remember us.

Lee Brown PhotographyOn Saturday night we met my friend Lee at the river preserve for our annual family photos. We wrangled the kids, stashed the car with m&m bribes and emergency extra clothes, and hoped for the best. Being a photographer myself, I had scheduled the shoot during the golden hour, which of course coincides with bedtime. Call me crazy, but I'd rather deal with meltdowns than bad lighting. Just like every year, I was quick to request photos of Brett and I as well. I like the reminder that our marriage is a separate entity, a force to be reckoned with. A few times throughout the evening, we strapped the boys in the stroller and ventured into tall grass just the two of us. For the most part, Everett and Carson sat and watched patiently, only occasionally crying out in boredom.

We tuned them out for five minutes and kept our eyes mostly on each other, purposefully and intentionally because even though we don't always practice this perfectly, we want our kids to see Us.

"Us" being Brett and Ashlee, husband and wife, two people who still love each other after almost eleven years together.

It would be easy to let these kids swallow us whole if we let our guard down. They are young and needy right now, and it would be easy to save everything marriage-related for after bedtime. It would be easy to let them interrupt every conversation, to let them leave toys in our bedroom, to let them be in every single picture.

It would be easy to let them destroy Us on some days.

If we want our kids to respect our marriage, we have to let them see our marriage. We have to let them see our date nights, see us kiss in the kitchen, see us fight and make up. The only way they're going to see Us is if we let them. Or, in the case of annual family photos, if we force them to watch from the sidelines.

Some days I think our marriage has never felt more difficult than it does right now. In this demanding phase of parenting two little kids, we have to fight for our marriage every single day---for quiet, for date nights, for intimacy of any kind. Our days are full and messy and exhausting and it's all too easy to give our marriage the leftovers, the 2% of energy we have left at the end of the night.

We deserve better.

Some people might think it's weird that we take family portraits every year, but I love documenting our kids at this age because they are changing so much. Last year, Carson was barely a peanut in my belly and now he's eating butternut squash from a booster seat. In twenty years, it will be nice to look back at these pictures and remember this year, the year that Everett turned three and said the funniest things, the year that Carson rocked his gummy smile.

This was the year we became parents of two and it was damn hard and exhausting as hell, but look at us. We survived, we relayed, we fought and made up 200 times. We made mistakes and apologized and forgave each other and slammed a few doors and offered grace upon grace upon grace. We argued at 3am, watched our boys become best friends, and basically became parents all over again. We re-examined our expectations, had our fair share of living room therapy, and learned to love each other a little bit better.

It has not been easy. Some days the pressure and tension in this house could blow up the moon. But even on those days, somehow---by the grace of God---we find our way back.

And this is why I always ask for photos of just Brett and I.

Because in twenty years, when we look back at these pictures, I will be glad that we stopped for five minutes to remember Us.

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the second baby.

For Carson. Carson-22

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I'm sitting in bed while you lay next to me, blowing bubbles and giggling at yourself. Occasionally I stop typing to make a funny face at you, and you laugh hysterically. You think I am hilarious, and it does wonders for my confidence these days.

You're supposed to be napping.

Your brother is with the babysitter, and this is one of two pockets of time I get with you each week, just the two of us. I think you know when he's not home, and like to protest naps just so you can get more attention from me. You're pretty smart.

You're six months old now, and only weigh 12 pounds. Maybe you're up to 13? I could carry you all day long, it feels like carrying a pillow. Your tiny body fits on my hip, in the crook of my arm, against my chest, in my lap. No matter where I put you, you fit, like an enchanted puzzle piece. I spent my whole pregnancy worrying about how I was going to make room for you. Our life with one kid felt full and busy and consumed, and I wasn't sure where or how you were going to fit into that space.

And I can't explain how you fit now.

You just do.

You are the typical second baby. You go with the flow, you watch everyone else, you wait your turn. You have spent so much time in that rockaRoo, just sitting and watching and waiting your turn. A few times a week, I carry you in from the garage in your carseat, plop you down on the kitchen floor, still strapped in, and make lunch for your brother. You just sit there quietly in your carseat, watching me wash raspberries, chewing on your teething keys like you have all the time in the world. You are almost always fed second, changed second, bathed second. Patience is your virtue.

You're drinking from a bottle now (hallelujah!) and experimenting with solids. I am trying hard to fatten you up, but you remain small and sweet and everyone who meets you says, "He's so tiny!"

You are tiny. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Time moves faster with the second baby, so you can stay as small as you want, okay?

You love baths. When you hear the faucet turn on, you start kicking your legs wildly and smiling at me with those big blue eyes. You know what's coming. As soon as I place your squirmy little body in the bathtub, your face lights up like a Christmas tree. You kick and kick and kick some more, almost as if you're trying to swim. You love the whole process: the soap, the warm water, the cozy towel, the lavender lotion massage. And to think, I was only bathing you twice a month for a while. I'm trying to be better about that now since I know you love it so much.

I'm trying to do a lot of things better, actually. I'm trying not to be so frustrated when you don't nap at the same time as your brother. I'm trying to find ways for us all to survive the witching hour without completely losing our minds. I'm trying to close my laptop more often when I can tell you need attention.

I'm trying to make you feel special, to make you feel known. I'm trying to find space in my day to give you all of me, even if it's just for a few minutes. I really am trying my best, and I hope it's enough for you, sweet boy.

At the end of the day, I want you to know this:

You are loved. You are wanted. You belong here, with us, and there is more than enough room for you.

 

Carson-3 Carson-4 Carson-5 Carson-6 Carson-7 Carson-8

what i've learned after a decade of loving him.

Where my heart resides-2 Brett and I have officially been together for ten years.

!!!

To write about this decade seems trite, because I know I cannot do justice with words what my heart would say about all the things I've learned, all the mistakes I've made, all the ways I continue to be surprised by Brett and the fact that he wakes up every morning and chooses to love me before pouring a bowl of cereal and turning on ESPN.

It's amazing, really, to love and be loved by someone for ten whole years. 

I've witnessed our love grow from infatuation to the kind of love where you see someone for who they really are---faults and all---and still love them in spite of those flaws. I can remember a time where I thought Brett had no faults at all, and he probably thought the same of me (maybe not, mine are more obvious). It was short-lived of course, in those few months and maybe even years leading up to our wedding where we basically thought the other person was perfect in every way and aren't we so lucky to have found each other?

I think we had been married for exactly two weeks when I realized just how imperfect Brett was. He probably started noticing my faults on day two of marriage because let's be honest: I was real selfish back then.

Our first year of marriage was hard. We argued a lot, bickered a lot, gave each other the silent treatment a lot. I slammed a few doors and cried somewhat regularly. I'm sure some people would say that maybe we weren't ready to get married at the ripe ages of 21 and 25 but to them I say, who is ever really ready to get married? What human is ever truly prepared to dive headfirst into selflessness and sacrifice?

We survived the first year. The second year was better. We adjusted to living together and created a routine that mostly revolved around frozen yogurt and reality TV shows and conversations about expectations. I learned to give him space when he came home from work and he learned to listen without giving advice. He accepted the fact that I never replace the toilet paper roll and I got used to the way he always gets water in the toothpaste cap. I vacuumed, he took out the trash, we each folded our own laundry. He helped me make this blog. I baked him chocolate chip cookies.

The hard thing about getting married young is that you're not only promising to love someone for the rest of your life; you're promising to love the person they will become for the rest of your life. 

I'm sure this goes without saying, but my 18 year-old self and my 28 year-old self are quite, quite different. Brett's 22 year-old self and 32 year-old self might as well be completely different people. Together we have morphed into new, grownup versions of ourselves: chasing dreams, succeeding and failing, experiencing identity crises every other year. We've lived out our entire twenties together, and how strange and wonderful it has been to do that as a team.

Together we have bought and sold a house, made two babies, and set up life insurance like a couple of responsible adults. We've traveled to Greece and New York and Las Vegas and Hawaii and learned how to share space in the same suitcase. We've experienced life and death and everything in between and learned how to love each other through the peaks of our greatest moments and through the trenches of devastating grief. Our marriage has survived every arrow thrown between us, thanks to God's grace and living room therapy (and real therapy once or twice).

We've witnessed miracles together, watched two pink lines appear on two pregnancy tests together, and cried together as our first son entered the world. We've watched each other become parents---an experience that at times, feels otherworldly.

We've seen our brightest mountains and darkest valleys in this decade, but when I think of the past ten years as a whole, I see mostly love and hard work. Because despite what you see outside this house, behind closed doors it is hard work to love someone every single day for ten years. It is hard work to put on a smile and ignore that crusty plate over there and apologize and forgive and stay up until 2am talking about your relationship when your relationship needs to be talked about. It is hard work to offer grace again and again, and again, and then again.

We are learning as we go, and it's safe to say that over the course of a decade, we've learned a lot. I've learned that sometimes you need to go to bed angry, despite what everyone told me before I got married. I call BS on that advice and offer the following instead: sometimes you need eight hours of sleep and the perspective of a pink sunrise in the morning to realize just how ridiculous that fight was. I've learned that our fights are rarely ever, ever about the dishes, they are always about Something Bigger than dishes. I've learned that appreciation---verbal and otherwise---go a long, long way in marriage. You cannot say "thank you" enough. You cannot say "I love you" enough. You cannot show your partner how grateful you are for their existence, their help, their support, their unconditional love, enough. The act of expressing appreciation is limitless, and yet there is always a shortage.

I've learned that marriage exposes you, brings sin to the surface, and forces you to confront all the things about yourself you'd rather keep locked away in a sock drawer for all of eternity. I never realized how hard I was to love until I married someone who loved all the rotten, selfish, stubborn parts of me.

I can think of a lot of things I've done right in this marriage, but I can think of more things that I've done wrong. Maybe Brett can say the same (you'll have to ask him).

But despite those wrongdoings and mistakes, despite the arguments and slammed doors, despite the harsh words we have said in times of anger and desperation, at the very core of our relationship, there is still love. There is friendship. There is hope and affection and honesty. I hate to oversimplify it, but sometimes simple is best.

Ten years later, in its simplest form: we still love each other. We're still standing in the kitchen with our hands intertwined, our toddler in the high chair and another baby kicking in my belly. We're still laughing at each other and laughing at ourselves and dreaming big dreams for this family of ours.

And as I look around the room before he leaves for work, with crumbs littered on the floor and a stack of unopened mail sitting on the counter and all of the exhausting adultness of our lives so very prevalent, I cannot help but smile and be grateful for all it.

Here's to another ten years, Brett. Thank you for choosing to love me every day. Thank you for leaving me the last of the milk, for putting gas in my car every Tuesday morning, for fixing my blog every time it needs to be fixed, for picking up Chipotle when I cannot fathom cooking, and for the million other tiny things you do for me. I love you today, tomorrow, forever.

a summer picnic.

Summer picnic | where my heart resides-1 Summer picnic | where my heart resides-2 Summer picnic | where my heart resides-3 Summer picnic | where my heart resides-4 Summer picnic | where my heart resides-5 Summer picnic | where my heart resides-6 Summer picnic | where my heart resides-7 "If a June night could talk, it would probably boast it invented romance." - Bern Williams

Two weeks ago, Brett and I set out on our June date: a gourmet picnic at Soil Born Farms. I took Everett to Whole Foods that afternoon and splurged on pasta and good cheese, my two favorite things. Brett and I had the whole place to ourselves, which was a nice surprise. We set up camp at a picnic table, and talked about baby names and swim lessons for Everett and our upcoming trip to Puerto Vallarta. It was nice. Peaceful. Quiet.

Today is the ten year anniversary of our first kiss. It's crazy when I think about that number.....I'm 28 and have officially been with Brett more than a third of my life.

You can expect a sappy post soon. Don't say I didn't warn you.

p.s.  our love story

36 minutes.

Ev-1 I had errands to run. The alterations shop, the camera shop, the baby clothes store.

I collapsed on the chair for a minute---just one minute---to rest before mustering the energy to change his diaper, change his clothes, brush my teeth, find my keys, and an array of other tasks that seemingly add to the regular twenty minutes it takes for us to get out the door.

He didn't seem to mind my rest, not one bit. He grabbed two toy trains off the floor and started rolling them up and down my right leg, which was dangling off the side of the chair.

"Choo choo!"

I sat there quietly, just watching him, soaking up every molecule that makes him up. His long eyelashes, his dirty blonde hair, his scabby knees. He wore a blue t-shirt that matched his eye color, and his naptime pajama bottoms didn't match.

They never do.

Up and down my legs, he rolled the trains. Around my hip to my arm and up and down the inside of my elbow. The room was silent aside from the sound of him breathing. He breathes louder than I do, just like his dad.

I started to get creative with my body, making tunnels and bridges with my legs and ankles. I moved my limbs around the chair as he smiled with each new challenge. He rolled the trains up my neck, over my face, and across the top of my head while I remained completely still.

And right there in my living room on a Monday afternoon I felt nothing but love---the kind of love that swallows you up and takes your breath away because it is so full, so raw, so whole, so perfect.

It's the kind of love that only a mother can know.

And God of course.

I could have fallen asleep like that, to the sound of toddler breaths and the feeling of toy trains running up and down my arms. I didn't, but I could have.

We stayed just like that for exactly 36 minutes.

I can run errands tomorrow.

romance in the little things.

Ahhhh, Valentine's Day. Our church has graciously offered childcare tonight so we're heading to Chipotle sans toddler. Nothing says romance like side-by-side burrito bowls, amiright?

(To be fair, we have fancy dinner reservations tomorrow night. I'm going to shave my legs tomorrow.)

I've been thinking about romance this week, and how my definition of that word has changed over the years. When I was 21 and freshly married and mostly naive about life, romance meant Big Things---candles, flowers, fancy cocktails, fancy food, shiny presents. I had high expectations about everything under the sun and wanted to feel special all of the time, but especially on Valentine's Day.

Today, at 27, romance looks a little different in our house. We are raising a toddler, and we are tired. Sometimes romance looks like eating ice cream cones on the couch and watching three episodes of Breaking Bad while one of us falls half asleep. Sometimes I light candles while we do that to distract myself from the eighteen toy cars strewn all around us.

Make no mistake: we still have romance. It's just in the little things now.

There's romance in the way he always puts gas in my car, or says "go write" when he knows that's what I need. There's romance in the way he proofreads my blog posts and tells me that I'm the best writer he knows.

There's romance in the way he puts his arm around me during church, and in the way he looks at me when I'm all dressed up. There's romance in the way he compliments my not-that-great cooking, and in the way he picks up Chipotle on the nights I can't even fathom making dinner.

There's romance in the way he pulls our car around to the front of the church when it's raining, and in the way he always lets me have the umbrella. There's romance in the way he offers to watch an extra toddler so my friend and I can go to barre class together when her husband is out of town.

There's romance in the way he leaves notes on the kitchen chalkboard, and in the way he never takes the last of the milk. There's romance in the way he always gives me the good seat on the couch, the one with the best view of the TV. There's romance in the way he says "I love you" the morning after a big fight, and in the way he kisses my forehead before he leaves for work.

There's romance in the way he cares for Everett while I'm in Africa or at a writing conference, assuring me over and over again that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

There's romance in his support, in his encouragement, in the way he wraps his arms around me while I'm standing at the kitchen counter. There's romance in the million little things he does for me, in the million little ways he cares for me, in the million little things that I don't have time to mention here. There is romance in our house every morning when we wake up and choose to stay married to one another, for better and for worse.

And today, I guess I am simply grateful for that. I am grateful for romance in the little things, and grateful to be married to a man who spends 365 days a year loving me as best he can.

That's really all I can ask for on Valentine's Day.

Well, that and burrito bowls.

everett's valentines.

Valentines by Pinhole Press | Where My Heart Resides-1 Valentines by Pinhole Press | Where My Heart Resides-2 Valentines by Pinhole Press | Where My Heart Resides-3valentines-12 Valentines by Pinhole Press | Where My Heart Resides-4 valentines-13 valentines-14Last year, on a whim, I made "hey girl" valentines for Everett to send to his girlfriends. They were such a hit that I knew I wanted to do them again this year, only this time I decided to use the professionals---Pinhole Press. Verdict? I love them. We ordered these cards for all of Everett's little friends, and two of these cards for the Grandmas. I love that you can order just one card on some of the designs, because sometimes you just want a few, ya know?

Everett happily scribbled his mark on them with crayons, "a nice touch" one girlfriend remarked.

I'm also loving these super cute people flash cards. Everett turns two in May (WHAT!) and I am going to order some as part of his birthday gift. He loves flashcards almost as much as he loves looking at pictures of people he knows (which he loves almost as much as he loves looking at pictures of himself).

But I digress. If you're in the market for personalized valentine's day cards, check out the rest of the collection here. Our cards turned out beautifully, and I'm sure yours will too.

Also: for anyone keeping track, I have officially eaten two whole (giant) bags of candy hearts. By myself. And I have a dentist appointment tomorrow. WISH ME LUCK.

*Cards were provided by Pinhole Press in exchange for this post; all opinions are my own, as always ;)

living room therapy.

This post was published with Brett's permission and blessing. There are many parts of our marriage that need and deserve privacy, but we have agreed this part of our story is worth sharing. Thank you, as always, for being respectful with your comments.

WMHR"When my dad died, it's like a part of me died too."

I could see the sadness in his eyes, all the way from the other side of the living room. My legs were tucked tightly underneath me on the couch and tears began to sting my eyes. It felt like we were in therapy, minus the therapist.

Confession after confession, we laid it all out on the coffee table.

"I feel depressed," he told me.

"I feel unloved," I told him.

Round and around we went. Accusations, explanations, apologies---back and forth, back and forth. We were both tired. Tired of fighting, tired of arguing, tired of giving each other the silent treatment.

"This isn't us," I said. "We are better than this. We're Brett and Ashlee!"

The air felt raw and vulnerable, bold and desperate---each of us determined to make the other understand. He wanted me to extend more grace; I wanted him to love me better. We slowly confessed our shortcomings and recent failures. He was withdrawn and distracted; I was irritable and bitter. He was in a hole and needed someone to pull him out; I was invisible and needed someone to see me.

Grief is something I know very little about, yet it has creeped into every inch of my home, my marriage, and my life in the past year and a half. It has been all consuming at times, and barely there at other times. But no matter what day, what hour, what conversation, what fight, it is there, permeating the air like a soft poison, crippling each of us in slow motion.

The loss of Brett's dad has affected our marriage in ways I never expected, and changed Brett in ways I never saw coming. We will have a good day, a good week, a good month, and then suddenly out of nowhere, grief hits our house like a hurricane. And much like any other Californian couple, we don't even know how to prepare for those.

As we sat in the living room with broken hearts, struggling to pick up the pieces surrounding us, I was struck with a startling realization.

I couldn't save Brett.

And he couldn't save me.

We each wanted so desperately to be healed, to be loved, to be made whole in some way, but we were both looking at the wrong person to do that for us. We were both looking for a Savior, something we were never going to find in each other.

And I guess that's the most freeing and challenging part of marriage. You want your spouse to be everything to you, but in fact, they are only capable of so much. When you look to your marriage for the type of healing and love that only a Savior brings, your spouse will always, always fall short.

So here we are, two weeks after our living room therapy---still a little broken, but in tact, like a softly cracked windshield. We are leaving each other silly notes on the kitchen chalkboard and sharing candy hearts on the couch. Day by day, word by word, kiss by kiss, we are still figuring out how to love each other through grief and loss. It's the hardest thing we've ever had to do, the greatest challenge our marriage has ever faced, and all I can do is thank God that we're not alone. I thank God for being our Savior when it's obvious that we can't save ourselves. I thank God for our marriage---for this beautiful, imperfect, indestructible bond that is full of opportunities to forgive and redeem.

Because this marriage, our marriage, is teaching us more about grace and love than any other experience this side of Heaven.

***

"A cord of three strands is not easily broken." - Ecclesiastes 4:12

for gene / one foot in front of the other