When it comes to forming family rituals, there’s one and only one that has worked out for us — Bob, the kids and me. It’s not a ritual we planned. And to be honest, it’s not one I would have chosen. The strongest tradition in our family system came to us by accident.
You see, we are not big on creating domestic routines, although I always wanted us to be. I used to imagine fun weekly movie nights, rich annual Christmas festivities, and sweeping memories arranged in an artsy scrapbook. I longed for strong traditions that I saw my friends create for their families, imprinting love and togetherness through interesting customs and contained recollections.
I imagined family meals together, long and leisurely, when we’d talk about what’s up, what’s down, what’s going on, what’s wrong and what’s right. Mythical dinner guests would be so impressed with the way our children articulated their worldview. I imagined reading together as a family, a devotional, a novel, a poem. We would instill the value of critical thinking into our family dynamic.
But the truth is, we can never agree on a movie. Our holidays are mostly alone, far from extended family with Bob working the late shift. (He’s a pastor.) And our potential scrapbooking material is largely lost on crashed computers and misplaced key drives.
Reality hits home
The reality is, we are rarely home together over the supper hour and when we are, we eat in our own separate places, side-by-side eating, not sitting around one unified kitchen table, but spread out among the rooms of our house, in front of a TV here, over a laptop there, tired everywhere, relieved for quiet time, glad to be home, happy to know that the family is close, yet desperately seeking simplicity, truly not up for the pomp and circumstance of sitting and sharing around a set table.
Pretty much all attempts at instituting strong family traditions have fallen flat, all except for one thing. There is a nightly custom that has stuck for years around here: the bedtime tuck-in. Our two kids, going on 13 and 16, still ask me to see them off to sleep every night. I’m not sure why because we didn’t intentionally start this as a custom. We started doing a tuck-in when the kids were little without thinking much of it. In retrospect, the nightly tuck-in was probably more a procedure to bring quiet to a chaotic household, and less a virtuous act of devotion.
Our tuck-in method has always been simple. Prayer is the center, and the irony is I don’t believe in prayer. I tend to pray only when I don’t know what else to do, when I am desperate, sad, lonely or fearful. To me, prayer presents the conundrum of how we view God’s authority.
If we believe that God is all powerful, then what’s the point of prayer?
If we believe that God is all powerful, then why does bad stuff happen?
If we believe that God is all powerful, then do our own actions mean nothing?
Maybe the purpose of prayer is simply to give thanks. To live in a spirit of gratitude, instead of a spirit of need. That’s probably where I go wrong with talking to God because I’m always so needy.
While I hold an uneasy relationship with prayer, I have prayed with my kids every night since I can remember. Even now, as teenagers they still expect it. One child at a time, two tuck-ins per night, I hold a hand, grasp an arm, or press a back — and say the goodnight prayer: “Jesus bless this home of mine and bless my parents too. Make me, Lord, a child of thine, holy pure and true. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I sleep or if I wake, I may be thine for Jesus’ sake.” Sometimes we follow with the Lord’s Prayer. I think this prayer sequence may be a combo of what Bob remembers as a kid and what I remember.
These days, as my kids turn into teenagers and I turn into bed earlier than they do, many times one of them will still come to my bedside and awaken me when they’re ready to sleep, “Mom, can you say prayers with me?”
“Sure,” I say, pulling myself out of early REM stages. “Can I do it from here?”
“Sure,” my daughter says, or my son says, whoever happens to be asking.
Still half asleep under the covers, in horizontal position, I reach for a teenager’s hand and say aloud the same prayer I’ve said for years. After the last amen, I assume my kid goes straight to sleep. I know that I do, with infinite gratitude that my son and daughter continue to invite me into this sacred space.
We may rarely watch movies altogether or enjoy lavish holiday festivals. We may rarely eat while sitting down around a table. We may never craft pretty books of family pictures. We have flailing family traditions that will never stand the test of time.
Yet as long as long as my kids allow me to tuck them in at night, I will.
Terri Mork Speirs is a writer, mother and the communications manager for the Des Moines Area Religious Council. She recently completed a master of fine arts degree in creative writing.