A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Favorite Christmas Books

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the great ways that parents of young children can prepare their (and their children's) hearts for Christmas is by reading Christmas books to them. It's been four years since I posted my original list of five favorites, so I thought it was time to update the list. My top two favorites actually haven't changed...but I do have some additions for parents who are looking for more than just five books to read during Advent with their kids! I've included a one-line takeaway for busy parents of young children, something we might reflect on when we have to stop reading to clean up the kitchen or put in the laundry.

1. The Miracle of St. Nicholas by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Judith Brown
In this story, the little Russian boy Alexi longs to celebrate Christmas in the town church, which had been closed down in a political persecution of Christians years ago. He starts cleaning the church and ends up bringing the village together. It turns out that all the things that had seemed to be missing - candlesticks, the icon of St. Nicholas...and even the priest - were actually there all along, hidden by villagers who hung onto their faith even in difficult circumstances. The first read is a real tear-jerker...actually, I cry pretty much every time when the priest finally processes in to begin their Christmas Eve Mass. Alexi knows what Christmas is all about.

Takeaway: "A miracle is when God enters into your dream, but first you must have the dream." As parents, we have a lot of expectations and plans for our children and our own lives, but the ultimate dream should be like Alexi's - to worship God and to bring others, especially our children, to that worship as well.

2. The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola
This is another tear-jerker, and we love it so much that we leave it out all year-round. It tells the story of little Giovanni, an orphan who knows how to juggle. He spends his whole life as a juggling clown traveling throughout Italy until finally he is an elderly man and a subject of public mockery. He returns to his home town of Sorrento and stumbles upon the church on Christmas during the midnight Mass. His final juggling performance is to the statue of Mary and the baby Jesus. After a long life, he has finally discovered that his juggling takes on meaning when it is offered to God. The confirmation of the sanctification of his juggling and the pleasure of the Christ child is evident in the statue's changed appearance.

Takeaway: "For you, sweet child, for you!" During the season of Advent, it is easy to rush about, attending school holiday concerts, buying gifts, preparing meals. It's good to keep in mind that whatever we are doing, it is for Jesus, the "sweet child." Such an intention transforms our actions and transforms our Advent, preparing us for Christmas.

3. Come and See by Monica Mayper
This book tells the story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem through the perspective of some children and their family as they partake in the celebration surrounding that first Christmas. The illustrations are beautiful and convey the excitement that we ought all to cultivate at the thought of the  nativity. It's also singing-friendly, which my kids appreciate.

Takeaway: Simply the excitement of Christmas. It is so exciting and so joyful that it is worth getting up in the night and celebrating. Don't forget that joy in the midst of preparing Christmas.

4. The Night of Las Posadas by Tomie dePaola
This book tells the story of a village in New Mexico that every year performs the cultural tradition of Las Posadas, re-enacting Mary and Joseph's travel to Bethlehem and difficulty finding a place to stay. In the story, Sister Angie, who always coordinates the celebration is particularly excited because her niece and niece's new husband are playing the role of Mary and Joseph. Sister Angie gets sick, however, and the couple gets stuck in a snowstorm. Another young couple ("friends of Sister Angie") steps in to play the parts of Mary and Joseph, and, in a classic dePaola move, it turns out that it is St. Mary and St. Joseph themselves (from a carved statue) who have helped make the posadas a success. Beautiful illustrations, culturally enriching, and focused on the holy family, not as a legend, but as people who still interact with us today.

Takeaway: "I pray that my heart will always be open so that Jesus may have a place to rest." It's good to remember the way that the faith is rejected in so many ways in our secular culture; we can see this like the rejection of the Holy Family found in the tradition of Las Posadas. In such a hostile environment, it is all the more important to pray for our own hearts to be open so Jesus has a place to rest.

5. The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola
Another dePaola book, this one tells the Mexican legend of how the poinsettia came to be. Everyone in the town is preparing for Christmas, each with their own gifts to bring to the baby Jesus. Lupe is excited because her mother has been asked by the priest to weave a new blanket for the baby Jesus statue to be placed in the nativity set. It is quite an honor. But Lupe's mother falls sick, and little Lupe is unable to complete the blanket. She is embarrassed that she has nothing to give baby Jesus, and so she hides and does not participate in the procession. An old woman (St. Anne, the mother of Mary, as we later learn when we see Lupe walk past her statue in the church) tells Lupe her mom will recover and advises Lupe to make some gift to the baby Jesus. Lupe gathers a bundle of weeds and places them before baby Jesus, to the shock of the others in the church. She kneels to pray and when she opens her eyes, the weeds have burst into beautiful poinsettias. Upon leaving the church, it appears that all of these weeds are now boasting red stars.

Takeaway: "Any gift is beautiful because it is given." Sometimes as busy parents, and especially during this time of year, we feel spiritually inadequate, finding it difficult to stay committed to prayer with all the distractions and added responsibilities of Christmas. But whether putting together teacher gifts, trying to determine the logistics of stretching the December budget, or preparing to host extended family, we have "gifts" for Jesus that can be beautiful when we give them in a spirit of generosity.

I told my little guy to pick his favorite, and he picked up this one!
6. Merry Christmas, Strega Nona. This is another wonderful Tomie dePaola book, here featuring one of his regular characters, Strega Nona, or Grandma Witch. One of the helpful aspects of this story is that it mentions Advent, shows an Advent wreath, and illustrates for children all the work that goes into an adult's preparation for Christmas. Strega Nona's worker Anthony would prefer to take the easy way out of these preparations by having Strega Nona use her magic. But Strega Nona insists that she can't use her magic at Christmas time. Anthony seems to fail in his duties of helping Strega Nona prepare for the feast she is hosting, but, in the end, we discover that Anthony does understand the magic of Christmas.

Takeaway: "Christmas has a magic of its own." So often busy parents are stressed during Advent because they realize how much of making Christmas special depends on them (as it does for Strega Nona in this story). Parents  have to buy the gifts, stuff the stockings, prepare the food, etc. During Advent it's important for us to remember that Christmas has a magic of its own. Advent and Christmas are not about US and our work, but about God's gratuitous and generous love. It's this knowledge that drives our preparations for Christmas in a thoughtful way.

7. Old Befana. In this retelling of the classic Italian story, Old Befana is known for "always sweeping" and occasionally baking. She's an old woman who lives alone, an ordinary, somewhat isolated but hard-working life. One night something unusual happens: a bright star keeps her awake, and then a procession of people led by three kings passes by her cottage. A child asks her about the star, explains the procession, and invites her to come and find the "baby king" who has come to save the poor. Old Befana initially doesn't consider this request, but then she changes her mind and decides to come along.......after baking treats for the new mother and thoroughly sweeping out her cottage. By the time she leaves, she can no longer find the procession, and is left to search for the child king. Not knowing which child is the king, she leaves treats for every child she finds, which explains the Italian custom of gifts from Old Befana on Epiphany.

Takeaway: Don't procrastinate! Although sweeping and baking can be great ways of serving God, sometimes God is calling us to something more, and we let our excuses stand in the way.
Takeaway2: It's never too late to look for Jesus! Even if we are spiritual procrastinators, especially during Advent, we shouldn't give up, but rather, start over again in the search.

8. Strega Nona's Gift. This Christmas story also features Strega Nona and Big Anthony. One nice thing about this book is that it mentions some of the feasts during Advent and Christmas, including St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucia, Christmas, and Epiphany, as well as some of the Italian traditions surrounding those holidays. Big Anthony eats the special dish Strega Nona made for the goat, so the goat eats his blanket, and Anthony gets no sleep. But when he gets the fava bean in the Epiphany sweet bread, he is made king of the feast and gets to choose a gift...so he gets a blanket and asks Strega Nona to make the goat's dish again so he can give it to the goat in apology. It's a kind of silly story, but it's helpful that it mentions various feasts and not just Christmas.

Takeaway: "And POOF! The holiday season was over for another year." The holiday season, including all these special feasts before and during the Christmas season go by quickly, especially for busy parents of young children. This book reminds us how quickly the holidays are over, and hence can remind us to be mindful and enjoy the celebrations.

9. A Christmas Carol. The Charles Dickens classic is a must-read for Christmastime. There are probably many great children's versions of his story, but we happen to have this rhyming version, which amazingly manages to capture the story pretty well. It's a great reminder during this time of year that we are called to reach out to others, to help others, and to enjoy the company of others, rather than getting caught up in material things.

Takeaway: Try to make Advent and Christmas a season of generous, joyful giving for you and your family, keeping in mind the big picture of past, present, and future.

10. The Story of the Three Wise Kings. This telling of the wise men is easies to find in the book Joy to the World, which also includes two of the above books by Tomie dePaola, namely, the Legend of the Poinsettia, and The Night of Las Posadas. The account by dePaola combines tradition (giving the wisemen the names of Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, coming from three different places in the world) and the biblical account, while also drawing from the liturgical prayers and imagery for the celebration of Epiphany.

Takeaway: We must be seekers, seeking for Christ, and willing to follow the star, that is, to do God's will, wherever it leads.

A few books particularly good for toddlers

1. One Night in Bethlehem. This touch and feel board book shows a child interacting with a  nativity set while imagining what he would have done if he had been at the manger on Christmas. It's short, but with a nice message for children about doing things for Jesus, while also providing a model of interacting with nativity sets.

Takeaway: It's good to imagine ourselves at the nativity, participating with gifts, and then see our everyday actions as gifts.

2. Who is Coming to Our House? Someone is coming to the "house" of the animals, so they all make efforts to prepare. When Mary and Joseph arrive and Jesus is born, the animals' preparations indicate the welcome for the holy family.

Takeaway: Again, if animals can make preparations for the Holy Family, we should too!

3. Friendly Beasts. This is simply an illustrated version of the traditional English Christmas carol, meaning you can sing the whole book! The music is found at the end. The donkey, the cow, the sheep, and the dove are all eager to explain what they did for Jesus on Christmas.

Takeaway: Once more, if the animals made sacrifices for Jesus, we can too!

4. Away in a Manger. There are probably many books that basically just have the song "Away in a Manger" as their words. This is a great song (and hence makes for a great book) because of its description of baby Jesus, plus the words are more or less the format of a prayer perfect for children.

Takeaway: We are still children, too, children of God! So the prayer of this song applies as much to us as to our children.

5. The Little Drummer Boy. This board book, beautifully illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, simply has the song of the little drummer boy, who is too poor to buy a gift for baby Jesus, but uses his drumming talent to play for the new king. It's a great song, and always a good message for small kids (who don't have their own money to buy gifts) that they can still do things for Jesus.

Takeaway: Even the poor and children can offer gifts to Jesus! This is a good reminder to offer our work to the Lord as a gift.

Secular books worth mentioning

There are a lot of secular "Christmas" or holiday books, and some of these are worthwhile having around too. While they don't mention the reason for the season, as it were, they nonetheless contain valuable messages and good reminders for adults and children.

1. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. This now-classic Dr. Seuss book is probably too well-known to require a summary. While it's not about Jesus, the message makes clear that "Maybe Christmas, perhaps, doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more." Despite all the efforts of the Grinch, he can't stop Christmas from coming, and he can't stop the joy of the Who's.

Takeaway: Even if we fail in a multitude of ways during the season of Advent, Christmas will still come. Christmas is definitely more than just a compilation of all of the little difficulties that can make Advent challenging. The knowledge that Christmas does not depend on us, but on God's gratuitous love should be reassuring and help us to maintain peacefulness.

2. Llama, Llama Holiday Drama. This catchy rhyming book by Anna Dewdney is one of those "holiday" books that is pretty non-specific, including Chanukah references, elf on the shelf references, and lots of mentions of shopping, as well as other preparations like baking, crafts, and decorating. In the midst of all of it, Little Llama is overcome by "holidrama," so his mom notes, "Waiting, wishing, wanting things, we forget what this time brings. Gifts are nice, but there's another, the true gift is we have each other." Obviously this doesn't quite capture the Christmas story of the Holy Family in Bethlehem, but it is a reminder that there's more to Christmas than presents.

Takeaway: Avoid holidrama! Sometimes parents are like this little llama, rushing around, trying to do everything and so caught up that we can't prepare spiritually. This is also a reminder not to let holiday stress affect our kids. We want them to "have us" during Advent and Christmas, not just have gifts.

3. Socks for Supper. In this story, a poor farmer and his wife have nothing to eat but turnips. A nearby couple owns a cow and has milk and cheese. The poor farmer and his wife want to trade something for some cheese, but all they have is old socks! The other couple accepts the socks and gives them cheese. Before long, the poor couple wants more cheese, but they don't have any socks, so the wife unravels the husband's sweater and knits a pair of socks for the trade. This continues until the husband's sweater is completely gone. Meanwhile, the other wife has been knitting a Christmas sweater for her husband using the socks...but it turns out to be too big. Noticing that the poor farmer has no sweater, they give the sweater to him. This is just a basic good story about generosity at Christmas time, as well as a good reminder for children that some people have very simple Christmases.

Takeaway: Sometimes we know a person's financial situation, and sometimes we don't. Either way, it's good to be generous and aware of the people around us.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Easy Advent

The "holiday season," as it's conventionally known, is supposed to be a great time of fun events and joyful traditions. Yet, for many parents of young children, it can feel very stressful. Details like figuring out gifts for the kids (and not going overboard, plus not going broke) and gifts for extended family, deciding about (and preparing for) travel to visit (or host) family, etc. The holiday season is a time when we just want to do it all! There is so much that is unique, fun, and seemingly essential for giving kids the joy of this time of the year.

Of course, for Catholics, this time of the year is actually the season of Advent, a penitential and preparatory season for the celebration of Christmas. In our culture today, it would be pretty difficult to disentangle oneself (and one's family) entirely from the delights of Christmas during the season of Advent. Nor do we who love the birth of Jesus want to be perceived as grinches during the weeks prior to Christmas Day.

So here are some ideas for having an "Easy Advent" with young kids that can also be spiritually fulfilling as preparation and not too stressful. Pick and choose...don't feel you have to do them all!

1. The Advent wreath. This traditional Catholic practice is a family favorite, which is easy to incorporate into daily life. Simply light the candle(s) before dinner while singing a verse of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" or some such Advent song.

2. All those Christmas cards. We want to pray for our friends and family, but it can be easy to forget these intentions in the midst of holiday busy-ness. Let the cards you receive in the mail be an opportunity. Set aside the day's cards by your Advent wreath, and prior to lighting the candles in the evening, open those cards to show to the kids, and then offer a prayer for these family and friends before you sing.

3. Christmas books. We are blessed - truly blessed - with the material culture surrounding Christmas. It's really the only time of the year with such a multitude of books, songs, and images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. With extra demands, it may be challenging to accommodate the kind of Advent spiritual reading you'd personally like to do, but there are many beautiful Christmas books that can help to prepare your heart (as well as your children's) during the season of Advent. Here's a link to some of my favorite books.

4. Nativity set. It's great if you can have a nativity set available for your children to interact with. The Little People set has been with us for the last ten years. Playmobil also has a set available, and there are many other such sets. Children can play with these on their own (obviously), but it also can be nice to "act out" the story for them with the figures.

5. Sing! There are many wonderful Advent hymns, as well as Christmas songs that can be appropriate during Advent as they help the kids to understand and appreciate the meaning of Christmas. As St. Augustine said, when you sing, you pray twice...so definitely sing!

6. Advent calendars. I hear a lot of complaints from moms who are sick of the Elf on the Shelf and having to make that happen for their kids in the weeks before Christmas, which are already so stressful. Advent calendars are a much easier (and more traditional) way to count down the days. You can buy an empty one and just fill with a piece of chocolate (or something else that's simple) for each day, or it's also possible to find inexpensive pre-filled chocolate Advent calendars.

7. Incremental decorations. Most of us LOVE Christmas decorations. And it can be hard to wait until Christmas eve (as Catholics used to do) to put up the tree, garlands, etc. So one idea is to try to put up decorations incrementally, perhaps on the Sundays of Advent...and try to save the tree for Gaudete Sunday (the third Sunday) or the fourth Sunday of Advent. It can be helpful to save at least SOME decorations for Christmas Eve so the house looks different on Christmas day.

8. Celebrate the feasts! The month of December brings us St. Nicholas (December 6), Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12), and St. Lucia (December 13), among others. Coming from a German background, I find it natural to celebrate St. Nicholas' feast by having my kids leave out their shoes. Candy canes and chocolate coins are not just treats, but opportunities to talk about St. Nick the Catholic bishop who stood for the truth of the faith and also acted generously to help those who were poor. Our family tradition on this day has also been the gifting of matching Christmas pajamas, which the kids love. At times, I've also given them a Christmas/Catholic book on this day: something I'd like them to have, which I know they won't be excited by in the midst of more exciting presents on Christmas day. December 8 is a Solemnity, as we celebrate the patronal feast of the U.S., the Immaculate Conception. So this is a great night for a special dessert or some other celebration. Tomie de Paola's book "Our Lady of Guadalupe" is a great way to teach kids about the December 12 feast. It's also a good day to have some Mexican food or pan dulce. St. Lucia, patroness of light, is a good day to hang up some Christmas lights!

9. Jesus stocking. A cartoon written for a children's magazine in the 1950s showed students making an effort to do something special for Jesus during Advent as a "birthday gift" for Jesus. I recently learned of a way to make this concrete for young children by hanging up a Jesus stocking during Advent. When children do something good for Jesus (putting away their shoes, giving a brother a toy he wants, participating in the family Rosary, eating dinner without complaining, etc.), they can put this present in Jesus' stocking. You can either just write the gift on paper and put it in, or get little tokens or presents to represent those gifts. The idea is for Jesus to have lots of "gifts" by his birthday.

10. Penance and being choosy. Advent is a great time to take on an Advent resolution, akin to the Lenten resolution you might normally make during Lent. Advent is much shorter, so it's not quite the same type of Lenten marathon, but it can assist mindfulness of the preparation for Christmas. A family sacrifice (meat, sweets) can also be great...but don't make your kids hate Advent by making it austere and abstemious while the rest of the US is celebrating! Also, offer some of the stresses (gift-giving, baking, etc.) as penance, mortifications that are a dying to self in that it might not be how we'd choose to spend Advent. It's easy to get overwhelmed at this time of year: pray, offer it to God, grow in dependence upon God when you realize you have too much to do. Say no when necessary, and don't think you have to do EVERYTHING. Lastly, Advent is an excellent time to seek the sacrament of confession. What better way to prepare for Christmas, than by encountering God's forgiveness and mercy!

(For my previous thoughts on Advent, click here and here.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Dos and Don'ts of Supporting Stressed Parents

This blog was started with two ideas in mind. First, parenting in modern America is difficult for many people. Second, for those who take a Catholic perspective of suffering, this difficulty can be fruitful at the supernatural level, helping parents to grow in holiness. Now, of course, not everyone takes such a perspective regarding the challenges of parenting. And, in fact, even those of us who believe in the concept of parenting mortification often still find parenting to be overwhelming at times…and we find ourselves falling short of the ideal of dying to self and living for God. This should give us the sympathy needed to interact with other parents who are also having a hard time with challenges of parenting.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas for interacting with those who are struggling with parenting. Sadly, most of the unhelpful responses are examples I've actually witnessed! But, on the other hand, the charitable responses are also real examples I've witnessed. We can support parents if we are willing to try!

DO sympathize and DO commend.  Many times when a parent voices a complaint, the parent wants someone to listen kindly, to assure them that many people have this struggle, and to affirm the parent in his or her efforts.

Example 1.
Stressed parent (hereafter SP): “The baby has been congested and he’s teething…my husband was away for work, and I feel like I haven’t slept well in weeks! With the toddler around too, I don’t even have time for a shower!”

Charitable response (hereafter CR): “Oh my gosh, that is so stressful! The kids look really happy, too…you must be doing a good job staying positive with them.”

Example 2.
SP: “The house is winning the battle. I just cannot keep it clean. If I take time to unload the dishwasher, the twins pull all the books off the shelves while I’m doing it. I put in a load of laundry and when I’m done I look over to find toys dumped out of the toybox all over the floor.”

CR: “Yes, they are really at a tough age for that. They’re big enough to make messes, but not really able to help clean them up. It must be really hard for you…I know you prefer to keep things neat.”

DON’T offer unsolicited solutions. Given that many parents are looking for understanding, sympathy, and encouragement, suggested solutions can come as a slap in the face. They can imply (or sometimes outright state) that a parent caused a particular problem or that a parent could easily solve the problem if only the parent were willing to make the effort. Moreover, unless the person giving the advice knows the situation really well, he or she is unlikely to offer advice that will become a permanent solution. On the other hand, it's perfectly OK to volunteer some ideas if someone is explicitly asking for solutions to a problem.

Example 1.
 SP: “It’s like I don’t even have time to eat! Trying to get all these kids food (and they are always hungry!), plus trying to keep up on the housework, and then with nursing the baby I am so hungry I get shaky by the time I can actually get myself some food (after serving everyone else).”

Unhelpful response (UR):  “Sounds like you need to learn how to make some Greek yogurt. It’s really easy to do and so healthy. It’d help you get through those tough moments.”

[What this stressed parent does NOT need is someone making her feel bad that she doesn’t make her own Greek yogurt. She’s already overwhelmed!]

Example 2.
SP: “The food budget is crazy these days! I never imagined how much those kids could eat when they got a little older.”

UR: “Well, the solution to this is easy: stop having kids.”

[OK…this is rude. And it also doesn’t solve the problem.]

Example 3.

SP: "The play room is just ruining my life. We have too much stuff and can never find anything. I love how you have your play room organized. Do you think you could help me figure out how to get some structure to it so the kids can maintain it better?"
CR: "I'd be glad to help you with that project. I think the first thing to do is to minimize the toys and replace the toybox with some shelves. I actually have some shelves I could give you...when do you want me to come over so we can get this project done?"

DON’T criticize. While proposing solutions is often well-intended if not well-thought-out, direct criticism is not either. It does more to embitter parents than to help them.

Example 1.

SP: “We really wanted to postpone pregnancy because my husband is being deployed and I live so far away from family. Plus we planned to save up some money so some day we can buy a house. I thought if we used NFP, playing by God’s rules, that we wouldn’t end up in this situation of being pregnant before we were ready.”

UR: “NFP is 99% effective. You obviously used it wrong. What did you expect?”

[The SP in this situation is obviously feeling overwhelmed. Maybe she did misunderstand how the fertility signs or charting works, but this response is not going to assist her in dealing with the situation at hand.]

Example 2.

SP: “Sorry about the kids’ behavior right now. It’s so hard to watch them for a whole weekend without my wife. By the end, I just have no patience.”

UR: “Well, I can see that! And maybe it’s your impatience that results in them being so loud. One would think the only thing they know how to do is fight over Legos!”

[The SP here already recognizes he’s in a less-than-ideal situation, and he recognizes his own failing in the situation too. No need to rub it in his face.]

DON’T announce that you’ve never had this problem.

Example 1.
SP: “Taking the kids to Church on Sunday has become such a trial! They’re normal kids, and they can be quiet at home, but it’s like the minute we walk through those doors they become crazy monkeys! There’s no way we can concentrate. All we want to do is make it through the Mass without being totally humiliated, you know?”

UR: “Hmmm…not really. My kids always sat quietly at Mass, but then, we practiced that at home and set a good example for them ourselves. Plus they were all such early readers that they were following along in the missal before they were five years old.”

[“But for the grace of God, there go I.” No need to make a parent feel bad for having problems you don’t.]

Example 2.
SP: “I never imagined that potty-training would be so difficult. All day long I’m cleaning out underwear in the toilet…and this is going on three months!”

UR: “Funny. My two boys potty-trained themselves around 20 months. I think parents tend to exaggerate the difficulty of potty-training.”

[If you know nothing about it, at least be polite.]

DO bring food or offer other help. American parenting is particularly challenging because we have so little help from others. The extended family system, which once could help out a young family, is no longer in place. We tend not to hire much help in the form of nannies or maids. What we do have left is kind, caring people, who are willing to inconvenience themselves a bit to make the lives of other people a bit better. We should be this kind of people.

Example 1.

SP: “I try to plan dinner ahead of time and get a head start on it when I can. But I feel like it usually ends up with a crying baby, a nagging toddler, and two kids needing help with homework while I’m trying to throw together a meal. It feels so impossible.”

CR: “This sounds really tough. I’ll bring you dinner on Thursdays for the next month. Maybe that will ease the burden a bit.”

Example 2.

SP: “I have all these phone calls to make, and I try to do them when the kids are all playing happily, but as soon as I pick up the phone, they start fighting and screaming. It’s so embarrassing that I end up procrastinating taking care of some important calls I need to make.”

CR: “I can totally help you out with this. When’s a good time for me to come by for a couple hours to play with the kids? I could do tomorrow morning or Wednesday afternoon.”

Example 3.

SP: “I’m so sick and tired. I just need to rest.”

CR: “In that case, could your daughter come over for a play date this afternoon? We can pick her up and drop her off when you’ve had a good nap.”

Example 4.

SP: “Pulling a sleeping baby out of the cozy crib just to bundle him up and put him in the car to get his sister from school is stressful! It always makes me a little sad.”

CR: “I have to pick up my son anyway. Can I get your daughter too? I’d be happy to pick her up for you and bring her to your house. Just make sure I’m on your pick-up list and the teacher knows.”

Of course, DO pray for them.  It’s great if you can do this the moment you recognize that someone is struggling; any simple prayer, in your own words or an Our Father or Hail Mary is great. A more substantial prayer, such as a Rosary is also a good idea.

And, related to this, DO offer mortifications for them. Voluntary mortifications can be done simply for our own spiritual benefit and discipline or in reparation for our own sins. But if you know someone is having a really hard time with something, you can also choose to do a voluntary mortification for their situation. For example, offer a cold shower for parents whose son has a serious health problem. Give up sweets as a prayer for a newborn who isn’t latching and nursing well. Sometimes these intentional sacrifices magnify the prayers because they are regular reminders of the other person's parenting difficulties.

Also DO talk to others about them if it will help, but DON’T make them into gossip. It can be good to get others praying for someone in need or helping parents going through a difficult time.

Example 1.
CR: “I was wondering if you’d be willing to join our schedule of people bringing meals to the Smith family. Her mother just died, and she’s in charge of all the funeral arrangements, on top of her work and family life. It’s going to be a hard few weeks for them.”

UR: “Did you see the Smith family at soccer practice yesterday? Those kids were totally out of control. I heard her mother died recently and she’s in charge of all the funeral arrangements, plus she couldn’t get out of a work project she’s doing right now. Poor thing – no wonder the kids are acting up. That’s too much going on. Hope she can get everything figured out, but then, she tends to be so disorganized.”

DO help them to see the supernatural perspective…when the moment is right.
Sometimes we may run into a parent who we know would be amenable to the idea of parenting mortification, but he’s never heard of “mortification” like this. This generation of American Catholics is perhaps the most ignorant of penitential practice ever, and so we can’t expect parents even to know about mortification, much less to have practiced it regularly. When we know someone is a committed, faithful Catholic, and she is struggling with a particular issue, it can help to suggest she offer the distress of that issue for another person in need. Although it may seem counterintuitive, sometimes accepting that suffering and offering it to God as a prayer for someone else in need actually alleviates the stress of the challenge. There’s a sense that someone is doing something – something very real indeed – for the good of another. This act can bring a person beyond his or her own suffering and assist in a feeling of connection with the mystical body of Christ.

This response is unlikely to be the first we offer to a stressed-out, overwhelmed parent. But, when suggested kindly and explained well, it may also be a good response that can be genuinely beneficial.

Example 1.

SP: “The last month of pregnancy is always so hard. I’m just ready to be done, especially with this constant heartburn! How is your other pregnant friend doing? Better than me, I hope?”
CR: “Actually, she’s in kind of a serious situation right now. They may end up having to do an early C-section for the safety of the baby, and she’s really dreading it and also really worried about the baby. Maybe you could offer your indigestion for the doctors to decide she can go full-term and for the baby to be OK.”

Example 2.

SP: “I’m beginning to feel like my wife will never be intimate with me again. She’s still complaining of pain from her incision site for the C-section, and she’s constantly worrying that the baby isn’t getting enough milk. She hasn’t worn anything other than yoga pants for like a month! What can I do?”

CR: “Wow, that must be really difficult. I know it’s tough when a wife isn’t enthusiastic about spending time with her husband...and that post-partum phase can seem to stretch on forever and ever. Maybe you could offer your frustrations as a prayer for her to heal up well, get some rest, and for the baby to start feeding a little better.”

We are capable of supporting parents! Anyone else have other good ideas?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"Do it again!": On the Apparent Futility of Housework

The books are on the floor AGAIN.

There is a great satisfaction to offering our work to God and doing that work well, especially when we have the opportunity to hold in our hands the nicely painted piece of art, the well-written essay, the beautifully crocheted blanket, or the finely built table. Even without the attention and compliments of others, the material evidence of our time and efforts makes the work we put into a project rewarding. It tends toward a natural sort of contentment when we see the results of our work and know we can enjoy it for days, months, or even years to come.

Not every task offers us such a natural enjoyment and satisfaction of a long-lasting job well done, however. As parents, there is always plenty of housework, yard work, fix-up tasks, and household organization. Young children are often messy and sometimes careless, and even with our best efforts to teach children to clean up after themselves and participate in household chores, we parents will find ourselves immersed in a constant battle to keep our living environment under control!

Granted, maintaining a household well can indeed provide a certain amount of satisfaction. It is nice to see a sparkling, freshly-mopped kitchen floor, accompanied by gleaming counters and shiny appliances. It is lovely to survey a well-organized, picked up, dusted, and vacuumed living room. It can be a relief to organize hand-me-downs in labeled boxes and switch over clothes for winter.

And yet, we know from experience that such contentment is short-lived. The grass keeps growing, the rocking chair keeps breaking, tub scum comes back, the baby pulls the books off the living room shelving, and the kids inevitably spill smoothies on the freshly mopped floor. The laundry is never done. In moments of discouragement in our lives as parents, we may be tempted to see such work as completely pointless and worthless. And it doesn’t help that these kinds of domestic tasks are not valued in our society. When we could be producing something beautiful and meaningful, who wants to devote time to work like wiping down the refrigerator shelves or picking up shoes?

It is precisely this apparent futility of housework that makes it so valuable as a parenting mortification. The lack of natural satisfaction, due to the temporary results of our work, becomes a challenge we can embrace to die to ourselves and grow closer to God. As adults, we can have great control over our living environment. But as adults with other people (who happen to be young children!), we will not have complete control. We never know when we might walk into a bathroom to find the sink has been “painted” with toothpaste by a toddler. Much of the housework we do is simply to restore the house to the state it would be in if we didn’t have children!

From a supernatural perspective, the gift of this seeming wasted work of domestic life is twofold: it teaches us detachment, and it increases our appreciation for the supernatural reward of our labors.

We have probably all had the experience of being proud of our hard work and not wanting to let go of it. The reality of housework is that we must humble ourselves, so that we are constantly letting go of it, or else we risk being constantly angry with those little people who thoughtlessly destroy our hard work. There is nothing wrong with reminders to our children that we have worked hard to do some chore; we want them to recognize that the laundry does not do itself, the dishes do not clean themselves, the shoes do not magically walk over to their assigned boxes, and the sand toys do not find their way home to the sandbox of their own accord. We also want them to participate in household chores so that they recognize that running the home is about teamwork. The home is not merely a place for mindless consumption of others’ work, but rather a place where all members produce, contributing to the good of the household.

But at the same time, we must recognize that there will be more ironing, there will be more smudges on the windows, there will be more leaves in the yard, etc. Why should we constantly expect material affirmation for our efforts? What good does such attachment to the results of our work do for us spiritually? It is better, rather, that we embrace the fact of the ephemeral nature of the results of our work, becoming detached from the clean floors and folded laundry in a way that opens us to become better attached to that which is eternal, namely God.

Such detachment should not lead us to neglect the necessary tasks of running a household, but rather to keep them in perspective.  We sort through socks not so that they can stand enshrined in a drawer as a monument to our work, but rather, so that we can serve our family and offer that work to God. We scrub the slow cooker crock clean not so that we can display it to the world as a feat of our elbow grease, but so that we can earn treasure in heaven. In other words, the apparent futility of housework does not have to be futility; rather it can assist us, hastening us in our way to God.

Yes, it is understandably frustrating to see the newly-mopped floor covered in muddy footprints. We may get angry when a child pulls every shirt out of a full, well-organized drawer. But again, while we want children to be considerate of others’ efforts and we may lose time in having to redo tasks that we’ve just completed, the repetition of housework has great possibility as a mortification. We can almost hear God kindly but enthusiastically encouraging us, “Do it again!” the way that a child might ask us to read the same book over and over. And each time we “do it again” we can do it better, and by that, I do not mean simply perfecting our natural skills, but, more importantly, perfecting our supernatural skills. We can die to self each time we “do it again.” We can offer it as prayer each time we “do it again.” We can grow closer to God each time we “do it again.” We can build up treasure in heaven each time we “do it again.”

This work may seem menial and discouraging in the context of a busy household. But it is not so in God’s eyes. He invites us to “do it again” each day because He recognizes its potential for our good. If we also can humbly recognize that potential, we will “do it again,” better each time!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Loving Spouse and Children...at the same time!

Living with the imperfections and idiosyncrasies of one's spouse can be a challenge. But sometimes another difficulty arises, namely, trying to be loving and attentive to one's spouse while also being loving and attentive to one's children.

We often hear presented a dichotomy of priorities: Kids first, spouse second! Or: Spouse first, kids second!

It makes sense that these options are presented in such a manner inasmuch as parents often experience a real conflict in being attentive both to a spouse and to kids. The first camp will argue that that kids are more evidently needy than one's adult spouse. The energy we put into caring for our kids is likely much more than we dedicate to caring for a spouse, who can eat, bathe, dress, etc. without assistance. Our kids' dependence upon us makes them our first priority.

The second camp will say that family life cannot succeed if the parents fail to prioritize the marriage relationship itself, between the husband and wife. The kids are important but should come second to the spousal relationship. In case of a conflict, attentiveness to the needs of the spouse should win out.

As mentioned above, such a dichotomy indicates a real challenge that parents face: to love spouse and children at the same time. And yet, this presentation can be quite misleading.

Spousal love is the foundation of marriage; family is built upon this relationship. Children follow upon this love; we can even say they are incarnations of this love. Spousal love precedes the love for one's children, and it should not be cast aside or demoted when children make their appearance.

Yet at the same time, we have to acknowledge that the acts of love that characterized courtship and early marriage become more difficult when children are present. The diversion of finances to support children can prevent indulging a spouse in filet mignon, fine wine, chocolates, and roses. The relaxed quality time together becomes rarer. Opportunities for physical affection and intimacy become harder to find. The effort of serving children by caring for them can drain a parent of the effort required to serve the spouse as before. And in the midst of the numerous challenges of parenting, such as sleep deprivation, having your belongings destroyed by kids, being insulted by your kids, and so on, it can be hard to remember to appreciate your spouse verbally in compliments and kind words of affirmation.

Clearly, then, we are presented with the challenge of loving our spouse and our children at the same time. It cannot be an either-or, wherein we focus solely on our spouse and ignore our children or focus entirely on our children and ignore our spouse. The situation may often appear to us as imperfect. A spouse may arrive home from work with big news to share just as a child vomits on the floor. The baby may wake up for a feeding just as you and your spouse finally sat down to start your game of Scrabble. Your romantic anniversary dinner may be postponed due to a trip to the emergency room for a broken arm. It may seem that children are interfering with the relationship or intruding upon the marriage relationship.

Yet the apparent imperfection of the situation seems to be God's will: the spouse is a gift, and so also children are a gift to the spouses. And if God wills it, we must find some way to embrace the challenge. Here's where mortification enters the picture: loving both spouse and children at the same time will certainly require a death to self. If we accept the opportunity to die to self, God will give us the grace to love spouse and children as best we can.

To be more practical, here are a few ideas to ensure that we do our best with this situation:

1. Because kids are needier than the spouse, it is easier to neglect a spouse. Therefore, it will be important to make an intentional effort to love and spend time with the spouse. Daily practical efforts include remembering a morning kiss and hug, pouring the spouse's coffee, getting out of bed on time to make sure the morning goes smoothly, putting down a tablet when the spouse enters the room, and so on. Ensuring an opportunity for conversation on a daily basis is also helpful. On a weekly basis, it is beneficial to have some set aside time without kids - a date night, for example. Of course we want to love and be attentive to the spouse, but consistency in effort to these little acts can become a mortification, where we have to put aside ourselves in order to love a spouse well.

2. When it comes to spending time with a spouse, don't let the best get in the way of the good. We often have an easy time envisioning an ideal:  a romantic, week-long trip to the Caribbean with no kids or a three-course meal at a fancy French restaurant. Upon recognizing that these ideals are not possible, many respond by giving up and doing nothing to spend time together. It is often possible, however, to come up with another option. A regular date night may appear impossible with multiple young children who are difficult at the time you'd be leaving them with a sitter; going out later would mean being tired and unable to enjoy the meal. And the cost of a nice weekly dinner out may be unrealistic. But what about Saturday morning breakfast, when the kids are better-behaved for the sitter, you are both wide awake, and you can get a bagel or pastries with coffee and not spend too much money? It may be a far cry from the luxuries of courtship. It may not be the ideal; it may not be the plan for quality time 20 years from now. For the present moment, however, it is better than not doing anything together. Working with the current situation while maintaining flexibility and the possibility of reevaluation can also be a mortification; we may need to kill our ideas of "best" and recognize that what is actually "best" at this time is sticking to something that is possible.

3. Caring for children is a way of loving a spouse. Time spent with children should not be viewed as set against the time spent with the spouse. When a parent cares for children well, with love and attentiveness, he or she is loving a spouse through this service. Sometimes, this is obvious, like when one gets up early with the kids so the spouse can catch up on sleep. At other times, this truth is not as apparent. Nonetheless, parents do the best they can caring for children and performing other work in order to contribute and serve the family as a whole. The children should not be seen as "mine" or "my project." Whether father or mother is interacting with the children, the sacrifices involved are not simply for the sake of the children themselves, but for the marriage. A parent's time spent at work earning money can also be seen as a way of loving one's spouse. With this perspective, it is important to work well, for the sake of the family, and also to work efficiently (not wasting time) so as to maximize presence and contributions to the home.

4. Because loving spouse and children at the same time can often seem difficult or even impossible, it is important to make a frequent examination of one's efforts. Spouses can benefit from reflecting on existing problems, such as being too busy to have time for each other or letting screens interrupt opportunities for conversation. Accompanying this examination is a willingness to change, even when it is difficult.

5. Of course, even with the willingness to change, failure is imminent. The demands of parenting may make it difficult to be loving and kind to one's spouse. After a hard day with kids, it can be challenging to be attentive to conversation. With the touch-time required by toddlers and infants, it may be hard to attend to a nightly spousal holding time or even to remember a goodnight kiss. As with any failure, however, parents have to be willing to try again, seeking the sacrament of confession regularly for support in the struggle.

6. It is a challenge to love spouse and children simultaneously. To meet their needs, to be affectionate, etc. Rather than cursing this challenge or regretting the situation, however, we are best off embracing the difficulty. It is a mortification; it requires a death to self and dependence on God's grace to do one's best when conflict ensues.

7. Keep the big picture. In the beginning of the marriage, the home began with the husband and wife. Eventually, it is likely that the children will leave and the home will once more consist solely of husband and wife. It may seem so far off in the future as to be inconceivable, but this is the normal course of marriage and family life. With this end in mind, it makes sense to maintain and strengthen the marriage relationship, the friendship between husband and wife. Retrospectively, all those sacrifices embraced in the midst of parenting will make more sense; they were helping all along to help husband and wife to grow in the generous gift of self.

It can be frustrating, and even discouraging to try to love and attend to a spouse and children at the same time. And yet, it is a wonderful opportunity to realize our limits and weaknesses, to embrace the challenge as a mortification, and to beg God's grace to help us to do the best we can to love him and serve him in this situation.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

On Diapers and Potty-Training

Here's a new dad, with a diaper change gone wrong.
It was not the last time he'd have an up close and personal poop encounter.
Parenting gives us the opportunity to do many things we would not otherwise choose to do. Changing diapers and potty-training a child are great examples of this. I am not going to cite any studies to prove this, but I think the general population dislikes dealing with the urine and feces of other human beings, even when those human beings are cute little kids.

Of course, newborn diapers are not so bad. Gently placing a lightweight baby down on a changing table can even be fun when the kid is smiley and happy. But pretty quickly after beginning solid foods, diapers start to get a little uglier and stinkier. The kids start to get heavier and harder to lift onto a changing table. And at about the time you decide you can't handle the disgusting poopy diapers anymore, you get to start dealing with disgusting poopy underwear.

When we take a step back, however...and a deep breath of fresh air after thoroughly washing our hands...we can see how diapers and the process of potty-training can become excellent parenting mortifications.

First of all, just to repeat the obvious, dealing with the urine and feces of another human being is kind of gross. It's not exactly a highly sought after occupation, and it probably was not a major motivation for our having kids. If it weren't for the fact of our having children, we likely would not deal with this at all. Hence it is a wonderful opportunity to die to self - to face the reality of doing something unpleasant. It may not seem to be a privilege or a gift in earthly terms, but it can be a blessing that increases our humility and brings us closer to God. It is an involuntary mortification - something we do not choose - that can be willingly offered to God. Very few vowed religious will have this particular opportunity, in all its ickiness, but it is a privilege granted to parents!

Besides the particular unsavory quality of changing diapers and potty-training, there is also the inconvenience of it. Most people do not have their day frequently interrupted by other people's bladders and bowels. Very few vowed religious have to interrupt their daily tasks to mop up puddles of urine or rinse out underwear in the toilet. Such interruptions can be annoying and even embarrassing, depending on when and where they occur. It is not surprising if we feel ourselves getting flustered by having to address these issues in the midst of preparing breakfast or in the midst of friends at the local park. And yet, the inconvenience can also be a great mortification, interrupting one good activity for another (potentially) good one. The interruption and inconvenience can also be an opportunity to embrace our own lack of control, dying to ourselves and our own plans so that we can re-align ourselves to God's will.

When it comes to potty-training, many parents have the experience of feeling like there is no end in sight. Patience can run thin, and we can feel stuck in the moment. There is no big picture, just ANOTHER  "accident." In such moments, our lack of trust in God (and in our children's potential) can be painfully obvious. "Training" seems to imply an end result of being "trained," and yet, when the progress is slow, this end seems to be nothing more than a legend for which there is no proof. Perseverance in the face of this seemingly unchanging reality can be painful. At the same time, however, it is a good reminder to us of the training required for our own virtue and holiness. We may want immediate results, but we do not always get them. Like a toddler being potty-trained, we may fail and fail and fail again as we strive to master ourselves. Like the poopy toddler, we may not notice our stinky situation, or we may pretend not to notice it. We may run away to avoid admitting it and facing reality. This journey of life, like potty-training, is a messy one, but it is also one filled with daily opportunities to try again and again to acknowledge our own weaknesses and failures, so that we can let ourselves be trained with God's grace. 

Diapers and potty-training. Disgusting. Inconvenient. Frustrating. Interminable.


As parents, we shouldn't waste that waste, but rather, put it to good use!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Letting Kids Fail

As parents, most of us want our children to be successful. We want them to be academically successful. We have high hopes for college and their future careers. Some of us may prioritize their athletic success, musical/artistic success, or all of these. We want them to be kind and well-mannered, to be thoughtful of others. Even when we desire their supernatural end above all else, we can easily narrate how earthly success - the using of their gifts and talents for God's glory - can hasten their journey toward the supernatural end.

I have noted elsewhere the importance of fostering independence and the mortification of letting go in that respect. Related to that mortification is the mortification of letting our kids fail. Precisely because we want success for our children, their failure can be disappointing for us. If we know they have the ability, but are lacking in hard work, it can be especially mortifying. But even when they do have the work ethic and natural ability, they may still fail, or anyway, fail to gain recognition for their success due to the necessity of selectivity in acknowledging students for success. Moreover, though we may see their many positive attributes, their peers may not appreciate these as we do.

Recently there has been notable push-back against the trophy-for-everyone culture for children. Some have lamented the downside to adults who never experienced failure as children. But even for those of us who agree with these positions and value the lessons taught to our children by their failures, it can still be very difficult to watch our children fail.
Last week we had a family adventure to a nearby park with an enormous turtle population. Our kids had brought their nets, in the hopes that they might catch something - a frog, a turtle, a fish, a crayfish, or maybe just a butterfly. Our oldest was particularly determined to catch a turtle. There was no shortage of turtles, but they were all far out on fallen trees extending into the murky water. Hence she decided to make her way out onto one of these logs. Her first attempt was an amazing feat of balance and fearlessness, as she ultimately walked across the entire river on a log in flip-flops. The turtles seemed unhappy with the tremors in their sunning spot and plopped off, one by one, until there were none left to catch. Unwilling to turn around and walk all the way back, she attempted the five foot leap onto shore from the tree and ended up quite wet.

Her determination continued as she sought out a different fallen tree with almost 20 turtles on it. This time she decided to crawl out slowly, with her sister following. Twice she had her net positioned for a catch, and twice the turtles evaded her skill. By this time, her dad and siblings had headed for the playground. She was stubborn, and so was I. I wanted her to succeed. I wanted her to see the result of her patience and determination and bravery. I wanted to witness her joy at fulfilling her goal. I even prayed for her to get to the last remaining turtle on the log. Time stretched beyond the five minutes we had said we would stay, as I watched her sit completely still on the tree, waiting for a turtle to decide the sunny spot was once more available and return within her reach. 

Eventually, I had to let her fail. The lesson: even with skill, patience, determination, courage, fortitude, wet pants, and a bright orange net, we cannot always achieve our goals. That was her lesson.

My lesson was similar. Even with our good intentions and good efforts as parents, we cannot guarantee our children's success. It makes sense that we are disappointed when our children fail, even when we can narrate it positively in light of how it will benefit them in the future.

Sometimes our children's failures can be more painful to us than our own failures. We feel their disappointment acutely, suffering with them and sharing their regrets. We want to insert ourselves into difficult situations, compensating for their hurt feelings when insulted by a friend or reassuring them that last place in an exhibition swimming race can still be a good performance. Furthermore, it can be embarrassing to us when our kids fail a spelling test or score a goal for the opposite team. We may want to make excuses for them or pretend we don't notice their failures. 

The discomfort caused by our children's failures can become a great parenting mortification. It is a way in which we can die to ourselves, recognizing our own lack of control of various situations. When we embrace their failures and our own corresponding disappointment, we acknowledge our own powerlessness and dependence on God. These failures of our children may or may not be reflections of our own effort (or lack thereof), but regardless, our children's failures can bring us and them closer to God, as we acknowledge the disappointment and unite it to Christ's sufferings, remembering that redemption does not come primarily through us and our virtues, no matter how heroic.