A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

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.

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