Many of us have been with our family members more than ever these last 20 months, but how much of that time has been spent mindfully, with the purpose of truly connecting, of leaning deeper into each other with greater listening skills, patience and understanding?
Don’t beat yourself up if your family has struggled with attaining this ideal. It’s tough out here (in our homes). How can we embrace each other again when there’s been so much worry, stress, frustration and downright annoyance…sometimes with each other?
Typically, the holidays offer the refuge needed to restore familial bonds. However, in this post-quarantine world where families are divided on every issue from masks to COVID vaccines, how can we come together — after so much, well, togetherness — in meaningful ways? Here are some simple ways to reinstate some quality family time.
Create a safe space
In this age of self-care and mindfulness, the term “safe space” is thrown around often, but what does it really mean? According to Sipra Sengupta, a life and marriage family therapist in Covina, creating a safe place starts with establishing the rules. “Rules keep us safe,” Sengupta says. Establishing boundaries lay the groundwork for creating a purposeful connection because you have determined what goes and what doesn’t for your home.
“Decide what your boundaries are — masks, no masks, virtual or in person for appointments — and communicate that in a loving way. You cannot change anyone,” she says.
Gather together for family meetings
One suggestion my family therapist once gave my husband and me is to hold regular family meetings. If your initial reaction involved a slight cringe, you are not alone. At the time, we needed a way to nourish our newly blended family, and sitting down together with intention was our manna. Over time, my therapist’s recommendation to host family meetings has been the single most transformative piece of advice we’ve received as a family.
The guidelines were simple: Get a notebook (one that can weather a few storms), give a compliment and simply check in. This framework created a safe space where everyone aired out grievances, created rules that work for us and even planned fun activities. The meetings addressed everything from the heavy stuff to what the kids would like to have for dinner more often. This time together gave everyone a voice and sense of validation. The best part is that the notebook can eventually become a family keepsake to look back on.
Embrace tech-free time
Cell phones are great — they keep us in the know, allow us to engage with much of the outside world and have been, during this pandemic, a lifeline in many ways. But experts agree that selecting a time when phones are off limits has so many benefits to assisting families in connecting more authentically.
So, select a time when everyone in your household — including the adults — puts their phones away. It might feel awkward at first to not have them always at the ready, but keep at it until it becomes a part of your family’s daily routine.
And keep in mind that we can use our devices as another tool to connect with each other. Create a group text solely for family. Use this group to share funny stories, pictures, memes, GIFs and memories together.
Take a cooking class
As a West Coast girl with deep southern roots, food is definitely the way to my heart—and it’s one of the ways I enjoy connecting my heart to my family. Cooking together as a family is a time-tested recipe for bonding.
Charity Faye, a southern California chef and mother of two, suggests getting your family involved by “allowing each family member to choose the fruit, veggie or herb that will be the start of each meal.” Invite them to explore one or two ways an ingredient can be used. Then allow them to make one recipe and wow the family during meal time. During a recent farmer’s market visit, Faye and her son were sorting through the apples when Faye decided to explain “the healing properties of apples and the many different recipes we can make by using them.”
For those of us who aren’t chefs or nutritionists, enrolling in a cooking class can be fun and educational. And for those of us who feel we’ve seen enough of our own kitchens during this pandemic, a cooking class can help give us the reboot we need for fresh ideas. There are plenty of options in and around L.A., including Little Kitchen Academy, The Gourmandise School and BLVD Kitchen.
Do chores together — cheerfully
While it may not be one of our favorite things to do, there are mental benefits to keeping a tidy home. So, put a good playlist together, divide and conquer.
Doing chores doesn’t always have to be on the back end of a punishment or a requirement before leaving the house. My mother called it “clean-up time.” When everyone in the house participates, it can help to remove the negative emotion or plain-old griping often associated with cleaning.
Reach the summit together
When I first met my husband, we used to go on hiking dates, which was a fun way to get to know each other better. Trekking uphill and exploring nature served as the perfect backdrop for conversation. For fun, after each hike, we started renaming the trails based on their level of difficulty.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind of family life, including allowing games, practices and errands to dominate our weekends, we do ourselves a disservice when we take the natural beauty surrounding us for granted. Hiking dates shouldn’t just be for couples; they’re a great way for the larger family to connect as well — whether it’s your immediate family or extended family visiting during the holidays. Breathing in more fresh air and getting more Vitamin D can do us all some good. Years later, during the rare weekend that we are all free and available, my husband still loves to say: “Let’s hit a trail up.” This act of striving uphill together, sweaty and out of breath, helps even the kids feel a shared sense of accomplishment.
In response to making it through a time unlike any other, we deserve to connect with each other in ways that matter. This holiday season, as we gather together with family members who may not agree with us on political and personal issues, or even on whether we should put stuffing inside or outside of the turkey, we can agree on one thing: We are still here, and that is worth celebrating. May your time together brim with love and meaning.
Cherie Cofer is a mother, writer and founder of Write Works Tutoring Company.