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The Secret “=Formula” for a Happy Relationship

If your marriage is anything like mine, you've done all kinds of things to nurture the relationship, you prioritize date night, you schedule a session with a therapist when necessary, and you've read The Five Love Languages. Maybe you've made a date of Happy Hour and a trip to Fascinations. I recommend all of these tactics. But there's another strategy I endorse, one that I've never read in any book or on any website. It's one my husband and I started using before we had kids, and before we were even engaged.


It's free. It's accessible.

It's the spreadsheet.

When I was 29, I moved across the country with everything I could fit in my Jetta and a very tenuous job offer. Within two weeks, the job fell through. During those same two weeks, I met Dan, who would later become my husband.

For the first time in my life, I was in love, but I couldn't take a job in another city because that would mean leaving Dan. Meanwhile, I was tearing through my savings like a toddler on a squeezie pouch bender. So, I did what any professional adult would do.

I asked my parents for money.

Dan was horrified, (rightfully so) and offered another solution – a spreadsheet. Somehow, I'd made it through college and graduate school without understanding how to use Excel. First, he showed me how to create columns and rows and enter formulas. Next, I had to fill in all the blanks. Being Jewish, this is the closest I'll ever get to Confession.

When we went over income, I had to explain I hadn't been working on days I'd been invited skiing, Saturdays, Sundays, or on short notice. When we reviewed my recent expenditures, I revealed my compulsion to buy an adorable, new pink hat (it was on super sale), why I deserved the lattes I bought on the way to work (I did work, sometimes), and why I needed Nordic race skis – in case I entered a cross-country ski race. Nearly a decade later, I still haven't done a ski race.

Sharing everything about my finances – including my childish belief that my parents would always be there to bail me out – made me feel extremely vulnerable. It also created an opportunity for Dan to understand me better and to help me get my act together. Ultimately, I gained control of my financial life and saved twelve thousand dollars in one year – a quarter of my income – toward the down payment on the house we bought just before our wedding.

When we moved in together, we merged our finances. Quickly, we realized we had a major problem. I earned less and spent more. My husband, on the other hand, earns more and spends less. While money is a loaded topic for many couples, our particular dynamic escalated the tension acutely.

Our love nest was awash in fear: my fear of feeling guilty about spending money or feeling deprived, and his fear that I'd spend our entire mortgage on cute hats and espresso drinks.

I wondered why my parents never seemed to fight about money. Married for over forty years, I've heard them argue about nearly everything else. The graph below demonstrates my theory that couples who fall on the green line (such as my parents) have fewer tensions around money than couples who fall on the red line (like Dan and me). As shown, my father is the higher earning, higher spending partner, while my mother earns less and spends less.

I worried Dan and I were destined to argue about money forever, but the spreadsheet saved the day, once again.

On the first Sunday of every month, we diligently sat down with our spreadsheet to map out our budget, our projected earnings, fixed expenses, and variable expenses. For years, we used this system to ensure that we were on the same page about our finances, that we were spending our money intentionally, and that neither of us felt anxious or trapped. Meanwhile, when we had concerns, we had a chance to discuss them.

Everything was great… until we needed a new spreadsheet. Five years and two kids later, on a bright Sunday morning, we were expecting friends for brunch. While I raced to prep food, clear piles of paper, and return rogue dolls to the toy basket, Dan scrolled through Twitter with his feet up on the couch. I paused my cleaning frenzy intermittently to give him the stink eye and a task.

As the potatoes browned and the frittata baked, our mutual resentment grew. I was sick of watching him relax when the trash needed to go out. He was tired of my demands. Finally, he took the kids for a walk, leaving me alone with breakfast and my rage.

I texted my sister.

“IS IT NORMAL TO WANT TO MURDER TO YOUR HUSBAND WHEN YOU'RE HAVING COMPANY??"

Thankfully, she clearly saw what I couldn't; that my husband and I lacked a shared set of expectations. Once our friends left, the kids were napping, and our tempers had cooled, I broached the topic. My husband acknowledged my demands felt never-ending. I explained I felt he wasn't pulling his weight.

Again, a spreadsheet saved the day. Within minutes of our conversation, my husband emailed me a Google Spreadsheet titled “Guest Cleanup Tasks." It lists every task we need to do before hosting company, organized by room. Over a year later, we pull it up every time we host a gathering.

I love that we have a common understanding of what needs to be done and that Dan now takes an active part in completing some of those tasks. He much prefers consulting the list to find a task, to being bossed around by me. This simple spreadsheet has taken most of the stress out of entertaining.

Clearly, I am a huge fan of spreadsheets in my marriage. But it's not really about the spreadsheet. A spreadsheet is just a vehicle through which to gain insight into your own values and the values of your partner. A spreadsheet is a means of creating dialogue – and ultimately, understanding – one of the cornerstones of a loving relationship.

As the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Understanding is love's other name. If you don't understand, you can't love." I would venture to add, “If you haven't done a ski race, don't buy the fancy skis."

Want to add some of this magic to your relationship?

View and edit “Guest Clean-up tasks via Google Docs


Edit or view “Money Factor" Graph in Canva

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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.

XO,

#TeamMotherly

PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

My Instagram feed has been full of pictures of friends that their kids to the beach. I get it, I like the beach a lot. But the forest and the mountains are my real loves.

The way the damp leaves smell in the morning. The peace of walking underneath a canopy of trees. The sound of firewood crackling at night. Sigh, heaven.

I also grew up camping with my family and have done some intense hiking, backpacking and search and rescue. So it's kind of in my blood—I wear my frostbite scars with honor.

So I couldn't wait to get my future kids out into nature (minus the frostbite). I had visions of us hiking to a stream, swimming and splashing all day, then cooking a big meal over a campfire as we sing songs and laugh.

Then, I actually became a parent. Of three kids, actually, all of whom are still very young… and a dog… and a husband who doesn't really like camping.

Despite the realization that it wouldn't be exactly as I planned, this summer we finally decided to take our first camping trip as a family.

Here is what I learned:

1. Set the bar low

I had to remind myself over and over again that this trip would not live up to my expectations. I know this sounds like a bummer way to start a trip, but it really helped. I have the tendency to over-plan and get really (really) excited about things. This is not a bad quality, but it can lend itself to disappointment when things don't go as hoped. I didn't want us to leave the trip feeling like it was a failure in any way.

This trip was a success, and a big moment for our family, no matter how it turned out.

Instead of forcing activities or memories, I forced myself to just… be. Not expecting the trip to be magical opened us up to appreciate the unexpected moments of magic as they occurred naturally, without being forced.

This got harder, of course, when our car got stuck in the mud (true story), and we had to wait three hours for AAA to arrive. But when our kids talk about the camping trip now they still squeal with delight as they recount the story of the tow truck coming. You're welcome (I guess)?

2. We made it really easy

I put my camping ego aside, and we took a lot of shortcuts on this first trip. We didn't stay in a tent but rented a barebones cabin instead. For dinner, we ordered a pizza. And we let the kids play on our phones for a little bit in the evening.

Those things didn't make for a truly authentic experience, but goodness, they really helped. I have started to realize that there is no shame in making things easy, especially when you have little kids. And they didn't know any different. As far as they are concerned, we hiked the Appalachian Trail and gathered all our own food from the earth.

This was a lazy camping trip, for sure—and that was exactly what we needed.

3. I over-prepped for safety so I could calm down

I have hiked and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in February—this was not that. At any given moment on our trip, an ambulance could have easily reached us, and we were only a few minutes away from a hospital at any point. But it made me feel much better to know that we were safe and ready for anything that should happen.

We bought a first aid kit, a survival kit, too many flashlights and bottled water. I was really big on everyone wearing good footwear and teaching them how to walk carefully on uneven terrain.

We also used the opportunity to teach about other areas, like water safety. Rita Goldberg of the British Swim School recommends "[teaching kids] to avoid water hazards and to not approach a fountain, river, pool or lake without an adult's supervision and permission."

We also incorporated their "Water Watcher" program, which assigns a "badge of responsibility" to one adult at all times, who maintains a constant watch over the kids while they are near water.

These easy steps, that we decided on ahead of time, made me feel much more relaxed, and therefore better able to enjoy our time.

This trip took some emotional adjustments on my part. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly exciting. But that was exactly what it needed to be. Emily Glover wrote that "by getting away from the distractions of home and focusing on each other...we're reminded of what really matters."

We found that in the woods—together.

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