A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Don't Let the Best (or Worst) Get the Best of You This Lent

As parents, Lent can be really tough. First, there's trying to fast on Ash Wednesday. As my daughter said to me, "Wait, that means you'll be fasting...and yelling at us!" It is hard to fast when you are simultaneously taking care of little people. At least when one is surrounded by adults, there is a standard of behavior that can win out even when one is feeling hangry.

Another thought that makes Lent tough on parents is the memory of past Lenten resolutions. It was somehow easier to take on those heroic Lenten penances when it was just you, spending your time how you wanted, choosing to go where you wanted, when you wanted, and to eat whatever you wanted, when you wanted. Now as parents, there are so many restrictions on us. The fact that I haven't set a morning alarm in 13 years is one indication of that. As if I ever decide when I'm going to wake up for the day!

If we aim to choose the "best" Lenten resolution by basing it on what our childless friends are doing, or based on what we've done in the past, we may be setting ourselves up for failure. It is preferable to choose the "better," more practical Lenten sacrifice than to choose the "best," which may prove impossible. We don't want our mortifications to mortify those around us, especially our children. It's ok, and even good, for them to see us struggle with abstaining from things we'd like to eat, or directing money from minor indulgences toward the poor, or sticking to our prayer commitments even when tired. But it's not ideal to fast every day, and then yell at them because we can't really handle it.

Life is already hard, every day, for parents trying to do their best. There are abundant mortifications, unchosen penances that fill our day. Because of that, we may also feel like Lent is a year-round season for us! It's fantastic if we can use those daily sufferings as penance, offering them up as mortifications that help us die to our own selfish desires.

My first child was due on Easter Monday, so those final days of my pregnancy coincided with Lent. I remember glaring at my husband when he asked what I was "giving up" for Lent. "Let's see, I've given up my physical comfort, my sleep, my normal eating," blah, blah, blah. I included all the expected gripes of a woman in the final trimester of pregnancy. Sometimes, as then, life feels hard enough to make Lent seem like an unnecessary add-on.

Does parenting often feel challenging? Do these struggles appear to have no end in sight? Don't parents already have far more mortifications than the average person? Absolutely, yes. It is normal and fine to recognize the difficulties inherent in trying to be a good parent. It's true that our parenting is more often criticized than appreciated.

And yet, we shouldn't let the worst of parenting life prevent us from making Lent feel different to us. There should be some way we can make this season of voluntary preparation and penance feel different. If we can accept that we can't do the "best" penance, we should accept that we shouldn't do the "worst" penance, that is, no particular voluntary penance at all.

Instead, we may be able to incorporate the involuntary mortifications into our Lenten practices. For example, if a teething baby has us awake at night, how about saying one station of the cross every time we are awakened? If we have to take kids to extra medical or dental appointments, why not say the Rosary while we drive? If our pantry is in need of cleaning, why not try the challenge of minimizing food shopping while working through all the food in the pantry during the season of Lent? If we recognize our phone as a distraction, why not put it on grayscale for Lent?

Sometimes Lent seems to amp up the pressure on an already stressed parent, but it doesn't have to be that way. There can be openings to God's grace, whether we do the best, most heroic penance or even if we do the worst (none at all) penance. But if we are willing to forego the best and avoid the worst, making some effort to observe the season of Lent, we invite that grace into our personal lives and, what's even better, into our Catholic homes.

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