Author Archive for Christina Kolb

Why I Let My Kids Fight

And no, it’s not because I’m starting a baby fight club. Or because I’m lazy. Or because I think I need to “toughen them up.”

This title might surprise those of you who know me. I’m a pretty gentle parent. I take my kids’ feelings and thoughts seriously. I strive for kindness and peace in my relationship with them and try to foster that in their relationship with each other. So why do I let them whale on each other sometimes? It’s all about forgiveness, baby.

dreamstime_xs_64981365I kind of came upon this concept accidentally. I had a quick, important phone call to make, and left the kids peacefully playing Legos in the living room while I stepped into the bathroom. (What, isn’t this where you go to make important phone calls?) Obviously, as soon as I began this important conversation, I heard shrieks coming from the living room. Yelling. Screaming. Your average toddler and preschooler brawl over the Lego they both want. But I was somewhat stuck — I had to finish this phone call and hope that when I emerged, things would still be salvageable. A minute later, my call ended and I unlocked the bathroom, ready to admonish someone (whoever looked guiltier? whoever wasn’t bleeding?) for being unkind and kiss any booboos, emotional or physical, of the innocent party. But what I saw when I opened the door stopped me in my tracks.

My 4 year old was kneeling on the ground, hugging his little sister, saying in a soothing, quiet voice, “I’m sorry, baby. I know you wanted that Lego. I’m sorry I hit you.” And to my surprise, she replied, “I fine. I fine.” As they sensed my presence, they both turned and looked at me like nothing had transpired. They returned to playing happily until the next argument broke out, as they inevitably do.

But it got me thinking. As a parent, I am constantly putting myself in the position of referee. The moment I hear someone cry, I spring to attention and ask, maybe for the 20th time that day, “WHAT happened?!” I then try to figure out who did what to whom (not an easy task), tend to the victim, chastise the aggressor, and basically, in the end, everyone is angry and crying. But what I witnessed that day gave me an alternate view of how it could be. When I don’t jump in to punish (or even gently admonish them to “be kind”), it takes away the immediate defensiveness of the one committing the error. It leaves room for genuine regret that they hurt and upset someone they love. It gives them an opportunity to make it right of their own accord. It allows them the chance to take responsibility for their actions, without me having to guess exactly what those actions were and respond accordingly.

And maybe most importantly, it gives the one who’s been hurt a chance to forgive. Because when I step in and deal with the aggressor in these fights, I rob both kids of the chance to be the forgiver and the forgiven. I insert myself in the middle and act as both. And that’s not fair. Because it’s not nice to fight, but there is joy in being merciful and showing mercy. This might seem like a stretch when talking about toddlers and pre-schoolers, but so often, when given the chance, our kids will surprise us when given the opportunity to forgo parental justice in favor of sibling forbearance. And doesn’t it follow that if we give our kids practice in being merciful that they will grow up to appreciate mercy as a very real and vital virtue?

Since I had this epiphany, I’ve tested this theory many times, and the results have been pretty consistent: my kids want to forgive each other. They want to make it right. And I can’t help but notice the other effects it has on them. When they are playing together and my little one gets hurt, instead of immediately turning to me, she will often cry her brother’s name and turn to him for a consoling hug before quickly getting back to their game. Sure, I still kiss my fair share of booboos and break up some fights before they get ugly. Some days it feels like that’s all I do. But giving my kids some space in their arguments and disagreements has been fruitful in a surprisingly real and glorious way. No referee whistle necessary.

Image credit: Dmitry Naumov, Dreamstime.com

My Kid Is a Special Snowflake . . . and So Is Yours

ID-10023106I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you’ve almost certainly encountered the following attitude, whether it’s a post on Facebook, a self-righteous HuffPost article, or even in conversation on the sidelines at your kid’s soccer game: The world would not be such a screwed up place if everyone stopped telling their kids that’s they’re such unique, special little snowflakes.  Basically, the world would be nicer if we just told our kids they’re just the same as everybody else — no better, no worse — and that they can’t actually do whatever they want with their lives just because they want it.

It’s true; there does seem to be an upcoming generation of children and young people (ok, and plenty of adults) who think that the world revolves around their desires and worldviews.  And I completely agree that it’s a disturbing trend. However, is the answer to stop singing our children’s praises?  To stop telling them that they are unique and *gasp* special? I just don’t think so.  Not for any studied or developmental reason, but simply because it wouldn’t be true.

My kids are special.  So are yours.  So are the kids down the block. But here’s the key: we can’t stop there.  I think we should be telling our kids ceaselessly about the beauty that is each person’s uniqueness – not just theirs’.  We have to go on to tell them about how people are special in other ways- that each person has been given beautiful gifts, talents, flaws, and quirks by God.  Special doesn’t mean better- it means being wonderfully, terrifyingly, challengingly, and beautifully who you were made to be.

I know what you’re thinking: This is all just a nicer way of saying your kid is a special snowflake, worthy of being protected from the big, bad world.  Not at all.  In fact, it’s the opposite. If we are teaching our children that each person has their own special dignity and unique purpose on earth, we will raise children who recognize this dignity in all of the people around them and who will be willing to put their own comfort aside to protect the dignity of others.

From the time they are babies, children are able to make assumptions about the world around them based on their own experiences.  When a child is made to understand that they are special, they are loved, they are a beautiful part of a larger plan for this world, just as each person living is special, loved, and part of a bigger plan, they will grow up with a more outward-looking, compassionate, and selfless view of the world.

Having an understanding of their gifts should go hand-in-hand of the responsibility they have to use these gifts in the service of God’s plan. Because that’s the point.  On the other hand, if a child doesn’t have this understanding, they will look to the world for things to set them apart, like money, prestige, or material possessions.  And we’ve all seen where that’s gotten us.

Of course, as with everything we try to teach our children, we have to live it. We have to honor the human dignity of the people around us, as well as the people in the world who are “hidden” in our society. We cannot tell our kids about all the wonderful ways in which God crafted their souls to be unique and special and then avert our eyes from the homeless man standing on the street corner.  Or the handicapped child playing next to them at the library.  Or the relative who we just have such a hard time getting along with.  Our children need to see us loving these people in concrete ways, and hear us talking about the ways in which they are unique and vital to God’s plan for the world.

Some would have us believe that we are creating a generation of spoiled, self-indulgent children because of the way we talk to them about their gifts and talents.  This might even be true in some cases.  What it really comes down to is the way we show them what we value in them and in others.  It’s up to us as our children’s caretakers to show the next generation that everyone is deserving of the dignity of being uniquely, specially created by God.

The Mom and the Sacristan: A Lesson in Mercy

year-of-mercyI’m in the narthex of the church again, trying to pay attention to Mass while G stumbles around stacking and unstacking the brochures on the display table. Pretty much the same place I am every Sunday, at one point or another. I’m cool with it.

But this Sunday, about 20 minutes into Mass (yeah, we didn’t make it that long in the pew this week. Sigh.), I glanced out the window to see a woman crossing the street, holding the hands of two small children, pulling them along, looking determined and in a rush. She made her way across the street and into the church. But she camped out in the back with me and a few of the other parents of young kids. I gave her a quick, sympathetic smile. I tried to imagine the circumstances that culminated in her pulling her two boys into church 20 minutes late, the hustling and frustration and finding shoes and making sure everyone had breakfast. I noticed her boys, the younger probably around 2 or 3, and the older boy, who was 4 or 5, who had Downs’ Syndrome. She gently took off their coats, found a spot against the wall, and then started to attempt to calm the boys down.

They were being very . . . how shall I say? Well, very much like YOUNG BOYS. They were running back and forth, hand-in-hand at times, but not being so loud that they could be heard within the church. She was doing her best to get them to behave, be still, pay attention. I could see her frustration mounting. She was having one of those days. But she was trying. She was there! In that moment, I prayed for her and her boys, thanking God for wonderful moms like her that showed up on Sundays despite all the reasons it would be so much easier to stay home. I prayed for graces for her, who so clearly had her hands full, but was soldiering on valiantly.

No sooner had I finished this prayer than a female sacristan, intent on some task that brought her across the narthex, gave this poor woman a withering look, shaking her head in disapproval. I saw this mother’s face fall, and she looked like she might burst into tears. And then, I heard her say, “You guys, if you can’t behave yourself, we’re leaving.” She quickly gathered up their coats, bundled them up, and walked out the door.

I’ll admit, my first reaction was anger. Anger that this unkind sacristan had driven this woman out of our church. That when faced with an opportunity to welcome or to chasten, she chose the latter. How unkind! How very unlike Christ! This mom, who had dragged her kids to church on this cold, windy day, was “turned away” before being able to receive communion. “Is this how we welcome people to our family of faith?!” I fumed.

As I sat and prayed through the rest of the Mass, I realized that being angry at that sacristan was not only pointless, but it was also as unkind as what she did to that mother. I don’t know what pain or anger or frustration was in her heart. Who knows what she overcame to be there today. Maybe it was more than any of us. That’s between her and God.

But I did keep thinking about it, and the more I reflected, the more I questioned where in my life I had been the sacristan in that situation. Where had I met an annoyance with condescension or impatience? When had I put myself at the center of the proverbial room, caring little for the hearts of others? When I thought about it this way, I realized we are all guilty of this. We all fail in charity at one time or another. And while this experience today was so poignant because this women literally walked out the doors of the church, we do this all the time on a broader level. When we demonstrate a lack of gentleness, kindess, or peace, while professing to be Christians, we are indeed driving people away from the Church. Maybe not literally, but certainly just as effectively.

Instead of judging ourselves or others harshly when we fall short, let’s call on God to give us the grace to fill in the gaps for us. Where we are impatient, He is forbearing. Where we are quick to anger, He is tranquil. Where we are unkind, He is merciful.

I wish I knew this woman’s name and had her phone number. I wish I could tell her, “Hey, great job today! I could see you were really trying to do something important for your boys. Come back next week and our kids can trash the children’s chapel together? Yeah?” I know I can’t do that. But I can be more mindful of where in my life I’m drawing people into God’s love, and where I’m driving them away.

10 Quick Tips for Parenting a Maniacal Toddler

toddler

Ok, that title was meant as a joke. But only a little bit.

If you have a toddler who is going through a phase of testing behavior and frequent tantrums, it’s not so funny. It can feel desperate, impossible, and disastrous.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned from making it through to the “other side” of this phase of parenting a strong-willed, spirited toddler.

1. Stay Calm

Stay calm? Ha! Easier said than done, right? I know. I mean, I really know. It’s so hard. Toddlers seem hardwired to observe what sets us off and then push that button over and over, right? That’s why they call it testing. They are literally testing to see if their behavior will elicit the same response from you each time.

If you can’t respond in a calm, gentle manner, it’s better to take a time out for yourself. Yes, even if that means that you both have to cry in separate rooms. I learned this the hard way. Better I deal with my anger and frustration and let my child spend a few minutes alone than allow pent up frustration to result in a less than desirable outburst on my part.

2.  Get Down to Their Level

It’s amazing how crouching down to a child’s eye level can change the dynamic of a tough conversation or meltdown. Look them in the eye and address the misbehavior, and give them an alternative as a distraction. For example: “I won’t let you throw that toy across the room. Would you like to go outside and throw a ball to get some energy out?!”

3.  Never Ask Why

Too often, when I toddler is getting geared up for a melt-down, they have no idea why.

“Why would you hit your sister like that?!” may seem like a reasonable question for an adult, but for a toddler, it’s like asking why the sky is blue. A better response might be, “I won’t let you hit your sister. Did you want to get my attention?” or “I won’t let you hit your sister. Are you feeling angry? Can you tell me what is making you angry?” And then listen.

4.  Identify the Root Cause

At some point last year, I was completely at my wit’s end with my toddler. We were having daily battles that ended with both of us in tears. I wanted so badly to understand why he was behaving this way, but I was so much “in the thick of it” that I couldn’t stop to analyze the situation with any clarity.

Looking back on it, I can see that it was an incredibly stressful time in our household; of course our bright, intuitive 3 year old was picking up on the tension. He was looking for consistent, reassuring reactions from me and wasn’t getting them, since I was so preoccupied with the emotional energy I was pouring into other things. Once these things resolved themselves and our entire household was more peaceful, the testing behavior diminished drastically.

The lesson here is not to underestimate how much outside stresses affect small children. They are incredibly intuitive, and when they sense stress, they need to be reassured by their parents that all is right with their world.

5.  In Calm Moments, Help Them Name Their Feelings

Toddlers are often frustrated because they have such big feelings and their limited vocabularies don’t have enough words to express them! Frustrated, Disappointed, Sad, Tired, Angry, Too-Silly are a good start. Being able to put a word to a feeling can take away a lot of it’s power for a small child and help him regain control.

6.  Practice Methods for Calming Down

Again, when they are happy and calm, talk about some ways to start feeling better if they’re upset. Show them how to take nice deep belly breaths, sing a sweet little song, have a sip of water, or make a silly face. (You’ll have to see what works for them- all kids are different!) Once they get the hang of it, you might be amazed at how they can do some of these things without any prompting from you.

7.  Make Sure They’re Well-Rested

Did anything good ever come of an exhausted toddler? Enough said. Same goes for hunger.

8.  Model Saying Sorry

I’m not proud of it, but while we were going through a particularly challenging time with our toddler, I often lost it. I yelled. I was desperate and angry and acted from those emotions. But each time — without fail — once I had calmed down, I sat down and said, “I’m sorry I yelled, buddy. I’m going to try not to do it again, ok?” Almost always he would respond, “I’m sorry, too, Mama.”

In this way, I was able to model both repentance and forgiveness. Being a parent doesn’t mean never acknowledging your mistakes to your kids. It’s ok to tell them you behaved in a way you know you shouldn’t have. It lets your kids know that it’s ok when they lose their cool sometimes, too, and it’s never too late to apologize and move on.

9.  Give Yourself Some Grace

I can’t stress this enough. While it’s important to say sorry to your child when you lose your cool, it’s also important to forgive yourself. Feeling guilty about mistakes you make as a parent will only make it harder to go through a tough time with your child. If you say or do something you regret, apologize, try not to do it again, and move on. Treat yourself with the same gentleness that you want to give to your child.

10.  Pray

Do you feel like it would take a miracle to get your child to stop having melt-downs and pushing your buttons?! Then pray for one! You don’t have to stop what you’re doing to pray a full rosary, but when you sense things “heating up,” pause for a moment, and simply say, “Holy Spirit, please guide my words and actions.” Or, “Mother Mary, help me to be patient and loving, giving my child what he/she needs in this moment.” This immediately puts me in a calmer, holier mindset, and we can move forward with the graces that even a simple, short prayer affords us.

Image Credit: David Castillo Dominici (freedigitalphotos.com)

Dealing with Discouragement

“Discouragement can feel like such a powerful emotion. It robs us of our peace, makes us question the plan God has for us, and tempts us to despair. But in reality, it has no power. When we call it what it is, the work of the one who wants to see us fail, it is so much easier to see it as what it is:  an illusion, a trick.”

discouragement fancy

I’ve been thinking a lot about discouragement lately. How powerful it can be and how powerless it should be. We are all vulnerable to discouragement in different ways, and it’s a tricky thing- it can sneak up on us when we least expect it.

To be honest, I’ve been struggling mightily with discouragement lately. I feel it sneaking up on me each time my just-cleaned kitchen becomes sticky with spilled juice and scattered with crumbs. It rears its ugly head when an idea I’m excited about for my moms’ group isn’t met with the enthusiasm I expected. I find it lurking in the background when I struggle with overcoming challenges in my marriage. And often, discouragement can be the dominant feeling when my kids are just not behaving the way I want them to. Discouragement says, “Why bother? What you’re doing isn’t working. Your efforts are not worth it. You might as well just give up.”  This quickly leads from simple discouragement to despair, which is a scary, lonely place to be.

As parents, we have to be on guard when this voice whispers in our ear. Why? Because I can tell you, with certainty, that voice is not coming from God. In fact, it almost certainly is coming from the evil one. And there is nothing he wants more than to convince us that what we are trying to do as parents doesn’t matter, that it’s not worth it.

Let’s face it. Parents can be easy targets for this kind of temptation. Parenting can be an exhausting, thankless job. There are no promotions, no bonus checks. We are often criticized for what we do or don’t do, even by those close to us. When despite our efforts to parent with gentleness, grace, and love, our children act less than angelically (as children do), how tempting it is to say, “Why bother?”

The world would have us believe that we shouldn’t. That the effort that we put into raising our children might be better channeled into a “paying job” or something that we find more personally fulfilling. The world would have us believe that having a well-behaved child is more important than how we are working toward that behavior. When faced with this kind of thinking, of course we are susceptible to discouragement and hopelessness. I’ve often come face to face with despair when I think too much about how to navigate this world that is so often at odds with my faith. So what can we do about it?

Well, to start with, we must acknowledge this feeling and name where it comes from. When I hear the words in my head, “Why do I even bother?,” it is a signal for me to stop what I’m doing and identify the source. Once I’ve acknowledged that it’s not coming from God, I can begin to actively work against it.

Scripture is full of encouragement when we are feeling burdened by worry or failure, and I keep these passages handy for when the feeling pops up.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

Where we are weak, God is strong. What greater encouragement is there!? We do not have to be strong, or even successful.  In fact, it is better if we are not at times, so that God can take over and work through us. This simple idea turns discouragement on its head because it take our failures and turns them into God’s sucesses. We need not strive for perfection, only for trust in God and his perfect plan for us.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11

When the feeling of discouragement and despair feels overwhelming, there is nothing more powerful than prayer. When I was a child, my mom told me that if I ever felt really frightened, all I needed to do was say a Hail Mary, because anything evil was no match for the Blessed Mother. This stuck with me, and while I’m no longer afraid of what might lurk in the closet, I now have anxiety and fears that feel bigger than those monsters under the bed. Now, when I hear the evil one whispering discouragements in my ear, I stop what I’m doing and pray to the Blessed mother. The evil one and his disparagements flee. They are no match for a loving mother.

Which brings me to my next point: We have to talk to our kids about how to deal with discouragement. In a world that rewards success and punishes failure, we have to instill in our children that God’s ways are not the ways of the world. We have to tell them that hopelessness is not from our loving Father, but from our nemesis. Childhood has the potential to be rife with discouragement. There is so much to be learned, and thus so many opportunities to fail! But if we share with our kids that God takes their failures and makes them His successes, they will be empowered to withstand the real disappointments and yes, even despair, that they are almost certain to face in their lives.

As parents, we are called to stand in for our Heavenly Father on earth, encouraging our children when they are feeling lonely, despairing, hurt. Even if the despair of a small child seems inconsequential to us. (Raise your hand if you’ve comforted your child through the despair of not being able to put their shoes on by themselves, or the angst of not being able to spend an extra half hour at the park!) That is what God does for us when we feel hopeless. So when we say, “I can see you are upset that you can’t do this, but it’s ok. I’ll help you and you can try again next time,” we are showing our children how God treats each one of us. It might even be helpful to explain this feeling to our kids, and put a name to it. After all, naming this feeling as an adult takes away so much of it’s power over us.

This all brings me back to where I started.

Discouragement can feel like such a powerful emotion. It robs us of our peace, makes us question the plan God has for us, and tempts us to despair. But in reality, it has no power. When we call it what it is, the work of the one who wants to see us fail, it is so much easier to see it as what it is:  an illusion, a trick. Our God is infinitely more powerful than any of these tricks; we need only turn to him when we feel its presence, and teach our families to do the same.

Image credit: stockimages, freedigitalphotos.net

The Unexpected Blessings of Potty Training

A month or so ago, with the birth of my second child fast-approaching, and the idea of changing double the amount of diapers looming in my mind, I decided that it was time. My son, recently turned two, was going to learn to use the potty. No more diapers.

boy potty trainingOf course, I read up on all the methods available, got tons of advice from friends who were successful, then just went for it. The method I had chosen suggested that the first few days of training (or “learning” or whatever you’d like to call it), you really need to watch your kid like a hawk, to pick up on their cues and then follow their cues to get them to the bathroom. So, you clear your schedule for a few days, gather some fun activities to do together, and prepare to basically just give your child some undivided attention for a day or two. Sounds simple enough, right? After all, I have ONE child, I’m able to be home with him during the day, and since he has a tendency to be, well, rascally, I’m used to keeping a keen eye on him most of the time. Or so I thought.

This was the eye-opener for me. This is where I realized how distracted I typically am. As parents, we get so used to multi-tasking that we rarely actually give anything, even our child, our complete attention. I’m not saying this is wrong, or bad, or even less than ideal. It’s often how things have to be so that a household can keep running smoothly (or rather, just run). And frankly, by the end of that first day of watching my son’s every move, playing, snuggling, and loving him up without trying to do anything else, I was fried. Completely and utterly exhausted.

We had made lots of potty-training progress and had had a nice day together, but I was shocked at how difficult it had been for me to put everything else on hold. I found myself having to fight the urge to go wash up a few dishes from breakfast, check my e-mail for just a minute, or make a quick phone call to the doctor’s office. While I was sitting reading my son an endless pile of books, I was running through my to-do list in my head. When we were sitting on the floor playing with blocks, I was sorely tempted to check my Facebook account.

By the end of the day, exhausted and spent, I really started contemplating how all of my usual multi-tasking was affecting me and my family. I’ve never thought of myself as an over-achiever (I’m not), but after a day of solely caring for my child, I realized how much other stuff I usually attempted to cram into my day. Sure, the dishes need to get done eventually, and the living room should be vacuumed and everyone needs to be fed. These are realities. But what I’m talking about is being fully present in each moment during my day. So often, I find myself scattered… doing several things at once and not doing anything to the best of my ability or with as much joy as I should.

Frankly, most of the time, I don’t care if I’m vacuuming my living room to the best of my ability. But I sure do care if I’m giving my family the best and most joyful of my attention. The dishes don’t crave my undivided consideration- my son does. The laundry doesn’t need me to sit down and quietly listen- my husband does. I realized I’ve even got into the habit of praying while I do other things. Which is wonderful in the sense that we can pray at any time, but not so wonderful if that’s the only time I find to pray. My relationship with God needs moments of peace and devoted attention, too. And God has put me in this life to serve and love the people around me.

Paying attention to that responsibility is vital to my feeling of fulfillment in my vocation. Because when I’m doing too much multi-tasking, I feel distracted, lost, and unsatisfied. I can never seem to finish my to-do list, and everything seems like a burden on my limited time. My son seems more demanding and whinier to me. My husband seems less helpful. God seems less responsive to my prayers.

Of course, none of this is the case. My son seems whinier because I’m not giving him the attention that he needs. It’s hard for a two year old to communicate all of his big thoughts and feelings as it is, and when I’m trying to do something else, he can tell that I’m not really trying to understand. The same holds true for my husband. He’s not actually unhelpful, but when I’m constantly trying to do too many things at once, he can’t keep up. He shouldn’t be expected to keep up with the thoughts and plans whizzing through my head at any given moment.

And it’s the same with God. When I am quickly sending up prayers as I run into the grocery store, God is listening… I’m just too distracted to get the reply. I’ve already moved on and failed to listen. God answers prayer and speaks to us constantly, but we have to be paying attention. Our answers may come when we are playing with our children or talking with friends- but I bet you’ll rarely hear those answers if you are not fully present in those moments.

So taking the time to be fully present with my son isn’t only important because my child needs me to be present, but also because God needs me to be fully in that moment as well. When we accept the vocation of parenthood, we have to realize that God is going to speak to us through our duties within the vocation. We need to slow down. Complete our tasks in peace. Give our attention to the people and tasks that really need it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I think we should all just blow off our other responsibilities and sit around on the ground playing endless rounds of knock-down-all-the-blocks with our kids all day. First of all, I’d lose my mind. By the end of the first few days of potty-training and watching my child intently, I was pretty sure I was going to lose it. It’s a lot. Variety is the spice of life. I like doing other tasks throughout my day, and my child needs the independent time to explore on his own, as well. However, my biggest epiphany was that the time I spent with my son needed to be free of all the distractions. When I sit down to read him a book, I don’t want to get up to check something in the oven or look at my phone when I hear that I have a text. It can wait. He deserves my full attention for those few minutes.

And what’s really amazing is how much I learned about my own child, who I spend all day, every day with, just from watching him without distractions for a few days. I noticed the funny little things he does, the way he concentrates on something until he has it figured out, how determined he is to get it right. I noticed the funny face he makes when he sees a bird outside or the eye roll he does when I ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do. I was truly amazed at how much I was missing out on (me, a stay-at-home mom!), by constantly doing two or three things at once.

Potty-training, while not exactly a picnic, gave me the opportunity to slow down and remember why I’m doing this whole parenting thing in the first place. It served as a reminder to pay attention and witness the miracle that is my child learning and growing, so proud of his accomplishments, daily becoming the person God intends for him to be. What a gift! A greater gift, even, than not having to change two sets of diapers.

The Hardest Job in the World

“Being a mom is the hardest job in the world.”

I hear this a lot, both from people who are mothers, and some who aren’t.  I even read an article some time ago that said that if a stay-at-home mom’s jobs could be quantified, she would earn $115,000 annually.  When I first read this, I thought to myself,  “Wow! How validating!  My job as a mom is worth way more than any other job I’ve ever had!”

And yet, so many moms feel lost in these important, demanding “jobs”.  I have often felt this way myself.  Even though I knew that these jobs were part of the foundation of love and security that I was establishing for my son, my day-to-day tasks seemed empty.  I would clean the kitchen only to turn around to face a decimated living room.  I’d fold a load of laundry only to have another three appear in the hamper.  I’d finish the dishes from breakfast only to realize that it was time for lunch.  And as if that wasn’t enough, the management didn’t even have the decency to give me a solo bathroom break! I started to think that this job didn’t have the benefits that I had expected.  And where the heck were my vacation days?!

Oh yeah, and you can’t quit.  Ever.

Recently, I started questioning how I could make this job not seem so hard anymore.  I tried tricks for becoming more organized. I created activity schedules for my toddler.  I attempted to make more time for some of my hobbies that had taken a backseat.  And while some of these things helped for a while, I still could not shake the feeling that I was stuck in a really hard job.  Even when I was feeling appreciated by my spouse, and validated in what I was doing for my child, some days I felt like too much was expected of me. When we found out we were pregnant with our second child, and the thought of no maternity leave and more work loomed, I realized that I needed a change in the way I was approaching motherhood.

119559830I decided to stop looking at motherhood as a job, and start seeing it as a vocation.  So many stay-at-home moms, myself included, feel the need to justify what they do every day by labeling it as “work”.  My husband and I had made the decision for me to stop working outside the home soon after our son was born, and in a way, I felt the need to prove to myself that it was worth it for my family.  Talk about a high-pressure work environment!  I believe women who work outside of the home can also feel the need to justify the time they spend mothering by putting pressure on themselves to do it all both in the workplace and at home- or as I’ve heard it described, “two full-time jobs!”  For me, it was partly how I thought society was judging me, and partly my own ego that was causing the problem.  I wanted to be the hardest worker in my chosen field.

Unfortunately, that just isn’t how motherhood works.

When we think of vocations, we often picture priests or nuns, or maybe we think of the lifelong commitment of marriage.  True, all of these are vocations.  But as I started to ponder what it meant to commit to a vocation, the more I saw that this was how I needed to approach motherhood.

In my last job, I had the pleasure of working in a facility where an order of nuns lived and worked, taking care of elderly patients in a nursing home.  The work they did was physically demanding, mentally exhausting, and I’m sure, often felt thankless.  And yet each time I would pass one of these sisters in the hall or see them praying in the chapel, they seemed so joyful and full of peace.  A smile was quick to come to their lips and they were always kind and pleasant.  I often marveled at the serenity with which they did such hard jobs.  But in the back of my mind, I thought of them as being different, because this wasn’t just their job; being part of a serving order was their vocation.  This is what they gave their lives to.

So when I started thinking about a different way to frame my life as a mother and wife, they were the first people to come to mind. They didn’t look at each task to be completed as just another job for which they weren’t going to be paid.  They didn’t seem to be calculating how much they would be getting compensated if their circumstances were different.  They just kept working, for the glory of God and for love of their fellow human beings.

The more I prayed about this, the more certain I was that this is how God wanted me to view my days.  I am not a housekeeper, a babysitter, a cook, and a laundress.  I am a mother and a wife.  My main priority is to serve my family in a way that reflects God’s love.  Yes, on most days that will mean folding their laundry and cooking their meals.  But the clothes and the food aren’t the point- the love and servant heart with which I fulfill these tasks is the real goal.  On days when none of those things get done, I can still be peaceful knowing that my role as a mother is not wrapped up in my chores, but in who I am to my family.

Once I started trying to think this way, the effects became apparent pretty quickly.  Frustration at not being able to accomplish as much as I wanted to during the day diminished as I shifted my priority from “getting things done” to “doing everything with love”.  Tough days were a little easier to get through when I was able to reframe the struggles of life with a toddler as opportunities to offer up those struggles to God.  My relationship with my husband certainly improved once I stopped comparing how hard I worked at home to his work outside of the home.  And finally, I had to come to terms with the fact that God has called me to motherhood not to do chores and run errands, but to be a loving, consistent, and holy presence for my children.

Did you catch that?  Holy.

Yeah, that’s heavy, isn’t it?  In some ways, I feel like I’ve taken a big pressure off of myself only to put a bigger one on.  But the thing is,  God is generous with his graces when a mother strives to be a holy influence on her children.  The days when holiness seems just out of reach,  God can give us the grace to be just as holy as we need to be.

This doesn’t mean that being a mom is suddenly easy.  I still have to do all the things I did before.  (Although I don’t get quite as upset about a messy house or getting behind on the laundry the way I used to.)  But when I stop looking at parenthood as a job that has me on call 24/7, and instead look at it as the vocation that God has called me to,  my daily tasks take on a purpose that allows me to complete my work not only more gracefully, but sometimes even joyfully.  I still have plenty of room to grow; I am nowhere near perfect.  I am not always humming happily as I change yet another diaper.  But at the end of the day, more often than not, I am able to thank God for blessing me with the physical and spiritual ability to do the work he has called me to do at this point in my life.

And that sure feels like a job well done to me.

Keeping Christ in Christmas (and in our hearts)

Christina KolbEditor’s Note:  Please welcome our new staff writer, Christina Kolb!  Christina lives in Chicago with her wonderful husband, Kevin, and two-year-old son.  They are very excited to be expecting another child next May.  She holds a degree in English and Sociology from the University of Illinois, and worked for a Catholic organization as a Translation Coordinator before deciding to become a stay-at-home mom.  She also trained professionally as a pastry chef, and loves to cook, bake, and write, and combines all of these while blogging at But I’m Hungry.

At this time of year, you hear a lot of things about “the magic of the season”.  I’ve even heard many people say, “We don’t celebrate the religious holiday, but we give gifts and play Santa, because there is something so magical about Christmas for children.”

91572037And it’s true.  Something about Christmas inspires awe, excitement, and joy in even the Scrooge-iest adult.  For children, it must seem like magic.  But as more and more people lose sight of what Christmas is about, and cloak the holiday in trappings that make it more about gifts and parties than the birth of Christ and our Father’s great love for us, the more the magic of Christmas loses its meaning.  How, in this commercial world, can we keep the true spirit of Christmas alive in our homes and families?

This is a question that I’ve found myself asking repeatedly this year.  As my son becomes more aware of what’s going on, I’m asking myself what kind of message I’m sending in the way we celebrate.  How do I strike the balance between all-out consumerism and stingy asceticism?

For a while I toyed with the idea that we should really try to keep gifts to a minimum.   The piles of gifts last year, while fun, seem to become the focus of the holiday at times.  I admit, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I often think of preparations in terms of buying and making gifts for everyone.  That cannot be what God wants for us to be doing while we prepare our hearts for the birth of his son.  But then I took a step back and remembered Christmases from my childhood.  Part of the memory was the glee and delight I felt when I beheld those piles of presents under the tree, the sheer excitement and anticipation at guessing what the boxes contained.  As a child, I wasn’t able to make the connection between the excitement and anticipation for the gifts and the anticipation we feel for the birth of Christ on Christmas, but I sure do now.  I still have that feeling of joyful expectation when I think of Christmas, and now I’m able to understand the symbolism of these physical gifts and the gift God gave us in his son.  I want my kids to have that, too.  And besides, gifts are supposed to show our children in a very concrete way what it’s like to get a gift just because you are loved and cherished.  What a great opportunity to explain to kids that this is exactly the kind of gift God gave us when he sent us his Son.

Ok, the gifts stay.

What about the endless parade of get-togethers, Santa photo ops, and parties?  Can those go?  Well, certainly, some could.  But frankly, what better way is there to celebrate God’s love for us than to spend time with the people he has blessed us with — our friends and family?    I can’t imagine going without our annual cookie-baking day with my husband’s family, or not singing German carols with my family on Christmas Eve.  And the visits with friends who are back in town for the holiday are such a joy.  To take away these special times would certainly be beside the point.

The decorations?  Can the decorations go?  Well, maybe the snowman window clings, sure.  But part of what I love about Christmas is that there is so much symbolism in the ways we celebrate and decorate our homes.  Christmas trees are meant to symbolize the hope for everlasting life through Christ.  That’s pretty powerful stuff.  And lighting the advent wreath was a tradition that I remember so fondly from my childhood, and another great opportunity to explain advent.  The lights on our houses symbolize Christ as the light of the world.  Our nativity set, a hand-me-down from my grandma, brings me so much joy every time I see it, and reminds us every time we look at it of what it is we are celebrating.  Nope, the decorations are staying.

As my mental list of things I could do to ensure my family truly keeps Christ in Christmas dwindled and all my options were shot down, I guess I had an epiphany. (Catholic Christmas pun! Ha!)  It’s not about the things we do to celebrate.  It’s about the heart that we celebrate with.  It’s celebrating while knowing in our hearts who all of it is for.  It’s decorating a tree with our kids, while explaining to them what the Christmas tree is meant to symbolize.  It’s buying gifts for a our loved ones, keeping in mind that our gifts to them are meant to be a mirror of God’s immense love gifted to us — and telling our kids that.  And yes, that does mean that our gifts are meant to be personal and special — not necessarily expensive.  It means going to and hosting parties with friends and family — and doing so with the spirit of joy and thanksgiving for the people God has put in our lives.

Basically, it means getting excited about Christmas the way we did as children.  If our hearts are full of joyful anticipation of Christ’s birth, I know that this spirit will fill the hearts of our kids, too.  We do not have to work so hard to keep everything out; we just have to allow God to stay in.  That is the magic of Christmas, to me: When we do everything in the spirit of love, God shows his love for us, and our families, in amazing ways.