Your Marriage Might Need Extra Sauce (and other things you didn’t expect)

I’m delighted to share an excerpt from Dorothy Greco’s EXCELLENT new book Making Marriage Beautiful today. I’m so tired of the “30 days/5 ways to being a happier/sexier/better spouse” type of stuff out there. I long for real wisdom that has stood the test of time, and which holds out hope even for hapless folk like me. This is a practical, funny, biblical and HELPFUL book. It doesn’t have a single cheesy “just plan a date night!” suggestion. Instead, it has stories about looking at ourselves and our loved ones with kinder, better eyes, and making small, doable beautiful changes day by day which add up to a lifetime of joy. See for yourself.

The first time I went to my husband’s house for Thanksgiving, was the first time I was confronted with my ethnocentric tendencies. There was twice as much food as needed, including lime Jell-O and canned green beans submerged in a thick, gray sauce. The turkey was ceremoniously placed front and center, and then his mother brought out two huge trays of lasagna. Lasagna. With extra sauce (this is important) and meatballs. For Thanksgiving.

After a prayer, the curtain went up and the opera began. Unlike at my home, there was no turn taking or insightful follow-up questions. One person simply started talking—to no one in particular—and then another layered their thoughts on top but not before turning up the volume. Then a third and fourth jumped in, making it impossible to really listen to anyone—something I eventually learned was not a priority. I’ve never been a fan of opera and even less so when I’m thrust into it without an opportunity to rehearse my lines. This experience helped me better understand Christopher, but I was not able to extrapolate his genetically coded mealtime expectations until we had a substantial fight not long after.

At our inaugural dinner party, we invited three couples over. The conversation was lively and the food excellent. Everyone seemed to enjoy the evening—except Christopher, who made several less-than-affirming comments about my culinary efforts. This same scenario played out multiple times before I pointedly inquired, “Why are you so critical of how I prepare meals for guests?” He shot back, “Because you don’t cook enough food and you never put out extra sauce when you make pasta!” Want to guess how our evening played out? That fight opened our eyes to a shocking reality: our family cultures had so deeply shaped our preferences, biases, and beliefs that we each reflexively judged anything different as wrong. This discovery allowed us to start tracing other marital challenges directly back to our formative years.

Like us, many of you may have ended up with overweight luggage as you packed for your honeymoon because you unknowingly crammed the suitcase full of culturally bound expectations and historic wounds. If we lack awareness regarding our ethnocentrism and our scars, we tend to assume we’re always right, become oppositional, and endlessly criticize and judge one another.

Because Christopher and I are white, we have not been victims of racism.  However, many of you not only have been but continue to be affected by this systemic sin. The highly publicized race-related issues of recent times have shattered any illusion that racism is a thing of the past. If you are a minority, you have most likely been traumatized by racial disparity, intentional segregation, and overt discrimination. It’s nearly impossible to grow up with an intact sense of self if you have been repeatedly told that you are less than and flawed. These deep wounds guide not only how we understand ourselves but also how we interact with others.

Evan, a Chinese American friend, grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood during the seventies. He doesn’t look back on his neighbors as racists but rather “ignorant ethnocentrists.” In his words:

My personality was reduced to my ethnic identity. There was a sense that everything that represented my family of origin was not accepted in the culture. I had to put on different masks and code-switch [modifying the way you express yourself depending on who you’re with]. I remember as young as first grade, maybe earlier, looking in the mirror and wishing that my facial features were different because I didn’t look like everyone else. In Chinese culture, it’s considered beautiful to have a wide, flat nose, but in American culture, it’s beautiful if you have a long, thin nose. I would sit in front of the mirror and squeeze my nose, hoping that it would become long and narrow. Think about how powerful the messages must have been for me as a seven-year-old child to feel that I had to change my face to be accepted.

Regardless of how we got our scars and how they manifest, they don’t magically disappear when we get married. We bring all of who we are into our marital covenants: our gifts, talents, and strengths but also our weaknesses, limitations, and brokenness. Our spouse is typically the first people who has gotten close enough to notice these scars.

    Our scars and internalized cultural values not only inform our beliefs and actions, but they also become the foundation for many of our expectations. As we enter into marriage, we have dozens of unspoken expectations for the small, seemingly incidental details of life together (e.g., who cleans the bathroom?) as well as the major, significant components of life (e.g., who sacrifices their career to care for a sick child or aging parent?). Sometimes we’re not even cognizant of our expectations until others fail to meet them. Sometimes an expectation emanates out of our wounds, which makes it more difficult for us to identify the expectation, let alone discern what drives it.

For example, not long after we were married, Christopher and I started having conflicts about what it meant to be home in time for dinner. After we negotiated what seemed like a reasonable compromise and then he showed up an hour (or more) late, I felt angry. He would apologize, but then we’d have a déjà vu moment the following week. Though I had legitimate reasons to be frustrated, his offense was a level three (out of ten—not that big a deal) and my response was a level eight (in other words, out of proportion). This disparity clued me in to the possibility that maybe this dynamic was uncovering a historic wound.

When we have the same conflicts over and over again, it’s likely that there’s something deeper going on that will provide an opportunity for healing if we can stop reacting and start exploring what’s driving our broken patterns. That was certainly true regarding our ongoing discord about mealtime. When I was twelve, my grandfather died and our extended family fractured due to some poor choices and miscommunication. After two of my father’s beloved siblings moved out of state, he turned to liquor to numb his pain. This eventually led to a full-blown alcohol addiction lasting more than a decade.

During my middle and high school years, dinner could be a tense affair. Would Dad be on time? Would he be sober? If he wasn’t, how would Mom respond? There was an obvious connection between my childhood wounds and our marital strife. Christopher’s struggle with time management uncovered my unresolved pain and amplified my unprocessed anger. My response replicated my family of origin’s patterns and certainly did not help Christopher feel loved or grow in his time management skills.

Obviously, not all expectations emerge from brokenness and pain. Many are inspired by God. When we vow to love, honor, and cherish until death do us part, we expect our spouse to stick with us, even if we become unemployed, cannot conceive, or develop serious health issues. We expect our spouse to tell the truth, advocate for us, and remain monogamous. These are healthy non-negotiables. In order to have a healthy marriage that is free from judgment, we need to discern which expectations are godly and life-giving and which ones adversely affect our marriages.

    As my husband and I have pursued healing for our historic wounds and let go of our need to be right, we’ve become less dogmatic and more flexible. These changes manifest in small but welcome ways. When I need to talk through something, Christopher no longer expects me to replicate his family’s operatic style of communication. When we have company, I try to serve more food than I know we need. And sometimes, I even remember to put extra sauce on the table.

 

This article was adapted from Making Marriage Beautiful (2017) published by David C Cook. Used with permission.
Dorothy Littell Greco writes on how following Jesus changes everything. Her work appears in Relevant, Christianity Today, The Mudroom, and Start Marriage Right, among others. Her first book, Making Marriage Beautiful was published by David C Cook in January. You can find more of her work on her website or by following her on Twitter (@dorothygreco) or Facebook (Words & Images by DorothyGreco)

What I want from church: the Jesus of the Gospels

Jesus – The Prince of Peace (Akiane Kramarik)

I find it ironic that in the midst of the conversation about the undervalued and misunderstood role of women in the church, the church is often still characterized by preaching a message which is packaged in a more “female” way, and thus undervalues and misunderstands the call of both men and women to discipleship. What do I mean by this?
Why “female”, and why in inverted commas?

Our evangelism is characterized by a presentation of our felt needs: we are sinners in need of a Savior, guilty ones in need of pardon, lost ones in need of a Shepherd. The gospel is marketed towards our emotions. Our worship songs sometimes sing declarations of God’s majesty, but can also often tend towards the “Jesus is my boyfriend” lyrics, calling for us to declare “I’m so in love with you” “in this intimate place” – right in the middle of our corporate worship services. These refrains are uncomfortable for me, but all the more awkward for my 6’2″ husband who won’t even whisper “I love you” on the phone when he’s at work. Our ministries appeal for service help in the more “feminine” categories: welcoming, working in the nursery, teaching children’s church, providing snacks. Hospitality, children and food are not traditionally the areas where men sign up in their droves.

Church may be a place where (for many) there is a “masculine feel” in leadership, but I find the message and ministry of the church often have a distinctly feminine feel. If you ain’t the preacher or an elder, the opportunities for men are limited. Of course, my husband can change a diaper with the best of them, but in some nurseries men are not permitted to serve, and the bevy of faithful bible teachers who serve in children’s ministry remain predominantly female.

I wonder, though, if the feminine “feel” of our ministries doesn’t take its cue from the felt-needs-based way in which we pitch our message. Jesus is a comforter, a healer, a Savior. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, the suffering Servant, the loving rescuer.  That Jesus rightfully and perfectly holds all these titles is proof that those nurturing qualities do not belong exclusively to the female domain. Jesus IS the epitome of love, of care, of welcome.

However, as a woman who is a disciple myself, as a woman with a husband who wants to serve with the particular gifts God has given him, and as a woman who is raising sons and daughters: what I want from church is this – a robust preaching of the Jesus of the Gospels.

I want to hear about the Jesus who demanded loyalty, who commanded authority from storms, sinners and satanic forces, who said vexing and frustrating and wild things. I want to hear preaching which is not just faithful to His words but to His TONE: of comfort but also of rebuke, of welcome but also of warning. I want to hear His dares, His call to come and die, His challenge to make hard choices. I want the Jesus of the gospels who does not just meet our needs, but who calls us to bold and courageous adventure, to self-sacrifice, to taking risks. I want the Jesus who promises huge rewards for huge sacrifices, who embraces fiesty Peter and wayward Mary and touchy-feely John.

I want the Jesus who welcomed the little children, but also the Jesus with eyes like a flame of fire, with feet of burnished bronze and a sharp two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. Whatever that wild imagery means, I want to grapple with it. I want the Jesus who inspires my awe and calls forth my worship: a gospel from The Gospels. That’s the Jesus I want. That’s the Jesus I need: the one who is worthy of the honor, adoration and allegiance of men and women alike.

A few years back, Preston Yancey invited women to write guest posts on what they wanted from church. This was my post which ran on his blog. A reader recently asked me if I could help her find that piece, and it seems to have disappeared from the internet so I’m publishing it again here. And, just to say, since that time I’ve read Leslie Leyland Fields’ book Crossing the Waters, which is about as robust a dive into the wild, tender, authoritative, awesome Jesus of the gospels as I’ve ever come across (you can read an excerpt here). And it’s written by a woman 😉 

Roll Your Eyes, Brothers and Sisters

I love it when my phone updates its emojis. My favorite of the new bunch?

The face palm.

This perfectly capture my response when reading (yet another) profoundly unhelpful article by a Christian for other Christians with Rules For Men and Women To Avoid Immorality. This time, the culprit was texting. Apparently, married people should NOT text people of the opposite sex, because “affairs don’t start with sex.”

This is pretty much what my face looked like:

So, let this sister just explain herself a second here, attached to my formal appeal to please Stop The Madness. This article prohibiting texting is a variation on a well-worn theme of Men And Women Should Just Stay The Heck Away From Each Other Unless They’re Married, and has as its underpinning two terrible and insulting beliefs. It is insulting to women because it fears that they are temptresses and seductresses (see Jen Wilkin’s excellent article here on this), and it is insulting to men because it treats men as helpless victims of their sex drives. Unless you’re married, then, you should have as little contact as possible with the opposite sex: no driving in cars with them (the “Billy Graham Rule”), no private conversations in offices, no dancing, and lately: no texting. Unless you’re copying your spouse on the text thread, warns the author.

This kind of thing drives me nuts, because it shows that believers in the church have bought into the widespread (and WRONG) belief that all male and female interaction is inherently SEXUAL in nature. I hear griping and moaning about the sexualization and objectification of women and the terrible eroticization of all relationships (why can’t guys be friends who love each other without people accusing them of being gay? why do all tv sitcoms have a friendship where one of the part have feelings for the other, which almost always ends in a season finale of THE KISS (or sex) to relieve the tension?) But when we treat men and women in the church as if they can’t reasonably relate to each other without being in constant, grave, and unavoidable danger of illicit sex… we are falling into the same trap.

We need to reclaim the space for GENDERED and NON-SEXUAL relationships.

Yes, the Bible has much to say about gendered, sexual relationships – marriage being foremost among these.

But the Bible has SO MUCH to say about gendered, non-sexual relationships, and we desperately need healthy role models and better conversation about what maleness and femaleness look like without anyone imagining anyone else naked. And, Scripture has language for how we do this. It’s the family language of brother and sister: gendered, warm, intimate, familiar, and totally clothed.

I live in a church community and have friendships with men and women. Yes, I am a married woman and I am friends with men: both married and single. And my husband has both male and female friends. And, when we were single, we both had married and single friends of both sexes. As far as I understand it, this is the beautiful pattern of community within the FAMILY of God: filled with brothers and sisters who sometimes squabble, sometimes disagree, but who really, really love each other and are on the SAME team. We desperately need to reset our default setting and learn to see the men and women around us primarily as brothers and sisters, rather than potential sexual partners.

This is not to say, however, that affairs don’t happen, or that we can say anything or do anything with anyone, male or female. But, so much more than rules about how close you should stand to a guy, or whether or not you can give your phone number to a married man, what this calls for is MATURITY and WISDOM. The question is always one of the heart: am I seeking other people’s BEST in this relationship? That’s what love requires. To follow this standard requires so much more than keeping your contact list limited to same-sex-friendships: it requires us being willing to search our hearts and lay our intentions bare before God. Asking hard questions of ourselves (like “why am I wanting this person’s attention?”) requires more diligent self-scrutiny. For me, one check is knowing that I’d be willing to show my husband any of my text exchanges with other men and women (which is an internal caveat for me), rather than simply ruling out any texting at all.

It may well be that, giving yourself a sober self-assessment of your habits and vices, that it may be better for you not to text Dude X or arrange a regular carpool ride with Miss Y because you know you’ll be vulnerable to crossing lines that brothers and sisters shouldn’t cross. But it shouldn’t mean writing half our family off complete as dangerous and deceptive.

Surely, we need to do better than that. We can do better than that. Yes, we all need to take care that we aren’t making choices that will lead us into temptation (of bad spending, bad gossiping, selfishness, and yes, sexual temptation too)… but surely to accomplish this we need is HEALTHY relationships guarded by wisdom, not ZERO relationships regulated by fear and suspicion.

 

 

 

What I Want More Than an End to Porn

A friend told me recently about a kid in third grade who was having behavioral troubles: saying and doing weird stuff, relating oddly to his peers. A little sleuth work from adults who love him revealed why: he’d been exposed to—and nearly devoured by—porn on his phone. He is eight years old.

EIGHT.

This story was shocking because of the age of the person involved, but sadly not because of the content. More and more I hear from pastors and friends and wives-of-husbands and mothers-of-teens about the soul-destroying , imagination-crushing, joy-sapping and trust-smashing effects of pornography. In their homes. Classrooms. Churches.

And, more recently, I’ve had young men (and women, because this is not just a men’s issue) tearfully confess to me how they feel like they’re drowning in this addiction. They know they shouldn’t, but they just don’t know how to stop. They can’t unsee what they’ve seen, and somewhere deep inside them there’s an insatiable visceral growl to see more, and more, and more.

I feel their despair and some of their hopelessness: addictions are so hard to break. Will they ever be able to have healthy sex lives? Is it really that bad? If they’re Christians, will God forgive them? Will they ever be able to go to sleep and not be assaulted by mental images that tantalize and torment them?

Of course, there’s all the research out there that says STOP, JUST STOP using porn. It’s bad for you: it’s rewiring your brain, wrecking adolescentsdestroying your capacity for intimacy in relationships, underpinning human trafficking, and more. Heck, even manly man magazine GQ has a list of reasons why you should stop watching porn, including that it declines arousal rates, increases rates of erectile dysfunction, and leads to all-round lower energy and productivity rates.

Stopping such high-sensory-feedback, addictive habits is notoriously difficult, particularly when there’s the cloak of shame that makes community support and encouragement (often the bedrock of any addiction recovery plan) all the more difficult. But the good advice and necessary steps to stopping remain important and true:

  • find a buddy/community who can help you identify when you feel weakest/most likely to indulge.
  • take practical steps to make access more difficult for you: alcoholics purge their homes of alcohol. Porn addicts  need to get their screens the heck out of their bedrooms and enclosed spaces. Put your phone and laptop in the living room. Keep the office door open. Install software that flags porn and give someone else the passwords to check it.
  • Look for the encouragement from people who’ve walked this road before you, whether in person or online. There are stories of people who’ve come out on the other side. These are important for the wisdom they give as well as for cultivating hope. We *need* to hear stories of people who will say “I used to have these images in my mind ALL the time, but it’s been a year and I’m not so haunted anymore. It gets better.”
  • Celebrate little victories. A year without porn doesn’t happen until you’ve had a day, two days, three days, a week without it. Each of these is worth celebrating.

But the more I listen and read and pray over this situation, the more I realize that I want more for people than for them to stop using pornYes, I want them to be free of the entrapment and shame and damage that it does – but I want more for them than freedom. Just like I want more for a caged animal than for it to be let out of its cage: I want to see it run free in its habitat. I want to see it flourishing in the areas it wasn’t able to before.

This is what I want for a generation trapped in porn addiction: I want them to be free, but I want more:

  • I want for you to have a network of healthy, rich, rewarding relationships with men and women of different ages. I want you to be able to laugh, work, partner, play, and grow with men and women in friendship and companionship, without it being weird or erotic. I want for you, young men, to have female FRIENDS you enjoy and admire and respect. I want for you, young women, to have male FRIENDS you enjoy and admire and respect. I don’t want you to be afraid of your own psyche or taunted imagination: I want you to be able to share a story or a project or a hug or whatever with freedom and joy with men or women around you.
  • I want you to kindle your creative imagination: to use your time and energy to devote to something you love and can do well. Hours of addiction, particularly addiction which rewires our brain with (terrible!) narrative plots, kill our imagination. I want you to invent something, build something, write something, chase after an ambition, run a 10k race, take up rock climbing, adopt a puppy and train it to do amazing tricks. Whatever. I want to see you experience joy and fulfillment in something you put your energy into.
  • I want you to experience your sexuality – your maleness or femaleness – as something good, beautiful, and true – not terrifying or debilitating or depraved. We are not androgynous personalities, we are male and female in all our relationships and endeavors, and I want you to know that being a woman is good and being a man is good and to think and pray and explore what that means. Our sex-crazed society has eroticized all of our gendered conversations and I want us to reclaim that good and holy ground: what does it mean to be a BROTHER and not just a sibling? What does it mean to be a DAUGHTER and not just a child? How is it unique that you are a GUY-friend or a GIRL-friend to your community? How do we experience being sons and daughters of God, and brothers and sisters in the church?
  • I want you to know the powerful and healing good of non-sexual, physical touch. Greet one another with a holy kiss, the Apostle said; and Jesus—while totally able to heal with a word—repeatedly TOUCHED people in his dealings with them. I want you to be able to give and receive hugs, handshakes, and the laying on of hands in prayer in life-affirming ways.
  • I want you to know, both in conviction and hopefully one day in experience, the richness that married sex can bring. It’s so much better, so much more rewarding, so vastly different from the sex that is peddled online. I want you to know that it’s possible and doable, even for broken people. I know, because I’m one of them.

Thinking through this list gives me courage, though. Because while there’s not a lot I can do to help people STOP using porn, there’s a lot I can do to help be part of a redeeming and healthy community of men and women. I can invite men and women over and be a healthy female friend to them. I can ask questions about people’s interests and hobbies and encourage them in them in creativity: attend that art exhibition, cheer them on in their first race, post a picture of their cool art on instagram. I can notice and affirm healthy relationships where I see them – for someone who’s internally feeling that they are not a safe or worthwhile person to be in a relationship with the opposite sex because of their internal shame struggle with porn, perhaps it could be life giving to have someone else affirm: “you were a good friend to her when you said/did x,y,z.” And, of course, we can be healthy touchers. I’m a believer in hugs and handshakes and words of affirmation. And, as readers of this blog know, I’m a believer in sharing hopeful, redemptive stories about marriage and sex.

There’s a battle going on for the hearts, minds, and imaginations of this generation. I can’t be the 1am gatekeeper or take down the porn industry; but this much I can do:

I can pray.

I can encourage.

And I can help be part of the forgiven and flourishing community of women and men that God intended for us, and keep inviting people to experience True Life there.

This much, I can do.

 

 

A Moment for the Middle Child

DSC_2005_2

Seven years ago today, I woke up with a back ache which wouldn’t go away. It got worse and worse, and after an hour of shifting positions, it dawned on me that perhaps—just perhaps—I was in labor. I was 40 weeks pregnant, after all. It shouldn’t have taken me that long to work out.

A very hurried two hours later, I held our newborn boy in my arms: slick white, chubby, cooing on my breast. My body was in shock and I, shivering, had a wild, lucid thought flash through my mind:

Pay attention to this moment. Remember the details of this birth, so that it doesn’t get blurred between your first and your last baby. 

I remember the thought as a shock: I’d been a mother of two for barely ten minutes, and yet a voice—whose voice?—seemed so confident there would be a third. So, pay attention to this one, the one in the middle, for he is unique. special. God’s good gift to you this day.

This morning, I held that much-bigger-but-still-sweet boy in my arms, whispering Happy Birthday and telling him—as I do every year—the story of his birth. I remember the details and honor him, just like the voice told me too. My second-born, and in no way crowded out, precious middle child.


My friend Kate Motaung hosts a wonderful community of writers who take on a five-minute writing assignments on a Friday. This week the prompt was middle, so how could I not take her up on this? Five minutes of writing to remember, and honor, my boy on his special day 🙂 You can click over to Kate’s lovely site and read more.

‘Get the Girl to Do It’ – Thoughts on race, the space race, and gender in “Hidden Figures”

I got to see an early screening of Hidden Figures (in theaters this Friday) and wrote about it for Christianity Today Women. Here’s the link if you’d like to click right over to read it, and here are the first paragraphs if you’re curious:

hidden-figures-poster

The rush to sign kids up for summer camps is always intense, but this past summer, few filled up as quickly as the one targeted at girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). My family lives in a college town, home to one of the top-ranked science schools in the country, and getting my scientifically curious nine-year-old daughter into that camp felt like shooting for the stars.

We didn’t even make the waiting list for the camp last summer. However, this last week I did make the long drive into the city to take my daughter to see an early screening of Hidden Figures, which in some ways offers something better than a STEM camp. Summer camps and chemistry kits under the Christmas tree do much to kindle curiosity in the sciences, but this movie presented an opportunity to fan that curiosity into flame with a potent story of possibility. This, after all, is the power of fictional and nonfictional role models: They give concrete shape to inchoate longings. (Read the rest here…)

On Adulting, Growing Up, and Turning 40.

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Along with “woke” (aware of societal injustice, especially racism) and “coulrophobia” (fear of clowns), adulting made the 2016 Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year list. I like word lists, and I’ve done an awful lot of “adulting” lately, and so perhaps it was inevitable that at some point my jumble of thoughts would turn into a blog post.

The Word of the Year list defines “adulting” this way:

The practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks.

These last six months have been very busy for us. I didn’t write most of the summer and then wrote a hello-its-me-I’m-back post in September, and then pretty much fell off a cliff immediately afterwards. There are many reasons for this: within a week of the school year starting up, we decided to buy a house and got word that our permanent residency application had been approved (This is HUGE. Here’s backstory if you need it!) This triggered an avalanche of paperwork, and I dutifully donned my administrative SCUBA gear and dove headfirst into the depths. Six weeks later, my kids were falling apart at the seams from neglect, and we still had to finish packing up and moving house. Our new house is wonderful in most every way, except that what we had hoped would be a minor “updating” of the kitchen turned into a complete-gutting-and-remodel when we found some structural problems that needed to be addressed. For the record, we’ve been in our house for 7 weeks now and still don’t have a kitchen. Not a sink. Not a countertop. Not a single working outlet in that room. sigh.

In the midst of this, I turned 40 – a milestone I wish I was cool enough and mentally healthy enough not to have dreaded as I did, but whatever. Turning 40 is like a mean game of hide and seek: no matter where you hide, the countdown continues and it’s coming whether you’re ready or not. But being found by the big-four-oh wasn’t as bad as I’d feared (the build-up is always worse than the thing itself, I think.) Mostly, I’d been afraid that the big milestone birthday would include some sort of reckoning of my worth: if I wasn’t wildly celebrated would that mean I didn’t have friends? If I still didn’t have a work permit and closed out my thirties without having had a paying job for a decade, did that mean I’d wasted it? These are silly questions when you speak them out loud, but they can shout quite loudly when you’re up at 3:30am contemplating kitchenlessness.

I hate 3:30am.

This is what happened on my fortieth birthday: I canceled brunch with a friend because I needed to troubleshoot a crisis with the countertop installation in the kitchen. I then sat at home and paid bills and did laundry. I shampooed marker out of my son’s carpet. I answered the phone. I read two hundred Facebook messages and smiled at each and every one of them. I drove carpool, picked my kids up from school, and they had piano lessons. I adulted.

And I was okay with that.

Part of the reason I was okay was that I had received the perfect card from my husband that morning, and I read and re-read his words multiple times throughout the day. He acknowledged that he knew I’d been anxious about this birthday and he wished we’d been able to do something really big to celebrate: something on our bucket list like a trip to Italy! But, he said, when we look back on this season of our lives, perhaps it won’t have been the most fun birthday, but it was a season in which we bought a house we love, raised children, and changed countries. “Perhaps we will look back on this as the time we finally became grownups,” he said.

I laughed through tears as I read that. How ridiculous that we should be in our FORTIES before we were ready to acknowledge we were grownups. But therein lies the paradox of “adulting”. Unlike a student card or a drivers’ license or a passport, nobody issues you were a “Grownup card” to make it official. We feel for years and years and years that overarching sense of continuity between our teen selves and the person we are now. Surely we would know we were adults because we would feel different? And yet we don’t feel different – the evidence of wrinkles and a spreading butt notwithstanding – and so it seems somehow strange to have crossed that threshold without it being official in some way.

And so it is that when we are adults who somehow still vividly remember being 20 and on-the-cusp-of-adulthood, and we find ourselves filling our days with mundane but necessary tasks, we need a word to describe it: “adulting”. As if these were activities abnormal to our true state of (carefree, youthful) being. As if we were really big children playing “house” where I pretend to be the mom and he pretends to be the dad and we pretend to go to the store and make dinner.

Nope. We’re not adulting. We’re adults. This is not a dress rehearsal. As it turns out, we’ve been adults for a while. And maybe turning 40 is not so bad when I realize it is not an unfair number to slap onto a feels-much-younger self. It’s exactly the right number for someone who has lived and loved and learned for 40 years.

After my ordinary day of regular tasks as an adult on my birthday (note, I didn’t say adulting), my husband took me out for dinner. Towards the end of dinner, two friends—dressed like clowns!—rapped at the restaurant window and kidnapped me for a surprise birthday party, complete with chocolate fondue and the world’s largest balloons. We drank liquor without being carded, and at the end of the evening we all headed home to our love-and-responsibility-filled-houses. This, too, was adulting: the up-side of having responsibility and freedom and choice… and luckily no-one with coulrophobia.