Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Setting a Theme for Your Family in the New Year

Remember in A Christmas Story, where the teacher says the class has to write "A Theme!" and everybody groans?

Truth: I love a good theme.

I always wind up thinking about New Year's Resolutions early - probably because during the holidays, I think of about 1,000 things I should change or would like to do, "once Christmas is over." But this year, I've decided my family is going to try something different: We're not going to set New Year's Resolutions. Nope, not going to do it. It's too much stress and they seldom work out.

Instead, we're going to set a theme for the year.

I shared this approach in a September post, after reading, Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW! by Stephen M. Shapiro. The idea is that instead of setting goals - which let's face it, are so type-A and stressful - you set a direction for yourself, a compass, if you prefer. This compass then guides your overall decision making. For instance, if you've chosen "Adventure" for your direction, you wouldn't take your vacation in the same old local. You'd pick a new place, or maybe go for an adventure vacation package.

One couple translated this into a yearly theme. Each year, they picked a different theme and went after it in every aspect of their lives. For instance, during the Year of Exploration, the woman spent the year exploring her potential as a writer and starting her first book.

I love this idea for families, because it can guide so many of your day-to-day decisions, as well as your big lifetime decisions. And it's so easy to do - just decide what you really want more of in your life. For instance, we really want more fun in our lives. We get too serious, to embroiled in what we "should" do, and fun gets pushed to the side. Not surprisingly, my husband and I are experience a bit of drudgery in our lives. The remedy: More Fun and Freedom - permission to have fun and be free from worry, free from constant work, free to do what we want to do.

So, we've already agreed on our theme for the coming year: Fun & Freedom.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Carnival of Family Life Up

The new Carnival of Family Life is up at On the Horizon. It includes a recent Time for Family post, "A Community Makes Time for Family."

I particularly liked the section on Holiday gift ideas, including a list of lead-free toys. Check it out.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Quick Tip: Christmas Lights and Coco

Want an easy, low-stress family tradition for the holidays? That's right - I said "easy, low-stress" and "family tradition" in the same sentence.

When it's dark tonight, instead of plopping down in front of the TV, do this: Mix up some warm coco, put it in a thermos - or sippy cup, if you've got a preschooler - and head out after dark for a car tour of the neighborhood or downtown Christmas lights.

If you've thought far enough ahead, pop in a CD of seasonal songs, but chances are, carols are already playing on the radio.

One caveat: If you have a DVD player in your car, be sure to turn it off!

Some cities even have parks that host light displays, but these cost money and, well, driving around neighborhoods is relatively free - minus the $3 a gallon gas prices, of course. Plus, every town has those neighborhoods were people go all-out. Why not enjoy their creativity for free?

If you're up for it, and live in a neighborhood that loves to decorate, you could bundle up and go for a walk instead.

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Christmas: Time to Heal?

Given my humbuggery about Thanksgiving, I suppose it's only karma that I stumbled onto this article, "The Purpose Driven Christmas," by Rick Warren, author of the Purpose Drive Life and similar titles.

One of the ways Warren suggests we add meaning to the holiday is to "Make It a Time for Personal Growth," which has a very specific meaning for him. He challenges us to look at who we need to forgive and of whom we need to ask forgiveness. He writes:

Resentment always hurts you more than the person you resent because bitterness keeps you emotionally stuck in the past. Let go of those hurts and remember this: The most valuable and significant gift you can give anyone this Christmas is your forgiveness, because it will allow you to grow.

Obviously, I've got some forgiving to do. The question for me has always been how? To tell you the truth, I've never found that real forgiveness - where you can give as you did before the injury - happens easily or often. People forgive in that they let go of the anger, but they don't give up the fear, the mistrust or the pain. I think if you're really going to forgive, you have to do that as well. And that's damn hard to do if someone keeps hurting you by doing the same thing.

Here's a little secret: I'm trying a new form of therapy that's supposed to help you do exactly this. It's called EMDR, and I started going for post-traumatic stress disorder from the Oklahoma City bombing.

I'll be honest with you: If I'd walked into a therapist's office and she tried EMDR, I'd probably walk right out or never go back. But I have a psychiatrist friend who's been using it with his patients, and he reported nigh-miracle results: People off their medicines, completely different, happy and well-adjusted in a very short time. Then a friend tried it and it seemed to work for her.

After years of struggling with depression, always being on medicine and never getting very far in therapy, despite three therapists and years of work, I thought I'd give it a try.

And it seems to be working. Really, really well. Even my husband agrees.

So far, I have been able to 'let go' of a lot of pain and anger. What's nice about that is I can come from a place of strength and resolve without feeling all ick inside about it. You know what I mean: The nervousness, the anxiety. No, in the situations where we've done EMDR, I can just be myself and feel okay and not have to worry about it. I remember everything - but it's all clearer and in perspective.

Sometimes, like over Thanksgiving, I still get knocked down, but so far, it's always been in an area where we're still doing the work or a new area I've never tackled. It turns out, some of this depression stuff goes way, way back. Surprise. Maybe when we're finished with the EMDR, I won't have to write posts about 'subtracting' family members. Although, you know, after EMDR, I really have no guilt about cutting off some very dangerous, destructive family members. Previously, it was very hard for me to opt out - I felt guilty, as if I should make it possible to see them over the holidays, even though they didn't respect our requests, our rules and even potentially were a danger to my child.

If you're really struggling to forgiveness, depression, anger or anxiety, why not find an EMDR therapist and try. Be prepared to give it at least two months before you see results. And realize that you'll actually get worse before you get better. That's what happens when you dig up bones.

Hopefully, by Christmas, I'll be able to manage some forgiveness under the tree.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Prayer for A Lifetime

I used to post prayers regularly, but I got out of the habit. Mostly, because religion has fallen off my radar in the past year. Sad, but true.

I found this great prayer at The River and the Vine and thought it was worth sharing:

O God, when I have food,
help me to remember the hungry;

When I have work,
help me to remember the jobless;

When I have a home,
help me to remember those who have no home;

When I am without pain,
help me to remember those who suffer,

And remembering,
help me to destroy my complacency;
bestir my compassion,
and be concerned enough to help
those who cry out for what we take for granted.


-Samuel F. Pugh

You can find another great Thanksgiving prayer, sermons and other religious writings, at The River and The Vine, a blog written by Rev. Cynthia O'Brien of the Smith Memorial Presbyterian Church, Fairview, Oregon, and the Presbytery of the Cascades.



Defining Family: When to Subtract

When I started this blog, one of the topics I wanted to explore - and I listed it right in the masthead (see, above this post) - was what it means to be a family. And I think a big part of that is defining family.

I'd never looked up the definition for family before because I thought I knew it. It turns out, I was surprised by how limiting the first entries or so are. I'm posting the first seven, because the rest don't apply, since they move in the idea of larger, official families (the family of Romantics, for instance). defines family as:
  1. parents and their children, considered as a group, whether dwelling together or not.
  2. the children of one person or one couple collectively: We want a large family.
  3. the spouse and children of one person: We're taking the family on vacation next week.
  4. any group of persons closely related by blood, as parents, children, uncles, aunts, and cousins: to marry into a socially prominent family.
  5. all those persons considered as descendants of a common progenitor.
  6. Chiefly British. approved lineage, esp. noble, titled, famous, or wealthy ancestry: young men of family.
  7. a group of persons who form a household under one head, including parents, children, and servants.
For me, family has always been extended to definition four - any group of persons closely related by blood - and, frankly, their marriage partners as well.

I now see that's just a huge definition - no wonder 'family' makes me anxious! The family I carry around in my head is just too darn huge to feel like family.

You'll note the first three definitions are much smaller, essentially composed of the traditional, nuclear family: A parent and offspring.

Why all this defining of family?

Honestly, I'm pondering whether there are situations - things that happen, circumstances - that make it ridiculously to extend to someone the consideration of family.

In short: Can you kick people out of your family? Can you cut out the dysfunctional and limit who you consider your family to the point of creating a functional group?

If my extended family is so negative as to make me miserable, can I just delete them from my definition of family?

Obviously, in some ways, no. Family is family, and if there's a blood tie, there's not a lot you can do about it. You'll still all be invited to the same funerals, the same weddings, the same 'parties.' You can't control that.

But you can control how you relate to that person and whether or not you accept them as family - whether you continue to 'try' to be a part of their lives, their family.

And if you can delete people - if you can redefine family - then where is it fair to draw the line? I know people who've cut off their family over what seem to me to be nothing. But increasingly, as I move toward a healthier place for myself - I'm seeing that sometimes it's not about what people do so much as how they make you feel. Maybe these families didn't 'do' much to the outsider, but their words and actions, over time, have amounted to an ongoing psychological beating. And who wants to endure that all the time?

I was talking about how a friend might benefit from therapy to deal with some of her family issues. Her father's dead and she said, basically, that every one's parents hurt them - including her father's parents - and you shouldn't hold it against them since they were acting from a place of hurt. I pointed out that this didn't change the fact you'd been damaged and could get help recovering from that. It doesn't have to be about blame.

On the other hand, it occurs to me that it's much easier to 'get over' the pain when the family member is dead. We assume it's because their death gives us perspective, but even now, I understand my dad won't live forever. When your relative dies, they stop inflicting injuries, and you can heal. But while they're alive, they're still causing hurting you - and how can you get over it when just yesterday, your father put you down in the exact same way he did when you were 10? Or when you see him making fun of someone else the same way he did you?

Maybe when I'm healthy and strong, I'll be able to. But I'm not there yet, and I don't think anyone just 'gets there' without reconciling and recovering from the past.

Fortunately, my friend and I were just talking about psychological wounds - not being 'good enough' and being made fun of for our accomplishments. Thankfully, neither of us had to deal with physical or sexual abuse.

So, is it fair, then, to restrict your family interactions while you heal? I think it is.

But I also think maybe some things you can't overlook - physical/sexual abuse, for instance. For me, physical danger and excessive, deliberate psychological abuse all are grounds for being subtracted from family.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Better Thanksgiving in 2008

My Thanksgiving was so unbelievably horrible, my husband and I have decided to start a new tradition next year: Leaving town.

Here are our ideas for a new family (meaning, just the three of us) tradition for next year:
  1. Thanksgiving with the Mouse. Disney is such an artificially pleasant place - and frankly, I could do with some forced pleasantry during Thanksgiving. After all, it sets the tone for the whole Christmas season. And believe me, I have no Christmas joy after this year's Thanksgiving. So, my logic is: Forced joy = Joy through the Christmas season. Actually, one year we spent the week before Christmas in Florida and visited Disney and it just brightened up our whole Christmas. Also, I figure once our daughter's married, there's no way her spouse's family can compete with a Disney vacation at Thanksgiving. But then again, we might get stuck with Thanksgiving and his family would get Christmas, which would just piss me off no end. So, maybe not. (You have to think ahead when planning new family traditions.)
  2. Thanksgiving in New York - why not? Book the package, see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade up close and personal, stay the weekend and enjoy the Christmas lights. I recognize we may not want to do this every year, but it's my hands-down favorite for next year.
  3. Thanksgiving in a different state, starting with Maine - or New York (see number 2). My least favorite, because once you finished with the original 13 colonies, I think it'd get pretty dull. Except for Florida, California and Hawaii. They'd be awesome. On the other hand, my daughter will be 5 and she'd be 18 by the time we finished the colonies. By that time, we'd have a long track record of not being home for Thanksgiving and could perhaps slack off a bit and do something more fun. And maybe we'd have more money to do something wild - like buy a time share for Thanksgiving in Hawaii. Aloha!
  4. Thanksgiving in a cabin far, far away. As in, the Smokey Mountains, the Poconos, or possibly the Rockies.
  5. Thanksgiving Abroad. No turkey, but no relatives either. We could revisit all the places the Pilgrims fled. It'd be very educational.
  6. Thanksgiving in our new home state - of any-place-but-here.

Actually, I did enjoy seeing my extended family Friday night at my grandmothers. And my daughter loved playing with her cousins - well, second cousins, but they're all she has in terms of young relatives.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving: Hunker Down and Get Through It

I know this is a blog focusing on family, and in the past, I've had a tendency to focus on the potential of family more than the realities. But this holiday, I've got a bad case of the humbugs.

And, frankly, I'm just hunkering down to get through this hap-happiest time of the year. I do harbor hopes my attitude will improve before Christmas, but it's just too late for Thanksgiving.

The thing is, all is not well in Extended Family Land and the holidays are just forcing togetherness at a time when we'd be better off left alone. The truth is, the thought of the whole thing makes me queasy.

I'm not alone, as I recently discovered during a conversation with my mother.

Just last night, I learned my sister's new boyfriend would be joining us. Every year, there's a different stranger sitting beside my sister at the Thanksgiving table. At a time in our lives when we barely see each other, it's disconcerting to navigate dinner conversation with a stranger. To me, it just adds to the strain. I never brought boyfriends to holiday dinners and can't understand why she feels the need. Sure, he might become a member of the family one day - but, frankly, we've thought that about every guy she's brought to holiday dinners and let's just say the odds are against him.

My mother contends it's because my sister - who is the baby of the family - is the only one not married and that she has a right to bring any friend she wants to the family meal. And since it's my mother's house, what can I say, except the same was not true about my friends. "This is family-time," I was told very sternly. "Haven't they go their own family?"

But I digress. The point is, when I said the boyfriend made me anxious, my mother informed me she gets anxious having all of us to dinner. My father and she agreed that it'd be a 'successful' holiday if we could all get through it without fighting.

Which made me wonder, "Then why are we bothering?"

I mean, really. No one's looking forward to it. Everyone sees it as something to survive. Why bother? Why not just cancel Thanksgiving? Christmas will come soon enough as it is, and I know I'm not getting out of that one.

I realize this is not the holiday tripe I'm supposed to think. And it definitely doesn't reflect a positive mental attitude. But one does wonder: Are we just all in this because of our misguided ideas about family and it's importance? If we only see each other because we 'have to,' because it's a holiday, then is family really important? Or are we just playing at family?

It'd be nice if the solution were as easy as, "Just don't go." But the truth is, doing that would generate all this weird angst around the holiday table that would have ramifications through my mother's birthday and Christmas. It's easier to just endure.

One thing is clear: I don't want my own family - my husband and child - to be this way years from now. We've got to redefine the day for ourselves - cut loose somehow from the situations that make us grimace with anxiety and feel we're 'enduring' the holiday. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, some Thanksgiving in the future, we actually felt glad and grateful for a day to be together?

But not this year. So, until that fabled time comes when we're actually thankful to spend time with family, check out Mahalo's "How to Survive Thanksgiving Dinner with Your Family." You might also enjoy my post on Toxic Relatives from last November.

See you on the other end of the turkey!

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Quick Tip: Family Bonding List

LifeEdit is this amazingly bold blog I stumbled across recently. I found this fun blog post on "50 Easy Family Bonding Activities" and thought I'd share it. If you're looking for a few ideas for this long holiday weekend, check it out. I would caution, however, that not all of the ideas are free or easy, despite what the post says. For instance, item number one - Go Camping - is anything but free or easy, unless you're camping right outside your house in a tent or camper that someone else has already set up for you.

Likewise, as I found out earlier this year, volunteering is rife with complications.

But there are lots of fun ideas here - some new, some forgotten, some just untried. Why not pick one Thursday and give it ago? I'd definitely like to try number 45 - Build a Lego model of your house - provided I can find enough Legos!


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How Many Children Go Hungry in Your State?

Do you know how many households in your state are considered "Food Insecure?" Do you know how many children are living in poverty? Find out by visiting America's Second Harvest's Child Food Insecurity Statistics Map.

While you're on the site, join the Hunger Action Center.


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Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Community Makes Time for Family

I'm reading 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It (100 Simple Secrets Series). I love this book series - each item is only one page long and the books short, so it's easy to pick the book up and put it down.

Number 46 is "Encourage, but Don't Require Activities," and it includes a great idea I thought I'd share.

We've all read how children - especially suburban, middle-class children - these days are over-scheduled. Heck, the whole family is over-scheduled. Obviously, this is not The Biggest Problem in the World. There are much bigger problems - world hunger, war, child abuse. But I think this is a really bad trend for the following reasons:
1. Over-scheduled kids become accustomed to someone entertaining them. They therefore do not take responsibility for entertaining themselves. They are easily bored. All of which makes them easy prey for the entertainment industry.
2. Over-scheduled children and parents don't have time for self-reflection, or even processing what's happening in their lives. This leads to a less thoughtful society, a society busy being busy. This is a Bad Idea because it creates a society that is endlessly self-indulgent and too concerned with its own affairs to worry about real world problems.
3. Over-scheduling doesn't leave time for imaginative play and family bonding.

One school came up with a simple solution: Community leaders and school officials declared the suburb would have a Family Night - one evening a week when nothing was scheduled. No school activities, no homework, no city council meeting, nothing, nadda.

They actually received calls from people asking what they should plan to do on Family Night.

The book quotes one of the originators as saying the idea was to push the pause button on busy suburban lives. The woman, who is named only as Marcia, says:

"Some people say this is just the way it is to be a parent these days. Our community wants to throw out the suggestion that maybe there is a choice. Maybe all these activities and running around aren't in the best interest of your children."

I'll second that.

Action Steps:
  1. Start circulating the idea among other parents at your child's school. Ask your child's teacher to consider one night a week without homework.
  2. Move up: Ask your school or even your school district to support a Family Night. Start with the principal, write a letter to the superintendent and speak to the school board if necessary. Ask for one night a week, but accept no less than one night a month. No homework. No activities. Not even athletic practice.
  3. Email your city council and suggest it support the idea.
  4. Pick one: Either write a letter to the editor or email or phone a local newspaper columnist. Columnist and editors always looking for ideas to write about, and you may recruit a powerful ally with this one contact.

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Where Did the Time Go?

One of the more ironic aspects of writing this blog is that sometimes, I don't have time to write it, particularly if I want to spend time with my family. So, if you see long gaps, that's why - that, plus my innate tendency to like TV and surfing the Internet.

My hope is that I'll be more disciplined and a more faithful blogger once my Tidbit starts school - but that's still nearly a year away.

The realization that she's headed to school - and won't need me at home full time - is sending me into an identity tail spin. I simply can't decide what happens next. Among the ideas bouncing through my head:
  • Have another baby. I've always planned for two, but for a lot of reasons, that didn't happen and it's a really hard choice for me. Pregnancy just about kills me. And yet...
  • Go back to school or work full- or part-time.
  • Take a year off and get in better shape.
  • Really dig in and work hard at my freelance career. (Complicated, since she won't be in school year round and clients aren't likely to understand I need summers off!)
  • Try to start a new and different business that the whole family could participate in.
  • Try to launch a mega successful blog and/or write the next Harry Potter.
  • Keep going like I'm going now, same part-time freelance work, and just accept there are some things in life we'll never afford - such as retirement.
Right now, I spend a lot of time debating the merits of becoming a teacher versus continuing as a freelance writer. I'm even exploring getting a masters in teaching.

I've been reading "101 Secrets of Happy Families" off and on - it's one of those books you can read that way, since it's really more a series of short essays than a book. Anyway, one of the items is that Happy Families determine what they should do - not what they want to do. In other words, you stop focusing on your wants and on what needs to be done, what should be done, to further the family. This has been somewhat helpful. After all, I should do something that brings in money, adds to our future financial security and lets me still be home with my child as much as possible. So, when you look at it that way, I should be a teacher, since then my schedule and my daughter's schedule would be the same and I'd have a regular paycheck and retirement and even my own health insurance. Plus, I think I might actually like it.

(Go ahead - post about how teaching is a calling. But I know people who teach and didn't feel called. And they're good teachers. Great teachers, even. So, you may feel it's a calling, but that doesn't mean the rest of us have to. Yes, yes: I realize it's not just days with kids and summers off - I know there's a lot of work involved, including long nights of homework and prep, so just back off people! I've got an eraser and I'm not afraid to use it!)

But then again, the book says happy families support each other in achieving their full potential. And for me, I've always dreamed of being a writer. Not the kind of writer I'm being now, I'll grant you. But nonetheless, a writer. While I could be a teacher - and really enjoy it and work hard to do it well - it's not my dream.

If only my dream job came with full retirement, full salary, the ability to write what I really want and summers off: Then we'd be talking. Instead, I'm pretty much a freelance writer just to be called that. I don't really write about anything I care about. Sad, huh? I just write to pay the bills - the writer's equivalent of taking in laundry.

And then there's this question: Which is a better role model for my daughter? Should I pursue my dream or be a responsible adult and get a real job that helps my family. After all, her father has to work at a 8-5, 40-hour a week job that's less than his dream. True, he wanted to do what he does, but I'm sure he'd love to be working from home in his pajamas, spending summers with her, too. Where do I get off thinking I'm entitled to such liberty? And do I really want to raise her with these kinds of expectations?

I am working. And I'm pretty happy with my salary - though full-time work would be better and allow us to buy lots of opportunities. Not stuff - I don't want just stuff, like huge TVs or expensive cars.

But, for instance, we want to camp as a family. I feel camping is a fantastic way to teach our environmental values to our child and bond as a family. It's also something my extended family does together. But this year, I aged out of tent camping. I just can't do it anymore. I ache too much - and we've tried everything. Plus, my daughter hated it.

So, to camp, we're going to need some form of camper and a different vehicle for toying. Right now, that means we're just not going camping because we don't have the funds for all that. And I'm not sure when we will, as long as I'm freelancing.

Freelance writing worked while my daughter was young. But long-term, I'm not sure what I do now is the best bet for me or my family.

Wow. Talk about a tangent. Not my usual type of post. But there you have it: Do you follow a career that's your calling or choose a career that most helps you further your family's goals and lifestyle?

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