We all have family rituals, whether we realise that is what they are or not. In a larger family these rituals start to take on a life of their own, becoming a sort of adhesive that binds the family together. They might take a little bit of effort to set up, but if the fit is right, I reckon they become the things kids grow up and remember as part of themselves, helping them feel they belong. They communicate a sense of collective belonging that is one of the key ingredients to intrinsic wellbeing. Our household of six has a number of rituals for daily life, weekly rhythm, and marking special occasions and holidays. In the nationwide lockdown currently in place in New Zealand, holiday rituals and sabbath-rest-days have taken on an even greater importance as a way of marking time and fostering a sense of security in all the weirdness and anxiety.
Family ritual as spiritual discipline
Why use the world “ritual” rather than routine? Well, for me it connotes a sort of spiritual discipline aspect to the activity, where the value is in the repetition built up over time, not the amazing quality or planning or special oomph of just one event. The discipline is continuing to show up and trusting that the showing up will be enough to make connection and growth happen. Like meditation or a commitment to others forms of spiritual practice, family rituals are a commitment of the mind that takes some discipline to undertake. Rituals are a stable, embodied, repeated action, where something is done in a certain way to represent a deeper meaning.
So what kind of rituals am I talking about here? And how does this relate to large families? Some examples of rituals we use include the following:
- The morning greeting, where each child is greeted separately and directly before any instructions are issued.
- The after school check-in, where each child is welcomed and greeted, briefly asking about their day.
- The family meal, which begins with setting the table, saying grace when the cook is seated, and staying at the table until everyone is finished – then associated chores!
- Reading together before bed, although this changes over time depending on the age of the children. Currently, it is the middle two and we are listening to an audio book.
- Saturday pancakes & chores, where Mum gets up and cooks pancakes with whoever is up, and people come and take a stack as they emerge from their bedrooms. After pancakes, each person has an age-appropriate family chore (emptying bins, cleaning the bathroom) and a chore to do with their own belongings (changing sheets, tidying rooms).
- Sunday church & deli lunch, which was put in place after going out for a meal became too expensive on a weekly basis. We choose something from the supermarket deli on the way home from church.
- Weekend games (board or sport), which is Dad and kids and can include both competitive and collaborative games. Current favourites are Pandemic (board game) and Gutterboard (outdoor game).
- Christmas Eve vegetarian feast, which is a Polish tradition we adapted, and includes waiting until the first star appears before opening a present.
- Good Friday homemade hot cross buns, a tradition adapted from my family (we didn’t make them though).
- Easter Sunday egg dying and egg hunt, which involves dying plain boiled eggs for breakfast, and an indoor or outdoor hunt for Easter eggs – then sharing them all out equally afterwards.
- Various birthday traditions, including cake, choosing a meal, presents in bed, and singing happy birthday in as many languages as we can.
None of these rituals are high energy, and none are in themselves ‘necessary’, but they all say something about what we value. They also communicate to each child that they are part of those values, and that they themselves are also valued as part of the family. The commitment to repeating these rituals communicates reliability and care for the family as a unit. If it were not for these rituals, it is possible in a larger family (especially with an academic mother) that a child might be overlooked for a period of time, and of course feel neglected and even start to withdraw or act out.
Sabbaths as spiritual discipline
One ritual I find hard to practice is the Sabbath. Now we don’t really practice Sabbath in the Jewish sense, but we do try to hold on to the weekends as special somehow, as times where the family can expect me, as the earner, to be present in home life and not working. Saturday is the day we care for our house and prepare ourselves for the week, including getting washing done, cleaning chores, meal planning and shopping for food or other provisions. By setting aside time for this and participating in it weekly, the message is that these tasks are important and are not the job of one person. I therefore consider this a sort of feminist spiritual practice! It also communicates that each member of the family is important and contributes something. This is important to communicate so the children do not foster their self-worth only on academic work or other achievement-oriented values. Even chores done imperfectly are a blessing and contribution to the family – it is the ‘turning up’ that counts.
Sundays are days of community and self-care. We usually go to church as a family, and we then go pick up lunch from the supermarket deli on the way home. (We used to go out for lunch when we only had two kids). My daughter and I are regularly rostered on to the band, and my husband to the creche. Church can be pretty boring, but by continuing to show up, we communicate that we value this community and what it stands for (in our church, that includes social justice and environmental sustainability). Relationships are built through this ritual of showing up. When my husband had a stroke earlier this year, members of the church community rolled into action with support for us — babysitting, food, help with chores, check-in phone calls and more. The kids knew these people coming into our home and had reliable adults with whom to process what was happening, when I had to be at the hospital. Sunday evenings, I go to my weekly yoga class, and the kids are responsible for cooking dinner. This is framed as a contribution of care because it is dad’s ‘day off’ (he cooks much of the week) and mum’s self-care time. Some years, I might have early morning Monday lectures, which demand a Sunday afternoon work time. Or occasionally I might be working on something with an imminent due date that cannot be put off. I try to at least put it off until the afternoon when everyone is doing their own thing so it doesn’t impinge on family time.
Even harder is taking a Sabbath rest during a public or religious holiday. Work is very important to me, and I think about it all the time. If left to myself, I absolutely would work every weekend, and public holidays too. So I am grateful to my children for providing a structure to my life that forces me to take a break and rejuvenate my mind. The cognitive dissonance of home labour, community time and rest certainly increases my desire to work come Monday or the next work day. And I believe that the balance truly creates an efficiency that draws on the balance and focus cultivated through Sabbath-like practices. It is a spiritual practice in that it provides this rejuvenation and because it relies on a certain discipline of ritualised behaviour that builds habits of rest over time. Occasionally, I develop a little niggling concern that I’m missing out somehow by not working on the weekend regularly like my other academic colleagues. Sometimes I suspect that my kids don’t actually even care or seem to notice if I am working or not. But I think this reiterates again that this is a spiritual discipline, put in place to ritualise wellbeing and balance.
Rituals, Sabbaths and Larger Families
Finally, what does this have to do with large families, and why is this still important during times of pandemic and lockdown where I am continually present at home anyway? To answer the first, I think as our children develop their own interests and personalities, and the differences between them become more acute over time, there is a danger that little family factions will develop or that certain forms of interaction become hardened over time. For example, I’m pretty sure my teen would stay in her room 90% of the time rather than 70% if we didn’t have these things in place. She might roll her eyes that she has to stay at the table with us until everyone has finished eating, but being present with us even a little bit longer makes less real the belief that ‘nobody understands me’ and ‘I am alone in this world’ that is common at this age. I’m pretty sure my husband and I would just take turns with the baby and let the others run a bit wild since technically they can care for themselves. This would encourage the belief that ‘middle children don’t matter’ and ‘the baby is more special than me’ that often inadvertently develops in busy families. I don’t think we can necessarily prevent these beliefs from forming and developing, but we can make sure there are regular times where every individual is acknowledged because everyone is present and needed.
Family rituals also work to connect the family together and create a sense of ‘us’ that translates into a sense of belonging. In my father’s large family, traditions such as singing certain songs or telling certain bad jokes create a sense of belonging, even if it is punctuated with groans. In our everyday rituals, a minimum engagement with the family is communicated, and a flexible rigidity puts in place the kind of boundedness that helps a healthy attachment relationship and community grow. The stability of knowing rituals – pancakes come on Saturday and everyone must be present at the table for mealtimes – communicates that ‘our family is important’, and likewise, ‘I am important’.
Public holidays and religious holidays are important here too. The reason they are important is that everyone gets a day off on the same day, which is the perfect opportunity for collective family rituals to develop and be maintained. While technically as an academic with 5 weeks of paid annual leave per year, I could just take a rest day at any time I was not teaching, the fact that we all get holidays at the same time on certain days fosters the sense of togetherness, affiliation, belonging in community that contribute to intrinsic wellbeing at both social and individual levels.
Rituals and Sabbaths in times of collapsed boundaries
In times of collapsed boundaries as workplaces move into the homes, I reckon it is important to keep these rituals in place to provide that same sense of secure boundedness. When we work from home, we often have to enforce false boundaries in order to get work done — for example, putting off the requests of our children for attention in order to pay attention to a screen and incomprehensible tasks that don’t seem very important. Constantly saying ‘no’ and/or ignoring children can really become hard for them to bear, and they will certainly start letting you know in a variety of passive and direct ways! By having a commitment to our usual rituals, we are communicating that our children are important and that they matter, that we will fulfil our commitments to them in the same way that we do with our colleagues. I am all for fostering independence in the children, but I think that really only happens when they are secure that they will get what they need from us.
Two days ago was Easter Sunday. I could have spent the day reading a colleague’s 12,000 word article and preparing for an Easter Monday Zoom meeting scheduled. I did consider it, because I do care about my colleagues, but I also knew that my 6 year old had been counting down the days to Easter and that something special better happen.
In the end, I gave my apologies for the meeting on the grounds that it was a public holiday, and then we made a special Easter in Lockdown happen. We reminded ourselves of the Easter story. We boiled the eggs, then dyed them in food colouring. Each egg was different when peeled. After breakfast we had an Easter egg hunt in the backyard. Then a walk followed, to count the Easter eggs people are colouring and taping to their windows as a Lockdown activity. Then everyone did their own thing until dinner was served at 1pm. We had a tablecloth and napkins, fancy glasses and drinks, roast lamb and vegetables. We took family photos. Then everyone doing their own thing until the next meal: a collaborative starter and dessert meal. The eldest made the dessert. The second made the soup with supervision. The third learned how to make scones. Dad set the table and cleaned up. Baby enthusiastically sampled everything. We finished with listening to an audio book before bed. While we couldn’t fulfil all the Easter rituals we usually have (we often travel to see family or go to church if we are home), it was enough to show that the day was special, that it was not a work day, that the story of new life and hope is important to our family.
So that’s my thoughts on this. I wonder how much of this is idiosyncratic, how much is how I was brought up, and how much is cultural? I do know that the longer I do this parenting thing, the more I find rituals and Sabbaths provide opportunity to define and shape our family, helping each person to find a place and belong. What rituals do you have in your family life? What challenges do you face in committing to regular rest-times?