A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

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.