How family stories make us stronger

I’ve been pestering all the elders in the family (my parents and my husband’s) for old family pictures of their parents. I’m putting together a “generations” wall somewhere in the house — maybe by the dining room table — with photos of the couples who came before us.

I’ve seen many of the pictures before. The ones of my maternal and paternal grandfathers in Army uniforms. The one of my Grandmother looking like an old Hollywood movie star with red lips and curled hair. I love these pictures.

Many, though, I haven’t seen. Like the one of my Dad and his sister and their parents on a glass-bottom boat — or the wedding pictures of my young Nana and Papa. I’ve so enjoyed taking them in, like treasures in a new-found time capsule.

I asked a lot of questions of my grandparents when they were alive, but now I wish I had asked so many more. Family stories are such a part of us and I find them to be incredibly comforting. And in a fleeting world where things are constantly changing, these people truly are the roots that ground us.

I was thinking of this concept last night when I stumbled upon an article that introduced me to the research of Marshall Duke, a psychologist from Emory University. Over the last decade, Duke has explored the value of family history in the lives of children. The article continues:

[Duke] developed a list of twenty questions such as “Do you know where your parents met?” “Do you know which person in your family you most look like?” and “Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?”

Duke found that the higher children scored on the family-history test, the higher they also scored on measures of self-esteem and self-control and the lower they scored on anxiety, among other measures. Duke even looked at children who experienced the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Even in this extreme case, knowledge of family history appeared to indicate how resilient the children were in the months that followed.

Duke explains that it’s not necessarily the facts of the family that give children these qualities but the fact that, if children can answer these questions, it usually means that they have strong connections with mothers and grandmothers and that significant amounts of time have been spent communicating at family dinners and on family vacations. All the stories of a family add up to what Duke calls an intergenerational self, which he associates with personal strength.

I so relate to this idea of an “intergenerational self” — just as I relate to the images of my young grandmothers with children at their feet. I see them cheering me one, encouraging me forward. I am strengthened by the strength I see in them.

I went to look at Duke’s full list of “Do You Know” questions and found the below commentary most resonating:

Each family will have different stories and different key moments and memories that are shared. It is not the content of what is known that is the critical factor, but the process by which these things came to be known.

This process is, in our opinion, the causational factor. In order to hear family stories, people need to sit down with one another and not be distracted. Some people have to talk and some have to listen. The stories need to be told over and over and the times of sitting together need to be multiple and occur over many years. The most convenient times traditionally have been family dinners, family trips in the car, vacations, birthday gatherings, etc. As Bruce Feiler notes, however, given the complexities of modern family life families can also sit and talk over a snack after school or before everyone goes off to work, or at any other time that they can focus on each other.

These gatherings — short or long — are at the heart of the process by which the intergenerational stories can be told and learned and through which children can grow stronger and healthier. No quick fix. No simply learning the answers to the questions. Just coming from a family in which the opportunities to learn family history and to create a family narrative are regular, multiple, predictable and inviolable.

As Bruce Feiler implores in his book, ” The Secrets of Happy Families”: Talk. A lot.

How precious is the gift of family.

On Down syndrome, Mother Teresa and Michelle Duggar: The Top 9 Posts from 2014

This blog has been such a fun hobby for me and has given me the opportunity to share my heart and connect with some wonderful people. I took a walk through memory lane and reflected on some of my posts from the past year while gathering together these 9 most popular.

I hope you enjoy — and thank you for reading!

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1. What Michelle Duggar says are the top 3 things every mom should have

Excerpt:

Some notes on parenting from the mouth of Michelle:

1. Whoever praises your child will have their heart. Michelle talked a lot about the importance of encouragement and praise, but was careful to differentiate between flattery and praise, saying: Praise acknowledges a character trait that a person has developed — whereas flattery is often an exaggeration of the truth. She believes the more we praise our children for the traits we want them to develop, the more they are eager to exhibit them.

Read more here.

What Michelle Duggar says are the top 3 things EVERY mom should have!

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2. Why are we so afraid of Down syndrome?

Excerpt:

There is a reason that the abortion rate for Down syndrome is soaring — while the vast number of parents who have a child with Down syndrome feel incredible gratitude. There is a bridge that’s broken between understanding human genetics and understanding the human spirit. There is a missing piece that so often causes misplaced fear.

Why are we so afraid of Down syndrome?

Because we’re often only told a small part of what is truly a big, beautiful love story.

Read more here.

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3. Dear mom with a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis

Excerpt:

Dear mom who just received a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis,

I know how you feel.

Except — unlike you, I was holding my new baby, Kate, in my arms when I found out. She was wrapped in a blanket, looking up at me as I cried, listening to the Neonatologist on staff tell me — only minutes after she was born — that she had Down syndrome. And what that meant.

Read more here.

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4. The Whole Story on the “R-Word”

Excerpt:

As a child of the 80’s, I heard the R-word a lot.

Used on playgrounds, in classrooms, in movies.  It was similar to other words that evolved from purely descriptive statements (about religion or sexual preference or otherwise) into casual put-downs.

I was never a user of these words, and in retrospect did have a special sensitivity to them — but I also never thought about the silent victims of these words. The people who may not even be a part of the conversation: the onlookers, the over-hearers, the victims that know these “slam” words are the same ones used to describe aspects of them.

And truthfully, I just hadn’t ever put much thought into it.

Then, last week, I did.

Read more.

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5. To parents with a Down syndrome diagnosis: keep dreaming big

Excerpt:

I remember the feeling that came over me in the delivery room when the doctor told us Kate had Down syndrome.

I felt an incredible grief.

And, in a way, I was grieving something — the death of an imaginary dream, a 9-month long fantasy, an idea of a child who I had created in my daydreams who did not have a “disability.”

But the more I grew to know Kate — and the facts about life with a child with Down syndrome — the more my grieving gave way to new life. It awakened in me a spirit of hope and love I had not experienced before, and now my dreams for Kate are bigger than ever.

Read more here.

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6. How Mothers Can Change the World: 7 Ways from Mother Teresa

 Excerpt:

What I find so cool about her message is that it doesn’t take great acts to change the world, rather, “small acts with great love.”

This little home, this little family, this little neighborhood: this is where I am called to serve, to love, to find my greatest joy. “What can you do to promote world peace?” says Mother Teresa: “Go home and love your family.”

I have a little book of her quotes upon my bookshelf that I pull down from time to time and I find that many apply so beautifully to the vocation of motherhood specifically. I thought it would be fun to pull some of those together.

Here are 7 ways Mother Teresa encourages mothers to change the world by loving in our own homes.

Read more here.

How Mothers Can Change the World: 7 Ways From Mother Teresa

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7. If you only know one thing about Down syndrome, know this

Excerpt:

Kate has Down syndrome — which is very different than Kate is Down syndrome.

It is just one aspect of her beautiful, intricate design — one thing that can cause some things to be a little extra hard for her, but other things will come a little extra easy for her. It is something that affects her, not something that defines her.

When we start defining people by just an aspect of who they are, we lose their humanity. All of us may not have Down syndrome — but all of us are uniquely made where some things are extra hard for us and other things are extra easy. We all have things that others may be confused or frightened by — and things that others may be inspired by and drawn to.

A Down syndrome diagnosis in itself is only a sentence of a novel. Only a stroke of paint in a beautiful painting — a chord in a love song. It is not the full picture.

Read more here.

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8. More kids after having a child with Down syndrome?

Excerpt:

I received an email from a reader yesterday that said:

“Hi there. I am a mother of a 6-year-old, a 4-year-old, and a one-year-old who has Down syndrome. I am curious: how did you decide to have more children after your daughter, Kate? We want another baby, but because of the statistics [of having another child with Down syndrome], we have fear.”

As a mother who has always wanted a big family, this question was heavy on my heart, too, when I first had Kate. And so, I thought I would answer her question here.

Read more here.

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9. Looking for “the one”? Don’t stop believing.

Excerpt:

I feel very unqualified to be blogging about relationship advice or marriage.

After all, I’ve only been married 6 years. I have an incredible husband who still amazes me daily with his love, selflessness and humility. And though I met him in a yuppie bar downtown 8 years ago next week, I still feel he was given to me from some serendipitous combination of luck, grace and heartfelt prayer.

I would like to think that some sort of clumsy, yet virtuous, actions on my part had something to do with the gift of our beautiful marriage — i.e., being the kind of girl he would like to marry, valuing the amazing qualities he possesses, choosing to… go to a bar on a Saturday night?

Read more here.

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Re-thinking my New Year’s Resolutions

I like resolutions.

I like the fresh start of cleaning out a closet. I like the makeover shows that take a dreary old livingroom and turn it into a warm, useable space. I like the sappy sports movies when the underdog wins. I like stories of triumph. Who doesn’t?

But this year, as I make my little list of “resolutions,” I am trying to keep some perspective.

I recently read an article in National Geographic about “the secrets of a long life.” The writer traveled to three pockets of the world where there are high populations of centenarians — one of the places being Okinawa, Japan.

He writes:

With an average life expectancy of 78 years for men and 86 years for women, Okinawans are among the world’s longest lived people. Okinawans have a fifth the heart disease, a fourth the breast and prostate cancer, and a third less dementia than Americans, says Craig Willcox of the Okinawa Centenarian Study.

What’s the key to their success? “Ikigai certainly helps,” Willcox offers. The word translates roughly to “that which makes one’s life worth living.”

That which makes one’s life worth living. I love that.

It reminds me of the sign that hung in my Grandmother’s bathroom: “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.”

While thinking today about my New Year’s Resolutions, I read that the top 3 resolutions for 2015 are 1. Lose Weight, 2. Get Organized, 3. Spend Less, Save More.

All of these things were on my short list as well. But with further thought, I decided to think about my goals a bit differently this year.

If the purpose of making a New Year’s Resolution is to implement the habits that create a better, more purposeful life (and eliminate those that don’t) — then perhaps this year, I will focus on my Ikigai.

I may want to lose a few pounds — but more importantly, I want to create a family culture that appreciates the gift of real, healthy food.

I want to drink red wine and sauté fresh veggies while my husband dances in the livingroom with the little ones. I want to gather farm-fresh tomatoes from the garden in the lap of my skirt while my 5-year-old waters the rosemary plant.  I want to have dinner parties where friends feel at home and help themselves to seconds and stay too late at night. I want to run around my neighborhood and work up a good sweat and drink a big glass of ice water when I get home. And if a healthy weight is a by-product of a healthy, active lifestyle, then so be it. But I want more than a number on a scale.

I may want a more organized home — but more so, I want a house full of life and the messes that come with it.

I want family and friends and kids to kick their feet up and track dirt in from playing outside. I want a slobbery dog that rubs against my black pants to greet me and a fat cat who sits upon my lap when the kids go to sleep. I want to organize and have a place for everything — but only so we can enjoy more play and crafts and tents made out of bedsheets and I can let go of the fact that there are a dozen toys and tea party cups and baby doll bottles scattered across the floor. I want my house “clean enough to be healthy and messy enough to be happy.”

I may want to save more and spend less, but more importantly, I want to be a gracious steward of my resources.

I want to have gratitude for the incredible gifts we have and teach my children the same. I want to not ever see it as less than miraculous that we have clean water that runs out of the faucet, or light that floods the room when we flip a switch. I want my children to enjoy the greatest play toys — the ones that are plentiful and available right outside our house, the rocks and sticks and trees and bugs. I want to “spend less and save more” not just because we are focused on saving — but because we are focused on indulging in the pleasures that money can’t buy: the date night watching the stars, the family singalongs, the impromptu dance parties.

Mother Teresa says that the reason for a mother’s existence is to “love and be loved and through that love become an instrument of peace in the world.”

That is my Ikigai.

And that’s what I want to focus on this year.

It is good to be children sometimes

Oh, it is good to be a child at Christmas.

When the magicians and the merry-makers dance around behind stage, setting up props and planning choreography and choosing just the right musical composition so that when the curtains open to an audience of youthful wide eyes, there is a unanimous gasp of awe.

I remember so fondly being one of the audience.

Waking up to breakfast already made. Sitting down to packages placed before me. Smiling in front of the camera, napping in the afternoon. Like the cast of Cirque du Soleil, the matriarchs and patriarchs always made (and continue to make) Christmas celebrations look so effortless — the prepping and baking and packaging. They are, as Marcel Proust says, the “charming gardeners who make our souls happy.” They are love.

Now that I have my own children, I spend much of my time backstage as well. Merry-making, glitter-dusting, tip-toeing on set while the lights are low, making sure everything is just so. That care and time and preparation allows my little audience to know that they are special, that the season is special, and in a way they can understand — why the season is special. It is a big season full of little acts done with great love.

But, it is good to remember that nobody should stay backstage too long. Even the busiest of stage managers should come out, sit in the audience, be a child him or herself. Take in the wonder. Sit and look at a tree. Play with new toys. Lounge around in pajamas with loved ones. Slow down and let the chores wait for awhile. Enjoy all the fruits of the planning and prep.

Or just, be still.

For as Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol: “It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.”

Hope you are enjoying this beautiful Christmas season, friends.

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Too much birthday and a break from blogging

We have a hallway in our house with built-in bookshelves.

The third shelf up is where the children’s books lay (just out of reach of toddlers with an affinity for page-ripping). The books are all different sizes and shapes, textures and topics — but in the middle sits a stack of my favorites, the Berenstain Bear books from my own childhood.

I remember these books fondly because I can remember sitting under my windowsill in the 80’s and flipping through them in the afternoon sun. The illustrations still fill me with nostalgia and I so enjoy reading them again with my little ones.

One of the book titles has become a saying around our house: “Too Much Birthday.”

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It’s the book where Sister Bear has a big ole’ birthday bash and the busyness of it all brings her to tears.

It’s proof there can be too much of a good thing. It’s the result of too much chocolate and partying and excitement. It’s a sugar-crashed, over-stimulated, wound-up melt-down — and it’s a feeling the young and old can both relate to when the action is just a little bit too much.

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I was reading this book with my 5-year-old tonight and found it fitting for a season that can be prone to being “too much.” Around here this year, I am taking a cue from the Silent Night lyrics and trying to keep things calm and bright (as much as possible).

And as usual, I’m trying best to focus on what really matters (and don’t we hear that every year, but it’s so easy to get distracted!) It’s easy to live life like one big to-do list all year long — not just at Christmas — but if any time of the year is one to slow down and take time for stillness, I think this is a good one.

And that way, in our still moments, we can focus on the most important birthday. The one that is the reason for all the celebration anyway.

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Have a wonderful holiday, friends. I’ll be taking a break from blogging until after Christmas to enjoy this very special time of reflection, celebration and joy.