A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Friday, February 14, 2020

Sick Days

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

It's the season for colds, flu, and the stomach bug. Everyone seems to be reminding us to get a flu shot, wash our hands, cover our sneezes, take probiotics, and do everything we can to prevent spreading germs and getting sick. And, of course, these steps are important and beneficial. But the fact is, because we have children (who don't have the best germ-avoiding habits) and busy households, we simply won't be able to avoid all the germs this winter.

The idea that a complete avoidance of sickness may even be possible is best suited to the childless and those who can somehow isolate themselves this winter. Recently such a person informed my husband that he had only taken one sick day off of teaching in the last fifteen years. Ironically, my husband had the stomach bug the previous week. If you get vomited on by a distressed toddler every two hours for a whole night, it's pretty hard to avoid getting sick. As parents of six, including little ones, we get sneezed on, coughed on, vomited on, etc. with some frequency.

While trying to minimize the spread of germs and preventing illness in the household is a worthwhile pursuit to be incorporated into our lifestyle, there is also something to be said for expecting the sickness of our children and ourselves, embracing that, and serving the sick with generosity. Protecting one's health can allow one to serve God with energy. But the inability to prevent illness in our home can also allow us to serve God.

Let us remember that visiting the sick is one of the seven corporal works of mercy recognized by our Church as a particular way of doing God's will. In our tradition, we have many wonderful saints who dedicated their lives to caring for the sick, especially those who were ostracized because of their illness. The Church began hospitals to care for the sick who were unable to attain adequate care. One sociologist has suggested that the Church flourished when Christians cared for each other, rather than isolating themselves and ignoring the needy, in the midst of plagues. There are also many saints recognized for embracing their own illness, seeing it as an opportunity to grow closer to God by uniting their suffering to Christ's cross. And even now, many Catholic organizations and religious orders seek to provide care for the sick.

Despite this positive view of embracing sickness and care for the sick, there is a certain normal trepidation when a child comes home from school with the news that his classmate vomited next to him in school that morning or when a child lets you know that nine of 17 students were absent due to flu. As much as we might recognize the good of embracing the cross through our own and our children's sickness, we also know that this will throw off our schedule - the pressing deadlines, the regular commitments, etc. We can anticipate additional loads of laundry, trying to fit in trips to the pediatrician or urgent care, missing out on fun events we've planned, and trying to nurse everyone back to health, often while also actually being sick ourselves.

It's not easy, and it's not fun. If we approach it merely with a spirit of resignation to our duty, that is completely understandable. And if our kids watch a little more television than normal in that extra-long month of February, no one can really blame us. This aspect of parenting was not something we sought out when we dreamed of having children in our lives. We never laid awake at night envisioning scrubbing the carpet with paper towels and disinfecting wipes or imagining rearranging our busy day in order to get a strep or flu test for our children.

And yet, the fact that we would not choose caring for the sick or being sick ourselves is precisely why this becomes such a great opportunity for us. When we are physically exhausted, yet not able to have a "sick day," we may perform our tasks with resignation rather than enthusiasm. But that is a beautiful thing; the human body is amazing. Even tired and weak, we can and will provide for the needs of our children. We may be grumpy, but we will not abandon them. Sometimes uniting ourselves to Christ and his cross means struggling up that hill to Calvary, barely able to move but doing it anyway because we must.

Even when we are not ourselves sick, it's understandable not to be cheerful about a child's 103 temperature or being homebound when we have errands to run. Sickness can be sanctifying, but we don't choose it for our children, nor do we desire the disruption in our own lives. Yet this is a great opportunity for us to die to ourselves and our own plans and ambitions, and to focus on what God is calling us to at that moment. Our compassion, generosity, and calm concern can also become a great witness to our children about the Christian life. Neglecting our household tasks to spend the day holding a sick toddler is just as much a way of doing God's will as the dishes, and sometimes, this is precisely God's will for us at the moment: to live in the mess, extending his love and charity to those who are suffering in our own home.

If we can see the value of caring for the sick and accepting our own sickness, then we should also be able to extend our concern for others around us who are suffering. We know that this is the season for illness, and sometimes we know that our friends are in need. Many people go far out of their way to avoid those who are sick, but, as Christians, we should make efforts to go out of our way to help those who are sick, even beyond our own houses. (With exceptions, of course, for those who are already immune-compromised or have serious reason to avoid sickness.) We can offer to drop off some Gatorade or Tylenol, stop by the bakery to bring fresh-baked bread, deliver a flower bouquet, or make some homemade soup for those we know are sick. If we are truly concerned about introducing sickness to our own home, it's easy to leave such care packages outside someone's front door. We shouldn't let the modern inclination purposely to avoid those who are sick become our own perspective. The germy winter months can seem long and miserable, but we can still make good come of them with a spirit of Christian generosity and willingness to embrace the cross.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

In Praise of Noise

In our engagement year and the early years of our marriage, my husband and I often had graduate studies work dates at noisy coffee shops. He always settled into his work immediately, voraciously reading his assignments for the next class. I, on the other hand, had to dig out a pair of earplugs from my bag before I could hope to have a chance of concentrating on Thomas Aquinas or Karl Rahner. 15 years and six kids later, I recently found myself working on a book review at a cafe, and I was delighted to discover that I still had a functional pair of earplugs in my bag! In fact, I needed them. I would have been headed to a quieter spot soon if I hadn't found them.

A few years ago, an older, childless friend of mine dropped in on our family in the morning of a non-school day. Four of my kids had been quietly, and with great concentration, playing with Legos at the dining room table for an hour or so. My friend and I were chatting away when a fight broke out over who was using what brick for what purpose, etc. My attempts to diffuse the situation were ignored, the loud argument resumed, and I eventually went back to talking to my friend. Rather than responding, however, she interjected, "I can see you LIKE noise! It's not even bothering you!"

I know she wasn't trying to offend me, but, well, I was offended, especially when she blamed it on my midwestern upbringing, suggesting that most parents on the East Coast know how to raise their children to be quiet. Apparently, I was doubly guilty, for being immune to noise and not successfully teaching my children always to be quiet. Ironically, I felt I was constantly reminding my children to be quiet! And I often found the noise of the household overwhelming.

Who enjoys the sound of squabbling siblings or demanding children? Who likes to hear a newborn crying to nurse or a toddler throwing a tantrum about being served milk in the wrong cup? Who wants 24 hours in a pediatric ER, listening to various children screaming in nearby rooms as they undergo painful bloodwork and medical exams? Do parents look forward to the sound of obnoxious, blasting teenager music or the grade schooler learning to play clarinet? No! We never set out to have a noisy household. And yet, we can  accept it as part of our lives right now. It is a mortification, an opportunity to die to ourselves and offer to God a sacrifice of our own personal preferences.

Silence has long been praised by Catholic spiritual writers, and it remains a popular topic today as well. "Noise," however, has been expanded to include technology encroaching into our daily lives. This means that busy Catholic parents can now be scolded for being too tied to their phones, despite the expectation from schools, health providers, coaches, etc. that they always be available. Even with the increasing demands on our time, we busy parents often seem to be blamed for not being able adequately to prioritize our prayer life, which would be exhibited in quiet holy hours and silent retreats. And yet, while spiritual writers continue to emphasize the necessity of silence, very few offer to jump in and babysit for six kids, do three loads of laundry, help with homework, drive kids to basketball practice, and make dinner, such that this hour of free time would be possible on a daily basis.

Perhaps it is better for busy parents to look to someone like Fr. Walter Ciszek for inspiration. In his books He Leadeth Me and With God in Russia, we find the description of how this Polish-American Jesuit priest found himself condemned to hard labor in a Siberian prisoner camp in the mid-20th century. He had very little "choice" when it came to his daily activities of digging ditches or shoveling coal. He had no say in when he woke up or had meals. And yet, he did not give up his Catholic spirituality or Catholic priesthood in these circumstances. He found ways to offer his hard labor to God and even to minister to people by giving retreats, based on the Spiritual Exercises, while people worked. Fr. Ciszek didn't allow his situation to prevent him from seeking out and serving God.

Our situation is not really as dire as a Siberian labor camp, and yet, we too often find circumstances out of our control. As parents, we constantly find ourselves unable to follow the schedule we would like, and even when we try to organize our day to prioritize prayer, it may not work out. For example, I recently missed my planned daily Mass to take my five year old son to urgent care for staples in his head. As caretakers of children, we often can't control our circumstances. Thus many of us might benefit from the words of Fr. Jacques Philippe:
"We often live with this illusion. With the impression that all would go better, we would like the things around us to change, that the circumstances would change. But this is often an error. It is not the exterior circumstances that must change; it is above all our hearts that must change" (Part 2, 8).
Thus if we have faith, we will see that God can reach us even in such imperfect circumstances:
"They will see that many of the 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...However many imperfections we may have, rather than lament them and try to rid ourselves of them at any price, they could be splendid opportunities to make progress -- in humility as well as in confidence in God and his mercy -- and thus in saintliness." (Part 2, 8.).
Of course, we can continue to recognize the value of silence for the spiritual life, especially looking for the opportunity for our own personal times of prayer. But if a silent retreat seems out of our reach, or an hour of adoration seems impossible with the demands of family life, we should not be hard on ourselves. In humility, we can see that the willingness to embrace the noise and give up the silence can also help us to grow closer to God. In short, here are three points of summary:
  1. Silence is a good, and rightly praised. We should regularly re-examine our lives to determine if there are ways to fit in times of silence for personal prayer. I have great admiration for my friends who commit to a 4 a.m. hour of adoration or prioritize a half hour of quiet mental prayer before the kids awake. If we can make time for silence, we should.
  2. Noise can be embraced as a sacrifice. We don't have to like noise or grow accustomed to it in order for us to grow from it. But the constant noise of family life will benefit us most spiritually when we consciously offer it to God as a sacrifice that we are making to do his will. Noise might be part of God's pedagogy for us. Despite the tone of some spiritual writers, we are not inferior Catholics if we find ourselves unable to prioritize times of silent prayer. Rather, God might want to teach us how to find him in the midst of noise and chaos. He may desire an increase in our humility, recognizing the failures of our parenting and the need for greater dependence upon him.
  3. Our circumstances can and will change! Especially as parents of young children, our circumstances are constantly changing. We may be able to prioritize silence and silent prayer at certain times of our lives, though not at others. If we hold onto the value of silence, we can more willingly offer noise as a sacrifice and look forward to a time when silence is a better possibility for our lives.

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.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Advent Opportunity

It’s that time of the year again, where friends, family, and stores are full-swing in the Christmas spirit. There is much to celebrate about an increasingly secular culture where people nonetheless throw themselves into a holiday that is centered around the birth of Jesus Christ. This time of the year provides more material reminders of the holiday than any other, from songs to trees to lights to to cookies to nativity sets. Even those who do not honor the “reason for the season” seem to be a little kinder, a little more generous, and a little more cheerful in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Given this, it can seem particularly ironic when faithful Catholics try to direct focus back to the penitential and preparatory season of Advent. Instead of focusing on the thorn – the loss of Advent in our culture – why not simply acknowledge the rose, which is the increasing attention given to Christmas?

Looking at this as a simple either/or dilemma, however, does not really provide a solution in terms of the practicality of how Catholics choose to live in those weeks leading up to Christmas. We lose out on something if we disdain those who put their trees up on Thanksgiving and refuse to attend Christmas parties that happen during Advent. In particular, we may give the impression that we are “anti-Christmas.” But we also lose out on something if we ignore the liturgical messages given to us during Mass throughout the season of Advent and instead act as though the Christmas season precedes Christmas day. Specifically, in losing the preparation, we may also lose the celebration.

There are ways, however, to join in the joy and cheerfulness that we see around us while also practicing the preparation and reflection characteristic to the season of Advent. Advent has long been considered “the little Lent.” Like Lent, Advent is characterized by the color purple. It is a color that denotes preparation, but, more importantly, the color denotes penitence. Historically, the Catholic Church at times practiced daily fasting and abstinence from meat throughout the season of Advent. In some parts of the world, Wednesdays and Fridays continue to be days of abstinence from meat during the season of Advent. A century ago, American Catholics were encouraged, although not required, to take up Advent resolutions, much like today’s Lenten resolutions.

It may seem like an “Advent resolution” could throw a serious wrench in an attempt at joining in secular culture’s Christmas cheer. But that doesn’t have to be the case…in fact, penance has long been associated with supernatural joy. And with the effervescence of Christmas spirit surrounding us, it is possible to gain much by practicing a bit of penance in the midst of this season.

Just as Lenten resolutions center around the traditional triad of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer, so also for Advent resolutions.

The practice of almsgiving asks us to sacrifice our own desires and needs in order to give to others. In the season of Advent, we are surrounded with invitations to partake in this kind of giving. We can support national organizations, such as Catholic Relief Services, which does amazing charitable work around the globe. Local Catholic Charities also provide tremendous resources to the community. The parish food pantry or other parochial ministries are great opportunities for almsgiving as well. Many parishes have giving trees, sandwich-making drives, and the like that can become part of our Advent.

Beyond these established organizations and ministries, we might also use the season of Advent to pay more attention to others around us, rather than getting lost in our own plans. We are often unaware of the many needs of friends, family, and acquaintances who are right in our midst. Advent is a good time to write a letter to an elderly family member, take a meal to the mom of a new baby, or visit someone who is sick and homebound. For those of us with kids at home, this almsgiving of time may seem impractical or even impossible. But there are other opportunities as well. For example, Advent may be the time to save a parent a trip by offering to take his child to and from sports practice. With a little creativity and increased intention to the needs of those around us, we can find ample opportunity for almsgiving.

Fasting, as mentioned above, used to characterize the season of Advent, as it did Lent. Our Eastern brothers and sisters in the faith continue to practice a Philippian fast (beginning on November 15th after the feast of St. Philip) prior to the great feast of Christmas. Most of us Catholics are quite out of the habit of fasting, but, nonetheless, there are some smaller “fasts” we can make in the weeks prior to Christmas.

Some suggestions include giving up sweets, alcohol, meat, or snacks between meals. While reminding us that we are still preparing for Christmas, abstaining from such foods during Advent can help accentuate the joy and celebration on Christmas day and throughout the Christmas season. For those that dread the long season of Lent, note that the season of Advent is much shorter than Lent! Of course, we may find ourselves in situations, such as Christmas parties, where we are expected to partake of celebratory food and drink. One way of addressing this is to select the cookie we least desire or limit ourselves to only one drink.

Like Lent, Advent is a great time to renew our prayer life. In particular, during Advent we might spend time reflecting on the coming of Christ: in his birth in Bethlehem, at the end of time, and in the Eucharist. The daily Mass readings for the season of Advent are rich in meaning. The “O antiphons,” featured in the traditional song “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” also inspire a sense of desire and anticipation for Christmas. The nightly lighting of an Advent wreath, marking the weeks with the three purple and one pink candle remind us that we are still waiting for Christmas. Those who pray the Rosary regularly may benefit by focusing upon the joyous mysteries during Advent.

There are times where we may feel overwhelmed by shopping and wrapping, cleaning and cooking. But these acts, too, can be occasions for prayer if we choose to make them so.

Finally, one of the best ways to prepare our hearts for the celebration of Christmas is to partake in the sacrament of Confession. The penitential acts of identifying and confessing our sins may be the most important preparation for Christmas, and the grace received during absolution will surely be one of the best Christmas gifts we get. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, there is much that we have to do, but in the end, we have to remember that we aren’t ultimately responsible for Christmas happening. It is a gift that we can receive, better or worse, depending upon our preparation.

So, as Advent begins and continues alongside the already happening Christmas celebrations, let us do our best to live Advent well. Such a commemoration of this season will not only prepare us for Christmas day, but also contribute to the joy we see around us.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Favorite Christmas Books

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the great ways that parents of young children can prepare their (and their children's) hearts for Christmas is by reading Christmas books to them. It's been four years since I posted my original list of five favorites, so I thought it was time to update the list. My top two favorites actually haven't changed...but I do have some additions for parents who are looking for more than just five books to read during Advent with their kids! I've included a one-line takeaway for busy parents of young children, something we might reflect on when we have to stop reading to clean up the kitchen or put in the laundry.

1. The Miracle of St. Nicholas by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Judith Brown
In this story, the little Russian boy Alexi longs to celebrate Christmas in the town church, which had been closed down in a political persecution of Christians years ago. He starts cleaning the church and ends up bringing the village together. It turns out that all the things that had seemed to be missing - candlesticks, the icon of St. Nicholas...and even the priest - were actually there all along, hidden by villagers who hung onto their faith even in difficult circumstances. The first read is a real tear-jerker...actually, I cry pretty much every time when the priest finally processes in to begin their Christmas Eve Mass. Alexi knows what Christmas is all about.

Takeaway: "A miracle is when God enters into your dream, but first you must have the dream." As parents, we have a lot of expectations and plans for our children and our own lives, but the ultimate dream should be like Alexi's - to worship God and to bring others, especially our children, to that worship as well.

2. The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola
This is another tear-jerker, and we love it so much that we leave it out all year-round. It tells the story of little Giovanni, an orphan who knows how to juggle. He spends his whole life as a juggling clown traveling throughout Italy until finally he is an elderly man and a subject of public mockery. He returns to his home town of Sorrento and stumbles upon the church on Christmas during the midnight Mass. His final juggling performance is to the statue of Mary and the baby Jesus. After a long life, he has finally discovered that his juggling takes on meaning when it is offered to God. The confirmation of the sanctification of his juggling and the pleasure of the Christ child is evident in the statue's changed appearance.

Takeaway: "For you, sweet child, for you!" During the season of Advent, it is easy to rush about, attending school holiday concerts, buying gifts, preparing meals. It's good to keep in mind that whatever we are doing, it is for Jesus, the "sweet child." Such an intention transforms our actions and transforms our Advent, preparing us for Christmas.

3. Come and See by Monica Mayper
This book tells the story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem through the perspective of some children and their family as they partake in the celebration surrounding that first Christmas. The illustrations are beautiful and convey the excitement that we ought all to cultivate at the thought of the  nativity. It's also singing-friendly, which my kids appreciate.

Takeaway: Simply the excitement of Christmas. It is so exciting and so joyful that it is worth getting up in the night and celebrating. Don't forget that joy in the midst of preparing Christmas.

4. The Night of Las Posadas by Tomie dePaola
This book tells the story of a village in New Mexico that every year performs the cultural tradition of Las Posadas, re-enacting Mary and Joseph's travel to Bethlehem and difficulty finding a place to stay. In the story, Sister Angie, who always coordinates the celebration is particularly excited because her niece and niece's new husband are playing the role of Mary and Joseph. Sister Angie gets sick, however, and the couple gets stuck in a snowstorm. Another young couple ("friends of Sister Angie") steps in to play the parts of Mary and Joseph, and, in a classic dePaola move, it turns out that it is St. Mary and St. Joseph themselves (from a carved statue) who have helped make the posadas a success. Beautiful illustrations, culturally enriching, and focused on the holy family, not as a legend, but as people who still interact with us today.

Takeaway: "I pray that my heart will always be open so that Jesus may have a place to rest." It's good to remember the way that the faith is rejected in so many ways in our secular culture; we can see this like the rejection of the Holy Family found in the tradition of Las Posadas. In such a hostile environment, it is all the more important to pray for our own hearts to be open so Jesus has a place to rest.

5. The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola
Another dePaola book, this one tells the Mexican legend of how the poinsettia came to be. Everyone in the town is preparing for Christmas, each with their own gifts to bring to the baby Jesus. Lupe is excited because her mother has been asked by the priest to weave a new blanket for the baby Jesus statue to be placed in the nativity set. It is quite an honor. But Lupe's mother falls sick, and little Lupe is unable to complete the blanket. She is embarrassed that she has nothing to give baby Jesus, and so she hides and does not participate in the procession. An old woman (St. Anne, the mother of Mary, as we later learn when we see Lupe walk past her statue in the church) tells Lupe her mom will recover and advises Lupe to make some gift to the baby Jesus. Lupe gathers a bundle of weeds and places them before baby Jesus, to the shock of the others in the church. She kneels to pray and when she opens her eyes, the weeds have burst into beautiful poinsettias. Upon leaving the church, it appears that all of these weeds are now boasting red stars.

Takeaway: "Any gift is beautiful because it is given." Sometimes as busy parents, and especially during this time of year, we feel spiritually inadequate, finding it difficult to stay committed to prayer with all the distractions and added responsibilities of Christmas. But whether putting together teacher gifts, trying to determine the logistics of stretching the December budget, or preparing to host extended family, we have "gifts" for Jesus that can be beautiful when we give them in a spirit of generosity.

I told my little guy to pick his favorite, and he picked up this one!
6. Merry Christmas, Strega Nona. This is another wonderful Tomie dePaola book, here featuring one of his regular characters, Strega Nona, or Grandma Witch. One of the helpful aspects of this story is that it mentions Advent, shows an Advent wreath, and illustrates for children all the work that goes into an adult's preparation for Christmas. Strega Nona's worker Anthony would prefer to take the easy way out of these preparations by having Strega Nona use her magic. But Strega Nona insists that she can't use her magic at Christmas time. Anthony seems to fail in his duties of helping Strega Nona prepare for the feast she is hosting, but, in the end, we discover that Anthony does understand the magic of Christmas.

Takeaway: "Christmas has a magic of its own." So often busy parents are stressed during Advent because they realize how much of making Christmas special depends on them (as it does for Strega Nona in this story). Parents  have to buy the gifts, stuff the stockings, prepare the food, etc. During Advent it's important for us to remember that Christmas has a magic of its own. Advent and Christmas are not about US and our work, but about God's gratuitous and generous love. It's this knowledge that drives our preparations for Christmas in a thoughtful way.

7. Old Befana. In this retelling of the classic Italian story, Old Befana is known for "always sweeping" and occasionally baking. She's an old woman who lives alone, an ordinary, somewhat isolated but hard-working life. One night something unusual happens: a bright star keeps her awake, and then a procession of people led by three kings passes by her cottage. A child asks her about the star, explains the procession, and invites her to come and find the "baby king" who has come to save the poor. Old Befana initially doesn't consider this request, but then she changes her mind and decides to come along.......after baking treats for the new mother and thoroughly sweeping out her cottage. By the time she leaves, she can no longer find the procession, and is left to search for the child king. Not knowing which child is the king, she leaves treats for every child she finds, which explains the Italian custom of gifts from Old Befana on Epiphany.

Takeaway: Don't procrastinate! Although sweeping and baking can be great ways of serving God, sometimes God is calling us to something more, and we let our excuses stand in the way.
Takeaway2: It's never too late to look for Jesus! Even if we are spiritual procrastinators, especially during Advent, we shouldn't give up, but rather, start over again in the search.

8. Strega Nona's Gift. This Christmas story also features Strega Nona and Big Anthony. One nice thing about this book is that it mentions some of the feasts during Advent and Christmas, including St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucia, Christmas, and Epiphany, as well as some of the Italian traditions surrounding those holidays. Big Anthony eats the special dish Strega Nona made for the goat, so the goat eats his blanket, and Anthony gets no sleep. But when he gets the fava bean in the Epiphany sweet bread, he is made king of the feast and gets to choose a gift...so he gets a blanket and asks Strega Nona to make the goat's dish again so he can give it to the goat in apology. It's a kind of silly story, but it's helpful that it mentions various feasts and not just Christmas.

Takeaway: "And POOF! The holiday season was over for another year." The holiday season, including all these special feasts before and during the Christmas season go by quickly, especially for busy parents of young children. This book reminds us how quickly the holidays are over, and hence can remind us to be mindful and enjoy the celebrations.

9. A Christmas Carol. The Charles Dickens classic is a must-read for Christmastime. There are probably many great children's versions of his story, but we happen to have this rhyming version, which amazingly manages to capture the story pretty well. It's a great reminder during this time of year that we are called to reach out to others, to help others, and to enjoy the company of others, rather than getting caught up in material things.

Takeaway: Try to make Advent and Christmas a season of generous, joyful giving for you and your family, keeping in mind the big picture of past, present, and future.

10. The Story of the Three Wise Kings. This telling of the wise men is easies to find in the book Joy to the World, which also includes two of the above books by Tomie dePaola, namely, the Legend of the Poinsettia, and The Night of Las Posadas. The account by dePaola combines tradition (giving the wisemen the names of Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, coming from three different places in the world) and the biblical account, while also drawing from the liturgical prayers and imagery for the celebration of Epiphany.

Takeaway: We must be seekers, seeking for Christ, and willing to follow the star, that is, to do God's will, wherever it leads.

A few books particularly good for toddlers

1. One Night in Bethlehem. This touch and feel board book shows a child interacting with a  nativity set while imagining what he would have done if he had been at the manger on Christmas. It's short, but with a nice message for children about doing things for Jesus, while also providing a model of interacting with nativity sets.

Takeaway: It's good to imagine ourselves at the nativity, participating with gifts, and then see our everyday actions as gifts.

2. Who is Coming to Our House? Someone is coming to the "house" of the animals, so they all make efforts to prepare. When Mary and Joseph arrive and Jesus is born, the animals' preparations indicate the welcome for the holy family.

Takeaway: Again, if animals can make preparations for the Holy Family, we should too!

3. Friendly Beasts. This is simply an illustrated version of the traditional English Christmas carol, meaning you can sing the whole book! The music is found at the end. The donkey, the cow, the sheep, and the dove are all eager to explain what they did for Jesus on Christmas.

Takeaway: Once more, if the animals made sacrifices for Jesus, we can too!

4. Away in a Manger. There are probably many books that basically just have the song "Away in a Manger" as their words. This is a great song (and hence makes for a great book) because of its description of baby Jesus, plus the words are more or less the format of a prayer perfect for children.

Takeaway: We are still children, too, children of God! So the prayer of this song applies as much to us as to our children.

5. The Little Drummer Boy. This board book, beautifully illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, simply has the song of the little drummer boy, who is too poor to buy a gift for baby Jesus, but uses his drumming talent to play for the new king. It's a great song, and always a good message for small kids (who don't have their own money to buy gifts) that they can still do things for Jesus.

Takeaway: Even the poor and children can offer gifts to Jesus! This is a good reminder to offer our work to the Lord as a gift.

Secular books worth mentioning

There are a lot of secular "Christmas" or holiday books, and some of these are worthwhile having around too. While they don't mention the reason for the season, as it were, they nonetheless contain valuable messages and good reminders for adults and children.

1. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. This now-classic Dr. Seuss book is probably too well-known to require a summary. While it's not about Jesus, the message makes clear that "Maybe Christmas, perhaps, doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more." Despite all the efforts of the Grinch, he can't stop Christmas from coming, and he can't stop the joy of the Who's.

Takeaway: Even if we fail in a multitude of ways during the season of Advent, Christmas will still come. Christmas is definitely more than just a compilation of all of the little difficulties that can make Advent challenging. The knowledge that Christmas does not depend on us, but on God's gratuitous love should be reassuring and help us to maintain peacefulness.

2. Llama, Llama Holiday Drama. This catchy rhyming book by Anna Dewdney is one of those "holiday" books that is pretty non-specific, including Chanukah references, elf on the shelf references, and lots of mentions of shopping, as well as other preparations like baking, crafts, and decorating. In the midst of all of it, Little Llama is overcome by "holidrama," so his mom notes, "Waiting, wishing, wanting things, we forget what this time brings. Gifts are nice, but there's another, the true gift is we have each other." Obviously this doesn't quite capture the Christmas story of the Holy Family in Bethlehem, but it is a reminder that there's more to Christmas than presents.

Takeaway: Avoid holidrama! Sometimes parents are like this little llama, rushing around, trying to do everything and so caught up that we can't prepare spiritually. This is also a reminder not to let holiday stress affect our kids. We want them to "have us" during Advent and Christmas, not just have gifts.

3. Socks for Supper. In this story, a poor farmer and his wife have nothing to eat but turnips. A nearby couple owns a cow and has milk and cheese. The poor farmer and his wife want to trade something for some cheese, but all they have is old socks! The other couple accepts the socks and gives them cheese. Before long, the poor couple wants more cheese, but they don't have any socks, so the wife unravels the husband's sweater and knits a pair of socks for the trade. This continues until the husband's sweater is completely gone. Meanwhile, the other wife has been knitting a Christmas sweater for her husband using the socks...but it turns out to be too big. Noticing that the poor farmer has no sweater, they give the sweater to him. This is just a basic good story about generosity at Christmas time, as well as a good reminder for children that some people have very simple Christmases.

Takeaway: Sometimes we know a person's financial situation, and sometimes we don't. Either way, it's good to be generous and aware of the people around us.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Easy Advent

The "holiday season," as it's conventionally known, is supposed to be a great time of fun events and joyful traditions. Yet, for many parents of young children, it can feel very stressful. Details like figuring out gifts for the kids (and not going overboard, plus not going broke) and gifts for extended family, deciding about (and preparing for) travel to visit (or host) family, etc. The holiday season is a time when we just want to do it all! There is so much that is unique, fun, and seemingly essential for giving kids the joy of this time of the year.

Of course, for Catholics, this time of the year is actually the season of Advent, a penitential and preparatory season for the celebration of Christmas. In our culture today, it would be pretty difficult to disentangle oneself (and one's family) entirely from the delights of Christmas during the season of Advent. Nor do we who love the birth of Jesus want to be perceived as grinches during the weeks prior to Christmas Day.

So here are some ideas for having an "Easy Advent" with young kids that can also be spiritually fulfilling as preparation and not too stressful. Pick and choose...don't feel you have to do them all!

1. The Advent wreath. This traditional Catholic practice is a family favorite, which is easy to incorporate into daily life. Simply light the candle(s) before dinner while singing a verse of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" or some such Advent song.

2. All those Christmas cards. We want to pray for our friends and family, but it can be easy to forget these intentions in the midst of holiday busy-ness. Let the cards you receive in the mail be an opportunity. Set aside the day's cards by your Advent wreath, and prior to lighting the candles in the evening, open those cards to show to the kids, and then offer a prayer for these family and friends before you sing.

3. Christmas books. We are blessed - truly blessed - with the material culture surrounding Christmas. It's really the only time of the year with such a multitude of books, songs, and images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. With extra demands, it may be challenging to accommodate the kind of Advent spiritual reading you'd personally like to do, but there are many beautiful Christmas books that can help to prepare your heart (as well as your children's) during the season of Advent. Here's a link to some of my favorite books.

4. Nativity set. It's great if you can have a nativity set available for your children to interact with. The Little People set has been with us for the last ten years. Playmobil also has a set available, and there are many other such sets. Children can play with these on their own (obviously), but it also can be nice to "act out" the story for them with the figures.

5. Sing! There are many wonderful Advent hymns, as well as Christmas songs that can be appropriate during Advent as they help the kids to understand and appreciate the meaning of Christmas. As St. Augustine said, when you sing, you pray twice...so definitely sing!

6. Advent calendars. I hear a lot of complaints from moms who are sick of the Elf on the Shelf and having to make that happen for their kids in the weeks before Christmas, which are already so stressful. Advent calendars are a much easier (and more traditional) way to count down the days. You can buy an empty one and just fill with a piece of chocolate (or something else that's simple) for each day, or it's also possible to find inexpensive pre-filled chocolate Advent calendars.

7. Incremental decorations. Most of us LOVE Christmas decorations. And it can be hard to wait until Christmas eve (as Catholics used to do) to put up the tree, garlands, etc. So one idea is to try to put up decorations incrementally, perhaps on the Sundays of Advent...and try to save the tree for Gaudete Sunday (the third Sunday) or the fourth Sunday of Advent. It can be helpful to save at least SOME decorations for Christmas Eve so the house looks different on Christmas day.

8. Celebrate the feasts! The month of December brings us St. Nicholas (December 6), Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12), and St. Lucia (December 13), among others. Coming from a German background, I find it natural to celebrate St. Nicholas' feast by having my kids leave out their shoes. Candy canes and chocolate coins are not just treats, but opportunities to talk about St. Nick the Catholic bishop who stood for the truth of the faith and also acted generously to help those who were poor. Our family tradition on this day has also been the gifting of matching Christmas pajamas, which the kids love. At times, I've also given them a Christmas/Catholic book on this day: something I'd like them to have, which I know they won't be excited by in the midst of more exciting presents on Christmas day. December 8 is a Solemnity, as we celebrate the patronal feast of the U.S., the Immaculate Conception. So this is a great night for a special dessert or some other celebration. Tomie de Paola's book "Our Lady of Guadalupe" is a great way to teach kids about the December 12 feast. It's also a good day to have some Mexican food or pan dulce. St. Lucia, patroness of light, is a good day to hang up some Christmas lights!

9. Jesus stocking. A cartoon written for a children's magazine in the 1950s showed students making an effort to do something special for Jesus during Advent as a "birthday gift" for Jesus. I recently learned of a way to make this concrete for young children by hanging up a Jesus stocking during Advent. When children do something good for Jesus (putting away their shoes, giving a brother a toy he wants, participating in the family Rosary, eating dinner without complaining, etc.), they can put this present in Jesus' stocking. You can either just write the gift on paper and put it in, or get little tokens or presents to represent those gifts. The idea is for Jesus to have lots of "gifts" by his birthday.

10. Penance and being choosy. Advent is a great time to take on an Advent resolution, akin to the Lenten resolution you might normally make during Lent. Advent is much shorter, so it's not quite the same type of Lenten marathon, but it can assist mindfulness of the preparation for Christmas. A family sacrifice (meat, sweets) can also be great...but don't make your kids hate Advent by making it austere and abstemious while the rest of the US is celebrating! Also, offer some of the stresses (gift-giving, baking, etc.) as penance, mortifications that are a dying to self in that it might not be how we'd choose to spend Advent. It's easy to get overwhelmed at this time of year: pray, offer it to God, grow in dependence upon God when you realize you have too much to do. Say no when necessary, and don't think you have to do EVERYTHING. Lastly, Advent is an excellent time to seek the sacrament of confession. What better way to prepare for Christmas, than by encountering God's forgiveness and mercy!

(For my previous thoughts on Advent, click here and here.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Dos and Don'ts of Supporting Stressed Parents

This blog was started with two ideas in mind. First, parenting in modern America is difficult for many people. Second, for those who take a Catholic perspective of suffering, this difficulty can be fruitful at the supernatural level, helping parents to grow in holiness. Now, of course, not everyone takes such a perspective regarding the challenges of parenting. And, in fact, even those of us who believe in the concept of parenting mortification often still find parenting to be overwhelming at times…and we find ourselves falling short of the ideal of dying to self and living for God. This should give us the sympathy needed to interact with other parents who are also having a hard time with challenges of parenting.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas for interacting with those who are struggling with parenting. Sadly, most of the unhelpful responses are examples I've actually witnessed! But, on the other hand, the charitable responses are also real examples I've witnessed. We can support parents if we are willing to try!

DO sympathize and DO commend.  Many times when a parent voices a complaint, the parent wants someone to listen kindly, to assure them that many people have this struggle, and to affirm the parent in his or her efforts.

Example 1.
Stressed parent (hereafter SP): “The baby has been congested and he’s teething…my husband was away for work, and I feel like I haven’t slept well in weeks! With the toddler around too, I don’t even have time for a shower!”

Charitable response (hereafter CR): “Oh my gosh, that is so stressful! The kids look really happy, too…you must be doing a good job staying positive with them.”

Example 2.
SP: “The house is winning the battle. I just cannot keep it clean. If I take time to unload the dishwasher, the twins pull all the books off the shelves while I’m doing it. I put in a load of laundry and when I’m done I look over to find toys dumped out of the toybox all over the floor.”

CR: “Yes, they are really at a tough age for that. They’re big enough to make messes, but not really able to help clean them up. It must be really hard for you…I know you prefer to keep things neat.”

DON’T offer unsolicited solutions. Given that many parents are looking for understanding, sympathy, and encouragement, suggested solutions can come as a slap in the face. They can imply (or sometimes outright state) that a parent caused a particular problem or that a parent could easily solve the problem if only the parent were willing to make the effort. Moreover, unless the person giving the advice knows the situation really well, he or she is unlikely to offer advice that will become a permanent solution. On the other hand, it's perfectly OK to volunteer some ideas if someone is explicitly asking for solutions to a problem.

Example 1.
 SP: “It’s like I don’t even have time to eat! Trying to get all these kids food (and they are always hungry!), plus trying to keep up on the housework, and then with nursing the baby I am so hungry I get shaky by the time I can actually get myself some food (after serving everyone else).”

Unhelpful response (UR):  “Sounds like you need to learn how to make some Greek yogurt. It’s really easy to do and so healthy. It’d help you get through those tough moments.”

[What this stressed parent does NOT need is someone making her feel bad that she doesn’t make her own Greek yogurt. She’s already overwhelmed!]

Example 2.
SP: “The food budget is crazy these days! I never imagined how much those kids could eat when they got a little older.”

UR: “Well, the solution to this is easy: stop having kids.”

[OK…this is rude. And it also doesn’t solve the problem.]

Example 3.

SP: "The play room is just ruining my life. We have too much stuff and can never find anything. I love how you have your play room organized. Do you think you could help me figure out how to get some structure to it so the kids can maintain it better?"
CR: "I'd be glad to help you with that project. I think the first thing to do is to minimize the toys and replace the toybox with some shelves. I actually have some shelves I could give you...when do you want me to come over so we can get this project done?"

DON’T criticize. While proposing solutions is often well-intended if not well-thought-out, direct criticism is not either. It does more to embitter parents than to help them.

Example 1.

SP: “We really wanted to postpone pregnancy because my husband is being deployed and I live so far away from family. Plus we planned to save up some money so some day we can buy a house. I thought if we used NFP, playing by God’s rules, that we wouldn’t end up in this situation of being pregnant before we were ready.”

UR: “NFP is 99% effective. You obviously used it wrong. What did you expect?”

[The SP in this situation is obviously feeling overwhelmed. Maybe she did misunderstand how the fertility signs or charting works, but this response is not going to assist her in dealing with the situation at hand.]

Example 2.

SP: “Sorry about the kids’ behavior right now. It’s so hard to watch them for a whole weekend without my wife. By the end, I just have no patience.”

UR: “Well, I can see that! And maybe it’s your impatience that results in them being so loud. One would think the only thing they know how to do is fight over Legos!”

[The SP here already recognizes he’s in a less-than-ideal situation, and he recognizes his own failing in the situation too. No need to rub it in his face.]

DON’T announce that you’ve never had this problem.

Example 1.
SP: “Taking the kids to Church on Sunday has become such a trial! They’re normal kids, and they can be quiet at home, but it’s like the minute we walk through those doors they become crazy monkeys! There’s no way we can concentrate. All we want to do is make it through the Mass without being totally humiliated, you know?”

UR: “Hmmm…not really. My kids always sat quietly at Mass, but then, we practiced that at home and set a good example for them ourselves. Plus they were all such early readers that they were following along in the missal before they were five years old.”

[“But for the grace of God, there go I.” No need to make a parent feel bad for having problems you don’t.]

Example 2.
SP: “I never imagined that potty-training would be so difficult. All day long I’m cleaning out underwear in the toilet…and this is going on three months!”

UR: “Funny. My two boys potty-trained themselves around 20 months. I think parents tend to exaggerate the difficulty of potty-training.”

[If you know nothing about it, at least be polite.]

DO bring food or offer other help. American parenting is particularly challenging because we have so little help from others. The extended family system, which once could help out a young family, is no longer in place. We tend not to hire much help in the form of nannies or maids. What we do have left is kind, caring people, who are willing to inconvenience themselves a bit to make the lives of other people a bit better. We should be this kind of people.

Example 1.

SP: “I try to plan dinner ahead of time and get a head start on it when I can. But I feel like it usually ends up with a crying baby, a nagging toddler, and two kids needing help with homework while I’m trying to throw together a meal. It feels so impossible.”

CR: “This sounds really tough. I’ll bring you dinner on Thursdays for the next month. Maybe that will ease the burden a bit.”

Example 2.

SP: “I have all these phone calls to make, and I try to do them when the kids are all playing happily, but as soon as I pick up the phone, they start fighting and screaming. It’s so embarrassing that I end up procrastinating taking care of some important calls I need to make.”

CR: “I can totally help you out with this. When’s a good time for me to come by for a couple hours to play with the kids? I could do tomorrow morning or Wednesday afternoon.”

Example 3.

SP: “I’m so sick and tired. I just need to rest.”

CR: “In that case, could your daughter come over for a play date this afternoon? We can pick her up and drop her off when you’ve had a good nap.”

Example 4.

SP: “Pulling a sleeping baby out of the cozy crib just to bundle him up and put him in the car to get his sister from school is stressful! It always makes me a little sad.”

CR: “I have to pick up my son anyway. Can I get your daughter too? I’d be happy to pick her up for you and bring her to your house. Just make sure I’m on your pick-up list and the teacher knows.”

Of course, DO pray for them.  It’s great if you can do this the moment you recognize that someone is struggling; any simple prayer, in your own words or an Our Father or Hail Mary is great. A more substantial prayer, such as a Rosary is also a good idea.

And, related to this, DO offer mortifications for them. Voluntary mortifications can be done simply for our own spiritual benefit and discipline or in reparation for our own sins. But if you know someone is having a really hard time with something, you can also choose to do a voluntary mortification for their situation. For example, offer a cold shower for parents whose son has a serious health problem. Give up sweets as a prayer for a newborn who isn’t latching and nursing well. Sometimes these intentional sacrifices magnify the prayers because they are regular reminders of the other person's parenting difficulties.

Also DO talk to others about them if it will help, but DON’T make them into gossip. It can be good to get others praying for someone in need or helping parents going through a difficult time.

Example 1.
CR: “I was wondering if you’d be willing to join our schedule of people bringing meals to the Smith family. Her mother just died, and she’s in charge of all the funeral arrangements, on top of her work and family life. It’s going to be a hard few weeks for them.”

UR: “Did you see the Smith family at soccer practice yesterday? Those kids were totally out of control. I heard her mother died recently and she’s in charge of all the funeral arrangements, plus she couldn’t get out of a work project she’s doing right now. Poor thing – no wonder the kids are acting up. That’s too much going on. Hope she can get everything figured out, but then, she tends to be so disorganized.”

DO help them to see the supernatural perspective…when the moment is right.
Sometimes we may run into a parent who we know would be amenable to the idea of parenting mortification, but he’s never heard of “mortification” like this. This generation of American Catholics is perhaps the most ignorant of penitential practice ever, and so we can’t expect parents even to know about mortification, much less to have practiced it regularly. When we know someone is a committed, faithful Catholic, and she is struggling with a particular issue, it can help to suggest she offer the distress of that issue for another person in need. Although it may seem counterintuitive, sometimes accepting that suffering and offering it to God as a prayer for someone else in need actually alleviates the stress of the challenge. There’s a sense that someone is doing something – something very real indeed – for the good of another. This act can bring a person beyond his or her own suffering and assist in a feeling of connection with the mystical body of Christ.

This response is unlikely to be the first we offer to a stressed-out, overwhelmed parent. But, when suggested kindly and explained well, it may also be a good response that can be genuinely beneficial.

Example 1.

SP: “The last month of pregnancy is always so hard. I’m just ready to be done, especially with this constant heartburn! How is your other pregnant friend doing? Better than me, I hope?”
CR: “Actually, she’s in kind of a serious situation right now. They may end up having to do an early C-section for the safety of the baby, and she’s really dreading it and also really worried about the baby. Maybe you could offer your indigestion for the doctors to decide she can go full-term and for the baby to be OK.”

Example 2.

SP: “I’m beginning to feel like my wife will never be intimate with me again. She’s still complaining of pain from her incision site for the C-section, and she’s constantly worrying that the baby isn’t getting enough milk. She hasn’t worn anything other than yoga pants for like a month! What can I do?”

CR: “Wow, that must be really difficult. I know it’s tough when a wife isn’t enthusiastic about spending time with her husband...and that post-partum phase can seem to stretch on forever and ever. Maybe you could offer your frustrations as a prayer for her to heal up well, get some rest, and for the baby to start feeding a little better.”

We are capable of supporting parents! Anyone else have other good ideas?