Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Good Neighbor

My daughter and her family live in an area of Springfield known for its neighborliness. “It’s what we want for our life,” she said. “We think it’s important to our family.”

Her comments reminded me of an anonymous handwritten note we received from one of our neighbors a short time after we moved into our current home about eight years ago. Addressed to “Occupant,” it read as follows:

Please do not leave your trash receptacles on the driveway or anywhere in front of your home. This is a nice neighborhood. Please don’t bring it down by leaving trash in front.

We certainly didn’t mean to offend or upset any of our neighbors, but given that we had moved into my father’s home after he passed less than a year earlier and brought with us a houseful of furniture, it was taking us a bit to get it all sorted out. If you’ve ever sifted through an elderly parent’s possessions and divvied them up with extended family, you know what I mean.
This meant we didn’t have room in our garage for the typical large trash container for a few weeks. We didn’t have piles of trash on our lawn. Our grass was mowed weekly. There were flowers in the flower beds and we put the trash at the curb once a week for pick-up. We just didn’t have the container in the garage.  After the note, we did our best to make space for it as soon as possible.

I’m writing about this now because I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the importance of community and the connections we need to stay healthy and happy. Most of us are in favor of the idea of community, at least in theory. The problem occurs with the reality of actual people. They don’t always do things to our liking. They can be irritating and annoying. Intentionally, or not, they may interfere with our idea of the way things should be.

That’s one reason I was so pleased to see the launch of a third Lighthouse Child and Family Development Center at Washington Avenue Baptist Church as an Every Child Promise Neighborhood Hub last Wednesday. This partnership brings together a number of “neighbors,” including Springfield Public Schools, Drury University, and Victory Trade School. Washington Avenue recognized the need of their neighbors. They didn’t seem to mind the changes that needed to be made to their church, the wear and tear on their building from a lot more little people tramping around every day, or the need for everyone to coordinate their usage around others in the building. Rather, they embraced the idea that community can be messy. Community can be cumbersome. Community is often clumsy . . . but community is important.

Of course, it’s a two-way street. Neighborliness goes both ways. Everyone has to work at it. It just seems to me that Washington Avenue Baptist is the kind of neighbor that comes over shortly after you move in to with a plate full of cookies and something cold to drink. They let you know they’re glad you’re here and they follow up on their offer to be helpful. You reciprocate by shoveling their driveway or picking up their newspaper. They offer to bring in your mail when you’re gone. You water their flowers when they are out of town for the weekend. Over time, through warmth, courtesy and respect a mutually beneficial friendship develops that is a gift to everyone around. That’s what seems to be happening at and through Washington Avenue. They are an inspiration to all of us to take the first step toward being a good neighbor. It makes a difference to all of us.

Thinking neighborly thoughts,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

Monday, September 8, 2014


"Expect to feel a little discomfort," the nurse says as she sticks the needle in my arm. 

"You may be a bit uncomfortable after the medication wears off," warns the doctor.

When we have a medical or dental procedure, we're not surprised to hear these words. In fact, we expect them. We also know that "discomfort" is often another word for pain. It may not be horrible, crushing pain -- but it still hurts.

I wonder why it is, then, that people so often expect little to no pain when they try to change their behavior. The truth is, it's uncomfortable to change. We struggle to alter familiar routines. It's unsettling. In fact, sometimes it "hurts" -- not in an aching physical way, but sometimes in a "heart-aching" way.

There are lots of ways we try to distance ourselves from or prevent this kind of pain. If you really need to change, I'm here to say that most of them don't work. They only delay the inevitable discomfort. One avoidance strategy I see a quite a bit is something I call "insight obsession."

Insight Obsession
"Why do I keep picking the wrong kind of men? I think I need to figure out why I keep falling for the wrong kind of guy."

"If only I understood why I keep (drinking too much, overeating, spending, gambling, saying 'yes" when I should say 'no"), maybe then I could change."

"My mother was a neat freak who forced me to make my bed every morning. I think that's why I'm so messy today. She made me hate housework."

It's not uncommon for people to visit a therapist to gain insight about their lives and behavior. They figure if they just knew why they engage in certain behaviors, then they could do something different. For them, insight is seen as the primary instrument for change. Self-reflection, sometimes with the aid of a professional, is viewed as the key tool for new behavior.

I'm actually quite fond of insight. I love it when I'm able to help someone learn something new about themselves. Unfortunately, while insight can be motivational for change, it is rarely sufficient. Breakthroughs in understanding are only the beginning. For real change to occur, most of us need to be willing to experience something else, namely discomfort.

Impossible to Know
Why is this so? First of all, it's often impossible to know what the real cause of any behavior or thought process might be. More than likely, there are multiple causes or contributors. Most of what we think about causation is really hypothesis and conjecture. For example, it's impossible to know for certain if our third-grade teacher turned us against reading forever or if it was more related to our athletic ability that crowded out everything school-related in preference for sports. Perhaps the beauty and brains of an older sibling created a context in which we felt less secure in the classroom than on the basketball court. Whatever the case, if we want to improve our reading ability, insight into what prevented us from being a lover for reading will have only a small impact on improving this function. Real progress comes with a tutor, reading coach and lots of practice.

New Habits Develop Over Time
Perhaps television and movies have helped to foster the impression that change occurs like a spark igniting a fire. Sometimes it happens like that, but more often it occurs from slogging away day after day -- attending AA or Weight Watchers meetings on a regular basis, visiting the gym four days out of seven, arising earlier to get to work on time. Practice, perseverance and perspiration add up. It's pretty much the same with any change. It takes time, work and new strategies. 

When it comes to making changes in relationships--at home or at the office, the same can be said, especially if trust has been damaged. People don't automatically learn to manage their anger better just because they suddenly realize some of the damage they have created. They also do not give up on procrastination or become more organized overnight. It's hard for an individual to change. It's also hard for those around him or her to believe it can happen. It will take time and considerable effort for things to improve. 

At times like these coaching or therapy can be especially helpful. A good therapist will move you beyond wondering why you do what you do, to doing something different. He or she will help you see what needs to change and work with you to establish new patterns. You will likely gain insight into your motivation along the way, but if you never get beyond wondering why, you won't make much progress. 

You may have heard it said, "No pain, no gain." Some argue pain is not necessary for bodily change. I'll not enter into that debate, but I will continue to insist that some discomfort is required if you want to change habits and behaviors in your life.

Uncomfortably yours,
Dr. Jennifer Baker

Monday, September 1, 2014

To Improve Child's Lives, We Have To Include Fathers

ESPN plays on the monitors in the hallway, but in the classroom filled with black leather loveseat recliners, it’s all business at Family Expectations on Monday night in Oklahoma City.

“Okay,” so your baby is crying. (Video of fussing infant appears on screen.) “What are your options? What do most people do first?”

The person asking the question is a man. He stands in front of a room full of 30-40 new and expectant parents. Half are mothers and half are fathers. Not quite half of them are married to their partner. They know the screaming infant experience is coming. In some cases, they’re already there. What do you do with a crying baby?

For the next 45 minutes the man in front talks with the class about how to sooth a fussy baby. He gives them tips on ways to comfort an infant before picking him up. The class observes an infant’s response to a comforting voice or calming touch. They’re exposed to the concept of self-soothing and learn how this develops in a child over time. They discover ways to hold their baby that are most likely to be successful in consoling her cries.

Everyone—mothers and fathers—are given the information they need to calm a screaming child. Fathers and mothers learn together what babies need. It is assumed both are equally capable. The 15-member contingent from Springfield is seeing a one-of-a-kind approach to improving child outcomes that also appears linking to significant declines in child abuse and neglect.

It makes sense when you think about it. Mothers and fathers learn together about how to care for their infant, while also learning how to work as a team to build a safe and stable home for their child. This includes how to manage the inevitable conflict that can occur with sleepless nights, stretched finances and much less free time. This “magic moment,” as researchers in the Fragile Families study have dubbed it, is a critical time when the vast majority of fathers and mothers (married to each other or not) have indicated a strong interest in forming a family. This is their goal and aspiration, but far too few are actually able to achieve this dream. All too often, fathers and mothers who fail to learn the skills to form and maintain a committed relationship within the first year of their child’s life are no longer together a year or two later, an occurrence often placing their baby at great risk.

Today, 1 in 3 children lives without his father in the home compared to 1 in 5 in 1980. Children growing up without a father’s presence are 4 times more likely to be poor, two times more likely to drop out of high school, more likely to have behavioral problems, and more likely to end up in prison. Of course there are many exceptional single-parent moms who do an amazing job of raising children, but it's usually not their preference or first choice. For many reasons, more fathers than ever before are not living with their children. The trend toward fatherlessness in America today is not a good thing. It places children at risk and increases poverty.

If we want to do something to improve outcomes for children – something about poverty, crime and educational outcomes we also need to think about ways to engage fathers. We need to help them feel successful in their critical role right from the start, because when good dads are involved, children do much better.

*References to statistics and research findings cited in this article are available upon request.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Alpacas and Purpose

"We retied and bought a house with a lot on the bay and a dock for our boat," she said," but it wasn't long before it was . . . well . . . kind of boring." 

Scrunching her face into a smile the tall, slim, athletic woman in front of me began to explain just how she and her husband came to be the owners of an alpaca farm on San Juan Island off the coat of Seattle, Washington.

It's really hard to imagine a prettier place than the islands in the summer time. The ocean sparkles a midst numerous small bays, islands and inlets. Rain is infrequent in July and August and temperatures hover in the 70s during the day. 

Old growth forests can be found in many areas. 

Orca "Killer" whales and Harbor seals swim just off shore. 

Sailboats and yachts fill harbors that have snow-capped mountains as a distant backdrop. Many might consider it an ideal retirement, but to the alpaca farm owners it wasn't enough.

One evening they attended a charity dinner auction where two alpaca were up for bidding.

"I'm going to bid them up," her husband said. "We want be be sure the hospital gets the money it needs."

"You'd better be careful," she warned. "You might just come home with two alpaca." 

It turns out, she was right. The hospital may have gotten more money, but the couple found a new purpose in life.

It wasn't long before they fell in love with their new animals and began to consider how they could keep them. Eventually--gradually--it became clear that to keep the alpaca and begin their own herd, they would need to sell their house with a bay side view, their boat and other assets they had acquired. Eventually they sold it all and purchased the good-sized farm that had served as home to their first two alpaca. They bought more stock, increased their herd and opened a store selling alpaca items.

"That was 15 years ago," she said, clearly proud of what they had accomplished.

I enjoyed hearing the story of the alpaca farm especially because it demonstrates one of the findings of Blue Zones author Dan Buettner. According to researchers Buettner interviewed, one of the characteristics of those who live the longest, healthiest lives is living with purpose. One study that followed high functioning people between the ages of 65 and 92 found that "individuals who expressed a clear goal in life--something to get up for in the morning, something that made a difference--lived longer and were sharper than those who did not" (p. 282).

There are any number of ways to experience purpose in one's life, but it occurs to me that the Baby Boomer generation--those entering retirement in droves these days--may want to consider what their purpose might be in retirement. Where will they find meaning? What will get them out of bed in the morning?  What will bring them contentment and satisfaction all day long?

It might be a beautiful home in a pristine setting with a boat docked nearby, or it could be an alpaca farm. Sometimes it's not what we think it will be.

Go Outside!

When I was a child and my mother had had her fill of us, she often said to us children, “Go outside!” She had tired of our whining, or fighting, or complaining and figured the situation would be remedied if only she could get us out the door. She wasn’t particularly worried about the weather. Our house wasn’t air conditioned and playing under a shade tree was probably cooler anyway. She knew we’d figure it out.
Cold weather? “Put your warm clothes on,” she’d say. “Cover your head.” In some cases we made a beeline to the barn, but often we would scour the fields or wander in the woods –- great places for taming tempers and working out the inevitable conflicts siblings experience.

Today I spend most of my time inside—as do most adults I know, but I continue to believe many of us would be happier, healthier people if we spent more time outdoors. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so. Consider the findings of Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer. From his interviews with people from around the globe, Buettner notes those who live the longest, healthiest, happiest lives tend to make the kind of physical activity that results from going outside a regular part of their lives. They don’t exercise for the sake of exercising, but rather choose activities like walking or biking to work or to the store rather than driving their car. Activity is part of their routine and lifestyle rather than something they drive to the gym to do.

There are undoubtedly many benefits to being outdoors, but here are a few that came to mind for me.

1) Stronger bones and better mood.  We benefit from some exposure to the sun. Use sun screen, certainly, but soaking up the daylight is important both for the production of Vitamin D and our bone health, as well as for an improved mood. Depending on your skin’s pigmentation, exposure to just 10-15 minutes of sun per day has been demonstrated as critical in the treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the kind of depression some experience during the winter months after too little sunlight and too much time indoors.

2) Perspective.  Time outside can help you gain a fresh perspective on your place in the universe. The cycles of the seasons, brightness of the stars, vastness of the mountains or oceans, all remind us life will go on regardless of some things we see as critical in the moment. There is only so much we can control. The rest we must leave in the hands of a Creator greater than ourselves.

3) Community.  Certainly people do venture into the great outdoors to explore nature by themselves. Solitude can be a very healing and soothing experience for many. At the same time, going outside seems to enhance our opportunity to build relationships with others. Picnic or sit on the porch. Backpack or boat. Climb or canoe. Hike or fish.  All give us a chance to strengthen relationships with friends, family and neighbors.

Going outside probably won’t “save the world,” or cure cancer, but if I could encourage people to do just one thing to improve their overall health and wellness, I think it would be, “Go outside more often.” It’s just a start, but I think the rest will follow.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Wellness Means a Healthy Body and Healthy Relationships

Eat less. 

Move more. 

Reduce your stress 

Quit smoking. 

These four are typically the primary focus of most wellness programs. They’re all worthy goals, but insufficient to bring about health alone. It’s possible to have a low body mass index, manageable stress, be smoke-free, have a reasonably healthy diet and exercise regimen and still be unhealthy.  

According to the World Health Organization, health is defined as, “a complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease.” In other words, it takes more than a healthy body. It also requires a healthy mind and good relationships.

When employers institute wellness programs, hoping to improve their company’s bottom line with employees who need to access their healthcare benefits less often, I wonder if they are also aware that 30% of sick time is due to family conflict. This may be marital conflict, but it can also be related to dealing with a rebellious teen, navigating family tension involved with divorce, or family conflict associated with caring for an aging parent. These sorts of relational issues undercut the company’s bottom line, increase fellow employees’ workloads, and may increase personnel issues. In fact, lost work time associated with marital problems alone is estimated at $6.8 billion per year.

Healthy relationships, especially healthy, long-term committed relationships often known as marriage, bring about the best benefits for children as well. In a very large study from the Centers for Disease Control, “Family Structure and Children’s Health in the United States: Findings From the National Health Interview Survey, 2001–2007,” children in nuclear families did better on nearly every measure as compared to children living in any other family arrangement. In short, they were physically, mentally, cognitively and socially healthier.

Do I think see marriage as the solution to every problem? Absolutely not! Some marriages and relationships are dangerous. Am I so na├»ve as to believe everyone who desires marriage can attain this goal? Nope. I also know people who would like to marry, but probably never will. Do I see single parents as somehow sub-standard?  Emphatically not! I think single-parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world and am privileged to have known and be friends with a number who do a terrific job.

What I can’t get away from is the data. If you want research, I can bury you in papers and studies from some of our nation’s most prestigious institutions. If you would to talk to experts, I can introduce you to folks at both ends of the political spectrum who agree that we need to do more to support healthy relationships. There’s simply so much statistical evidence about the importance of healthy, stable, committed relationships to child well-being that it’s hard to deny.

We need fathers more engaged with their children. They clearly have more access when married to the mother of those children, but when this is not possible a healthy co-parenting relationship is preferred. We need more parents prepared to form and maintain a stable relationship for the benefit of their new baby. We need more support for people as they navigate the typical transitions associated with family life – becoming a couple or family, pregnancy and childbirth, rearing young children, making the transition to adolescence, dealing with mid-life issues and caring for aging parents. A healthy body will help one cope better with these sorts of concerns, but offering parenting and relationship education as part of a wellness program may also be a very cost effective strategy.

"Wellness Means a Healthy Body and Healthy Relationships" appeared in the Springfield News-Leader on Wednesday, July 30, 2014.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Managing Family Togetherness

“That child deserves a spanking. When I was growing up, my parents would never have allowed me to get away with that kind of behavior.”
“Now that your man is in the White House, are you having any second thoughts? If you’re not, you should be.”
“I can’t believe you spent that much money for a car. You should’ve talked to me first. I could have set you up with a much better deal.”
Comments like these are the perfect grist for many a family get-together. Once, just once, couldn’t Aunt Harriet refrain from commenting on how we discipline our children? Must we always have a big family row over politics? Does Uncle Henry consider himself the expert on every topic under the sun?
Summer is a time filled with family. There are visits and vacations, relatives and reunions, time away and . . . sometimes too much time together. Regardless of the venue, summer is also a time of hopes and dreams for how it will be when we all get together, go away for a few days, or get out of town to a special location. Sadly, reality often falls short of our ideals and expectations. We may end up returning home more exhausted than when we left and frustrated with family interactions.

Although we’re nearly halfway through the summer at this point, I thought it might be good to offer a few thoughts from a therapist’s perspective about family togetherness to potentially ease the pain—if not now, then perhaps during the holidays later this year.
Practice Humility and Humor. Okay, so maybe Cousin Edmund’s stories do go on and on and on and Great Aunt Clara always asks embarrassing questions. If you can’t keep them from talking, perhaps the best approach is to accept the fact it’s going to happen. Prepare a clever response in advance, e.g., “Hey, how about those Royals?” Or, “Did you ever give me that recipe for your chicken salad?” Think of these family members as characters in an unfolding drama. The most interesting and entertaining stories almost always feature people with idiosyncrasies. Your family members could be cast in starring roles. Remember, you yourself may also be somebody else’s difficult person.
Watch the Exhaustion Factor. The more tired you are, the more annoying other people become. We already know we’re a nation of sleep-deprived people. Especially when there’s the potential of dealing with challenging people and personalities, do your best to stay well-rested. You can’t change them, but you can prepare to be your best self.
Set Limits. Sometimes we too quickly agree to be on someone else’s schedule, when we’d really rather make our own plans. It’s okay to honor some of the wishes of others, but too much giving in often leads to resentment and bitterness—especially if it involves spending a majority of your vacation time with difficult people. Only you can decide how much is too much, but it seems to me the happiest people are those who know when to come and when to go. They also decide what they will and will not be able to do and let others know their plans well in advance. Family interactions often follow predictable patterns. Deciding ahead of time how you would like to respond to the people you love most tends to lead to the happiest memories.
This column originally appeared in the Springfield News-Leader on Wednesday, July 16, 2014.