It’s good and natural for parents to want to keep their kids safe, but it’s healthy for the entire family to acknowledge that our main job as parents is to prepare kids for the rest of their lives. A kid who has never learned to judge for himself when it’s safe to cross the street is a kid who is unsafe.
Christmas is the infancy of the Faith, and most people find it pretty easy to be happy about about their Faith at this time of year — at least in the good moments. Even when the season is stressful or exhausting, most of us at least occasionally taste those golden moments where the music is right, the candles are glowing, we’re finally holding a mug of something hot, finally hearing the happy murmurs of the baby in the manger. At the best moments, we love Christmas, baby Jesus loves us, and it is just plain nice. It’s simple to respond as we should, at least on the good days. A simple “Gloria!” and we’re doing it right.
But what about when the liturgical year grows up?
I’m putting together an article for Our Sunday Visitor about how marriages change after a baby is born — the good, the bad, and the things that need professional intervention (spiritual and otherwise). Dr. Greg Popcak gave me some wonderful information, and he has reprinted our entire interview on his blog. Here’s an excerpt:
Simcha: I assume you mostly work with Catholic couples. Is the strength of a couple’s faith a good predictor for how well they can work through their problems? This sounds like a softball question – like, “yes yes, of course when we are faithful, we will find life’s burdens light” – but I’m really curious, because I know that a strong religious faith doesn’t always translate easily or directly into good emotional health or strong relationships.
Dr. Greg: You’re right. In fact, many faithful couples who have more rigid role expectations may struggle more with birth than other couples. If you tend to be of the mindset the God made men to do X and women to do Y and never the twain shall meet, you may tend to fail to be there for each other, take on too much for yourself, and make excuses for behavior that would be otherwise inexcusable.
Faith tends to be helpful when it is expressed, not as “rules to live by” but rather as “a call to be generous and understanding regarding each other’s needs.” Babies have a way of stretching your comfort zones. If your faith helps you deal with that and respond accordingly, both your faith and relationships will become healthier as you grow as a person. But if your faith is mainly about having hard and fast rules to live by, you might not adapt as well to the unpredictability that comes with post-baby life.
Good stuff, with lots of practical advice — things we learned the hard way, and are still working on learning. Read the rest here.
I will post a link to the finished OSV article when it comes out; and also keep an eye out for Popcak’s newest book, written with his wife: Then Comes Baby: Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood (Ave Maria Press–Nov 2014).
Not a failure: “My daughter is pregnant.”
Failure: “My daughter had an abortion because she knew darn well what would happen if we found out she was pregnant.”
Not a failure: “My child is severely depressed.” “My child has debilitating anxiety.” “My child is suicidal.”
Failure: “I have no idea how to help my child, but I’ll be damned if I let someone stranger into our personal lives. Professional help is for parents who can’t hack it, and I don’t belong in a waiting room with that trash.”
Not a failure: “We are totally crashing and burning in the home school/private school/religious school/public school we thought would be so perfect for our kind of family.”
Failure: “We are totally crashing and burning, but if we quit, we’ll be failures as parents/let down the community/have to admit we’re wrong/change our lives around. We better keep going, so everyone will know we care about our kids.”
Not a failure: “I don’t understand my kid very well, and it’s hard to talk.”
Failure: “My kid has a great relationship with my husband, or with her teacher, or with her friend’s mom. I can’t allow this. I’m the mom.”
Not a failure: “My kid is screwing up in exactly the same ways I did or do.”
Failure: “Boy, does this look familiar, and boy does it make me feel bad. I’ll punish her double, one for each of us.”
Not a failure: “Despite our best efforts to raise him right, my kid exercised his free will and is now a druggie, an alcoholic, a criminal.”
Failure: “His name is forbidden in my home.”
Not a failure: “We are too broke to give our kids everything their friends have.”
Failure: “I must do everything possible to get more money, so we can be happy.”
Not a failure: “My child is gay.”
Failure: “I refuse to have gay children, so either the kid or the gayness has got to go.”
Not a failure: “My child has left the Church.”
Failure: “I refuse to speak to my child who has left the Church. How could he betray Me this way?”
Not a failure: “I just said exactly the wrong thing to my kid.”
Failure: “We must never speak of this again.”
I’ll be speaking about parents as primary educators of their children on the Son Rise Morning Show this Friday morning. Seven of my children will be at school, and the other two will be watching Dinosaur Train. The baby will be yelling, ‘WHERE ‘DUC-TER????” every time the Conductor goes off the screen. The dog will be pawing frantically at the door of my bedroom, where I do radio interviews, because the only, only, only way he wants to spend his time these days is playing Lonely Dog Rodeo on top of my bed. He weighs 140 pounds and is not allowed on my bed, but he tries.
Catch the excitement here, Friday, around 8:50.
Take a squint at how you’re raising your kids. The general impression should be “up, up, up.”
Just because I have a lot of kids, people assume I have a lot of kid-managing skills. Not so. In the last twelve years, I have perfected really only two child-related talents: ignoring screams, and buying spaghetti in bulk. Other than that, I’m pretty much where I was at the beginning: terrified, stymied, trying not to let them corner me.
How, for instance, do I deal with lots and lots and lots and lots of time in the car with four small children who have lots and lots and lots and lots of desire to be out of the car? Haven’t figured that one out yet. The reason this comes up is that, as part of my nefarious plan to erase all traces of labor, hardship and inconvenience from my life when we decided to send our oldest four children to a charter school, I have been spending an awful lot of time in the car.
Emphasis on the awful.
The four youngest children always come for the ride in the afternoon, and sometimes in the morning, too. Sometimes they read or play with baby dolls during the ride; other times, they just sit there, quietly soaking their car seats. Of course I know all about portable toys, books, snacks, window stickers, soothing or amusing music, “I spy,” and so on. But some weeks, we spend so many hours in the car, it’s not a matter of passing the time. We’re just living our lives, but in the car, you know? We just do the things we always do, but we can’t get away from each other.
Here’s a little illustration. To comprehend the psychological freight inherent in the following drama, you have to know a few things: first, that the three-year-old
is completely nuts, and likes nothing better than to start arguments about nothing at all; and second, the 18-month-old thinks the three-year-old is a god.
And one more thing: it was raining.
3-year-old: “It’s not raining.”
Little sister, parroting: “Yainin’!”
3-year-old: “No, it’s not raining!”
Little sister, blissfully playing along: “Yeah, yainin’!”
3-year-old, in a rage: “NO, it’s NOT raining, it’s NOT raining, it’s NOT raining!”
Little sister, joyfully agreeing with her idol: “Yain-yain-yainin’!!!!!!!!!”
3-year-old, in a quivering ecstasy of fury: “IT! IS! NOT! RAI-AI-AI-AI-AI-AININNNNNNNNNNG!”
Little sister, transported with bliss at the wonderful camaraderie she was enjoying with her sister: “YAAAAAAAAAAAININ’!”
And so on.
There was nothing that anyone could do. The three-year-old had rocketed so far past the point of reason that she remained in her little orbit of hysteria for a good half hour; and when she came down, she was hungry. And guess what? I had forgotten to bring a snack.
Did I mention we were in the car for three hours that day? I’m just glad we belong a religion that believes in the value of suffering. Because, man, it’s only Tuesday . . .
This post originally ran about three years ago. This year, our house will be launching the following into an unsuspecting world: Harry Potter, Aphrodite, a cat, the grim reaper, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, a Pink Mummy Ghost (this is a costume which started off weird and gets more confusing each year), Ming Ming, and a confused and angry baby.
You can see by the preponderance of trademarked characters that, in the three years since I wrote this piece, my give-a-damn has broken.
If you are lucky enough to slide unharmed through the Scylla and Charybdis of the Wiccans’ Samhain and decent people’s All Saint’s Day, you will probably be thinking about Halloween costumes for your kids.
I started having kids pretty young, so I went directly from wearing costumes myself to making costumes for my kids. The type of costume changed, of course. When you’re a 19-year-old pseudo intellectual, it seems hilarious to dress up as Aristotle’s Incontinent Man; but for your kids, you really need to reign in the originality. It’s less scarring that way.
The more insane daily life is, the more prone I am to wildly ambitious homemade costume ideas. If I’m pregnant, teaching several kids at home, buying a new house, going to law school, and launching an organic chinchilla farm, that’s when it seems like a good idea to whip up a batch of papier-mache. How hard could it really be to dress any reasonably robust six-year-old as an Elizabethan headless horseman, with false legs, of course, so it looks like he’s really riding on the golden Sphinx part, when he’s actually walking? If I could get a little cooperation around here, I could get something done for a change.
But my goal in these days of relative calm (I’m not pregnant, we’re unpacked and not packing, no one has a new job, and all the pets are dead) is to dress the kids in such a way that it won’t make them cry.
This is not as easy as it sounds, when you have kids who tend to cry when you do exactly what they specifically asked for, several times, with witnesses.
Also working against me is one three-year-old boy who gets angry when he’s having fun. You let him wear a cape and stay up late, and surround him with people who can’t believe how adorable he is, and who want to give him lots of candy . . . and it really rubs him the wrong way. This is the same kid who steps outside into the golden sunshine, takes a look at the butterflies wafting over the heads of gentle daisies, and yells at the top of his lungs, “IT IS NOT A BOOTIFUL DAY!”
But my biggest handicap is, as usual, myself. I know it’s supposed to be a kids’ holiday, and I genuinely want the little termites to be happy. But I’m sick. I have a disease which makes it seem important to stay up until dawn getting the tin foil details of Princess Leia’s belt exactly right, even though I know darn well that it’s going to be dark out, and no one without infrared vision could notice any flaw of authenticity, and no one with or without infrared vision would care.
Well, it’s a holiday, and that means it has to be someone’s turn to ruin things — might as well be me. But I’ll tell you the thing I really enjoy about Halloween: at least it’s not a religious holiday — I mean, Halloween as a “boo, eek, Kit-kat and Smartees, oh-how-cute” day, setting aside the issue of saints and souls and praying and such, which is for a different day.
Halloween is not like Christmas, or Easter, or Thanksgiving — you’re not supposed to be making sure your kids aren’t missing the deeper meaning of it all, and not being too materialistic, and enjoying happy times with your family, while simultaneously performing the back-breaking labor of organizing a pleasant day.
So when I tear around the house with a hot glue gun, insisting that the toddler can make supper for herself because I’m busy, dammit . . . it’s just Halloween! I may be acting like a jerk, but at least it’s not blasphemy.
Kristen Herrett of St. Monica’s Bridge graciously allowed me to repost her sensible and valuable essay about her letting her sons play with baby dolls. I especially liked the line: “I want them to understand that sometimes we make mistakes, but our love is never a mistake.”
The images in this post are of my sons. With a baby doll. I posted them on Facebook a few weeks ago to mixed reviews. Most thought they were cute. A few privately messaged me to take them down and stop letting my boys “play with dolls.” The pictures remain and my boys still have access to the doll.
When I became a mother I had certain ideas of how I was going to raise my children. I would venture to guess most mothers do. I quickly found out that some of these ideas I had did not exactly fit my temperament, my mothering style or my kids. I was all about babywearing. My babies, not so much. I thought co-sleeping would be great…but I wasn’t doing any of the sleeping part. Other things, like breastfeeding, were great.
I never set out to raise my children in a “gender neutral” household. And really, they don’t live in one. Yes, when Jeff is home he cooks, but that’s because he is a chef. And I do wear pants. And for a time, I worked while he stayed home with the children. And there have been occasions where emergency or budget have dictated one of my boys have worn a pink pull-up or had a pink pacifier. But, for the most part, boys are boys and girls are girls here.
Shelby has a few “baby” dolls. She sometimes shows interest in them, mostly does not. Real babies hold no interest for her until they are able to sit up. It is only then that she sort of “gets” that this thing that mommy is carrying constantly is a human being. We keep the baby dolls out and praise her when she shows interest, not because it is a girl toy, but because she is behind with her social interactions and encouraging a positive association with infants is important for her to learn.
The phenomenon of the boys and this baby doll is a recent thing. It has only occurred after my brothers began spending time with my best friend’s new-born infant son. Joey likes to “practice” holding the baby so he can hold Baby Ryan and his soon to be born cousin Baby Bella. He also practices how to feed the baby and give it a paci when it cries. He has named the baby “Will” after his brother. For Will, he wants to imitate his big brother and he needs to practice being gentle around babies for sure!
I do not for a minute think I am confusing my boys or emasculating them. After all, they don’t want to wear dresses now and have proclaimed that Barbies are for girls. But I realize that some people very much view it that way. So, I will go ahead and explain why I haven’t ripped the doll out of my boys’ hands.
I am raising children. Some day, my boys may very likely become fathers. I want to raise them to be good Daddies. I don’t want them to fear their children when they are newborns. I want them to approach the task with some kind of confidence. I want them to understand that sometimes we make mistakes, but our love is never a mistake. I want them to be able to support a wife who has difficulty breastfeeding and be able to comfort a crying child. We forget these things are not necessarily traits we are born with. I’ve watched many a father struggle and wish they could have just observed their dads doing some of the parenting things they find themselves doing, let alone been encouraged to do them themselves.
And for the record, my boys do an inordinately large amount of wrestling, shooting each other with water guns, fighting, playing Thomas and rooting for Penn State and Carolina’s football teams.
Parenting is a very difficult task. One that no matter how many books you read you can never fully master. I’ve chosen to try to expose my children to learning through doing. And right now, my sons seem to be proponents of attachment parenting (we say Joey is co-sleeping in the picture above). Will they continue as adults? Who knows, there is a lot of time between now and then…in the mean time I hope and pray that I am raising daddies who will rise to the task of fathering their children in the best ways possible.
I spend a lot of time thinking what it must be like to be one of my kids. Before you say, “Oh, you’re such a good mommy!” it’s not really like that. If anything, I’m all the more culpable for being so mean sometimes. I actually can really, vividly imagine what it’s like to be, for instance, so so upset about someone saying that “Catsy Cootsy Tatsy Wootsy” is a stinky name for a robot — and yet I still say, “Oh, don’t be so silly, who cares? You stop crying and clean up this room.” Even though I remember what that’s like.
Anyway, I was thinking about those strange, stranded childhood memories that stay with us. We say, “When I was little, we always used to sit under the lilac tree and play farm using fruit snacks for animals” when really that only happened one time. Or our entire sixth year of life is represented by a memory of a maple seed helicopter that someone drew on with green marker and put in our hair. Probably something else happened that year! But that’s all we can remember, is the helicopter.
I just wonder how these memories stick. Why? I drive down the same country road four times a day, five days a week, with the four little ones strapped into their dank car seats. Sometimes we chat, sometimes we listen to music, sometimes they yell and kick at each other, and fight over the last of the graham crackers. But most of that time, they’re just looking out the window.
I glance back and see those dark, placid eyes drinking in the golden leaves, the endlessly unfurling stone walls, the occasional thrilling squirrel or cocker spaniel as we rattle down the road — that familiar landscape that ought to be so soothing and reassuring, and the perfect, idyllic setting for a whole year of comfortable childhood memories. There’s even a funny plaster bull in somebody’s yard. That would make a nice memory!
But I know perfectly well the strangeness inside a child’s head. I remember that simmering stew of comfort and confusion, tedium and alarm, affection and sudden spikes of dread. And I remember all the adults trotting along so callously, so bafflingly unaware of all the terrible dangers in the world, the savage mysteries that grown-ups pretend are nothing at all, just a shadow, just a plastic bag caught in the wind, just the sound of the house settling.
Some of my children are worriers and brooders, and I understand them. I can tell them, “It’s all right — it’s all right. You’ll grow up, and you’ll see that the world is not so terrible. There is a way out of this dark hole, and there is so much to look forward to. Just hang in there, and you will not always be a child! You can do it.” But that doesn’t help them now. They don’t know what I mean, and they don’t realize that I understand.
I wish I could choose their memories for them. When I’m feeling up to it, I try and bulldoze them over with poignant, satisfying experiences, so that they’ll have something good for when they grow up. And really, I know it’s not for their sake — it’s for mine. It’s so they can tell me, “Remember when you used to sing that song you made up while we were waiting for the eggs to scramble?” and I can say, “Oh, yes, you were such a difficult child . . . but I made you happy, didn’t I?” and they will say, “Yes, Mama, and we appreciate that. You were a good mother.”
Ridiculous. That is not what will happen. When they have their own kids, they’ll wonder why I couldn’t have been nicer, why I had to be so critical, so capricious, so impatient and embarrassing. They will love me, but it will be love with exasperation, accomplished with fortitude. I know that whoever my children will turn out to be, it will be because of their own experiences, their own personality, their own genetics, their own little portions of grace that God chooses for them. So very, very little of who they are will come from me, even though I crack my brain trying to think of everything they will need.
And of that, they will remember – – what? The time I yelled at them on their birthday; and maybe also the time I made kitten-shaped pancakes for lunch. Maybe they’ll just remember me brushing their hair.
I hope the time they remember is the time I remembered to be gentle.