A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

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.