Here is a little child sitting in the gondola of a Ferris wheel, nervously crushing fistfuls of cotton candy into nuggets as they wait for the ride to start. She and her mother are in number 16.
Her mother says that she may need to hold hands so she doesn’t get too scared. It’s not a trick, like something Grandfather Bear would say to give courage to Little Bear. The mother is some form of scared all the time. Most of the time, the mother’s fear gets crushed down into manageable handfuls. But not always.
She has found herself in charge of her youngest child on the final fun trip of the final week of vacation. The oldest kids are too busy to go on a day trip; the tweens band up and run off together, being cool; the dad is bonding with big sister who desperately needs to be treated like a little kid for once. So it’s the mother and her youngest, navigating the world of the amusement park alone together. It was a long ride to get there, and now there are long lines for everything.
There are rides that are out of the question. Some of them drag you up to ludicrous heights, turn you upside down, shake you very hard, drop you, shove you backwards, put you in the dark. Why would you pay someone to do this to you, when it happens to you anyway on some random Tuesday, just in the course of ordinary living?
But the rides with no lines are all the same: Around and around and around. It’s hard to know what to do. So the mother and kid alternate: Rides that are too boring, and rides that are too scary.
Here are all the moms, draped along the fence, watching their baffled little toddlers swoop up and down, up and down inside metal dragons that beep and flash and whine. “WHEE! WHEE! WHEE!” shout the moms, grinning.
Here’s a little cluster of blonde cousins rushing and tumbling into the serpentine line barrier at the double decker carousel. One child wants desperately to ride the only giraffe, but there are many other people in line. “Whyn’t we just duck under the fence?” a woman rasps.
“We all have to wait our turn,” her sister answers mildly.
“Aunty will make sure you git that giraffe,” the first woman insists. “You’ve ben such a pretty girl all day. Aunty will make sure you git that giraffe. Pretty girl.”
The mother, shriveling a bit inside as she imagines meeting these pretty girls in fifteen years, is relieved to hear that her own daughter wants to ride the panda, instead.
She finds a horse next to the panda, and surprises herself by heavily climbing up on it. Her legs are the right length for the stirrups, so maybe it’s a normal thing to do. The horse’s tail looks like a real tail, and someone has taken so many pains painting scenes from Venice on the ceiling and brushing in little yellow and pink bouquets in between the mirrors.
A chubby hispanic man gives his shell-shaped bench a spin, and it twirls, and he beams like a baby. It is a beautiful carousel. There has never been such a beautiful carousel. It’s two stories high, and everyone on it is smiling. But the ride is very short.
Here are a set of tiny twins, dressed to the nines in identical new sneakers, athletic shorts, and patriotic tank tops, strapped carefully into a blinking helicopter. All the other kids are yanking on the bar, jerking and swooping and clanking up and down, but the boys are staring solemnly ahead and moving smoothly on their appointed rounds, around and around.
“Pull on the bar! Pull it toward your belly! Make it go up! Don’t you wanna fly?” the operator screams. They do not. Their father comes to collect them when the ride is over. God willing, he will understand that they did what seemed right to them. They are extremely small and the world is very big…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.
I put the baby down in her seat on the other side of the bathroom door, and she wailed and screamed, wailed and screamed. I remember thinking: What has happened to me. Too exhausted to even put a question mark at the end of that thought. I had just come home from the hospital after giving birth to my first child.
I stood in the shower, looked down and did not recognize my body. It was not just that it did not look like me; it didn’t look like any human person I had seen before. I could not make sense of the shape my body made. Milk ran down my belly and blood ran down my thighs, and through the door, the baby wailed and screamed because I had put her down. What had happened to me.
Now several of my 10 children are adults, and I still don’t know exactly what has happened to me.
Several years ago, fitness guru Jillian Michaels caused a minor spasm in mommy media by saying she would never get pregnant because she could not face ruining her body that way. It eventually emerged that she had not said that, exactly, and her thoughts about pregnancy and her body were more complex and personal than an inflammatory soundbite. But regardless of the details, she had expressed something more honestly than many women are willing to do: She knew that giving birth would disrupt something about herself irrevocably, and it was not a disruption she was willing to endure. Better to find this out about yourself before you get pregnant than after, I thought.
Here is what I have learned since then: Surrendering bodily vanity is only the beginning of what happens to you when you become a mother. First, motherhood turns you into a fountain that flows and flows. Then it shows you that you will run out.
Recently, I’ve come across several instances of people taking the seal of confession lightly. Not priests, thank God (although I have heard priests disclosing things that skirted too close to the line), but laymen — specifically, laymen talking about their children’s confessions.
(Before I go any further, here is my vital reminder: If you do encounter a priest who has broken the seal of confession, or if you find evidence that this has happened, SAY SOMETHING. Tell his bishop, and demand a response. This is a big stinking deal and you should make sure it gets addressed. A priest who breaks the seal of confession needs to be stopped ASAP.)
Carelessness around children’s confessions represents two failures: A failure to take confession seriously enough, and a failure to take children’s spiritual lives seriously enough. Both can be disastrous; or, at very least, they can erode our understanding of what sacraments are for, and therefore erode our faith.
Several years ago, I was in a group of parents, mostly mothers, talking about our lives. We circled around to a favorite topic: How to make sure we had an active spiritual life, when every bit of energy and every moment of the day was taken up with the most mundane obligations: wiping bottoms, fetching juice, cleaning up spills of said juice, wiping away tears related to said spilled juice, and wiping bottoms again.
One of the more experienced mothers suggested that, when we give one of our own children a drink, we are engaging actively in our spiritual lives, specifically, by giving drink to the thirsty, which is a corporal work of mercy.
One of the few fathers in the group scoffed at the idea. It doesn’t “count” to give your own child a drink, he argued. You have to do that; it’s your job. It’s the bare minimum, and you definitely don’t deserve any accolades for doing the bare minimum, especially when it’s something so easy and basic as handing a sippy cup to a kid.
I remember the conversation so well because I was a young mother with several small children at the time, and his response crushed me. I felt there was something wrong with his argument, but I wasn’t sure what, so I assumed he was right, and I just needed to try harder.
But I’ve had years to think about it, and I think I’ve teased out his errors. There are several, and they are common.
One of the toughest, potentially most painful, potentially most rewarding parts of being a parent is sorting through what you experienced yourself as a child. As soon as you start raising a child of your own, you have to figure out which parts of your childhood you want to live out with your own kids, and which parts you want to leave behind forever. Everybody goes through this, whether consciously or not.
The huge, unwieldy question of “How will I discipline my kids?” is especially tough. It strikes at the heart of so many profound issues, and the stakes are so high.
Like most of the really tough things in life, there are perils on both sides. If you’re either too harsh or too lenient in how you discipline your child, it could truly harm them, and that harm can ripple out to affect their relationships with other people and even with God.
So yes, it’s important to get it right. But there’s some comfort in knowing it’s not actually possible to get it completely right. You are going to make mistakes. You are going to be inconsistent, and give mixed messages to your kids. This is just how humans act, and I’ve never seen even really wonderful parents get it exactly right.
But I’m here to tell you this: If you are going to err, it’s far better to err on the side of laxity than on the side of harshness. This is not because being spoiled isn’t bad for kids. It is.
But if your child is going to have to recover from one extreme or the other as an adult, is far easier to recover from spoiling than it is from abuse. And there are all too many parenting philosophies calling themselves “discipline” that are really abuse.
She got her sons’ permission to write everything she writes.
Yeah. So what? They are your children. Your relationship with them is not a contractual obligation where one party can sign away their rights to dignity and privacy just because their mom has a deadline and a grievance
Here’s what we have so far. (Note: All links are Amazon Associate links, meaning I earn a small percentage of every sale. If you click through and end up buying something else, I still earn! Thank you!)
If your family is only familiar with the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh, do yourself a tremendous favor and get ahold of the original. The stories are so weird and hilarious, highly entertaining for parents without being condescending for kids.
And we’re off! I’ll probably follow up with a bunch of quick reviews by me and the kids, and then we’ll get a second list going. So far, so good.
Are you interested in doing a book swap with your kids this summer? What books will you give them, and which books are they giving you? Please include their ages and maybe a little bit about why the books are on the list.
You know that irritating bumper sticker, “Well-behaved women rarely make history”? Well, poo. First, it’s not everyone’s job to make history. The world functions better for everyone when most people go to work, act decently, are thoughtful of others, and save the rebellion for emergencies.
Second, and more importantly, it depends what you mean by “well-behaved.” If you mean “The only possible way to change the world is to take your top off and scream at people,” then I’d have to demur (and so would the Virgin Mary).
It’s true, though, that well-behaved characters rarely carry books, and it’s hard to write a book full of people who are kind — by which I mean disposed toward helping and being generous toward others, preferably gently and good-naturedly. It’s possible to write such a book, but it’s rare.
Authors of children’s books, especially, tend to want to give their characters authenticity and appeal by making them sassy, prickly, bratty, rebellious, morose, or dysfunctional — or good at heart, but with a tremendous flaw to overcome. Kindness is often portrayed as weakness or naïveté, and not desirable as a dominant virtue.
Here are a few of my favorite characters who are not only basically virtuous, but who always, or almost always, show kindness to other people in the story.
First I’ll get the two wild cards out of the way: Dido Twite and Pippi Longstocking. You can argue with me if you like!
Dido just barely qualifies, because she learns kindness gradually — but it’s a trait that anchors her character. I’m rereading Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds On Nantucket and am just in love with Dido, who wants so badly to get back to London, but realizes that drippy old motherless Dutiful Penitence is more than just her ticket home.
Dido gradually takes responsibility for patiently teaching Pen to enjoy life, to become less fearful, to stand up for herself, and to practice loyalty. Dido and Pen’s characters both develop, and they ultimately escape their predicament, as Dido deliberately cultivates kindness and gentleness toward the fragile Pen.
(Joan Aiken is great at portraying kind but interesting, well-realized characters: see cheerful Nate in the stories with Dido, and also the resourceful and protective Simon (in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts In Battersea). To a lesser extent, Arabel of the Arabel and Mortimer series is also a kind and responsible kid, although she’s also just naturally mellow.)
Pippi Longstocking is outrageously kind, a trait is just as much a part of her character as her outrageous recklessness.
She spends her time alone cooking and packing picnics for her friends, hiding treasures, and organizing all sorts of surprises and adventures. She’s enraged only by bullies who prey on the weak; and she uses her own incredible strength only for good (and some showing off). When her teasing and storytelling confuse or upset someone, she is usually contrite. Without her kindness, her outsized personality and habits would be monstrous.
The Pippi Longstocking books aren’t about character development, anyway — partly because they’re episodic, and partly because they’re sort of mythical, with Pippi as a preternatural figure whose inexplicable strength, cleverness, generosity, and radical independence are entirely self-sufficient. It’s impossible to imagine Pippi growing into adulthood or marrying, because she is already a complete person. She’s not depthless, though. She does weep, briefly, over a dead bird; and once, Tommy and Annika see her alone in her kitchen at night and it occurs to them, for the first time, that it’s possible for someone so strong and cheerful to be lonely. These glimpses into her private life make her kindness more believable.
Which other books portray characters who are thoroughly kind, without reducing them to dull foils for naughty kids with more spirit?
But the scene where she struggles mightily with herself to turn her long-coveted bun over to an even hungrier child is very moving, and the book is saved from absolute melodrama by the strength and suspense of the plot and by the writing itself.
Burnett’s The Secret Garden, published six years after A Little Princess, is the better book and has more complex character development. The main character and her foil are both selfish, immature, and self-pitying early on, and their conversion and development are gradual and believable. But Dickon, the outdoorsman, is gloriously kind and open-hearted, as is his whole family.
Most people would include Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web in a list of kind protagonists, but I have always struggled with this book. It includes too many hard truths and not enough comfort for my tastes; and I always thought Charlotte was much too hard on little Wilbur emotionally, even though her actions saved him in practice. Of E.B. White’s books, my very favorite is The Trumpet of the Swan,
which includes the watchful, helpful, and loyal Sam Beaver.
The unforgettable illustrations go a long way to filling out her character, but her words and actions also demonstrate unflagging kindness, patience, and civility toward every single creature she meets, from her nasty, scheming sister, to the apparently needy folks she meets in the woods, even to the snake she encounters on the throne at the end.
Oh, my heart. Her kindness is a little complex. She acknowledges that poor William Ernest Teague’s education need a harder edge than she can provide, and so her kindness perhaps shades into weakness; but in a throwaway line, she stands by her basic character, acknowledging dryly to the social worker that she’s well aware the world doesn’t consider her a real mother. Oh, Trotter. The truest portrayal of a good Christian I’ve ever seen in literature, period, for kids or for adults.
Strangely enough, the wild, anti-authority, sometimes brutal Roald Dahl books often have central characters who are very kind. Some of them are kind to most, but vengeful toward their parents and enemies, and this response is portrayed as delightful and just; but some wish even their enemies well, and are willing to risk their own safety for their friends. Charlie of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory is like this, and so is James of James and the Giant Peach;
and the vengeance is wrought by fate, rather than the protagonist. I haven’t read The BFG in many years, but I recall that the BFG’s main trait was kindness. In Danny the Champion of the World, the father is meant to be a kind man, but the reader of conscience can’t ignore than he is a criminal and a vengeful man.
who sometimes gets irritated or falls into self-pity, but is ultimately the friend everyone needs to have. The trio of cows, Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs. Wogus, and Mrs. Wurtzburger are also kind sorts, and tremendously appealing.
Finally, a recommendation from Rebecca Salazar: John Carter from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I haven’t read this series, but I trust Rebecca (although she warns that the series is 100 years old, and contains references to “red men” and savage Apaches and the like, and that the first three are the best).
She says: It is a cheesy pulp novel, but one of the overarching differences between John Carter and the martians is that he treats subordinates and defeated enemies with kindness, and he doesn’t just automatically kill someone because they’re an enemy.
One example of kindness in it is that the green Martian tribe Carter becomes a chieftain in have horse analogue animals that they basically subdue through force, and this they’re dangerous to their riders, but Carter treats his with kindness and tames them and the rest of the warriors are shocked by how superior his mounts are because of this.
As you can see, my reading list needs some updating! I stand by all my recommendations, and hope that my kids will love these characters as much as I do; but I’d be happy to add to the list, especially to include newer books.
Who else in children’s literature is predominantly kind without being dull, two-dimensional, or drippy?
A youngish mom with a bunch of kids goes to her doctor with a medical problem. Doesn’t even matter what the problem is: problems with excessive bleeding, problems with postpartum depression, problems with heartburn, problems with sleep. Problems with her knee, her skin, or the way her hair just won’t curl the way it used to.
Any problem, doesn’t matter. If she has more than a few kids, she already knows what comes next: A glance at the chart, the eyebrows go shooting up, and here it comes: “Ohh, I see you have [any number greater than two] kids.”
And that’s all they want to talk about from then on.
They certainly don’t want to listen to you when you tell them, “This isn’t about family size.” They tuck your multipara status into your buttonhole like a red poppy so you can never forget, never forget that you brought this on yourself in some way with allllll those kids, so let’s talk about that, then, eh?
You’ll think I’m exaggerating if it hasn’t happened to you; but ask around among women who have five, six, or seven, or even three or four kids, and you’ll see nods and eyerolls, or even tears. Because it hurts. Women with lots of kids have to prepare themselves mentally every time they step into a doctor’s office. Not only do they have to deal with whatever problem they’re actually there for, they have to defend themselves against insinuations, disapproval, patronizing jokes, and sometimes open scorn.
Now, sometimes, a woman’s maternal history is relevant. If a woman is trying desperately to stop having children, then it makes sense for her doctor to talk about how she can accomplish that (while being respectful of her religious concerns). If pregnancy and childbearing are damaging her health, it makes sense for her doctor to talk about her plans for the future. That is the doctor’s job, and a good doctor thinks more wholistically, beyond the immediate problem at hand.
But that’s not what I’m talking about.I’m talking about women with many children being treated as if their wombs are a pandora’s box from which all ills and troubles flow. I’m talking about doctors behaving as if we’re nothing but a walking, whimpering uterus, and there is no sense in even discussing any other medical issue until we figure out how to put a cork in it.
Here’s what happened to me in the last week of my last pregnancy:
I had already given birth nine times. I knew what it was going to be like. There was no maternal amnesia strong enough, and there was no new technique I was going to learn for pain control or emotional calm. I knew what was coming, and that it was going to be rough, because that’s what childbirth is like. I was weeks or days away from giving birth, and I couldn’t sleep, night after night, because I was nervous about the delivery. Naturally, my exhaustion only fed into the anxiety.
So I went to the doctor and asked if she could prescribe something safe to soothe my anxiety and help me sleep, just to tide me over.
She refused. Their policy said I had to visit their staff psychiatrist first. Okay, could I make an appointment? Oh, sure — there was an opening in three days.
Three days may not sound like a lot to you, but I was within five days of my due date. I hadn’t slept in maybe four days. Everything hurt, all the time. And I knew with all my heart that I wasn’t going to magically enjoy peace of mind just because, thanks to my doctors, I could look forward to talking to a complete stranger about my emotional state at 39 weeks. Could I maybe get a three-day prescription to get me through until then, just to take the edge off? No, that wasn’t their policy.
I WAS SO ANGRY. There was no reason for this. No reason at all. But they wouldn’t budge.
So I cooled my heels at home (actually, my heels, like the rest of me, were puffy, inflamed, and in constant pain) and turned up for the stupid appointment. The first thing she wanted to know, after introducing herself, was how I felt about having so many children.
Imagine there’s a building on fire, so you called the fire department — only to discover that, before they would even unroll a hose, they wanted to file a request for documents proving that the contractors who built it had been unionized.
Would that be reasonable? Maybe they were unionized and maybe they weren’t, and maybe the answer to that question would shed light on the current situation and maybe it wouldn’t. But right now, maybe let’s PUT OUT THE FIRE.
So I knew already knew I was being treated badly. But I also knew that, the more I protested, the more likely I was to be flagged as a drug-seeking patient, so I tried to speak calmly. I had already plotted out what I was going to say.
I told the doctor, “I am happy with my family size, and I do not need advice about family planning. That is not why I am here. My anxiety is not related to anything but childbirth. It is purely situational anxiety. When I give birth, I will no longer feel anxiety about giving birth. What I need is something to help me through the next few days, because I can’t sleep. That is the problem I need help with.”
And you know what she did? She kept me in that room for another fifteen minutes, probing and questioning me about my history, my long-term psychological state, my experience in past deliveries, and anything else she could think of, based on nothing but the number of times I had given birth. There were no other red flags in my history, nothing that would signal to any medical professional that I was being abused, that I was unhappy beyond normal pregnancy ills, or even that I was overwhelmed with my life in general. But she kept asking. And I just kept repeating: “That is not relevant. This is situational anxiety. I just need to get some sleep.”
Finally, with deep and obvious disapproval, she wrote out a prescription for a mild antihistamine, which didn’t work at all. I burned through the next week in a sleepless rage, angrily gave birth, and spent the next week remembering how to sleep, and calming the hell down.
Now, you tell me.
If I were, say, a topless dancer, and I told my doctor I was nervous about upcoming foot surgery, and I wanted a prescription to help me sleep for a few days until the big day, would I have gotten a slew of lifestyle questions, probing and digging for signs that I harbored some secret regret about how I spend my days?
If I were a trans man with AIDS, and was feeling tons of anxiety about an imminent job interview, would my doctor have given me a referral for next week with a psychiatrist who wanted to sit me down and have a chat about my past and future choices about my body, my family, my life goals?
If I were anyone at all, and I turned up in a doctor’s office with an obvious and solvable problem, wouldn’t the doctor just . . . help me solve that problem?
But I had lots of kids. Lots of kids, and I was in a long-term, stable marriage, and I was fully employed, a long-term patient with no criminal record, no history of drug or alcohol abuse, no smoking, no psych issues, no weird bruises, no nothing. I got regular exercise and took my vitamins. I had turned up at every appointment well-nourished and well-informed, with no panic, no hysteria, no delusions, no complaints about anything other than, “I am pregnant and my feet really hurt.” It was very easy to explain why I was feeling anxiety and dealing with insomnia. It was very easy to predict when I could conquer those issues.
But she didn’t want to hear that. She didn’t want to believe me, because I had a lot of kids.
Guess what? That experience of not being listened to was so frustrating and painful and infuriating, it made it ten times harder for me to make another appointment later, when I really did need help with larger psychological issues (also unrelated to childbearing!). I thought, “They’re just going to say, ‘Well, this is what you get when you have so many kids; sorry, we can’t help.'” Because that is what they have always said.
So I didn’t go, and I didn’t go, and I didn’t go.
That’s what happens when you treat women like they can’t be trusted: You lose their trust. And that means you’re not doing your job.
Doctors, this has to stop. When you see a patient with lots of children, she should be treated like any other patient. Keep eyes and ears open for signs of abuse and signs of distress, just as you would with any other patient, but do not behave as if the large family itself is a red flag. It’s offensive and disrespectful beyond belief, and it puts women constantly on guard. It’s okay to ask if she’s happy with her current family planning; but if she says yes, then you simply must let it go. Even if you don’t get it. Even if you don’t approve.
Believe her when she tells you what the problem is. Believe her, even if she has a lot of kids.
Odd for the magi to know enough to prostrate themselves, in their jewels and flowing robes, before the seemingly unremarkable but truly extraordinary son of Mary; odder still, odd times a billion, for that Son to prostrate Himself for us, who are truly unremarkable.
Why? Why would He do this?
Because, to Him, every last one of us is that child who is unlike any other child. Each one of us is cherished like the “little man” who is adorable just because he enjoys eating eggs, or sweet beyond compare just because he has learned to blow kisses, like billions of other babies. To Christ, each of us is that special one, that cherished child, that singularly beloved one who makes his parent’s heart swell with affection.