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 we all 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 — a Maroon Olds Custom Cruiser), 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 of my parents children 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 some 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, then you just know 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 more peculiar 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 small tension going on, minor 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 contagious. 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, dig down deep and compliment him. If your mom gets passive aggressive, compliment her shoes. If they keep picking at you, then remind them 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 judge one another and despise the changes, or you can call the changes an important form of growth and appreciate them. You don’t have to see the world in exactly the same way to over-eat 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 little to forgive, but grudges are costly.
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 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).
Take Care of Yourself: You are probably giving up vacation time to be with your people, so rest up. Get good sleep, and exercise. If you need alone time, then escape to a coffee shop with your book. Don’t waste away your vacation time by being sleep deprived and stressed out. Take care of yourself while you spend time with family.
(a version of this originally appeared in The Huffington Post)