Families everywhere are engaged in the dance of choosing table partners for upcoming holiday dinners. It is a topic not covered in any parenting book I have ever read, yet it is no small detail in the life of a family.There are volumes written on raising young children. No stone is left unturned as readers are led through pregnancy, feeding an infant and coping with the changes a child brings to the life of a couple. Authors tout their philosophies on child rearing with such enthusiasm that success is guaranteed if only you follow their parenting methods, which range from strict to just short of “whatever.” Easy to see why young parents can be left confused.

The material available to parents as their children maneuver elementary school and high school likewise fills bookshelves. But when it comes to college-age child, the material is much less available, most likely due to the myth that once a child reaches age 18-21 or beyond, the role of the parent is complete. As adult children form their own families, material is all but nonexistent.

Yet parents often struggle with keeping a balance in relationships with adult children. What is appropriate to say or not say? How much advice can be offered before it is interpreted as meddling? The adult child tugs at the heartstrings no less than a younger child. It is not always easy to stand by as they move into the world to make their mark. The ties that were so firmly in place do not ease without some tension.

In a perfect world, or perhaps in the world long past, children would remain in the general vicinity of the family home. The Sunday dinner gathering, seen more often these days in television series than in real life, would be part of the weekly routine. Today, however, families move and set up households in places never dreamed of in their youth. While this is exciting, it can also be painful for parents. So what is a mother or father to do?

I don’t have the full answer to this question but I do know that we learn as we go, sometimes succeeding, other times stumbling and having to begin again. I also know that it cannot be done without prayer. And not the occasional prayer of petition that one or another child get a job, find a suitable life companion or any of the many unnamed reasons we find ourselves whispering in the middle of the night.

Rather, I am referring to a prayer that is less like a wish, but instead asks for strength and wisdom to continue to love and nurture in whatever way is appropriate as the process of letting go unfolds.

The gift of a child is a gift for life. It is a gift that brings joy beyond words and tears without end. We love our children to the depths of our being and while we welcome the moment when they leave us to pursue their own path in life we are also confounded by it.

So what does this have to do with the family holiday dinner and who will be where for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s celebration? It calls parents to the edge of unconditional love giving our children permission and blessings to enjoy each holiday as they see fit --- sometimes with us and other times not with us. It calls us to a greater sense of family as our children create families of their own. It calls us to owning the belief that we are all one. And it calls us to be practical and schedule perhaps two Thanksgiving dinners or a Christmas celebration on or around January 6 for those of the family who cannot be with us on December 25. It is not the date on the calendar that makes a difference, despite what advertisers tell us. It is the spirit that prevails when we gather as family.

Anne Hansen is a member of the Camarillo Catholic community. Her e-mail address is  HYPERLINK "mailto:[email protected]" [email protected]