Love is never wasted

Some time ago, I came across an anguished post by a devoted mom. She had spent an entire week teaching her kids an in-depth, hands-on, cross-curricular lesson on the major watercolorists of western art. Her kids were enthralled, and seemed to really internalize not only the beauty of the work, but also some of the history, the technical side, and even the biographies of the artists they studied.

Next week? They said, “Watercolor? What’s watercolor?”

Poor mom. Kids are crumbs, and that’s just a fact. But the thing that struck me is that the woman berated herself over having wasted so much time with the lesson.

How wrong she was! There is no such thing as wasted time with your children. There is such a thing as time spent badly — time you spend belittling them, for instance. But there is no such thing as loving, attentive time that is wasted. This is true even if the kids have no conscious memory of the event, even if it’s only five minutes later (see: Kids are crumbs).

As I’ve said before, kids are “not empty mason jars waiting to be filled up with the perfect combination of ingredients. We’re making people, here, not soup.”

There are two related mistakes we can make when we’re raising children. One is that we can imagine that it’s all within our control, and that if we simply add in all the right elements, we’re guaranteed to end up with a happy, confident, faithful, moral, self-sufficient, grounded, hard-working, honest human being. (It doesn’t help that a lot of self-styled experts make a tidy living by all but promising success if you just follow their guidelines.)  The truth is, we can do ev-ry-thing-right and guess what? Kid still has free will. Kid still has specific brain chemistry. Kid still runs into a unique set of experiences, and kid processes them in a unique way according to ten thousand unpredictable variables.

So the first thing to remember is that, when we make parenting choices, we’re not putting in a customized order. It’s a much more delicate and artful and hazardous and beautiful process than that, because it is an act of love, and love can’t be reduced to supply and demand.

The second mistake is to imagine that, if we don’t see the immediate, expected results, it was a wasted effort. This is the folly the mom above fell prey to. She thought, when she was teaching her kids about Winslow Homer, that she was just teaching them about Winslow Homer. I love me some Winslow Homer, but I know that it’s much more important for the kids to learn about other things — things like, “Beauty is important and worth spending time on.” “Your mother loves you and thinks you are worth spending time on.”

Please note that these are things that you can teach by following an intensive Montessori-based course on the history of watercolor, or you can teach it by hanging around on a trampoline telling stupid jokes, or you can teach it by driving the kid to all his hideously tedious T-ball games all weekend long, or you can teach it by . . . well, you get the idea. Time and attention. These are the two things that kids need, and there are a million different ways you can provide them. This is also because time and attention are acts of love, and you cannot count all the ways that love can be expressed.

The child may be the kind of person who accepts and recognizes your love and attention immediately, saying things like, “I had a nice day with you, Mama.” Or he may be the other kind of kid, who doesn’t seem to care at all.  He may not think twice about these things until he has children of his own. He may be the kind of kid who thinks you’re a terrible parent, until one day, at age 50, he had a sudden recollection of a thing you did, and realizes, “She loved me so much!”

There is so much mystery in the human psyche and how it develops. We can work ourselves into a panic fretting that we haven’t given properly, and that our children aren’t receiving properly; and half the time, we’ll be right. Truly, the only way we can be at peace is if, along with doing our best, we remember to turn our children’s lives over to God, over and over again. God’s generosity works both ways: He is generous in what He gives us, and He is generous in how He receives, as well. When we turn our children over to God, He will not let our efforts go to waste. This is because God is love, and when we show love to the people in our care, God will not let that love go to waste. 

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This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2016.

Dear priests: This is how to survive mother’s day

Dear Father,

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve said, “Quit telling priests what to do.” You guys are super busy and already working harder than anyone could reasonably expect.

But today I’ll give one of those imaginary dollars back, because today I’m going to tell you what to do this Sunday. Trust me, it’s for your own good.

This Sunday is, as you no doubt know, Mother’s Day, and a lot of your parishioners are going to expect you to acknowledge it. Also, a lot of your parishioners are going to be mad if you acknowledge it.

A good portion of your congregation feels that the world despises motherhood, and they look to the Church to be the one place where they are appreciated for their sacrifices and their hard work.

Another good portion of your congregation feels that the world only cares about women if they are mothers, and they look to the Church to be the one place where no one despises them for not being mothers.

Some of your parishioners are pregnant, and they’re miserable about it. Some of them desperately wish they were pregnant, and are working hard not to hate their fertile sisters. Some of them look pregnant, but are just fat, and if one more well-meaning priest blesses their unoccupied abdomens, they’re going to sock him in the jaw.

Some of them look pregnant, but they’re the only one who knows that the baby they’re carrying is already dead.

Some of your parishioners are the mothers of children who are already buried, or children whose bodies went straight into the hospital’s incinerator while their mothers wept and bled. Some of your parishioners paid to have their children put there.

Some of your parishioners have been wretched mothers, and they know it. Some of them have been excellent mothers of wretched children, and everyone assumes that wretchedness must be the mother’s fault.

Some of your parishioners hated their mothers. Some of them just lost their beloved mothers yesterday. Some of them never knew their mothers at all.

Some of your parishioners are excellent mothers who pour their heart, soul, mind, and strength into caring for their families, and as soon as they get home from Mass, everyone expects them to get right back to cooking and cleaning and making life easy for everyone else, the same as every other day.

And then, of course, you will have the people who are mad that you mentioned a secular holiday during Mass. And the people who remember how much better it was when Fr. Aloysius was in charge, oh yes, it was much better then. It’s a shame.

So, what’s your plan, Father? Gonna make all the mothers stand up and be acknowledged? You’ll be forcing a lot of women to make a statement they may not want to make. Gonna pass out carnations? Same problem. Gonna make us extend our hands over mothers in blessing? Well, you’re the priest, aren’t you. We would rather keep our hands to ourselves.

The real answer would be for Americans to just calm the hell down about motherhood, and not to expect the Church to cater to their every emotional need. But that’s not where we are right now. It’s a mess, and you’re right in the middle of it. Sorry! But I really do think you can thread the Mother’s Day needle without getting poked if you offer something like the following blessing before the end of Mass:

On this Mother’s Day in May, which is Mary’s month, we remember that our Blessed Mother was honored above every other human being besides Jesus Himself when she was asked by God to bear His Son. We ask God’s blessing on all women, because all women, no matter what their state in life, are specially privileged to bring Christ into the world. Mary is our model in joy and in suffering, in trust and in sorrow. We ask Mary to intercede for our earthly mothers and for all the women who cared for us, and we ask the Holy Spirit to increase our love so that we will always honor the women in our lives. We ask this through Christ Our Lord. 
Amen.

Then scoot out the side door before anyone can yell at you.
Amen.

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Photo of woman who is disappointed in you via Pixabay
This post originally ran at Aleteia in 2016.

Homemade cake with a side of red herring

 

When I was a new mom, I was the greatest. THE GREATEST. You could tell how great I was because of the ever-growing list of things I was too good of a mom to ever resort to.

I’m not talking about high standards; I’m talking about bonkers standards — things I rejected as lazy or third rate or tacky, for no reason at all. Mainly, it was time-savers and effort-savers that seemed like cheating to me. If something was easy, then that in itself was evidence that it was probably the crap way to do it, and people who take that route were crap moms.

When I had two kids, for instance, I used to sit in silent, scornful judgement of this other mom who would come to Mass five minutes late with her eight girls, and each one of those tragically undervalued waifs had a ponytail in her hair. A ponytail, can you imagine? How the heck do you manage to be late when you haven’t even spent any time at all doing their hair? This so-called “mother” never even reserved a small lock of hair to make into a tiny braid and wrap around the ponytail to hide the rubber band that is color-coordinated with their socks just in case it shows.

My kids, by the way, wanted their hair cut short so it was easy to brush. But they got tiny braids, because I loved them, unlike some moms.

Please visit my GoFundMe, where I’m currently raising funds toward the invention of a time machine. I need to go back twenty years and kick my own ass.

Here are a few things I allow in my house now, because guess what, you haughty, know-nothing, backwards, psychosnob former self? These things make life easier. Tah dah! Life is hard enough without putting extra hurdles in your own path just to prove that you can clamber over them with your martyred smile intact.

Box cakes. Oh yes. We have twelve birthday cakes every year, plus baptism cakes, confirmation cakes, First Communion cakes (first confession gets no cake. No cake!), not to mention “your actual birth date that we want to mark, and then we’ll have a separate cake when we can schedule a party with friends” cakes. No one expects them to taste like much. The important thing is making sure everyone gets their very own edible platform for a giant, flaming message saying, “Hey, we can currently remember your name and we think you’re swell!”

I do know how to bake a real cake. I’ve even baked two towering wedding cakes, one for my own wedding and one for my brother-in-law. You wanna get married, I’ll actually sift some flour for you. Otherwise: Betty Crocker, you’re coming home with me tonight.

Paper Plates. Lots of people use paper plates to get those tough weeks after giving birth, or they blushingly resort to them for a day or so while they’re moving to Finland or something. We use them most days, because they are paper, and you don’t have to wash them, and Fishers come in one size: Swarm.

Sometimes friends will share photos of their unspeakably messy kitchen, with a sink overflowing with dirty dishes. And I’m like, “Bitch, that’s us halfway through pre-breakfast snack.” If Gideon ever came to our house and watched my kids drink, none of them would make the cut, because the little creeps would rather lap out of the faucet than wash a cup, and all the cups are always dirty, and yes, I run the dishwasher twice a day. See: swarm.

If I’m serving soup or spaghetti or something drippy, then we drag out the china (and plastic), but paper plates are the standard. Sorry, environment. It’s just paper. I have faith in you.

Kiddie TV. Sometimes people will ask me, “How do you manage to get your writing done every morning with little kids in the house?” The answer is, “They watch TV.” Sorry. That is how it happens.I love the idea of children roaming wild through wooded dells, or spending idyllic hours mesmerized with nothing a spool of twine and their own imagination, but I don’t currently have the funds to hire an Idyllic Childhood Manager. Netflix, on the other hand, is quite cheap.

They have to get dressed and eat breakfast first, and then they can watch TV for a couple of hours. They don’t complain when it’s time to turn it off, because it’s part of the schedule. I sit in the room with them if possible, but if they’re bugging me, I go hide.

Mr. TV is not on nonstop. I do read to the kids most days (or I get someone else to read to them), and we squeeze in a craft maybe once a week, and they have active play every day, but for keeping the little shriekers occupied for chunk of time, there is nothing like TV. If I feel guilty about it, I toss a doll with a wooden head in their laps while they are watching Barbie: Life In the Dream House. That makes it Montessori.

Buspar. So, first, I had to get over the idea that you can just power your way through mental illness by trying harder. I needed to bite the bullet and start shopping for a therapist. Therapy is not for losers, or for people who don’t pray enough.
Then I had to get used to the idea that you really can tell your therapist anything, including, “I’ve made tons of progress with you, but I’ve hit a wall,” and I need to call my other doctor and see what kind of drugs are out there, to give me a leg up. Drugs are not for people too lazy to do the work of therapy.
Then I had to get used to the idea that all drugs have a trade-off, and if one particular one has outlived its usefulness, or the side effects are too ugly, you might have to try a different one; or, you might have to ask yourself if it makes sense to see how you do without any drugs, but not in the same way as you did before you got used to the idea that it was okay to take drugs.
Then, I had to get used to the idea that even people who have made tons of progress have bad days, and sometimes All The Things You’ve Learned aren’t making you calm the hell down so you can have a normal evening at home with your family. So you pop a couple of pills that settle down your brain, and make it possible for you to identify the walls of your life as not currently caving in around you.

And it works, and there is not a damn thing wrong with it, because the goal is to be able to live your life.

And that’s what it all boils down to. What makes it possible to live the life you want and need and ought to live?  I started this post out as a lighthearted “Bad moms unite! Whatcha gonna do!” kind of thing, but now I think I have something to say.

It’s a good thing to have standards. But it’s a bad thing to assume that “difficult” is the same as “virtuous.” Sometimes, we put obstacles in our own paths as way of proving our worth or our dedication. Difficulties, even unnecessary ones that we choose for ourselves, can make us stronger or keep us from sliding into apathy or mediocrity; but they can also be a wonderful red herring that distract us from pursuing our true vocations.

It’s not about lowering our standards. It’s about remembering that standards aren’t ends in themselves. They’re there to help us achieve our goals; and if they’re not doing that, then it’s time to discard them.

So it’s a good thing to have standards, but it’s also a good thing to step back and reassess our standards from time to time. What am I actually trying to achieve? Is it a worthy goal? Are my standards actually helping me do what I need to do, or am I keeping them around mainly out of vanity, or a desire to punish myself, or a desire to prove something that no one actually cares about? Or even just out of habit? Do my standards fit my current, actual life, or have I moved past them? If I choose to do some things the hard way, is it really a personal choice, or am I making life harder for the people around me, too?

And wouldn’t you rather have pie? Because I make a killer apple pie, with homemade crust with this special technique I learned. See, an hour earlier, you take the butter, and you put it . . . no? You really want Betty Crocker Red Velvet cake, decorated with frosting from a can? That’s what would make you feel happy?

Can do.

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Image: By Lupo [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Working moms: what would help?

Children are good for society, fiscally and in every other way. Children who are well-cared for, who aren’t forced to go to school sick or spend lots of time alone, and parents who aren’t utterly exhausted and wracked with guilt at all times, make families who give stability and peace to society as a whole. So even if we’re only looking out for our own self-interest, it’s best for everyone when parents are given as much freedom and flexibility as possible to devote to their children. Children are not a hobby or a side interest: they are life itself. It only makes sense for employers to take that into account.

Read the rest at the Register.