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Mrs. Chaos and Mr. Order: Married Life with Executive Function Skills

all blogs executive function relationships Feb 04, 2022

For this blog post, I’m honored to share a special piece written by the amazing Maya Lear Brewer, whose journey through life’s difficulties and commitment to constant growth is inspiring to many. Enjoy!

Recently my husband and I celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary. Unlike last year, where we celebrated outdoors, embarking on a 77-mile bike adventure, this year we opted for simplicity, eating at a secluded restaurant with a stroll along the canal front. It was a typical anniversary outing for us, not extra special like our 30th, but quiet and quaint. 

But somehow, for both of us, it felt much more. Weeks later we are still marveling.

“Can you believe it? We’ve been married 31 years? 31 years! How did that happen?” 

I don’t know why it’s hitting us both this way right now. But perhaps with how crazy things in the world are right now, the magnitude of our marriage vows has become more sacred than we’ve ever imagined. 

It’s amazing to consider that five children, six homes, seven cars, two dogs, numerous fish, jobs, extra wrinkles, and pounds later, we’re still keeping our commitment alive--especially when the US, though it has recently lowered, still ranks as number ten of the top ten countries with the highest divorce rate. 

And the ‘grey divorce’ rate in the US, those over 50 years old (like we are), is now the age group experiencing the highest rate of marriages dissolving. Researching these statistics sobers me. 

When Dr B asked me to write a blog post related to marriage and EF skills, I cringed. I know the things that didn’t work well for us. My husband and I have had to weather a mass of stormy conflicts, tears, and apologies to learn how to accept ourselves and each other. And all of it with our faith placed in something much bigger than ourselves. 

Offering any insight comes with a huge caveat: Marriage is a unique journey for each couple, and it’s a difficult, sometimes blissful, blurry-eyed exploration of who we are as human beings. It’s a work-in-progress every single day, but it doesn’t have to be all hard work. 

So here’s what my husband got when he married me: 

A 23-year-old woman who was a product of divorced parents... As the oldest of two daughters (who took on a mothering role at age nine), I was raised by a loving dad in a bachelor’s pad. We lived in a chaotic household filled with a menagerie of pets: a dog, a cat, two large macaw parrots, lizards and stray caterpillars, and their offspring, too. The dog shed; the cat pooped in the house plants instead of the litter box; and the birds squawked and flew about shattering things. Our daily schedules were set by Dad’s work as an insurance underwriter, the public school system, court-appointed visitations with Mom, and whatever else came along. For dinner, we ate leftovers, a week at a time, and Hamburger Helper or cans of Chef Boyardee in between. That’s the life I basically lived until I got married. 

Here’s what I got when I married my husband:

A 28-year-old man whose parents remained married for more than 50 years, separated only by death. As the youngest among four siblings, his stay-at-home mom kept his world and family life in reasonable order. He had one pet, a black rabbit, which lived in its own shelter outdoors. His dad was a methodical engineer and my husband’s Boy Scout leader. Growing up, my husband had never eaten leftovers. And he never foraged for food among canned goods. One distinct area of upheaval was attending nearly a dozen different public and private schools, from kindergarten through college, until he eventually landed at the same hometown university as me. 

Fast forward to our whirlwind life as a couple:

We met through friends, dated on and off, and landed our first grownup corporate jobs. After a three-month engagement, we married. One year later we had our first child and continued growing our family until we had our bonus fifth child when I was 39 years old. During those years, we moved in and out of different jobs, homes, and states. I left corporate work, but continued freelance writing while homeschooling our children and trying to keep things together.  

Now about those executive function skills in our marriage? 

Uh, I didn’t even know those had a name, much less what the term meant until I met Dr B about six months ago. I thought things like scheduling, organizing, planning, initiating, etc. were things you were born with, or had a natural inclination towards--like they were ‘giftings’ or special superpowers.

Growing up, I’d always felt different from others. While my childhood experiences caused me to grow up faster than other children, I’d missed key elements in learning to manage myself apart from others’ influence. Prioritizing and organizing my schoolwork load, keeping fit playing on the field hockey team, taking on jobs, then graduating from both highschool and college wasn’t easy, but the goals were set for me. The directions were provided, and so were the steps. And due to codependency, I aimed to please others.

I also learned early on, trying to be the little mother, that I couldn’t keep our home clean. The early example I’d seen from my mom was the angry clean where our toys were thrown away while we were outside playing. My father was a collector, not a cleaner. His love for rocks, seashells and plants brought nature indoors and took over our public living spaces. National Geographic magazines, science fiction books, and his very “important papers'' were strewn across the dining room table, on the chairs, and sometimes on the top of the sofa. So as a teen, when I grew exasperated or had a date coming to pick me up, I rallied my best friend to help me stuff things into closets for a quick cleaning.  

My early married life with under-developed executive function skills was spent managing stuff on an as-needed basis with no clear steps to follow, and no way to maintain any concept of order. 

On the other hand, I have always called my husband the quintessential “mission-oriented man.” And now that I have the added vocabulary, he seems like a born “executive function” guru. Managing adult responsibilities has always seemed to come naturally for him. 

As his wife, I am both in awe and aggravated by him at times. How can one person have it all together while another person (ME) can flounder most days to accomplish the simplest of things?  

Up until recently, I thought my husband was simply a Type A personality and that he truly was born with these traits for ordering his world personally, at home, and at work. 

But now I see that he had great examples growing up. And through engagement with supportive people in his environment, and a good dose of healthy failing, he learned to develop these executive function skills.

I feel bad for my husband sometimes. Obviously, he didn’t marry a replica of himself. He married me, someone who has thrived and shined intermittently, depending on the occasion, and according to how and when my heart and mind were moved. I am the whimsical one, the “creative” in our marriage. I am the one who likes to have fun. “Just Do It” is not a motto that works for me.  “Girls just wanna have fun” may be a better fit, especially if the music is blasting and I’ve got a 15-minute time period to focus just on the kitchen cleaning. If our whole family is cleaning at the same time--that’s the best!

(See, it really is amazing that we’re still together after 31 years!) 

So how did my change towards developing executive function skills begin?

As a public relations assistant at my first big-girl job, I was functioning fairly well. I could do what I’d always done in school, college and other retail jobs: follow directions, pay attention to details, focus, and meet deadlines. 

At home, our married life was fairly simple; except that I quickly learned that my husband didn’t like leftovers. Thankfully, his mom gifted me with the family cookbook of easy-to-follow recipes to keep his stomach happy. 

BUT becoming a mother truly humbled me. I needed to keep my baby alive, and tiny people (babies) thrive on schedules and in safe, clean environments. We had our first two children 17 months apart. As a mother with a growing family, I found myself overwhelmed with everything. I desperately wanted to have my act together, but I didn’t. 

And my “all together” husband was suddenly at a loss, as well. The babies changed everything for us, eventually for the better. We had to learn to work together. We read lots of material for infant scheduling and took parenting classes, which helped overall.

And with me working as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer, my husband quickly learned that I wasn’t his mother and didn’t possess her abilities. He jumped in to help when he was home. But when I was alone, I rapidly shifted from one child to the next, from changing diapers and clothes, to picking up toys and dirty clothes, to serving overcooked food, and possibly getting out of my pajamas and showering for the day! Motherhood is not for the faint of heart. I knew there had to be some better way to be a better wife and mother. I felt awful about myself and my inability to get control of things. 

Young mothers have a way of finding each other. It was through these relationships that I noticed efficiently-ordered homes and family life. After I felt safe enough in these friendships, I bravely asked for help. 

One friend came to my house weekly. While our children napped or played, she showed me how to organize my pantry and kitchen, meal-planning, and what types of food staples to keep on hand for quick meals. Another older woman came monthly to teach me how to make a home for things and to clean more effectively. Another took me to the grocery store to show me how to shop the outside aisles for the healthiest foods. 

I’m thankful that help was available, before I even knew what executive function skills were all about. Now as I engage with Dr B’s program and podcast, I am learning about how to keep my word to myself as I schedule my freelance work with clients, calling myself a “client” for my own personal writing pursuits. I’m also learning about time management and how to move through time. I don’t need to rush, and I can accomplish what I need to each day. I am seeing myself set goals and plan out the steps needed to accomplish them along the way. I’m doing it for myself now instead of relying on outside influences. 

As I continue to grow in developing my executive function skills, my husband and I are becoming the team we’ve both longed for... And it’s better than we even imagined!

Here’s some humble advice from my husband, from me, and from both of us together about what has worked in our 31 years together: 

Mr. Order--My husband’s list:

  1. I’ve learned to say, “Yes, dear.” (I like this one! We both laughed!)
  2. We continue to live with the same purpose (God, each other, our family).
  3. We keep heading in the same direction. We may have different ideas on how to get there, but we talk it out to form a plan and adjust accordingly. 
  4. We support each other’s individual interests and hobbies.
  5. We’ve discovered that disagreements or unmet expectations are not the sum of our relationship.

Mrs. “No-More” Chaos--My list: 

  1. Give each other room, and a safe place, to grow and change through the seasons of marriage 
  2. Be patient with each other as unique people. Neither of us is a “better half” of the marriage. We both are whole people.
  3. Recognize that each new milestone (a newborn, new home, new job, etc.) is both a blessing and a traumatic event. Prepare as best as you can, and ask for extra support.  
  4. Learn about the meaning you are each giving to things. I was conditioned by negative self-talk based on childhood trauma that wreaked havoc when my husband and I had disagreements and unmet expectations. 
  5. When you’re at an impasse, enlist the help of an older, wiser couple that you both trust. 
  6. Keep your friendships up. We need healthy friendships to maintain balance in our lives and marriages. And friends can help us grow in the places we are weak!

Additional advice from both of us:

  1. Temptations will always promise you a better outcome. But understanding the negative outcomes of engaging in temptations, will keep you centered on what’s really important. 
  2. Be humble and share the load. Teamwork takes a long time to develop. 
  3. Make time for a consistent weekly date night or quality time together
  4. Remind each other of why you came together in the first place.
  5. Never stop growing. Find the best mentors (like Dr B!) and learn everything you can from them. 

For much of my life, I thought something was wrong with me because I lacked the skills that my husband exhibited every day. Learning and time has a way of changing us and making us better people. I’m realizing that we both are pretty special and the storms we’ve weathered have helped us grow. And as our children grow, I’m sharing the things I’m learning about executive function skills with them. Now, they’ll have the right tools for their adult lives and for their relationships. 

Maya Lear Brewer is a freelance writer, a book coach, a ghostwriter, and a copywriter, who enjoys writing blogs, newsletters, social media copy, and helping others tell their life stories. Her personal work has been featured in StreetLight Magazine, in Virginia newspapers, and in national trade publications. Now that Maya’s developing her executive function skills she’s finding more quality time for herself, her family, and her friendships. Connect with her @MayaBrewwrites.