A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"Do it again!": On the Apparent Futility of Housework

The books are on the floor AGAIN.

There is a great satisfaction to offering our work to God and doing that work well, especially when we have the opportunity to hold in our hands the nicely painted piece of art, the well-written essay, the beautifully crocheted blanket, or the finely built table. Even without the attention and compliments of others, the material evidence of our time and efforts makes the work we put into a project rewarding. It tends toward a natural sort of contentment when we see the results of our work and know we can enjoy it for days, months, or even years to come.

Not every task offers us such a natural enjoyment and satisfaction of a long-lasting job well done, however. As parents, there is always plenty of housework, yard work, fix-up tasks, and household organization. Young children are often messy and sometimes careless, and even with our best efforts to teach children to clean up after themselves and participate in household chores, we parents will find ourselves immersed in a constant battle to keep our living environment under control!

Granted, maintaining a household well can indeed provide a certain amount of satisfaction. It is nice to see a sparkling, freshly-mopped kitchen floor, accompanied by gleaming counters and shiny appliances. It is lovely to survey a well-organized, picked up, dusted, and vacuumed living room. It can be a relief to organize hand-me-downs in labeled boxes and switch over clothes for winter.

And yet, we know from experience that such contentment is short-lived. The grass keeps growing, the rocking chair keeps breaking, tub scum comes back, the baby pulls the books off the living room shelving, and the kids inevitably spill smoothies on the freshly mopped floor. The laundry is never done. In moments of discouragement in our lives as parents, we may be tempted to see such work as completely pointless and worthless. And it doesn’t help that these kinds of domestic tasks are not valued in our society. When we could be producing something beautiful and meaningful, who wants to devote time to work like wiping down the refrigerator shelves or picking up shoes?

It is precisely this apparent futility of housework that makes it so valuable as a parenting mortification. The lack of natural satisfaction, due to the temporary results of our work, becomes a challenge we can embrace to die to ourselves and grow closer to God. As adults, we can have great control over our living environment. But as adults with other people (who happen to be young children!), we will not have complete control. We never know when we might walk into a bathroom to find the sink has been “painted” with toothpaste by a toddler. Much of the housework we do is simply to restore the house to the state it would be in if we didn’t have children!

From a supernatural perspective, the gift of this seeming wasted work of domestic life is twofold: it teaches us detachment, and it increases our appreciation for the supernatural reward of our labors.

We have probably all had the experience of being proud of our hard work and not wanting to let go of it. The reality of housework is that we must humble ourselves, so that we are constantly letting go of it, or else we risk being constantly angry with those little people who thoughtlessly destroy our hard work. There is nothing wrong with reminders to our children that we have worked hard to do some chore; we want them to recognize that the laundry does not do itself, the dishes do not clean themselves, the shoes do not magically walk over to their assigned boxes, and the sand toys do not find their way home to the sandbox of their own accord. We also want them to participate in household chores so that they recognize that running the home is about teamwork. The home is not merely a place for mindless consumption of others’ work, but rather a place where all members produce, contributing to the good of the household.

But at the same time, we must recognize that there will be more ironing, there will be more smudges on the windows, there will be more leaves in the yard, etc. Why should we constantly expect material affirmation for our efforts? What good does such attachment to the results of our work do for us spiritually? It is better, rather, that we embrace the fact of the ephemeral nature of the results of our work, becoming detached from the clean floors and folded laundry in a way that opens us to become better attached to that which is eternal, namely God.

Such detachment should not lead us to neglect the necessary tasks of running a household, but rather to keep them in perspective.  We sort through socks not so that they can stand enshrined in a drawer as a monument to our work, but rather, so that we can serve our family and offer that work to God. We scrub the slow cooker crock clean not so that we can display it to the world as a feat of our elbow grease, but so that we can earn treasure in heaven. In other words, the apparent futility of housework does not have to be futility; rather it can assist us, hastening us in our way to God.

Yes, it is understandably frustrating to see the newly-mopped floor covered in muddy footprints. We may get angry when a child pulls every shirt out of a full, well-organized drawer. But again, while we want children to be considerate of others’ efforts and we may lose time in having to redo tasks that we’ve just completed, the repetition of housework has great possibility as a mortification. We can almost hear God kindly but enthusiastically encouraging us, “Do it again!” the way that a child might ask us to read the same book over and over. And each time we “do it again” we can do it better, and by that, I do not mean simply perfecting our natural skills, but, more importantly, perfecting our supernatural skills. We can die to self each time we “do it again.” We can offer it as prayer each time we “do it again.” We can grow closer to God each time we “do it again.” We can build up treasure in heaven each time we “do it again.”

This work may seem menial and discouraging in the context of a busy household. But it is not so in God’s eyes. He invites us to “do it again” each day because He recognizes its potential for our good. If we also can humbly recognize that potential, we will “do it again,” better each time!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Loving Spouse and Children...at the same time!

Living with the imperfections and idiosyncrasies of one's spouse can be a challenge. But sometimes another difficulty arises, namely, trying to be loving and attentive to one's spouse while also being loving and attentive to one's children.

We often hear presented a dichotomy of priorities: Kids first, spouse second! Or: Spouse first, kids second!

It makes sense that these options are presented in such a manner inasmuch as parents often experience a real conflict in being attentive both to a spouse and to kids. The first camp will argue that that kids are more evidently needy than one's adult spouse. The energy we put into caring for our kids is likely much more than we dedicate to caring for a spouse, who can eat, bathe, dress, etc. without assistance. Our kids' dependence upon us makes them our first priority.

The second camp will say that family life cannot succeed if the parents fail to prioritize the marriage relationship itself, between the husband and wife. The kids are important but should come second to the spousal relationship. In case of a conflict, attentiveness to the needs of the spouse should win out.

As mentioned above, such a dichotomy indicates a real challenge that parents face: to love spouse and children at the same time. And yet, this presentation can be quite misleading.

Spousal love is the foundation of marriage; family is built upon this relationship. Children follow upon this love; we can even say they are incarnations of this love. Spousal love precedes the love for one's children, and it should not be cast aside or demoted when children make their appearance.

Yet at the same time, we have to acknowledge that the acts of love that characterized courtship and early marriage become more difficult when children are present. The diversion of finances to support children can prevent indulging a spouse in filet mignon, fine wine, chocolates, and roses. The relaxed quality time together becomes rarer. Opportunities for physical affection and intimacy become harder to find. The effort of serving children by caring for them can drain a parent of the effort required to serve the spouse as before. And in the midst of the numerous challenges of parenting, such as sleep deprivation, having your belongings destroyed by kids, being insulted by your kids, and so on, it can be hard to remember to appreciate your spouse verbally in compliments and kind words of affirmation.

Clearly, then, we are presented with the challenge of loving our spouse and our children at the same time. It cannot be an either-or, wherein we focus solely on our spouse and ignore our children or focus entirely on our children and ignore our spouse. The situation may often appear to us as imperfect. A spouse may arrive home from work with big news to share just as a child vomits on the floor. The baby may wake up for a feeding just as you and your spouse finally sat down to start your game of Scrabble. Your romantic anniversary dinner may be postponed due to a trip to the emergency room for a broken arm. It may seem that children are interfering with the relationship or intruding upon the marriage relationship.

Yet the apparent imperfection of the situation seems to be God's will: the spouse is a gift, and so also children are a gift to the spouses. And if God wills it, we must find some way to embrace the challenge. Here's where mortification enters the picture: loving both spouse and children at the same time will certainly require a death to self. If we accept the opportunity to die to self, God will give us the grace to love spouse and children as best we can.

To be more practical, here are a few ideas to ensure that we do our best with this situation:

1. Because kids are needier than the spouse, it is easier to neglect a spouse. Therefore, it will be important to make an intentional effort to love and spend time with the spouse. Daily practical efforts include remembering a morning kiss and hug, pouring the spouse's coffee, getting out of bed on time to make sure the morning goes smoothly, putting down a tablet when the spouse enters the room, and so on. Ensuring an opportunity for conversation on a daily basis is also helpful. On a weekly basis, it is beneficial to have some set aside time without kids - a date night, for example. Of course we want to love and be attentive to the spouse, but consistency in effort to these little acts can become a mortification, where we have to put aside ourselves in order to love a spouse well.

2. When it comes to spending time with a spouse, don't let the best get in the way of the good. We often have an easy time envisioning an ideal:  a romantic, week-long trip to the Caribbean with no kids or a three-course meal at a fancy French restaurant. Upon recognizing that these ideals are not possible, many respond by giving up and doing nothing to spend time together. It is often possible, however, to come up with another option. A regular date night may appear impossible with multiple young children who are difficult at the time you'd be leaving them with a sitter; going out later would mean being tired and unable to enjoy the meal. And the cost of a nice weekly dinner out may be unrealistic. But what about Saturday morning breakfast, when the kids are better-behaved for the sitter, you are both wide awake, and you can get a bagel or pastries with coffee and not spend too much money? It may be a far cry from the luxuries of courtship. It may not be the ideal; it may not be the plan for quality time 20 years from now. For the present moment, however, it is better than not doing anything together. Working with the current situation while maintaining flexibility and the possibility of reevaluation can also be a mortification; we may need to kill our ideas of "best" and recognize that what is actually "best" at this time is sticking to something that is possible.

3. Caring for children is a way of loving a spouse. Time spent with children should not be viewed as set against the time spent with the spouse. When a parent cares for children well, with love and attentiveness, he or she is loving a spouse through this service. Sometimes, this is obvious, like when one gets up early with the kids so the spouse can catch up on sleep. At other times, this truth is not as apparent. Nonetheless, parents do the best they can caring for children and performing other work in order to contribute and serve the family as a whole. The children should not be seen as "mine" or "my project." Whether father or mother is interacting with the children, the sacrifices involved are not simply for the sake of the children themselves, but for the marriage. A parent's time spent at work earning money can also be seen as a way of loving one's spouse. With this perspective, it is important to work well, for the sake of the family, and also to work efficiently (not wasting time) so as to maximize presence and contributions to the home.

4. Because loving spouse and children at the same time can often seem difficult or even impossible, it is important to make a frequent examination of one's efforts. Spouses can benefit from reflecting on existing problems, such as being too busy to have time for each other or letting screens interrupt opportunities for conversation. Accompanying this examination is a willingness to change, even when it is difficult.

5. Of course, even with the willingness to change, failure is imminent. The demands of parenting may make it difficult to be loving and kind to one's spouse. After a hard day with kids, it can be challenging to be attentive to conversation. With the touch-time required by toddlers and infants, it may be hard to attend to a nightly spousal holding time or even to remember a goodnight kiss. As with any failure, however, parents have to be willing to try again, seeking the sacrament of confession regularly for support in the struggle.

6. It is a challenge to love spouse and children simultaneously. To meet their needs, to be affectionate, etc. Rather than cursing this challenge or regretting the situation, however, we are best off embracing the difficulty. It is a mortification; it requires a death to self and dependence on God's grace to do one's best when conflict ensues.

7. Keep the big picture. In the beginning of the marriage, the home began with the husband and wife. Eventually, it is likely that the children will leave and the home will once more consist solely of husband and wife. It may seem so far off in the future as to be inconceivable, but this is the normal course of marriage and family life. With this end in mind, it makes sense to maintain and strengthen the marriage relationship, the friendship between husband and wife. Retrospectively, all those sacrifices embraced in the midst of parenting will make more sense; they were helping all along to help husband and wife to grow in the generous gift of self.

It can be frustrating, and even discouraging to try to love and attend to a spouse and children at the same time. And yet, it is a wonderful opportunity to realize our limits and weaknesses, to embrace the challenge as a mortification, and to beg God's grace to help us to do the best we can to love him and serve him in this situation.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

On Diapers and Potty-Training

Here's a new dad, with a diaper change gone wrong.
It was not the last time he'd have an up close and personal poop encounter.
Parenting gives us the opportunity to do many things we would not otherwise choose to do. Changing diapers and potty-training a child are great examples of this. I am not going to cite any studies to prove this, but I think the general population dislikes dealing with the urine and feces of other human beings, even when those human beings are cute little kids.

Of course, newborn diapers are not so bad. Gently placing a lightweight baby down on a changing table can even be fun when the kid is smiley and happy. But pretty quickly after beginning solid foods, diapers start to get a little uglier and stinkier. The kids start to get heavier and harder to lift onto a changing table. And at about the time you decide you can't handle the disgusting poopy diapers anymore, you get to start dealing with disgusting poopy underwear.

When we take a step back, however...and a deep breath of fresh air after thoroughly washing our hands...we can see how diapers and the process of potty-training can become excellent parenting mortifications.

First of all, just to repeat the obvious, dealing with the urine and feces of another human being is kind of gross. It's not exactly a highly sought after occupation, and it probably was not a major motivation for our having kids. If it weren't for the fact of our having children, we likely would not deal with this at all. Hence it is a wonderful opportunity to die to self - to face the reality of doing something unpleasant. It may not seem to be a privilege or a gift in earthly terms, but it can be a blessing that increases our humility and brings us closer to God. It is an involuntary mortification - something we do not choose - that can be willingly offered to God. Very few vowed religious will have this particular opportunity, in all its ickiness, but it is a privilege granted to parents!

Besides the particular unsavory quality of changing diapers and potty-training, there is also the inconvenience of it. Most people do not have their day frequently interrupted by other people's bladders and bowels. Very few vowed religious have to interrupt their daily tasks to mop up puddles of urine or rinse out underwear in the toilet. Such interruptions can be annoying and even embarrassing, depending on when and where they occur. It is not surprising if we feel ourselves getting flustered by having to address these issues in the midst of preparing breakfast or in the midst of friends at the local park. And yet, the inconvenience can also be a great mortification, interrupting one good activity for another (potentially) good one. The interruption and inconvenience can also be an opportunity to embrace our own lack of control, dying to ourselves and our own plans so that we can re-align ourselves to God's will.

When it comes to potty-training, many parents have the experience of feeling like there is no end in sight. Patience can run thin, and we can feel stuck in the moment. There is no big picture, just ANOTHER  "accident." In such moments, our lack of trust in God (and in our children's potential) can be painfully obvious. "Training" seems to imply an end result of being "trained," and yet, when the progress is slow, this end seems to be nothing more than a legend for which there is no proof. Perseverance in the face of this seemingly unchanging reality can be painful. At the same time, however, it is a good reminder to us of the training required for our own virtue and holiness. We may want immediate results, but we do not always get them. Like a toddler being potty-trained, we may fail and fail and fail again as we strive to master ourselves. Like the poopy toddler, we may not notice our stinky situation, or we may pretend not to notice it. We may run away to avoid admitting it and facing reality. This journey of life, like potty-training, is a messy one, but it is also one filled with daily opportunities to try again and again to acknowledge our own weaknesses and failures, so that we can let ourselves be trained with God's grace. 

Diapers and potty-training. Disgusting. Inconvenient. Frustrating. Interminable.


As parents, we shouldn't waste that waste, but rather, put it to good use!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Letting Kids Fail

As parents, most of us want our children to be successful. We want them to be academically successful. We have high hopes for college and their future careers. Some of us may prioritize their athletic success, musical/artistic success, or all of these. We want them to be kind and well-mannered, to be thoughtful of others. Even when we desire their supernatural end above all else, we can easily narrate how earthly success - the using of their gifts and talents for God's glory - can hasten their journey toward the supernatural end.

I have noted elsewhere the importance of fostering independence and the mortification of letting go in that respect. Related to that mortification is the mortification of letting our kids fail. Precisely because we want success for our children, their failure can be disappointing for us. If we know they have the ability, but are lacking in hard work, it can be especially mortifying. But even when they do have the work ethic and natural ability, they may still fail, or anyway, fail to gain recognition for their success due to the necessity of selectivity in acknowledging students for success. Moreover, though we may see their many positive attributes, their peers may not appreciate these as we do.

Recently there has been notable push-back against the trophy-for-everyone culture for children. Some have lamented the downside to adults who never experienced failure as children. But even for those of us who agree with these positions and value the lessons taught to our children by their failures, it can still be very difficult to watch our children fail.
Last week we had a family adventure to a nearby park with an enormous turtle population. Our kids had brought their nets, in the hopes that they might catch something - a frog, a turtle, a fish, a crayfish, or maybe just a butterfly. Our oldest was particularly determined to catch a turtle. There was no shortage of turtles, but they were all far out on fallen trees extending into the murky water. Hence she decided to make her way out onto one of these logs. Her first attempt was an amazing feat of balance and fearlessness, as she ultimately walked across the entire river on a log in flip-flops. The turtles seemed unhappy with the tremors in their sunning spot and plopped off, one by one, until there were none left to catch. Unwilling to turn around and walk all the way back, she attempted the five foot leap onto shore from the tree and ended up quite wet.

Her determination continued as she sought out a different fallen tree with almost 20 turtles on it. This time she decided to crawl out slowly, with her sister following. Twice she had her net positioned for a catch, and twice the turtles evaded her skill. By this time, her dad and siblings had headed for the playground. She was stubborn, and so was I. I wanted her to succeed. I wanted her to see the result of her patience and determination and bravery. I wanted to witness her joy at fulfilling her goal. I even prayed for her to get to the last remaining turtle on the log. Time stretched beyond the five minutes we had said we would stay, as I watched her sit completely still on the tree, waiting for a turtle to decide the sunny spot was once more available and return within her reach. 

Eventually, I had to let her fail. The lesson: even with skill, patience, determination, courage, fortitude, wet pants, and a bright orange net, we cannot always achieve our goals. That was her lesson.

My lesson was similar. Even with our good intentions and good efforts as parents, we cannot guarantee our children's success. It makes sense that we are disappointed when our children fail, even when we can narrate it positively in light of how it will benefit them in the future.

Sometimes our children's failures can be more painful to us than our own failures. We feel their disappointment acutely, suffering with them and sharing their regrets. We want to insert ourselves into difficult situations, compensating for their hurt feelings when insulted by a friend or reassuring them that last place in an exhibition swimming race can still be a good performance. Furthermore, it can be embarrassing to us when our kids fail a spelling test or score a goal for the opposite team. We may want to make excuses for them or pretend we don't notice their failures. 

The discomfort caused by our children's failures can become a great parenting mortification. It is a way in which we can die to ourselves, recognizing our own lack of control of various situations. When we embrace their failures and our own corresponding disappointment, we acknowledge our own powerlessness and dependence on God. These failures of our children may or may not be reflections of our own effort (or lack thereof), but regardless, our children's failures can bring us and them closer to God, as we acknowledge the disappointment and unite it to Christ's sufferings, remembering that redemption does not come primarily through us and our virtues, no matter how heroic.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

On Sunday Rest

It's amazing how people respond when there is a blizzard in the forecast. No matter what their work or family schedule normally is, they somehow manage to make it to the store to stock up on food. If there's a possibility of a power outage, they get the laundry and vacuuming done. They make sure the dishes are washed, the cellphones are charged, the blankets are ready, and the snowblowers are working. People get the work done, so that when the big event comes they can cozy up in front of the fire and relax until the snow stops and they can begin shoveling. This is a great testament to the human ability to prepare and plan well.

And it can also serve as a way to help us think about Sundays. The observance of Sunday as the Lord's Day, a day set aside for rest and worship has become uncommon, and yet it remains crucial for the Christian life. From a natural perspective, human beings need a break and an opportunity to rest. From a supernatural perspective, the commitment to resting on a Sunday is a way of affirming our humility. It might seem that we can accomplish more by working more days, but taking one day off from work attests to our trust in God and belief that we do all things through God and not simply of our own power.

It might seem strange to try to categorize Sunday rest as a parenting mortification, since it truly is a precept of the Christian life. But in many ways, the Sunday observance for a busy family does involve a death to self, a sacrifice and a commitment in order to live more fully for God. This is partly because it has become counter-cultural to keep Sunday as the Lord's Day; kids' activities are now increasingly scheduled for Sundays, for example. Busy families face another obstacle for good observance of Sunday, namely, they often find themselves behind on chores or work because they are balancing so much in terms of the house, children, and work outside the home given the imperfect circumstances in which we live.

And this is why I think it is helpful to recognize keeping the Sabbath as a mortification. It is a sacrifice that may be difficult to embrace in addition to the many challenges of having kids. But like other parenting mortifications, it is a sacrifice that brings us and our children closer to God. How we parents observe Sundays also provides an important example for our children. Here are a few ideas for observing Sunday rest.

1. Abstain from your professional work. Unless you hold a job, such as a nurse or police, where you cannot avoid working on Sundays, do not get trapped into doing your outside work on a Sunday. This may take planning, but it is usually more possible than we like to think.

2. Avoid unnecessary household work. Many times Sunday becomes a catch-up day for chores, which is regrettable. There is constant maintenance in the upkeep of a house, and this means there is always something more that can be done. Of course, on Sundays we will need to do the dishes and sweep the floor, but laundry, vacuuming, and similar chores should be postponed until Monday or completed on Saturday. Please do not make Sunday "chore day" for your children, especially if you tend to get frustrated and angry when getting your kids to do chores. You do NOT want your children to associate Sunday with grumpy parents and extra housework. Nor should you think of Sunday as the day that you have to marshal your children into cleaning up the house.

3. Attend Mass. This is the most important activity a Catholic family should do on a Sunday. Dressing up for Mass is a way of reinforcing that Sunday is different from the other days of the week.

4. Eat well. Sunday is a Solemnity, the highest feast day in the Church. So celebrate it with a good meal, whether an elaborate brunch or simply a dessert after dinner. It's also a good day to set your table differently than it usually appears - with a nice tablecloth or some candles.

5. Engage in family prayer. Perhaps the most popular family prayer on a Sunday is saying the Rosary as a family. Reading Scripture aloud or saying a novena are two other possibilities of many prayer practices.

6. Do something fun as a family. Sunday is a good day to go for a hike, hang out at a park, go fossil hunting, have a dance party in the living room, etc. Choose an activity that you aren't normally able to do on a weekday.

7. Give your spouse a break. If one spouse spends more time with the children, Sunday is a good day to let that parent do something he or she normally doesn't get to do, such as go for a swim or read a novel.

8. Extend hospitality. Hosting friends or extended family can be a nice way to make Sunday feel different from the rest of the week.

9. Don't let sports or other kids' activities dominate your Sundays. It is difficult to make a hard and fast rules about children's activities on Sundays, but if you know that a particular activity only takes place on Sundays, you should carefully discern if it is worth it for your child to participate in that activity at all. Sunday can easily become "soccer day" or "wrestling day," where the focus of the day is on these activities. On the other hand, a late afternoon baseball game could contribute to a nice Sunday. If you make the decision to take your child to hockey practice instead of Mass, you are setting a very dangerous example for them, one that can imperil their soul far more than any damage that might result from missing a practice.

10. Limit screen time. Don't let technology take over your Sunday. Avoid letting "rest" and "family time" become everyone staring individually at a phone screen, tablet screen, computer screen, or television screen. Remember that the reason for guarding your Sundays is to focus on resting in God.

There can be a certain discipline involved in making Sundays feel like Sundays, distinct from the rest of the work week. It involves planning and preparation. But it is possible. And it is nourishing for both our bodies and souls.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Being a Toddler of God

Yes, that's one way to eat applesauce.
Life with a toddler is quite a unique experience. Perhaps at no other age are children so dramatic, so temperamental, so opinionated, so cute, and so difficult as when they are toddlers. Some people will say that the main reason for toddler tantrums is simply that they have trouble communicating what it is they want and hence become frustrated, acting out in whatever way will get them attention.
No doubt there is some truth to that, but it also seems that much of toddler frustration comes from the realization that they cannot have everything they want at the time they want it or in the way they want it. Toddlers can also appear completely irrational, in part because they do not understand (or perhaps do not LIKE) the way the world works. My toddler has in the past gotten very frustrated at my stopping at red lights, especially if I seem to be waiting too long. "GOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!" he will yell from directly behind my driver's seat. This past summer, my toddler threw a monster tantrum every single morning for two weeks in a row because I refused to give him a popsicle for breakfast. Rules like stopping at a red light or no popsicles for breakfast are simply not compelling to a toddler.

Then we may also observe that toddlers often have a more profound degree of indecision than the rest of us. A simple question, such as "Do you want red socks or blue?" can wreak havoc. Not to mention that toddlers sometimes will ask for something, and when they are given it, they forget about it and walk away. There are other times when they seem upset that they received what they asked for, and they will throw it or themselves on the ground.

Toddlers can be extremely covetous, employing that word "MINE!" frequently, even for things, such as the garlic mincer or potato peeler, which clearly are NOT theirs. And another frequent word of toddlers, is, of course, "NO!" which in their mind seems to apply in many situations, even when it is not a valid answer to a particular question.

It can be quite tough living with someone who gets upset over small matters, dislikes particular rules, throws tantrums about minor concerns, is indecisive on basic decisions, shows little gratitude, and is possessive about things that aren't even his. It is a great parenting mortification. Dealing with a toddler is an opportunity for death to self in order to live for God. There are many aspects of toddler behavior we'd like to avoid, but since we can't, we should try to make the best of the seeming irrationalities, tantrums, etc. We can offer these situations, and our attempts at patience with them, as an opportunity for prayer and growing closer to God.

Life with a toddler is also a wonderful situation for reflecting on our own childhood before God. Do we ever get frustrated with God's rules? Do we ever try to avoid good formation and growing in virtue so we can do things we find more pleasurable or fun? Do we ever have bad days where we get upset for very little (or even no) reason at all? Do we ever ask God for something in prayer and then forget about it or show no gratitude when we receive it? Do we ever get possessive about material possessions, acting as though they will last for all eternity? Do we ever want other people's things and get angry when we can't have them? Do we ever tell God "NO!" when we feel He is asking us to do something we don't want to do or something that we think is too difficult?

Yes. The fact is that we - even as adults - often act like toddlers. That we are bigger and older might make it seem to us that our adult version of the toddler behavior is more acceptable than their toddler behavior. And yet, God probably often looks upon us in loving patience (and even amusement) the same way that we look at our toddlers. We get upset about little things. We don't always want to follow God's rules, and we don't admit our failings. We sometimes yell or take out our anger on others, including people who do not deserve it. We hate to wait and show our impatience in dramatic ways. We become indecisive about decisions when we should be trusting in God. We do not thank God enough for our blessings. We often want too much when it comes to material possessions. We sometimes try to bend God's will to our own, while also resisting doing God's will, even when it is clear to us.

"Amen, I say to you, unless you become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." These words of Jesus from Matthew 18:2-4 tell us that we should be like children. But surely the behavior described above is not what Jesus had in mind. Toddlers can be difficult, it's true. And yet they also have a tremendous amount of trust and willingness to be loved. As much as they want to do things by themselves, they realize they need help and they ask for it. They seek our help and like constant awareness of our presence. They know that we will often grant their requests. They seek our affection. They seem to recognize their dependence. 

Our toddlers should be a reminder to us of our own dependence upon God. We need to seek to be childlike as they are, ready to ask for help and trust that we will get the response that is best for us in God's eyes, rather than just our own. As adults, we should leave behind the childish toddler tantrums we see exhibited by our kids, but at the same time, we should humble ourselves, becoming childlike by recognizing our dependence on God and growing each day in love for him.

So, the next time the toddler throws a tantrum, embrace that as a double mortification: a challenge requiring loving patience and a reminder of our own imperfections and need for childlike humility. The childish response is to become annoyed and angry at the irrational demonstrative child. The childlike response is to use this moment to depend on God's help, asking Him to give us the grace we need to be good parents, as He is to us when we throw tantrums.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Family-based Lenten Resolutions

Coming up with a good Lenten penance is often challenging for faithful Catholics, including busy parents. We might have high ambitions, but choosing and sticking with a Lenten sacrifice can be difficult. In part, this difficulty stems from the individual nature of Lenten penance as currently practiced. Prior to the Lent of 1967 all Catholics in the U.S. abided by the same Lenten practice of fasting every day of Lent (excluding solemnities, such as Sundays). This provided built-in social support. Lenten resolutions are not meant to be tests of individual willpower demonstrating heroic self-control. A Lenten resolution should be part of the shared endeavor to embrace penance as a preparation for Easter. 

It's not about YOU, but about US, the Church.

Though the Church no longer has the strict Lenten observance that provided unity in penance, the family provides a setting that makes possible the practice of social penance - a penance that is not simply about individual voluntary mortifications, though those are also good! By deciding on and practicing a Lenten penance as parents (or as a family, if you're children are older), parents can promote the idea that penance is not about YOU, but about US and OUR relationship to God. Here are a few suggestions for family-based Lenten resolutions:

Food-based resolutions can be good ideas to implement as a family.
1. Abstaining from meat during Lent (excluding solemnities). This is a traditional Lenten penance still observed in many places.
2. Abstaining from eggs and dairy during Lent. This is another traditional Lenten penance.
3. Abstaining from dining out or ordering in food. This penance might also provide some extra change that can be used in almsgiving.
4. Abstaining from processed foods such as boxed cereal, and replacing it with non-processed or minimally-processed food such as oatmeal.
5. Empty the pantry. Commit yourself to using up as much food in your pantry as possible while simultaneously limiting the food you purchase in your regular food shopping trip. Again, this should provide extra change that can be used in almsgiving.
6. Abstaining from sweets.
7. Giving up certain beverages, such as soda or alcohol, or limiting intake. Possibly even abstaining from all beverages excepting water or milk (and coffee for adults who need it!). 

Entertainment resolutions can also present possibilities for family-based Lenten resolutions.
1. Abstaining from or limiting time on the Internet, television, games, movies, etc.
2. Consider using the time normally devoted to entertainment/technology for activities like writing letters to people.
3. Not listening to music while in the car.

The above practices should decrease spending and make possible additional almsgiving. Contributing to the usual Rice Bowl donation box is a good way to indicate to the whole family the monetary result of the above sacrifices.

Choosing a family prayer practice to add into the regular schedule can also be a great family-based Lenten resolution.
1. Such practices might include praying the Rosary, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, attending Eucharistic adoration together, attending daily Mass, reading aloud the daily Mass readings at dinnertime, and praying the Stations of the Cross. For young children, presenting one Station of the Cross per evening and saying an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be before dinner might be the most you can do.
2. A variation of this is to invite friends or family over to pray the Stations of the Cross, followed by a simple meal.
3. (With older kids) As a family, commit to a more regular reception of the sacrament of confession throughout the season of Lent.

Depending on the age of your children, you might want to consider the possibility of donating your time as a family to a charity, e.g. volunteering in a soup kitchen. There are other ways to engage directly in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy; be creative. You may be able to take a meal to a family mourning someone's death or to visit a homebound elderly friend, for example.

"Spring cleaning" can certainly be a mortification, and Lent also presents itself as an ideal time to have family members clean out their rooms, go through their clothes and their toys, and donate or get rid of items they are no longer using. Lent is a good time to take on home-organization tasks that might involve the family. This cleaning can also be a helpful metaphor for the preparation undertaken for Easter.

1. There are many other possibilities for family-based mortifications, such as lowering the temperature of your water heater or thermostat.
2. Make sure that you and your spouse agree and have a plan for implementing the Lenten penance.
3. Try to avoid choosing anything that will make life particularly difficult for one particular person in the family.
4. Be willing to reevaluate each Sunday if necessary; don't let the sacrifices make your kids hate Lent. It might be best to change the resolution.
5. Consider the possibility of adding another penance each Monday.
6. Consider taking on your own individual Lenten resolution in addition to the family sacrifice.
7. Remember that your modeling of Lenten penance is crucial. It's ok to admit it's challenging, but complaining or being nasty to your family is not a good witness to the penitential power of Lent. If you recognize that you are consistently failing, reevaluate and choose a different penance.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Big Picture: Living in the Moment, Dying in the Moment

(Sometimes you need a photo so you don't forget that moment...)
One of the aims of parenting mortification is to help parents keep the bigger supernatural picture in mind. It's so easy in the midst of busy family life to fail to integrate a spiritual perspective. We often tend to let the challenges and difficulties of life bog us down in stress and a sense of failure rather than seeing these challenges and difficulties as opportunities to grow closer to God. The big picture of our parenting - from a Catholic perspective - involves being a part of a narrative that includes creation, the fall, redemption through Jesus, and the gift of being able to participate even now in that paschal mystery of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Just as it is difficult to keep that supernatural big picture in mind when faced by a particular parenting issue, it can also be hard to see the bigger picture as it pertains to the lives of the children we're raising. I still remember the pie chart pictured in one of my pregnancy books from nine years ago. It was entitled something like "The Pie of Life" and highlighted that infancy is a very, very short period in the life of a person, a tiny sliver of the pie chart. We all know that, but it is easy to get caught up in the challenges of the moment and fail to appreciate the brevity of infancy and childhood.

Most of us parents with younger children have probably encountered someone with older or adult children who smiles sadly and says something such as, "It goes by so quickly." In my early parenting years of stress and exasperation, I often secretly thought, "I wish it would go by a little quicker!" The feelings of inadequacy, too much to do, sleep deprivation, etc. combined for a lack of consistent appreciation for that brief period of infancy. Now that I have my fifth baby, and my first baby is now almost nine years old, I find myself nodding in agreement when someone comments about the time going by so quickly. I am constantly mourning the passing of my kids' babyhoods, toddlerhoods, and childhoods.

There are two ways to "live in the moment" when it comes to raising children. The first is problematic: it is the form of living in the moment that is characterized by stress and anxiety: being "stuck in the moment." We agonize over our parenting failures and worry excessively about our kids' behavior. We seek escape from the difficulties and sometimes find it in unhelpful outlets, such as entertainment that involves a screen (television, Facebook, etc.). We feel desperation and lack of energy and turn to yelling, sarcasm, or unkind words toward our children and spouse. With this perspective, everything in the whole world centers on us. We are not living the moment so much as stuck in the moment with a very limited viewpoint. It is a burden to live this way, and a greater burden still because we see no end in sight, no way out of the difficulties and stress.

Being stuck in the moment like that means we are unable to appreciate it for what it is. I've been there, and I now regret it. It goes by so quickly. If I had it to do over again, my early parenting years would involve more smiling and less yelling.

In contrast, living in the moment with a bigger picture means recognizing that childhood is fleeting, that the "slice of infancy" in the pie of life is very, very small for each one of our children. Living in the moment with the bigger picture, allows us (usually) to laugh off the totally irrational toddler tantrum in response to being denied a popsicle for breakfast. It enables us to treasure the nighttime wake-ups snuggling with a newborn and to enjoy the early wake-up call from a kiddo in fuzzy footsie monster pajamas. It helps us to appreciate the chaotic family dinner with spilled drinks, rice on the floor, and recaps of the day at school or trip to the doctor.

Keeping the bigger picture in mind can be a powerful aid for parenting mortification. If we can truly live in the moment (rather than being stuck in the moment), we can also better die in the moment. We can die to ourselves, embracing the sacrifices and challenges of parenting knowing that these particular difficulties will not last forever. These are opportunities given to us in the present day; these little mortifications are ways of loving God now, at this moment. We are given by God these little people with their own minds, their own wills, their own souls. They are sometimes silly, sometimes snuggly, sometimes messy, sometimes loud, sometimes rude, sometimes dangerous, sometimes cute, sometimes smelly. God gives us the capacity to love them as they are and to guide them to Himself. It goes by so quickly. Don't miss the opportunity to live and die in the moment.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Accepting Help

(I'm so glad my friend Suzanne can come on Tuesdays to help me out!)

Independence. Independence is one of the most cherished and celebrated values of our modern life. And I don't mean the United States's independence from England. No, I am referring to that romantic ideal of making our way in the world with individual industriousness.

Unfortunately, that romantic ideal is not always very practical, especially when it comes to parenting and family life. The nuclear family set-up in the United States tends to make everything about the household and children depend on two people - Mom and Dad - who often have other (i.e., work) responsibilities outside the home as well.

I have already written about the imperfections of parenting situations. We seem destined to failure by the very nature of the demands placed upon parents living in isolated, nuclear families, and yet, these imperfect situations can also become an opportunity for our growth in holiness, particularly by offering up the difficult sacrifices occasioned by these imperfect situations, including when they seem detrimental to our children as well as our own sanity. This is definitely an opportunity for parenting mortification - death to self in order to grow closer to God through suffering and sacrifice.

But there is another mortifying aspect of these imperfect situations, namely, the practicality of asking for help  or accepting help when we'd prefer not to do so. There are many reasons that we do NOT want to ask for help. First among these reasons is the ideal of independence. We want to believe - as our society seems to communicate - that parenting is something we should either do entirely on our own or with the help of contractually hired and well-paid assistance, e.g. in a daycare setting. We seem to be surrounded by examples of parents who are able to do it all with ease. When we compare ourselves to these perfect families that have it all together, we can mistakenly think "If they can do it alone, we should be able to do it too!"

Related to this sense that we can and ought to do all the parenting and household work by ourselves is the notion that we are exhibiting weakness by asking for help and that it will change people's perceptions of us. No one wants to be seen as the lazy and dependent parent who can't get by without leaning on unwilling acquaintances. Asking for or even easily accepting help seems to imply that we are incapable of proper parenting. 

Moreover, we don't want to inconvenience people, and it can be hard to trust that offers to assist us are genuine. We don't want to transfer our difficulties to others or put them in a position of having to feel bad about saying no to our requests. Nor do we want eagerly to accept help if we don't know when we will be able to return the favor. We want to be able to reciprocate equally and sometimes, knowing that is not possible, we'd rather decline the assistance.

This concern about appearing weak or dependent on others can be a particularly sensitive area as a family grows larger. There is always that lingering fear that if we accept help, people will whisper behind our backs, wondering why we had another child if we can't take care of raising them and running a household. There is a possibility that others will complain about having to take up our parenting slack. The potential judgment will not simply mean weakness, laziness, or dependence, but also irresponsibility.

One final reason to avoid asking for or accepting help is simply because we want always to be in control of every situation, seeing ourselves as the center of the universe for our kids and household. Sometimes, we would rather do things badly than relinquish our control. We'd rather secure safety for our kids than allow them an opportunity for growth and independence and learning from others.

Because of these reasons, asking for and accepting help can be embarrassing! It's just not something that we want to do. Despite, or even because of the difficulty, I suggest that asking for and accepting help are valuable opportunities for parenting mortification. There is always a risk of humiliation, but embracing that risk is part of the mortification, the dying to self and letting go of our ego. Allowing help from others is in fact a testament to an important Christian tenant: we rely on each other in this whole project of life. We can't do it all on our own... or perhaps, better said, we shouldn't do it all on our own. It is an error of pride to act as though everything depends on us when it comes to our children and household.

It can be challenging to admit to ourselves that both we and our children benefit from the help of others. Moreover, we often forget the benefit that comes to others from helping us. If asking for or accepting help can require sacrifice on our part, providing that help also requires sacrifice in a way that can be naturally and spiritually beneficial to those willing to help.

All of this was brought home for me recently with the birth of my fifth child. I admit I tend toward the controlling side when it comes to running my household and parenting. I also value my independence and dislike appearing weak or needy. And, given that this is our fifth child, I am sensitive to criticisms of our desire for a large family.

The generosity of others during this time illustrated to me the wonderful gift of asking for and accepting help. From my parents to my prayer group, there are too many people to name. Our family benefited enormously from help with dishes and laundry, dinners dropped off at our house each night, and visitors who entertained our other children. Accepting this help was not easy for me, but it was good for me, both naturally and supernaturally. Four weeks out, we continue to benefit enormously from friends assisting with school drop-offs and pick-ups. It continues to be an opportunity for me to admit both my own weaknesses and the imperfection of the situation and to embrace the sacrifice of relying on others' generosity in order for me, my family...and hopefully my benefactors (!) to grow closer to God.

Edited on 2.3.15 to incorporate the comments from Gail Egan.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Labor and Delivery

Parenting mortification is all about taking the difficulties of parenting and embracing them as opportunities to die to self so as to grow closer to God. Perhaps no opportunity for mortification stands out so poignantly as that of giving birth. For women, it usually involves discomfort or - perhaps more accurately said - intense pain. For men, it often involves feelings of powerlessness. For both moms and dads, childbirth can be scary, and even with the anticipated joy of a sweet babe, it's not, well, super-fun. Or, as I said, after my most recent delivery, giving birth "is not my fave." And I should add that I had really fantastic midwives, a great hospital, a wonderful waterbirth and excellent support from my husband and my sister (who is also a midwife). Even with all that, childbirth is still not one of my favorite things to do.

Despite that, I have found it to be a good opportunity for mortification. Although I'm proud of my pain tolerance, I don't particularly like the pain of labor contractions. Since I don't like that pain, but I know I have to go through it, I've made an effort with each of my labors/deliveries to identify some very special prayer intentions, whether people that I know personally who are in need of particular help or situations in the world where I've felt otherwise limited in my contributions to help. It's been beneficial for me to consider these prayer intentions prior to labor and delivery, both for reflection and also because sometimes in the midst of labor it's difficult to think clearly about such things. The discomforts of pregnancy are also great opportunities to pray for others by offering those little sufferings; the discipline of trying to do this (rather than just complaining) is a good preparation for childbirth.

When a painful labor contraction is about to hit, if it's possible, I try to call to mind one of the prayer intentions, offering the pain of that contraction. Thinking about the intention can be a good distraction, or, at least for me, it makes the discomfort more meaningful. The pain is not being wasted, but rather is helping others in need, as well as helping me to grow closer to God by embracing suffering, as did Christ when he embraced the cross.