A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Detachment from Material Possessions or When Kids Destroy Your Stuff

One of the wonderful reminders given to us by Pope Francis is the need for Christians to be detached from their material possessions. It's hard to avoid hearing that message in the gospels, anyway, but in our generally affluent country, the message is not usually a popular one. "Struggle" is one way to describe it for those of us who live in a situation of comfort; being detached from material possessions takes constant vigilance and effort. And yet, the struggle is worth the constant vigilance it requires because of the primacy that spiritual goods should take in our lives.

And here is one of the great benefits of parenting mortification: kids constantly damage, ruin, and destroy stuff. Before I had children, I had much less opportunity to mortify myself in terms of material possessions. My first major purchase - like many young adults - was a car: a brand-new, shiny silver Toyota Corolla. I was determined to take good care of my car, hoping that I could pay it off while I was working for a couple of years and have it in great condition when I began graduate school. Take care of it I did. I washed and vacuumed it weekly. Yes, you read that correctly, WEEKLY. No fooling around here. Once when I was giving a ride to a colleague of mine who had several young children he asked, "What, did you buy this car yesterday?" And I remember I was so proud to have evoked such a question, even as he observed that his van was never so clean.

Now, fast forward a decade and add 140,000 miles to the car. Little did I know that the Corolla would become a family car, and then the car my husband would use to commute to work. The paint has been scratched in a few places; there's even some rust showing on the body. The floor mats have dirt ground into them. Two hubcaps are missing. There are car seats in the back, along with the requisite crumbs, as well as some upholstery stains from milkshake spills. I'd like to take better care of it, but the fact is, it's just  not a priority, and it will never be in the condition it was before I had kids. And I think I'm better for it.

There's always a bit of tension between being a good steward who takes care of possessions so as to make them last longer and then the inverse where the possessions become idols and taking care of them is an act of idolatry rather than stewardship.

Living with young children highlights this tension in life. We want to communicate to them the need to take care of possessions as a way of living stewardship and simplicity; we don't want them to think of possessions as disposable and easily replaceable. At the same time, however, we want to communicate that in the grand scheme of things, possessions just aren't that important, and we ought to be detached from them, such that we can live without them and still be happy and holy. Numerous involuntary opportunities to work on detachment from possessions occurs when parenting young children.

Christmas has been a good time for me to reflect on this, as I've watched my childhood ornaments be destroyed daily by my children. Most recently, it was this darling angel, dutifully labeled by my mom with my initial and the date '84. The halo has gone missing, the wings are broken off, the bell came apart and finally the angel came off the bell altogether. So in other words, the ornament was carefully preserved for nearly thirty years only to be ruined by my children in a remarkably short amount of time.

This, of course, is a relatively minor example. Although I do find it a bit sad, and I am a tad sentimental about it, I can't say I was really all that attached to the ornament. The tougher mortification for me is living the daily battle against crayon marks on the wall, carvings in the wooden furniture, scribbling on books, mud on the carpet, missing toy pieces, scratched up CDs, and, well, you get the picture. Again, we want to teach our kids to take care of things, but we don't want them to think we take care of things because that's an end in itself.

Here are a few practical ideas for turning kids destroying your stuff into a spiritual asset - a mortification - or death to self so as to live more fully in Christ. First, fight the anger. It totally makes sense to be upset when you see your child break something, whether purposely or accidentally. Take a deep breath. Say to yourself silently, "I wasn't going to take that with me when I died, anyway." If you need to repeat it a few times, do.

Secondly, communicate to your child: "I'm very angry with you for drawing on my book because I'm trying to take good care of that book so I can enjoy reading it. It's hard to read with pen marks all over it."

Third, put the message into action by proposing that your child find some way to "pay" for the damage they've done. "How would you like to pay me for that?" You might suggest that they lend you a toy for a few days, or, if they happen to have money, you can ask for payment. If they've done something like drawing with crayon on the wall, they may be able to perform the clean-up themselves.

Fourth, try to live with your damaged possession rather than immediately replacing it. When my son pulled on my gold chain necklace (that my husband had just had repaired as a birthday gift for me) and broke it, I decided not to get it repaired again, nor to replace it. If it's something that you can live without for awhile, or live with in a damaged condition, accept this as a mortification that fosters your detachment from material possessions. Every time that you go to use that possession, you can repeat your initial reaction: "I wasn't going to take that with me when I died, anyway."

Fifth, teach your kids to do the same. My daughter approached me with a scratched DVD that wouldn't play and asked me if I could buy a new one because they wanted to watch that particular movie. "How did it get scratched? Did someone leave it on the basement floor out of its case?" Of course, the answer was yes. So I apologized and said that I'm not going to replace things just because the kids haven't taken care of them.

Sixth, fight against the desire to live in a perfect, beautiful environment. Now is not the time for that; heaven is the time for that. Of course, try to buy things that can withstand children's use; invest in cleaning products that will allow you to restore damage. But make your house a home, a place of hospitality; don't think of it as a museum. You may want it to be clean and nice, well organized and aesthetically pleasing. I find that most of the time it's impossible to meet my standard for what I'd like the house to look like, and this too is a good mortification, a good reminder that life's not all about me and what I want. Accepting constant imperfections - the smudge on the couch, the toy on the floor, the broken drawer on the bathroom vanity - especially those caused by the little ones who live with us can truly aid us in being detached from material possessions. Let this challenge of parenting bring you closer to God.

Lastly, when it comes to taking care of possessions, living with damaged possessions, and giving away possessions, be a model for your child of detachment. When your daughter breaks the chandelier (why she was sitting on the table anyway, who knows...), don't be afraid to let her know that even though you are upset, she is way more important to you than a chandelier. And you can live with the broken chandelier because you love her and know that she lasts forever and the chandelier won't. So also, don't stand in the way of your kids' detachment from material possessions.... When your child decides to give away that stuffed puppy doggy she got for her first birthday from her aunt that she's taken everywhere over the last five years... let her. She wouldn't have taken it to heaven anyway.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Lack of Choice

Mortification has a long history in the Church, and it is not unusual to encounter wonderful stories of saints - especially in religious life - who practiced various mortifications, from St. Therese Lisieux getting splashed by dirty dishwater without complaint to St. Francis throwing himself into thorn bushes to the many religious communities that embraced challenging Lenten fasts.

For those of us who don't live in religious communities, however, embracing voluntary mortificaitons can be quite a struggle. Perhaps with the motivation of the Lenten season we find ourselves able to "give up" something that we really enjoy. These voluntary mortifications are truly important and a valuable asset in the Christian life.

One great blessing of parenthood, however, is the way that it provides us with involuntary mortifications - all those opportunities of dying to self and living for God that we would prefer to avoid, but can't because, well, we have kids. And there they are. And they need us. Even if we are tired or feel sick or just aren't in the mood.

This is perhaps one of the most challenging parts of becoming a parent for the first time. All of the sudden, you have to think about someone else before doing anything. I've been known to refer to this as the "newborn ball and chain." Even people who have striven to be generous with giving time to others during their single or childless years can find the responsibility of baby to be an adjustment. With the realization of 24-7 care of an infant, that two hours a week volunteering to teach confirmation class seems quite a trifle, really, a truly paltry sacrifice. It's no longer about "choosing" to be self-giving in various ways at specified times to those in need; parenting is about being forced to be self-giving even when we'd rather sleep in late...or eat a leisurely, peaceful dinner...or go for a nice, long run in the fall sunshine.

To embrace parenthood generously is to embrace these involuntary mortifications and see them in a positive light, as assets to our overall meaning, happiness, and holiness, even if they seem to be hindrances or at least inconveniences in the eyes of the rest of the world.

At its core, this means acknowledging a lack of choice in terms of the specificity of parenthood. It begins right at the beginning with the "choice" to conceive, which, of course, is not really a choice (as evidenced by the many who want to conceive but can't) but rather an openness to life wherein God can work. Lack of choice is apparent even during pregnancy, in terms of the sex of the baby, the size of the baby, the birthdate of the baby, the hair color of the baby, the health of the baby, etc.

Now of course there is much that parents do actively - important choices to be made in terms of food, clothes, education, discipline, childcare, etc. But nonetheless, there is a great deal that is beyond our control on any given day of parenting: what messes our kids will make, how they will respond to our discipline, etc. Just a couple of days ago I returned downstairs after putting the baby down for his nap and noticed a distinctly minty smell. "Why does it smell so minty in here?" I asked my daughter. She responded that her brother had just squeezed out a tube of toothpaste and was in the process of smearing it around the living room. "Why didn't you let me know?" I asked. "I know you don't like to be interrupted when you're putting the baby down for his nap," she said.

When I made my morning offering on that day, I didn't know it would involve cleaning up toothpaste. I would have preferred to lay in bed reading a novel rather than address the naughty toddler. But I didn't really have a choice. There was my son, there was the toothpaste, and there you have it. Lack of choice.

In short, when we are faced with little involuntary mortifications such as this or much greater ones such as seeing a child through a difficult illness, we can respond in various ways. We can resign ourselves to the necessary task and do it begrudgingly or simply out of duty, seeing it as an obstacle to our happiness and self-fulfillment. Even this can benefit us in some way because it is self-sacrifice for others. But on the other hand, we can embrace this lack of choice with a spirit of generosity and cheerfulness, not counting the cost in the world's view, but rather knowing the value in God's eyes.

The lack of choice that comes with parenthood has great potential to aid us in our sanctity. We may not be called to make the regimented sacrifices of religious orders voluntarily undertaken with one's vows, but we are called to take upon ourselves various involuntary sacrifices undertaken in our marriage vows. It is important that we strive to embrace this lack of choice, not only for the natural good of our children, but also for the supernatural good of ourselves.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Prayer That Makes it Work: The Morning Offering (and the Night Offering)

Mortification does not come naturally. Most of us prefer to eat what we like, do what we like when we like, spend time with people we like, and well, generally, we like to live our lives for ourselves. But of course, Christian life is precisely about living for Christ, and hence, for others. It is not about doing our will in accordance with our preferences, but rather discerning and doing God's will in order to express our gratitude and love for God.

Those of us who live out the vocation of marriage have the beautiful opportunity of serving God each day primarily through our family members. While it is a beautiful opportunity, however, it is often a wasted opportunity. In the midst of a busy family life, it can be easy to miss or mishandle the challenges we face in this context. In the heat of the moment, we may not always turn our thoughts to God and embrace mortifications with a cheerful disposition and generous spirit.

Saying the traditional Catholic prayer of the Morning Offering is an important practice for making parenting mortification work. What is the Morning Offering? Basically, this is just a prayer that is said upon awakening, or upon getting out of bed in the morning. The purpose of the Morning Offering is simply to offer that day to God, to bless your day by directing it, in its very beginnings to God. It is a way of recognizing God's past work in your life and your desire in gratitude each day to work for God.

 There are numerous set prayers for the Morning Offering, such as this one:

"Almighty God, I thank you for your past blessings. Today, I offer myself - whatever I do, say or think - to your loving care. Continue to bless me, Lord. I make this morning offering in union with the divine intentions of Jesus Christ who offers himself daily in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and in union with Mary, his Virgin Mother and our Mother, who was always the faithful handmaid of the Lord. Amen." (taken from the Catholic Prayers app for iPad).

There are also much longer ones. During March, I often turn to the sung English version of "The Breastplate of St. Patrick."

In reality, however, most parents of young children don't usually have time thoughtfully to recite a long Morning Offering, or to look up a new one and dutifully and reflectively read it out of a book. If you don't already have a Morning Offering memorized, it would be a great idea to learn one. But don't feel that you have to wait until then to do a Morning Offering. In the past I've often used my own words as the kids are crawling on me or attempting to snuggle with me in bed when I'm trying to get out, and so I've said something like this: "O God, I offer to you all that I am and all that I do this day, in reparation for my sins, for the good of the pope and my family and friends, with the help of the angels and saints and most especially with the guidance of your most holy and blessed Mother." Then I add one more sentence: "I will serve you, Lord!" That's the rally cry for getting out of bed on God's team for the day.

If you are just beginning to incorporate this practice, even the one sentence, "I will serve you, Lord!" might say it all and get your day off on the right track. You have started on your way and now just need to renew your effort throughout the day.

As a bonus, here's a related prayer practice that makes parenting mortification work. I call it the "Night Offering." It came to me when I was going through a rough patch in terms of nighttime parenting and really struggling with not wanting to "be on duty" at night after spending a long day with the kids. I was having a hard time sanctifying my nighttime parenting, and having a hard time being loving and kind both with my spouse and with my kids.

As you can probably imagine, the Night Offering is just like the Morning Offering, only you swap out the "day" for "night." I suppose really our night actions are also covered by the Morning Offering, but for some reason, I found it really helpful to make this prayer before bed. I was more likely to view my nighttime activities as opportunities to grow closer to God, to mortify, to die to self and live for God.

Ironically my spiritual director at the time, a wonderful priest, had suggested I say a variation of John XXIII's nighttime prayer, "It's your Church, God, I'm going to bed" in order to sleep well. But of course, my problem wasn't sleepless nights as a result of lying awake worrying about my family. Rather it was trying to take care of my family during the night that was leading to sleeplessness. The Night Offering was for me a much more effective prayer in terms of recognizing the importance of my actions even during the night. I might even say that it helped me to feel supernaturally rested the next morning...or at least to feel that my night had been supernaturally beneficial, rather than detrimental to my earthly journey toward my heavenly destination.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

An Introduction

Before my husband and I were married, we looked forward to all the joys of family life. We were eager to start a family as soon as God blessed us in our marriage. And indeed, we have found children to be a blessing...

But not always in the ways we anticipated. It didn't take long (just a few months into the first pregnancy) to realize the difficulties and sacrifices that come with being a parent. In some ways, we were ill-prepared to deal with these challenges. Of course, we were first-time parents, and we had a lot to learn in terms of caring for an infant and juggling two busy academic work schedules without any childcare assistance. Much of parenting these days is by nature a learn-by-yourself-as-you-go kind of ordeal.

We would have been better prepared for the challenges of parenting, however, if we had had a better notion of mortification. Now, granted, one of the songs at our wedding was the "Servant Song," and we did enter our marriage with a sense that we were intending to serve each other and sacrifice for the other person. That idea, however, was merely a seed that only really could germinate when the demands of parenting began. 

So what is mortification? These days, most people have heard this word (and variations of it) used in reference to embarrassment. For example, "I was so mortified when I realized I was wearing mismatching shoes!"

In fact, the word mortification has its root in a word that indicates death or killing. We can see why mortify would come to signify a feeling of humiliation or shame. For example, you may have heard someone say, "I was so embarrassed I wanted to die!"

My use of mortification on this blog is slightly different. "Dying to self, living for God" might be the best definition. There is a long Christian tradition of valuing discipline in the spiritual life; this is most evident, perhaps, when we consider the professed religious - nuns and monks, for example - who followed (and many still follow) a strict schedule, ordered by prayer. Mortification can be seen as a part of this asceticism or discipline.

Sometimes, mortification is voluntary, as when someone gives up chocolate for Lent. Such a mortification is not meant to be a mere test of will power, but rather a way to die to self in order to live more fully for God, while uniting these little sufferings to the passion of Christ.

At other times, mortification is involuntary, as when your child suddenly vomits on you in bed at 4:00 a.m., and you have to clean up a big mess, try to care for him, and then be tired for the rest of the day. This, too, can be a way to die to self in order to live more fully for God, while uniting these little sufferings to the passion of Christ.

Those who have embraced their vocation for marriage and been blessed with children often find themselves faced with unexpected challenges. Even in the midst of the joy and rewards of raising kids, there are difficult moments. These moments can be met reluctantly with resentment and even anger, or they can be embraced with a spirit of generosity as an opportunity to die to self and live more fully for God. And strangely, enough, when we strive for the latter approach of generosity in embracing the sufferings of parenting, we end up happier than when we nurse resentment and anger.

The task of this blog is to aid Catholic parents in living a spirituality wherein the demands, challenges, and sacrifices of parenting are not setbacks to happiness, but rather, they become opportunities to grow closer to God. In other words, this blog aims to explore how the ordinary unpleasant aspects of parenting can bear fruit for eternal life. The premise is that marriage and family life can - and should - make us holy. Parenting mortification is one important way that we advance in virtue, happiness, and sanctity.