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When I was a little girl, I loved my gentle, witty mom who looked like a mash-up of Snow White and that icon of her era, Jackie Kennedy. But I took her almost totally for granted. To me, she was just another wonderful mommy in our sleepy 1960’s suburban neighborhood. She certainly didn’t seem to be changing the world like Martin Luther King Jr. was doing on the news. Later she wasn’t, you know, Gloria Steinem or anything. She was just, well…mom.
Then I grew up, became an actual mother, and I stumbled across this quote:
“When the real history of mankind is fully disclosed, will it feature the echoes of gunfire or the shaping sound of lullabies? The great armistices made by military men or the peacemaking of women in homes and in neighborhoods? Will what happened in cradles and kitchens prove to be more controlling than what happened in congresses?”-Neal A. Maxwell
Later, I read this one:
“A mother can exert an influence unequaled by any other person in any other relationship.” -D. Todd Christopherson
Then came the creme de la creme:
“Motherhood is near to divinity. It is the highest, holiest service to be assumed by mankind. It places her who honors its holy calling and service next to the angels.”
These quotes gave me serious pause. Maybe being an ordinary mother was not ordinary at all. I thought of my mother and wondered if her careful kindness, compassion and patience had changed the world.
It had at least changed the worlds of her six adoring children, I thought. Had we then unwittingly influenced others for good because she had influenced us for good and on and on like that 80’s commercial for Faberge Organics shampoo?
I hoped so. But by the time my husband and I were raising children, the world had changed. Articles like this shared painful statistics. There were fewer strong, peacefully connected, functional families. But my husband and I desperately wanted to raise a strong, peacefully connected, functional family. I had mother friends that felt the same way.
So when we heard about BYU’s annual family strengthening summit, Education Week, we went. What we hoped for was even just one, simple concrete thing we could do to build better families.
We got it.
One morning we attended a class in which a family with eleven (eleven!!) children demonstrated a simple once a week program for strengthening families. It was called Family Home Evening (FHE). FHE began in 1915, and is currently still on the family building trend, as evidenced in this recent article in The Atlantic.
Perched on small stage, the family began with a calm opening song. Then one family member said an audible prayer. Another shared an inspirational thought. They memorized a poem together. Then they blew me away: the children pulled out instruments and began to play. They closed with a final, bonding song and prayer. It was so simple. The whole thing took less than hour.
Their unaffected happiness was apparent. They had obviously done this so many times, and they clearly loved it. Being in public did not seem to particularly faze them.
A palpable feeling of peace and cooperation flowed in and around my friends and me. It was sublime. We didn’t want to leave. When we finally left, we left inspired. We wanted to honor the power of motherhood and re-create this experience in our own homes. These were our “Mother’s Days” and we wanted to claim them.
On the way home I thought about two things:
1. There was no way in heck my husband and I were going to have a Family Home Orchestra like the demo family I had just witnessed. Life was full, nigh unto the accidental overflowing of toddler apple juice on our kitchen floors. We did love music and we sang. Occasionally tiny people pressed random keys on a toy piano and/or banged pans. This was the orchestra of choice.
2. I loved poems. The mother from class had explained that if a child could memorize poems, he/she would have an easier time memorizing school things. Yes. I loved school. I loved my family. I was in.
I envisioned a circle of our own large family, gathering together (sans violins). I envisioned these times expanding to include more discussion, feelings, and laughter. All of this would be both couched, within the structure of the program, and launched by the inspirational thoughts we would take take turns sharing.
I was so darn excited! I wanted this sort of gathering to happen as many days of the year as possible. Could I spark this? Of course. I was the cultural offspring of Helen Reddy, wasn’t I? She had once told me, via song, that I could do anything. And besides, by now I had absorbed the motherhood quotes above, and I was starting to “get” the power of motherhood thing. I wanted to use that power for good, as often as I could.
Then I thought again, more realistically. How could a regular gathering like this actually work? Our children were so young, so bouncy. It was a room full of springy “Tiggers”. I guessed that I could get them to all sit still at the same time for approximately five seconds. There was just no way…or was there? A scene from “SeaWorld” popped into my head.
What if?….I went to the store and purchased a plethora of candy (knowing what we now know about sugar, if I could turn back time, I would have used strawberries). I gathered the kids in a circle and made them a promise: “If you can sit still for two minutes…”
I mustered up some faux Braveheart gravitas, whilst holding aloft the bag of candy. “Each of you shall receive One of These!!” Riveted, they briefly stopped giggling and elbowing each other. They were on their way to becoming the treat-seeking dolphins of SeaWorld.
In the brief window of quiet, I talked about the “special feeling” of love and closeness we would get to enjoy when we were all together and talking about “happiness things”. That feeling, I explained, was like a delicate soap bubble. A lot of “bounciness” could easily pop it. To feel this special happiness, we had to be still.
We worked our way up from sitting still for two minutes to five minutes, to twenty…and for years we haven’t needed any treats at all. The gathering itself has been the treat. We have long since been wired, like Pavlovian dogs, to the joy of it.
From the start, I was determined that our circle of warmth would be a redress free zone, except for small, behavior shaping reminders. I tried to keep it light, focusing more on rewards than consequences. Often I would add a bonus prize for the best behaved child-the one who had exhibited the most peaceful behavior and best listening skills during our time together. This got comical as the kids began to compete with each other for the prize. They wanted to know every criterion particular. So I added “good posture”. Later, on a whim, I added “compliments for mom”. It was hilarious to see so many little squared shoulders, offering things like “You are so pretty mommy!” My oft messy hair and sweatshirts did not deter them, reminding me that rewards are powerful!
I was excited when our new tradition began to take solid root. My goal was every day! We didn’t always make that, but I tried. Why so often? Partly because it was fun, and it connected us. But I also felt we needed this gathering time often because life is hard. Healthy food helps the body. Healthy traditions help the soul. In a world that doesn’t always value healthy behaviors, I felt we needed all the soul food we could get.
We encouraged only positive feelings and actions in these gatherings. No electronics, unless we were watching an inspirational clip, were allowed. We sang. We took turns sharing inspirational thoughts. We got off track All The Time. We found endless laughter and fodder for inside jokes. As the kids got morphed into teens, discussions often became longer and deeper. We nodded as my husband shared deep and powerful insights. We cried as we considered trials with one another. The circle of all of us had become a safe space to share. Mostly though, we laughed. And in the end we really did memorize a lot of poems that the kids can recite to this day.
It’s now been well over twenty years since we began. Four of our children are married, and we have three grand little babies. Two of these families live close (our daughter and her husband and their baby are our neighbors), more are on the way to living close, and two are still at home. We still hold these gatherings with anyone and every family member who is over on any given day. It’s fun!
When a daughter and I were recently speaking about the “Mother’s Days” concept that had long ago inspired so many gatherings she said: “Mom, I think I can speak for our whole family when I say we have so many wonderful memories of these times-the closeness they brought and continue to bring to our whole family.” We are glad the kids feel like they have grown up with comforting remembrances born from this adoptable, adaptable tradition. They now have memories that they hopefully can finger like amulets of self-esteem during stressful times in their lives.
Like us, our children are far from perfect. But they are happy, addiction free, and healthy and strong in the “life things”, like serving others, having a moral compass, and creating and maintaining strong relationships. These children are now some of our very best friends.
Ryan Petty, mormon father of recent Florida shooting victim Alaina Petty made this statement after his daughter’s death: “Strong families are vital to a peaceful, functioning society…when families break down, that’s where the problems begin.” His wife Kelly added “Having a strong family is the most important thing, to have support and love and to learn right from wrong. When children don’t have that, sometimes they end up doing really bad things. If strong families were encouraged more and fought for more, more kids could be helped and not fall by the wayside….”
I agree with the Petty family. And strong families generally create strong children who can then be strongly kind to others. Who knows who these children might influence for good? Who knows what they might help prevent? More families may be struggling in major ways now more than ever before, but there is powerful hope.
There is this scripture that says: “Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.” -D&C 64:33
Great works can take great work. But I strongly believe that seemingly small things like taking advantage of “Mother’s Days” and gathering often with intention, really can change the world…maybe one goofy, SeaWorld moment at a time.