A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Insults of an Enemy...From the Lips of Your Child

Babies are so cute, aren't they? So lovable and huggable...so cuddly and warm. They depend on you and they seem to know it and love you for it. They smile in appreciation when they're happy or throw little screaming baby tantrums when they don't get what they want.

Then they start to talk.

I'll never forget the first time my daughter yelled at me "I hate you! I just want you to die!" and then slammed her bedroom door in my face. Unfortunately, it was not the last time her harsh words would break my heart.

As children get older, the insults become more specific and often more hurtful. Unless you're perfect (and you probably aren't), they pick up on your failings and like to bring them to your attention frequently. Sometimes it's like they don't even realize that you are an actual person, who has actual feelings that can actually be hurt. Other times it's like they totally realize that you are an actual person and their only satisfaction in life is to hurt your feelings.

And it's so wrong. You know that. You know that they shouldn't be so disrespectful. "Honor your father and mother," after all, is one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12). Besides that, you gave them life. You have provided for all their needs. You have made numerous sacrifices for them. And this is what you get? It makes sense that you are sad, angry, disappointed.

But, on the other hand, what a great opportunity for parenting mortification! Many great saints underwent insults of this kind and worse; many relished the humiliation! And let's be honest, if you generally move about in polite, friendly, respectful adult company, you're highly unlikely to get this kind of face-to-face disparagement from anyone else. You certainly wouldn't seek out such censure! So, how to let this become an opportunity to die to self and live for God?

First, recollect yourself. Take a moment to calm down and think before you respond. Acknowledge mentally that your child is wrong to address you in this way. The child is being disrespectful and should not be talking to you in this way.

Secondly, admit to yourself that you have done something at some point in your life that deserves harsh words. Perhaps you have spoken in a similarly disrespectful way to your parents at some point, or maybe you have been sarcastic with your spouse in a hurtful manner. Maybe there are larger sins that somehow escaped the notice and criticism of others. Spiritually embrace the harsh words, accepting them as a penance; you deserve worse than this for the sins of all your life. Offer these insults of an enemy from the lips of your child as a prayer. Thank God that you've been given this opportunity to grow in holiness.

Third, do NOT engage your child in the hurtful-word-game. The satisfaction of playing that game well is a fleeting pleasure. And it sets a bad example. Play a different game. The "end-it-kindly-game." I'm a competitive person, so it really does help me to think of it as a game, where I'm competing to be the calmest, most mature, kindest, humblest competitor who can take any abuse and STILL respond kindly. Think of Jesus' humiliation during his passion! Think of the saints who have gone through this! You can do it too!

So, fourth, END IT. Try, "I'm happy to talk to you if you'd like to speak respectfully. Until you're ready for that, feel free to _______ (e.g. read in your bedroom, play in the playroom)." Another good line, borrowed from Love and Logic, is simply "I love you too much to argue." I've found that this sentence as a response to whatever comes next, and what comes after that, and after that, and after that, and after that, will finally end a conversation. If you succeed at patience and kindness, you'll also be a great model for your children.

Fifth, when your child has calmed down (and it might take awhile!), share your hurt feelings without beginning a fight and talk about how to prevent arguments like this in the future. Compliment the child on expressing his feelings verbally, but encourage him to work on doing it in a calmer, kinder, empathetic manner.

Lastly, take a moment to reflect on your child's behavior and the ways that you or your spouse might be modeling this kind of problematic communication by your conversations with each other. If you recognize a bit of yourself in your child's tirades, this is an important step in the growth process. You may need to work on this. And if you find yourself failing to be respectful to your spouse or your kids in your communications with them, don't despair. Make amends clearly and in front of your kids; apologize and acknowledge that you are making an effort and that it takes time. The humility required for this step can be its own mortification.

The insults of a child can be one of the most frustrating experiences of parenthood. Don't let those insults become causes for your own sin, but rather, let them become contributions toward your sanctity.

Monday, January 20, 2014

On Sleep Deprivation

Ever since I became a parent, I've been particularly struck by the way the Desert Fathers - those early Christians who lived extreme ascetical lives in the desert - embraced sleep deprivation as a spiritual practice. And indeed, I think it is a good idea to be a hermit in the desert if one of your key spiritual practices is sleep deprivation. Because, let's be honest, without adequate sleep it can be very hard to interact patiently and kindly with other people, even (gasp!) if those people are your children or even more so perhaps (gasp! gasp!) your spouse.

And yet, those of us aware of Catholic tradition cannot deny the fact that sleep deprivation or sleep interruption are a part of our history. Aside from the Desert Fathers, we also have the example of religious communities who interrupt their sleep to pray during the night hours. Then there is also long-standing traditions of vigil and midnight Masses that are truly vigils lasting until the next morning.

I've jokingly suggested in the past that maybe the origin for those night hours of prayer came from the knowledge of the lives of parents and a desire to match those sacrifices.

The truth is that parenting involves a 24 hour on-call shift, pretty much seven days a week. My first ever all-nighter was the 5:40 a.m. birth of our first child, and we've been on call ever since. Nor was that first night the last time that being a parent caused sleep deprivation. It is easy to list possible causes of parental sleep deprivation, beginning with the nighttime care required by a newborn. Then there's changing a toddler's wet bed sheets or hearing a five-year old fall out of bed. Later on, there's lying awake in bed waiting for a teenager to come home. And, as a final example, there's that rare (although not rare enough) combination of vomit and sleep deprivation (St. Anthony of the Desert would be envious!).

Sleep deprivation is a real mortification, a genuine death to self that can become an opportunity to grow closer to God, uniting our own struggles to the passion of Jesus Christ. And this is why the Desert Fathers embraced it. That nighttime opportunity to praise God is why the monks rose out of bed in the darkness to shuffle into the chapel and chant psalms.

Of course, for the Desert Fathers and these monks, this was an active mortification; a sacrifice that they knowingly and willingly made and embraced in following their vocation. For those of us who are parents, we often find ourselves unwillingly thrust into situations of sleep deprivation. For example, exhausted at the end of a long day, you drift off to sleep quickly...then wake at the sound of a crying baby at midnight, who you pick up just in time for him to vomit on you...and then, after cleaning up yourself and the baby, and possibly the crib you finally drift off to sleep again...only to be awakened by your husband informing you that your toddler has just vomited on her bed...and then your kids all wake up promptly at 6:00 a.m. as usual, begging you to get out of bed to make them breakfast...after mumbling something incoherent you stumble out of bed, stepping barefoot onto a misplaced toy car...making you angrily snap at whoever is near you. And you wonder when you signed up for this part of parenting and if there's any possible way to revise the contract.

Well, there isn't. So another approach is like that of the Desert Fathers - we can embrace it as part of our vocation. Fortunately, for us it's not an active mortification; we're not purposely depriving  ourselves of sleep on a regular basis. Sometimes we may even sleep all night uninterrupted - hooray! But when our sleep is interrupted, we may as well make the best of it spiritually and accept it as a passive (involuntary) mortification.

Here are a few ideas that might help:
1. First, get to bed at a decent hour. If you hit a rough patch of nighttime parenting, you may need to cut out your relaxation/social time in the evening and turn off your lights an hour earlier than usual. Sometimes this is the hardest part, but it is crucial preparation for making sleep deprivation spiritually meaningful rather than the natural cause of anger and occasion for sin.

2. Say a Night Offering, so as to offer all of your nighttime parenting to God and prepare yourself for the possibility that you will be awakened that night.

3. Use nighttime wakefulness as an opportunity for prayer. If you aren't coherent enough to think of much, it may help to repeat some memorized prayers. The Memorare is a good one because it enlists the help of the Virgin Mary. So also, you might turn to the Rosary. If you are feeling more penitential, you could recite an Act of Contrition or Psalm 51 repeatedly. And of course, there's always the sturdy "station," that is, an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be.

4. Enlist the help of your spouse when necessary. Have clear expectations as to who is responsible for what, e.g. one gets up during the night, one gets up with the kids in the morning.

5. Do your best to try to rest when you get the chance during the day. If you're feeling sleep deprived, avoid taking on overwhelming projects or tasks. Pray for supernatural rest and patience with your kids and others around you. Remember that this stage of parenting is temporary.

6. If there's a sleep deprivation pattern akin to that practiced by the Desert Fathers, do an evaluation of the situation so as to address the problem before you end up sneaking off to the desert and becoming a hermit simply so you can get some shut-eye in your private cave. If the situation is caused by babies or toddlers, I suggest Elizabeth Pantley's No Cry Sleep Solution books.

Jesus was awake all night in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his passion. He prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done" (Lk 22:42). So we might also think of him and not be afraid to ask God to remove the cup of sleep deprivation. But if that doesn't happen as we would like, we might as well sanctify our night hours, rather than miss an opportunity to grow closer to God.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Prayer that Makes it Work: Aspirations









Not so long ago, one of my children went through a phase that involved wanting constant reassurance of my presence. The dialogue above was common, even when I was clearly in sight, e.g. sitting directly in front of her while driving the van. At times I made it into a little competition for myself to see if I could outlast her, responding to the point that she finally gave up. At other times I angrily erupted, "IF YOU DON'T HAVE ANYTHING TO ASK ME OR TELL ME COULD YOU PLEASE STOP SAYING 'MOMMY!'!!!!"

Though this dialogue isn't as common now as it once was, I find that my kids still like to know where I am and what I'm doing when we're at home together. On one occasion when I was "lost" in the house (downstairs, changing a load of laundry), I found a daughter frantically searching for me and crying. In my experience, my kids can lose sight of me for awhile and play happily, but at some point they'll want to check in with me and make sure I'm still there.

So also, the Christian life involves always keeping God in sight, remembering that God is there throughout the day, regardless of what you're doing. For parenting mortification, this is particularly important. If we want to die to self and live for God, it will take a lot of help and reminders of the presence of God. One traditional method of keeping in touch with God is prayers of aspiration. The root of that word "aspiration" means breathing, and, in fact, prayers of aspiration should be kind of like breathing - constant and almost unnoticed, but certainly not insignificant.

St. Francis deSales devotes Chapter 13 of Part 2 of Introduction to the Devout Life to this topic. DeSales notes that this kind of prayer is not a difficult practice: "it may be interwoven with all our duties and occupations, without hindering any." And perhaps this is why aspirations are so key for parenting mortification. Our prayer opportunities before having children may have been more diverse; it was easier to make it to an hour of Eucharistic adoration or pray the complete Divine Office. Maybe extended lectio divina meditation or long Rosary walks were favorites. With the presence of kids, however, fitting in these spiritual practices in a typical day can be much more challenging. But aspirations, on the other hand, are just as easy to do with kids as without, with a packed schedule or with a more relaxed schedule. Praying aspirations does not require going anywhere, sitting still, looking at a book, or holding prayer beads. This prayer can be done anytime (yes, including the middle of the night) and any place (park and office both included!).

Aspirations are not unlike the dialogue that began this post. Again, deSales writes "...those who love God cannot cease thinking of Him, living for Him, longing after Him, speaking of Him." Like little children who want constant reassurance of their parents, we use aspirations to stay in constant touch with God. Such prayers may be quite short and arise spontaneously in distress: "Please, God!" or "Help me be patient!" At other times, these prayers may express something more particular: "Jesus, I trust in you!" is a good one for times of anxiety. Sometimes these prayers may be liturgically inspired: "Come, Lord Jesus" (Advent) or "Alleluia!" (Easter) or "Oh, dear Jesus, make my heart like yours!" (month of June). If we have a particular intention, our aspirations may focus on that specific prayer, with constant petitions throughout the day.

Bearing cheerfully with the struggles of parenting works best when we realize that we're not in it alone - that we have the constant support of God. The work we do - in the home with children, as well as our professional work - is not simply about us but has significance beyond the natural level. Aspirations enable us to be reminded of that throughout our day. DeSales states that this prayer "can supply all other deficiencies, but there is hardly any means of making up where this is lacking. Without it no one can lead a true contemplative life, and the active life will be imperfect where it is omitted: without it rest is but indolence, labour but weariness..."

So if you feel like your prayer life has taken a hit since you became a parent, aspirations might be a good way to reinvigorate it. They don't take any extra set-aside time. You can say them when you get out of the shower, walk down the stairs, get the mail, change a diaper, start your car, pour your coffee, tie your shoe, tie your kid's shoe... and this constant contact with God can be a source of help or comfort when you encounter the less pleasant aspects of parenting.

Friday, January 10, 2014

On False Crosses and the Inconveniences of Parenthood

In years past, the word "mortification" was sometimes used in a harsh or unsympathetic way. "Offer it up!" is an exclamation that can be used in a supportive way or critically. To offer it up simply means to take a challenge or suffering and to offer it to God as a prayer. It is a powerful way of uniting our difficulties to the passion of Christ and growing closer to our Lord through it. As I've mentioned before, the vocation of marriage and parenthood can provide wonderful opportunities for mortification, dying to self so as to live for Christ, loving God and those around us. Parenting involves numerous challenges; offering these difficulties to God assures that they will not be wasted.

The suffering involved in parenting mortification, however, can be misunderstood. As I mentioned above, "Offer it up!" can be used kindly as a way to encourage others, or it can be used unsympathetically in order to cut off someone's complaining. When it comes to parenting mortification, we have to be careful in discerning true crosses from the false crosses, that is, the crosses that we set up for ourselves. We shouldn't solve every parenting problem by telling ourselves unsympathetically that we simply need to offer it up.

This is significant because as parents we already have numerous struggles or inconveniences that truly are involuntary, e.g. the daughter who is diagnosed with a chronic health condition such as asthma, the son who just learned to open the backdoor and has temporarily escaped, or the baby who needs a diaper change. These are opportunities for mortification. If we embrace these challenges willingly and with generosity, though we'd genuinely prefer to have avoided them, then we can grow closer to God.

On the other hand, there are some mortifications that we set up for ourselves by insufficient parenting or by problems in our attitude. These are the false crosses that we ought to avoid such that we can concentrate on the crosses given to us and embrace them cheerfully. It's not always easy to tell the difference between a false cross and a true cross when it comes to the inconveniences of parenthood, and that is why it is worthwhile to reflect on these difficulties frequently.

There are numerous examples of false crosses that I could mention. Have you ever been tired and cross with your children? Was this because the baby was teething and kept you up all night? Or was it because you kept yourself up past midnight catching up on Facebook or finishing a novel or watching a movie? Regardless of the circumstance, you can offer up the tiredness and frustration as a prayer to God... but if you are perpetually tired and cranky with your kids because of your own lack of discipline in getting to bed at a decent hour, then you are setting up a false cross for yourself.

Have you had a particularly difficult week disciplining your child? Was it because she is having problems at school and feeling stressed about keeping up on her homework? Or was it because you were too busy chatting with your sister on the phone to notice that he was drawing all over the wall in an attempt to get your attention? Feel free to offer your frustrations to God either way... but if your son seems usually to rely on negative attention in order to get some feedback from you, you are setting up a false cross for yourself.

Are you resentful that you don't have more alone time? Is that because you have no time to rejuvenate yourself so as to be a better parent? Or is it because you have unrealistic expectations for free time based on your childless days? Either way, tell God all about it... but if you expect to hang out with friends every night like you did in college and are disappointed that you can't, you are setting up a false cross for yourself.

First, it is helpful to pause periodically, perhaps at the end of the night, and quickly identify a few difficulties or inconveniences that you think might have been avoidable. For example, perhaps there was a complete meltdown in the house of all children becoming suddenly very needy right at 4:30 when you were trying to cook dinner.

Secondly, ask yourself, does this happen frequently? If the answer is yes, you might want to think about how the problem could be avoided. Is it possible to start on dinner a little earlier in the day, maybe make a slow-cooker meal more often? Do your kids get a well-timed afternoon snack? Would it be reasonable to allow your kids 30 minutes of television time while you are trying to cook?

Third, put your plan into action. Get that chili in the slow-cooker in the morning, or put together your tuna casserole right after lunch so you can put it in the oven at 4:30.

Fourth, reevaluate the situation. Did it work? Can you make a habit of avoiding this problem?

Fifth, when you fail... offer it up, and try, try again.

Discernment is critical for good parenting mortification. There are some issues, like parental sleep deprivation, where it is not always clear whether you've set up the cross yourself or not. You may want to read a book like Elizabeth Pantley's No Cry Sleep Solution for trying to work out whether a sleep situation is working and making a plan if it isn't. At other times, the solution to a particular problem may simply take time to figure out, like arranging quiet space for a child that has difficulty concentrating on her homework with younger siblings running around. And there are some issues that take a great deal of commitment and perseverance, and willingness to admit failure and begin again, such as managing and correcting a child's rudeness.

The point here is simply that parenting mortification is NOT about making your life as difficult as you possibly can. As I've mentioned before, difficulties will find you when you are a parent. Don't arrange a field of false crosses for your self in addition to the true crosses. In so doing, you run the risk of "playing the martyr," seeing your parenthood as one long period of suffering and yourself with little potential to improve it. Embrace suffering as generously as you can, but don't let your own bad parenting or unreasonable expectations become the main cause of that suffering...that's not good for your kids, nor is it ultimately good for you.