(Station 4 from the outdoor stations at the mission in Santa Barbara, CA)
Photo credit: Damian Gadal
Photo credit: Damian Gadal
In many of my parenting mortification posts, I've dwelt on topics where we as parents have to deal with difficulties that directly affect us, physically and emotionally. Sleep deprivation, getting insulted, and having our possessions damaged are all challenges of parenting that become great opportunities to mortify ourselves - to die to self and live for God by turning our lack of choice in some circumstances into a choice to serve God.
The topic of this post is a little different - rooted not in those things that understandably inconvenience and annoy us - but rather, it is a challenge that stems precisely from the love we have for our children and our consequent desire for their well-being and happiness. We don't like to see our children in pain or suffering and as parents, we are supposed to do our best to address these issues. But sometimes we simply cannot remove the pain and suffering. How can we deal with this challenge?
I remember my first experience of maternal compassion, which began within the first days of my oldest child's birth. Already she had taken up permanent residence in my heart, and I felt that instinctual compulsion to protect her from all harm, holding her close to me as much as I could. So when it came time for a newborn jaundice test requiring a heel prick and a tiny vial of her blood, I actually cried for the few minutes it took the phlebotomist to collect enough blood. Again, with her first vaccines, I struggled knowing that we were causing her such pain and that she had no understanding as to why we would do this to her when she trusted us so implicitly. I literally could not handle it; I had to have my husband hold her down while the nurse administered the shots. That's how acute my maternal compassion was when it came to my child's suffering.
It's a bit embarrassing to admit the above in retrospect. I certainly have the perspective of a bigger picture now that the oldest has been around for almost eight years. Yet, even with my fourth, I sorrowed for him to spend his first days after birth in an isolated bassinet receiving phototherapy, punctuated primarily by regular visits from the nurses to prick his heel for another blood test. When breastfeeding time came, I put all my energy into making up for those hours away from me, and when I had to put him back under the lights, I spent much of my time out of bed, singing to him as I stood next to the bassinet touching him in whatever way I could given the circumstances.
Bearing witness to the suffering of a child beyond the newborn stage does not get any easier. Rather, it becomes more varied and complex. In addition to seeing the pain of the first bumped heads and scraped knees, there are the longer illnesses, achy heads, sick stomachs, sore throats, and all the common ailments that life on this earth brings. Sometimes there are big injuries that require trips to the emergency room. There are chronic health problems that require constant attention. Then, add to this the sometimes even more difficult suffering caused by learning how to interact with others - the emotional pain when a child is teased or bullied for the first time, when a child is inexplicably hit or bit or otherwise antagonized by another kid at the park. There is the suffering that comes with disappointment in performance on a test at school or lack of confidence in abilities and talents.
Though the other topics I've discussed before are all instances of feeling less control over our situations than we'd like, this experience of parenting perhaps is the best example of feeling absolutely helpless and powerless. We want so much to prevent their suffering, to ease their pain, and yet sometimes the best we can do is to lift up the toilet seat and hold back their hair as they vomit. We can comfort, we can alleviate, we can sympathize, but as parents we often find that we cannot take away their pain.
In short, this is life. When we look back over our own life and even current circumstances, we see that we ought not be surprised that our kids also will feel physical pain and endure emotional suffering. But that doesn't really make it easier for us. Like all occasions for parenting mortification, this is hard. It is difficult. It is a challenge.
But it is also an opportunity. It is an opportunity to turn to God in prayer, to lament openly to God the suffering of our children, to beg God to intervene or to bring comfort. It is an opportunity to die to ourselves and our own plans for our children and to live for God, taking as our model the maternal compassion of Mary as she endured her only Son's passion and death. The counterpart to his passion was her compassion. She loved him so much that she would have borne for him whatever of his pain that she could, but her role was to enter into it, not with the physical burden of the cross, but with her own suffering of compassion.
Like other parenting mortifications, the suffering of our children becomes invaluable as a way of growing in love, virtue, and holiness. Like any other mortification, we can offer up this pain and our sharing in this pain as a prayer to God. In so doing it ceases to become simply an instance of suffering and becomes a moment of grace; it is no longer about anger and resentment but generosity in bearing the cross and entering into that suffering.
Practically speaking, there are three important tasks that will enable the suffering of our children and our coincident compassion to become spiritually fruitful for us and for them. The first is for us to improve on our view of mortification in our own lives. By embracing other parenting mortifications, as well as our regular physical discomforts or emotional disappointments, we train ourselves to re-narrate the sufferings of our children in a more positive light. We can see suffering in a supernatural light, with the potential to increase our sanctity and bring us closer to our final end. We detest seeing our children in pain and that's precisely why we can accept it as a gift that we would never have chosen.
Secondly, it is truly worthwhile to encourage your children, at a young age, to accept the challenges, pains, and sufferings of childhood as their first instances of mortification. We have one daughter who, fighting a stomach bug at age three, offered all of her sickness for the needs and intentions of the pope. As she stood uneasily in front of the toilet clutching her belly, she pronounced, "this is for the pope!" before leaning over to vomit. It wasn't fun for any of us, but her simple prayer and willingness to offer her suffering brought meaning to her sickness for her and was a powerful witness for her parents, who strive with difficulty to do what she had done in utter simplicity and trust in the efficacy of mortification as prayer.
The last and most obvious task is simply to be compassionate to our children when we cannot eliminate their pain, to share in their sufferings and difficulties, to offer kind words and warm embraces, to make toast and herbal tea, to sympathize, to read books with them on their sickbeds, to take them to the doctor kindly and generously when needed, to distract them from the pain if necessary, to pray with them, to encourage them when helpful, to love them and love them and love them in the midst of their suffering.