Archive for Catholic AP – Page 2

In Conversation with Robbyn Peters Bennett

Robbyn

Robbyn

I’m thrilled to present to CAPC readers my interview with Robbyn Peters Bennett, MA, LMHC.  Robbyn is the founder of Stop Spanking.org and a board advisor for the US Alliance to End the Hitting of Children .   She is a psychotherapist, administrator, educator and child advocate.  She provides therapy to families involved with Child Protective Services, and provides parenting assessments for the Department of Child & Family Services.  Currently she has a private practice in Bellingham, Washington

Kim:  Robbyn, thank you so much for sharing your time with CAPC readers!  Can you tell us a little about your organization, StopSpanking.org:  why did you start it and what are you hoping to accomplish with your work?

Robbyn:  I founded StopSpanking as a nonprofit dedicated to educating parents and clinicians who work with parents on the current neurobiological discoveries that make it clear that we should never spank our children – ever.  There are human rights arguments and religious arguments that support the idea that we should never spank.  But as a clinician working in the field of childhood abuse and neglect, I was aware that there is an avalanche of research warning against spanking, but this research was not showing up in clinical training for pediatricians, therapists, nurses, and social workers that work with children.  So as a professional community, many of us are not up to speed on the research.  So, we are failing to educate the public.  We are also lacking any meaningful campaign to educate the public.

StopSpanking is an online resource that can help clinicians feel more comfortable educating their patients and clients and it is a website available to parents so that they can better understand the research.  There is no spanking debate in the professional community.  The research is as compelling statistically as the research on smoking with 93% agreement.  The controversy is in the general public, so our mission is to help educate the public on what is already known scientifically.

We also understand that spanking is on a continuum of violence against children, and that it is a gateway to criminal child abuse. Our goal is to prevent criminal child abuse by changing social acceptance of spanking – essentially making spanking socially unacceptable just as domestic violence between adults is socially unacceptable

Kim:  Our ministry aims to provide information to Catholic parents who are interested in attachment-based parenting.  How does spanking impact the quality of attachment of a child to her parent? 

Robbyn:  Neuroscience teaches us that the first core strength of healthy brain development is attachment.  Attachment is the ability to form a one-to-one relationship with a loving caregiver.  This ability is the foundation to all further brain development. Healthy attachment allows for co-regulation between the caregiver and the child, which builds a child’s capacity for self-regulation.  Self-regulation allows a child to manage emotion, control her impulses, recover from distress, and maintain attention and focus.

92861969Self-regulation is necessary in order to develop other skills such as social affiliation, tolerance, and empathy.  So if we want our children to be pro-social, to be able to share, form and maintain friendships, express empathy for others, problem solve and negotiate, manage their feelings, focus on learning and maintain attention – we must help them develop self regulation through their attachment to us.

When we use fear and pain to educate our children, it compromises their bond to us, because it creates confusion between love and pain.  It teaches a child that sometimes the primary person whom she relies on for love, safety, and warmth is the very same person that can hurt you.  The child can form an ambivalent attachment which interferes with the development of the child’s self regulation skills.

When the caregiver is the source of threat, the child cannot use the parent as a source of co-regulation. We know that children can tolerate a great deal of stress without experiencing a toxic stress reaction in the brain if they have a warm, safe, secure relationship with their primary caregiver.   Spanking is by definition a threat in the absence of the buffering support of the caregiver, which increases the risk for a toxic stress reaction in the brain.  Toxic stress inhibits proper brain development and leads to negative outcomes such as increased aggressive and poor impulse control.

Spanking can inhibit learning in several ways.  Spanking

  • teaches the child to fear and avoid the parent, so the parent is less available to the child to solve problems and cope with the world;
  • activates the fight or flight response (stress response) and shuts down the neo-cortex responsible for cognitive processing.  So the child has more difficulty understanding and learning from mistakes;
  • interferes with the development of self regulation, making it more difficult for the child to control impulses, manage frustration, and cope with feelings.

Many people believe that if a mother spanks her child, but is generally warm and affectionate toward her child, the spanking will not be harmful.  The fact is, science does not support this cultural belief.  We have known for some time that spanking is strongly linked to increased aggression in young children.  Recent research in a study of over 3,000 children now shows that the warmth of the mother does not prevent the negative effects of spanking.  This means children who are spanked are at much greater risk for being more aggressive – period.  A mother’s warmth does not decrease the risk.   Here is a link providing further details of this research:  Maternal Warmth Doesn’t Make Spanking Less Harmful  

This may come as a big surprise to many parents, but when you begin to understand the importance of the buffering influence of a caregiver on the child’s ability to regulate, this really starts to make sense.

Kim:  Some parents argue that we should all just do what works best for our families and not judge one another.  What would you say to those parents?

Robbyn:  When we say it is OK if other parents spank, we are essentially giving permission to parents who are more overwhelmed, victims of early abuse themselves, in unsupportive relationships, with fewer resources and greater stress to strike their children.  And they do strike their children.  The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study which is one of the largest longitudinal studies performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Health Plan of over 17,000 middle class Americans, showed that 29% of Americans reported childhood physical abuse.  That is over 88 million people. We know that the majority of physical abuse begins with a parent attempting to physically punish a child.  Physical assault of children is an enormous problem in this country and has huge long-term consequences including increase risk for depression, mental health problems, cardiac disease, asthma, obesity, lung disease, and the list goes on.  This is what the Adverse Childhood Experience Study has taught us, that early abuse and neglect lead to major health problems into adulthood, because these early negative experiences alter brain development.  Research shows that spanking has many of the same negative outcomes and that children who are harshly spanked have alterations in brain development similar to individuals who were victims of overt child abuse.

We need to take responsibility for our own children by committing not to spank, and we need to stand up for all children and say that spanking is wrong and it is never OK to hit a child.  The negative risks are too great to have confusion about hitting children.  There is no fine line.  All hitting falls on the continuum of violence, and science cannot offer a cutoff between spanking that is harmless and spanking that is risky.  Spanking is very stressful for the child, and depending upon the frequency and developmental stage of the child, there are going to be consequences.

Kim: What about parents who spank in a way that does not qualify as child abuse as our laws currently stand.  I believe in most states spanking is permitted as long as it doesn’t leave visible marks on the child.  Is there any evidence or research which distinguishes the outcomes for children who are clearly abused and for children who are loved warmly and only occasionally spanked “lightly”?

Robbyn:  Spanking is permitted in every state in the US with varying definitions of “reasonable force.”  The research on spanking only includes legal spanking, as opposed to overt child abuse.  Researchers are also careful to rule out things such as domestic violence in the home or maternal depression or mental illness in order to isolate the phenomena of spanking.  Some studies look at both spanking and yelling, while others specifically spanking.  Some look at spanking that includes the use of implements such as belts or spoons, which is common to 30% of American children, others only spanking with the hand.

Many of the recent studies look specifically at spanking (defined as a smack with the open hand on the bottom) with young children from infancy to age 5.  These studies show an increase in aggression and behavioral problems over time.

Each study naturally has shortcomings, so it is important to look at the cumulative outcomes.  The cumulative research on spanking has as much statistical validity as the research showing negative outcomes of smoking. It is a powerful warning.

When we imagine we are spanking “lightly,” we may lose sight of the fact that from the child’s perspective spanking is painful and frightening.  If spankings were not painful, what exactly would be the point?  Spanking teaches the child that sometimes her primary caregiver can be a threat, and so the child may have anxiety about being hurt in the future.  The threat of a spanking is also damaging.

When we use euphemisms like “spanking,” we psychologically distance ourselves from the fact that we are hitting.  When we eliminate confusing euphemisms and state the question as, “Is it dangerous to lightly and infrequently hit my child?” or “According to the research, how often can I hit my child without negative outcomes?” the question seems absurd.

The research shows that the more frequent the spanking, the greater risk for negative outcomes.  It also shows that spanking with an open hand can be toxic, resulting in increased aggression, lower IQ, increased behavioral problems, and a myriad of health problems.  Is there a cutoff between spanking that is OK and spanking that is dangerous?  There is not a clear cutoff.  The developing brain of a child is extremely vulnerable and there are developmental windows of extreme sensitivity, particularly when between the ages of 0 – 5.  It is like asking how many cigarettes one can safely smoke.  Depending on the frequency and sensitive developmental windows, even infrequent spanking could be quite harmful.  Why risk it?

Kim:  Many parents sense spanking is not the best option, but they just don’t know what else to do.  Do you have any practical suggestions or resources for parents who wish to stop spanking or who are dealing with a spirited child?

Robbyn:  Yes!  There are so many wonderful resources.  We have a resource page on our site.  There are online Facebook sites and websites that are dedicated to the concepts of Positive Discipline and Unconditional Parenting.  There is a wonderful interactive tool created by the Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt that helps you learn how to deal with aggressive children.  And there are many, many books dedicated to this subject.  Parents can feel secure in knowing that many parents are raising children without spanking, and doing so successfully.  I always encourage parents to join local online parenting groups for practical advice, and of course you can always seek professional help if your child is having difficulty with aggressive behaviors.

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Robbyn welcomes readers to contact her with feedback or questions.  Visit her on Facebook:  www.facebook.com/protectchildrenfromviolence.

RESOURCES

On-Line:

StopSpanking.org (see especially the extensive resource page Robbyn mentions!)

Books:

Spare the Child by Philip J. Greven

Beating the Devil Out of Them by Murray A. Strauss

Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen (what to do instead of spanking)

Parenting with Grace by Greg & Lisa Popcak (copious tips on gentle discipline)

SABC Recommends Positive Discipline Over Spanking

86510472Giant news!  The South African Bishops Conference (SABC) recently provided this report to the South African Parliament outlining its reasons for supporting positive forms of discipline and recommending against corporal punishment.

The Bishops argue for “the bodily integrity, dignity, and equality of children.”   Now most folks who spank would argue that there is nothing about spanking that dishonors children or violates their dignity:  they are children, not adults, therefore their right to bodily integrity and dignity is defined differently from an adult’s.  I would say that children have heightened rights because of their legal, physical, and developmental vulnerabilities.  I would also point out that until quite recently it was very legal for men to physically “discipline” their wives.  It was normative abuse:  Nobody thought anything of it.

The entire SABC report is worth reading, but of note are the following sections (note the Bishops’ reference to Dr. Greg Popcak’s work!):

From Section 3: The Social Teaching of the Church

There is nothing in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which supports the right of parents to use corporal punishment. The New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference asserts that “Our basic Christian teaching applies equally to children as to adults:  every person is made in the image and likeness of God and therefore has an innate dignity. We invoke this teaching in confirming our commitment to support everything that will promote the protection of children.”  Furthermore, Pope John Paul II in his Letter to Children emphasizes that “children suffer many forms of violence from grown‐ups . . . How can we not care, when we see the suffering of so many children, especially when this suffering is in some way caused by grown‐ups.”

From Section 6: The Socialization of Children

“Healthy families help and support children and family members in their development by providing a safe space to grow and experiment with boundaries and by providing positive role models for relationships.” . . . Children learn how to be in the world by watching how the adults in their world relate to each other and to children; this is particularly the case within the home. Children brought up in an environment where any form of abuse is common (this includes ridicule and other forms of verbal abuse), may grow up to regard this as ‘normal’, as they do not have the maturity or experience to interpret this experience differently . . .

In discussing the negative consequences of corporal punishment taken from long term studies of children who were spanked as children, Catholic psychotherapist Gregory Popcak writes that “girls who are spanked show a greater risk of ending up in abusive marriages; boys who are spanked have higher than average chances of being abusive spouses. Adults who were spanked as children tend to be less happy in their marriages. Adults who were spanked as children tend to reject the religion of their parents.” There is an inter‐generational aspect to domestic violence both in terms of those who perpetrate it and those who accept it as normal.

From Section 7: The Positive Discipline Approach

Positive discipline is not only about not using corporal punishment; it is about providing a consistently nurturing and containing environment that is as predictable as possible. Children who are able to explore and experiment with boundaries within a safe, secure environment are less likely to experiment or engage in risky behaviour in adulthood, as they are ‘self‐contained’.  Again Gregory Popcak writes that “there is an important distinction to be made between discipline and punishment… discipline assumes a teacher‐student relationship, and its main objective is to teach the offender what to do instead of the offence”. He continues “discipline is less concerned with teaching compliance with the law than it is with teaching children to have deeper, more respectful and loving relationships”.

From Section 8:  What Positive Discipline Teaches Children

Positive discipline teaches children a variety of vital life skills. It teaches alternative and appropriate ways of dealing with anger, frustration and disappointment; it instils tolerance and discourages prejudice; it builds emotional intelligence; children have their feelings validated and this helps to develop a ‘feelings’ vocabulary; it fosters an ability to compromise; it encourages self reflection and the ability to anticipate consequences and make informed choices. Positive discipline promotes the capacity to cope with peer pressure. It discourages attention seeking behaviour. It engenders tolerance and a sense of human dignity, justice, and bodily integrity. It develops the patience to deal with delayed gratification as well as respect or appropriate authority and laws. Importantly, it builds self‐esteem and confidence. Positive discipline is an investment in the future.

Of course, we have to recognize that while the Church has never supported the right of parents to spank their kids, neither has it prohibited the practice.  The Church leaves matters of discipline up to the judgment of parents, but I do think we have a duty not to stick our heads in the sand.  Being knowledgeable and informed about the research on this issue is imperative in making wise choices for our families.  Just saying to ourselves, “Well the Church never said I couldn’t spank so it must be okay” is not rational.  I think, too, that any talk of banning spanking has to come from a place of support and understanding for those parents who are doing their best in difficult circumstances.  If spanking were illegal in my state, I would be a criminal even though I strongly oppose spanking.

If you would like to read more of my position on spanking, here’s a tidbit.  Dr. Greg also wrote a great article responding to the SABC’s report.  Also, stay tuned this weekend for my interview with Robbyn Peters Bennet from Stop Spanking.org!

The Hidden Oneness of the Family

Dr. Greg recently wrote a great article on “unity” and what it takes to achieve authentic connection with others.  He uses the acronym COAL to describe the 4 qualities that enable people to feel connection with others: curiosity, openness, acceptance, and loving. 

  • Curiosity: the genuine and honest desire to know another person; their story, thoughts, feelings, and heart.
  • Openness: the  willingness to leave my comfort zone for sake of connection with the other.
  • Acceptance:  willingness to hear the other person’s thoughts, feelings, ideas and life story without judgment.  Acceptance doesn’t mean we agree with their viewpoint; only that we understand they are making an authentic attempt to meet a need.
  • Love: a  genuine commitment to working for the good of other, even when we disagree with them.

I appreciate how clearly Dr. Greg sets out these human qualities in his article and I hope you’ll read it.  I would add to this discussion, however, the significance of EMPATHY in experiencing connection and union.  It’s implied in the quality of “acceptance” but without empathy we will never understand the viewpoint of another person.  We will tend to project our own viewpoint onto others or reject anybody who is remotely different from us because we can’t tolerate those differences without feeling threatened on some level.

So what is empathy anyway?  Empathy is the gift empathywe use to know the “other,” to understand their perspective, and even to allow their perspective to change us.  Empathy is one of CAPC’s 7 Building Blocks:  Science confirms the essential role that empathy plays in the moral and emotional development of children.  Why is it so important?  Well, because without fully developed empathy, children will never fulfill their human potential, let alone experience real love or friendship.  Human beings are made for connection and connection requires empathy.

In his book Born for Love:  Why Empathy Is Essential and Endangered, Bruce Perry explains that the human brain is wired from birth to seek intimate connection with another person — a bond specifically made possible by empathy, “the ability to love and to share the feelings of others.”  Well, Catholic theology is way ahead of Perry on this one.  We have long held that all human beings are created with a longing for connection to the Great Other — God.  We are all seeking unity with the Divine.  This is the fundamental sameness in each of us — not just Catholics, not just Christians, but all of humanity shares this same eternal longing.  Part of our path to that union includes our connection with each other as children of God.  Connecting with other humans isn’t “second best” to connection with God — it’s actually part of our path to Divine connection.

In her discussion of empathy, St. Edith Stein discerned a “hidden oneness” within small, intimate communities like the family that prepared us for a more encompassing connection to society and eventually even to humanity and God Himself.  We parents recognize this “hidden oneness” in our families:  Even though each of us is so very different, with differing talents, struggles, personalities, and appearances, we experience a quiet knowing that makes us, well, An Us.    I love this idea of “hidden oneness,” but I also recognize that that sense of oneness doesn’t necessarily mean children will develop empathy, and they will therefore never experience a true sense of community, communion, or connection.  People who lack empathy perceive others emotionally as objects to be used to meet their own needs.  Without an ability to experience empathy for others our children will never truly know themselves or their Savior, let alone experience authentic connection with their friends and loved ones.  In order to become empathic, our children must have particular formative experiences in the hidden oneness of the family.  The shared oneness of a family can be destructive and chaotic — it isn’t necessarily a positive kind of oneness.  In order to become fully alive, empathic adults, our children must 1) trust us, 2) feel we understand them, and 3) feel we respect them.  When one of these elements is lacking in the parent-child relationship, our child’s path to empathy will be hindered.

Trust

Our children obviously must trust that we are reliable enough to meet their basic human needs for food, shelter, and clothing.  To develop empathy, our children must trust that we won’t harm them emotionally or physically.  When children fear us, they don’t trust us.  Children also need to believe we are honest.  If they witness us lying to others, they will not trust that we’re being honest with them.  Without a sense that we’re sharing our real thoughts, feelings, and experiences, our kids won’t be willing to trust us with their own.  This is especially true as kids become teens.  I’m not suggesting you have to reveal the entire truth about your life or your adult experiences, but I am suggesting that our children should believe that truthfulness is important to us and that we try to live out that virtue.

Understanding & Recognition

We all long to feel known and understood, especially children.  Recognize your child’s feelings and fears and respond to them with acceptance and compassion.  Even if you think your child is wrong or is being irrational about something, you can still honor her experience by putting yourself in her shoes and expressing your understanding.  As Dr. Greg emphasized, acceptance doesn’t mean agreement.  The PERSON needs to feel loved and accepted, even if we don’t agree with his point of view.   If your child is having a hard time sleeping, is she worried about something?  What’s on her mind?  If your child falls down and skins her knee, you can say “that must have really surprised you!”  By mirroring your child’s feelings in this way you are helping her feel more comfortable with them and you are demonstrating that you “get” her.

Respect

Respecting our children doesn’t mean we let them pick their noses or let them eat chocolate for dinner.  They are children and need our guidance and protection.  However, in guiding and protecting them we must recognize and affirm their dignity.  Children possess full personhood just as adults do — they don’t have to do anything to earn it.  Affirming their dignity means we don’t scare them or hit them; it means we sometimes put aside our own needs in order to meet those needs which they are unable to meet themselves; it means that we empower them over time to care for themselves, to manage their emotions, to manage their time & friendships; it means that we recognize that they are unique and unrepeatable, with their own way of feeling loved, their own talents and tastes, their own unique gifts to bring to the world.

If you’re interested in learning more about empathy, unity, and connection, why they are important, and how to understand your children better, I recommend:

Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered by Bruce Perry

The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland

The Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman

 

 

The Family & The New Evangelization

year of faith photo

Today is the Feast of the Ascension.  At the Ascension, Christ announced the Church’s mission to the Apostles:

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.  Matthew 28: 19 and 20.

Christians aren’t meant to sit back and cheer on the Church as she tries to spread the Good News of salvation and Christ’s love.  (Way to go guys!  Convert those lost souls! Woo-hoo!   . . .  Okay, where’s my remote?)  All Christians are called to the task of evangelization.  This truth is evident in the Vatican’s efforts to promote “The New Evangelization” at every level of society.  Ordinary Christian men and women are critical in transforming not only non-Christianized nations, but the de-Christianization of previously rich Christian communities.

But what about parents?  How can we be useful in the serious work of conversion when we have a family to care for?  Today my toddler decided to run the hose in our unlandscaped yard, creating a mud pile; she then rolled around in it until she was covered in mud from head to toe.  This morning, my teenager was having a hard time deciding whether he felt comfortable riding his bike to the middle of town to meet some pals for a movie.  He needed my attention and my ear all morning.  And I will not  mention (okay, I’m mentioning it) my nine-year-old daughter who needs gentle lessons in why growing girls need to wear clothes around the house.

Gee whiz!  I know I’m not alone.  We are busy raising our children and keeping our homes running smoothly.  How do we become part of the Church’s work of conversion?  I explored this question with Greg & Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life today.  The fact is, not only are we called to participate in The New Evangelization, but we have a special role to play.

Our first disciples are very near

The Church has identified the family has particularly critical to the Church’s work of evangelization.  However, you don’t need to go off to distant lands to obey Christ’s call to convert the world.  We heed the call by evangelizing our own children:  our first disciples are our children.  We can spend lots of time in Church ministries, packing care packages for the poor, and raising money for missions, but let’s not kid ourselves:  If we fail our children, we fail the call.  Our culture tells us that what we do at home in the private sphere of the family is insignificant especially socially and politically.  But family is everything. It is always and everywhere.  Every human being begins as part of a family.

ConnectionThe family is the first school of love.  Christ said we are to teach and convert our children, so what are our children learning in our families?  Are they learning fear, hate, and rebellion or joy, love, and communion?   Lisa Popcak mentioned her concern that many of her homeschooling friends assume that because they are using a Catholic homeschool curriculum, their children will grow up to become faithful, fulfilled Catholics, but the evidence does not bear this out.  One study I looked at claimed that Catholic children are more likely than not to fall away from the faith in adulthood.  We cannot assume that because we form our child’s mind with good Catholic information that she’ll remain Catholic.  We must win her heart first.  To carry our values into adulthood, our child must see us as credible authorities and care about our values.  By attending to the quality of the attachment and connection between our children and ourselves, we are tending their hearts, and drawing them to Christ.

Studies consistently show that children who are raised in harsh, negative environments are less likely to internalize their parents’ values than children raised by firm but kind parents. Quite simply, we impact the world in the way we love our children.

See those Christians, how they love

The New Evangelization calls us to reach out not only to non-Christians, but also Christians who have lost the faith.  We can do this work comfortably within the vocation of parenting.  You don’t have to stand on a street corner with a Bible to fulfill this call.  The world will see the witness of our lives and wonder what we have that they don’t have!  (See those Christians how they love!) Just in our love, neighborliness, and hospitality toward others, we can evangelize the world.  Inviting acquaintances to your home to share a meal and to experience the love of a healthy, thriving family is a powerful way to participate in the Church’s mission.

Sharing the comfort and warmth of our families in this way will impact others in more ways than we can imagine.  I believe American culture in particular is starving for the kindness and warmth that can be found in strong, loving Catholic homes.  So, invite a work acquaintance home for dinner; bring a widowed or sick neighbor cards made by your children and bring your children along to deliver them; invite a fallen Catholic to share in your Easter dinner.  You don’t have to lean into their faces and ask, are you saved, in order to spread Christ’s Good News.  Your love is the Good News.  As one of the Popcaks’ callers put it, sometimes it’s most compelling to allow others to meet Christ in us, in our merciful actions, instead of through our words.

He is with us always

As we live this noble, sacramental life of parenting our children, of evangelizing world through our families, we will struggle, we will fall, we will suffer.  Christ promised he would be with us always in this work.   Especially through the sacraments, Christ will strengthen us and give us wisdom for the journey.  We must not only attend Mass faithfully in order to take the Eucharist, but we parents benefit from the healing and direction available through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

We can also meet Christ in prayer.   Each family has a unique path, a special mission within the larger mission of the Church, but we will never know what that is unless we are willing to cultivate our prayer life, both personally and as a family.  If you can’t imagine how you can fit in family prayer in a schedule that is already jammed, start small.  Perhaps you can just pray the Morning Offering together before you all leave for the day, pray at dinner, and then pray again with your children when they’re going to bed.  Praying the rosary is a great way to introduce family prayer even with small children.  With lots of littlies, it’s okay to just pray one decade of the rosary.  Once you have made a commitment to prayer and it becomes family habit, you will notice real changes in the emotional and spiritual environment of your home.

Christ is also with us through the fellowship of other Christians.  I can become isolated in my large parish because I’m so shy, but when I make the effort to get involved in parish activities and events, I am always glad.  I especially appreciate how my children benefit from feeling part of our parish community: they love knowing the special, pretty places on the parish grounds, the names of our deacons (and where they eat lunch after Mass!), and those small seemingly mundane details that often give us all a comfortable sense of belonging.

He is with us always as we lead our domestic church, as we convert the world one moment at a time, one conversation at a time, despite muddied toddlers and teen angst — no, it’s through those things that our evangelical work thrives!

Be Not Afraid

LoveI can’t wait to talk to my kids about sex.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I CAN’T WAIT!  I can’t wait to teach my kids how to make this world a better place by holding a reverence for the sacred and by understanding that the Original Plan for sex was never Plan B.  That God’s plan never included unchastity, infidelity, heartache, and despair.  Sex is everything we are and everything we were created to be.  In the proper context of marriage between a man and a woman, sex becomes something that gives us a taste of the bliss of heaven and a glimpse of the magnitude of God’s love for us.  We become co-creators in God’s great plan for life in this world, and we have the ability to be a beacon of hope to all who are lost on their journey to true love.

I want my children to be able to recognize the corruption and distortion of the beauty of sex in this world as it stands in stark contrast to the heavenly purity within the sacrament of marriage.

As parents, we are called to lead our children on a path of purity and holiness.  This is no small task, as the very core of their beings — their sexuality — is bombarded with all of the wrong messages from the time they are born.  But God has blessed us with the tools we need to combat lust with love and perversion with dignity.  The Theology of the Body gives us everything we need to live God’s message of love and purity every day in our homes.

Be not afraid!  Study this great work and impart its infinite wisdom to your children.  Don’t just have “The Talk”.  Live the message of the Theology of the Body in your marriage, your friendships, and your relationships with your children.

The Theology of the Body is not just for married couples.  The Theology of the Body is a lens through which we can view how to better live every aspect of our lives.  It points our hearts to the love of God in heaven and allows our bodies to follow.  It gives us the gifts of self respect, dignity, and purity.  It allows those in the celibate religious life to remain faithful to their vows, and elevates a good marriage to an extraordinary marriage.

Most importantly, the Theology of the Body lifts the veil of deceit that the devil has lowered over the radiance of the true meaning of sex.  It allows our children to see the devil’s lies for what they are and realize their choices are not limited to those of this world.  Sex is sacred!  It is not something to be “protected”, “safe”, or “freely” and shamelessly given away while trapped in the fear of disease, emotional turmoil, or an unplanned pregnancy.  Sex is meant to be experienced with wild, passionate abandon within the context of marriage.  Through the grace of this sacrament, we find the ability to turn back time to the Garden of Eden–to experience a relationship with no shame, no fear of being used, and true freedom to love.

We are called to impart the joy of living the beauty of sex in this way to our children by living authentic, Catholic marriages.  Study the Theology of the Body, take a Natural Family Planning class, pray for your spouse.  We are all called to be saints, and as parents we must take this calling seriously.  Our children are depending on us.  They want to know the surest way to experience the love we all long for while still in this world.  I can guarantee you they will not find it if we don’t fill their hearts with the antithesis of what the rest of the world is teaching them.

Be not afraid!  We will all stumble as our humanity attempts to convey such a heavenly message, but I firmly believe the Holy Spirit will assist us generously in our efforts.  The message of the Theology of the Body is what God desperately wants for us because He loves us.  Let us seek Him with the same desperation by living out His plan for sex and marriage so that we might be filled with the grace and passion to teach our children well.  For it is within this school of joy that our children’s hearts will find peace and purity by resting in the love of God.

Theology of the Body Resources 

Websites:

www.christopherwest.com

www.thetheologyofthebody.com

Books:

Beyond the Birds and the Bees by Dr. Gregory Popcak will help your raise sexually whole and holy children.

The Theology of the Body for Beginners by Christopher West is a great place to start learning about TOB

The Theology of the Body for Teens programs are excellent.  The parents’ guides for both the high school edition and middle school edition list many other fantastic resources and provide great conversation starters for parents and their children.

Different Types of Attachment and What It Means to You

Wanted to share this article by Dr. Greg Popcak commenting on a study on the consequences of the cry-it-out sleep method.  He writes:

[A] new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships highlights the long term psychological and relational consequences of the cry-it-out method.  In particular, the new study looks at the tendency of insecurely attached adults to feel threatened by otherwise healthy, intimate relationships.   The study is one of hundreds that look at the effects of insecure attachment in childhood on adult relationships.

Dr. Popcak explains very clearly the different “attachment styles” and how they influence outcomes for children when they grow up.  There are three attachment categories identified by attachment scientists:  secure, ambivalent, and avoidant.  The securely attached child is confident in interpersonal relationships and knows how to be vulnerable “without losing himself”.  He also feels confident enough to explore the world, knowing his 123172048safe harbor (mom or dad) is nearby.  The child is nervous when mom or dad leave, often crying, but when mom or dad return, the child cuddles for a while then is fine.  The ambivalent-attached child is not secure, tends to be clingy and nervous about being abandoned.  This child is hesitant in exploring the world and becomes distraught when a parent leaves, but when the parent returns he will act ambivalent about the parent.   The avoidant-attached child is the least securely attached — they act as if they don’t care about their parents.  They don’t behave in a distressed manner when the parent leaves and don’t seem to care when the parent returns.

Unless something significant happens to change the child’s world, the child’s attachment category tends to be stable into adulthood.  But it can change. For example, the securely attached child will tend to grow into a securely attached adult, enjoying intimate, close friendships, capable of joy and empathy.  However, if the child experiences some serious setback in life — the death of a parent, divorce, abuse, etc. — his attachment category can change.  Similarly, a child who lacks a secure attachment as young child can learn to trust the world again through intervention and consistent, warm parenting.  Adopted children often experience some attachment difficulty early on, but with loving parents, they grow up to become thriving, happy adults.  I just want to make clear that the childhood attachment category isn’t carved into our brains, forever unchangeable.

Why does this matter to you, to me?  As Dr. Greg explains, which category a child falls into is determined by how responsive her parent is in infancy and toddlerhood.  He specifically says that:

Children whose cries are responded to promptly develop secure attachment.  Children whose cries are responded to inconsistently (i.e, time to response or consistency of responding at all varies) develop anxious-ambivalent attachment.  Children whose cries are consistently ignored develop avoidant attachment.  This it not a theory.  These findings (both how a child comes by their attachment style and the long term relationship effects) have been established by hundreds of studies conducted over decades and, in some cases for decades (as with some of the 30year + longitudinal research done on attachment styles and adult relationships.)

Poorly attached children do not fare well in interpersonal relationships in adulthood.  They are guarded, suspicious, and have a hard time opening their hearts to anyone.  They also often lack empathy and are more vulnerable to depression and addiction.

Dr. Greg urges parents to look at the evidence before they make up their minds about the cry it out method.  I would also add that the attachment or bond is started in infancy, but we have to nourish the bond throughout childhood.  Harsh parenting styles will weaken the basic trust between the child and parent even if that child was responded to with sensitivity as an infant. CAPC’s 7 Building Blocks work together to create a connection-rich environment in your home not only during infancy but throughout childhood.

As Catholic parents, we have to use wisdom in discerning which cultural norms we should accept or reject.  God made our child’s body a particular way, and scientists are revealing the way our parenting choices impact our child’s emotional and moral development.  Every child deserves to be treated with dignity; every child deserves a fighting chance to grow up to become a joyful, exuberant adult.  I hope you’ll check out Dr. Greg’s article and the links he provides.

I also recommend these awesome books on attachment science if you want to dive deeper into this topic:

The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland.  A great, accessible book on how parenting choices influence brain development and attachment outcomes.

The Attachment Connection: Parenting a Secure and Confident Child Using the Science of Attachment Theory by Ruth Newton. Presents a clear history of attachment theory and how to foster attachment especially in babies and very young children.

Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love by Robert Karen.  This book traces the emergence of attachment theory in the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.  This might be more detail than some readers want, but I couldn’t put it down!

Thy Will Be Done

Charisse & Baby Faith

Charisse & Baby Faith

I gaze at my newborn daughter’s delicate features and feel my heart ache as it struggles to retain this moment that will go by all too quickly.  The joy of a new birth is soon mixed with the bittersweet awareness of the passage of time, and I am filled with the impulse to hold onto my daughter with possessive and jealous arms with no intention of ever letting go.

As I observe my other children going about their busy lives, the contrast of the peaceful stillness of my newborn snoozing blissfully at my breast creates an acute awareness of how quickly new baby squeaks and tiny baby toes turn into first toddler words and running toddler feet.  My two-year-old reminds me that self declared independence and weaning can happen sooner than I expected, and it doesn’t seem possible that my older children are gaining so much knowledge so quickly, playing at friends’ houses for hours at a time, and going to sleep-overs.  I can easily find myself ensnared by the temptation to long for something that cannot be–to wish that the moments of cuddling my newborn could last forever–to wish that my children could simply stop in time as they journey down the path to greater independence from me and assure me of how much they still need their mother.

Then I realize that this is why I parent the way I do.  Attachment Parenting offers my children the foundation of trust and love that is essential for them to carry out their God-given purpose in this world.  By being in tune to their needs and responding to them through my presence and actions since the day they were born, my children have a strong sense of self worth and moral integrity that will not easily be broken by the pressures of this world.  Attachment Parenting gives me the bonding time that I need with my children so I can be confident that I will guide them in the way God intended.  I love it when my baby needs to nurse or clearly just needs some snuggle time with me.  I never feel more needed than when one of my older children specifically wants me to play that game with him, read that book to her, or put that band aid on.  It is in these moments that our mutual trust and love become evident and our souls are bared so we can truly get to know one another.

I realize my children are a gift, not just to me and my husband, but to the rest of the world as well.  And while, as parents, we are their primary caretakers, we are called not to selfishly claim them and their abilities as our own, but to give them back to God as they learn how He wants them to serve Him.

As St. Peter Damian said, “Let us detach ourselves in spirit from all that we see and cling to that which we believe.  This is the cross which we must imprint on all our daily actions and behavior.”

So while I sometimes wish I could lock myself in a room and keep my newborn’s snuggles all for myself amidst the flurry of new baby visitors, I understand that my beautiful daughter already has a greater mission in life than filling my heart with joy.  She has the ability to thrill grandparents with her precious baby coos, to delight other children with her miniature proportions, and to remind all who see her of how sacred new life is.  Just as my baby daughter carries a unique ability to bring others closer to God simply by being who she is, so are my other children blessed with talents and abilities that will allow them to carry out the specific missions that God has planned for them.  My parenting style gives me the intimate moments with my children that I need to have the strength to detach myself when God is calling me to allow His child to do His work–a strength I call upon more and more as my children grow up.

Perhaps in these moments of child-led detachment we experience many of the same feelings that Joseph and Mary did upon finding Jesus in the Temple.  Mary asks, “Son, why hast thou done so to us?  Behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.”  And Jesus replies, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?”  (Lk 2:49)

Our loved ones are not our own.  They are precious gifts from God who, if we fulfill our vocation well, will never need to be sought with sorrow, but rather released with joy to do the work of our Father in heaven.

During this Holy Week, I pray that I might emulate Mary as Christ’s Way of the Cross became her Way of the Cross.  I’ll soak up these early years of holding my children close and make a choice in every moment to lead them closer to God by my word and example.  And as my children’s moments of independence fall faster and closer together, may I release them whole heartedly back into His care with confidence that my  personal fiat will inspire them to respond always in the words of Christ, “Thy will be done.”

From Pope Francis’ First Angelus Message

pope francis

We parent today in a strange world that tells us little things are everything and that truth, goodness, and faith are nothing.  We parent today in a world that tells us to do our own thing, to fulfill our own needs no matter the cost to others, because we deserve it and we’re number one.  When children get in the way of our plans, the Modern Parent is told to have a clear plan of action, to count to 10, and keep those kids in their place.

But what is on the hearts and minds of those children?  Are they lonely, scared, confused, or angry?  What does the intentional, conscious Catholic parent do in those moments when our culture bumps up against our Faith?

Our Church has always looked to the virtue of mercy in responding the chaos of others, whether its financial, social, or emotional chaos.  These words, from our dear Pope Francis in his first Angelus Message, stay with me today, especially as I think of you parents who feel called to love your sweet babes with gentleness and mercy even in the face of cultural pressures to ignore, neglect, or even physically strike your children:

God’s face is that of a merciful father who is always patient. Have you thought about God’s patience, the patience that He has with each of us? That is His mercy. He always has patience, is always patient with us, understanding us, awaiting us, never tiring of forgiving us if we know how to return to him with a contrite heart. “Great is the Lord’s mercy,” says the Psalm. . . A bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand God’s mercy well, this merciful Father who has such patience…  (Emphasis mine)

You, Mamas and Papas, have a calling.  I know it seems unlikely in the average moments of parenting, when your little one is crying for a second glass of juice or your big kid asks to have a body part pierced, but you are called to deliver to the world Christ’s message of love.  The way we respond to our children in these very real moments will influence the world beyond our doors, because our children will go out and love the way they were loved.

When we love our children gently and mercifully, when we take those extra moments to understand their pain and fear, we are building up the Church.  Don’t doubt it.  Seek to know your children on a profound level.  Look past their actions to their hearts.  Seek to change their hearts first through mercy and love.

Are We Done Yet?

The Tierney Family of 6, soon to by 7!!

The Tierney Family of 6, soon to be 7!!

I think it started in earnest when I was expecting our third child.  Questions like, “So is this it?”,  “How many do you plan to have?”, and  “Are you done after this one?” almost always seemed to follow close behind the initial congratulatory remarks once family, friends, and even complete strangers learned of my pregnancy.  When I first heard these questions, I often fumbled for words.  The curiosity of others seemed so far removed from my husband’s and my way of thinking.

When I was once asked how many children we plan to have, I simply and honestly responded, “I don’t know.”  The person who asked me the question appeared shocked and exclaimed, “You mean you haven’t talked about it?!?”  I nearly laughed out loud.  If there’s one thing faithful Natural Family Planning practicing couples do, it’s talk!  We revisit the question of whether or not we are being called to conceive another child at least once a month.  The subject has already come up between my husband and me as we enter the last few days of my pregnancy with our fifth child.  The truth is, we still don’t know for sure how many children we will ultimately have–and it is the very essence of that uncertainty that blesses our marriage and spiritual lives with riches beyond compare.

Our humanity can never fully comprehend the plans God has laid out for us as we make our earthly journey to heaven.  He, along with the Church, is our compass, our map, and our guide.  For this reason, we are called to seek God’s will in all that we do.  We are incapable of choosing the correct road to follow all on our own.  Our judgment is too often clouded with sin, internal spiritual warfare, and self doubt.  But if we surrender our will to that of our heavenly Father, He will protect our souls from being corrupted by the lies and deception of the evil one.

This way of life, of course, carries with it a degree of uncertainty.  But earthly uncertainty has the potential to evolve into divine surrender, and our great gift of fertility cannot be excluded from this.  Choosing to ignore the devil’s attacks on this most sacred and holy part of our marriage is not always easy.  Seeking God’s will does not come without trial and tribulation.  A heart open to God is especially vulnerable to the stealthy ways of the devil.

 “…if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation.  Set your heart right and be steadfast, and do not be hasty in time of calamity.  Cleave to him and do not depart, that you may be honored at the end of your life.  Accept whatever is brought upon you, and in changes that humble you be patient.  For gold is tested in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation.  Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him…Consider the ancient generations and see:  who ever trusted in the Lord and was put to shame? …For the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”  Sirach 2: 1-6, 10, 11

How quickly our plan to serve the Lord becomes an issue of trust.  Do we trust that if we seek God’s will alone that He will give us the strength and self mastery we need to faithfully practice Natural Family Planning in the midst of a serious medical condition?  Do we trust that God will answer our prayers for a conversion of heart in a spouse resistant to adhering to the precepts of the Church?  Do we trust that God will provide us with the means to faithfully raise another child?  Accepting our fertility as a gift affects so many facets of our lives and of our faith.  We find ourselves continually assessing how God wants us to embrace this gift at any particular point in our lives.  Are we being called to bring another life into the world, or do we have a just reason to postpone pregnancy?  It is only through the discipline of prayer and proper conscience formation that we will be able to discern God’s will.  We can be certain that God will never ask us to do something that is in direct conflict with the teachings of His Church.  We can also be certain that God will never ask us to do something that will not ultimately lead us to a great sense of joy and peace in our lives.  So we must pray, educate ourselves in the faith, and communicate with our spouse what God is saying to us in the depths of our hearts.

 “Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention to one’s partner, helps the spouses to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility.  By its means, parents acquire the capacity of having a deeper and more efficacious influence in the education of their offspring; little children and youths grow up with a just appraisal of human values, and in the serene and harmonious development of their spiritual and sensitive faculties.”  Humanae Vitae  21

This responsible acceptance of our gift of fertility is a key factor in our children’s “just appraisal of human values.”  They observe us viewing the gift of new life through the eyes of God.  They see the love of our marriage emulating the blessed Trinity as the love of two begets physical and spiritual fruits.  They see that accepting the responsibility of conceiving a new life is neither a decision to be taken lightly, nor one to be forever cut off from the grace of God.  A mere five times for them to observe all of these truths through the tangible miracle of a tiny baby suddenly doesn’t seem like enough!  Our children live in a world where they are bombarded by the snares of the devil.  His subliminal messages often appear more glamorous and appealing than God’s truths of what will truly make us happy.  Our children need to see us surrendering our bodies and souls to God with complete trust.  This will nurture their sense of trust and discernment, which will in turn fill us with a sense of peace as we learn to give our children back to God.

Is this not where Catholic Attachment Parenting begins?  With our attachment to God and His will–only then can we discern properly what He desires for us and our children.

So are we done yet?  I don’t know if God will bless us with any more children, but I do know we are not done trusting in Him.  I know we are not done seeking His will.  And I know we are not done reaping the graces that He will continue to shower upon His faithful followers until we are one with Him in heaven.

Reactive Attachment Disorder

Giving hands

If you’re having a hard day today and wondering what the point is of all this gentle, responsive parenting stuff, please read this chilling article about RAD or Reactive Attachment Disorder by a therapist who treats children who have it.  Children with RAD are very poorly attached to their parents, “show contempt for adults and authority, a terror of abandonment, and hatred for siblings and anyone who compete with them for mom’s affections.”  How we treat our children from the first days of their lives matters.

Children need warm, loving care from their mothers in infancy.  They deserve it.  Infants deserve their mother’s arms more than their mothers deserve a promotion, a raise, or a pat on the back.  This view is unpopular.  In fact, I should probably check my tires in the morning especially given the political climate I inhabit in the San Francisco Bay Area.  But I’m doing to say, damn it.  Babies have rights!  Their rights take precedence over the rights of the adults who have been blessed with their births.  This is called being a grown up and taking care of the people who have been placed in your care.

The author of the article, Dr. Faye Snyder, writes that:

RAD children were not born RAD. They were born to love and be loved. Every child I ever met with a propensity for violence was the natural product of extremely painful treatment, usually beginning with being left in daycare too young (perhaps as newborns) and too long (daily, throughout their first years).  It was so painful the child drew a conclusion that they were alone in the world, and they gave up on the deepest drive and hope of all, love. They gave up on loving and being loved and cherished. They were not loveable. They decided they were on their own and there was no adult in the world they could trust. They decided never to be vulnerable again, because it hurts too much.

Dr. Greg Popcak commented on RAD in this blog post.  Dr. Snyder and Dr. Popcak are not suggesting that if you work outside the home when you have an infant your child will grow up to be a murderer.  What they are trying to push back against is the message in our culture that what babies experience early on doesn’t matter because they’re brainless blobs who don’t notice anything.  They notice and it goes right to their hearts.  They are pushing back against the societal pressures on parents to neglect their children in the name of “success”.  How could any parent really feel self-fulfilled when their children are suffering?

Why is it okay for women to give 100 percent to their careers, but not to their children?  Why is the latter looked upon with suspicion, like we’ve been brainwashed into it by evil patriarchal forces?  The force that moves a mother to respond to her baby with tenderness and availability isn’t patriarchy but love.  Love is the force that moves and animates mothers in those early months, but some moms aren’t given permission to name it, to honor it, to live it.  When they sense it, they’ve been brainwashed into thinking, “What’s that?  I think that’s oppression.  Can somebody take this baby while I go to the office to save myself?”

Now, I know some moms have to work.  This is understandable and gentle parenting isn’t only for stay at home parents.  However, I am angry with the view in our culture that a mother is “weak” if she doesn’t return to work two weeks after delivering her baby.  That’s not only stupid, it’s inhumane.  For the sake of all of us — not just the family in question, but our entire population — if it’s at all possible, in the first months of an infant’s life it’s much better that Mommy is there for that baby.  I didn’t say Mommy can’t have people caring for her or helping her care for baby, but babies want their mommies. Even in cultures with extended support systems for infant care, the mothers are still the primary caregiver for their infants.  Mommies, take all the leave you can get from work, even unpaid leave.  When you have to return to work, can you return part-time?  If you’re returning before your baby is two or three years old, a single caregiver is usually preferable to commercial daycare where the staff turnover is high. (I know there are exceptions.)  Babies thrive better with a consistent primary caregiver who is warm and open than a whole staff of people who come and go.  And if you work, when you’re with your baby, strengthen that bond through play, nursing, and co-sleeping.

As Catholic parents we are always seeking to love our children “mercifully”.  Mercy requires us to identify what it is our children actually need, then to meet those needs as best we can.  Science is clear that little babies need consistent, warm, nurturing love.   Is it hard sometimes?  Yes.  But it’s a lot easier than dealing with the fall out of a child who is emotionally scarred or even psychotic because of our choices.

Thank you for loving your children even when it’s uncomfortable and even unpopular.  Not only does it help your children, but it’s a way of loving every human being your child will ever encounter!

Gentle Parenting and the Lone Mom

157651447Ever worried you were indulging or spoiling your baby by practicing attachment parenting?  This week gentle parents received some good news.  Though what we do is often counter-cultural and leaves us open to criticism and the raised brows of well-meaning family members, we can rest assured that we are doing what’s best for our little ones.  A multi-disciplinary symposium at University of Notre Dame (Center for Children and Families) brought together scholars from many different fields who together reported upon the decline of child well-being in our country.  The program chair, Darcia Narvaez, explains that this decline is fueled by American parenting practices and cultural beliefs, including isolating an infant in her own room during sleep and the belief that we’ll spoil a baby if we respond to her too quickly when she’s distressed.  Narvaez states that:

Breast-feeding infants, responsiveness to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are some of the nurturing ancestral parenting practices that are shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality, but also helps physical health and moral development.

Narvaez’s own research focuses on moral development and she has found a correlation between strong nurturing practices and optimal moral development.  Responding to your baby’s needs influences her ability to be empathic, to calm herself, and to gain impulse control as she matures.  Children who lack these skills have a difficult time considering the feelings the others and often respond with aggression without reflecting first.

One aspect of the research really stayed with me and has me musing.  Narvaez posits that a baby needs a group of supportive caregivers beyond the mother herself.  I think this is probably the first time in history that mothers raise their infants alone with little support or assistance.  Last year I read some books in ethnopediatrics, the cross-cultural study of child-rearing and the conditions that lead to the best outcomes for children.  It was clear to me that my goals for my children are in line with the goals of parents in cultures that practice empathic, responsive parenting.  I want my children to be kind; I don’t care if they’re popular. I want my children to be open to love and capable of heroic generosity; I don’t care if they’re ever a linebacker or beauty queen.  Cultures that have similar goals for their children — that value interdependence and cooperation– practice self-donative parenting.  But here’s a little problem:  In most cultures that practice the kind of gentle parenting that I prefer, the mother has a wide circle of support.  That’s a problem for me, for us, and we need to think about that.

As I tried to point out on my last guest spot on Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s radio program, More2Life, we can carry with us unconscious cultural assumptions that conflict with our greatest hopes for our children.  Who doesn’t want their child to grow up to feel loved, vibrant, and joyful?  But, as the Notre Dame symposium tells us, our culture’s messages about pushing young infants toward independence actually harms our babies.  I recognized that cultural assumption early in my parenting and I’ve made parenting choices that reject it.  But there’s another cultural assumption I carry with me that I’m not ready to give up:  my expectation that I will live alone with my husband and children, and that it will be up to me to reach out for help when I need it.

Quite frankly, I don’t want to live with my extended family.  The drawback of having several generations living together under one roof is that the most senior set of parents will tend to lead the family, or their values will tend to be the values embraced by the familial group.  I want to raise my kids the way I want.  I enjoy it when my in-laws come to visit, but I like having my own space to raise my family the way I think is best for us.  My in-laws think a lot of what Philip and I with our kids is strange.   I’m glad I can consider carefully what values and virtues I will pass on to my children and how I can best achieve the goals I have for them.

I also stink at asking others for help.  I just don’t like doing it.  It even seems strange to me when my husband asks a neighbor to borrow something.  And when I most need help, I have the greatest difficulty reaching out for it.  I experienced post-partum depression to varying degrees after all four of my babies were born and I’m sure I would have suffered less if I’d asked for help.  But when I feel bad I just like to be alone.  So I can become isolated and fatigued, committed to nursing on demand, cloth diapering, co-sleeping, and responding with respect and empathy to all of my older children.  I also homeschool and I try to nourish my family with nutrient-dense food, often made from scratch.  I confess I’m a slob by nature, but I do indeed do dishes daily and there’s laundry piling up at every moment.  (However, I will not discuss the spider webs and dust bunnies that I merely ponder as they spread like some cartoon super-force.)  I become sleep-deprived and irritable.  I begin saying and doing things I regret; I know then that something is out of balance.  This isn’t what God wants for me or my family.  Because I live in a culture that doesn’t send help as a matter of course, because it’s not our norm, looking back, it would have been nice if we could have afforded a doula, a babysitter, or just an occasional visit from a housekeeper, but it was out of the question financially.

I’m sure I would have struggled with PPD no matter what parenting choices I made with my newborns, and I honestly believe that nursing and sleeping close to my babies made those early weeks easier for me.  And my depression didn’t take away from my experiencing profound gratitude for the new life welcomed into my family.  I guess I’m just admitting that it would have been better for everyone if I had more support, if it had come without me needing to make an appointment to get it.

So that’s a real pickle, isn’t it?  I wonder how we moms can retain our independence in making parenting choices while still gaining support during child-rearing.  Fathers have become more involved in child-rearing in the US, which is wonderful for mom, the kids, and dad.  But moms need more support.  Often our family members live far away or they are busy working.  Again, it’s not built in to our larger culture, it’s not the norm, for mothers and new babies to be fussed over and protected following birth.  I think it’s a human right for every mother and her new baby to receive this support; insurance should be required to pay for a doula or something similar for a mother for at least six-weeks following birth.  I am committed to advocating for this kind of legislation, but right now we don’t have it.  So, what are our options?

Friendships with other women have helped me a lot.  When I’m in that post-partum funk, the only people I trust are my husband and closest girlfriends.  I’m talking one or two women.  Even though I enjoy friendships with dozens of women because I homeschool and I’m active in my parish, I only have a few friends I allowed to see me after my fourth c-section when I came home with a catheter because the surgeon sliced into my bladder during the surgery.  When you’re walking around carrying your own urine, you have to know a visitor really cares about you before you open the door.  Those women brought me food and laughed with me at my pee bag, which I stuck into a cute purse to make a fashion statement.  Even though I didn’t feel comfortable asking these friends to clean for me or to take my older children for a while, having them around on occasion helped me gain perspective.

If you don’t have a lot of close friends, many mom-to-mom support groups are emerging.  Many of them are on-line, but here I’ll focus on those that can provide a sense of local community, because I think that’s what the Notre Dame research is getting at.  An on-line support group is a tremendous boon, but standing next to a living, breathing human being who will look us in the eye and touch our arm, who will smile at us when we haven’t showered in three days, cannot be duplicated on the internet. Here are a few groups to consider:

  • DONA International:  Gives you information about and helps you find either a birth doula or a post-partum doula.  A post-partum doula can help you with newborn care, family adjustment, meal-preparation, and light household tasks for as long as you need it after your baby is born.  DONA helps you find a certified doula in your areas.
  • LeLeche League :  LeLeche League supports pregnant and nursing mothers
  • MOMS:  Support group for stay-at-home moms.
  • Attachment Parenting International :  API has support groups that provide mom-to-mom support for moms commited to attachment parenting.

Send me more to add to the list!  Many local support groups also exist.  My Catholic homeschooling group offers a lot of support to new moms and I’m sure many of you have found similar support in your parish or neighborhood.

I’m grateful for the kind of research gathered by the scholars who spoke at the Notre Dame symposium.  I’m especially grateful they’re willing to interpret the data honestly, in a way that might improve the future of the children of our country, even if it’s unpopular or hard for some parents to hear.  This kind of information helps all of us parent with greater awareness and wisdom.

The Art of Waiting

“I just can’t wait!” seems to be the phrase of the season in our house right now.  The number of Advent wreath candles left to be lit and the number of Jesse Tree ornaments left to put up are carefully calculated every day.  Questions like, “But how long is 18 more days?”  are asked frequently as my youngest children still struggle to grasp the concept of time.

I remember feeling as they do once upon a time.  I remember gazing into the lights of our Christmas tree, imagining all of the wonderful things that would appear underneath it the night before Christmas.  I remember feeling that the waiting seemed unbearable, and that there was nothing as exciting or worthwhile as that moment when I first laid eyes on all of the childhood delights that magically appeared while I restlessly slept.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself wanting to slow time more often than rush it.  As my children grow, I sometimes suddenly have a vision of a house with no toys underfoot and no little feet and voices constantly filling our home with life and joy.  I know every phase of life will bring with it new and different pleasures, but that doesn’t lessen the pain that pricks my heart at the thought of leaving these younger years of our family behind.

I can’t deny that there are days when I can’t wait for my husband to get home, days when I can’t wait for my toddler to outgrow the into-everything-all-the-time phase, days when I can’t wait for my daughter to permanently leave her temper tantrums behind.  But it is in those moments that I have to stop, take a breath, and realize that it is by waiting that I find opportunity to grow closest to God.  It is by waiting that I seek the love and generosity I need to meet my husband at the door with a kiss and a smile, even while dinner is burning on the stove, my two year old is doing something he shouldn’t be in the bathroom, and my six year old is begging for some unreasonable request to be fulfilled.  It is by waiting that I seek the patience I need to pick up the contents from the same cupboard my toddler emptied five times already that morning.  It is by waiting that I seek the kindness and gentleness I need to effectively and sympathetically handle my child’s emotional meltdowns.  It is by waiting that I demonstrate my faith that all of these pieces of my life are also pieces of God’s plan for me, and that I will experience the fruits of these difficult moments when He knows my heart has been formed properly to receive them.

Perhaps this is why Mary responded with an unhesitant and certain “Yes” when she was asked to bear God’s Son.  The world needed saving.  Not saving through a flash of light, clap of thunder, and immediate conversion of all, but saving through a gentle and humble heart.  A heart willing to wait with faith and patience to witness the fullness of God’s plan.  A heart that waited nine months to give birth and 30 more years to fully understand what her child’s mission was on earth.  A heart that waited for her Son to die as it slowly tore in two with every physical pain that He endured.  By His stripes we were healed, and by His mother’s faithful waiting we were inspired.

What valuable lessons we fail to learn when we are too impatient to wait!

Sometimes I fear my prayers are in vain, that some problems in our culture are almost too big even for God.  I grow impatient and wonder why God doesn’t just fix this right now!  That’s when I look to Mary’s “yes” and realize that my timing is not God’s.  My obligation is to faithfully say “yes” to a devout prayer life and Catholic lifestyle, even though I don’t know if some of those prayers will be answered during my lifetime.

Some of today’s problems may not be resolved until judgment day, but I find hope in the fact that waiting with complete trust in God’s omnipotent wisdom will ensure that the part I play in His plan is one that will lead me to Him when my final day arrives.

Spend some time this Advent learning the art of peacefully waiting in the comfort of God’s embrace.  Leave behind excessive shopping, baking, and decorating to reflect on the joy that Mary must have felt with each passing day of her pregnancy.  Enjoy every moment, whether it brings pleasure or pain, as an opportunity to grow closer to God and receive His great gift of faith.  We may not know what tomorrow will bring, but the Incarnation is proof that the best things in both this life and the next truly are worth waiting for.