We hold traditions sacred in our family. Traditions help shape and reflect who we are and how we are different from other families. Our family is in fairly good shape: not ripped, but not paunchy either. In the Lawrence household, for instance, it is tradition to throw laundry next to the basement door. Another important family tradition is the periodic drafting of the Lawrence Manifesto.
I wrote the first one shortly after we returned to Michigan from a year of living in Santa Fe. We had moved there after a difficult time in our lives: I had developed postpartum depression after the birth of my second son, followed by two miscarriages in three years. At the end of this period, I enrolled my oldest son in a progressive, independent primary school, started going to counseling, and became pregnant again. By the end of the school year, I thought I was ready to make a radical change. We left our home in Michigan and moved to an apartment in Santa Fe where my third and youngest son, Daniel, was born at home.
I had thought moving to Santa Fe would be a pilgrimage; in retrospect, I see it was an escape. New Mexico was beautiful but brutal—the dryness, the heat, and the lack of good jobs did us in. After a year we went home to Michigan. Our return was bittersweet. We bought a home next door to my father-in-law and reenrolled the children in their old school. Settling into Michigan took much longer than expected, perhaps because we felt we had left something behind, or undone, in Santa Fe. Our family needed direction, a path. We needed to reconfigure our lives and redefine our purpose. The old ways just weren't working.
We needed a manifesto.
I considered its contents for a while, and the more I thought about what I wanted our family to be, who we were as individuals, and how we could become unified, the manifesto created itself. I didn't have any desired outcome except to get my thoughts on paper. Without any kind of restriction, it was fairly easy. Being a writer helped, of course.
Seeing our family's mission in writing gave me clarity. I read it to the kids, who were too young to understand much of it. It began:
Insofar as we—by fate and good fortune—have come together as One Family in the eyes of the world, and that God has given to us one another so that we may not walk alone in the world, the Lawrence Family commits itself to the following mission and vision . . .
Somewhere between this opening remark and the end were some pretty specific rules. Rules were part of my manifesto because I thought the kids might be able to see the connection between good behavior and family goals. My oldest was only seven, so the rules needed to be few and easy to follow:
Obnoxious behavior is not much tolerated.
In the page and a half of my carefully crafted manifesto, this is the only rule that was committed to memory. And mocked, even though I am pretty sure I didn't write it to be funny. Whenever I told the kids "you are being obnoxious" or "stop that right now!" the quick retort was always "but you said we can be a little obnoxious." Touché.
So, manifestos can be fun and funny, I guess. When I wrote the second rendition, I made sure to rewrite the obnoxious section. The revised manifesto clearly stated: "Obnoxious behavior is not at all tolerated." But it was too late. The original version had taken hold and become the family motto. Our life was chaotic at that time. My oldest was about 14 or 15, the youngest 8 or 9. Notes from the time show that I was tossing some expectations and chores into the picture:
Kids to-do and manifesto: consequences to actions; what is expected:
M: Free time 'til dinner/Help w/dinner
D: Help with dinner
A: Violin 3/4 hr
M: Clarinet ½ hr
D: Clear table
A: Clean up/Take Riley out
M: Homework/Clean up
D: Homework/Feed Riley
It was a pathetic list, but testosterone was high, productivity low. Obnoxious behavior continued to plague us.
That year was a particularly difficult one for the Lawrence family. For years I had been working part-time in sales and doing a lot of freelance writing and editing work. But when my husband lost his job in the recession, I gave up freelancing and accepted a full-time sales job. My husband started selling antiques and, between my regular employment and his fledgling business, we managed to eke out a living we dubbed "super austerity."
But it wasn't enough to keep both our house and a private education for the kids. We had to choose between the extended family of their school community and the lakefront cabin they had known for eight years, next door to their grandparents. The kids would be giving up a tree house, a loft, and a raft they had made with their own hands. They would be giving up all the comforts of a child's idyllic life. But our teenagers and almost teens didn't need grandparents to babysit anymore, and the cabin was too small to accommodate growing bodies and egos.
I guess you can say that the timing was right for the bank to foreclose on our home. We took a small loan from my father-in-law and purchased someone else's foreclosed home. We formally made education our number one priority. What had previously been a tacit agreement between my husband and me had to be put into writing. As we prepared to move, I set out writing the next version of the Lawrence Manifesto:
Now dawns a new age . . . soon we will be packing and moving to a new home. Andrew will begin high school, and Daddy is embarking on an exciting new business venture. In these changing times, it makes sense to reassess our family's values, goals, rules, and regulations. Also, we lost the old manifesto. While certain things remain the same (obnoxious behavior is not much tolerated), others are quite different (obnoxious behavior is NOT much tolerated).
I read the manifesto aloud and tacked it onto the kitchen wall where it collected dust for months. I am sure the kids didn't read it often. A lot of it probably didn't make any more sense to them than why we were moving. One of the most compelling reasons we chose to continue their private education was that we had become part of the fabric of the school, and its curriculum reflected our own family values:
We proclaim ourselves one body and, as such, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Be as it may that each person brings to the family body individual talents, we believe that these gifts serve the purpose of making the Whole exponentially better than itself. That is, we believe these individual talents and gifts transcend the individual through the power of Love.
Some time later, we planned a birthday party for one of the boys. I scrubbed the bathroom, the floors, the kitchen counters and made the little cabin as cozy as I could for this last hurrah with friends before our summer move. Unfortunately, I forgot to remove the manifesto.
Kids and parents streamed into the house. Games, pizza, cake. I milled around, talking with parents and teasing the kids. I went into the kitchen to do some host-type task when I heard one of the parents, a psychiatrist who had been staring at our kitchen wall for a few minutes say, "Oh! I need one of these!" She was pointing to the manifesto, which I had ridiculously titled "The Lawrencist Manifesto." Like an old family picture gathering dust on top of the television set, our manifesto had become so much a part of our decor, I didn't think to remove it.
Having other people read your manifesto is a bit like being seen half naked. You might look pretty good after a few kids, or you might be 30 pounds overweight. Either way, after a certain age, most of us feel foolish in a bikini. That's how it felt to have our manifesto not only seen but read in its entirety.
A part of me was pleased to have my manifesto endorsed by a psychiatrist. However, a manifesto has to be endorsed by the family first. If it is not accepted by the family, it is useless. Now that I am preparing to write a new one, it will be interesting to find out if there is any commentary. I imagine, with one child out of the house and the other two not far behind, any new manifesto has the possibility of being hotly debated. My middle son, a lawyer in the making, has already declared he wants to be on the drafting committee.
The manifesto is not a referendum, however. We don't vote on it. There is no commission to adopt it. There is no auditing. But under no circumstances will the idea of a manifesto be shot down. It is too much a part of our lives--a tradition that might be forgotten if Mom did not continue with it. But, like our yearly reading of A Christmas Carol, no one questions my reasoning or challenges me on it.
It might be because of the nature of parenting that reading the manifesto is a bit like lecturing. I don't use the manifesto to call anyone out or to scold. But it does address any ongoing issues that the boys are having. For instance, there was a time when our middle son, Matthew, was picking on his brother relentlessly. At one point, it slipped into a school situation, which made me livid. It's one thing to pick on your sibling at home, but taking it to school brings things to a whole different level. The reason we define this behavior as objectionable is addressed in our manifesto thusly:
We show support and understanding with respectful behavior in our words and deeds – to speak highly of one another in the company of others and to help one another with selflessness. For, to raise those around us (even above ourselves) reflects upon our own character and brings the Family closer to the attainment of its goals and achievement of its vision.
Throughout the years when the kids were at a vulnerable age, or when our marriage was suffering under the stresses of job loss, foreclosure, bankruptcy, teenagers, or any of the other family challenges we faced, the manifesto was our constant. I sometimes found it useful to denote each person's strength and relate it to how this strength will help us reach our goals:
With the strength of his Love, Daddy's Fortitude and Leadership will usher us into this vision.
With the strength of his Love, Andrew's Enthusiasm for Life and Sense of Humor will carry us over the hardships in the attainment of our mission.
With the strength of his Love, Matthew's Will and Determination will carry us when we are overwhelmed by the obstacles before us.
With the strength of his Love, Daniel's Selflessness and Loyalty will encourage us to be true to one another and reassure us in our mission.
Our family manifesto is a lot of things. Foremost, it is a written declaration. It comprises a mission statement, which is the compass. It states what the family is all about and keeps this mission in sight at all times. The manifesto, however, isn't my personal declaration. To make it a Lawrence Manifesto means considering where we are as a family and where each member is individually. It means thinking deeply about what we all want the family to be, how each of us shapes that mission, and how our individual strengths make our mission possible. To keep the manifesto relevant, it must be pliable and open to revision; we revise ours about every seven years. Children and parents grow and change, even if the mission and vision do not.
By September, Daniel will be the only remaining child at home. He will be embarking on the next phase of his academic life as a high school student. It will be the first and only time that he will have us to himself exclusively. My husband calls it "The Year of Daniel." With these things in mind, it is a good time to draft a new Lawrence Manifesto.