I recall the moment when a favorite gesture of mine became tradition. I climbed the basement stairs, arms loaded with clean laundry, to see my husband making lunchtime sandwiches for the kids. He had just peeled back the seal of a brand new jar of peanut butter. He reached for the butter knife and just before he was able to dip it in and scoop up some of that delicious spread, the girls gasped. The sound that left their lips was urgent and steeped with finality. My husband froze. He looked up to find three girls staring him down with serious but blinking eyes. They appeared incredulous and borderline angry.
“Um,” he stammered, “What did I do wrong?”
“Dad, that’s not how it’s done.”
“Okay, then show me.”
My oldest daughter then dutifully grabbed a toothpick and sketched an outline of a heart on the surface of the smooth mass. To top it off, she scribbled “I love you” just below her drawing.
“There, that’s how Mom does it. Now you can make the sandwiches.”
I couldn’t have smiled bigger. For months, I had been carving out hearts and leaving sweet messages in newly opened jars of peanut butter and equally smooth tubs of margarine. It wasn’t an elaborate act, but I had hoped by doing so my children would sense my love for them.
I love traditions. It has been my experience that intentional traditions provide families with a sense of belonging, well-being, and permanence. I like the excitement they bring. I enjoy the thrill of anticipation. I savor the familial sights, sounds, and smells that accompany such nostalgic activities. What I don’t love, however, are traditions that leave me feeling harried, anxious, and bogged down.
I know I am in trouble when I turn the calendar and panic, rather than swoon, at a circled-in holiday. Holidays are meant to be enjoyable and are often heavily laden with celebratory customs. These rituals, though well-meaning, can sometimes elicit a stressful reaction. For me, this is often the case.
Rather than jumping for joy, I catch myself dreading or even avoiding preparations. I have come to know that such feelings undoubtedly mean I have set my expectations too high, have over-complicated matters, and/or have permitted another person to define my traditions. In these times, I have fallen into what I call a “tradition trap.”
Do you also find yourself feeling overwhelmed and going through obligatory motions for the sake of keeping tradition? Would you like to free yourself from this trap or prevent yourself from falling in all together?
If so, I suggest the following three solutions: simplify, delegate, and establish boundaries.
1. Simplify – By simplify, I mean to choose quality over quantity. Establish meaning in your traditions. If an observance distracts or takes away from the intended message, then scrap it. Ask yourself if what you are trying to do or say can be taught or demonstrated in a simpler, more meaningful way. Consider, too, whether or not this can be done at a different time or circumstance. Is it absolutely necessary to observe it on a holiday?
2. Delegate – Is it really necessary that you do all of the work or can someone else pitch in? One of the quickest ways to alleviate stress is to share responsibility. Don’t be afraid to call a family meeting and ask your family for help. You never know who has been itching to have a more active role in the planning. Your children, spouse, or partner might even more fully enjoy the event.
3. Establish Boundaries – Only adopt the traditions you love. Pick and choose which extended family customs are right for you at the stage of life you are in. This might mean having some frank conversations with those you love. It might also mean that your willingness or inability to participate in certain activities will change from year to year. Be upfront with your decisions, invite others to join you when applicable, and assure those involved that you are open to future invitations.
The magic of our peanut butter habit is its ease, uniqueness, and sustainability. Best of all, Mom isn’t the only one responsible for its success. Any member of the family can participate and feel great about spreading some ooey-gooey love.
QUESTION: Is there a tradition you can simplify or completely do away with?
CHALLENGE: Form a simple tradition in your home that is “all you”, one that you love and can remain passionate about.
Edited by Sharon Brown and Nollie Haws.
Image provided by the author.