Dr. John Gottman found in his research that once couples become parents, the happiest couples have a shared sense of meaning about their lives. They make intentional choices about how they will move through their days, rather than just trying to get through them. Gottman calls this a family’s “legacy,” which is based on his concept of rituals of connection.
Gottman suggests considering questions like these:
How do we want mealtimes to be?
How will we mark holidays, or spend our summer vacation?
How will we celebrate good news? How will we deal with the bad?
These are thought-provoking questions, but as a parent to two toddlers, I find it hard to answer them. Almost everything is new. The kids are changing so rapidly. My husband and I are constantly adapting our routines to fit their needs. A lot of days feel like a sleep-deprived slog.
And, like many North American families, we moved away from our home towns and extended families. We also let go of our religions and have yet to fully replace the communities and traditions they provided.
At this point in our lives, I think the best we can do is plant the seeds for a family legacy by asking ourselves small-scale questions like these:
What will bring us joy today?
What will connect us to something familiar today, among all this newness?
What routine around mealtime or bedtime worked well yesterday or in the last week? Can we try that again today?
Dr. Gottman has a motto when it comes to relationships: Small Things Often. We build the partnerships and families of our dreams one hour at a time, one day at a time, by doing the kind things, the loving things, the things that feels meaningful, the things that give and express gratitude and appreciation.
Small things often – that’s the way our family is trying to make sense of all this. Here’s my best advice:
Make baby-size traditions
I still remember introducing my two-day-old daughter to one of my dearest friends. We were in our hospital room. My friend held my daughter and hummed a song. When I listened closely, I realized I knew the song. It was “Simple Gifts,” one of my childhood favorites from church. After we were discharged home, I started singing it to my daughter every now and then.
When our daughter was four months old, our pediatrician suggested we start a bedtime routine for her. I was stumped. It seemed kind of hokey and contrived at her age.
“You could just sing the same song every night,” the pediatrician suggested, and bingo, Simple Gifts became a beautiful little tradition. Now she’s three and usually demands Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but the spirit of singing a song at bedtime still means something to all of us (and now I sing Simple Gifts to the one-year-old).
Modify, modify, modify
My husband and I ache for the camping trips of our youth and young adulthood in New England and British Columbia. And now we live in Seattle, where great camping trips are just an hour or two away. But we don’t dare try camping with a three-year-old and a one-year-old because we are convinced it would be riddled with skinned knees, smelly diapers, and sleepless nights.
So we are modifying. Starting when our kids were newborns, we held them and gazed out the window, narrating what we saw: trees, the sunrise, rain. We took many walks around the neighborhood with them, sometimes as a last resort to try to soothe a fussy baby.
Last summer, we rented a house on the Olympic Peninsula and took our first family “hike” – a half mile loop in the rainforest, where our three-year-old lead the way, dashing over bridges and around giant fir trees, convinced, I think, that she was the star of her own episode of “Dora the Explorer.” The one-year-old protested being strapped to my husband’s back for most of the time but we did it, and most of us had fun. For us, it was a huge win. We are sure to try more hikes next summer. In a couple years, when they are out of diapers, we’ll try camping.
Return to one of your favorite traditions or activities, for yourself
This may take three months or six months or a year, but when the dust of new parenthood begins to settle, go back to at least one regular activity that brings you joy and meaning. For me, it’s a weekly yoga class. That quiet, focused time helps me tune into myself, relax, and gain perspective.
So, new parents, take heart. We are in the small days. But I have to believe that by feeling out what family routines work well and making them habits, and by seeking moments to reconnect with your partner and children, these small days with small things often will lead to big family legacies.
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