A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

On the Mortification of Pregnancy

(Here I am, making it look easy.)
The end of my first pregnancy happened to coincide with Lent, as my oldest's due date was Easter Monday. I remember when my husband asked me, with Lent approaching, if I had thought of what I might do as my Lenten penance. "Gosh," I said, "I thought maybe I'd weigh 40 pounds extra, have a constantly sore tailbone, non-stop acid reflux, sweat profusely in public, wear all unflattering clothes, have swollen hands and feet, get winded even on short walks, and generally just be uncomfortable." Novice husband that he was, he smiled and said, "No, really, are you giving something up?"

And while I can rattle off a list of the discomforts of pregnancy pretty easily, I also admit that I have had pretty "easy" pregnancies compared to many women I know. Nonetheless, when a fellow parishioner approached me after Mass one day and asked how I was feeling (people love to ask pregnant women how they are feeling) during my fourth pregnancy, and I said, fine, she proceeded to observe that I must have easy pregnancies if I've been willing to have four of them. To be honest, I think the underlying thought behind this comment was related to some acquaintance or perhaps family member who commented that she is done having kids because the pregnancies were so tough. Or maybe I was just feeling defensive, because I responded that by eight months pregnant, there's nothing really easy about being pregnant, whether dealing with the oppressive summer heat (and no central AC mind you) or chasing an active toddler or whatever. I guess I just wanted it to be clear that I'm not having another child simply because it's "easy" for me to be pregnant nine months, give birth and then raise another child. Pregnancy, birth, motherhood--these things take sacrifices, let's be honest.

It's not that I'm seeking recognition for my personal sacrifices regarding pregnancy or parenting. But I don't think we're doing anyone any good by thinking that for some women this stuff is just easy and that's the main explanation for their willingness to bear children. Of course, there are some women who just love being pregnant and seem to have no complaints. I think by the end of the pregnancy, however, most women are ready to be done being pregnant and have the baby in their arms. And many women find pregnancy to be extremely challenging - not just the physical discomfort, but the emotional roller coaster, the psychological aspect of "feeling fat" and so on. It's no wonder that so many women seek inductions towards the end of their pregnancies. Pregnancy IS hard! And it's also not surprising that one way to frame the sacrifice of pregnancy is to say that it's all worth it in the end, when you get the baby handed to you and it's all over... or rather, it's all just beginning. This is true for most of us, but I still think there's more that can be said.

Pregnancy is another instance of parenting mortification. In fact, the mortifications of pregnancy even begin before parenting of that child begins. But in some ways it is emblematic of the challenges and difficulties to come when the pregnancy ends and the parenting begins. Parenting mortification is about being taking the difficulties and challenges of parenting and using those as opportunities to die to one's self in order to live more fully for God. The difficulties and challenges of pregnancy can likewise be offered in the same way.

Pregnancy provides all sorts of unchosen discomforts and inconveniences (some quite unpredictable, with variation from pregnancy to pregnancy), and there are various ways that people deal with these - complaining, for example. And believe me, it is hard not to complain when you wake up with basically non-functioning elephantine hands every morning. But another way to deal with these unchosen discomforts is to make some kind of effort to accept them as mortifications - little ways of dying to self, embracing the cross, living for others. I've found that having specific prayer intentions for various discomforts can be helpful in making them meaningful. They become not just cause for complaint, but an opportunity for prayer.

And I have to add that one of the great things about offering up the mortifications of pregnancy is that they are temporary. Unlike chronic ailments, the discomforts of pregnancy generally come to an end (OK, some exceptions) after the child is born. Knowing that there is an end in sight can help to get through to the end with more than just resignation to the discomforts. Even if it's hard to remain "cheerful" with the ills of life, one can find ways for pregnancy challenges to become meaningful and prayerful along the way, and not simply dependent upon knowing the earthly reward of a cute little baby that lies in store...but rather remembering the supernatural benefits as well.

No one said it would be easy. But it can be worth it, in more than just one way. 

On Advent, a Penitential Season

It's that time of year again...when Catholics begin a new liturgical year with the season of Advent. With this in mind, I wanted to summarize a few basic characteristics of the wonderful liturgical season of Advent, which is so often misunderstood by Catholics today, especially living in the midst of a culture that begins Christmas celebrations seemingly immediately following Thanksgiving.

Parenting mortification is about being willing to accept challenges and difficulties and to offer them to God as an opportunity to die to one's self and live more fully for God. One great asset to parenting mortification is the embrace of voluntary mortifications in addition to the involuntary mortifications of parenthood. Advent is a great season to take on a voluntary mortification (akin to the Lenten resolution). It's also a great time to teach your kids (and yourselves!) about the virtue of patience. The waiting is the hardest part.

1. Advent is penitential in nature. The purple vestments worn by the priest during the season of Advent should be indication enough of the penitential nature of Advent. Since Vatican II, however, some parishes have chosen to embrace blue vestments in order visually to distinguish Advent from the season of Lent. Blue is not an officially acceptable liturgical color for the season of Advent in the Roman rite, however. The violet color of Advent in fact is meant to associate Advent with Lent. Advent was traditionally called "the little Lent" and the penance of Advent, like the penance of Lent, was meant to prepare the faithful for a great celebration. The other penitential liturgical changes for the season of Advent include the omission of the Gloria at the Mass and the omission of the Te Deum from the Divine Office.

2. There are traditional communal penances of Advent. The customary Advent in such places as Rome included a Catholic fast (including meat abstinence) on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout Advent. The difficulties of immigrant life in the U.S. led the Third Provincial Council of Baltimore to request a dispensation from this Advent fasting, as well as a dispensation from Wednesday meat abstinence. The request was granted, and the U.S. has never since been obligated to Wednesday-Friday Advent fasting. Eastern Catholics, like the Orthodox, customarily practiced a strict 40-day "Philippian fast" during the season of Advent (the Orthodox feast of St. Philip is celebrated on November 14th, and the fast follows that feast).

3. Advent is a time for preparation. Too often today we associate penance with difficulty and gloominess. Undoubtedly penance does involve some degree of difficulty; the word mortification does come from the word for "death," after all. But the point of Advent penance or Lenten penance or Friday penance is similar in that it is a preparation. Penances - even small penances with minimum difficulty - serve as a constant reminder that something is going on. Penance turns our mind to preparation and helps prepare us to celebrate big feasts, like Christmas or Easter or Sunday, well. Given the demands of Christmas in terms of gift-giving, cooking, etc., Advent concretely lends itself to recognition as a season of preparation. But on the other hand, the demands of these material preparations can distract us from spiritual preparation.

4. Advent is distinct from Christmas. This point really should be self-evident, but unfortunately in American culture today there is no real distinction between Advent and Christmas. Catholics who attend Mass only weekly will notice perhaps an Advent wreath and the purple vestments of the priest, but they will be immersed the rest of the week in "Secret Santas," office parties, Elf on the Shelf, major sales of retailers, ubiquitous Christmas decorations, and Christmas music. Even Advent calendars tend to be Christmas-themed, and some are now identified simply as "Countdown to Christmas" calendars. Liturgically, however, Advent and Christmas are distinct seasons. Up until Pope John XXIII, Catholics were required to fast on Christmas Eve in preparation for Christmas Day; the pope moved that fast to December 23rd, but like other vigil fasts, this Christmas Eve fast was dropped in 1966.

Practical implications: After these few basic characteristics of Advent, we might wonder how best to observe the season of Advent. Especially in the midst of a culture that is already celebrating Christmas, how might Catholics observe Advent faithfully without appearing judgmental or Scroogish to those already fully immersed in holiday celebration?

1. The Advent Wreath. Chief among the liturgical practices of Advent is the lighting of the Advent wreath, with three purple candles, and one pink. It is a great family tradition to light the Advent wreath each night before dinner.

2. Sing Advent Hymns. When you go out in public, you WILL hear Christmas music; that's pretty much a given. In your own space, however, you should sing Advent songs. There are so many beautiful Advent hymns that really speak to the longing and preparation of the season. It's a great idea to sing one of these songs when lighting the Advent wreath each night.

3. Voluntary Penance. Given that Advent is a penitential season, it is an excellent time to take up a voluntary penance. This can be done as a family, e.g. going vegetarian for the season of Advent. The penance can also be done individually, e.g. giving up sweets. Other ideas include increasing almsgiving, adding some special Advent prayers, or being more cheerful.

4. Preparation. All of the above facilitate preparation for Christmas. But there is more that can be done to prepare. Advent is a great time to attend daily Mass. If you are unable to do that, you might take five to ten minutes and at least read and reflect on the daily Mass readings for that day. This brings home the liturgical sense of Advent, including both the longing for Christ's final coming at the end of time and the longing for Christ's birth in Bethlehem.

5. The Sacrament of Confession. Given that Advent is a season for penance and preparation, it is a wonderful time to receive the sacrament of confession. Many churches have confession days or communal services during the season of Advent to facilitate people receiving this sacrament.

6. Dealing with Christmas during Advent. We love Christmas. And that's one reason why it is so hard to wait when the rest of America seems already to be celebrating. How should we handle Christmas parties that take place during Advent? And how do we make our material preparations, e.g. gift-buying, for Christmas without letting the materialism take possession of all our spare moments? These are some of the most difficult challenges to address. Sometimes it is simply impractical to refuse attending "Christmas" parties during Advent. And dealing with kids' enthusiasm for Christmas can make this even more difficult; we don't want to crush their Christmas spirit or make them feel left out when all their classmates have already begun with the Christmas excitement. Hence there is no perfect solution to these problems. Priests in the 1950s suggested avoiding lavish parties and practicing moderation and abstemiousness at other Christmas parties during Advent. Instead of taking the cookie you want, try the one you don't want. Instead of having two drinks, limit yourself to one.

6a. The Decoration Debate. Ideally, Catholics would not put up Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve, and they would leave them out until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which ends the Christmas season. Sticking rigidly to this can be challenging, given the need for preparation, not to mention the excitement of the kiddos. Sometimes it can be helpful for both of these issues to choose one or two things to do ahead of time. Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, can be a good day for this. For example, my family has sometimes put up our tree on this day. Another idea is to wait until the "O antiphons" begin, marking the last seven days of Advent, and get out one decoration each day. If you can manage it for your particular situation, you might delay decorating altogether until Christmas Eve.

6b. The Nativity Set(s). My kids have their own little nativity set, and they all love to play with it. In the past, I've taken it out right at the beginning of Advent as a way of helping them prepare for Christmas. It almost always, happens, however, that by the time Christmas hits, they are tired of it. This coincides nicely with their receiving Christmas gifts, I suppose, but it also can be a bit disappointing to see them tired of the nativity story. So in recent years, I've delayed taking it out until Gaudete Sunday, or, even better, the beginning of the O antiphons on December 17. Of all the "Christmas" decorations, however, this one - with an empty crib until Christmas Eve, of course! - is the most appropriate for Advent.

6c. Prayerful Material Preparation. Pope Benedict XVI once noted the appropriateness of gift-giving that characterizes Christmas. God has given us the wonderful gift of Jesus; it is good for us also to be generous like God in our giving of gifts. And yet this can often become a stressful task. Planning ahead is important, and not overthinking gifts is also important. Like any worry, gift-giving and wrapping are a good thing to approach prayerfully, asking for God's guidance in selecting good gifts. Wrapping each gift is a nice time to say a prayer for the person who will receive the gift. Cooking and baking should ideally be done in this same spirit.

6d. The Advent Calendar. Advent calendars come in all varieties these days...although mostly with Christmas colors and themes. Nonetheless, they can serve as a very practical way for kids (and adults) to prepare for Christmas. My kids always love their chocolate-filled Advent calendars. I worry that they don't represent the penitential element of Advent, but we have a tradition of them saying "Maranatha! or Come, Lord Jesus," each morning before receiving their chocolate, and this is a good reminder, not to mention the discipline of only getting ONE piece of chocolate each day.

6e. Spiritual Reading for Kids. Through the years, we have acquired a large collection of Christmas books. There would be too many for us to appreciate them in the brief season of Christmas, so we generally get them out at the beginning of Advent. These are helpful in preparing them for Christmas, and I find that they actually help me think about the meaning of Christmas too!

7. Big Feasts During Advent. Don't forget that there are some great feasts that occur during the season of Advent. One of our favorites is St. Nicholas Day, December 6th. I find this to be a good day to sneak a little "Christmas" into Advent without undermining Advent. My kids put out their shoes and I fill them with candy canes and gold-wrapped chocolate coins. Sometimes they even get a book or a movie...or matching pajamas. We love St. Nicholas, and the candy canes and coins are a great opportunity to discuss his life as a bishop defending the truth and as a generous pastor concerned with the welfare of his congregation. The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th is another important feast to celebrate, and given that it is a solemnity, it should offer a brief reprieve from your voluntary penance. December 12th, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a great time to recall the story of Juan Diego in Mexico and talk to your children about that feast. December 13th, the Feast of St. Lucy, is a good day to light candles and talk about Jesus as the light in the darkness.

8. Celebrate Christmas Well. By the time Christmas actually comes, most people are ready to be done with it. They put away their decorations on December 26th and leave Christmas behind for another year. That is not the Catholic way, however. Christmas continues, especially for the octave (the first eight days), but also for the "Twelve Days" of Christmas. Epiphany is within the Christmas season, which technically does not end until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Keeping Christmas going can be just as challenging as was postponing it. A special dessert each day might help, listening to Christmas music, inviting over friends and visiting friends or people in need, or doing extra acts of kindness can help keep the Christmas spirit going. And of course, don't put those decorations away until Christmas is over.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Living With and Growing From Imperfect Parenting Circumstances

Being a parent today brings with it a multitude of expectations, or even demands, from society. I have already written about the importance of accepting certain responsibilities, given that parents are the most important role models for their children. The necessity of being a good role model can certainly be a mortification, an occasion to die to oneself in order to live more fully for God. But there is another related mortification experienced by parents, namely, the definite imperfection of one's situation.

Many people have come to recognize that the American model of nuclear family with no additional help puts strains on parents and is not best for the children either. It is important to recognize the structural imperfections of American family life today and strive to correct them as best we can, reaching out to parents in need of  little extra help in various ways. The offer to assist with childcare for free or the act of bringing a meal to parents with a new child are two examples of this.

But even with these efforts to strengthen extra-familial bonds in place of the once strong inter-generational presence found within families, on a practical level, parents will undoubtedly find themselves stuck in less than ideal situations. There are conflicting demands, desires, and always, it seems, NOT ENOUGH TIME to get everything done and have adequate leisure for refreshment. It can become all too easy to reflect on the busy and stressful life of parenting and simply conclude that we will never be able to do it well: there is not enough money, not enough sleep, not enough energy, and not enough time to oneself.

Outsiders increase this sense of inadequacy with the seemingly endless demands placed on "good" parents. These demands include (but are in NO WAY limited to!) the following: spend lots of quality one-on-one time with your spouse take your children to all necessary medical, dental, optical, etc. appointments on schedule; expose your child to cultural events, like art museums and musical/play performances; provide the opportunity for your child to excel in sports; ensure your child's excellent academic performance; eat primarily home-cooked meals made primarily with organic and locally-grown food; ensure complete security and safety of your child; allow your child's failure so he can learn from his mistakes; be consistent with discipline in every circumstance; demonstrate good home organization and cleanliness; etc. And of course, none of the items listed above included the expectations of good Catholic parents who strive to form their children in the faith. Frankly, I'm too exhausted to list all of those right now.

Suffice it to say that with such demands on parents, and such limitations of time, money, sleep, ability, etc. that parents will inevitably be caught in a dire situation where they are doomed to fail. Everyday living as parents just entails inadequacy. Even if the outside world does not catch us in our mistakes as parents, we know them all too well within the home. We have to live constantly with our failures: inconsistent discipline, poorly planned meals, sleep deprivation that leads to impatience and angry yelling, and so on. It is so easy to become exhausted with our situation, and then to blame ourselves for our exhaustion because we are obviously doing something wrong, e.g. not taking enough time for ourselves, not keeping the house well-organized, etc.

Instead, I suggest that the first step for us parents in these imperfect circumstances is simply to accept them as they are and even thank God for them. They may not be to our likes and preferences, and that is precisely what makes an imperfect situation a wonderful involuntary mortification. Imperfect circumstances can become an opportunity to conform our will to God's, trying to trust in God and do the best in the situation we have been handed. In this we die to ourselves in order to live more fully for God.

Here I draw particularly upon Fr. Jacques Philippe, the wonderful French spiritual writer who describes this temptation that can greatly impede spiritual progress: "in the situation which is ours (personal, family, etc., we lack something essential and that because of this our progress, and the possibility of blossoming spiritually is denied us" (all quotations from Part II, Ch. 8 of Searching for and Maintaining Peace). We may say "I am not satisfied with my life, with my person, with my circumstances and I live constantly with the feeling that as long as things are such, it will be impossible for me to live truly and intensely."

Philippe suggests that wishing for circumstances to change is often an error: "It is not the exterior circumstances that must change; it is above all our hearts that must change." We must strive for certitude that God is present, providing for our needs. When people embrace this attitude, "they will see that many of he circumstances that they thought negative and damaging to their spiritual life are, in fact, in God's pedagogy, powerful means for helping them to progress and grow."

Philippe adds "Our minds are sometimes so clouded over by that which is not going well, by that which (according to our own particular criteria!) should be different in our situations, that we forget the positive." In contrast with this problematic focus on the negative, we should recognize that imperfections can help us to grow in humility and confidence in God. Philippe concludes Chapter 8 with these words:

"God may allow me to occasionally lack money, health, abilities and virtues, but He will never leave me in want of Himself, of His assistance and His mercy or of anything that would allow me to grow unceasingly ever closer to Him, to love Him more intensely, to better love my neighbor and to achieve holiness."

This is not an excuse to avoid problem-solving difficult parenting situations that you may encounter in daily life. Nor is it a reason to lack sympathy and compassion for parents that feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities. But it is the summons for a change of heart for those of us who often find our circumstances complicated and trying. We must resolve to stop bemoaning the very many, many demands on parents and to stop despairing of our constant inadequacy to meet these demands in such an imperfect situation. Instead of telling ourselves that we don't have enough time, we must tell ourselves that we have just enough time. We have just enough time to love God, love our spouses, and love our kids. We have just enough time to do God's will in the present moment and with the present circumstances, no matter how imperfect those circumstances may appear to us at first glance.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Letting Go and Fostering Independence

We hear a lot these days about "helicopter parents" and the younger generation that take their parents with them on their adult job interviews. Although I don't tend toward helicopter parenting myself, I can easily identify with these parents because, well, I love my kids. I like being around them, and I even enjoy taking care of them (most of the time, that is). I admit I get sentimental when I give away a bag of my kids' outgrown clothes or review old baby photos. I'm constantly telling my kids that they do NOT have my permission to grow up.

But they keep doing it anyway. An obviously important part of parenting is to foster independence in our children: "to give them wings," as my mom always said. The risk of giving our kids wings is that they may fly away. But let's not forget that this is ultimately what we want. We want them to exercise their freedom well, to grow in responsibility, maturity, and sanctity, even if that means they do fly away from us.

Fostering independence and letting go may not seem at first glance to be a parenting mortification in the way that things like sleep deprivation or getting insulted by our children certainly constitute real parenting challenges. Nonetheless, fostering independence and letting go require the same sort of sacrifice in that they demand a constant supernatural narration that looks at a bigger picture than simply the moment at hand.

Let's get practical here and talk about young children. They start off as babies and need you to do everything for them. Then they start to get older and want to do things for themselves. It may sound great, but anyone who has been running late and waiting waiting waiting for a child to put on his own shoes know that it's not always a great thing for a child to exercise independence. Patience is certainly a key virtue to exercise when we seek to foster our children's independence. The fact is that it is easier, faster, and much less messy to bake cookies without the help from a 2-year old and a 4-year old (see photo above). It is easier to toss a child's socks in a clothes hamper than to track him down and encourage him to do it. It is simpler to clean up their messes, and when company is arriving in five minutes, perfectly advisable.

The rest of the time, however, we have to be willing to address our own impatience at children's ability (or lack thereof) to help in the way we want them to do. It is a mortification, a death to self, to delay the timeliness of our own tasks in order to involve kids in a way that fosters their independence. Especially in a busy household, the extra minutes it takes can seem to last much longer than they actually do.

From a natural perspective, however, the results of parental impatience are easily seen in our culture today. There are parents who complain that their middle school children take no responsibility for their homework; these are sometimes the same children who turned in perfect school projects in elementary school because their parents had taken control and done it all for them. There are busy parents who find it faster to throw their toddler's dirty clothes into the hamper for them, only to realize when the child is eight that she now expects the parents to do it all for her.

If we want to foster independence in our children, we have to encourage and accept their help even when it is really not all that helpful...and often even when it is an inconvenience. Embracing this sacrifice helps our children in multiple ways. It allows them to take responsibility for their actions and belongings. It helps them to feel that they can contribute to a household. It enables them to express their freedom and individuality rather than feeling constantly constrained by controlling adults. It forms them in good habits as regards work ethics. All of these skills will aid children to grow in virtue and holiness because really, we parents can't do that all for them.

When we think about letting go and fostering independence from a supernatural perspective, we see that it certainly can be a beneficial parenting mortification. If we can accept letting go and fostering independence as a sacrifice, we can die to self by relinquishing our own desires to control our children as extensions of ourselves. We admit to ourselves that we don't really choose their talents, their interests, or their future careers. We can't predict or dictate every parenting situation that might arise.

This simple act of letting go can be a great reminder that ultimately we are not in charge, we are not in control; God guides us and challenges us. We respond in the most loving way that we can in order to serve God, even if that means letting a daughter put up homemade (dumb) "Halloween decorations" in the front yard or letting a son "clean up" his spilled smoothie by smearing it in a six foot radius. At the moment these things may be an embarrassment or an inconvenience, but in the bigger picture, the larger supernatural narrative, they contribute to the child's growth and our own growth that comes from making the sacrifice.

We can thank God for opportunities to work on our impatience with our kids as they seek and struggle to learn how to do things on their own. We can thank God for using our children to remind us that growth is a continual process, for us as well as for them. We can ask God to help us give our kids wings, so that they can fly to God in whatever they do...even if that means they fly away from us.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Spouse: The Ultimate Mortification

Once when I finished a talk on parenting mortification, a woman informed me that what I said had been very valuable for her........in thinking about how to deal with her husband!

Given the examples I had used, and the subject at hand, I was quite surprised.

But should I have been?

Let's be honest that our spouses provide our first mortifications of family life; we deal with them before the kiddos come along. Moreover, these mortifications continue right alongside of parenting mortifications such as sleep deprivation, kid tantrums, physical pain, and so on. I mean no disrespect to the institution or sacrament of marriage (and certainly no offense to my own wonderful husband). Marriage is a blessing with many consolations. But that does not change the fact that our spouses (and we!) are human and can make mistakes or sometimes be just plain annoying and even difficult to live with. I have one friend who tries to explain to her college students that marriage is a lot like living permanently with your college roommate...except there is no summer break. What she means is that things like your spouse putting clothes on the floor instead of in the laundry hamper or interrupting you in the middle of a sentence can become daily annoyances with no end in sight.

With our children we have an important responsibility for their character formation, and hence we have a duty to correct and improve their behavior. Of course spouses may sometimes need a charitable correction and we must be willing to do this, but our relationship with them is of a different sort, characterized more by equality than is the parent-child relationship.

And yet spouses do provide a crucial opportunity for parenting mortification, in part because our willingness to live with and forgive the faults of others, most especially our spouse, is a wonderful model for our children. Marriage, in and of itself (even before or without children) enables us the situation of having to die to ourselves to live for God in particular ways that may be contrary to our personal preferences and opinions. We sacrifice for our spouses sometimes in big ways - choosing locations to live, sacrificing career advances for the good of the relationship, negotiating where to spend family holidays, compromising on a budget, etc. But we also sacrifice for our spouses in little ways - living with the hair in the bathroom sink, the coffee cup left on the counter instead of placed in the dishwasher, the occasional sarcastic comment or complaint.

To get practical here, we often have to make a choice. Can we accept something as a mortification and offer it to God so as to die to self and live more fully for God? Or do we need to address the spouse out of charity and suggest a correction? Sometimes the answer to this choice is obvious. When a spouse is sick or injured and cannot assist in housework or childcare, we are best off accepting it as a mortification, offering it to God, and embracing the death to self such that it encourages in a spirit of generosity and even gratitude for the opportunity. (This may take continued effort and perseverance through the years, and trying again after failure.) As with children, there are many times we are faced with these mortifications that we simply cannot avoid or change. Hence, as with parenting mortification, the best thing we can do for our soul is to embrace the mortification, die to self, and live for God.

Or maybe the spouse has a slightly annoying habit, such as having long pauses before finishing a sentence in the midst of a conversation. For rapid thinkers and quick talkers, dealing with a spouse like this can be truly frustrating. But is the spouse sinning by taking a long time to communicate a thought? No, probably not. And so it's best to accept it as a mortification, striving for patience out of charity. Failure in this terrain is likely as we all have our little pet peeves that bother us, whether or not it's the spouse who is doing them! But the potential for growth is also amazing. With the grace of the vocation of marriage and the willingness to accept each other's faults, the habit of mortifying one's self with regard to a spouse's annoying habits becomes a gift to the relationship and the family as a whole.

At other times, however, mortification may not be the only solution. We may need to communicate honestly about something for the good of the spouse and the marriage. Is the frequent putting away of a spouse's shoes a problem or a mortification? It can be either or both; it may be simply a small nuisance easily offered as a prayer each day and forgotten. Or it may become a huge annoyance and cause for anger and resentment. It may begin as a prayer and end in sinful anger! We may strive to embrace an attitude of helpfulness and generosity, using this as an occasion for mortification, only to find that we have ended in bitterness. Moreover, it certainly is not a bad thing to ask spouses to be responsible for their belongings. The commitment to this little act of love may actually aid the spouse's sanctity more than your resentfully doing the work unnoticed aids your own sanctity.

Or perhaps there may be an instance when a spouse doesn't seem to be listening well, but rather turns the conversation back to an earlier topic that the spouse finds more interesting or important. Even if this doesn't happen frequently, it might be better to address it directly rather than offer it as a mortification, especially if it will detract in the future from maintaining good communication for the marriage relationship.

One thing is certain, though, and that's if you ask a spouse to do something and then criticize the way the spouse does it, you are becoming a mortification for your spouse. Sometimes gentle guidance is needed ("um, the diaper goes on this way; you put it on backwards, no worries, you'll get the hang of it"). But rarely are complaints warranted unless your spouse is actively trying to spite you. So if your spouse makes the bed one morning...and is not quite as good at it as you are...you are better off saying a prayer of thanksgiving for the effort and living with the wrinkles as a mortification (or, if it really bothers you, you could remake it when your spouse leaves the room for the day...). If you criticize and complain about the efforts, you'll be discouraging your spouse from future efforts and mortifying your spouse. And while it's good to accept mortifications, it's not good to choose to mortify others. The goal is to embrace the cross, not to strive to be a cross.

Moreover, if you know your spouse is working on something - for example, not being so critical or smiling more frequently or not looking at a phone during a conversation - it's best to try to appreciate that progress and be grateful for the spouse's efforts, rather than continuing to complain or offer corrections on the matter. When you know your spouse is making a concerted effort in a particular area, it's especially important to accept their failures as a mortification for yourself, offering it in prayer for their perseverance in the struggle.

Someone once told me that you can't get married expecting to change the person you love. But on the other hand, marriage does change people, especially when it is lived out as a vocation that involves sacrifice - the death to self in order to live for God in the marriage.  The demands of marriage provide a crucial opportunity for growth in holiness. If you embrace your spouse as your cross - both your greatest struggle and yet your greatest joy - then you will be changed for the better. So don't miss this opportunity.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Invisibility of Parenting

(I'm no Einstein, but parenting probably won't make you famous.)

Human beings love to get affirmation for their work. The icing on the cake for a job well done is often the recognition that follows a job well done. There is a real satisfaction in knowing that we have accomplished something for the good of others and that they have truly appreciated it.

In the realm of parenting, however, such affirmation for hard work is often wanting. Within the recesses of the home, the only people who witness the hard work of parenting are those little people who have very little praise and gratitude for the work of parenting. Sure, there are consolations of parenting. But the fact is that much of the effort that goes into parenting is unseen by the world. When parenting goes public - at the store, at Church, etc. - we parents are just as likely to find our parenting judged as we are to find our efforts supported.

It's no wonder then that so many parents enjoy and even rely on their work outside the home to provide life satisfaction. It is wonderful to have an excellent review at work, to receive a promotion, to get credit for great ideas, and of course, to have one of the major incentives for working, namely, a paycheck. That paycheck is the difference between being viewed as a "producer" who actively contributes to society and being viewed as an economic "dependent" confined to the "menial labor" of the home - childcare and domestic chores. At work, there is the respect that comes from other adults. There is teamwork. There is appreciation for overtime. There is a sense of success in the eyes of the world.

At home, there are piles of laundry and ironing. There are dirty dishes in the sink. There are toys on the floor. There are messy faces. There are soiled diapers. There are windows smeared by dirty handprints. There are tantrums. There are constant requests for food. There is homework that requires help. There are meals that must be cooked. And there is no end in sight to these tasks...or anyway, the end is so far away that it is almost unimaginable. Of course, there is often a genuine sense of satisfaction in caring for children and a home; sometimes it feels like parenting is worth all the sacrifices. But this is not always the case, and particularly in the beginning days of parenting, it can be difficult to deal with the lack of appreciation for hard work. The invisibility of our effort with children and home can threaten our happiness and even detract from our sense that we are doing God's will by living out our marriage vocation through caring for children.

At such times we may throw ourselves into our other work, the work we do outside the home. It is easy to put the bulk of our effort into this work where we are appreciated, respected, treated like knowledgeable adults. Back on the homefront, we are tired, having given our best to a different workplace. And we want to come home to rest and relax, not deal with defiant kids and a cluttered house. The invisibility of parenting can make it easy to become lazy and even selfish during the time we spend at home.

Likewise, for those whose primary responsibility is the house and children, there can be a tendency to seek affirmation in other activities, like those of a volunteer nature. People may not notice your great work at home, but they will notice your great work running the PTA bake sale. Your many sacrifices at home will go unnoticed, but people will admire that you are so involved with the parish. Volunteering is a great thing, but it can become an outlet for attention and affirmation rather than service, and this can especially be seen when the responsibilities of volunteering detract from efforts with children and home.

It is regrettable, truly regrettable, that the rearing of children and the service of domestic chores are currently so undervalued. It is a problem in our society that the value of family and home is constantly underrated and undercut by a consumeristic vision. But while this is regrettable and problematic, it is also a wonderful opportunity for parenting mortification. In fact, we might observe that many of our Catholic saints strove for just this chance to be invisible: to go about their work unnoticed and unappreciated by the world. Rather than seeing the lack of affirmation and recognition as one of the worst parts of parenting, we might see it as one of the best aspects of parenting. Not only do we have the opportunity to make numerous sacrifices on a daily basis (sleep deprivation, having our stuff destroyed, being insulted, experiencing physical pain), but we can make these sacrifices without anyone noticing or appreciating them!

Granted, it's not easy. As a mortification, there is a dying to the self that comes with this invisibility of parenting. Parenting is not about us in the sense that outside work can be about us. We won't win any awards for our expert home organization or frequent vacuuming. We won't be featured on a magazine cover for being awake all night with a vomiting child. We won't receive a trophy for the longest sustained toddler-holding during a church service. Since we don't get paid for parenting, we won't get a raise for the stupendous kitchen-cleaning or lunch-packing that we do.

But in the lack of recognition, the mortification that is a dying to self, there is an opportunity to live more fully for God. For when we make these unseen efforts, offering our work to God, and offering work that we know the rest of the world sees as unimportant compared to business, law, medicine or professional sports, we show God that we are willing to do his work simply to please him and not for our own fame or any other natural rewards. We can disappear in the eyes of the world, who sees our education and work experience wasted on such "menial" labor.  The lack of attention and recognition for our work in living our vocation makes it more valuable in God's eyes, not less. Hence if we can mortify ourselves with respect to this invisibility rather than bemoaning it, then we may become more fully an instrument of God. We can decrease, so that he might increase.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Pressure of Being the Perfect Role Model

(Kids love to imitate their parents)

Despite the many differences among various parenting perspectives and methods, there is almost always one point on which they agree: parents model behavior for their children. Many experts argue that parent modeling is in fact THE MOST IMPORTANT influence on children's behavior and their subsequent behavior as adults. Studies emphasize that lecturing, discussing, and informing children about one's values or beliefs pale in comparison to the importance of demonstrating commitment to these values by living them out in daily life.

This study is just one of many to recognize that children imitate adults. They imitate our use of technology, our eating habits, our ways of dealing with conflict, our punctuality, our cleanliness, our manner of speaking to others, the self-perception of our appearance, our enthusiasm for reading, etc. Beyond these concerns, we Catholics have to think about how we want to model the faith: our commitment to prayer, our embodying corporal and spiritual works of mercy, our participation in Mass, our practice of hospitality, our growth in virtue, our detachment to material possessions, our kindness to others, our concern for the environment, our interaction in larger society, our willingness to stand up for Catholic beliefs, our thirst for the knowledge of the Catechism, our fondness for Scripture, our love for Jesus and for Mary and the communion of saints, etc.

Wow. Just typing the above paragraph was enough to give me anxiety about my own personal failures in regard to many of these issues. Frankly, it's mortifying to think about the many ways I constantly fail as a role model for my children, and by mortifying in this case I actually do mean embarrassing. But of course, this can also become a parenting mortification when we avoid two potential pitfalls related to the pressure of being the perfect role model.

The first mistake is to excuse ourselves from striving to be a good role model. We might come up with a great reason, such as "To thine own self be true" or "I need to take care of myself." These perspectives might foster a consistent attitude of selfishness or may be something that we simply resort to in stressful moments. We may observe to ourselves the difficulty and challenges of our lives as parents and then tell ourselves that it's OK if we watch three hours of television in the evening rather than actively interacting with our family or attending a meeting for an organization to which we belong. After all, we need that downtime after a hard day's work. Or we might say to ourselves that it's fine if we munch on donuts in the morning so long as we provide our kids with a healthier breakfast. It's acceptable for us to yell angrily at our spouse, but our kids better not back-talk to us.

Or, rather than the denial of our own inconsistency of standards, we may tend toward procrastination: we tell ourselves that we'll start being a better role model for our kids when they are a little older and when parenting has gotten "easier." Once they are a little older and our stress lessens (and our night-sleeping increases!), we'll be better able to pray consistently or to open our homes frequently to friends.

Of course, this is a struggle, and it is a mortification, an opportunity to die to the self and live for God. Self-improvement is always a challenge. Self-improvement in order to model to children is definitely a challenge. But it is also a necessity if we care about our children's growth in virtue and holiness. We all have bad days or particularly difficult situations which bring out our worst. But we simply can't purposely shirk our commitment to modeling behavior for our children. If we disregard that responsibility due to our own stresses and worries, they will imitate our behavior by also neglecting commitment to virtue and holiness in difficult times. Instead, we must embrace that responsibility to model behavior as a mortification, and a particularly difficult one at that, for it is one where we will often have to do things that we wouldn't otherwise choose, and because of that, we are almost certain to fail on a daily basis. Not only that, but we will see our own failures imitated by our children in a way that truly must humble us, for example, when we recognize our hurtful words coming from their mouths, or our lack of organization reflected in their own.

The second mistake can come when we do make an effort and yet realize the extent of our failure. It can become possible to despair of our many weaknesses and to be discouraged by our children's behavior, attributing their inconsistencies and problems to our own inadequacies. At times, our disappointment in ourselves may become a downward spiral from which we seek to escape, not by renewed effort but by complete avoidance of the task.

Rather than succumbing to these feelings, however, it is best to take pity on ourselves, to paraphrase St. Francis De Sales, we can say "Poor old heart, you fail so often!" Recognizing our failures needn't cause despair, but ought to lead us to hope. It gives us all the more reason to abandon ourselves to God, to rely more fully on God's guidance in our self-improvement and in our parenting. Acknowledging our failures and need for the grace of God is a mortification, a death to self and opportunity to live for God by embracing hope.

The pressure on parents to be the perfect model can often feel overwhelming. And yet, when we embrace our own constant task of growth in virtue and sanctity rather than shirking it for more immediate pleasures, we can live more fully for God as well as become good models for our children. Granted, we will often fail and witness our failures in the behavior of our children. But this too can become a valuable opportunity for death to self in order to live for God.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Enjoying the Consolations of Parenthood

I once had a confessor ask me if I was "mortifying" myself with respect to the beautiful weather. Given that the theme of this blog is parenting mortification, I obviously have given some thought to the topic of mortification. But I was still a bit surprised by his question, and I informed him right away that enjoying beautiful weather was one of the main perks of my job as a mom, and hence I had been indulging in the beautiful weather, not mortifying myself by avoiding it.

There are many mortifications involved in parenthood. So far I've only written on a few of them. But suffice it to say that in many ways, parenting is hard. It provides many challenges and a constant push for parents to die for themselves and live for God by serving their family. But let's be honest...most parents don't take on the parenthood endeavor with fantasies about sleep deprivation, having our possessions destroyed by children, getting insulted, and so on. Those mortifications are blessings because they draw us beyond selfishness to a happier and holier way of life...but they weren't our main aspirations when we became parents.

Mortifications are great, but on the other hand, there are also consolations of parenthood, and these too have the potential to draw us beyond selfishness. By consolations I mean those things for which parents hope before even  having children: snuggling with a newborn, seeing a child's first steps, comforting an injured child, listening to a toddler explanation, sharing fun activities, and yes, spending most of the day outside enjoying beautiful weather rather than cooped up in an office behind a desk.

It sometimes happens, however, that we parents let these consolations of parenting pass by without our notice. I know this from my own experience. Standing in front of me is a cute little toddler wanting a hug (who will only be this size for a tiny fraction of his life), but I'd rather get him out of the way so I can finish vacuuming. Sitting next to me at lunch is a beautiful and funny girl who will soon spend the bulk of her time in elementary school, but I'd really like to glance at the news headlines on my iPad. And here's my chance to listen to a little boy's reprise of a story I told him earlier in the day, but I really need to outline a blog post. And I'll get another chance tomorrow to enjoy his creative stories, right?

Occasionally it seems that it is easier to appreciate blessings when they come in the form of mortifications than in the form of consolations. Mortifications seem to require an active embrace. Consolations can be passively ignored or postponed.

Yet when we ignore or postpone the consolations of parenthood, we miss an important opportunity for gratitude. In our children, God has given us the most amazing gifts...little people who often look like us or talk like us. Little people who depend upon us and love us. Little people who seek our comfort and attention and affection. Little people with bright smiles, warm hugs, and funny remarks. If we can thank God for the challenges of parenting, we ought certainly to thank God for these consolations. Likewise, our gratitude should extend to the other benefits of parenthood, like having an excuse to be outside at a park on a nice day or getting to go sledding in the wintertime. There's also the joy of sharing our children with others, and seeing the delight on their faces as they appreciate the cuteness that we as parents so often take for granted. And then there's the wonderful consolation of sharing our hobbies (sports, music, fossil-hunting!) or favorite books, movies, and music with our kids. It's so fun to have children taking an interest in our interests! And one other great consolation is certainly that of sharing the faith with our children, sharing in their sacramental life through baptism and first communion.

These consolations truly are wonderful blessings that can help us to die to ourselves in order to live for God. We know that we have done nothing to "earn" our children, nor can we ever do more for them than has already been done for us by God. The experience of God's generosity in these consolations should temper the mortifications of parenthood, strengthening in us a sense of awe for God's goodness.

So let's not allow these consolations of parenthood to pass us by unnoticed. Take a moment to enjoy the snuggles, the warmth and cuddliness of children. Don't miss that funny story because you're worried about a household chore. Put down the phone and pick up your toddler and a favorite book. Admire your daughter's new roller skating skills. Spend less time criticizing and more time smiling. Worry less about your career and care more about how quickly childhood passes. Stop trying to capture the moment on a camera and instead store this memory in your heart.

Though parenting mortification is valuable, so also is parenting consolation. Both should bring us beyond our own narrow concerns and increase our gratitude for the blessings of parenthood, helping us to love God more each day and grow closer to God through our daily work as parents.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Rethinking the Physical Pain of Parenting

"Behind a locked door," pastel by artist Mark A. Hewitt, April 2012
The Easter season is always a good time to reflect on the Catholic Church's teaching regarding the resurrection of the body. The Catechism, in paragraph 997 states the following:

"In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible lives to our bodies, by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus' Resurrection."

So what exactly is a "glorified body"? Too often, I fear, we may associate a glorified body with a "perfect" body in accord with the current standards of health and beauty here on earth. Maybe we picture perfect symmetry, glossy hair, straight teeth, flawless skin, and just the right weight, with the perfect BMI.

And yet, one crucial point of emphasis in the resurrection narratives of Jesus is the presence of his wounds. Given the scourging at the pillar, the crown of thorns, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion, and the piercing of the lance, we can surmise that Jesus' body laid to rest in the tomb was in pretty bad physical shape, far from the ideal human figures we label as perfect. But even in his resurrection, Jesus retains the wounds of the cross -- maybe not every mark of the scourging, but at least the nail wounds from the cross, and the piercing in his side. That scriptural detail should challenge our conventional notion of the "perfect body."

The presence of Jesus' wounds in his resurrected body indicates perhaps that the beauty of the body comes from sacrifice made in the service of God. The service of God, lived out in a particular vocation, can certainly take a toll on the body. For example, anthropologist Dr. Susan Sheridan has been working to analyze the skeletons of 5th and 6th century Byzantine monks in Jerusalem. In an article in Notre Dame Magazine, Sheridan observes: “When we pulled the bones out we found the legs were really pathological.” In other words, biomechanical analysis indicated that the monks had knelt a lot; bones rubbed against bones at the knee, and the big toes fused as a response to repetitive stress. In other words, the monks' constant prayer left actual physical marks on their skeletons, marks that are still evident on their bones a millennium and a half later. If this is the condition of their bodies, what about their souls? For prayer in the service of God influences not just the body, but the soul as well.

These monks' skeletons can provide useful reflection for us parents who believe that the work we do as parents not only marks our bodies, but our souls as well. A biomechanical analysis of the skeletons of those who spent much time caring for children would probably show the signs of parenting, and particularly the physical pain of parenting. Perhaps one hip would be slightly lower than the other from constantly holding a babe. Or perhaps the spinal column would be compressed. There are also pains of parenting that wouldn't remain on our skeletons. Many of these caught me off guard when I became a parent. No one warned me about how much it hurts when a toddler throws back his head, connecting his skull with your nose. No one mentioned the pain of a kiddo using your hair as a rappelling aid. No one informed me that parenting would give me scratches and even bruises caused by my children. Nor did they emphasize how parenting can be bad for the back, especially with young children.

But like the 5th and 6th century Byzantine monks, these are physical pains of our vocation, lived out in service to God. In some sense, they are the wounds of Christ, which we willingly embrace in the same manner that he embraced his passion and death. The body is for loving, and sometimes loving others - such as our children - will leave marks on our body. But the physical pain of parenting is an opportunity for parenting mortification, an invitation to die to self and live for God. The glorified body is not the perfect body idolized by our society. The wounds on Christ's body are not imperfections, problems that stand in the way of beauty and ought to be healed. 

Many view the pains and physical imperfections that come along with parenting in a negative light. Parents who love and serve God on earth through their parenting may not have the "perfect" bodies according to our current conventional standards. Those bodies may not be thin or attractive. They may not be healthy or free of pain. They may not be strong or sturdy. Rather, those who love and serve God on earth will likely already suffer the physical consequences of this service.

Of course, there is something praiseworthy in trying to preserve our health so that we can love and serve God. We should try to take care of our bodies and aim for health in order to do God's will, particularly so that we can be good parents to our children. But physical health and the goal of long life for its own sake cannot be seen as ends in themselves. And in fact, even injury and illness are wonderful opportunities to love and serve God by offering that pain to God, uniting it with Christ's passion for the good of others in the world. Injury and illness may disfigure and weaken our bodies, but they can also increase the beauty of our souls, uniting us with the passion of Christ so as to share in his resurrection. 

The sacrifices of parenting indicate the continuity of our life on earth and in heaven, and hence those physical pains undertaken for God's work are rightly associated with the glorification of our bodies. If we are offering our daily work to God - whether or parenting or praying or teaching or cleaning or even suffering - then the physical blemishes we incur as a result bring us closer to perfection, not imperfection. They increase the beauty of our souls and help us move closer to that final glorified body.

So the next time you get kicked in the shin, scratched on the arm or hit in the head by a flying shoe, just remember that the physical pain of parenting is an opportunity to die to self and live for God...and that has eternal rewards.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On Failure and the Sacrament of Confession

By now it's probably obvious that I think parenting mortification is a great idea. Suddenly even things that seem bad - from sleep deprivation to a sick kid - can be viewed more positively, as opportunities for dying to self and living for God. Ideally, we parents who have embraced the daily sacrifices of parenting in this way would deal gracefully with each challenge that besets us, seeing every difficulty as a blessing that allows us to look beyond natural inconvenience to supernatural significance.

In reality, even those who embrace parenting mortification (or write a blog about it!) can fail in trying to live it out. It's wonderful to have thought about how to embrace particular problems of parenting, as well as discerning false crosses, and striving to find prayer to sustain ourselves spiritually in the midst of parenting. But let's face it, we all fail to embrace our crosses (parenting-related or otherwise) at some point. Sometimes that failure is partly the result of difficult circumstances. But at other times that rejection of the cross is an embrace of the self, whether purposeful or caused by a lack of recollection, examination, and reflection.

There are times that we not only fail to bear cheerfully with our burdens, but in addition to losing that opportunity, we also sin by complaining bitterly about them, taking out our frustration by yelling angrily at our kids or spouse, and then staying up too late consoling ourselves with ice cream and a novel. At times this can even become a cycle, since staying up late can make us tired the next day and impatient and perhaps needy for affirmation, which doesn't always come on demand from our children. Like defiant little kids, we may recognize that we've done something wrong but respond to it indignantly, behaving even worse than before and making angry excuses for ourselves.

Of course, that doesn't solve the problem or ultimately make us feel any better about the sins we commit toward others, including our children. Like those defiant little kids, what we really want is forgiveness, a merciful embrace that affirms us and our efforts, eases our burdens, erases our sins, and gives us the strength to try again.

Such an aid is readily available to us in the sacrament of confession.

Here are a few ideas for dealing with the failure of parenting mortification and the sin that may accompany it. At the moment when you catch yourself, mid-sarcastic remark or mid-yell or mid-complaint (or even post-sarcastic remark, etc.) try to stop immediately and recollect yourself. Calm down. Admit to yourself you could handle this better. If you still feel ill at ease, say an Act of Contrition. You can even say it multiple times. Make a mental note of the sin to remember it later. Now, move on. Get up and try again.

Before you go to bed, make an effort to do a good examination of conscience where you identify those sins from earlier in the day, and say another Act of Contrition. If you do this every night, you may begin to identify patterns or name particular difficulties with which you really struggle. Maybe it's yelling or being distracted by your iPhone or spending more time cleaning than interacting with your kids or not being kind enough to your spouse at the end of the day.

So the next step is to go to confession, and bring those sins with you. Then, leave them in the confessional. And begin again.

When you sin again, confess again, and try again.

You may not see any progress being made. You may feel like you are struggling with the same sins each week. But with regular (weekly, monthly) practice of the sacrament of confession and effort strengthened with God's grace, you will improve. You will get better at embracing parenting mortification. You will even get better at getting up again after a failure. Grace can do that, meeting us where we are and raising us beyond where our natural abilities would leave us.

Unfortunately, many Catholics have had poor experiences of the sacrament of confession. I can count myself among them. But it would be a mistake to forego the sacrament just because of one, or two, or more bad experiences, especially since this sacrament is such a help for parents who seek to embrace the mortifications of parenthood. So here are a few tips to make the most of the sacrament.

1. Prepare yourself well. Frequent examinations of conscience allow you to "have your sin always before you" so that you are able to make a good confession. Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help you receive the sacrament well. If you get tongue-tied or nervous, you may want to jot down your sins on a piece of paper.

2. Go regularly to the sacrament. The Catholic Church prescribes a minimum of annual use of the sacrament of confession. But if we really view it as an opportunity for grace that will strengthen us in the difficult tasks of parenting, it will be hard to make such little use of the sacrament. Monthly or weekly use of the sacrament forms us in the habit of identifying our sins, confessing them, seeking to amend for them, and trying to avoid them in the future. The grace of the sacrament aids us in these struggles.

3. Find a good confessor. This may be a difficult task, but it makes a huge difference. Finding a good confessor can take resourcefulness and perseverance. You may have just have to try out various parishes or you may be able to ask around to see if your good Catholic friends have recommendations. You may have to pray for God to send you someone, and you may have to be patient. During this time, try to focus on the efficacy of the sacrament. Even if your confessor doesn't seem to understand you or your situation and hence gives you what you consider bad advice (or excuses your sins, saying they aren't really sins), so long as he absolves you, you are receiving grace. God will continue to help and strengthen you in your struggles against sin regardless of the skill or demeanor of the priest who hears your confession.

4. Employ a particular, as well as a general examination of conscience. In other words, pick one particular sin to address. When you confess your sins, you'll likely have a few areas of struggle, but identifying one issue to focus on can really help you make progress. For example, you may be especially prone to yelling angrily at your children when you are trying to rush them out the door in the morning. Or you may realize that you are not as affectionate to one of your children as you are to the others. You may not be communicating effectively with your spouse regarding your schedule, and then blaming him when he fails to adhere to that schedule. Of course we need to try to avoid all sin, but it can be overwhelming to work on all our weaknesses at once. So a simple resolution concerning one particular struggle can be truly beneficial in aiding us to chip away at patterns of sin in our lives. By "simple" resolution, I mean something like, smile in the morning and embrace the kids the first time you see them for the day. Or get out of bed earlier so that you can slow down the morning rush. Or check in weekly with your spouse concerning the family agenda. Try to end each day with an examination of conscience and Act of Contrition.

5. Provide some background. Before you find a regular confessor, or for those times when you go to confession to someone other than your regular confessor, it is helpful for the priest if you provide some information about yourself, e.g. "I am a married father of four young children, employed as an accountant at a manufacturing company." You may mention your particular resolution, "In the past week, I've been working especially on trying to be affectionate to my oldest son, who has been going through a very obstinate phase. I think I made progress on that early in the week, but I became so frustrated with him yesterday in the evening that I didn't even tell him goodnight when he went to bed." Such context about your state of life and your past sin struggles and resolutions may prevent the confessor from misinterpreting or undermining your confession. Also, it is OK to challenge the priest if you feel he is too easily dismissing your sins. Something akin to, "Father, I respect your opinion but I don't think you understand my situation. I didn't come here for a psychological back-pat; I want you to trust my examination of conscience and absolve the sins I've identified."

6. Don't give up if you have a bad experience. This is a sacrament, after all, and is an important source of grace, whether you "feel" it to be helpful or not.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Taking Kids to Mass: Making a Mortification a Mortification

(Stained glass at Assumption Parish, Roselle Park NJ
Photo credit: Jeremy Feilmeyer) 

Perhaps you remember what it was like to attend Mass before you had young children in the pew with you. Actually, I'm having a hard time recalling the experience. But I can sort of imagine what it would be like - sitting quietly, perhaps following along with the readings and prayers in a missal, and participating fully in the liturgical words and gestures of the Mass.

Once a child enters the scene, however, Sunday Mass can become a real challenge. Initially there are unpredictable newborn cries and dirty diapers to address. Soon follows mobile children who refuse to sit still and prefer to crawl under kneelers and escape to different pews. One of my toddlers loved to pick gum off the bottom of seats. Then babies start walking and are even less willing to sit still. And of course, it's at about that point that they also begin to talk (or yell) clearly. "ALL DONE MASS!!!" cried one of my toddlers...during the Eucharistic prayer. Once there are two or more kids in the pew, the sibling squabbles erupt - who gets to sit next to Mom, who gets held by Dad, who gets to put in the tithing envelope, etc. When kids get older, and parental expectations for Mass participation increase, that can also become a point of tension.

Of course, there are also times when our kids seem to be paying attention to what's going on, even interacting. Like when my daughter lifted up her dress to show Jesus her belly button. Or when she spotted our pastor walking into the sacristy in his cassock and yelled, "Fr. Jim is still wearing his nightgown!"

For some reason, of all the challenges of parenting, this experience of attending Sunday Mass with young children can be particularly demoralizing for those of us who are good Catholic parents trying to raise good Catholic children. I think there are several explanations for this. First, it is hard to go from recollected prayer at Mass to non-stop squirmy-kid-wrestling. It's difficult to give up the peace and contemplation that accords so well with participating in the Mass.

Second, the Mass situation is so public. Of course kids can embarrass parents in lots of public situations. But for those of us who prefer not to be humiliated by active, loud children, we tend to avoid taking them to opera houses, movies, and fancy restaurants. The ability to behave in a certain way is expected at such places, and, as a matter of fact, that still, quiet behavior is also expected in church... which is why it bothers us so much when our kids don't conform to that norm.

Third, given that expectation for calm, quiet behavior in a church, it is easy to feel judged by the people around us. We know that they are trying to pray. We know that screaming, jumping kids can be a distraction for people trying to pray...we know this from experience because it often distracts us from our prayer. Perhaps it's just parental paranoia, but I'm quite confident it's not - on the basis of angry glares I've received through my years of taking kids to Mass.

Our kids' childlike behavior at Mass can be difficult and embarrassing. We might even say we're mortified by their behavior. So, how can we change this mortification (embarrassment) into a mortification (death to self to live for God)? Here are a few ideas.

Let's remember why we're doing it. This is a part of our vocation to marriage. We are raising children in the faith. One of the key obligations of the faith is attending Mass. Therefore, we take our kids to Mass because we are supposed to do it. Like many aspects of parenting, it's challenging.

This situation bears similarity to others I've discussed on this blog. Being deprived of regular sleep, having our stuff destroyed, getting insulted by our children - these are all difficulties that can become opportunities. Yes, we are called to take our children to Mass. Yes, they will (hopefully only occasionally) embarrass or humiliate us. Knowing this, we should look at each Sunday Mass as an opportunity to die to self, and to live to God. We'd prefer to sit still, but we can't. We'd prefer to hold a missal, but instead we hold a toddler. We'd prefer to join in the singing, but we can't balance the book and babe. We'd prefer reflective silence, but instead we hear sibling fights. We'd prefer to appear dressed for the occasion, but instead our main Sunday outfit trademarks are mucus streaks and mussed up hair. We'd prefer to go unnoticed, but instead a hundred eyes are turned in our direction. In short, for parents, even Sunday Mass is an opportunity NOT to do what we want, but to do what God wants us to do in the situation we've been given...to pray amid screams and smells and glares from fellow parishioners. In short, to offer it up as a prayer. "Lord, this isn't how I would have chosen to celebrate Sunday Mass, but I embrace it cheerfully because it is what you have chosen for me. Thank you." And really, I think God smiles on any attempts to pray given the level of difficulty in the situations described above.

Lastly, about being embarrassed. It stinks, doesn't it? Before having young children in the pew with us, we were so... normal. Sure, many people - priests included - will commend us for bringing our children to Mass. They'll compliment our perseverance and our children's appearances or supposedly good behavior. But they'll also notice when you have to take your daughter to the bathroom during the Gloria for the ninth week in a row or when you have to retrieve a toy thrown three pews forward.

And then, also in the mystical body of Christ present at our local Masses will be some who don't approve of our decision to bring our loud, active children to church. They'll be disappointed in the distraction or unhappy in our apparent lack of discipline. They will make us feel judged and unwelcome. And it's a natural tendency to turn that judgment around - to dislike not only their glares, but to dislike them as well, perhaps to view them as enemies. As if taking a family to Sunday Mass isn't already difficult enough...now we have to endure the silent criticisms of people around us.

So here's another opportunity to say humbly: "These people don't annoy me. These people sanctify me. I offer my difficulty for them and love them even if my children annoy them." If we can endure humiliation, embarrassment and judgment with the same meekness in attitude as that of our Lord and Savior when he endured humiliation, embarrassment and judgment during his passion and death on the cross, then we will grow spiritually, benefiting not only ourselves, but also the entire Church, including those people who find our children to be distracting.


Lest anyone clicked on this post hoping for some tips on how to get your kids to behave at Mass, here are a few ideas in that vein. Some of them sometimes work for some of my kids at some Masses. Ahem.

1. Talk to your kids' guardian angels. The main task of guardian angels is to provide spiritual guidance, so ask your kids' guardian angels to assist you in helping your kids to worship. Teamwork.
2. If you have a VERY active child (in my experience, the most difficult is new walker to 20 months), consider attending a Mass that is begins near the start of his naptime, and get him to nap during Mass.
3. Alternately, consider attending an early Mass, before your kids start to get too cranky. Another benefit of this is that no matter how badly it goes, it's all over by 9:00 a.m. Beware that these Masses generally don't have many children in attendance. That can work for you - everyone loves your kids because they are the only ones there! Or it can work against you - everyone dislikes your kids because they are the only ones there, where they apparently should not be.
4. Another idea is to attend a kid-focused Mass, perhaps one where they take the kids out for the Liturgy of the Word or at least where there are many children present in Church, making it difficult for everyone to know that it's actually your kids doing the screaming.
5. In times of desperation, consider your spouse and you attending different Masses. When my husband injured his back and I was eight months pregnant, neither one of us could hold our 25 pound toddler for the entirety of Mass and he insisted upon it. The best alternative in the situation was attending separate services. Another solution to a problem like this is hiring a baby-sitter for an hour.
6. If you find yourself plagued by sibling squabbles, consider having you and your spouse sit in separate parts of the church at the same Mass, dividing up the kids who fight the most.
7. Talk to your kids about Mass outside of Mass. Try to explain to them the significance, what's going on, etc. Sometimes it's ok to talk (whisper) to your kids during Mass, to direct their attention to important things, e.g. the elevation of the host.
8. In addition to Sunday Mass with your children, arrange to attend daily Mass without your children. This can help renew you spiritually when Sunday Mass is feeling like more of a trial than a prayer.
9. Make sure your children are well fed before you get to church. Try to get them to go to the bathroom before you get to church. Perhaps bring a small toy or activity book.
10. Offer rewards for good behavior. Be concrete. It can't just be "good" behavior, but "If you stay in the pew the whole Mass" or "If you don't have any fights with your sister" or "If you use only use your whisper-voice" or something in that vein. For kids old enough to understand consequences, it may also work to remove them from the church if they are misbehaving, and give them a time out in the church basement.
11. Make Sundays really special for your kids. Let them know it's the most important day of the week by doing stuff that's out of the ordinary routine - different food, different activities, etc. Try to avoid their primary association with Sunday Mass being really upset and angry parents.
12. Offer it up! See above. Sometimes parental attitude adjustment really does make a difference. It's easy to be anxious and on edge when you feel like you're being judged or humiliated. Once you embrace that as permitted by God's will for your sanctification, it's easier to relax and kids seem to sense your peace and calm down.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

On God's Team: When Your Children Seem to Be Working Against You

Photo: Not your usual bath photo...just got R dressed for bed, trying to get P dressed...but the bedroom and bathroom doors were both left open. I was ten seconds too late.
(I didn't ask my son to get in the tub in his pajamas. It just happened.)

It’s not unusual for parents to learn new things about themselves when they become parents. If you’re like me, many of these revelations are negative. You may have never struggled much with anger, but faced with a toddler and an empty ketchup bottle (contents on the floor), you realize that your face is about the same shade as the ketchup and that you are about to explode like it did when you inadvertently stepped on the misplaced bottle.

You may have thought you were the self-giving type, ready to make any sacrifice possible for your kids, until that third night in a row dealing with a screaming, crying baby suffering from an ear infection.

You may have pictured a harmonious household, compliant children bustling about assisting with chores and then snuggling up with you on the couch for some quiet reading time or fun family game time. Now however, brief moments such as these seem to do little to assuage the constant sibling squabbles, defiant protests against almost anything, and, of course, the non-stop messes that young children and even older children are so astute at making.

At times, you may feel like your kids are simply working against you. You have great goals for them – for their education, for their exercise, for their recreation, for their social lives, and above all for their sanctity. But they seem oblivious to these goals and frankly uninterested. Developing virtue isn’t top on their list of things to do today, nor is playing quietly while you make dinner.

It’s easy to get frustrated when your expectations for your children’s behavior or for you own parenting skills aren’t fulfilled the way you hoped. Your kids may even appear to you as a near occasion of sin, detracting from your sanctity rather than leading you toward holiness.

If you should ever feel like this, take a step back, Jack! Take a moment to reflect on what it means to be on God’s team and how you and your spouse are right now training your children to contribute to God’s team.

First, assess the situation. How many of you are on this team anyway? Take your family size, e.g. six total, and then double it, e.g. 12. Right, so with a family of six people, the team consists of at least 12, when we count our guardian angels…as well we should. If your spouse is gone at the moment, leaving you home with four kids, then there are 10 present, and you know (if you’re on God’s team) that at least six of those present are working together. Six vs. four. You + five angels vs. four little children. The odds are clearly in your favor.

Now, about those “vs. four.” Is there any way to re-narrate their actions such that even the meanest insults and purposeful destruction of property can actually be a cause for an increase in your holiness? Of course, my answer is yes. That’s what parenting mortification is all about: being willing to embrace those challenges as a way to die to yourself and live for God. Yes, your son is actively and knowingly breaking a house rule by munching on pita chips behind the rocking chair in the living room. He may even be purposely antagonizing you by this action.

But it doesn’t follow that HIS behavior must cause YOU to sin. Even if he thinks he’s working against you, you can see his action as a frustration to embrace and a learning opportunity for both of you. It’s not what you want – a mess on the carpet behind the chair, a disobedient toddler trying to spite you – but it’s what God has given you at this moment. So you can thank God for reminding you of your lack of control and God’s ultimate control, and score one point for the team. You can score another point for God’s team when you don’t yell or spank or mutter a sarcastic comment, but rather deal with the situation calmly, enlisting the help of both your and his guardian angels. Say to yourself and to all angels present, “This child is not antagonizing me. This child is sanctifying me.”

So, after all this, you’ll see that what seemed to be your kid’s detracting from your holiness and the harmony of the household has actually contributed to it, at least supernaturally, if not naturally. On God’s team, we make mistakes – we sin – but we also seek forgiveness from God and each other. And so long as we don’t give up the struggle, we can’t help but win, especially since Christ has ultimately already won the victory for us and will always give us the grace we need to persevere in our own struggles for our sanctity and our children’s.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Prayer that Makes it Work: Voluntary Mortifications

Photo Credit: Damian Gadal
Lent is rapidly approaching, and hence it is that time of the year where we try to think about what we can offer as a penance during these 40 days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. One of the premises of parenting mortification is that parenting is a blessing because it offers so many opportunities for involuntary mortification. Parents undergo all sorts of difficulties that they would never choose for themselves, but in embracing these challenges, the mortifications become an opportunity to die to self and to live for God, uniting parental suffering or inconvenience with the passion of Christ.

Voluntary mortifications are different from parenting mortifications because, well, they are voluntary! And yet at the same time, voluntary mortifications like those commonly practiced during Lent, are an important training opportunity for parents who strive to embrace the involuntary mortifications that come with parenting.

Prior to the Lent of 1967, Catholics in the United States participated in daily Lenten fasting as their primary penance for the Lenten season. Yes, you read that correctly, Catholics fasted on every day of Lent (excluding Sundays and solemnities). This obligatory fasting has now been reduced to two days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Those of us (myself included) who struggle to maintain the fast on those two days may wonder how Catholics ever managed to fast every day of Lent. I suggest two possible explanations.

First, Catholics were much more used to these kinds of mortifications. In addition to the season of Lent, Catholics were required to fast before such big feasts as Christmas and the Immaculate Conception. They fasted an additional four times during the year in three day periods known as Ember Days. They abstained from meat on all Fridays THROUGHOUT the year. Additionally, Catholics were urged to accept and embrace the difficulties of their lives as mortification. In other words, Catholics were trained in the practice of mortification. This is not to say that Lenten fasting came easy, but rather that it didn't come as a surprise. Such sacrifice was simply regarded as a part of the faith. Lent wasn't an isolated season of penance, but merely a heightened season of penance.

The second explanation for how Catholics were able to maintain the fast for all of Lent is rooted in the social nature of the practice of daily Lenten fasting. Every Catholic (aside from a few exceptions with dispensations) was obliged to fast, and so the entire Church fasted together. Rather than being an instance of individual will-power, Lent was a testament to the notion of mutual support and the benefit of social practice.

It is with these two points in mind that we ought to consider our voluntary penances for this upcoming season of Lent, and to view them in relation to the goal of parenting mortification. On the one hand, it may seem that parenting in and of itself provides plenty of penitential sacrifice...why commit to anything else?

In fact, the voluntary mortifications of Lenten resolutions have the potential to assist us in the endeavor of parenting mortification. We give up something we like or we add something (prayer, works of mercy) to our schedule as a penance, which reminds us of our sin and need for God's grace. No Lenten resolution can really make up for our sin, but God accepts any sacrifice that we do because the difference has already been made up through Christ's death on the cross. These daily Lenten sacrifices are akin to the daily sacrifices associated with parenting. If we train ourselves to make little voluntary sacrifices, e.g. no sugar in our coffee, going to bed on time, giving up chocolate, we are also training ourselves to make involuntary sacrifices as well. The opposite may also be true. That is, the better we become at parenting mortification, the better we can become at voluntary mortifications like our Lenten penances. Whether voluntary or voluntary, these mortifications are opportunities to die to self and live for God, growing closer to God and depending upon his grace. They should be mutually strengthening.

Next, it is important to remember the social nature of Lenten penance. Admittedly Lenten resolutions in the U.S. now tend to be a hodgepodge of sacrifices, ranging from giving up Diet Coke to writing a letter once a week. On the one hand, this lack of social support may make it more difficult to keep our resolution, and on the other hand, if we keep it well, it may make us prideful. For this reason, it is good to undertake the season of Lent with the knowledge that, even if it doesn't feel like it, Lenten penance is something we are doing together as a Church. To reinforce this, it can be helpful to try to do Lenten penances in a group. Maybe your family could decide to go meatless for Lent or you and your spouse together give up sweets. Sometimes friends or even parishes can commit to certain things, such as meeting to pray the Stations of the Cross or replenishing the parish food pantry by spending less on your own food. Penance is not intrinsically an individualistic practice, but a social one. We do penance as an act of the People of God, the mystical body of Christ, the Church.

And this is a great reminder for parenting mortification as well. Whenever we undertake the sacrifices of parenting - whether cleaning up vomit, changing a diaper, doing another load of laundry, or reading the same board book for the fortieth time - we are benefiting the Church as a whole, offering a prayer on her behalf for the world. It's true that no one may see us making these sacrifices. No one at the parish will know about them. And parenting can at times feel lonely or isolating. However, if we can make sacrifices generously, we can offer these mortifications as prayers for those in need, whether for people we know who are sick, suffering, lonely, poor or perhaps for all those around the world suffering from hunger or in the midst of political unrest. In so doing, we are connected immediately, involved in that mystical body.

Whether it is the voluntary penances of Lent or the involuntary mortifications of parenting, we are called to a conversion away from the self. We inconvenience ourselves purposely and we accept the inconveniences of parenting because this is what's best for us: to die to ourselves, to live for God, to benefit others, to embrace the cross of Christ with joy and to open ourselves to that grace given so generously to us.