By Elizabeth Spencer, Crosswalk.com
Three months before my second and last baby left for college, I had a mom meltdown over stuffing.
My daughter was hungry for comfort food, and I offered to make a box of stuffing mix. I was stirring it up when I was hit by a wave of sadness over something that hadn't even happened yet. I whimpered, and my daughter asked, "What's wrong?"
"You won't be home for Thanksgiving this year," I told her. We already knew her school was too far away and her break too short for a trip home, and so we had gratefully made plans for her to spend the holiday with extended family only a few hours from campus. "I've got an idea," my daughter told me. "How about when I'm home over fall break, we have an early Thanksgiving dinner? We'll do the whole thing, right down to the pumpkin pie and watching 'Home Alone' afterward." "Yes, PLEASE," I told her and immediately started looking forward to it.
Maneuvering through the holidays with our older kids can be tricky business because while what we want from those special days—togetherness, connection, celebration—doesn't change, how and when we get there does. Work schedules, physical distance, families through marriage, personal preferences, independent lives…all can leave us whimpering in our kitchens over a box of stuffing. I'm still feeling my way along here, but this far in, five guidelines are helping me stay the course in the holiday parade and keep my mind and heart focused on what really matters.
1. Keep hopes high but expectations low.
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" (1 Corinthians 13:4,7).
I didn't know what to expect when my daughter came home from college for the first time for a generous week of fall break after being gone for more than 50 days. Her older sister had gone to college 45 minutes from home, and while her homecomings were always greatly anticipated and appreciated, they happened fairly frequently. I'd never before welcomed home a child I hadn't seen in more than a month.
In some of the online groups I was part of, other parents in similar situations were asking veteran parents what to expect. The answers tended to be mostly, "They'll sleep a lot and hang out with their friends and only come home to eat and not even then if their friends' moms are good cooks." It painted a rather bleak picture.
I didn't want to throw away my daughter's time at home just based on what other parents had experienced, but neither did I want to burden it with the weight of expectation. I knew enough to realize that starting very many (or any) texts to my daughter with, "When you are home, I expect ______" would shut her down. I wanted to hold onto hope that our days together could be sweet and uplifting, something we'd all be glad we'd done and be eager to do again. So I tried to leave wide margins in my mind and heart about what our time all under one roof again could or would look like. I tried not to assume how my daughter would feel being back in a place that might now feel like a secondary home to her, even while I hoped she would still look at it as a home of her heart. I hoped we would still see the version of her we were familiar with, even while preparing myself to meet a new variation. I coached myself to expect that some things would be different while holding onto faith that the most important foundations of our family and relationships would remain the same. It wasn't that I was hoping for the best while preparing for the worst; it was that I was hoping for the best while preparing to embrace a broad definition of what "best" might look like.
2. Ask, don't assume.
"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful" (1 Corinthians 13:4-5 ESV).
Whether our young adults are college students, career kids, or newlyweds, asking open-ended questions can lay a foundation for meaningful celebrations together. "Do you want to come home? Are you willing to come home? If so, how do you envision your time at home? Do you want us to come to you? What is most important to you about how we celebrate this holiday? What other plans are you hoping to incorporate? What constraints (finances, etc.) should I be aware of? What are your favorite memories of the holidays when you were growing up? Which of those do you hope to bring into our celebrations now that you are grown up?"
I made just three specific requests (not demands) of my daughter as she was planning the layout of her week at home - a trio of times I longed to be able to spend together as a family. She readily agreed to these and then mapped out the rest of her week with friends, studying, gym sessions, and sleep and sent her schedule to her dad, sister, and I in the "fam" group chat she created during her first week at school. I got my three wishes, along with many moments I hadn't even dared dream about. I like to think this was partially because my daughter felt free to be generous to us with her time rather than as if she was fighting against us trying to micromanage it.
3. Don't be dictated by a day.
"He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning" (Daniel 2:21).
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but sometimes, being a mother necessitates invention. Case in point: our family's early Thanksgiving celebration, which we dubbed "Octgiving." As a mom, it was necessary to invent this holiday because I don't want to throw away relationship-feeding moments with my grown children just because they need to take place at new times.
I also do not want to miss out on what we are celebrating by getting bogged down when we're celebrating it. "To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11 RSV) on December 25 and March 3 and every other day of the year. "He is not here; he has risen, just as he said" (Matthew 2:6) on Easter Sunday…but also on Flag Day, Arbor Day, and the day before the last day of autumn. "Giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5:20) is just as good an idea on the second Tuesday in June as it is on the fourth Thursday in November. As my friend, Bonnie, wisely says, "Every moment we are together is a holiday. It is the moments, not the dates."
4. Embrace different but still good.
"For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven" (Ecclesiastes 3:1 NLT).
When we've loved family holiday celebrations in the past, the challenge in the present can be to guard against equating "not the same" with "not as good." Ahead of our family's Octgiving feast, I kept turning one phrase over in my mind: "different but still good." The day was different, the month was different, and what we did afterward was different, but our meal, conversation, and giving thanks were still good.
Ecclesiastes' pairs of symbiotic seasons (Ecclesiastes 3:2-8) are not presented as good-versus-bad or desirable-versus-undesirable; they are presented as this-and-that…the spectrum of life, with a place for "every activity" of life finding its fit. A season when we embrace our children may be different from one when we (by necessity) refrain from embracing, but it can still be good. A season where we scatter our children may differ from one where we gather them to us, but it can still be good. A season where we plant our children can be different from one where we uproot them, but it can still be good.
5. Cover it all with prayer.
"Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done" (Philippians 4:6 NLT).
For weeks ahead of time—even before my daughter left for college—I prayed about her trip home and our early Thanksgiving celebration. I prayed for safe driving for her. I prayed she would be glad to be home. I prayed that when she returned to school, she'd be glad she'd come home. I prayed there would be lots of raucous laughter in the house. I prayed we'd be able to see some of the unfiltered version of our daughter we refer to as "goofy girl," who makes appearances from time to time. I prayed our time together would be sweet and that it would lay a solid foundation for future weekends, vacations, holidays, and summers together. I prayed God would protect our week from the distracting arrows of the enemy.
Our days and nights under the same roof ended up being more and better than I dared dream or hope for. Perhaps because of this, I woke up early on the day my daughter left feeling heavy with dread and sadness. I tried to layer thankfulness on top of this, but a hollow emptiness persisted.
My daughter had plans that morning to meet a friend at a carpool lot near our house to give her friend a last hug goodby before my daughter came back to our house to load up her car and set off on her long drive back to campus. While I was sitting on our couch, essentially waiting for all this to happen, my daughter came into the room, sat down next to me, pulled a fuzzy blanket around her, patted the space beside her, and looked at me expectantly. "Want to snuggle?" she asked me. "Really?!" I asked her. Then she asked, "What are you doing right now? Because I was wondering if you'd want to ride along with me to the carpool lot."
All of which reminded me that God not only knows what we need before we ask Him (Matthew 6:8), He knows what we need even when we don't ask Him, even when we don't know we need it ourselves. And on any and every day of the year, this is something to celebrate.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/LuckyBusiness
Elizabeth Spencer is a wife, mom, freelance writer, baker, Bible study facilitator, and worship leader from Battle Creek, Michigan. She writes about faith, family, and food (with some occasional funny thrown in) on her blog, Guilty Chocoholic Mama, and on Facebook. She is the author of the devotional Known By His Names: A 365-Day Journey From The Beginning to The Amen.