My kids always loved big family gatherings. All the cousins ran around in a screaming pack, several generations of adults conversed happily past normal bedtime, and food was on low tables for unsupervised grazing.
My kids seemed to experience a wild joy at these holiday and birthday get-togethers. I recall, for example, a time in a restaurant with my in-laws when our normally well behaved kids started running, squealing, around the table. They had the exuberance and oblivion of puppies.
For years, my sister and I couldn’t get our kids separated to go home without two or three of them dissolving into fits of tears and having to be carried. We would try to say goodbye to one another over the racket, squinting through the flailing arms of our heartbroken toddlers. They didn’t see why we couldn’t all live together. (Maybe we should!)
I think that being with extended family is when many of our kids feel happiest, safest and most loved. Even in conflicted families, bonds are ancient and powerful, and being together shuts out the other stresses of life for a while.
Not that it’s always easy to get together. My husband’s family is six hours away in Chicago, and even with my family here in Cincinnati it’s a logistic miracle when we get everyone together. Nevertheless, it’s always worth the effort.
When our kids were little, it took heroic efforts to get them to Chicago. We could cram three kids, three car seats, strollers, portable cribs, suitcases, diapers and baby food, into our van and head north several times a year, alternating families for Christmas and Thanksgiving. So every second Christmas, the load was doubled with huge opaque bags of stockings and gifts that Santa wanted them to open in Chicago on Christmas morning. Watching the joy of reunion between our kids and their grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins, was more than enough payoff for all the work of getting there.
I feared that our children would have less desire to get together as they got older, but now that they’re young adults, they seem to enjoy the sense of belonging more than ever. I’m surprised at how rarely they have ever missed a gathering. Short of being overseas or unable to get off work, they have made it a priority.
I’m aware that many people have family so far away they can’t get together as often as they would like. Many more have families they just don’t enjoy being with. Some families are so toxic that the most responsible thing people can do is keep their kids away. I think in these cases, it’s well worth the effort to cultivate an ‘alternative’ family, a group of people you devote yourself to over time, who are close enough and available enough to spend holidays with.
I’ve noticed that at the best of these gatherings, there is not a lot of talk about how anyone is performing at work or at school. It’s a blessed break to be with a group of people who accept you because of who you are, and don’t measure you for your achievements. That, ideally, is the greatest gift of extended family – it’s the crowd that loves us no matter what.