A Guidebook for Dealing with PMS {Part 1: Dietary Changes}

by Elizabeth

PMS

From the title you can probably guess that this one’s for the ladies. (All you guys out there can take a pass.)

And truly, I never thought I would blog about this. But someone recently asked me for advice on dealing with PMS. I didn’t know the specifics of her situation (PMS symptoms run the gamut of the physical and emotional), so I just threw everything I had at her, hoping something would stick. My husband looked at my list and told me that it could help a lot of people and that I should turn it into a blog post.

So here we are, talking about Pre-Menstrual Syndrome in a public forum.

First let me give you all the caveats. I am not a medical professional. I am not a nutritionist or dietitian. I am just a 38-year-old woman who has had to get better control over her physical and emotional states in the past year, because the situation had become desperate. I dreaded half of every single month, and so did my husband.

I’ll simply be sharing things that worked for me. I recommend that you do your own research and talk to your own doctor before making any changes. I talked with both my nurse-midwife and a friend who is an OB-GYN about most of these things, and I’ll note their advice in each section.

I would also recommend that you start slow. You want your changes to be sustainable over the long run. I’ll be sharing a lot of options here. Starting small and getting a handle on just one or two things first, before adding anything new, can go a long way in making these changes permanent lifestyle changes. And that’s what you want – permanent changes. You won’t be able to sustain the benefits if you can’t sustain the habits.

I would also encourage you to be patient. Your mind and your body will improve in response to your changing choices, but it takes time, sometimes a lot of time. In my experience the physical symptoms improved long before the mental symptoms improved, but they did improve over time. Some sources say to wait at least 3 months before expecting meaningful change – that’s how long our hormonal systems need to adjust.

Everything is cumulative, so there’s a sort of snowball effect that happens when you’re able to implement a bunch of strategies at once, but it’s also true that every small change can be helpful. So don’t lose heart in the beginning.

Ok, now that that’s done, here’s a little medical definition of PMS, according to my OB-GYN friend: “Ovulation is marked by massive progesterone surge, and progesterone stays elevated until just before the next menses.  Hence the ‘premenstrual’ syndrome is more accurately a ‘post-ovulation-syndrome.’ Progesterone causes fluid retention, can be associated with irritability and depressed mood, and in general is a pain in our heads!”

Here are the main pre-menstrual (or post-ovulation) symptoms I was dealing with: anxiety, moodiness, snappiness, irritability, recurrent female infections, breast tenderness, and to a lesser extent, acne.

I was also dealing with menstrual cramps and migraine headaches on first day of my cycle and/or the day before.

In this article I’ll be discussing diet. In the following articles in this series, I’ll discuss supplements, movement & rest, and emotion/cycle tracking.

I’m starting with diet because that’s a place where a lot of us fall short. I don’t think we can just pop a pill or swallow a supplement and watch our symptoms magically disappear, not if we are dumping garbage into our temples. We have to do the work of changing how we eat.

I have a history of an eating disorder, and for years I ate a highly unbalanced, carb-heavy, nutrient-light diet. However, I paid very careful attention to my eating when I was pregnant and nursing, because someone else’s well-being was depending on me. But when I was done with those precious childbearing years, I let a lot of my healthy eating habits lapse. This has been especially true in the midst of stressful overseas living. So believe me when I tell you, I had a lot of room for growth.

Here’s a list of some changes you can make, along with the potential symptoms they relieve, according to what I’ve read and experienced. Explanations and plans for implementing the changes can be found in each section, along with my personal stories.

  1. Decrease caffeine intake: reduces anxiety, breast pain, and sleep disturbances.
  2. Decrease sugar and refined carbohydrates: reduces mood swings, acne, and female infections.
  3. Increase quality protein, fats, and fiber: reduces anxiety, acne, and mood swings.
  4. Decrease alcohol: reduces sleep disturbances.
  5. Decrease dairy: reduces breast tenderness.

 

1. Decrease caffeine

I had developed a dependence on coffee in language school and over the years had increased my intake to 3-4 cups per day. That’s how much I needed to get through a day. Now that I’ve given it up, I realize what a large amount of caffeine I was consuming.  And interestingly, now that I don’t drink coffee, I actually have the energy to make it through my days without coffee.

Caffeine can be problematic for many reasons including sleep, anxiety, and breast tenderness. Caffeine is a stimulant – that’s how it keeps you awake. It can make your heart race and worsen your anxiety. With all the extra stress and screen time in our modern lives, the last thing most of us need is an extra stimulant.

And indeed, I initially decided to cut out caffeine because of my rising anxiety. I had anxiety every day of my cycle, but it spiked really high after ovulation (mid-cycle) and didn’t drop until my next cycle began. And even then, the anxiety didn’t really disappear. It was just less than the anxiety of the pre-menstrual period.

But it was so hard for me to give up the caffeine! It took me a full 2 months to cut out all the coffee. I cut out a cup at a time and waited for my body to adjust. It basically took me two weeks to adjust to every cup (or half cup) that I cut out. I was tired all the time and got a lot of headaches. Eventually I was able to switch to decaf coffee.

I love a hot drink. It’s so comforting. But these days you’ll find me drinking either that decaf coffee or various herbal teas. My favorite herbal teas are peppermint, spearmint, chamomile, and rooibos (red). These teas are all supposedly good for anxiety. Even if they have no positive effect on anxiety, at least they are all caffeine-free and thus have no negative effect.

It’s important to note that decaf coffee still has caffeine in it, but it’s greatly reduced. I seem to do fine on the decaf, though, even when drinking it at night with my husband. I also still eat dark chocolate and will occasionally drink green tea (but I’ll explain that in another section).

After I gave up coffee, I drank black tea (which has less caffeine than coffee) on vacation and noticed a marked increase in anxiety that week/month. And then there was that one boiling hot April morning without electricity when I drank an iced coffee trying to cool off. I thought I would be fine, but my body reacted really badly to the caffeine. My heart began to race, my breathing sped up, and I felt flushed all over (the opposite feeling from what I was going for), so I really do avoid regular coffee.

 

2. Reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates

Just like the coffee, the sugar and processed food consumption sneaked up on me. I was busy homeschooling four kids and running a website. I began depending more and more heavily on packaged foods for myself and my kids, simply because it saved time. Super sweet yogurt drinks, packaged crackers or cookies, lots of white pasta and canned sauces.

But sugar wreaks havoc on our hormones, beginning with blood sugar dysregulation and ending with terrible moodiness. When we consume sugary or sweet things, our blood sugar levels spike, forcing our pancreas to pump out a bunch of insulin to shuttle that unnatural amount of sugar out of circulation and into our cells.

Unfortunately, the pancreas usually overshoots. That’s because it is sensing the rate of the blood sugar rise, not the amount of sugar. (I will refrain from geeking out over calculus here.) Our bodies don’t know that the sugar intake will stop; they just know that the blood sugar is rising too rapidly for safety. So the pancreas dumps too much insulin into our systems.

This leads to a blood sugar crash. Blood sugar drops below the normal level, making us hungry again very quickly and also making us moody. So we reach for something sugary again. When we eat this way, we are willingly putting ourselves on an emotional roller coaster. We end up snapping at our families, and they don’t deserve to be snapped at simply because we haven’t taken the time and attention to nourish ourselves well.

Alternatively, if we can’t get to food when our blood sugar drops low, our adrenal glands will work to increase our blood sugar without food consumption. This is quite an elegant system, but when we abuse it by depending on it on a daily basis, we can wear our adrenals out. (Caffeine is another one of those adrenal stressors, and depending on it to get through your day is another way of wearing out your body.)

Additionally, sugar consumption (in all its forms) tamps down on our immune systems. So even though we crave sugar and may even claim that we feel better when we eat it, it’s just bad for us, all around. As my OB-GYN says: “You have insulin jumping in here to help confuse the picture, so take the avoidance of simple carbs part seriously.”

Practically speaking, cutting out sugar can be harder than it sounds. Sugar lurks in a lot of places, including cereal, yogurt, peanut butter, pasta sauces, salad dressings, and salsa. I didn’t even have a sweet tooth. I wasn’t craving or eating a lot of desserts. I just ate too many simple carbs.

So I had to find and eliminate the hidden sugars and refined carbohydrates (which are so broken down already that they act nearly like sugar in the body). I was really dedicated to eliminating sugars because of repeat infections in the pre-menstrual period. I was losing my mind and could not handle any more of these painful infections.

Here are a few examples of the changes I made.

  • Boxed cereals. Oh how I loved Cinnamon Life and Cheerios (when I could find them on the shelves). Now I will occasionally eat cooked whole grains like buckwheat, millet, quinoa, or oats, but not every day.
  • Refined grains. I stopped eating packaged crackers (there are some really yummy ones here, but they are all made with a lot of white flour and sugar). I stopped eating Pringles (in years past I could down half a can in one sitting, especially when I was really hungry). I will occasionally eat popcorn with a movie. I eat tortilla chips with our favorite bean soup probably once a week.
  • Pasta, rice, and bread. I stopped eating white rice with our Khmer lunches and just eat the main dish by itself. I stopped eating pasta, couscous, and bread. {If you’ve known me since adolescence, you’ll know what a big change this was for me.}
  • Yogurt. I stopped drinking sweetened yogurt drinks and stopped eating regular sweetened yogurt. I started buying an unsweetened yogurt (made locally here). It was so sour at first I could hardly stand it, but I forced myself to keep eating it. Now it tastes only slightly sour to me. I’m sometimes able to find unsweetened kefir here locally too. (Kefir is a fermented dairy drink with more probiotics than yogurt, but it definitely still tastes sour to me.)
  • Peanut Butter. I love peanut butter! But I stopped eating regular peanut butter and started buying natural, unsweetened peanut butter (also made locally). I also started eating nuts for snacks.
  • Salad dressings, pasta sauces, salsas, and seasoning packets. I still use these on occasion, but I’ve also made my own sometimes. Since I don’t use them very often, this hasn’t been an area of too much concern for me, although it is another way to cut down sugar if you want to.
  • Coffee creamers. Yes, I used to put these non-dairy coffee creamers in my coffee. Yuck. They contain extra sugars and bad fats and are full of strange-sounding chemicals. It’s shocking to think about how many of these little creamer packets I used to use! Now I stick to plain coconut milk.

 

3. Replace the junk with quality proteins, fats, and fiber.

I’ve heard it called “carbage” — a clever combination of “carbohydrates” and “garbage.” But you can’t just cut out sugar and refined carbs; you have to add in the good stuff too. Protein, fat, and fiber blunt your blood sugar response to any carbs you might eat. They keep you feeling full longer and supply sustained energy over several hours. This will help with the moodiness and irritability.

There are other reasons for protein, fat, and fiber too.

  • You need a sufficient amount of amino acids (which are found in protein) to make your neurotransmitters (happy chemicals in the brain). Eating a lot of protein is therefore especially important for dealing with anxiety. In fact one counselor told me that “anxious brains need a lot of protein.”
  • You need enough healthy fats for your body to produce and stabilize your female hormones as well as build healthy skin and tissues.
  • And you need fiber (both soluble and insoluble) to feed the good bacteria in your intestines, keep your digestion regular, and to eliminate excess hormones in your body.

I will be honest with you. I made mistakes on this road. When I first cut the carbs, I suddenly couldn’t find enough to eat. Everything I had been eating was processed or taboo in some way. I was afraid to eat nearly everything except eggs, yogurt, chicken, and nuts. I was afraid of the dangerous, hidden carbs in everything. I wouldn’t even eat complex carbs. That made for a hungry, hangry momma.

It also made me accidentally lose some weight, weight I probably shouldn’t have lost. (I have since regained it.) I was so afraid of foods that could potentially make me sick again. I developed so much anxiety around food, and that just added to all the anxiety in my life. I kept thinking of food as potential poison rather than nourishment. It took me a while to relearn how to eat complex carbs.

So this is where I will quote my midwife: “Complex carbs are fine.”

And here’s what constitutes a complex carb: beans, vegetables, and the occasional whole grain. Complex carbs are not, as I thought in high school, a dish of pasta or a bowl (or bag) of pretzels. Complex carbs are slow-burning. The fiber in beans and vegetables is especially nourishing to our systems. (In my opinion, whole grains don’t offer the same amount of nutrition as beans and vegetables.) But when I first started on this healthy eating journey, I was even afraid to eat them. Now I find that I feel so much better when I do eat enough plant foods. So don’t be like me. Eat your veggies and beans.

In fact, my anxiety and breast tenderness spiked even higher when I first cut out the carbs. I could tell the very instant I ovulated, because my hormones shifted, my progesterone soared, my anxiety spiked, and strong breast pain appeared out of nowhere. What I eventually figured out was that I was depending too much on animal products. The first form of plant fiber/protein I added back in, as a way to counter all those animal foods, was beans. I found that when I put the beans back in, the breast tenderness very quickly subsided.

This is the advice my OB-GYN friend gave me: “Eat many anti-oxidant foods (blueberries, spinach, kale), other veggies, legumes, complex proteins.”

And here is where I get my protein these days:

  • Yogurt, kefir, and cheese.
  • Beans of all kinds. (Hummus and other bean dips, along with bean and lentil soups.)
  • Chicken and eggs.
  • Nuts, seeds, and nut butters. (I like walnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds the best, but I can’t always find them cheap enough or at all, so I take what I can get, when I can get it.)

Here is where I get my fat these days:

  • Eggs.
  • Yogurt and cheese.
  • Nuts, seeds, and nut butters. (Notice how several of these items do double duty here? Nice.)
  • Butter (for cooking eggs), olive oil (for dressings and hummus), and coconut oil. (Yes, I know that last one is controversial, but I’m sufficiently comfortable with it to eat it, especially when mixed with a nut butter and some cocoa powder – yum!)
  • I eat 85% dark chocolate when I can find it. I still consider 70% too sweet.

Here is where I get my fiber these days:

  • Beans
  • Vegetables (My go-to veggies are carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, bell peppers, cucumbers, and leafy greens.)
  • Garlic and onions (They’re good for the immune system and have a special kind of fiber that feeds the good bacteria inside us.)
  • Flax seeds (They also do double duty on fats.)

I know that we are “supposed” to get a lot of our proteins and essential fatty acids from fatty fish, but I will again be honest and tell you that fish is not one of my favorite things. I wish I could like it, but at this point, I don’t, and it’s not worth it to me to try to force myself. Neither do I like taking fish oil. It makes me gag and burp. I figured that out several years ago when I was looking into natural ways to prevent migraine headaches. But if you like fish or fish oil, more power to you.

Something I’ve noticed is that if I eat a lot of fatty meat in a month (like sausage), or if I don’t eat enough vegetables, I have more pre-menstrual breast pain. So while I’m not afraid of eating fat, and while I get a lot of fat from my nuts and seeds, I have noticed that the fatty meat affects my body. So watch how various animal products affect you, and cut down on the ones that most noticeably make your symptoms worse.

The upside to all this protein is that for the first time in my life, I can grow long, strong nails without the help of polish. I wasn’t going for that, but it’s a nice side benefit.

Another upside to all these dietary changes (and I don’t know whether that’s the reduced sugar intake or the increased healthy fat intake or both) is that pre-menstrual breakouts have lessened. My main complaint wasn’t acne, but I did break out in the week before my period, sometimes painfully so. That happens much less now. I never would have undertaken such extensive life changes just for the acne, but it sure is a pleasant side effect.

(Full disclosure: For years I have used a topical salicylic acid lotion once a day to treat and prevent acne. I still had monthly breakouts in those years. And I also still use that lotion, even while eating differently.)

All these personal changes mean I’ve changed the way we eat as a family too. I don’t force my children to eat the unsweetened yogurt or nut butter or to stop eating cereal, but I do cook them a whole lot more eggs and beans (and sometimes eggs and beans together), and we eat a lot more fresh veggies.

I use a lot more spices in my cooking, especially garlic and onions which are good for the immune system, as I mentioned. I also use a lot of turmeric and cumin. (I adore cumin.) That’s something else that’s happened — learning to use more spices means food tastes a lot better than before. And the children have definitely noticed that.

A note about some things I haven’t done: I haven’t asked my helper to change the way she cooks. She makes us one Asian dish per day, and know she puts sugar and maybe even MSG in the chicken, and she cooks the chicken in soybean oil. I have not known how to approach this issue from a culturally appropriate standpoint. Friends who have tried to have these conversations with their helpers have often run into difficulty. So at this point I just eat the meat dish without the rice and figure I’m doing the best I can in other areas of my life.

A word about eating out: I don’t stress about this either. I just choose the best option I can find. That usually means something with either a lot of protein or a lot of vegetables, or both. For a time I found that it was best for me to take little containers of nuts everywhere I went just to be on the safe side (and because I was constantly hungry). Or I ate something with protein before I headed out to a meeting that might only serve carbohydrate-rich foods. But I stress less about it now. What I’m saying is, make the changes you can feasibly make, and celebrate your successes. Then don’t worry about the rest.

 

4. Decrease alcohol.

Why is a Christian missionary even talking about alcohol on her blog?! Well, because some missionaries drink alcohol (shocking, I know). Some of them even drink alcohol as a form of stress relief. And my readers aren’t just missionaries, either. So I really felt I should mention this one.

I had never even tasted alcohol until I was 27. I was afraid to try it, convinced even one sip would inebriate me. There are some alcohol addiction issues in my extended family that made me want to avoid it altogether. In the years since first tasting alcohol, I only ever drank wine a few times a year, and the most I ever drank was 1/8 of a cup, which felt like plenty for me. I also love a good gin and tonic, ever since a friend introduced the drink to me.

However, alcohol was never something I “needed” for stress relief. So when I explained all my symptoms to my OB-GYN friend, and she told me that the “best natural remedies are diet: avoid high salt, processed carbs, artificial sweeteners, MSG, alcohol, caffeine,” I had no trouble giving up the alcohol. I do occasionally miss the gin and tonic, but with all the sugar in it, I simply don’t want to consume it.

Other women have told me that alcohol affects their sleep. Alcohol seems to relax us and even make us feel sleepy, but it actually interferes with the deeper cycles of sleep. So if sleep is an issue for you (especially if the fatigue makes you grouchy the next day), and you consume alcohol from time to time, you might consider stopping.

 

5. Decrease Dairy

A lot of sources claimed that dairy exacerbates PMS (specifically breast tenderness and acne) and recommend that people keep it to a minimum. I did not end up cutting out dairy. I love the protein and probiotics in my yogurt and kefir (not to mention the taste of cheese!). I’ve gotten such great results from all the other changes I made that I never made this one.

But I do have to watch the cheese. I usually eat cheese about once a week (it’s kind of pricey here), and I’ve noticed that, similar to the fatty meats, if I eat more cheese than that, I do notice more breast tenderness that month. So I can do yogurt and kefir daily, but not cheese. The moral of the dairy story? Find what works for you, and do that.

I think that’s enough information for now. Here’s a summary of the potential dietary changes I discussed and their potential benefits:

  1. Decrease caffeine (to reduce anxiety, breast pain, and sleep issues).
  2. Decrease sugar and refined carbs (to reduce mood swings, acne, and infections).
  3. Increase protein, healthy fats, and fiber (to reduce mood swings and anxiety).
  4. Decrease alcohol (to improve sleep quality).
  5. Decrease dairy (to reduce breast pain and acne).

 

Part 2: Potential Supplements

Part 3: Movement and Rest

Part 4: Cycle & Emotion Tracking (link coming soon)

Created for Connection — a roadmap for your marriage

It’s the best marriage book I’ve ever read.

I’d love to show you why; I’d also love to show you how I use it in my daily practice as a pastoral counselor.

photo-1508839370228-5ae14793c2f5 (2)

Created for Connection, by Johnson and Sanderfer, is my go-to book for marriage counseling. I use Gottman’s tools and research extensively too, but Created for Connection feels deeper, more hearty. While Gottman focuses on the what and the how-to, Created for Connection focuses on the why.

I love this book so much that I turned the chapter headings into a roadmap of sorts, adding in other tools and resources.

If you were meeting with me for marriage counseling, I would give you a copy of this sheet to (hopefully) help you see where we’re at as we walk through the various parts of marriage counseling. Disclaimer: I’m a pastoral counselor, not a licensed therapist. I don’t hold myself out as a therapist, but shoot, just because I’m a pastoral counselor doesn’t mean I’m afraid to use the latest evidence-based research when it comes to helping clients love each other well (and happily)!

OK, here’s what I would give you:

created for connection

Now, here it is again, with links to the resources in brackets. In addition to the material in the book, we would bring in some of these other tools/resources:

1. Recognizing the Demon Dialogues [The Vortex of Terror]

  1. Find the Bad Guy
  2. Protest Polka
  3. Freeze and Flee
  4. [The Four Horsemen]

 

Finding the Raw Spots

  1. [The Shapes Diagram]
  2. [Pain Words worksheet and Feelings Wheel]

 

Revisiting a Rocky Moment

  1. [Reflecting Back. I teach three parts to this: 1. Reflect back. 2. Validate. 3. Care.]
  2. [Turning Towards, and here and here]

 

Hold Me Tight – Engaging and Connecting [Caring for the Heart]

  1. What Am I Most Afraid Of?
  2. What Do I Need Most from You?

 

Forgiving Injuries

  1. [Repair checklist]

 

Bonding Through Sex and Touch

  1. [On Making Love, a resource post about sex]

 

Keeping Your Love Alive

  1. [Six magic hours, here and here]

 

If you’re looking for some marriage help, here’s a map! I didn’t create most of this; I’m just putting some of what’s helped me and others into one place. I hope that’s helpful for you. Get the books, watch the videos, talk with your spouse, and have a great day!

— Jonathan M. Trotter

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Created for Connection, by Johnson and Sanderfer

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by Gottman

17 years of marriage and this is all we’ve got, by Jonathan and Elizabeth (and now it’s 19!)

*Amazon affiliate links.

I have a work spouse

by Jonathan

I have a work spouse.

It’s working out OK, because she’s also my actual spouse. Folks often wonder how that works. How do we write together and work together and still like each other?

How do you edit a spouse’s work without dying?

We know it sounds cheesy, but in our internal memos we call it “Team Trotter,” and we really do have a lot of fun. But it wasn’t always this easy. In fact, there were times we almost dumped our whole site into the black hole of DELETE. For real, there was a day when I left to lead worship at an all night prayer gathering, pretty sure that trotters41.com wouldn’t exist when I got home.

So, how did we recover from that? How do we enjoy our work spouses? Well, in short, we just really like each other. In addition to simply being good friends, we also enjoy each other’s differences. Oh, and we got some counseling. (For more on that part of the story, you can read Elizabeth’s article, Jesus Loves Me This I Sometimes Know.)

 

Same Same. But Different.
We both write and we both edit the other’s work, so it makes sense that people think we’re doing the same job, the same ministry, the same thing. We even write at the same spaces (this site, alifeoverseas.com and even occasionally at velvetashes.com).

But really, what we do is very, very different. We recognize the differences, we value the differences, we even enjoy the differences. I think that’s what really helps this to not crash.

 

Writer and Pastor
I describe it like this: Elizabeth is a writer who pastors and I’m a pastor who writes. It might not seem like those starting blocks are all that different, but they are.IMG_6405 (2).JPG

Elizabeth is an artist with a keyboard. She treats words like colors, sentences like brushes, the internet like a canvas. I’m just not that cool.

I value her love of words and the way she uses them. As teenagers in the same youth group, I remember her answering a friend who asked the obvious question, “What does loquacious mean?” Elizabeth answered without thinking: “Verbose.” I remember smiling at this teenage girl who didn’t know how much she knew.

The way she and I tell stories is so.very.different. In fact, we used to offer style advice to each other, but we’ve pretty much stopped that now because we both know we like our own styles and we’re not interested in changing them. We’re both pretty secure in who we are and who we aren’t.

Elizabeth writes her muse. She writes about her journey and what’s inspiring her. She writes about the wind beneath her wings. I write about other people’s wind.

I look around and ask “What are people dealing with? What’s the Church or the missions community struggling with?” And then I write about that. Sometimes I share my story, but not nearly as often as Elizabeth.

And while we both cross-over occasionally, my writings tend to be more didactic. Her style is a bit more narrative.

 

Big Picture vs. Details
I never add commas. I mean, when I look at Elizabeth’s stuff, I never give editorial advice of the fine kind. I take a step back, away from the bark and look at the forest. Sometimes Elizabeth needs me to say, “OK, that doesn’t make any sense outside of your amazing head.”

Elizabeth always adds commas. Always. (I think she even knows what “oxford comma” means. I don’t have a clue.) When she reviews my stuff, she fixes it and makes it technically correct, but she never gives me big picture feedback.

Her ability to hyper-focus is awesome, and it’s what gives her articles such depth and clarity. She spends deep time really seeing herself, her words, and her readers. My ability is more like SQUIRREL!

 

We Just Showed Up
If you do the thing that you can do and leave the results to God, you’ll have way more fun. And I think it’s why we’re both still having fun. We’re not counting or comparing or striving. We’re just trying to do the next thing faithfully.

Neither of us set out to be writers. Neither of us cared about getting known (whatever that means) or anything of the sort. There was no agenda. We wrote for our friends; we wrote for us.

Our first exposure to a larger audience happened after I pitched a guest post idea to A Life Overseas. On a whim. It was literally one of the only things I’d ever written. I was browsing around the site for the first time ever (I had heard Elizabeth talking about it), saw the “Submit Guest Post” link and thought, “Well, what the heck, I’ll give it a whirl.” From idea to submission took about three minutes.

I wrote Outlawed Grief as a way of processing my own feelings during a week of pastoral counseling training. I didn’t write it to publish it.

When we heard back from the editors and they told us they liked the article and wanted to run it, along with a couple of Elizabeth’s articles, she wasn’t happy. She was scared and I was in the dog house.

She started writing for our family and friends. She wasn’t trying to “make it” or achieve anything. She was terrified of exposure. There was no striving or networking or ginormous ambition.

And that’s been a huge key for us. We’re not competing or striving. We’re just playing.

Of course, it’s still work and it’s often tedious and hard. It’s serious business writing about some of the things we write about it. But we do it for a purpose. And that purpose brings with it a whole lot of freedom. Freedom to be individuals. Freedom to rejoice in each other’s successes. Freedom to enjoy working and serving together.

And we do enjoy it, because work spouses rock.

Read Serving Well, our biggest project yet!

 

Announcing Elizabeth’s new book!

Jonathan has been working hard behind the scenes to compile and edit my new book, Hats: Reflections on Life as a Wife, Mother, Homeschool Teacher, Missionary, and More. What can I say? He’s my biggest fan. (This whole project was his idea, in fact.)

The book is available in both Kindle and paperback formats, and I’ll share the cover and the foreword below. I also want to say thank you so much for reading us both over the past 6 years!

With love, Elizabeth

P.S. If you read the book and like it, I would absolutely love it if you left an Amazon review. It helps other people find the book. Thank you so much!!

31732178_10160200080565621_4688749006006779904_o

No matter your background or experiences, being a woman is hard. That’s partly because being a human is hard. It’s also due to the many roles we women tend to carry in life. Daughter, sister, friend. Professional, mother, wife. Marriage and motherhood are indeed holy vocations, and they require much of a woman. Whether we work outside the home or from within it, our vocations sometimes stretch us so much that we fear we will break.

The truth is, there’s not a lot of preparation for marriage or motherhood. Certainly, we can read books. We can read books on how to have a great sex life or how to build a godly marriage or how to live out biblical submission, but when it really comes down to it, we marry a human person, not a book, and our husbands also marry a human person – us. A lot of marriage is simply trying new ways of doings things and seeing if they work (including, at times, seeking professional or pastoral help).

It’s the same with motherhood. We can read books on natural childbirth, healthy homemade baby food, and the most godly parenting – or the most logical. But nothing can really prepare us for meeting our child, some mysterious arrangement of our own DNA, or someone else’s. No one can prepare us for their likes or their dislikes, their strengths or their weaknesses. We have to discover these things for ourselves, over time.

What follows in this book is precisely that: the things I’ve discovered over time. There are articles and essays on marriage, motherhood, homeschooling, and the Christian life. In case you don’t know me, here’s a bit of background: As of this writing I’ve been married for nearly 18 years, having gotten married at the age of 18. I’ve been a ministry wife almost that entire time and have been living overseas as a missionary wife for the past 6 years. I’ve been a mom for 14 years and have been homeschooling for 9.

This book is my lived experience wearing all those hats.

You can purchase the book here!

Women have desire too: the thing we overlook when we talk about the Billy Graham Rule

by Elizabeth

So I decided to weigh in on the Billy Graham Rule. Sounds risky, I know. But realize before you read this that I’m not attempting either to criticize a rule OR to make new rules for people. I’m just reflecting on the atmosphere of sexual teaching I’ve personally encountered in Christian culture.

I’m not assuming that my interpretation of Christian sexual teaching is universal or even up-to-date. I speak only from my experience growing up in 1990’s middle America. Church culture in various places and in various times will likely be different, as will each of our interpretations of said church culture.

photo

Growing up in the Church, I didn’t get the sense that the power of a woman’s sexual desire was really acknowledged. A woman’s sexual attractiveness was certainly acknowledged; young men were taught how to fight their attraction to women, and women were taught how to cover their attractiveness. This led to an idea of women as temptresses, but only so far as their appearance goes. The temptation and attraction of the female wasn’t at the soul-level. It was only skin deep.

We were taught that women didn’t have the strong sexual desires or visual natures that men had. This of course meant that no one taught girls how to keep their sexuality under control in any way other than their clothing choices.

I think this does a grave disservice to both men and women. Men become dehumanized through this view: they are greedy creatures who must be sexually satisfied at all costs and who are incapable of looking beyond a woman’s appearance to see her soul. It reduces sexual desire to physical appearance, while I believe sexual desire is very much rooted in the emotional and spiritual.

Women fall by the wayside when we see through this lens. Girls are not taught how powerful their desires can become. They are not taught that forming an intimate emotional relationship with a man could stoke their sexual desire in ways that are later difficult to manage. They’re only taught that they must keep their bodies under wraps so that the men can manage their desires. But girls aren’t taught that they themselves might need to control their desire or given any practical ways to do so.

So the thing that concerns me about the Billy Graham Rule conversation is not whether it is wise to follow it, or whether it is legalistic to follow it. What concerns me is the way the conversation seems to reduce women to an object of desire and not a source of desire.

Perhaps I do not fully understand the conversation, but this is the way I see it: When we talk about women as temptations to men (because we tend to think more about the ways the Billy Graham rule protects men), we are talking about the way women’s bodies are tempting. The impression I receive, then, is that if a man is in a room alone with a woman, he won’t be able to contain his sex drive, especially if that woman is considered societially “beautiful.”

The way I hear it discussed seems to me almost to border on harassment or assault, the way a man wouldn’t be able to control himself in a woman’s presence. In this view a woman tempts a man passively but not consensually. I think this is ludicrous. It means we don’t think men have any self-control at all. It means we don’t think of men as being fully human with a mind and a will that can make self-sacrificing choices.

I know, through both personal experience and years’ worth of conversation and reading, that there is an abundance of bad men in this world. Many men are willing to take advantage of women’s physical and social weaknesses. But I have also met an abundance of good men who respect women as fellow humans and would not dream of taking advantage of them.

I’m deeply bothered when I sense men and women being categorized so simplistically. Men are not merely dominators who, at the same time, are helpless in the face of a pretty woman. And women are not merely seductresses unaware of their overpowering attraction to men. People are more complex than that.

Whether couples or singles choose to follow the Billy Graham Rule should depend on their personal and shared histories. It should depend on their consciences and their circumstances. But it should not depend on a distorted view of male and female sexuality.

For myself, having lived nearly 37 years as a woman in a woman’s body, I will say that if I were going to follow the Billy Graham Rule (but spoiler alert: we don’t), the reason would not be because I don’t trust men to control themselves. No, the reason would be because I don’t trust myself.

I know how strong sexual desire can become. If my husband and I remained virgins before marriage, I have to credit him with the “no.” I cannot possibly credit myself. The strength of desire surprised me — I think in large part because of the pervading idea that women aren’t sexual beings in the same way men are. But perhaps my experience is singular. Perhaps other women did not grow up in an environment that minimized their sex drives.

It is for these reasons that I consider my own self as a potential source of desire. Even as someone enjoying a very happy marriage, I have to be honest and say that temptation or attraction can still occur. This statement is true for both of us (and yes, we talk about these things). Temptation happens simply because human desire is powerful — including the female desire that is too often neglected in these Billy Graham Rule conversations.

So what I wish for the world is not that we would universally follow the Billy Graham Rule or universally disregard it. What I wish is that we could have more and better conversations about temptation and about what it means to be a human made in the image of God.

I don’t want us to treat other human beings as primarily sexual beings, thus reducing their humanity. Nor do I want us treat ourselves and others as immune to temptation, thus living in ignorance and arrogance. What I wish is that the world could be a place where both men and women truly see each other as the fellow humans that we are.

I want us to know ourselves and our spouses well enough that we know what kinds of boundaries to place around our marriages and our other relationships. I want us to pour into our marriages and live in love and trust with each other. I want men and women to be able to relate to each other in the Church and in the workplace with interest, integrity, and respect.

I want us to understand so deeply who God created us to be that we won’t waste time arguing over legalities but will work to build up the image of God in each other through thoughtful conversations, safe relationships, and a shared wonder and worship of the Maker of all things.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thoughtful readings on the Billy Graham Rule/Modesty Culture:

Misogyny in Missions by Jonathan Trotter

Misogyny in Missions Part 2 by Tanya Crossman

Women are Scary (and other lessons modesty culture teaches men) by Jonathan Trotter

It’s Not Billy Graham Rule or Bust by Tish Harrison Warren

An Open Letter to Men Who Broke the Billy Graham Rule by Tish Harrison Warren

What Christians Can Learn From a New York Times Article About Sleeping With Married Men

by Elizabeth

30652352_10160132406190621_3223298128727769088_n

The New York Times recently published an article by Karin Jones entitled, “What Sleeping With Married Men Taught Me About Infidelity.” A friend shared it, and I read it. I found I had a lot to say about it, so I commented on my friend’s Facebook share, where it received so much positive feedback that I thought I’d share it here. But my response will make more sense if you take the time to read the article first.

My worldview obviously differs from the author’s – in fact I might say it diverges greatly – but I think she makes some important observations. My thoughts on this subject are influenced, of course, by nearly 18 years of marriage. But they are also greatly informed by my husband’s readings on relationships and sex.

Before you think that sounds too weird, let me explain why he reads extensively about these issues: he works with a lot of couples in his pastoral counseling ministry. For the record, I don’t know who any of his clients are; I only know about the ideas in his books. (The only exception to this would be when a client of his walks up to me and announces, “Your husband is my counselor.” This is not frequent but has occasionally been known to happen.)

And now that I’ve finished all my caveats, we can move on to my thoughts about the New York Times article.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I know it might sound crazy to say this, but I think a lot of “Christian” wisdom is not super helpful to marriage and that we can learn from “secular” or research-based sources. First off, sex is more important to a marriage than we in Christian circles sometimes like to think. Dr. Barry McCarthy, author of the 2015 book Sex Made Simple: Clinical Strategies for Sexual Issues in Therapy, claims that a counselor simply cannot afford to treat only the communication/relationship aspect of a marriage and assume good sex will follow.

Rather, McCarthy claims, sex must be addressed separately and intentionally, in addition to other relationship needs. Sex is too important to the marriage for a counselor to be silent on the issue. And it’s highly complex and individual. This is part of the reason it needs purposeful addressing, though even many counselors are uncomfortable talking about it.

The research shows that couples in America are having less and less sex, with a good percentage (around 15%) being in what is considered a “sexless marriage” (sex 10 times a year or less). The research also shows that when a couple stops having sex, it’s more often the husband’s decision, not the wife’s (this information was also found in McCarthy’s book, where he quotes H. Feldman’s 1994 article in the Journal of Urology).

The fact that sexlessness was primarily dependent on the man was news to me as women often get slandered in culture for being “frigid.” This mischaracterization seems key to common “Christian” teaching that women want affection and connection, while men want sex. Research shows that this traditional approach is unhelpful in the sexual arena: women want good sex too. This is something the author of the New York Times article touched on and something proponents of the traditional view often neglect. God made us all sexual beings, and satisfying sex is important for both spouses in a marriage.

Another aspect of relationships that the article’s author noted was that men do not just want sex. They want connection and affection as well. Maybe it’s modern American culture, or maybe it’s American “Christian” culture, or maybe it’s both, but men are sometimes expected to be emotionless and connectionless in favor of more “manly” behavior.

If you want support for that claim, you can listen to this radio program about the way men’s human needs are marginalized in modern American culture. I think the church needs to push back against this aspect of mainstream culture and show a better way — one based in our foundational beliefs of a relational Godhead and of humans created in God’s image. The Bible is actually good news for culture, even when culture accuses it of being otherwise.

This artificial differentiation between men’s needs and women’s needs is unhelpful for marriage and society in general. Men are images of God as well as women, and God is a relational God. Men and women both want loving, secure attachments, and men and women both want satisfying sex. I wish we didn’t have some of these stereotypes, stereotypes I learned before marriage as important for maintaining a happy marriage: a man should give his wife the affection she so desires, so that she will be more willing to give him the sex he so desires.

(In my mind this teaching is parallel to the teaching that women only need love and men need respect, which I believe is categorically untrue. Both men and women need both love and respect, and behaving otherwise treats human beings as too one-dimensional and cheats them both of intimacy and relational fulfillment. But I digress.)

The Bible does not even support this idea of “his needs, her needs” or “women give sex to get love and men give love to get sex.” The woman in Song of Solomon showed strong sexual desire and initiation. Paul, often accused of being misogynistic (though I no longer think he was), told married couples that sex goes both ways — the wife’s body belongs to her husband, and the husband’s body belongs to his wife’s. Meaning: the woman has desire too. Men aren’t the only ones who want sex. It seems to me that sex is actually a place in marriage where our theology gets worked out, but we rarely think about it that way.

I do appreciate the author’s note that even the urge to have an affair could be the beginning of an important conversation in marriage. Of course we as Christians believe this: temptation does not inevitably lead to sin. Temptation can be a wake-up moment and lead to increased marital intimacy, but only if we, like the author suggests, are willing to be honest with ourselves and with our spouses.

If we desire something we are not currently experiencing, we need to talk to our spouses about it, and not (if the Bible is our authority) seek out extramarital affairs. Research from the Gottman Institute indicates that being able to talk about sexual issues is essential to sexual satisfaction:  “Only 9% of couples who can’t comfortably talk about sex with one another say that they’re satisfied sexually.”

Meaning: if you can’t talk about sex with each other, the likelihood that you’re having mutually satisfying sex is pretty low. But, like Jones explains in her article, talking about sex can be risky. You might find out something about yourself that you don’t want to know. You might feel rejected. And that was apparently too high a risk for the married men she was sleeping with.

Esther Perel, who is referenced in the article, has a fascinating TED talk on the interplay and tension between love and desire. I’ve actually watched it several times as I believe its vocabulary is helpful. It may not be specifically Christian teaching, but there is nothing anti-biblical about it. It frames the monogamy conversation better than it has sometimes been framed, and I encourage you to watch it (TED talks are, after all, fairly short).

The Bible seems to indicate that the intimacy — including sexual intimacy — that we can experience in marriage is only a small picture of God’s love for us and what He intends for us to experience with Him for all eternity. So it only makes sense that Satan would attack our sexuality as it is intended to be lived out, both before marriage and in marriage.

Our cultures are obsessed with sex, but according to research, few people are actually having mutually emotionally and physically satisfying sex. So the ways we as a culture are seeking sexual fulfillment are not working. We’re seeking it in all the wrong ways. Sometimes because terrible things have been done to us, sometimes because we have simply believed the culture’s (Satan’s) lies. There are a myriad of reasons our sexuality gets broken in this world.

If we care about our own marriages and the marriages of our children, if we care about the marriages in the future Church, sex cannot be some taboo topic that we think will work itself out in silence. It won’t. It needs specific cultivating and sometimes outside help (in the form or medication or therapy), and there is absolutely no shame in seeking help and wholeness for a part of our lives that is not thriving.

But if we feel ashamed of needing help, we won’t seek it. So if this article can do any good in the world, I hope it can empower people in marriage whose sex life is less than they desire, to seek out help somewhere. I believe seeking healing is worth it.

 

References:

What Sleeping With Married Men Taught Me About Infidelity, by Karin Jones for New York Times.

The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship, a 20-minute TED talk by Esther Perel

Sex Made Simple: Clinical Strategies for Sexual Issues in Therapy, by Barry McCarthy.

Couples That Talk About Sex Have Better Sex, by Kyle Benson for Gottman Institute.

How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men, a 48-minute program by Shankar Vedantam for NPR

From Jonathan: On Making Love (book recommendations about sex)

Other articles Jonathan and I have written about sex and marriage

Reflections on public speaking, prayer, and believing God

by Elizabeth

Three weeks ago I was smack in the middle of a conference. To be more specific, I was in the middle of the Family Education Conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand as one of the plenary speakers. I didn’t talk much about it beforehand, and I haven’t spoken much of it since then. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty to say about it.

27355570_10159821328150621_6186682492759194057_o

The view from our hotel window.

The first thing I have to say about it is that it was SO MUCH WORK. I had no idea how much time and energy it takes to prepare one lesson for a large group, let alone multiple lessons. I’ve led small group Bible classes for years, but this is nothing like that. I don’t know these people; the sessions aren’t in the context of either long-standing relationships or long-term study topics.

Of course, this didn’t surprise my husband, who is well-acquainted with the privileges (and trials) of preaching. But I had never planned to speak at this thing. When we were invited to speak, I nodded my head and said, “Yes, we will come, my husband will speak and I will be the support person.” Because that is what I usually am. I am not the up-front person. I sit in the pews and listen.

The way things worked out, though, our workload was split in half. The topics the leadership thought were important to address and the topics that were heavy on our hearts, they fell out 50-50. I unexpectedly became half the teaching team. So I spent many hours out of the house in coffee shops, planning my talks. Each talk took more time than I had expected. I just kept needing more time to finish them. Until Jonathan left the country for his sister’s wedding, that is.

Our plan was to meet him at the conference location the night before it started. I would bring the 4 kids across country borders (something I’d never done by myself before), and he would fly in from the U.S., with about 10 hours to spare. I prayed about this. I knew one of his connections was tight, and I knew it was flu season in the U.S., a particularly bad flu season. And I knew my husband’s immune system was compromised due to his asthma.

So I prayed. And I asked a dear friend to come pray with me too. To pray for good health and flight connections for Jonathan. To pray that what we had to say would be what God wanted us to say, and that we would get out of the way and just preach a message of Grace to the parents at this conference. To pray that they would encounter the love of God for them personally.

In short, we prayed for everything possible except MY health, and my health is what took a beating. 60 hours before departure I spiked a fever. Now I know a few things about international air travel, and one is that traveling with a fever can get you grounded. And without a second parent to transport the kids to the conference, I knew the whole family could be grounded. I knew once sickness was in the house, it might spread to everyone else. We could ALL be grounded.

I immediately contacted the conference director to let her know, and she immediately got her prayer team praying. I didn’t know her prayer team was both so extensive and so intensive. They PRAY. And they pray. And then they keep praying. Every year they encounter resistance to the conference, which is a lifeline to many families homeschooling their kids in remote areas in Asia. This year the resistance seemed to come in the area of health, and not just mine. Others as well.

I also contacted one of our local prayer team members, who had the whole team praying for me. And then I basically lay in bed for 2 days, trying to rest. I wasn’t always successful, either. I would lay in bed, unable to sleep with worry, because I just HAD to get better, because people were DEPENDING on me. I had to heal myself, quickly. Which is of course impossible. And which is of course harder to do when you are not sleeping.

I had to depend on God to get me better, and I didn’t always do a stellar job of trusting. Truly, there’s nothing like preparing a lesson for a hundred people about Grace and then being tested in your belief in its truth.

Thankfully the fever did go away in time. But by then I was having symptoms of a separate bacterial infection, and the night before departure I hurriedly called an M.D. friend for advice. She got me the antibiotics I needed as yet another friend drove us to the airport the next morning. (It takes a village, right?) I was still weak and had to depend on my older boys to help clean up and close up the house and carry the luggage throughout the day. And you know what I discovered? They are far more capable than I had known.

Jonathan even arrived at the conference on time. But I have to tell you, I was so nervous about my message on Grace that I couldn’t sleep at all the night before. I knew I needed the rest, but my anxiety was sky high. So I prayed all night. I figured, if I couldn’t sleep, at least I could ask God to work through me. With my body still weakened from illness, and my mind distracted from worry over doing a good enough job and saying the exact right words to fix everyone’s problems, I had never felt so strongly that God’s strength would have to be sufficient in my weakness. I knew that Wednesday morning’s talk on grace had to be all Him.

And I did feel God come through for me, and a huge weight was lifted that morning. I could sleep again – I was so thankful for that. But I’m not gonna lie; I made mistakes at the conference. I failed at certain aspects of my job. I prayed and prepared hard, but I still had failures. I had to remember the truth of my own message on Grace – that it does not all depend on me. That there is forgiveness for failures, and room to grow, and room to try again. There is room to trust that God is going to take care of people, that it’s not my job to take care of everyone’s problems, but only to be as faithful as I can, and to listen as closely to God’s voice as I can.

So we survived that week and even enjoyed the fellowship. And if Jonathan or I said anything helpful to anyone, I know it is from God, and not us. Not that I didn’t work hard to prepare. I probably worked harder than I have worked since my engineering school days. But that when it came down to it, anything good came from God. It always does. It has to. That is the only way. And when people asked how I felt about our part in the conference, I said I didn’t feel like a success or like a failure. I only felt that I did what I went there to do. That I shared the messages I went there to share.

But that is not the end of these messages. These messages are continuing to do their work on me. Just like I was tested in my belief in Grace, that I am not powerful enough to either heal myself physically or to reach people’s hearts, I am being tested in my belief of other truths I spoke about. How true are they really? Do I live like I believe them? Do I really believe that the King is still on the throne? That I can rest in the fact that He is on the throne?

Because last week we received some news that’s going to change a lot of things in our life. A Lot. Can I trust God with them? Can I trust Him to take care of us, like He always has? Can I rest in Him even in this huge transition? There are so many details to be worked out. Can I lay down my worry for the future?? Can I lay down my worry over how I’m going to know that I’ve actually heard God’s voice in these future decisions and not just my own?? Can I even be *excited* for how God is going to work in our lives and show Himself faithful once again?

And do I really believe what I taught about Resurrection? That the best thing God ever did was to raise Jesus from the dead, and that the deadest things in our lives are where God does His best work? That we can trust Him to bring life from death, beauty from destruction? Because some of these big life changes feel like death. I need Resurrection as a living reality in my life. Can I actually believe in resurrection even as I mourn the death?

These are just three of the messages that I felt impressed on my heart in the last few months, that I communicated to the group at the conference, and that God is writing even deeper into my heart AFTER I taught them. Do I believe the messages He has given me? I say I do, and I know I want to. But I will also pray along with the father in the book of Mark, “I do believe. Help my unbelief!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(In the next few months I will try to convert some of the teachings into blog posts.)

27067339_10159817666880621_4398239826266987457_n

Our kids in the main conference room.