Trauma is not only the product of bad memories but the absence of good ones as well. Extended abuse or trauma summons up visions of verbal and physical violence, but as damaging are the years barren of good memories. I faced this upon the dissolution of my first marriage, knowing that I needed to rehabilitate Christmas and birthdays. But equally as daunting, I confronted the reality of knowing I needed to create enough sense of safety that the everyday norm could begin to generate good feelings, interactions, and memories.
When I married my current and wonderful husband, I did not realize I would need to rehabilitate such everyday interactions as common as family dinners for more than just my girls.
Nearly five years out of my marriage to a narcissistic abuser, I worked on making birthdays and other occasions special, a task made difficult by over a decade of fighting, emotional blackmail, and verbal abuse.
My daughters adapted quickly to family dinners with just the five of us, but Christmas day, Easter, and Thanksgiving remained fraught with dread.
Now married with two additional children at the table, a clash of family cultures began. Spencer and his son and daughter came to the marriage with great memories of holidays, but family dinners were rare at his house. I did not realize why until my first big dinner with all eight of us around the table. Spencer looked miserable and left the table early. I grew up with wonderful family dinners on a near nightly basis. In fact, those years of good memories helped keep me intact during the twelve years I lived with my first husband.
What took me some time to learn was that his experience of family dinners ranged from the merely disastrous to the violent. His memories of growing up were not only filled with a host of tragic endings, but the lack of good memories from his own childhood proved daunting.
In short, we were not so much a family as we were a ragged company of survivors washed up on the shore of life.
His children still reeled from the divorce of their father and mother, and mine kept up a good appearance while avoiding their new father figure. It took him years to win their trust.
Literally, any kind of normal family event proved triggering to someone. Every meal, every holiday, every event contained landmines designed to explode into panic attacks, angry diatribes, or a dissociative coma. I began to realize that I needed to teach every one of the kids and my husband how to be happy, a heroic attempt made possible by the sheaf of happy memories I had from ages seven to seventeen. So I launched myself into the effort and learned some important lessons along the way.
- Sometimes you have to be extravagant. Learning how to enjoy pleasure is key to recovering from depression or trauma. When you wait for an emotional explosion or try to avoid being noticed, you leave your body behind. By making fabulous dinners or comfort food, by designing a menu to hit everyone’s favorites within the week, every single one of our family members began to look forward to dinners. We established safe boundaries and managed the conversations by relating stories. This took several years to develop, but now every one of the kids and my husband looks so fondly on these extended family dinners. The combination of really good food and the development of the intimacy of the dinner table made us a family and gave us all a file of really happy memories now that the kids are grown.
- Beauty is important. In order to make holidays enjoyable, I hit all the neural pathways I could. At Christmas, I designed special Christmas trees. One Christmas, butterflies fluttered over the tree; another Christmas, small woodland creatures nestled between the boughs or hung from ribbons. I used scented candles. Easter meant a beautifully decorated table. Thanksgiving included a large poster we decorated together with markers, holiday stickers, and things we were grateful for. We played music appropriate to the holiday. And yes, I bought too many gifts. But now that everyone lives far apart, they reminisce about our Christmases and look forward eagerly to their own. That is a major win. My future grandchildren will have good holidays now.
- Order matters. I kept a clean house. While I worked, cleaners helped me. The house wasn’t perfect, but it felt good. I helped each of the kids design their own space. It wasn’t expensive, but everyone had a place to retreat to and the family areas were comfortable and gracious. I didn’t have designer furniture for most of that time; I just took care to make sure that the environment could be lived in. My kids, for the first time in their lives, brought their friends over. They did not have the freedom before and went a long way to teaching their minds and bodies how to feel at home.
- Family outings are good. Our first forays into vacationing were a bit difficult, but over time we got better at them. We rented cabins or homes. We integrated physical, intellectual, and spiritual activities. Fights happened, but with less and less frequency. We all had to relearn how to have fun. Hiking, silly games, and again, good food seemed to be our magic formula. We also went to some fantastic church conferences that impacted everyone. Who knew having fun was a skill? But in the absence of good, fun memories, there is no roadmap to the land of good clean fun.
When my grandfather died, my grandmother told me that she spent her life trying to give him good memories. His childhood never really happened as he took responsibility for himself from a very young age. I realized then what I just related above. The absence of good memories is so debilitating because feeling safe, enjoying relationship, and just celebrating life must be taught.
I do not write this intending to guilt the overwhelmed mother into trying to do all or be all. Not at all. I merely want to encourage parents to realize that creating good memories is a sacred duty. What constitutes those good memories is probably different for every family. For my traumatized brood, I used what tools I was gifted in. I have an eye for beauty, and I like to cook. My kids are all very gifted, so long intellectual conversations greased the relational wheels.
Later, I realized that God built in fun for his children, too. Feast days and days of rest were mandated. Rules for keeping things clean and orderly were in place. Even eating together is sacred in the Bible. Jesus turned the water into wine, regularly fed the crowds, and cooked for his disciples. Solomon’s temple had special closets to house the memories and trophies of Israel.
Good memories cement relationship, necessary to combat depression and anxiety, even physical illness. Good memories provide a platform of support, a baseline of normalcy that protects us. My background provided the necessary context for understanding how abusive my first marriage was as well as the necessary tools to remediate, to some extent, the damage from it. Want to give your kids an incredible gift? While you are teaching them to be responsible adults, teach them to have fun, unadulterated, joyous glee. Joy, happiness, whatever you want to call it, heals, protects, and binds wounds of all sorts.
To create happy memories is to bless your children and your children’s children. So here’s to good times.
For more of my thoughts on childhood memories and their importance, see