People simply do not take your work seriously if you’re not wearing a uniform or sitting in an office. They can see you there, flagrantly sitting at home like an enormous slug. Even though they intellectually know that you are earning a living, they just can’t get past the notion that, since you are at home, your entire reason for existing is to serve them; and when you have performed the required service, you probably back into a storage closet and power down like an off-duty robot until someone needs you to fix the Wii or find their math book or explain the Vietnam war or unclog the toilet. Or make some food. Not this food! Food we like better! Cut into triangles!
My children range in age from 20 to three – almost a big enough span to comprise two generations. Naturally, the older kids think the younger ones get away with murder. The love to talk about how strict I used to be, how inflexible, how unreasonable.
And they’re right. It’s not just that I had more energy to hold the reins tightly when I was a young mom; it’s that I had a very different idea of how kids should be treated. I was wrong about a lot of things, and much of that wrongness stemmed from wrong ideas I had about myself – about my self-worth, about my value, about my capabilities.
It was a kindly old priest in Coke bottle glasses, a matter-of-fact French Canadian servant of God with no desire to act as Grand Inquisitor. But his simple, basic questions did the job they were intended to do: They let us know that this was real, this was serious, and our responsibility was not going to go away.
A child who is told he is stupid will always believe he is stupid. A child who is told she’s a failure will always believe she’s a failure. When these insults and hostility come from the very heart of the family, they take root.
All parents, sooner or later, come up against a problem they can’t solve. This is where we recall that parenting is about self-sacrifice, and sometimes it’s our pride that needs sacrificing. Your child is more important than your self-image. Your job is to fight for him or her, and that includes enlisting help.
Whenever my daughter Irene isn’t where we expect her to be, someone says darkly, “She’s probably sitting on the floor, playing with blocks.”
This is because, several years ago, she insisted on being the one to run into the city library and fetch the middle school kid while the rest of us waited in the car. And waited. And waited.
It was punishingly hot, everyone was hungry and angry, the baby was screaming, and I was too low on gas to run the air conditioner. I didn’t have enough big kids in the car to stay with the little kids while I went in myself, and I didn’t have a quarter for the parking meter anyway, so we had to wait. And wait. And wait. No kid. Eventually I sent a second kid in to find the kid I had sent in to find the other kid; and when that didn’t work I sent a third — no, a fourth kid in. We had all read the story about Clever Elsie, and nobody liked where this was headed.
But no, just a few minutes after he had gone in, that last kid emerged with all the others in tow. He reported indignantly that he had found Irene just sitting on the floor playing with blocks. Just playing with blocks, while we waited!
Irene, of course, defended herself. There was a very good reason! She couldn’t find the first kid, and she looked in the computer alcoves, in the manga section, by the fish tanks, everywhere a boy might be. Having done her due diligence, she then sensibly wondered if maybe he was in the bathroom in the children’s room upstairs. But the bathroom door was locked, and no one answered when she knocked — a telltale sign that it must be her brother inside, because he never answers when you knock. So she plopped herself down on the floor outside the bathroom and passed the time by playing with blocks until the unreliable crumb would decide to stroll himself out and stop inconveniencing everyone.
What she didn’t know was that the children’s bathroom is always locked, and you have to go ask the librarian for a key. No one answered her knock because no one was in there. So there she was, blissfully building little castles outside an empty bathroom, while the rest of us steamed our brains out in the car while the baby screamed and screamed. And we’ll never let her forget it.
We cherish memories of abject failure by our loves ones, even more than memories of perfect birthday cakes, golden hours reading fairy tales, or happy meals with laughter and song. Why? Because twisting the knife is fun! I don’t know. I can only imagine how many happy evenings Adam whiled away, reminding Eve of that one tiny little mistake she made that one time, years and years and years ago. Never mind all the good times, all the hard work and dedication, all the nice loincloths she made for the family. No one wants to reminisce about the day she invented lentils. Nope, it’s always, “Hey, remember that time you doomed mankind?”
Parents, especially, are popular targets of this selective memory. My kids, Irene included, live for the chance to remind me that I once picked up the kids at school and drove all the way into the next town before I even noticed I forgot Sophia. On Valentine’s Day! They always forget that I was nine months pregnant and it was a certifiable miracle I could remember how to use a steering wheel, much less count heads, and I did go back and get her. It’s not as if I just washed my hands of her and got on with my life without Sophia like some kind of bad parent. Nope, it’s just The Day Mama Forgot Sophia . . . On Valentine’s Day. And they’ll never let me forget it.
Then there was the time when my own parents went into what I remember as a long and completely unreasonable tirade about careless children who knock over their cups at meals, causing untold frustration and inconvenience for everyone else at the table, who just want to sit down at the end of a long day and enjoy a meal without having to jump up and clean something every five minutes, if people would just be a little bit more considerate and take the extra two seconds it takes to move their cup out of the way of their elbow so it doesn’t get knoc–
and then, of course, my father knocked over his cup, and my mother knocked over her cup. It was glorious. Glorious. And we’ll never let them forget it.
Now you tell me about your public shame. I want to know what they’ll never forget about you!
In New Hampshire, the incessant cycle of birth and death and rebirth is inescapable. You cannot ignore the ancient story of desolation and consolation, the ever-present hope of new life. No matter how cold, how dark, how hard, how closed-off the world becomes, there is always reason to hope, deep down. Every twig bears witness to this hope. Trim off a branch of the lilac in the deepest day of winter, and you’ll see it: a tiny shaft of green. It’s hard to wait in the middle of February, but by God and his Grace, it’s better than having nothing to wait for.
1. Sometimes, when you open a package of pork, it stinks like rotten eggs. You will think at first that it’s gone bad, but just let it sit for several minutes while the gas dissipates, and then smell it again. If it smells fine, then you’ve just witnessed “off-gassing,” which you get when pork is vacuum packed. You can also rinse the pork off, and that should get rid of the smell so you can go ahead and cook your dinner.
Lesson: Sometimes, all it takes for a crisis to become manageable is a little time …
Do we let them know we see and delight in them as they are, for who they are? Or do we hustle past their actual selves in favor of a generic family photo op? God gave us specific children for a reason. One of our primary jobs as parents is to identify and encourage what is good in them – not what we wish they were like, but what is good in them right now. Our job is to find something delightful in them.
Hey, parents, how did Mass go yesterday?
Let me guess: Everyone was exhausted and cranky, the kids were still sticky and vibrating with last night’s sugar, several faces showed traces of whiskers and fake blood, and all in all, you kept thinking how nice it would be to venerate the saints any other day at all but this one.
The only thing that could make it harder? If another parishioner went out of his way to make it harder. Yes, it happens! If it’s never happened to you, you’re lucky.
Yesterday, a mom asked me how to get yourself to go back to Mass after it happens once too often. It wasn’t just a passing glare, sigh, or stink-eye from a crabby fellow Catholic, she explained, but the person actually hissed in her ear that her children do not belong at Mass. That she is doing a bad job as a mother. Incredibly, the complainer sought her out after Mass to double down and say it again: Your children don’t belong here. Do not bring them here.
Let’s be clear: This is a message straight from Hell. The Mass is humanity’s main source of grace and life, and if no one goes, then no one will have grace or life. Telling parents their kids don’t belong at Mass is like trampling down every seedling you find, then clucking your tongue over the poor harvest.
So, yes, children belong. Yes, even if there is a cry room and a nursery and a separate kiddie liturgy available.
You as parents may believe this with at least part of your heart. But what do you do about the people who don’t believe it? What if the prospect of setting yourself up for another public flogging next Sunday just feels crushingly impossible? You know how much you need Christ, but you also know you’re going to spend the entire hour feeling tense, angry, guilty, and defensive; and it’s not as if the kids are begging to be there, either. You know you need what Christ has to offer, and you know grace isn’t a matter of how you feel. But even knowing all of this, sometimes it just seems pointless, utterly pointless, to go. What to do?
Sometime before Sunday, talk to the priest. This may or may not work. Some priests over-value silence, and some underestimate how hard it is to keep kids quiet. Priests are human, and no human responds well to all situations.
But many priests will be horrified to hear that families are being discouraged from coming to Mass. When the pastor insists from the pulpit that true pro-lifers want, need, and love children in the pews, and insists that we act that way, it changes the culture of the parish. So ask your priest if he will say something, or put a note in the bulletin, or distribute some of these encouraging cards. Have more than one conversation, if need be. Yes, the priest is busy, but your complaint is not trivial.
Make a simple strategy ahead of time. Not necessarily a plan for how to manage your kids (although that’s important too; although some mornings, not arriving naked is triumph enough), but a plan for how to respond if someone does harass you. When I’m already frazzled by a rambunctious toddler, I’m not going to be able to improvise a sensible response to an equally unreasonable adult (hereafter referred to as “The Hisser”). It’s invaluable to have an all-purpose tool at the ready.
Suggested stock phrases: “Thanks, we’re doing the best we can!” or “We’re having a rough time. Let’s pray for each other” or “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.” Well, maybe not that last one. But you get the idea. Smile blandly, stare just over The Hisser’s left ear, and repeat, repeat, repeat. It doesn’t even have to make sense. Just having a ready response and sticking to it helps you regain control.
Third, enlist help. This is a tall order, I know. If you had an army of helpers surrounding you, you wouldn’t be struggling to begin with. But often, we see our pews as little isolation chambers, everyone turning up with their own personal issues; but the Mass is supposed to be a communal experience that extends beyond the sign of peace. So look around and see if you can spot a sympathetic person to act as a buffer between you and The Hisser. People pick on parents because they can. If they discover those parents have bodyguards, they will be less bold.
Find a spot close to another family or a friendly elderly couple. Gather up your courage and whisper, “Hey, listen, could you help me out? I’m trying to teach my kids to behave, but sometimes they get away from me, and it would be so great to feel like not everyone’s mad at me! If anyone gives us a hard time, could I ask you to stick up for me?” It’s weird, I know. But it’s hard to imagine someone turning you down, and many people (especially those who wish they had kids of their own) might be honored.
Prepare spiritually. This one is indispensable. We rightly think of the Mass as a meal where we are nourished (although that nourishment may not be a lovely, cozy experience every time), but it is also where we go to offer ourselves to the Father along with Christ. The Eucharist may be an unbloody sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean we won’t come away feeling bruised.
Sometimes Good Friday feels more present than Easter Sunday — even at Mass. Remember that Christ, too, was mocked. Christ, too, was castigated. Christ was told that He didn’t understand how to worship properly, that He was dishonoring God’s house, that He didn’t belong there. He knew it wasn’t true, but don’t you think it hurt Him anyway?
As you enter the Church, offer what is to come up to the Father. It is real suffering, and a worthy sacrifice to dedicate.
Remember you won’t live in Babyland forever. I cannot say it often enough: This stage passes. You may feel like you’re going to spend the rest of your life getting dressed up once a week to be screamed at in a drafty lobby for an hour, but it will pass. Kids grow up. They turn a corner. Even if you have baby after baby, the older kids can help with the younger kids, and they can set a wonderful example for their siblings, too. Babyland is intense, but it is not a life sentence.
You may have to find another parish. I believe in blooming where you’re planted, and I believe in improving the soil when you can. But some churches simply don’t want kids. So shake the dust from your sandals and let them have their wish — not vindictively, but because you and your kids don’t deserve to feel like pariahs simply for existing.
Once you’ve found a friendlier home, let the old pastor know why you’ve left, in as civil terms as you can manage. If enough people do this, he’ll notice the trend and maybe turn things around before it’s too late.
Just don’t leave the Catholic Church altogether! If you have left for a time, do come back. No welcome is warm enough to substitute for the sacraments.