Re-Defining Family At Holiday Time

I suggest it's time to update our idea of family. Let's dispense with the imperatives to feel whole and happy inside a story of 'family' that leaves us frail or frazzled. Let's dislodge our commitments to stoicism and endurance that leave us walled inside towers of loneliness.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

My friend and fellow seeker/Huffington Post blogger Marina Illich and I like to untangle the hard stuff. We call it Five Minute Manna. This is what has our hearts and minds activated this holiday season: Re-defining Family

Find Your People by Marina Illich
Holiday time is family time. But what exactly do we mean by family? So many people live three times zones -- or an ocean -- away from their parents and siblings, turning travel "home" into a costly or time-sucking ordeal. Then there are the divorced parents left to create "family" plans on their own, while the kids spend their holidays with the ex. And elders? So many of them are repaired to an assisted living home far away, making it virtually impossible to get back to the ranch.

Meanwhile, those who do get back to the ranch often wonder why they traveled the distance. We all know the uncanny way that holidays resurface old resentments, reactivate buried fault lines, and turn festivities of cheer into an endurance test of patience and poise. Inside the dim welcome, one can almost hear singer/songwriter Damien Rice crooning those signature lines -- "Why do you sing hallelujah, if it means nothing to you? Why do you sing with me at all?"

Too many of us suffer enough from the predations of modernity -- the divorces, job losses and job insecurity. The kids' over-scheduled lives and "underperforming" scores. The long commutes and dusty dreams. The loss of friendship and the loss of self. We don't need the added pressure of enduring the holidays.

So what's the alternative? I suggest it's time to update our idea of family. Let's dispense with the imperatives to feel whole and happy inside a story of "family" that leaves us frail or frazzled. Let's dislodge our commitments to stoicism and endurance that leave us walled inside towers of loneliness. And let's disband our loyalty to conflicting demands that run us ragged when what we simply want is ... to be received exactly as we are.

Instead, let's find our people. Let's find those like-minded individuals who turn up in odd corners of our lives, who share some or none of our biography, who perhaps celebrate with fish when we celebrate with ham, or intone silent prayers when we devote ourselves to tracking the market or reading the Times. People who -- for whatever logical or improbable reason -- see, hear and feel our pulse with the gravity and gratitude that has us know we are at home. Let's find those people and make those people the family we arrive to in our stillness and frenzy, our hope and harry. And let's make the gathering of that family the ritual we behold -- at whatever time of the year -- to signal the holidays are here.

Let's make that family -- geographically dispersed and culturally-spackled though it may be -- the home inside which we eschew all the should's and must's we internalized along the way so that we can discover what we really are all about.

And let's do all of this precisely so that when we do go back to our family with its far-flung network of third cousins, step-sisters, and in-laws, we behold them, once and for all -- without indictment -- exactly as they are.

Then, perhaps, we will find that whatever the season and whatever our destination, we are surrounded always and only by family -- those relatives, friends, mentors, students, strangers and perhaps even adversaries -- whom we recognize long, like us, for one simple thing: to be held and welcomed into our home exactly as they are.

A Family of One by Laura Munson

It's the holidays, and no matter what's in that wisdom quiver of ours ... things are likely fraught. Why is that? Well, once-upon-a-time, we believed in something that someone told us, or preached to us, or wrote about, or filmed about, or photographed ... on the meaning of family. And we bought it. And there's a good chance that "family" looks very different to us now. There's an even better chance, that with that difference, we find pain, disappointment, and even shame. Especially during the holiday season.

I come from a long line of documentarians. My mother lovingly made photo albums and home-movies, featuring every first day of school, play, dance, graduation, in addition to the annual Christmas card -- all of us posed just-so, sent out to hundreds of people as proof that we were a family. A solid family. I loved all of it, especially our Christmas card, gazing at the ones we received from other families -- a community, of sorts, to tout and hold dear. It gave me an intense sense of belonging.

So, as an adult, I took the photo-album-video-Christmas-card-baton, and raced to the finish every year with a family Best of book. If the house was burning down, that's what I would take -- the Best of books.

It takes me hours to make these books, reveling in what we've created in the last year. Making sure I have that perfect photo of every baseball and soccer game, every award ceremony and orchestra concert, every pinnacle moment, as, yes, proof of my amazing family, but also as proof of my motherhood. And on Christmas morning, I love sitting with my family and flipping through its pages, ooing and ahhing over the past year's achievements, high points, adventures, folly.

A few years ago, my family-of-four turned into a family-of-three. My husband and I needed to end our marriage. It was sad and shocking and deeply disorienting. People told me that we were "still a family -- just different. A modern family." But I didn't sign up for a "modern family." I signed up for a family with a mother and father as a united force. It rocked me to the core.

I'm often asked if we're okay, especially if the kids are okay. I'm not sure what okay means. We're still feeling joy, inspiration, pride. We're still on adventures. We're still having pinnacle photo-worthy moments. But during the holidays, in these post-divorce years, it's all so difficult. My gut says, Go slowly, keep it gentle, tuck in with your little family-of-three. Time to re-boot your whole orientation of family. So: No Christmas card. No Christmas party with the half-mile of luminaria and the carols around the piano. And no Best of book. Instead, I've focused on creating magic with my children, cozy around the fire, playing games, eating soup, pressure off. This is living time, not documenting time.

But on those dreaded days when I can't actively practice my motherhood, or "family-hood" -- when my children are with their father and not in the other room, and I am alone .... my productive (Best of) mind kicks in, almost breathless: Go to a soup kitchen, visit a nursing home, find friends who are alone too -- create a new tribe of "family." That's usually the way I fly -- carry on, hope-springs-eternal. But for now, I'm listening to my gut instead, because I know that my new concept of family needs to find itself out of flow, not fear ... and the truth is: I'm very very afraid of who I am alone. I can reason my way around this with great aplomb, but reason doesn't help. If I am going to move forward in a truly authentic way, I need to find refuge in myself. And those alone Christmas moments are a good place to cut my teeth.

My gut says, Become your own family. Learn to take joy in the things your hands touch and deem holy, even if there's no one there to witness it. Smell the paper-whites in the window and have it be enough that it's for your nose only. Light the expensive candle and feel grateful for the way it focuses your gaze, fills the room with the scent of amber. Put on special clothes and don't care if you're photographed in them or witnessed at all. I trust my gut. I have to find the light in my own eyes, alone. I have to believe, once and for all, that I am okay, alone. It all begins there. And perhaps ends there too.

So tonight, alone, in a cashmere robe, candle lit, I created a Best of book of these post-divorce years. And something magical and Christmas-kissed happened. Scrolling through my files of photos, I didn't look for achievements and winning moments. I looked for light in my children's eyes, and mine too. I looked for sacred. If I saw it in a baseball championship or an Honor's Society handshake, then I chose that photo. But only if there was light in those eyes I love so much. Including my own.

Which means that as we leaf through this book Christmas morning, on top of all of my children's radiant moments, there will be photos of me leading my Haven Writing Retreats, riding my horse, growing a life that is outside of the family I've fostered, and perhaps ... in-so-doing, finding new "family." Maybe we can't really move on ... until I do. Alone. Maybe the definition of family is really a radical acceptance of self. And once we accept that, both my mind and my gut tell me, we will find our family community thriving, even if it looks entirely different than we ever thought it would.

Marina Illich, Ph.D. is a Bay Area-based executive coach and leadership consultant and the co-founder and principal at Broad Ventures Leadership. With a doctorate in Buddhist Studies, she spent five years in Asia studying Tibetan Buddhist practices for developing self-awareness, focus and resilience. She was recently appointed to the California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls by Gov. Jerry Brown. Marina can be contacted at:

Laura Munson is a New York Times best-selling author and founder of the critically acclaimed Haven Writing Retreats. She lives in Montana with her family of three (and one!).

Earlier on Huff/Post50: