They are everywhere, always with us. Anticipated or not. Welcome or not. Smooth or less so. Exciting. Challenging. Nearly always difficult. They are transitions, and they are a constant in life, particularly family life.
My family and I have recently had more than our usual share of transitions. We relocated from Southwest to Northeast. We moved from a large contemporary house we owned to a smaller, 100-year-old-plus home owned by someone else. Children changed from a citywide system with three high schools and four middle schools to a regional system that includes seven towns, with fewer than half the number of students in each school. I went from a demanding full-time job to hunting for employment. All of this was anticipated. What we did not expect was my husband quickly transitioning from vibrant health to life-threatening illness and me transitioning to caregiver.
Many American families relocate each year. Fewer know serious illness. But all face regular transitions in the course of “normal” family life. Most of those transitions relate to happy changes that are sought: marriage; having children; those children moving from one age-stage to another (It seems that just about the time we parents figure out how to relate well to a child in a particular stage, that child is on to a whole new set of behaviors and needs!); new children’s activities; a new school; graduating and, eventually, the empty nest.
The seasons themselves bring regular transition. In some parts of the country, children are already out of school for the summer. Here in New Hampshire, it will be late June before the summer transition. With that last day of school will come nights without homework, sleeping in, lazy days, camps and other summer-ish activities. Most kids make this transition without any trouble! It can, however, be an adjustment for parents.
Apart from children, for grownups there can be transitions related to education, new hobbies, job changes, promotions and retirement. These are challenging enough for individuals, but even moreso when heaped upon the complexities of family life, with its mixture of personalities, each of whom may navigate a particular transition differently.
While living in Fairfield County, Connecticut (home to more corporate headquarters in America than anywhere else, except New York), I observed transitions faced each week by certain families. Many executives (mostly men) traveled extensively. It was not unusual that three weeks a month, they would leave home early Monday morning and return on Friday evening. The wives-mothers would be left entirely responsible for children-house-yard-cars-etc. throughout the week, operating almost like single parents. The transition of reintroducing husbands-fathers into the family equations was not easy. In some respects, it was easier for the wife to manage on her own, making all decisions solo, not needing to communicate–just getting things done.
Beside the transitions we seek or expect, there are those that are unsought, unanticipated and unwelcome. Like hearing “You’re fired!” from someone other than Donald Trump. Or moving through the experiences of divorce, accident, illness, death or other losses.
Life is full of transitions. We cannot escape them. Some of us are by nature more adventurous or flexible, perhaps better suited to managing life’s transitions. For all of us, accepting their inevitability (a la Who Moved My Cheese?) is something we might as well do.
What about our children? How do we help them become successful transitioners? A few ideas:
1. Examples speak louder than our words. Our children are witnessing how we respond to change and soaking up experience that, added to their unique personalities, will create their own patterns for transition management.
2. Words are needed as well. Too much can be left unspoken during times of change. Expressing our own feelings and encouraging our kids to express theirs creates an atmosphere of openness regarding change. Those feelings surely need not all be positive, as any transition is by nature a process, with emotions ebbing and flowing while people adapt to newness, welcome or unwelcome.
3. Unconditional love is even more important than setting a certain kind of example or saying particular words. This foundation will potentially carry children through any transition. As long as they know their parents love and value them, most kids continue to believe things will be okay after all. In addition, a relationship with God-with-us whose love is even more dependable than that of a parent and who is present always, will help both children and parents to hang on through change.
4. Helping professionals can assist families in making particularly challenging transitions.
To all families in transition, hang on! The ride can be rough—perhaps, for a summertime image, like crossing the wake on water skis. If you are choosing the pleasures that are outside the wake, then the bumpy transition can be endured as a passage to good things. If, like me, you are perfectly happy to stay directly behind the boat and make it all the way around the lake still standing, to find yourself suddenly crossing the wake is a true threat. And yet, making that undesired transition can open up exciting new discoveries. (And if you do dump it, there is always getting back up and trying again.)
Transition is most often redemptive, reshaping us and our families in ways that lead to deeper relationships with each other and with the God who never leaves us or forsakes us. With that foundation, may you and yours have a wonderful transition into summer, whatever the season may bring.
Karen Johnson Zurheide is chair of BCE’s board of directors.