Kim Swales earned an MA and PhD in Marriage and Family Communication by the age of 25 and was assistant professor at the University of Houston. When she had her children, she continued to do lectures and speaking engagements, focusing particularly on how to build strong family relationships. She now sees individuals and couples privately for marriage and relationship counseling and has recently launched a parenting and marriage website called The Nurtured Home. She has three children, Will, Harry and Kate.
What’s your story, Kim?
My husband David and I have been married 18 years this year and we have a 16 year old son, a 12 year old son and a seven year old daughter that we adopted from China. So that’s a high-schooler, a middle-schooler and a first grader so thinking about balance is quite interesting because I am spread pretty thin in that regard but I love it. I love having the high-schooler that’s dating and the seven year old that just wants to color and play in the playground. It’s nice.
I started out as an assistant professor at the University of Houston at 25. I went straight from my Bachelors to my Masters to my PhD in Communication, particularly family and marital communication and relational communication. My dissertation looked at how people maintain their marriage during its life-cycle from newly-weds to empty-nesters, how the challenges change over that life-cycle and how they maintain their relationship.
I knew I wanted to teach, so I also qualified in counseling and psychology, but I found that I really did not like general counseling. I realized early on that I worked best with people struggling in their relationships – dating, marriage, parenting – and so it was those people and their families that I wanted to help specifically. I was invited to give a lot of seminars at schools, at the Jewish Community Centre and at Catholic churches. I talked about communication skills, conflict and sibling relationships, really anything that falls under the heading of parenting or relationships.
So I’ve always worked a little bit but primarily I was a stay at home mom when my kids were younger. I did some marriage and parenting coaching at my house through the years, but just this year I have decided to get an office space and do more of it since all three kids are in school each day. And I love it, it never feels like work.
Although I use all my counseling training, I do more active coaching now. I have clients who come to me because they have discipline problems with one child, or they find themselves yelling a lot and they want more techniques for how to have peace in their home. I also have a lot of married couples who come to me because they feel like room-mates because they’ve stopped working on their marriage. All the research shows that those feelings of love and lust and chemistry start to fade two years into a relationship. But because you have a lifetime with this person, you have to keep things going, but people sort of give up, especially when kids come along. They put everything into the family and nothing into their marriage.
I would say that is probably my bread and butter – communication, conflict, getting couples to reconnect. I have some couples or parents that come for one or two sessions and I help them with that immediate problem and I have couples who, if there’s been an infidelity or a big crisis, they come for months. But what I like about coaching is that I feel that it’s much more time efficient. I direct the sessions towards where they want to be rather than where they’ve been. In counseling, a large model is really delving into your past and what got you here. Sometimes that’s vital and sometimes we have to spend a couple of sessions on that, but mostly I try to get people to look forward and to fix whatever’s wrong. If I can give them one book or one technique or one new way of fixing it, then that’s great. They’re happy, I’m happy and everybody moves on.
Why did you choose to adopt a baby from China when you already had two children?
I knew when I was a little girl, I wanted to adopt and it is something I truly feel was a calling, just as people are called to medicine or called to the church. I just knew I was meant to do this. I talked to Dave about it before we got married, but then I easily got pregnant with my boys.
Then when the boys were younger, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and that’s why we decided not to have any more biological children. It became very clear to me that God was redirecting my path and reminding me about my calling to adoption, though it was a very curvy path. It then turned out that I don’t have MS, I have food allergies, but that is how Kate came into our lives. She’s such an incredible blessing, I can’t imagine the Swales family without Kate. She’s taught me the biggest lessons in life I needed to learn, about not being so Type A and taking time to smell the roses, because she is just so laid back. We are all so Type A and she is not, so we needed her. She injects so much laughter into our life.
Kate was ten months old when we got her. She had been placed with a foster family, not put in an orphanage which is very unusual for China, but I did not go to pick her up. Dave went to get her and took Will, who was then ten years old. Harry was very sick at the time with stomach problems and one of us had to stay home with him, so when it came down to which one of us would go, Dave has much more international flying experience than I do, so we picked him. Dave and Will spent two weeks taking care of her before they brought her home. It was such a great opportunity for Will to see China, to see the poverty and the things he saw there changed him. There was of course a good chance Kate wouldn’t bond with me when she got here, but she did immediately and it all worked out.
Does your family cope with you being the expert?
I think probably for parenting I do it a bit better than for marriage. I definitely lose my patience with my kids and I make mistakes every single day, and when I go and give a talk, that’s the first thing I admit, “I’m sure I messed up today.” Knowing it is not always doing it. We know that we want to eat healthily but we still have chocolate cake sometimes. I definitely have days when I haven’t had enough sleep or I’m at the end of my rope and I yell at my kids, but I also know a lot of strategies about how not to do that and I try to incorporate those. Even with my marriage, it’s hard. Sometimes I’ll be sitting here, giving a couple advice and deep in my heart I know I should be taking my own advice and working harder on my own marriage. And I do. That’s one of the benefits of this job, I walk out of here and I realize what great kids I have and what a great husband and I don’t ever take that for granted. I don’t act like the expert, even with my friends – a lot of people have no idea that I do this. I’m very flawed and not perfect – nobody is, and even if you know all this stuff you don’t always do it because we’re all human. But I try very hard and I’m very intentional in my parenting and in my marriage.
What does Houston mean to you?
I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, went to college in Philadelphia and then graduate school in Ohio. Then I had to choose where to work. I got some job offers in universities in small college towns. I was 24 and I was single and I thought, “I can’t go and live in a small college town because there won’t be anyone for me, there won’t be anyone my age”. So I purposely chose the job in Houston so I could be in an urban environment and it was great. I met people right away – in fact, I met my husband right away! He is in the oil business doing product management for geological software. For the past 20 years we’ve lived here, except for four years when we lived in Charlottesville, Virginia. I loved it, but David wanted to come back here. I’ll be honest, I was very reluctant to come back to Houston because Charlottesville is so beautiful and there’s four seasons but now I’m so grateful that we’re back.
In Houston, it’s the people. In the places where I’ve lived, I’ve never met more friendly, more down-to-earth people. I really loved the seasons of the east coast and every Fall I get a little antsy, missing the seasons. But I think the community we have – our school community, our church community, our neighborhood community – we have never had that anywhere else.
Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
It’s probably a surprising event, and I share this when I speak, truly the one event that guided me most in my life was my parents’ divorce. They separated when I was in sixth grade and after about three years of going back and forth, they divorced when I was in ninth grade. My mom was a stay at home mom and she’d never worked. She had not gone to college, so when my dad left, she really struggled to find a job that would help support our family. It was very difficult. She didn’t really have an identity other than being a mom, and while that’s a really important identity, it was all that she knew. So I watched her struggle. I was in middle school and I decided right then and there that I would never let that happen to me. I know for sure that’s why I went straight to my PhD. I decided I was going to get as educated as I could, so that no matter what, I would be able to take care of myself and get a job. That wasn’t in a selfish ‘I don’t need anybody’ kind of way, but in a ‘just in case’ kind of way.
My parents’ divorce also made me focus on this line of work. The pain that I saw them go through and the pain that my sisters and I felt made me want to study marriage and relationships. Right after I finished my doctorate I started a program for families going through divorce. I have people come into this office who say “I can’t pay you because I’m going through a divorce and I have no money” and I say that’s ok. I have people that do pay which helps pay my rent. That would even by my advice to someone starting out – do what you love, do what really means something to you because that is why I do this, I’m not doing all this to write a book or get famous.
Having said that, I would love to write a book! But what I really, really, really want to do, my dream job honestly, would be to have a radio show. I would love for people who had problems in their relationships to call in and ask me to help. That’s what I do here in this office, I do it all day long, for my friends, for my clients, with my own family, it’s just this natural role I have had in life to try to help people navigate their relationships. I could do it for a lot more people on the radio, so that really interests me.
I also started a blog at the beginning of this summer called The Nurtured Home, about parenting and marriage. I started it right when summer vacation started and I soon realized that I could either have a nurtured home this summer or I could write a blog about one! So I am picking that up again now that the kids are back in school. That’s a big thing with me, I really struggle between living what I preach and trying to do more public work. In the end, I always pick doing it personally – having a better marriage and family rather than writing about it – and I don’t know how people do both. I know people do, but I haven’t found out how yet.
What advice would you give to a woman new to marriage?
I certainly think that every woman needs to be educated – no one can take those degrees away from me now and I always kept my toe in the water, even when my sixteen year old was a baby. I didn’t plan on staying at home, I planned on being a professor, because you can do that part time, but my oldest son had some pretty severe health issues – he had a tumor in his head and had to have head surgery when he was six months old so that stopped me going back to work. But I would teach a class on Monday nights, or I would give talks at pre-schools, always something to keep my toe in the water. I did that for fifteen years, knowing I had contacts, knowing I had these things on my résumé so if I needed to crack into professional mode again I could. I have great admiration for women who make mothering their main occupation because raising really good kids is about one of the best things we can do, men and women. But I do believe that every woman should have a plan and an education.
How to do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
There’s a couple of ways and one way is this word ‘intentional’. There’s a scripture verse which says ‘Where your treasure is, then there your heart will be also’ and I really try to apply that to my life. It means what is most important to me? My family, God and my faith, my community and helping other people, those things are all important to me. When someone asks me to do something, say, speak at an event or volunteer at school, I really think about whether it is consistent with my values and where my heart is. So I politely declined being on the PTO, but I work in the school store with my middle-schooler every Wednesday morning. It’s a half-hour of him and me together in his school. I get to know his friends, I get to know the school environment and I get time with my son which is very valuable to me. I do one thing at each of my kids’ schools and if someone asks me to do something else, I say no.
That’s the second part – I have absolutely no problem with saying no. I probably did when I was in my thirties, but I’m in my mid-forties now and I don’t care what people think. I care what my family thinks, and I care what God thinks but I don’t care what anybody else thinks. So I can say no and I am really good at it!
Where is your happy place in Houston?
My house! It’s funny, because I realized that every place I’ve lived, my happiest place has always been my house. And I think people would be surprised by that because I am very outgoing and I’m pretty social. But I don’t like big parties and small talk, I like having one family over for dinner and having a glass of wine and sitting all night talking to that person or that family. Or just being with my family, playing cards, family movie night, we cook a lot and I love to read. I’m quite boring, but I like being at home.
What is your favorite restaurant?
I’m very sentimental! When we lived in Virginia, the place we missed the most in Houston was Goode Company Taqueria. We loved their breakfasts and it was something that Dave and I did as newly-weds. We would go have breakfast there and then go look at open houses when we were first buying our family house. Then when we were pregnant with Will, I remember I just craved their Mexican omelets, and now our kids love their food too – the pecan waffles and the biscuits… It’s adorable!
Also, on West Gray there’s a hole in the wall pizza place that has the best $7 manicotti which reminds me of home in Pennsylvania – it’s places like that that are more about the memories.
And then we love Ouisie’s Table on San Felipe. My husband gave me a 30th birthday party there and a 40th – just maybe five couples in their wine room. Two dinner parties there so I have very fond memories of special times.
What is your Houston secret?
One of the things that I really love about Houston is that there are so many wonderful parks all over. We lived in West University and there are all those little pocket parks, every one was different. And there’s a great park up in the Heights. When I was trying to lose my baby-weight I would walk the Memorial Park loop. At the Nature Conservancy Park on Newcastle – my boys would play there for hours and I would take photographs there. Because of the canopy, even in the middle of the day if you need a good place to take photos and you don’t want bright sun, that’s a great place.
For such a concrete urban jungle that we live in, especially inside the Loop, it was a pleasant surprise to me to find all the parks, though we have rather outgrown that phase as a family. I don’t think all cities have this variety of parks that we have and it’s a real treasure.
If you could change one thing about Houston…
I think Houston has a great medical community but I think it’s very traditional and pharmaceutical. I wish that Houston was a more holistic and healthy community. I feel like we don’t have great healthy restaurant options – Austin has these great farm-to-table organic restaurants. In our family, we’ve struggled with food allergies and health issues so nutrition is super important to me, not that you could tell from the restaurants I named earlier! But we don’t have those options in Houston, and for a city this size, that really surprises me. There are some really upscale artisanal farm-to-table restaurants but you could only afford to go there once in a while, where Austin has all these great little places.
With our family health issues, we’ve had to seek out, not alternative MDs, but I want to say holistic, because they look at the body healing itself through nutrition or supplements or alternatives therapies, rather than just drugs. We have always had to leave Houston for that. I know that there are a couple of naturopaths and MDs here that use the holistic approach, but they are very hard to get into or they don’t see children. So we have had to travel to other cities to get it and I wish that Houston had more of that. I don’t think there is a big enough focus on natural health here.
Kim Swales’ blog, The Nurtured Home, can be found at www.thenurturedhome.blogspot.com.