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Non-Traditional Families Can Have Tradition!

By Diane C. Shearer, M.A.

Society refers to families that have a "different" structure as "non-traditional," which would imply a set of circumstances that goes against the norm. Yet for the last thirty years or more, the norm has been evolving when you consider that over a million children a year are affected by divorce and nearly half of those will become part of a blended family within five years after divorce. This means most of our children will grow up without both of their biological parents living in the same household. It doesn't make sense, then, that we continue to call single, blended and step families non-traditional. But we do, because we seemingly are not yet ready to accept the so-called failure of the American family. Unfortunately, then, those heading single parent families often feel guilty that their children are somehow missing out on tradition. But, my experience has led me to believe that tradition is simply what you make it.

Now that the holidays are approaching, this is a perfect time to incorporate the kinds of attitudes and rituals that will help you navigate a traditional world with non-traditional circumstances. Here are five rules for getting your ducks in a row to help you create confidence in your unique family structure:

1. Lose the guilt and adopt an attitude of strength.
You are only as weak as you believe you are. If you buy the admonition that you are somehow less important or worthy than other families, this will show up in your attitude around your children. Continually find ways to tell and to show your children that you and they are strong just the way you are. Be prepared for problems that are likely to arise and face them head-on with strength and a no-compromise attitude. You do not love your kids any less because you are unmarried. Let that love drive all that you do and say.

2. Take off the rose-colored glasses.
Don't always assume that everything would be better if you had a traditional role in a traditional family. In fact, there are many two-parent families that are wrought with abuse and dysfunction. Stop comparing yourself to other families and wishing you could be just like them. They have their moments, too. Relish in the fact that the difficult circumstances you endure will be used as positive teaching tools. Maybe you have financial problems, but it's good for your kids to see that they can't always get what they want. Most kids who are richly loved, yet financially poor, grow up with a deep sense of appreciation. Or, maybe you have to deal with tough emotions, like anger, frustration, or sadness as you navigate the non-traditional world. But again, if you model how to deal with these emotions in a productive way, your kids will have great skills to take into their adult lives when they will most certainly encounter these emotions again. No one is immune to problems or difficult circumstances. You will be teaching your kids skills that they may not have otherwise had the opportunity to face had they been in a more traditional situation.

3. Ask for and accept the help of others.
Don't let pride get in the way of good sense. Humiliation or embarrassment about your single-parent family will not serve you well if you are not able to be honest with others about your needs. If you have to ask for public assistance or help from a community food bank, for instance, do so with strength and confidence. Offer to pay them back with volunteer service when you get back on your feet. I guarantee you will be glad you did when you are able to turn your circumstances around and help others who are in a similar position. That is when you will learn that the important things you do in this world come from the difficult experiences you face with courage. At that moment of realization, you will have no regrets.

4. Incorporate "traditional" ideas and activities into your family.
Who says you can't do things like your grandmother did? When I first became a single mom, I started a tradition of staying home from work on my kids' first day of school in the fall. I stayed home and baked bread, cleaned house and did all the things my mother did when I was in school. That created such a strong impression that my kids (now in college) still want me to bake bread and send it to them for their first day of school! That tradition had lasting effects, even if it was only for one day a year.

5. Start new rituals.
If we gauge our success by the standards of the world, we will most surely fail or feel like failures. For example, there is nothing special about the day labeled December 25th. What is special is the hope it symbolizes. Most families are not able to celebrate this hope as one big household on that specific day. So, begin a new ritual. Have Christmas celebrations a week before or after that day. Think of creative ways that mark the beginning of a new family – a new era – that your kids will pass down to their own families. A large part of the social construction of tradition is in how we frame the non-traditional counterpart. For instance, your lack of financial resources may cause you to feel guilty that you cannot buy your children something really special for his or her birthday. Maybe your new ritual, then, celebrates life in simple ways, such as passing down a special piece of jewelry in the family or creating a special photo album from pictures in an old drawer.

Life truly is what we make it – the same holds true for tradition.

Diane Chambers Shearer is a divorce mediator and parent educator in Atlanta, Georgia. She is author of Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families (Fairview Press, 1997) and publishes The Peaceful Co-Parent, a quarterly newsletter for divorce parents. For ordering information, visit her web site at www.nofight.com.

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