A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

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.