Archive for Love

Let Me Do It

child hand and cookies

 

It’s a desire that is expressed in many ways.  “I want to help.”  “I do it myself.”  “Let me do it.”  When these words come from my three-year-old, I have to admit that I usually feel a sense of dread.  Because these words, if I indulge them, are usually followed by splattered brownie batter, laundry that requires refolding, or a simple task that takes ten times longer to complete than I had anticipated.

But I read something recently that changed my entire perception of these words:

“You may hear Jesus a hundred times a day, saying to you, ‘Let me do it.’  In your difficulties, in your problems, in all those things in your daily life which are sometimes so difficult, so distressing, when you ask yourself, ‘What shall I do? How shall I do it?’  listen to Him saying to you, ‘Let me do it.’  And then answer Him, ‘O Jesus, I thank you for all things.’  And it will be the most beautiful dialogue of love between a soul and the all-powerful and all-loving God.”  –Fr. Jean C.J. D’Elbee, I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Therese of Lisieux 

St. Therese’s theology is so applicable to us mothers!  It’s easy to feel that our lives don’t live up to the worldview of “success.”  Maybe they don’t.  But when we forget what type of success we’re supposed to be striving for, all we have to do is see Jesus in our children, hear Him in their voices, and surrender ourselves to Him through their hearts.

Our days can be overwhelming.  The messes, the piles, the crying, the tantrums, the exclamations of “Look at me!” and the drawn out “Mooooooommy!” that seems to come every 30 seconds.  There are many days when we want to just get everything done, get the kids to bed, and sit down!

But Jesus isn’t calling us to only get the laundry done, do the dishes, and resolve arguments and tantrums.  He’s calling us to grow in patience, kindness, and gentleness.  He’s calling us to greater love and unity with our family and with Him.  He’s calling us to heaven.

So when I start to have thoughts of “What shall I do?  How shall I do it?” as I list off my seemingly insurmountable tasks for the day, I try to hear Jesus when my three-year-old says “Let me do it.”

When I surrender my laundry, my cooking, and my cleaning, it is the first step in surrendering my heart.  When I favor relationships over chores, Jesus steps in and takes over.  He multiplies my time.  He makes little miracles happen within the humble walls of my home.  Like my three-year-old spinning an elaborate story about a dream she had.  Or my eleven-year-old sharing his hopes and dreams for the future.  Or my seven-year-old finally opening up about a worry that has been weighing on her mind.  I build my relationships, and somehow the truly necessary work still gets done.  I let Jesus in, and He does it.

It is when we hear Jesus in the simple conversations of our day that the dialogue between us and our children becomes that beautiful dialogue between us and our all-merciful, all-loving, all-powerful God.  And there is no sweeter success than that.

Photo credit: mccartyv via Pixabay, CCO Public Domain

How Theology of the Body Impacted My Life

large family

My husband and I read a life-changing article thirty-two years ago when we were on a rare date night for our sixth wedding anniversary. Parents of four, we really wanted to remain faithful to Church teaching by refusing to use artificial birth control, but we already felt stretched to our limits financially, emotionally and physically. I am tiny and had never even held a baby before my first. Growing up in a Protestant home with only one sister, it had never even occurred to me that I would one day mother a large family.

After my conversion to Catholicism at nineteen, I earned a degree in English Literature at a Catholic College. Everyone thought I was called to the religious life, especially the Jesuit priest I worked with as a student chaplain. Everyone was shocked with my sudden vocation change, especially me.

I had moved east with Michael after our first baby was born which cut me off from daily contact with friends and family. Although I enjoyed living in the country, raising our own vegetables and later even all our own meat, it was an isolated existence. I felt like Ruth in a foreign land but without family support because Michael’s mother was busy with a huge extended family. In addition, my husband struggled with depression. Worldly opinion screamed that we should not have any more children.

Natural Family Planning

The question we had struggled with for years was, “How could we remain faithful to Church teaching when Natural Family Planning did not seem to work for us?” Intuitively, I already knew a call to trust in God could not just be an intellectual assent but included entrusting my fertility to God. Catholic teaching stated couples should space their children with abstinence but we slowly discovered I was one of those rare people who could conceive long before ovulation.

Of course, we did our best to remain faithful to NFP. However, each successive child after our third was conceived on the second, third, fourth and fifth day before ovulation. A couple of babies were created before I even had a first cycle when we thought I was still infertile. As my doctor said once, “Ah, I remember reading about a woman in New Zealand, two years ago, who conceived five days before ovulation.” I raised my hand and chirped, “Well, you can add me to that list!”

Theology of the Body

Then on our sixth wedding anniversary, sitting in a busy pizza place, I was flipping through our local diocesan paper when an article jumped out at me. I was excited as I read a statement by Pope John Paul II which stated that using contraceptives not only damaged a couple’s intimacy but also harmed their spirituality. We were both struck dumb, sensing a powerful Presence of God as this truth pierced our hearts.

Michael and I try never to let anything hinder our journey into God’s heart, so this truth now meant artificial contraception was definitely not an option. Of course, I cannot find the exact quotes we read that day but the following is close enough:

In the conjugal act it is not licit to separate the unitive aspect from the procreative aspect, because both the one and the other pertain to the intimate truth of the conjugal act…Therefore, in such a case, the conjugal act, deprived of its interior truth because it is artificially deprived of its procreative capacity, ceases also to be an act of love.

It can be said that in the case of an artificial separation of these two aspects, as real bodily union is carried out in the conjugal act, but it does not correspond to the interior truth and to the dignity of personal communion – communion of person. This communion demands that the language of the body be expressed reciprocally in the integral truth of its meaning. If this truth be lacking, one cannot speak either of the truth of self-mastery, or of the truth of the reciprocal gift and of the reciprocal acceptance of self on the part of the person. Such a violation of the interior order of conjugal union, which is rooted in the very order of the person, constitutes the essential evil of the contraceptive act. (Theology of the Body, Aug. 22, 1984, 398)

Love…is therefore the power given to man in order to participate in that love with which God himself loves in the mystery of creation and redemption. It is that love which “rejoices with the truth.” (1 Cor. 13:6) (Theology of the Body, Oct. 10, 1984, 406)

Although we could not imagine how large our family would become, the words of John Paul II , quoted in that newspaper article, resonated within both my husband and me. Guilt lifted off us and a surge of excitement, a sense of purpose welled up from within. It took time to really believe that none of our children were simply a failure of the NFP method. Many small experiences kept reinforcing the truth for us that God called each of our children into being with our co-operation. We’d stumbled blindly at times and then a burst of clarity would shine light on our purpose.

This Is Your Call

For example, twenty-five years ago, I once again slipped into panic mode, worrying if I was pregnant with my fifth child. Suddenly my whole body relaxed and I heard these words within me: This is your call. This is your vocation. This is your witness to the world.

All sorts of objections rushed into my head. “What on earth do you mean a witness, a witness to what? Stupidity? People don’t understand. They just think we are irresponsible or idiots.” Then unexpected joy bubbled within me and I sensed these words in my spirit, “I am with you.” Once again peace wrapped like a blanket around me. It was an actual physical sensation. My mind was calm and my spirit felt strong. That was it for me; I understood and I said, “Yes.” Though I still cringed under disapproval from society, I always understood my children were saving me by compelling me to dive deeper into my spirit, discovering the power of eternal Love at my core, a love that can stand strong against all opposition.

We have lived through years of suffering, surviving and even thriving thanks to the gifts of humor and faith. I can honestly say we are joyful because we answered a particular call to parent a large family. Thanks to Theology of the Body, I can proclaim with confidence that mothering a large family is my call, my vocation and my witness to the world.

Please Go Home Now (or How to Balance Your Child’s Need for Friendship with Your Own Need for Sanity)

teen friends“I need to get some more friends. I want my friends around all the time but sometimes my friends are too busy doing other stuff.” This remark was made this week by my 10-year-old son about 45 minutes after his and his 12-year-old sister’s five friends left our home to return to their own families. We had hosted them for six hours. I was exasperated and a little annoyed.

How much more can I do to encourage and support your friendships? Why can’t we just be together as a family and it’s enough for you? Why can’t I have a whole day without other people’s children at my house? That’s what I was thinking. Not very charitable.

Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, I love being “that house” where tons of kids come to hang out. I am delighted that my kids’ friends feel comfortable here and that I get to witness the unfolding of these lovely relationships, including the Lego building, Nerf wars, and lemonade stands. But sometimes I just want to lock my door and be alone with my family for a while. I want to put on my old flannel bathrobe, put my feet up on the coffee table, read a good (or even lousy) book, and enjoy the sound of nothing. At least nothing but my 4 kids, 2 chickens, dog, and husband.

My kids are maturing. When I started this blog, I had a new teenager and my other three children were still pretty small. My Lydia was only 2. Now my kids are 6, 10, 12 (almost 13), and 17. I’ve entered a new stage this last year as my older children are pressing to new phases of individuation and independence. My oldest child, Aidan, has friends and he’s always been interested in hanging out with them, but only a few times a week. He never had this impulse for constant contact with them like my two middle children have for their friends. I think Aidan is an introvert like my husband and me.  He says he needs lots of time alone to be happy. So do I, which is why the habits of the two middle kids sometimes challenges me and pushes me beyond my comfort zone.

The Desire for Friendship Is a Sign of God in Our Children

When my children ask to have their friends over for play dates or sleepovers, I nearly always say yes or I tell them when I will be able to say yes. We have kids at our house nearly every day and somebody sleeps over at our home nearly every weekend. Because we homeschool, it’s important to me that my children never feel they were deprived of chances to socialize and make friends. Particularly with the two middle children (my social butterflies), I strive to see their perspective. I know that my need for alone time may be far greater than theirs. I recognize that they may simply have different a temperament from my own, they may genuinely need more time with their friends than I ever did when I was their age.  I want to be open-minded and flexible.

I can see how in so many ways, their desire to be close to their friends is a sign of God in them. The desire to be known, understood, and accepted is uniquely human. Our yearning for friendship is natural because we are not meant to be alone; we can never be whole without communion and love. Our friendships remind us of how God feels about us and how he wants us to feel about him. He doesn’t want us to fear him, to avoid him; he wants us to hang out with him, to let our guard down. He’s the kind of friend who laughs at your bad jokes because he hears the joke the way you meant it, not the way it comes out.

God even uses our friends to reveal to us things we wouldn’t otherwise notice about others, the world, ourselves, and God. Friendships are little sacraments, a sign of God’s special graces and the instrument of some of his best surprises for us. I can use my children’s affection for their human friends to teach them these deeper truths about The Great Friend.

When Friendships Hurt Our Kids

On the other hand, we all know from our own experience that the devil can use our relationships to ensnare us; they can become an instrument of darkness. Wise parents have an awareness of two things when it comes to their kids’ friends: 1) the health of the dynamics between the child and their friends and 2) the balance in their homes between family and outside friends.

What makes for healthy or unhealthy friendships?

  • In healthy friendships, our child is able to be himself, and he’s able to grow and change as he matures. In unhealthy friendships, our child is fearful of being himself, and the other friend feels threatened by our child’s new interests or developing abilities.
  • In healthy friendships, our child is free to have other friends. In unhealthy friendships, our child doesn’t nourish new friendships because her current friend becomes jealous.
  • In unhealthy friendships, our child is free to form her own opinions. In unhealthy friendships, one friend sets the standards for acceptable opinions and the other friend feels compelled to agree with those opinions for fear of rejection.
  • In healthy friendships, our child feels nourished and enlivened by the relationship. In unhealthy friendships, our child feels drained and exhausted after being with the friend.
  • In healthy friendships, friends can trust each other and count on one another. In unhealthy friendships, one of the friends may betray confidential conversations, frequently let the other friend down, or lie and manipulate.

I’ll continue to watch for these things, but I think my kids have pretty healthy friendships in terms of the dynamics between them and their friends. I don’t see any big issues with boundaries, trust, or physical and emotional safety.  However, I think their attitude toward their friendships may need some adjusting and that we need to find a better balance between friend-time and alone-time.

Find Your BFF (Balanced Family First)

Kids need space and time to think, to grow, to settle back into themselves after being with others, particularly their peers. You can get the impression from watching t.v. or reading magazines that it is normal for kids to spend every waking hour with their friends, or to talk to them on the phone, text with them, or think about them every minute that they are not physically with them. If children really can’t tolerate being alone, if they become uncomfortable without peers around, there is a problem with that child’s self-perception, emotional adjustment, or relationship with her parents.

Some kids rely on their peers for their sense of identity and meaning, and this is unhealthy. Even though it’s normal for kids to want to be with friends, emotionally healthy children still trust their parents more than anyone else; their parents are their “secure base” even though they enjoy and cherish their friends. They hang out with friends, but they have a natural tendency to return to their parents’ company in order to “check in” emotionally. I need to remind myself that, while I am responsible for helping my kids nourish their friendships, I’m also responsible for helping them build habits that allow for a good balance between friend time and alone time.

I want to remember, too, that in healthy, family-centered homes, the needs of all family members are taken into account. Naturally I prioritize the needs of my children to my own, because they are younger and more vulnerable than me. But my needs count, too. My kids have a legitimate need for friendship but I also have a legitimate need for down time, for refueling. I hope I can do a better job at balancing these conflicting needs. And there is a difference between a legitimate need and a mere desire. I need to facilitate my children’s friendships because this is a real need, but I can meet that need without consenting to all their desires for play dates.

So, when the two middle kids ask to have friends over, I simply have to say no more often. They will not break open and dissolve into a vapor. I need to remind them that the “other stuff” their friends are doing is usually spending time with their families, visiting relatives, doing chores, practicing their musical instruments, working on history projects, figuring out a computer programming conundrum, “stuff” like that.  Their friends possess many opportunities and gifts apart from my children, and my children, the wonderful friends that they are, really want that for their friends. I’m sure their friends want that for them, too.

Image credit: nenetus (freedigitalphotos.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 Problem with Over-Praising Your Child

ID-100297265How dare I throw cold water on praise? Doesn’t every loving, caring parent praise her child? Yes!  And for the most part, praise is great for kids but overpraising (constant, exaggerated praise even for small efforts) can have unexpected negative consequences on our child’s well-being.

Let me say right up front, every parent probably over-praises on occasion (including yours truly), so if you have this habit, know you have plenty of company!

1.  The problem with over-praising

Overpraising can sound so phony to a child that it does little to nothing to increase her well-being. On some level, she knows that what you are saying does not correlate to what she has done.

You can inadvertently train your child to constantly seek your approval: she doesn’t feel okay unless she hears you cheer, “WOW! GREAT JOB!”  Over-praise can also give a child an unhealthy sense of entitlement – that life should be easy and everyone should admire her no matter what she does.

If a child already has a low self-esteem, over-doing the praise actually makes the problem worse. These kids interpret exaggerated praise as expectation and they end up feeling afraid to fail. So they either pick easy tasks or they don’t engage in challenges at all.

2.  How children develop self-esteem

Parents who over-praise are well-meaning, loving parents. They just want to bolster their child’s self-esteem and encourage them to succeed. Especially when a child is struggling to feel good about themselves or their abilities, it’s understandable that a parent would want to pour on the praise.  But here is how we really build our child’s self-esteem:

Love kids unconditionally. We often assume a child’s self-esteem only comes from being successful at something. But self-esteem also requires a deep sense that we are lovable and worthy no matter what we do. That’s unconditional love; love without strings attached. Self-esteem blossoms when our kids know they don’t have to do anything or even behave a particular way in order for us to love them.

Allow kids to take risks doing things they love. Help your child find his gifts and talents, and give him the freedom to do hard things with those gifts. Sometimes he will do well, sometimes not, but if he knows you will support him regardless his performance, then he will continue to strive, develop grit, and build his talents.

Be a child’s mental coach. Kids need the opportunity to do things on their own, even to make big mistakes, but they also need our guidance when faced with something that is really too much for them intellectually, physically, or emotionally. Children learn how to confront seemingly insurmountable obstacles through our guidance and gentle support. Over time, our encouragement – the messages we gave them — will become internalized and second nature to them. Eventually they will gain confidence when faced with obstacles.

3. The effective use of praise

We can nurture our child’s self-esteem through praise, too, but it should be realistic and sincere if we want to be effective. A few tips:  focus more on a child’s effort rather than the result of his efforts (“You worked hard on your painting” rather than “Your painting is incredible!”). This is called process praise. Point out specific things that you like about his project (“I love how you painted little birds landing on the house”) and ask him questions about what he’s doing (“How did you get the feathers to look so fluffy?).

This approach lets him know that what he’s doing is interesting to you, and that you are really paying attention to something he cares about. This engaged interest is far more powerful for instilling self-esteem than trumpeting accolades that are unrealistic.

When Your Two-Year-Old Crawls Like a Dog Down the Communion Aisle (and Other Pathways to Holiness)

Christmas Eve Mass was a disaster this year. At least it seemed that way. With my husband and two oldest children involved with the music at Mass, I was left on my own to manage a six-year-old, four-year-old, and two-year-old.

I should have known that things would get messy when, upon pulling into the church parking lot, my two-year-old promptly got out of the van and climbed to the very top of the nearby school play equipment. She may have been able to shimmy up a climbing wall in her Christmas finery, but her mischievous smile and gleeful chortles mocked the limitations of my high heels and slim-skirted dress. Fortunately, by the grace of God, she decided to come down on her own and walk with us to the church.

The pews were crowded and the air was stuffy, but the altar was beautiful and a sacred joy was present. We settled in and, aside from the expected wiggles of excitement, we did pretty well for awhile. But, of course, the wiggles escalated and so did my children’s voices. I finally had to take the four-year-old and two-year-old out, and the rest of Mass was a blur.

I know that at some point I had to convince my four-year-old to stop using a stair railing as a tightrope, but the most horrifying moment was when it came time to receive Communion. Sandwiched into the line, we started creeping down the aisle when suddenly, out of nowhere, my two-year-old decided she was a dog. She dropped to all fours and started scurrying down the middle of the aisle. I managed to grab her, and she went from dog to limp noodle instantly. Trying not to injure anyone around me, and still making our way down the aisle, I tried whispering to her and I tried distracting her, but she was firmly set on being impossible. If I held her, it was either acrobat or limp noodle. If I put her down, it was dog.

Acrobat. Limp noodle. Dog. Acrobat. Limp noodle. Dog.

She was a force to be reckoned with.

I had no other choice. I picked her up and held her (very) firmly, and we finally approached the Eucharistic minister. And then, in the soft glow of candles and Christmas tree lights with the beauty of the creche at my side, I received Jesus on His birthday–while my 40 pound two-year-old yelled “Ow! Ow! Ow!” in my aching arms.

We made it back to the cry room (by now I was practically crying), and I wiped the sweat from my brow. We made it through the rest of Mass, and as we exited the church, our priest looked at me, smiled, and said, “You are earning so many points in heaven! Let me give your whole family a special Christmas blessing.” And right there, on the front steps of the church, we bowed our heads and received the blessing.

I’ve heard it explained that growing in holiness doesn’t mean that you suddenly stop sinning, or that life suddenly goes more smoothly, or that you are the picture of perfection to others. Rather, holiness is a deepening desire, a burning love, a longing for God and God alone–and a willingness to continue to try to overcome sin for the sake of our Beloved. But, as parents, we are still humans trying to raise other humans. There will be trials. There will be mistakes. There will be dogs and limp noodles. These are our exiles to Egypt; these are our “no rooms at the inn”; these are our swords that pierce our hearts. But if those swords pierce a heart that is full of love, then only love can flow out.

Life is messy. Parenting is messy. But a foundation of love is where real holiness lies.

I was cleaning up our Christmas mess the other day, and underneath bits of wrapping paper, toys, and new markers that had already lost their caps, I found a piece of artwork made by my six-year-old that simply said, “God I Love You.”

God I Love You by Hazel

Maybe Christmas Eve Mass wasn’t such a disaster. Maybe the blessings of that sacred day did take effect. Maybe we’re doing something right. Because in the midst of all the messiness, I continue to find love.

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.

Grateful Parent, Happy Parent

gratitude

“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmastime. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” — G.K. Chesterton

All parents want to be happy and God wants that for us, too.  There are obstacles to our happiness, though.  We can fall into the trap of believing that once our baby sleeps through the night we will be happy. Or when we move into that larger home. Or when our toddler matures and stops throwing tantrums. We wait and hope for that moment when we will have the right house, the right job, the right behavior in our child. Of course this is an illusion.

One of the best ways to thrive as a parent has nothing to do with anything in our external environment. It boils down to our attitude, our perspective, our deepest beliefs about our life as parents. In particular, the happiest parents are those who cultivate gratitude, who recognize the many gifts they receive as parents – gifts they never expected, asked for, or deserved.

1. Why being grateful makes us happier

Scientists only really began to study gratitude in the last 10 to 20 years, but their findings are pretty startling. Many psychologists once believed that humans are born with a “set point” for happiness and that nothing we do can change it much. But the research on gratitude contradicts this viewpoint. People who cultivate gratitude in their lives experience measurable increased happiness, decreased depressions and anxiety, and better interpersonal relationships. Here’s a great article over at Psychology Today that provides a nice overview of gratitude research.

Apparently Americans express gratitude less readily than people in other cultures. Perhaps we struggle with gratitude because we so value independence and self-sufficiency while gratitude by definition requires us to recognize that somebody has given something to us that we have not earned, that we owe somebody a debt of thanks for a gift received. Gratitude is always other-directed. You can be proud of yourself, angry at yourself, or love yourself, but you can’t really be grateful to yourself.

I think this is why gratitude is so powerful in transforming us emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. God made human beings for communion and connection, and a grateful spirit allows us to move more easily outside our little shells to acknowledge one another, to embrace some other. We, for a moment at least, acknowledge that we are better off because of another person, that we get by only because of the work, generosity, and gifts of others. Gratitude feels good and leads to a better life because it allows us to be more human.

2. Gratitude 101: Recognizing and acknowledging gifts

We all have habits that make it hard for us develop real gratitude in our parenting. One of the big ones is viewing ourselves as victims of our children’s choices and habits. We may also have an unconscious sense of entitlement: we think we deserve a particular life or child we don’t have! Or perhaps we are not willing to see our own part in the struggles we have with our children. Are we inconsistent with rules, boundaries, and expectations? Do we yell too much? Shop or drink too much?

We can change these habits. Cultivating gratitude is a choice, not just an emotion. We can choose to become more grateful parents: we can cultivate the habit of gratitude and before we know it, we will be happier parents, able to recognize the spectacular gift we have received in each of our children, more alert to the graces of God in ordinary moments with our kids.

Being grateful requires us to recognize a gift and then to acknowledge it. How does this work for parents? Here are some practical tips for becoming a more grateful parent:

Journaling: Consider keeping gratitude a journal. Set aside a few minutes at the end of the day to write about five that occurred during the day that you are grateful for. I think this is a great idea for developing a heightened awareness of the good things of life that might go unnoticed because we are distracted or inattentive.

Prayer: Spiritual directors often tell their directees that the first step in spiritual growth is to foster a grateful heart. When I learned about the practice of the Ignatian daily examen prayer, I was told that the first step in the prayer is simply a gesture of gratitude. Megs Blackie over at Ignatius Spirituality explains:

“Gratitude is an acknowledgement of the continual gifting of God. And my expression of gratitude probably doesn’t begin with saying ‘thank you.’ Rather it begins in the savoring of what I have, in the celebration of the life that is. As I begin to savor and to celebrate, I start to look around for those whom I should include in my thanksgiving. I cannot help but turn my attention to God.”

To savor and to celebrate. That is the heart of gratitude. Sin often begins with a failure to recognize God’s gifts, a failure to give thanks. So the first step of the examen prayer is to reflect back over our day almost like a movie being replayed. We pause and meditate on any interactions or struggles that really stand out. We pause and reflect on these moments, look for and acknowledge God’s grace at work.

Visual reminders: Gratitude mentors encourage us to place visual reminders of gratitude around our homes. These might be little plaques or word clouds about gratitude, or perhaps something tangible that symbolizes some gift we want to honor. My youngest daughter Lydia likes to give my wee flowers that are so tiny I can hardly place them in a bud vase without drowning them. When I place these on the window sill above our kitchen sink, it is a reminder of my gratitude for her sweet gestures of affection. I am currently planning a quilt made from some of my children’s old clothing, particularly their baby clothes. If I ever manage to finish it, it will be a visible, cuddly reminder to be grateful for the unfolding of my children’s lives. My older daughter Claire made several painted river rocks over the summer. I think placing a painted gratitude rock on a tray on a nightstand would be a simple, lovely reminder to count our blessings.

3. Gratitude even on bad days?

What about really horrible, frustrating days? Can we find gratitude on these days? Absolutely. Here’s a great reminder from Henri Nouwen:

“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are steep and hurt and resentful. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart responds with bitterness . . . I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of revenge and grimaces of hatred.”

The fun, sweet times with our kids are easy to spot as graces we can be grateful for, but even the crummy stuff holds special graces. Maybe you had a flat tire and your van was filled with hungry, tired kids. While inconvenient, upon reflection you may remember that the tow truck guy was pleasant and humorous and made you smile. This is a grace for which we can be grateful. An argument with a child might lead to greater understanding between the two of you or you perhaps recognize some habit in yourself that isn’t working in your relationship. We can be grateful for these insights despite the discomfort of the argument.

Our perspective shapes our experience of parenting. When you’re a parent, inevitable frustrations and challenges arise, but how you perceive the situation can change your physical and emotional reaction to your children. When you perceive yourself as a victim, as not getting something you earned or deserve as a parent, you can become resentful. Before long your whole experience of parenting has soured and you have a hard time recognizing how privileged you are to be a mom or dad.

Recognizing the many things we have to be grateful for as we raise our particular children, in our particular home, on this particular day will make us happier parents no matter the challenges we encounter. Gratitude is the greatest enemy of resentment, period. Developing a habit of looking for graces and offering our gratitude increases our awareness of the way God is always active in our lives, how he always accompanies us on our parenting journey.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Resources for Your Gratitude Practice

Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert A. Emmons. The science of gratitude and how to practice it.

Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer by David Steindl-Rast. “Waking up to the surprise that we live in a given world means coming alive. Awareness of this surprise is the beginning of gratefulness.”

Bully-Proof Your Child: What Every Parent Needs to Know

bullying

Image credit: Stuart Miles (freedigitalphotos.com)

When some of us were growing up, bullying was considered a normal part of childhood; kids were left to sort things out themselves. Now we know that repeated bullying is damaging to a child’s psychological well-being and can have long-term effects on the brain. You probably can’t completely bully-proof your child, but I talked with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life yesterday about how we can at least make our child a less appealing target for a bully.  In case you missed the show, I offered these tips:

1.  Teach your child an assertive communication style.

Bullies prey on kids who are vulnerable, so ensure your child feels confident in communicating assertively. Children develop a passive communication style when they are afraid of confrontation, have some kind of fear or anxiety about saying what they really want or need, and feel like they need to please everyone.  Teach your child that is okay to be assertive when confronted by a difficult person. This means we say what we need and that we set clear boundaries. “Don’t call me that name. Please use my real name.” “I don’t allow people to touch me.”

There is a difference between being aggressive and being assertive; teach your child the difference.  Aggressive communicators assume their opinion is the only one that matters and they tend to be intimidating.  Being assertive is different: we can be clear and firm without being dominating or loud. Make sure your child knows that it’s okay with you if he sticks up for himself when somebody is being aggressive or nasty toward him.

2.  Avoid harsh discipline approaches.

Many children become passive or submissive in response to overly harsh parenting. It’s a basic survival response. Not only will he not develop assertive communication skills, but when a child hears a lot of criticism at home or is physically punished for making mistakes, he may on some level think he deserves a bully’s poor treatment. The behavior of some parents, in fact, rises to the level of bullying and normalizes maltreatment in the minds of their children.

Choose a discipline approach that protects your connection with your child and encourages respectful communication. Even when he makes a mistake, he will know he is valuable and deserves respect. Then when a bully is violating his space or rights, he will have a deep sense that something is wrong. More empathic discipline approaches also protect your rapport with your child so that he is more likely to ask for your help in dealing with a bully.

3.  Teach your child the art of friendship.

Lonely, isolated kids are favorite victims of bullies. Teach your child from a young age how to be a good friend so that he builds up a circle of good friends. Sharing, listening, giving. These are lessons that can begin at a young age. As she matures, help your child develop perspective taking – how another child feels, or how that child’s experience may differ from your child’s.

These tips are all about teaching your child to invite mutual self-donation into her relationships which is what God wants for her. The ability to both give and receive within friendships is a powerful gift. No bully wants to mess around with that.

More for You

I’ve posted some great links about bullying over on our sister site for you:

  • bullying basics (what counts as bullying anyway?)
  • cyber-bullying (oy, there’s a whole new mean in town)
  • sibling bullying (something none of us wants to think about it, but it happens)

If you’d like to listen to my segment with the Popcak’s here you go. I come in at about 24 minutes. The Popcaks’ insights are always fantastic. In fact, the whole show was great: the topic was assertiveness training. Assertiveness is the healthiest communication style, but the fewest number of people possess it.

Hanging by My Fingernails

Before I had the courage to let go of my whole way of living, two inner images rose up in my mind as symbols of my controlling behavior.

When my family was still young and I had only seven children from twelve-years-old down to a newborn, I earnestly strove to raise the best children I could. Yet all my effort was actually hindering their development because my anxiety and control acted like a barrier, a prison around them. I was, in fact, preventing my children’s inner, natural development into well-balanced, creative people.

broken-wagon-wheel-1405148000B82I did not take subtle hints, so a powerful inner image rose up from my subconscious which symbolized what I was actually doing by refusing to let go of control.

First I saw an ocean and a tiny black dot in the water. Slowly the image grew larger till I was face to face with a huge octopus.

The scene switched and now seven tentacles wrapped around each of my children with my husband in the eighth. All of them were grey, limp almost lifeless.

I suddenly realized that I was, in fact, the octopus; I was squeezing the life out of my family.

In this inner vision, a sword appeared in a blaze of light and severed each tentacle one by one. The severed tentacle shriveled and fell off each child. As soon as each one was set free, they began dancing and laughing in the sunshine. Soon all seven were joyfully playing.

The eighth tentacle was wrapped tightly around my husband. The kids stopped playing and kneeled on the ground, weeping, desperately pulling and tugging the tentacle but to no avail. Suddenly, in a flash of light, the sword of truth cut through the tentacle, my husband was released and came back to life.

Yet even after this appalling self-revelation, I still could not let go of control.

It was like I stood on the hub of a wagon wheel with my large family balanced on the rim. I crouched on the hub, frantically turning this way and that, grabbing all the broken spokes, desperate to hold the crumbling structured together.

I realized that I had to let go of this futile sense of responsibility and control but I was afraid to stop, afraid that one moment of inattention would cause my entire family to tumble down into the abyss.

I was trapped.

Yet, I realized that once again, my tension, my control acted like a wall, shutting out all life. My sincere concern and earnest self-sacrifice actually magnified everyone’s brokenness by freezing everyone and everything.

It took years, but I finally surrendered control. The broken spokes were instantly repaired. The kids and my husband started smiling. I was free. We were free.

I read a quote that said the worst sin against another human being beside hate and murder is trying to control and manipulate them because you are stealing their real identity, molding them into a false image. Sometimes we just need to “let go” of the things that we worry about (i.e. our children, loved ones, or family members). When we are able to do that, we (and the people we care about) can then truly experience the freedom of living!

What Does It Mean to Be Free and Brave? Reflections on Pope Francis’ Speech Before the US Congress

pope francis before congress

Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress today and amidst his profound and sensitive reflections were these words about the state of the family in the United States:

How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement!  Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and family life.

In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable: the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse, and despair. Their problems are our problems.

Families are, indeed, being threatened from both within and without. We are aware of the many external threats, including the attempt by legislators and the U.S. Supreme Court to redefine marriage, a cultural disregard for strong, traditional families, and the intrusion of immorality into our homes through a flood of technology. It’s easy to forget the internal threats though — those forces from within that Pope Francis mentions.

Within our own families, seeds of darkness always wait to be fertilized. Selfishness, greed, jealousy, bitterness. The devil adorns these vices in lovely garments, so that we can tell ourselves things like “I don’t put up with any garbage” or “I am very ambitious and hard working” or “I always protect my rights.” Or we prioritize our reputations, bank accounts, and physical appearance over the relationships in our families. It’s so easy to do, so seductive. We protect our homes from the internal threats that Pope Francis mentions through our openness toward one another, our willingness to sacrifice our own desires for the needs of our families — especially the most vulnerable, and by our willingness to move outside ourselves to play, work, and worship with our families. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Building a community of love is simple, but challenging.

Pope Francis opened his speech with these words:  “I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave.’ ” I thought about what it means to be free, to be brave.  Real freedom requires the resistance of love.  I think many American are very confused about that; they assume freedom means they get to do whatever they want without limits, without boundaries, without responsibility. But that is not freedom; it is a prison.  The thing that confounds people about many Catholic families is our belief in self-giving love, in our belief that we can never be free until we grow to a place where we can give generously. This is very strange thinking in our culture. Sometimes reality look crazy; sometimes the truth is strange.

The truth about children — how they thrive, what they need to grow up into whole, joyful, contributing members of society — is uncomfortable for many people because it’s inconvenient and challenges them to be free and brave.  Building a community of love requires real freedom and real bravery, but it is how we express the image of God in ourselves. Being a mother has helped me become more free because I’ve come to understand the spiritual significance beneath simple acts of mothering, in particular, the way in which I am caught up in divine love when I stretch my limits out of care for my family. As for bravery, being a mom has helped me become more brave, too. I am more willing now to resist the status quo, to question popular views about children and families. Perhaps most importantly, being a mom has helped me face the truth about myself when I am not free, when I have failed to be brave — when I’m stuck or broken.

The Pope will have plenty more to say about the family during his time with us at the World Meeting of Families, but how wonderful that he expressed his love and concern for American families before Congress, 30% of them Catholic. The Holy Spirit is always working.

Image credit: Kevin Lemarque/Reuters

That One’s Mine

She sat with her head bowed, as if in peaceful contemplation of the hand she held. Her fingers ran up and down his arm, across the back of his hand, and over his knuckles. Up, down. Across, over. Up, down. Across, over. A physical Morse code that willed her fuzzy mind to remember. He said he didn’t think she knew who he was. And, indeed, his name seemed lost to disease and age. But, his was the hand she held. His ceaseless chatter was the voice that elicited a knowing look from the depths of her distant gaze. He was the one to whom she babbled and gestured in a nurturing, yet guiding way–in the way that only a mother can.

mother and baby handsHe said he and his brothers worried that they might end up like her–that it might be in their genes to lose touch with reality as they age–that they might stop “knowing”.

Maybe his mother didn’t know certain things anymore. Maybe she didn’t even know her own son’s name, but she still knew him. When she was asked who he was, she babbled something about a little boy and gestured with her hands that she knew him when he was small. And later, as she and I sat in the late afternoon sun, she looked at him from across the room and clearly said, “That one’s mine.”

I saw the other side of motherhood that day. The side that returns to the primal bond between mother and child. The side that transcends insignificant details like names and jobs and other titles that we think define who we are. She had returned to the place of real knowing–the place in the heart that can only be reached through a process of purification. The place that we find when we learn another new life is growing within, or when a loved one passes from this world to the next, or when a disease or an accident helps us to become like a little child again.

She didn’t know his name, but she knew he was hers–and that’s all that any mother’s heart needs to know.

Image credit:  Pixabay, CCO Public Domain