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A few months ago, I asked the people who live in my house and call me “Mom” a Very Important Question:

“Do you think we’re a happy family?”

(Commence holding breath.)

After several interminable seconds, my children—both teenage daughters—got back to me. Actually, they looked at me incredulously.

They both said, “Of course. Why would you even ask?”

Well, that was a relief.

I asked the question because I wanted to know my girls’ take on the topic. I mean, I think we’re pretty happy. But I wanted my daughters’ off-the-cuff perspective—no time to think about it, no mulling it over, no hedging.

Just “yes” or “no”.

Thank God for that “yes”.

I’ve homed in on five habits our family has put into regular rotation over the course of a couple of decades. Some have been deliberate choices, while others we’ve just fallen into, by the grace of God (a recurring theme, by the way).

Tradition

Tevye’s tribe had it right in Fiddler on the Roof: traditions help keep life in balance. We’re big into them around here. We have family pizza night and Sunday night parties (snack food in front of the TV). We have our annual at-home Christmas Eve service planned and hosted by our children. We have our vacation in a cottage on a lake for a week, during which we do the same things every year. We have our ritual of “What Time Is It?” from High School Musical 2 blasting at top volume out the front door when the girls get home on the last day of school.

These traditions anchor us. They give us something constant and consistent to anticipate. They bring us together and hold us there. They smooth the rough edges of life. Not long ago, when we sat down for our pizza night ritual, my older daughter sighed with contentment and said, “I love family pizza night. I look forward to it all week.” When your teenager makes a comment like that, you know you’ve got something good going.

The Faith Hub

I grew up in a church-going family. We prayed before meals. I went to church camp, Sunday School, and vacation Bible school. I am beyond thankful for this foundation of faith, and I’m so grateful to my parents for giving it to me. But looking back, I can see that God was a spoke on the wheel of life more than He was the hub.

Making God central in our life is something my husband and I tried to be deliberate about doing. I know we’ve failed over and over. But we’ve worked to weave faith into the fabric of our family life rather than just letting it be a fringe element. We try to pray even if we’re not sitting down to a meal. Going to church on Sunday mornings is not a decision we make every week: it’s just happening, most of the time—even if Sunday morning does end up being the time of the week we seem to like each other least. We talk about the Bible. We worship and serve together (by the grace . . . ). We don’t do these things to put ourselves out there as pious. We do them because we want our girls to know that this sometimes-wonderful but often-messed-up world is not as good as life gets, and it is not their ultimate home. 

One of my favorite quotes is by Karen L. Tornberg in The Best Things Ever Said About Parenting: “To some this world may seem like no place to bring up a child. And in some respects they are right. But we take that risk anyway with the comforting knowledge that it is not for this world that we prepare them.” In a culture of constant change, we’ve tried to give our daughters the security of an unchanging God and the hope of knowing there is more to this life than what they can see.

The Low Bar

Our family has very humble standards for what is “good” and “exciting” and “worth looking forward to”. This is because my husband and I have intentionally established a low threshold for expectations. If a trip to Disney World is the base standard, disappointment over “normal” life is likely to follow. But if a ride on the penny pony at the grocery store is the bar for satisfaction, pretty much anything can be billed as thrilling. As demonstrated above, we’ve done such a good job at this that my girls think having homemade pizza on the floor while we watch House Hunters is something to plan a week around. Score one for the low bar.

Selective Scheduling 

In comparison to many families with children the ages of our girls, we are an under-achieving (and possibly unambitious) family. Overall, our daughters do the following: school, band, dance, church, home, family, friends. Also, their hair. (Which, to be fair, must be counted as an activity.) We don’t do travel-this or competitive-level that. I am NOT saying there is anything wrong with those activities. But being home together is crucial to our particular family’s happiness and our level of contentment with life at large. So we keep a pretty tight rein on our schedule, because it’s hard to be home together if we’re never home. Or together. 

Home as Safe Zone (Or: We Welcome Weird) 

The truth is that none of us can just be who we necessarily feel like being all the time. The same goes for only doing what we feel like doing or saying what we feel like saying. We can’t. For the good of others, we have to practice self-control and self-sacrifice.

But living beyond ourselves is a lot of work. Which is OK: most things worth doing are. At home, though, I know I am accepted and treasured in spite of myself. And I want my husband and daughters to know that grace, too. I want our home to be a safe, secure refuge where joys are doubled and sorrows are halved (or quartered—there are four of us, after all). I want it to be a place where we can unload and be refreshed. 

So at our house, it is OK to be grumpy sometimes. It is OK to be introverted. It is OK to not always be OK. And we do not automatically try to “fix” grumpy, introverted, or un-OK.

We welcome weird. OK, some of us welcome weird more than others. Some of us practice weird more than others. (And by “some of us,” I mostly mean “me.) Whatever. Weird is welcome in this house, and that’s all there is to it. 

We also welcome (or at least accept as part of life on this earth) sad, moody, complicated, worried, angry, frustrated, and confused. If there is something to be done about these feelings, we try to do it. But sometimes these emotions and experiences need to run their course, and we try to make our house a safe place for them to do that.

Listen, we are such a normal family, I can’t even talk about it. We try to love each other, but sometimes we don’t even like each other. We fight. We snap. We have total meltdowns. (And by “we,” I mostly mean me.)

But if my nearly-grown daughters can answer the question, “Do you think we’re a happy family?” with a ready “yes,” something we’re doing must be working. By the grace.

Guess what? I’m a mom who doesn’t . . . and you don’t have to either.

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Something we’re doing must be working.

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Elizabeth Spencer

Elizabeth Spencer is mom to two daughters (one teen and one young adult) who regularly dispense love, affection, and brutally honest fashion advice. She writes about faith, food, and family (with some occasional funny thrown in) at Guilty Chocoholic Mama and avoids working on her 100-year-old farmhouse by spending time on Facebook and Twitter.

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