Today is December 27, 2018. I always think of the in-between space for the holidays as being the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. The time jam packed with one holiday right after another from Hanukkah and Solstice to Christmas and Kwanzaa; and many more that I can not even bring to mind. For many Christians this short time between Christmas and New Years is a bit like a holiday coma, or that is how I have heard it described this week.

For me this time was always meant to be a catch-up time. Time to catch up with friends and family; a time to sit back and enjoy the moments before the new year takes over; a time to make sure the New Year’s meal is planned and bought for; and ultimately a time of reflection. This year really has been no different. Sure, I am sad and hurting still from the loss of my mom and that is playing a big part of my reflection, but I am also reflecting on who I have been, how I have grown and where I see myself headed. It is something I do every year right before New Year’s.

This year a big portion of my reflection has been sitting on family traditions. Since truly starting my own family (apparently until kids are involved people don’t take you as seriously in saying “my own family” or feelings get bent out of shape), I have been trying to figure out what traditions mean to me, to Rent-a-Dad and ultimately to the children in our lives. It has been this give and take of “yours, mine and ours” between all of the adults involved. There are birth parents and families as well as our own family and our own traditions to sort through.

In the past six years the biggest part of any tradition for all of us is making sure we are all included and represented in some meaningful way that we do not feel left out. That is what has been the most important to me.

As a child I often felt like I had no say in what we did as a family for the longest time. I was told I had to go along with traditions that had been established well before I was born. As I grew up and our family dynamics changed, my parents let there be a little more leeway (flexibility) in what we did and when.

What I learned from that experience is the importance of involvement, being accepted, and a developing need inside of me for holiday traditions that were flexible and relaxed.

Over the years, too often my mom was very stressed out because everything had to be perfect so we could have a perfect moment/time. Looking back with memories of her like a mini-tornado around the house fussing and stressing just sets off my anxiety.

The moments I remember fondly and miss the most? The imperfect impromptu ones like my dad and I horsing around at church on Christmas Eve when I was in 7th or 8th grade. It was one of the last times my mom, dad and I all went to church together. Or the times the three of us spent just driving around looking at Christmas decorations. The Christmas days we went to the National Cathedral to be together, be reverent, and light a candle. I remember feeling loved and protected in all of those moments.

So, what does that all mean to me now? Do I throw out old traditions? Make new ones? How do I keep a balance?

This is something I thought I had a good foundation with / a handle on until last year when I was told by a family member that I was not keeping family/their traditions in mind. It, and well a few other choice words, rocked my foundation a bit. I knew this family member had felt this way for some time so I wasn’t shocked by the admission of what I had known. Rather what shocked me was the vehemence and anger that went with those words. I was doing what I had thought of as my best to keep a balance between traditions I had grown up with while incorporating traditions from Rent-a-Dad and now the birth families of our kids.

So, what had I done wrong?    

What advice had I received over the years about traditions?

From my own parents, and their lead, it was to keep sacred the ties with our faith, keep close to those we love, and once we had our own kids to make sure to stay at home and develop family traditions with them. That grandparents, and traditions with extended family would have to fill in around what we did with our family. Would it always go smoothly? No. Just do your best. And most importantly think of the kids.

A lot of the advice I have received from friends and other family members over the years has been very similar. As Rent-a-Dad and I have built a family through non-traditional means, the same advice has rung true. Friends have still stressed how important it is to build traditions with these children we love and care for; and how they admire that we are doing so with the birth families and still trying to hold some of our own traditions intact.

By those standards and advice, I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was listening to all those involved in creating family traditions with our kids and trying to make everyone feel heard. It was my extended family that was feeling left out (or rather one member) and marginalized because he didn’t want change to come to the traditions he grew up with. He wanted me to send our kids home to their birth families and celebrate with my family not with Rent-a-Dad included, or if Rent-a-Dad was he had to follow “our traditions”. The funny thing? This family member and the traditions he wanted held sacred were not always so important to him when I was a kid. His way and what he wanted was important. The same thing held true here. His priorities needed to come first. He did not want to be flexible and involve others unless it was his choice, his decision, his rules. That is fine in his own residence with his family.

It is important to evaluate relationships from time to time as well. Toxicity exists. At the holidays toxic relationships make memories painful and hearts heavy with sadness instead of letting the magic of children’s joy ring out or the uplifting words from a good sermon wrap you in warmth and light.

The holidays, and the traditions around them are supposed to wrap us all in love, magic, and fill our hearts with all things positive and good so we feel renewed and ready to begin this yearly cycle of birth, death and renewal all over again.

As I am wrapping up my reflection of 2018, and hoping for something a bit lighter and brighter in 2019, I want to remember a few things about traditions.

Traditions are NOT meant to be:

  • Hard and fast
  • Unbending
  • Uncomfortable
  • Burdens that make you, or others, feel left out

Traditions ARE supposed to:

  • Be source of identity
  • Bring magic/ light into your life
  • Be powerful and uplifting
  • Be done with a purpose (require thought, care and consideration)
  • Provide reassurance that all will be right (a sense of comfort)
  • Be done with love
  • Be (most importantly) what you make of them

**********************************

If you have been following our blog then this post might bring up a memory of another post we made about traditions and the need for flexibility. The post, Traditions: Cornerstones, Hassles, or Non-Existent, was also a reflection in a way, about our journey into what traditions mean in the foster care system and how our own thoughts on traditions have evolved. I think back often to this original post and my advice to others as I am still journeying forward. It closed with similar sentiments “Focus on the happy messy moments, no matter how small (time or space), as they are the ones you will always remember and hold dear!”.  

While struggling with the anger of the words that made me question how Rent-a-Dad and I were going about establishing our own traditions, I did a lot of reading, reflecting and talking to others. A post from another blog helped me in my journey to squarely being on my foundation is Creating a Positive Family Culture: The Importance of Establishing Family Traditions.

Traditions: Cornerstones, Hassles, or Non-Existent

traditions

Some traditions give us warm fuzzy feels while the mere mention of others has us reaching for bottles of aspirin and antacids. This season in particular I want to share some thoughts on traditions and the importance of keeping family get-togethers light and fun.

As a child you learn about the meaning of tradition; as a youth you learn the importance of keeping traditions; as a young adult you begin to learn what traditions are valuable to you and your loved ones; as part of a couple you learn about the need for balance; and as a seasoned couple you find out about the shelf life of traditions.

 

Cornerstones

Dictionary.com defines tradition as “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation”. Wikipedia classifies tradition as “a belief or behavior passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past”.

For me the word tradition has always been a word with some weight to it. I have felt overwhelmed and tied down by traditions. Traditions happen to be the cornerstones of religion and society. They can be tangible or intangible. Family traditions follow much the same pattern and weight but family traditions are a little easier to let evolve and grow with needs and expansion.

When I was the president of my sorority in my junior year of college I felt the burden to keep traditions sacrosanct. I did not want to be the person involved in letting an organization fail. The following year as a regular “sister” who was preparing for her wedding, while handling a senior thesis and graduation, I felt the need for flexible traditions within my sisterhood. Now as an alumna, I have imparted advice letting the next generation know that the important thing about a sorority is to remember why everyone wanted to be sisters to begin with. That some traditions need to evolve while others traditions are the foundation/cornerstone of an organization.

To quote the bible, and the Byrds, “To everything there is a season…”

Hassles

A good number of people learn about traditions from an early age. As we grow we learn that traditions can be something we look forward to or something we dread.

Admittedly when I hear the word tradition I think of Fiddler on the Roof with Tevye singing Tradition. This song has many meanings for me including describing how traditions were handled when I was a child. In my house growing up traditions meant the need to follow everything “by the book”. This can be rather stressful at times. Most events revolving around traditions I looked forward to with childlike glee. Others I would beg my mom to let me just stay in my room. The latter was my experience with Thanksgiving.

Once upon a time Thanksgiving meant big family get-togethers with a balance of responsibility shared between the adults who attended. Events like that I could get behind and love but like most things traditions evolve and not always for good.

At some point Thanksgiving became a holiday we shared with my dad’s parents. They would travel three hours south to see us and the holiday was always ripe with tension. My mom always felt like she had to be perfect and serve the perfect meal. Between the tense energy for her need of “perfection” and my hatred of being the child who was supposed to be “seen and not heard” by her grandparents, I always wanted to just spend Thanksgiving alone in my room.

Other than the enjoyment of watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade as a family, Thanksgiving was no more than a hassle for me as a child. I am excited that Thanksgiving is no longer this way for my family. The parade is still a BIG part of our day, as it means Christmas is right around the corner, but we can be more relaxed and flexible now about how we choose to celebrate.

 

Flexibility

As a young couple Rent-a-Dad and I learned the need to find a balance between his traditions and mine. Some family traditions overlapped while others were drastically different. A balance was needed even for the traditions that seemed as if we grew up in the same household.

A good example was Christmas Eve. Both of our families celebrated gift exchange on Christmas Eve. So we couldn’t easily be at both his house in Missouri and my house in Maryland at the same time. The best compromise did not come within the first years of our relationship or marriage but later as foster parents.

Ever since becoming foster parents we have learned that not everyone knows traditions can be positive experiences so there is a need to share the traditions we value and why. We have also learned to remember that some traditions are important to hold onto while others have a time and a place. Sometimes letting go of one tradition is just as important as preserving another. As families form and evolve, it is also important to remember that traditions do the same thing. Traditions have a lifecycle: point of creation; a point of evolution; and a time to retire.

Christmas is a time filled with traditions and is a time that reminds us most about the need to be flexible.

 

Non-Existent

DCS wants foster parents to be flexible about their own plans to make room for the children coming into their homes. Sometimes this is easy as gift giving and tradition sharing. Other times are more difficult. When re-unification is the goal, DCS will ask foster parents to put their own holiday plans on hold to ensure a child spends Christmas with his/her birth family. This often seems unfair.

It is important to remind DCS that your traditions matter too. Before you decide to hold fast to your traditions, first talk with the birth family.

Our experience has shown us that when you ask birth families to share their traditions they are more flexible than you thought they might be. They can also be open to hearing about your own traditions so they may start something new with positive memories.

When working with birth families remember to be flexible in your own traditions as you help build new ones.

 

Parting Words on Traditions

 

Over the past three years we have learned so much about sharing our own traditions and creating new ones.

As the grandchild of a French/Italian American, I have learned that Thanksgiving and Christmas are not just about turkeys or hams. That there is as much of a place on the table for homemade meatballs and pasta as there is gravy and mashed potatoes.

As one half of a married couple who are also foster parents, I have learned that traditions are not just about keeping memories alive or something you see on TV but are about the love and time you spend with family. Traditions are not (just) about specific dates instead they are about moments shared. In terms of gift giving, Christmas is still Christmas whether it is spent on December 25th or another day that week.

As a foster parent, I have learned that sharing traditions can help heal old wounds for birth families and yourself. Creating new traditions also have the same effect.

As a parent, I have learned that the messy moments in life mean more than all the perfect ones. From the baby who loves to roll around in the wrapping paper to the cat jumping into the tree. Deep breaths and laughter can guide you through the rough spots. So can reminders about boundaries and how family can be helpful.

Also as a foster parent, sometimes DCS is not the biggest push for flexibility or the opposite. Don’t be afraid to let your own family know you may need time, space, and their understanding as you work with the system.

So this holiday season as you are running around gift buying and focusing on the traditions dear to your family, remember to cut yourself some slack. That creating the perfect moment is tenuous and often unattainable. Focus on the happy messy moments, no matter how small (time or space), as they are the ones you will always remember and hold dear!