voice concerns, I DID put the issues on the table.  (I did.  Not well enough, but I did.  If you feel misunderstood, it is your job to say it again or say it different or say it louder or throw something to get their attention.  You can be mad about this truth or you can actually try it.  For help with this, click here.)

But here’s my half-hearted and chicken plan to fix my marriage failed: at the first hints of discord and discomfort between us, I retreated.  I let fear back me into a corner and devour my confidence and trust down to the bones.  So in this way the problems in our marriage grew, and with them, my resentment and anger too.

The ugly truth

Want to know what happens to people whose fear and anger are high, and trust and confidence are low?

They self destruct.  Their lives fall completely apart, starting with their most important relationships.  I nearly ran a thriving business into the ground and almost ripped my family in half.  And it wasn’t just my fault.  It takes two to destroy a marriage.  Imagine two people simultaneously self-destructing – that was our home three years ago.

It’s all good – we both got our $%&# together and rebuilt it all from the smoking ashes up.  I love the way all our broken pieces fused back together, stronger than before.

The upside to failure (i.e. telling fear to shove it)

Here’s the marvelous thing about failure – when you stare it in the face and defiantly flip fear the bird, that thing you failed at never seems quite so scary again.

I’m not afraid of confrontation anymore.  I don’t like it, but I’m not afraid of it.  I’m not afraid to speak up.  I’m not afraid of a fight.  I’m not afraid of messing up, owning the mistake, or being honest about anything.  I’m not afraid of hard questions.  I’m not afraid of failing in business, or as a person.  I’m not afraid of being backed into a corner.  And I’m not afraid that I’ll bail on myself or my husband or the life we’ve cultivated together.

Honest truth: I do have lingering hints of fear and mistrust that we (me as an individual and him as an individual and we as a couple) will revert back into old patterns of poor communication, disregard for each other’s feelings, and tendency to turn a blind eye to those little red flags.  We’re far from perfect, and 17 years of bad habits take intentional work to change.  I also have to remember that we cut each other the deepest wounds with the sharpest swords, and that pain takes time to heal too.

A marriage can survive an affair, or any other awful crisis.  But the reason most marriages don’t survive is because both parties are so hurt, angry, and defeated that they can’t even begin to heal all the problems that led up to the affair/crisis in the first place.  (This is my non-certified yet 100% experiential theory and I’m sticking to it.)

It’s not all rainbows over here.

But I’m not afraid to try again.

HP,

J

PS: My first book is coming in just a few weeks!  Hop onto our Happy Mail Club list (click the button just below here to subscribe) for updates and sneak-peeks, including how to grab a copy of Joy Comes in the Mourning before it launches, and how we’re using this little book to make a difference for marriages and families all over the world.