I come from a family of six. My mom and dad were high school sweethearts who married young and have stayed together for 50 years. They had four kids in about 10 minutes, and all of us crowded into a small three bedroom house that burned nearly to the ground when I was six. My parents rebuilt, kept the wheels from coming off the cart, and grew close without too much in the way of scars.
Mom and dad were both school teachers. My dad coached football and track, and my mom became a librarian, and taught piano lessons on the side to help make ends meet. Church was the center of our lives. Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and most Wednesday nights found the six of us in our wood paneled station wagon (yes, we totally had one – the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser you see above), headed for church.
I am happy to report that, inexplicably, through 40-50 years everybody is still speaking to one another. In fact we all seem to genuinely enjoy being together, and we still manage to do so at least a couple or three times a year. All four kids have married now, each of us with children of our own. Spouses and grandchildren have joined the fray – there are 21 of us when we are all under one roof – and nobody has been divorced, in jail, or rehab thus far, I hope I don’t jinx it :-)). Things are very similar on my wife’s side of the family. I can go back three generations and not a single parent, grandparent, great grandparent was divorced.
I know what a rare and precious gift this is. So much pain comes from the family, and even a good one does a lot of damage. Still, most of what we have that is solid and good came from these people. If you are anything even close to being healthy, happy, emotionally well, present to the moment, sober, enjoying meaningful connection with other people, and having some kind of compassion for the world… this is a gift.
These gifts were given to me by my parents and my brother and sisters, from my wife’s parents and family, too. If you ask me what I’m truly thankful for, family goes at the top of the list. No matter what happens, I know these people would lay down in traffic for me. Their love and friendship has had an incredible impact on my life.
Even with all of that graceful goodness, we all have to mentally prepare to be together over the holidays. Getting along as a family is not effortless. It takes hard work to love each other with all our eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, especially when we’ve grown stranger to one another over the years.
After all these years I can still walk into my parent’s home and immediately feel like I’m a 13 year old middle child, insecure, and vying for approval or at least attention (nearly all middle children feel invisible, you know… it’s our particular brand of crazy). Maybe as much as we have changed, not much has changed after all. Somehow my family seems able to overlook all of this, or else just roll with it, and we almost always end up having fun together. There’s always some sort of tension going on, little dramas and irritations (we were raised to have strong opinions and to speak our own minds, so there’s that). But there is this unanimous sense that this thing we have, this gift of family is deep down good and precious and rare and even holy.
But it takes work to hold it together, and it takes a good mental preparation to step back into our family of origin without crashing into one another and causing damage. This is not anywhere close to an exhaustive list, but just a few things to keep in mind as you head for home:
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: Anxiety is a buzz-kill. When you feel it rising in you, take a walk, a deep breath, and let it go. If you sense anxiety in others, find a way to name what you see in them that you love, like, or enjoy. If your sister starts to freak, tell her she’s a good mom. If your dad starts to criticize you, tell him he is a good father and a good man. If he still won’t stop, remind him that one day you’ll have power of attorney.
Celebrate Your Differences: A lot has changed over the years. You no longer vote, think, worship, pray, entertain, laugh, speak, spend, or see the world like you did when you were young. You can despise the changes, or you can call them growth and appreciate them. You don’t have to see the world in exactly the same way to overeat and watch football together.
Practice Forgiveness in Real Time: Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting on the other person to die. Forgiveness-in-real-time is a superpower. If you can spot a family member’s brokenness (racism, sexism, selfishness, insecurities, abusiveness, anger, bitterness, pettiness), just forgive it right then and there. It costs so little to forgive, but grudges are so costly to maintain.
Seek First to Understand: Ask for stories. Be curious and listen. Withhold your opinion. Be quick to listen and slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Don’t comment or critique everything and be curious instead. If you head home and spend the whole entire time as a story-catcher, hearing about the lives of your family, you will leave a better person and you will probably enjoy yourself.
Don’t Take the Bait: If someone in your family is trying to rile you up or bate you into an argument, don’t go there. Don’t swing at pitches in the dirt. If you can laugh at yourself you cannot be offended. Know your triggers and avoid them if you can. Remember it’s always okay to say, “I love you too much to have this conversation right now.”
Extend Grace: Nobody’s perfect. You don’t have to make people pay for their imperfections. What your soul really wants is to connect with your family and friends, and to enjoy their company. Focus on those things and let the brokenness slide. You can complain to your spouse on the car ride home (or not).