Surviving and enjoying the holidays with extended family

You hug everyone as you make your way to the kitchen with the casserole you said you would bring. Your kids are walking closely behind you, smiling uncomfortably, getting hugs and comments about how much they’ve grown and how they look like your mother’s cousin on her father’s side.

For some families, they’ve been looking forward to this day for months. It’s a time to catch up. A time to celebrate family. A time to love and be loved.
For others, holidays with extended family are painful. It’s a time of judgement, arguments, bad memories and isolation.
If that’s  you, how can you turn that next holiday reunion into a positive experience for your whole family?  Here are a few thoughts.
1.  Have clear boundaries in place. Days before the get together, establish boundaries for yourself and your family. How long will we stay? What will we talk about? How will we respond to criticism or when uncle John has had one too many beers? What are the “hot buttons” to stay away from? And for really challenging situations, what will we tolerate and what will be a red flag that it’s time to leave?
Having those boundaries in place helps the family feel safe and united. While some may not think that the boundaries are necessary, others in the family will appreciate them
2.  Adopt a “help me understand” attitude.  Politics, religion, sexual orientation, presidential elections, life choices. These are only some of the subjects that can stir up strong emotions in people. You may disagree with the choices one of your extended family members has made or they may disagree with yours.
Adopting am attitude that says, “Help me understand,” can be disarming in a society where we pick and choose which of our biases we will feed. It is rare to find someone who will just listen to your point of view REGARDLESS of whether they agree. When you respect someone to that level, you earn respect. You can’t change their opinion or change their mind. But you can be an example.
Try to understand where they are coming from. What their experience has been. How they could have come to that conclusion from their experience. And coach your family to do the same. It will do wonders for your conversations with extended family.
3.  Be present. It’s easy to just make plans to be “in and out” when it comes to a family gathering. Especially if you’re single. There are so many other opportunities competing for your time. Some of which you might enjoy so much more! And if you have small children, the disruption of their schedule sets you off  for days.Its tempting to just come for an hour and then leave or not come at all.
But if you miss the gathering, you miss the opportunity for growth. Extended family is fascinating. Once upon a time, your aunts and uncles, cousins, or even just you and your siblings  grew up together. Once upon a time, the root family that brought you all together had dreams and aspirations. They did their best to raise their family. And now here you are  one or two generations later, enjoying the company of those who exist because of them.
Think of your immediate family. Wouldn’t you like to know that when they grow up, long after you’re gone  they will continue to get together, bringing their own families to reunions like this? Invest in that now. Be an example. Don’t  complain about having to go. Don’t let them skip out on the reunion. Bring them along. Tell them the funny stories about growing up with uncle Joe and why you love him. Share stories at the party of when you were all kids. Help everyone remember why they’re there and be present.
4.  Don’t sacrifice immediate family for extended family. Admittedly, we all have toxic or challenging relatives. Family members who say inappropriate things or put you in awkward situations. An aunt who prides herself in “speaking her mind” or an uncle who doesn’t approve of the way you care for your family. Or maybe they don’t like your spouse…ouch!
You may feel the pressure to side with extended family members over your immediate family just for the sake of keeping peace. Don’t. Remember that your spouse and children are your priority. Making fun of your kids in public breeds permission for others to make fun and you won’t always think it’s funny.
Your spouse and you are one. Speaking positively of him or her in public settings also sets a precedence. It tells your extended family that it’s not OK to speak negatively of your family and they can feel safe that you won’t speak badly of theirs.
5.  See extended family with finite lenses. My mom used to have a phrase she would say both dramatically and jokingly every year. “This will be my last year.” We used to laugh together about how she said that every year and every year she would be there for another get together. Then one year she wasn’t.
It’s been ten years and I still miss my mom very much. And when I think of our time together, I am both thankful for the time we had and regretful of the times when I was rushing for my weekly visit with her and didn’t have much time to stay.
Your extended family is finite. They won’t be there forever and neither will you. But on the holidays we get an opportunity to catch up. To value who they are even if we don’t always agree. To appreciate that we do have extended family and that we are part of a bigger story.
This is not the time to change them or criticize them or wish you came from a different place. No family is perfect. This is a time to enjoy. Who knows what next year will bring. Celebrate today.

Fall is the gift in-between

I’m sitting outside enjoying the cool breeze. It’s fall. Not too hot, not too cold. And the beauty of fall colors is all around me. I can hear frogs and crickets but it’s getting too cold for mosquitos. But this is only one reason I love fall.

Fall is that in-between that comes after that “perfect” season that flew by when we were going to do all kinds of exciting things. Vacations, picnics, cookouts, bike rides, swimming and such. Expectations were so high in the beginning of summer that some got done and most didn’t. Life kept coming at us reminding us that the mundane and the urgent stop for no season.

But fall has no such expectations. It brings us back to routine while reminding us of the silver lining of life. It shouts “Do over!” And we get to take a walk and reevaluate and think of the possibilities of doing things better. Of setting things right. Of celebrating the good things in our lives and being hopeful for the bad.

Fall comes before the cold. It is the pause before the storm. It is the fresh air before the staleness of closed windows. Enjoy it. Embrace it. Fill yourself with it. Go ahead. Go for a walk. Take a long drive to nowhere with the windows down. Just go, and enjoy and remember. Fall is the gift in-between.





The pain of parenting and the relief of surrender

Grandparents are fond of saying, “Little children, little problems. Big children, BIG problems.”

For the most part, that’s a true statement. I remember having little ones and worrying that they would put something in their mouth and choke or fall and hurt their head. I worried if they didn’t eat and I worried if they ate too much. I worried about losing them at the mall or them running into the street. But none of that fear could have prepared me for the fears of having teenagers. Starting high school, getting offered drugs, making bad judgment calls, picking the wrong friends, learning how to drive, the list can go on and on.

I think most parents of teenagers have experienced that knot in the pit of their stomach that comes from their kids not answering their cell phone or someone calling to let us know that our kid has misbehaved. For some parents, dealing with difficult teens is a daily struggle. Most of us know what it means to have sleepless nights worrying about our teens.

But then I am reminded that this is not a one or two person job. No, I am not talking about “it takes a village,” although I believe community is important. I’m talking about the One who created them.

It is easy to take credit when our kids are doing well.  But it can be very painful to take the blame when they make bad choices. We wonder where we went wrong. What we could have done to prevent it. Why this is happening to us. And while it is always good to learn from our mistakes, we need to remind ourselves that our teens have a free will. And God knows what our kids are going to choose. AND, He’s on top of it.

The next time you feel hopeless before the decisions your teen is making, remember that true relief is found in surrendering it to God. He is in the business of restoring and using even the worst choices and mistakes for His glory and as an opportunity for our kids and us to grow in our understanding of Him and in our understanding of life. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of that.

Hope needs to see progress

Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”

Everyone goes through seasons of difficulty. Times when everything seems to be going wrong. Whether it’s in marriage, parenting, career or finances, in those times it is important to experience moments of progress, even if they seem small. Here are some ways to experience those small wins to keep you going.

1. Go for a walk.You may not be able to take the family out to dinner. There might be too much tension at home for conversation or you may have lost your job. It’s hard to look on the bright side when things look so defeating. 

Going for a walk while listening to your favorite music, podcasts or just enjoying the silence can be good for your outlook on life. If you pray while you walk it’s even better. You may gain clarity or a sense of peace in the middle of a stressful situation.

2. Set short term goals. It feels good to reach goals. Sometimes our goals seem too far away.  The unending task of trying to reach them can be tiring. Especially if we experience a lot of set backs. 

Short term goals can help us see that we actually are moving forward. Most accomplishments don’t happen over night. They come as a result of several small steps. Small successes are not as defeating as no success at all. So make short term goals that are attainable that will serve as a benchmark on your way to where you’re going

3. Schedule it. Once you have your long term and short term goals in mind, put them on the calendar in ink! Don’t let it get rescheduled. Take your deadlines as seriously as you would take going to work or feeding the family. 

Every time your goals get pushed aside, your hope gets deferred. When your hope gets deferred your heart feels sick. But when you accomplish a desire, even if it’s a little but at a time, it is a tree of life.

3 goals we can model for our kids

I have read many parenting books in the past 30 years of raising my kids and have learned a lot of practical tips along the way.
However, my kids are all different. So I have had to constantly adapt and change my parenting style to better serve and raise each child.
No matter how different my kids are, there are three goals that I have that are best taught through modeling.
1.  Model adulthood. The best definition of adulthood I’ve heard yet, is that an adult is someone who does what needs to be done whether he feels like it or not. That’s it! In a world where people only do what feels good, where entertainment is king, where quitting is easier than working hard, our kids need the example of what a real adult does.
This means being the parent whether we want to or not. Disciplining when it’s hard. Playing with the kids when we’re tired. Pressing into the relationship in the face of rejection. Listening when we disagree with what’s being said. Apologizing  when we’re wrong.
Parents remain the greatest example for their children. When we model real adulthood, our kids have a better chance of becoming true adults themselves.
2. Model unconditional love. We love our kids. But let’s face it, it’s easier to love them when they are compliant. When they are careless, forgetful or rebellious, it’s harder to show love. But that’s when it can have the greatest impact.
It is God’s love brings us to repentance (Romans 2:4). When I pass that kind of love down to my kids, they can see God’s love through me.
3. Model hope. It’s easy to believe in our kids when they are doing what they should be doing. But when they are in the middle of making bad choices, getting bad grades, disobeying and being rebellious, it’s hard to believe that they will turn out well.
Here’s an important fact we need to remember. What we think of our kid matters to him. Even if it doesn’t look like, even if he says he doesn’t care, your child cares what you think of him. Not believing in our kids is a serious matter. I believe it is by far, the most damaging thing we can do to them.
Remember that just as God is not finished with you, He is not finished with your child. Believe that God loves your child more than you do and that He will finish what He has started in him, no matter how old he is.
Being a parent is not for the weak. And even the strong can fall apart in the face of raising children. But the good news is that God can give us the wisdom, understanding and discernment we need to model adulthood, unconditional love and hope.

When our kids go off to college

 The summer before my oldest went away to college in 2003, I cried and cried and cried.  Not only was I was going to miss him, but life, as I had known it was over.  Taking vacations in October (we home school), family nights with everyone home, dinner with all of us sitting at the table, field trips with all six of my children…over.  This was the end of an era.  I knew it and I was overwhelmed with grief at the impending loss. Besides crying a lot, I found myself with an urgency to bombard my son with life lessons that I wanted to make sure he had. I tried to cram conversations, lessons, warnings into the little time we had left. I knew there was a problem with my heart.  I didn’t like what I was feeling:  fear. 
Fear is a horrible master. It makes us say and do things that we don’t want to say and do.  In my case, it was stopping me from enjoying this milestone with my son.  Instead, I was afraid of the changes that lay ahead and the reality that this was the beginning of the end.  
The day came when we took our son to college.  I soaked it all in.  We took him to pick his classes, we went to orientation, we made the tuition payment, met the dorm monitor, the whole deal.  The next day was the big day.  Moving him in, meeting his roommate, working our way to the end of the day when we would say good-bye.  I was fine all the way through until we hugged and I looked in his eyes.  I told him he’d be fine, I told him we’d see him in a couple of months, we all got in a circle and prayed, we got in the van, and I cried all the way home…and I prayed like mad.
Five years later, I went through exactly the same thing with our second son.  The same fears resurfaced.  I felt like I was saying good-bye all summer.  Then we went through orientation together, met his roommate, and came to the end of the day when we said good-bye.  We hugged, I looked in his eyes and told him he’d be fine.  We’d see him in a couple of months.  We got in a circle and prayed, we got in the van, and I cried all the way home…and I prayed like mad.
Our oldest has been married since 2006 and has two beautiful little girls. Our second oldest is in Seattle getting his master’s and will most likely stay in Washington. Our third son is now in his senior year at Columbia College in Chicago.  And our daughter just finished her freshmen year at Trinity. I have two left at home.
The fear that I had, the fear of change, did come to pass.  Just as I suspected, everything changed.  And everything has continued to change.  Nothing is the same…it’s different.  But different isn’t necessarily bad.  Every season in our family has been special.  The season when my children were all at home is a memory I will always treasure.  The season when my second oldest became the oldest and deepened his relationship with his siblings is also very special.  Having the last four at home and watching them do things together, special.
Things are always changing here. I am learning that change is good.  It is necessary.  All healthy, living organisms change and grow.  My family is a living organism.  Change is a sign of health.  So I am thankful for the change.  The key for me, is to be present at every stage.  To savor it.  Enjoy it.  Learn from it.  Because when it’s over, it’s over.  Something new will come to take it’s place.  And then I get to find the good in that too!   

A Tribute to my Dad

When I was in high school, my dad and I were not the best of friends.  Part of it was that we were so much alike we budded heads all the time. In my early adulthood, we still did not have much to say to each other, but we got along better.

This may not sound like much of a tribute, but wait.  After my mom passed away, I would visit my dad and we would literally sit across from each other without much to say after the weather and the news. As time went on, though, he would talk about his childhood, his teen years, his choices.  In the last years of his life, I got to know him very well.  Especially after he moved in with me and my family.  I heard many, many stories that gave me a better picture of who he was.

I heard, for example, of the day he left for Mexico, pretending that he would come back, but having no intention of returning.  I was less than a year old and he was overwhelmed with the idea of being a husband and father.  His father had left before he was even born and there were no male role models in the home he grew up.  In fact, he himself had been the male role model for his siblings, whom he financially supported since he was a kid!  But as the days went by in Mexico, he missed us.  He began to think of his growing up years and the challenges of growing up without a dad and that motivated him to come back and he never considered it again.

In the last years of his life, I came to appreciate my dad for who he was.  I’m not one to pretend that we had a perfect home growing up, we didn’t.  But my dad did a lot of things right.

Others readily remember him as a generous, hard working man, a man with a great sense of humor, a man who loved to be in a large crowd and recite poetry.  And they would be right.  He was all that, but so much more.

I felt honored when he would start a story with, “I’ve never told this to anyone before…” The highs and lows, the good and the bad.  All the while helping me understand who he was.  We talked a lot those last years.  Hours in the waiting room of doctors’ offices, having breakfast together every morning, going for walks together, driving to the store.

The day he passed away, I not only mourned that he was gone, but I mourned all the things he could have been.  He would have liked to go to college. He would have liked to travel. He would have liked to be so much more than he had the opportunity to be. But gosh, he overcame a lot of obstacles.

Thanks for doing your best, dad.  Thanks for coming back to be my dad.  And thank you for setting the bar high on determination and a sense of responsibility.  You’d be happy to know that your entrepreneurial gene is alive and well in my family, too.  Thank you! I love you and I miss you. Happy Father’s day.


Helping others in the midsts of our needs

HiThis morning I was reading the story in the Bible of when Jesus met Simon Peter. You probably remember it. Jesus is teaching a crowd of people by the shore and the crowds are pressing in on Him. He sees Simon, who has been fishing without any luck and is now washing his nets, getting ready to go home. He asks Simon to take Him out on his boat a little ways so He can teach from there and Simon does it. (You can read the whole story in Luke 5.)

Simon must have been frustrated, disappointed and stressed because he counted on fishing to make a living and provide for his family. He probably just wanted to go home and sulk. Then comes Jesus and turns his plans around. And the favor Jesus asks of him will not help him solve his problem. In fact, just the opposite. Now he has to stay longer and use his boat for the benefit of someone else. But Simon says yes.

I can’t remember how many times God has asked me to do something that does not promise benefit to me in the midst of great need. I’d be looking for a way to make some side income or we would be in the middle of some major change or challenge and suddenly I would get…another serving opportunity! Often I have felt like saying no, just because I’ve told myself I have my own problems.

Now while I’d be the first to say that we all have to practice balance and place boundaries on the amount of time we serve, we sometimes use our circumstances as an excuse to not serve at all. Yet I know many under resourced people who give of their time in the middle of their need. They serve at church and their communities, while they themselves have enormous needs. They are some of the most generous people I know. They do not give out of an abundance of resources, but out of an abundance of their hearts.

The good news is that Simon’s story doesn’t end there. After Jesus finished teaching, He told Simon to go deeper into the water and told him where to throw his net. Peter was faced again with whether or not to trust Jesus. After all, he had just washed his nets (I’ll write about this in another post)!  He did as Jesus told him, and the fish he caught that day were so numerous, he needed help to get them back to shore.

Just as Simon provided a service for Jesus, we are reminded in Matthew 25:40 that whenever we help someone, it is as if we do it for Him. Helping people in the midst of our own needs is never wasted. It’s more of a circle of blessing. God blesses us, we in turn bless others, and because we are not stingy with what God gives us, He continues to bless us and we continue to bless and so on.

Simon did not know that Jesus would provide abundantly that night. He simply helped where Jesus said that help was needed. Not only did Jesus provide that night, but He invited Simon to be part of a bigger picture. Not only to provide for his family, but to provide for all who were lost. And Simon Peter once again said yes.

Is God inviting you to help someone or serve somewhere in the middle of your own need? Will you say yes? It might be just what you need.


During a crisis, remember the kids.

Kids know when something's wrong.
Kids know when something’s wrong.

Recently my daughters  and I were remembering a crisis we experienced  ten years ago. We talked about how old they were at the time and their perception or interpretation  of what was happening at the time. I learned that in the midst of our crisis, Arturo and I did some things right and some we could have done better.

Here are some things that are important to keep in mind regarding our kids when we are going through a difficult time.

1.  They know something’s  wrong. No matter what age they are, kids pick up on our level of anxiety. What they can’t pick up on is the source of our anxiety. So it’s important to let them know that something is going on and that they did not cause it.

Share age appropriate information. Trying to guess what’s wrong can be exhausting and scary, so don’t keep them guessing. Ask them to pray with you and keep them updated. Especially if you have shared with friends, you want your kids to hear what’s  going on from you, not your friends’  kids.

2.  Set guidelines for caregivers. During our crisis we were in and out of hospitals for months. We relied a lot on friends and family to take care of our kids while we were gone. During that time, well meaning babysitters made them feel powerless by setting rules that we didn’t have or “teaching” them lessons, when all they wanted to do was be together and play or go to their rooms and have alone time.

Take the time to make a list that  gives specific instructions on what you want from caregivers.  Empower your kids to say “no” if what they’re being asked to do is uncomfortable. Give them permission to say to an adult, “Our parents don’t have us do that” or, “I’d like to call my mom and double check on that.”  Crises already make a child feel helpless. Giving guidelines to caregivers can help ease their fears.

3.  Reassure your children. Crises are a scary time for kids. If you don’t reassure them that everything will be fine, they won’t assume it. They need constant updates and they need to see that you’re OK. You might have to say it in faith, but they need to hear it.

As part of our crisis, my mom passed away. My then three year old would silently cry in a corner somewhere. One of the kids would go find me and I would go sit with her while she cried. She was too young to verbalize what she was feeling at the time so we would just hug.

Years later she said she used to cry alone because she missed her grandma.  She didn’t want to tell me because  I must miss her more, since she was my mom. She didn’t want to remind me of the pain by crying in front of me. Wow! She was three! Don’t underestimate the pain your kids are going through, no matter what age they are. Talk to them.

At one point or another, everyone of us will experience some sort of a crisis. Remember, you’re not going through it alone. Even if they are not directly involved, your kids are affected through you. Keep them in the loop. You’d be surprised how strong kids are. Inform them, empower them and reassure them. God can use even crises to bring families closer together. So don’t forget the kids.

Planning the summer with the kids

Whether you send your kids to school, home school, are a working mom or a stay at home mom, summer brings a whole new daily schedule. Our kids can get easily bored and resort to watching T.V. all day.  We have certainly had some of that in our home. I have found that when I plan the summer, even if it doesn’t all happen as I plan, it goes much better than if I just wait for things to happen.Here are some things that worked for us.

  1.  Make a summer chore list. Kids have more time on their hands in the summer. It’s good to add some age appropriate chores to keep them busy and productive. If you already have a list, summer is also a good time to switch kids off on responsibilities. I usually made a list of chores that had to be done around the house and the kids would choose which ones they would do. Then I would type up a nice color coordinated chore list and put it on the refrigerator. It wasn’t a perfect system, and it didn’t always get done, but it helped to have that accountability factor so they knew what was expected each day without me having to tell them or being upset because I had not rounded everyone up t tell them what to do.
  2. Make a summer read list. Summer is a great time to catch up on some reading or read some fun books. Have your kids pick some books they would like to read or would like you to read to them. You can take them to a forest preserve, have a picnic and sit and read. They can read outside, in a tree, on the trampoline, or just about anywhere. What a great way to enjoy the weather and a good book!
  3. Ask the kids what they would like to do. Get a  list of things from each child that they would like to do over the summer. I usually asked for the top three things from each. You might find that several of the kids want to do the same thing, for example three out of four might want to go to the beach often. They might all want to go to the zoo. The activities that most of the family wants to do can be your priorities for the summer.  Getting the kids’ input will help them look forward to summer. And don’t forget yours and your husband’s lists as well!
  4. Be resourceful.  Some of those things on the list might be a little too unrealistic for our budget. But don’t dismiss them yet! Use your imagination. Be creative. Can’t go on vacation? How about a staycation, where you stay home and plan outings. We have done our share of camping out in the backyard with the added bonus of having a bathroom in the house just a few feet away!
  5. Get a pass. Purchasing a year-round pass to a museum or zoo is a great way to enjoy your free time. We used to buy a family pass and use it all year long. By the time the pass expired we were done with that museum and moved on to another family pass.
  6. Slow down. Summer passes super fast. It’s easy to just keep our routine and put off our plans to later. Before you know it, summer is gone and back to school is just around the corner. Schedule slow down time on your calendar to purposefully spend time enjoying the nice weather. Schedule a cookout. Have a picnic at the park.  Lay down with your kids in the backyard to look at the clouds and guess what they look like! Or go stargazing.
  7. Be spontaneous. Have an hour or two to spare? Don’t hesitate to just get up and go. Take the kids for a walk. Drive to the ice cream shop. Go to a matinee. Declare a bummy day, stay in pajamas, play some board games and watch a movie.

Dishes, housework, laundry, they will all be there when you get back, I promise. Don’t miss out on your kids this summer. They will never be this age again. Enjoy them. Work with what you have, use your imagination and be present. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. It just has to be done together.