A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Living With and Growing From Imperfect Parenting Circumstances

Being a parent today brings with it a multitude of expectations, or even demands, from society. I have already written about the importance of accepting certain responsibilities, given that parents are the most important role models for their children. The necessity of being a good role model can certainly be a mortification, an occasion to die to oneself in order to live more fully for God. But there is another related mortification experienced by parents, namely, the definite imperfection of one's situation.

Many people have come to recognize that the American model of nuclear family with no additional help puts strains on parents and is not best for the children either. It is important to recognize the structural imperfections of American family life today and strive to correct them as best we can, reaching out to parents in need of  little extra help in various ways. The offer to assist with childcare for free or the act of bringing a meal to parents with a new child are two examples of this.

But even with these efforts to strengthen extra-familial bonds in place of the once strong inter-generational presence found within families, on a practical level, parents will undoubtedly find themselves stuck in less than ideal situations. There are conflicting demands, desires, and always, it seems, NOT ENOUGH TIME to get everything done and have adequate leisure for refreshment. It can become all too easy to reflect on the busy and stressful life of parenting and simply conclude that we will never be able to do it well: there is not enough money, not enough sleep, not enough energy, and not enough time to oneself.

Outsiders increase this sense of inadequacy with the seemingly endless demands placed on "good" parents. These demands include (but are in NO WAY limited to!) the following: spend lots of quality one-on-one time with your spouse take your children to all necessary medical, dental, optical, etc. appointments on schedule; expose your child to cultural events, like art museums and musical/play performances; provide the opportunity for your child to excel in sports; ensure your child's excellent academic performance; eat primarily home-cooked meals made primarily with organic and locally-grown food; ensure complete security and safety of your child; allow your child's failure so he can learn from his mistakes; be consistent with discipline in every circumstance; demonstrate good home organization and cleanliness; etc. And of course, none of the items listed above included the expectations of good Catholic parents who strive to form their children in the faith. Frankly, I'm too exhausted to list all of those right now.

Suffice it to say that with such demands on parents, and such limitations of time, money, sleep, ability, etc. that parents will inevitably be caught in a dire situation where they are doomed to fail. Everyday living as parents just entails inadequacy. Even if the outside world does not catch us in our mistakes as parents, we know them all too well within the home. We have to live constantly with our failures: inconsistent discipline, poorly planned meals, sleep deprivation that leads to impatience and angry yelling, and so on. It is so easy to become exhausted with our situation, and then to blame ourselves for our exhaustion because we are obviously doing something wrong, e.g. not taking enough time for ourselves, not keeping the house well-organized, etc.

Instead, I suggest that the first step for us parents in these imperfect circumstances is simply to accept them as they are and even thank God for them. They may not be to our likes and preferences, and that is precisely what makes an imperfect situation a wonderful involuntary mortification. Imperfect circumstances can become an opportunity to conform our will to God's, trying to trust in God and do the best in the situation we have been handed. In this we die to ourselves in order to live more fully for God.

Here I draw particularly upon Fr. Jacques Philippe, the wonderful French spiritual writer who describes this temptation that can greatly impede spiritual progress: "in the situation which is ours (personal, family, etc., we lack something essential and that because of this our progress, and the possibility of blossoming spiritually is denied us" (all quotations from Part II, Ch. 8 of Searching for and Maintaining Peace). We may say "I am not satisfied with my life, with my person, with my circumstances and I live constantly with the feeling that as long as things are such, it will be impossible for me to live truly and intensely."

Philippe suggests that wishing for circumstances to change is often an error: "It is not the exterior circumstances that must change; it is above all our hearts that must change." We must strive for certitude that God is present, providing for our needs. When people embrace this attitude, "they will see that many of he circumstances that they thought negative and damaging to their spiritual life are, in fact, in God's pedagogy, powerful means for helping them to progress and grow."

Philippe adds "Our minds are sometimes so clouded over by that which is not going well, by that which (according to our own particular criteria!) should be different in our situations, that we forget the positive." In contrast with this problematic focus on the negative, we should recognize that imperfections can help us to grow in humility and confidence in God. Philippe concludes Chapter 8 with these words:

"God may allow me to occasionally lack money, health, abilities and virtues, but He will never leave me in want of Himself, of His assistance and His mercy or of anything that would allow me to grow unceasingly ever closer to Him, to love Him more intensely, to better love my neighbor and to achieve holiness."

This is not an excuse to avoid problem-solving difficult parenting situations that you may encounter in daily life. Nor is it a reason to lack sympathy and compassion for parents that feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities. But it is the summons for a change of heart for those of us who often find our circumstances complicated and trying. We must resolve to stop bemoaning the very many, many demands on parents and to stop despairing of our constant inadequacy to meet these demands in such an imperfect situation. Instead of telling ourselves that we don't have enough time, we must tell ourselves that we have just enough time. We have just enough time to love God, love our spouses, and love our kids. We have just enough time to do God's will in the present moment and with the present circumstances, no matter how imperfect those circumstances may appear to us at first glance.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Letting Go and Fostering Independence

We hear a lot these days about "helicopter parents" and the younger generation that take their parents with them on their adult job interviews. Although I don't tend toward helicopter parenting myself, I can easily identify with these parents because, well, I love my kids. I like being around them, and I even enjoy taking care of them (most of the time, that is). I admit I get sentimental when I give away a bag of my kids' outgrown clothes or review old baby photos. I'm constantly telling my kids that they do NOT have my permission to grow up.

But they keep doing it anyway. An obviously important part of parenting is to foster independence in our children: "to give them wings," as my mom always said. The risk of giving our kids wings is that they may fly away. But let's not forget that this is ultimately what we want. We want them to exercise their freedom well, to grow in responsibility, maturity, and sanctity, even if that means they do fly away from us.

Fostering independence and letting go may not seem at first glance to be a parenting mortification in the way that things like sleep deprivation or getting insulted by our children certainly constitute real parenting challenges. Nonetheless, fostering independence and letting go require the same sort of sacrifice in that they demand a constant supernatural narration that looks at a bigger picture than simply the moment at hand.

Let's get practical here and talk about young children. They start off as babies and need you to do everything for them. Then they start to get older and want to do things for themselves. It may sound great, but anyone who has been running late and waiting waiting waiting for a child to put on his own shoes know that it's not always a great thing for a child to exercise independence. Patience is certainly a key virtue to exercise when we seek to foster our children's independence. The fact is that it is easier, faster, and much less messy to bake cookies without the help from a 2-year old and a 4-year old (see photo above). It is easier to toss a child's socks in a clothes hamper than to track him down and encourage him to do it. It is simpler to clean up their messes, and when company is arriving in five minutes, perfectly advisable.

The rest of the time, however, we have to be willing to address our own impatience at children's ability (or lack thereof) to help in the way we want them to do. It is a mortification, a death to self, to delay the timeliness of our own tasks in order to involve kids in a way that fosters their independence. Especially in a busy household, the extra minutes it takes can seem to last much longer than they actually do.

From a natural perspective, however, the results of parental impatience are easily seen in our culture today. There are parents who complain that their middle school children take no responsibility for their homework; these are sometimes the same children who turned in perfect school projects in elementary school because their parents had taken control and done it all for them. There are busy parents who find it faster to throw their toddler's dirty clothes into the hamper for them, only to realize when the child is eight that she now expects the parents to do it all for her.

If we want to foster independence in our children, we have to encourage and accept their help even when it is really not all that helpful...and often even when it is an inconvenience. Embracing this sacrifice helps our children in multiple ways. It allows them to take responsibility for their actions and belongings. It helps them to feel that they can contribute to a household. It enables them to express their freedom and individuality rather than feeling constantly constrained by controlling adults. It forms them in good habits as regards work ethics. All of these skills will aid children to grow in virtue and holiness because really, we parents can't do that all for them.

When we think about letting go and fostering independence from a supernatural perspective, we see that it certainly can be a beneficial parenting mortification. If we can accept letting go and fostering independence as a sacrifice, we can die to self by relinquishing our own desires to control our children as extensions of ourselves. We admit to ourselves that we don't really choose their talents, their interests, or their future careers. We can't predict or dictate every parenting situation that might arise.

This simple act of letting go can be a great reminder that ultimately we are not in charge, we are not in control; God guides us and challenges us. We respond in the most loving way that we can in order to serve God, even if that means letting a daughter put up homemade (dumb) "Halloween decorations" in the front yard or letting a son "clean up" his spilled smoothie by smearing it in a six foot radius. At the moment these things may be an embarrassment or an inconvenience, but in the bigger picture, the larger supernatural narrative, they contribute to the child's growth and our own growth that comes from making the sacrifice.

We can thank God for opportunities to work on our impatience with our kids as they seek and struggle to learn how to do things on their own. We can thank God for using our children to remind us that growth is a continual process, for us as well as for them. We can ask God to help us give our kids wings, so that they can fly to God in whatever they do...even if that means they fly away from us.