A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

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.