Are you pleased with your family life? If your answer is "No" or even "I don't know," perhaps a look at the past will inspire you.
Let us begin with the challenge that has plagued parents for the last century: How do we create a loving, celebrating environment for the home circle, or how do we master the Victorian art of Domestic Bliss?
Of course, we all know how to bake a birthday cake, make a valentine, carve a pumpkin or trim the Christmas tree. But how can we find opportunities to make every day, not just the holidays, memorable? This occurs once we realize that the pursuit of excellence in the domestic arts -- cooking, decorating, handicrafts and creating family recreational pursuits -- are not second-rate burdens but can be among our most satisfying accomplishments.
Ceremonials for Common Days The most important aspect in the pursuit of domestic bliss is attitude. With a positive attitude, anything can be, and frequently is, accomplished. One of the nicest ways to make every day special is for families to create "ceremonials for common days", or small moments each day that bring the family joy and contentment.
In this frazzled age of car-pooling, fast-food dinners and cooperative day care, every family needs to create its own ceremonials to brighten the common days. They can be as simple as setting the table for breakfast in a certain way, enjoying tea with your children after they return home from school or taking a family walk under the stars after supper.
Before the flourishes, however, every home first needs to be built upon a firm foundation. The foundation for achieving harmony at home consists in restoring rhythm to modern family life through daily rituals and developing a sense of order in your household.
Harmony at Home If there is one aspect of contemporary living that seems to have disappeared in the late 20th century it is the notion that there should be a regular rhythm to how we conduct our daily affairs.
When we pause a moment to think about why we should restore this most necessary, yet neglected, ingredient for insuring harmony in the home, the natural world offers us many examples: the recurring cycles of the four seasons, the monthly phases of the moon, the ebb and flow of the tide and the daily progression from day into night.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, 19th-century families were forced to fit their work, rest and recreation into agreement with the natural world. Over the last 100 years, however, progress has made it possible for modern families to attempt to overcome the limitations of nature. Yet simply because we can eat frozen strawberries in January or blur the distinctions between night and day with electricity doesn't mean we can ignore the role rhythm plays in our lives. If we do, eventually the tension and stress from trying to have it all and do it all at the same time will catch up with us. Just as there is a reassuring rhythm in nature, so should a comforting sense of rhythm be restored in the home through daily rituals, particularly with regard to eating and sleeping. The sense of security your youngsters will derive from so simple a concept as regular mealtimes and bedtime can be profound.
Choices have always been a part of raising a family. Today, to help parents make these choices, an astonishing range of "experts" offer seemingly contradictory advice on every aspect of family life. But there seems to be little offered in the way of old-fashioned common sense. At the end of the day, however, when you have tired, cranky children and dinner is late because you had to stop at the grocery store on your way home from work, what you need is not the latest parenting trend but a tried-and-true practical plan for homemaking so that this frenzy might not be repeated.
In Praise of Order When you gaze at a picture of Victorian domestic bliss, have you ever wondered why the Victorians were so happy at home? Maybe it's because Victorian homemakers realized and respected the role that order played in helping them achieve their ideal of Home, Sweet Home. There is no ill that can befall man, woman or child that cannot be made more tolerable in a tidy front parlor.
After rhythm, establishing a sense of order in the home promotes your own and your family's sense of well-being. No parent can think clearly, never mind celebrate family life, existing in clutter.
Children thrive on order, but it must at first be imposed upon them. Victorian mothers taught children order through imitation, housekeeping games, stories and rhymes.
Start when children are very young to teach them to tidy up after playing and put their toys away. Of course, you will need to help them, to show them where everything belongs and oversee their efforts. All this requires determination, good humor and above all, consistency. In the beginning, it is far easier to just pick up the toys (or the clothes, or the books) ourselves and be done with it. But children need and want to learn how to be responsible for themselves and how to be organized. After toys, children should learn to put their own clothes and belongings away, make their beds and keep their bedrooms reasonably neat, gradually introduce them to contribute on a regular basis to needs of the household.
Working as a family and sharing the responsibilities of running a home lightens the load for parents and teaches children valuable, life-sustaining skills from cooperation to cooking. Each completed task builds competence, confidence and self-esteem. Teaching our children when they are young how to grow up organized is one of the most precious gifts we can give them. They might grumble and complain while completing their chores, but they will bless you for endowing them with a respect for, and appreciation of, order when they establish their own homes and businesses.
If you are currently adrift, frazzled and running to and fro without a regular plan of affairs for your household, it will take a bit of effort to reinstate old-fashioned rhythm and establish order into your family's life. But persevere, for you will experience a wonderful sense of contentment that only happens when there is harmony at home.
MealtimesMany contemporary parents long to transform their homes from house of nonpaying boarders into a close-knit family but don't know where to begin. To remedy this situation, an old-fashioned Victorian tradition that can perform miracles is suggested.
It's called eating together.
In case it has escaped your attention, living under the same roof does not guarantee domestic tranquillity. However, enjoying the pleasure of one another's company at mealtimes frequently does.
Although the thought may at first be terrifying, when your children are grown, what they will remember best about life with you are family mealtimes. If mere contemplation of this fact makes you want to hide or at the very least turn back the clock and start over, then take heart and take action. Decide that from now on your evening meal will be a special time for you and your family. A time of reassurance, comfort, and sociability. Children learn some of their most important lessons at the family table, including good manners, the art of conversation and confidence.
Of course, Mrs. Sharp is not about to fly in the face of late 20th-century reality and paint an unrealistic picture of what can and cannot be achieved with regard to their family life. In today's hurried and busy world -- with so many demands upon our time -- families find it necessary to eat in shifts, grabbing a quick snack before rushing off to a meeting, soccer practice or drama rehearsal. But at some point parents must draw the line and reclaim eminent domain over the evening supper hour. Some practical suggestions on how to do this might include saying "no" to all early evening meetings or classes, to make it a family rule to not accept phone calls during this time (or, if you have a telephone answering machine, put it to good use), and to turn the television set off during dinner.
Because of the hectic schedules we all keep during the week, one old-fashioned tradition that should be restored to modern family life is the Sunday dinner. For Victorian families, this meal was the highlight of the week, to which all members of the extended family were invited (including the babies) and expected (illness being the only acceptable excuse for nonattendance). Of course, everyone arrived in their best bib and tucker with hearty appetites and an abundance of amusing stories to share.
Set a beautiful, inviting table using your best china, linens and flowers for the week's most festive feast. Promote a party atmosphere for, after all, you are inviting your favorite guests to dinner. Have the family put on their party clothes and come ready to "dine" instead of just eating. To encourage a lively discussion at the table, have everyone prepare one anecdote about the best thing that happened to them all week. You will be amazed at how effective these simple suggestions will work to bring your family closer together.
Keep in mind, however, that in the beginning the children might complain when you ask them to change for Sunday dinner. You might also have to endure long silences when it's someone's turn to talk about their week, but after just two or three family feasts, they'll come around to realize they don't have to wait for Thanksgiving to enjoy the tradition of dining together as a family.
Bath & Bedtime Rituals Eventide should be a time of winding down from the flurry of the day's hustle and bustle. Victorian families called this inviting interlude "The Children's Hour." In an age when children were admonished to remember their place, nighttime in the nursery was their special time to bask in their parent's undivided attention, love and devotion.
Any home with children inevitably has a bath and bed routine. However, if your "Children's Hour" resembles more of a nightly tug of war instead of a relaxing respite for both parents and children, a more gentle transition from day to night with cozy twilight traditions may be in order.
Each child will enjoy having her own bath basket in which to keep a variety of soaps, small nailbrush and sponges. If your bathroom is not large enough to store all the baskets, they can be kept in the bedrooms and carried to the bath. Let each child pick his favorite color and color-code towels and washcloths. Have towel racks scaled to the children's heights so that they can reach and replace their own towels and washcloths. Thick, terry-cloth bathrobes are wonderful for children to put on after the bath and very often finish drying a squirming child who doesn't want to stand still.
If a child has had a particularly stressful day, let her take her bath using a night light instead of overhead lighting. Massage little legs, arms and tired shoulders with bath oil after she gets out of the tub; then give her an extra cuddle and carry or escort her to her bedroom.
When the children return to their rooms let them discover that the curtains have been drawn, a soft light turned on and their beds have been turned down with their nightclothes neatly lying on the pillow. If it is a winter's evening, warm up the beds with hot water bottles and use flannel sheets to make the beds more cozy and inviting.
After dressing for bed, have the children select what they will wear the next day (down to socks and location of shoes) and lay out their clothes for the morning. This well-spent five minutes at night makes a considerable difference in the morning.
Now it is story time, a half hour until lights are out. As with dinner, no phone calls are accepted while putting the children to bed. This uninterrupted attention gives children a wonderful sense of security and by focusing so completely on them eliminates much of the tension that inevitably comes when children prolong bedtime. Very often, pleas for one more cup of water are really requests for much needed attention after a long day apart.
When the children are small, read a variety of short picture books. Also, remember: Children adore continuing sagas and even as young as 4 will settle down to hear a chapter a night. This sharing of a longer story together, as it unfolds over many nights, can become a wonderful bond between parent and child and a point of reference for conversations.
Soon the story book is closed for the night, prayers are heard, and little ones are tucked in and kissed good night. One favorite nighttime tradition begun when the children are very small and continued as they grow older is to sit near them on the bed and hold their hand in the dark. What an opportunity it is for heart-to-heart talks, as the children cuddle more closely near Mother or Dad. Here is where families can have some of their most intimate, private moments. At this special time, happy events of the day are recalled, secrets are shared, a sympathetic word can be offered. Upcoming events are discussed and very often difficult subjects are broached in the dark. At other times courage might have wavered in their young hearts. But now parents can reassuringly assuage fear during these affectionate times of close confidences. Parents wipe that slate clean of any transgressions that may have occurred earlier and everyone goes to bed with a free conscience. In every home, the ledgers of love should be balanced every 24 hours.
From "Mrs. Sharp's Traditions" by Sarah Ban Breathnach.
1990 by Sarah Ban Breathnach. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.
Some of Mrs. Sharp's old-fashioned principles of parenting:
First, obligations already existing in your family life can, with a little organization, become opportunities for family tradition-making and togetherness.
Second, special family times must be scheduled into modern lives; they do not occur spontaneously. Strong, emotionally healthy, and loving families spend time together -- working and playing.
Third, by incorporating routine, rhythm and ritual into your life many happy moments and memories will result. Always remember that creating happy memories for our loved ones is the most important work any of us will ever do. It is so important, it will outlive us.