"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Number One Practice of a Pro-Family Priest: a Short Homily

It's not unusual for priests and laypeople alike to lament the lack of families in the Church. Many times we know people who self-identify as Catholic, but don't regularly fulfill their Sunday Mass obligation. Many times these people are parents who care enough about the faith to seek baptism for their children. When it comes to making it to Mass on a weekly basis, however, they struggle.

There are many reasons for this, and it's easy to blame the parents for lack of fortitude, perhaps acknowledging unsympathetically that of course it's tough to have young children at Mass, but that's just what we have to do. Or perhaps we can blame the parents for not being willing to come up with other solutions to the problem, like having a family member or a baby-sitter watch the kids at home so the parents can go to Sunday Mass. We might also blame the parents for the way they are bringing up the kids, suggesting that years ago, kids all used to sit silently during church with no complaint, and that this is all the fault of introducing television and other screens at such a young age.

But blaming parents doesn't really do much to solve the problem at hand. I've written elsewhere about the difficulty of bringing children to Mass, including noting the critical eye cast toward families with antsy (and sometimes unpredictably suddenly loud) children. Fellow parishioners can do much to be sympathetic and kind to families struggling to contain and quiet children during Mass.

However, there is one priestly practice in particular that makes a world of difference to parents with small children, namely A SHORT HOMILY. I'm a theologian by training, and believe me, I love a great theological discourse on the Scriptures. The Sunday Mass readings in particular often present a golden opportunity for such reflection. There was a time when I delighted in the long and insightful homily.

It's safe to say that those days have passed, and, by the grace of God, I landed in a parish with a pastor who is the master of the short homily. Let me try to explain the difference. A long homily means a long time of trying to keep my kids (currently five kids under the age of 11, including two squirrely boy toddlers) quiet. I seldom actually HEAR any of the homily, and I certainly could not pass a post-homily quiz on the material from the homily. If - and that's a big IF - my husband doesn't have to take a toddler out during the long homily, you might think we breathe a big sigh of relief when the LOOOOONG homily finally concludes.

You would be wrong, however. We know that what comes next is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, including the consecration, which should be among the most solemn moments of Mass. If we have successfully managed to keep the kids quiet during the homily (and by that I mean, if the kids have miraculously kept themselves quiet), we are virtually guaranteed a loud outburst during the consecration. If this occurs, it is virtually guaranteed to be completely unpredictable in terms of timing. If this occurs, we are virtually guaranteed to be blocked in on both sides of the pew by elderly kneeling parishioners, with no avenue of escape.

It's not pleasant.

Now, with a short homily, this is what happens. The kids have barely settled in after standing for the gospel, and the homily is almost done. I have heard the beginning, which is the main point, and serves as the middle and end as well. A few minutes of a simple message that makes a connection with the Scripture is all it takes, and I am virtually guaranteed to remember the message because of its simplicity and brevity (and often profundity!). There's really not enough time for the kids to get squirrelly, impatient, or bored. And now the Mass is continuing. Wow! We can make it through the entire Eucharistic prayer. The kids survive communion distribution, with music to cover any noise they might make. Now, it's the final blessing, and maybe some announcements. Voila! With the recessional, we know we've successfully survived another Sunday Mass with little incident. It's a good feeling!

And if more parents had this feeling, I think they'd be willing to take the risk of attending Sunday Mass as a family. That's why I say that the number one practice of a pro-family priest is preaching a short homily. Of course, there are many other good reasons to preach a short homily. Theologically, the homily is not supposed to be the pinnacle of the Mass, but rather point toward the Eucharist. Guidelines recommend a homily to be less than eight minutes. Lastly, it's not just kids that sometimes have a hard time listening!

So, if priests are serious about wanting families to feel welcome at Mass, step number one is to preach a short homily.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sin in the Sixties: Catholics and Confession, 1955-1975

Given that most of my life these days consists of doing laundry, picking up shoes, and feeding little people, it is a bit surprising to me that I also have a book published this month. It's amazing how the Lord works! It's available on Amazon and directly from CUA Press.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Blessings of a Large Family: Different Ages!

Back when I was a new mom, with only one very frustrating toddler, I used to have times when I just wished she was older. I could see the potential and imagine all the amazing things she would be doing as an older child...and I longed for that, rather than tantrums. But then I would also realize that when she was older I would probably miss all those days of her littleness, with the cute voice, tiny hugs and all.

So then I would muse, "Wouldn't it be interesting if every day when I woke up she was a different age? What would it be like if today she were ten, and tomorrow she were two, and then the next day she was 16? Then I could really appreciate all that is unique and amazing about each age, rather than constantly being frustrated with this current age."

Looking back, it was quite silly musing...the kind of thing a sleep-deprived doctoral student and new mom would think up.

But now that I have six kids, ranging in age from 10.5 years to 15 weeks in utero, I've come to realize that this musing has somewhat been fulfilled. I may not get to see the same child at varying ages from day to day, but I do get to experience the gift of different ages from day to day.

All in the same day, I can feel a baby move within me, get a chubby snuggle from a 20 month old, watch a four year old put together wooden train tracks, see a six year old mastering Legos and learning to add, notice drastic reading improvements in an eight year old, and watch a 10 year old play soccer, piano, or clarinet!

Sometimes it seems that the moms with only two kids look back on their children's infancy and toddlerhood longingly, loving to reminisce, recalling when their babies were babies. It might seem that having kids in different ages would make me less sentimental. Why miss my ten year old as a toddler when I have a toddler right now? Why miss the kindergarten age when I still have a kindergartener? Someone with kids of different ages couldn't possibly miss the different stages of childhood.

And yet, I find the opposite to be true! Being with my younger kids reminds me of my older kids and how quickly they are growing up. Being with my older kids reminds me of the potential within these little ones...and how quickly they are growing up.

Far from taking the uniqueness of each age for granted,  I find that my appreciation for each age grows. When I am frustrated with the messes of a toddler, I can turn to literary conversations with my oldest. When I am frustrated with the attitude and unkind words of the oldest, I can find solace in a child with limited vocabulary but unlimited affection. When I start to feel like this child will never ever EVER be fully potty-trained, I can look to the four others that are and recognize that this frustration is temporary. When I tire of dealing with a child that only wants to wear camouflage clothing ("so he can sneak up on animals"), I can console myself by putting brown corduroy overalls on my little guy who doesn't yet know how to complain about his clothes!

What's more, I find that my kids add to the excitement of each age by appreciating each other. The joy of the older kids in witnessing baby's first steps or teaching a toddler some words sometimes seems to go beyond my own! Likewise, the baby of the moment shows an affection and almost amazement for the reading skills of the older kids and an appreciation of the fact that they can get snacks for him!

Witnessing their interaction, and appreciation for each other at different stages of childhood is areal gift. So also, the constant simultaneity of different ages in general reminds me not to take anything for granted, but to appreciate the gifts of each stage of childhood and to recognize that many of the difficulties of each age are fleeting. I am so grateful for this blessing of different ages at the same time!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Baby Therapy

"I don't know how you made it through this tough winter, with five kids, including a newborn!" Someone said this to me recently, and my response was that the way I made it through the tough winter was that I HAD a newborn. Baby therapy. That's what helped me survive those months. When my toddler was tearing up the house, I had baby therapy. When my older kids were fighting, I had baby therapy. When my parenting and household management were at their worst, I had baby therapy.

Here are some of my favorite attributes of newborns: 1. Cuddly. 2. Cute. 3. They stay put when set down. 4. Their needs are easily met. 5. They don't talk back. 

I love babies. I really do.

This particular baby - my fifth - is a real sweetheart. He is generally calm and happy, and very easy to please. Although he doesn't do so verbally, he constantly affirms me as a mom. I feed him and he grows. He snuggles into me comfortably and relaxes like he's at home. He stops crying the second I pick him up. He SMILES at me like it's the only important item on his agenda for the day.

He does not criticize me or find any fault with me. He  prefers me over anyone else. He seems to think I'm perfect. I love having at least one person in my life who has such a view, however erroneous.

But I've noticed that I'm not the only one in the family who turns to the baby for baby therapy. Just recently, our four year old responded to a punishment by running to the baby, snuggling him, and crying into his chest, as though the baby were the only one who understood him and his trials. It only took a few moments for him to feel comforted. That's baby therapy. When the whole world (or at least the whole family) seems to be against you, baby brother is there for you, with a big smile and not a single word of criticism. He won't complain if you get your tears on his onesie. There's already a good deal of slobber there anyway.

 The baby's two older sisters seem to find him affirming too. In the midst of difficult tasks, like homework or chores, baby brother is a welcome distraction. He doesn't really care if you can do 100 multiplication problems in less than four minutes. He doesn't mind that you missed some crumbs when you wiped off the table. He's happy to see you. He will even help you practice the piano and never correct a mistake or ask for a redo. That's baby therapy.Warm and snuggly, and he will even let you choose his clothes, multiple times a day!

Even the toddler seems to enjoy baby therapy. He is eager to bring his brother a toy, for the satisfaction of watching the baby get excited and try to chew on it! Being a helpful big brother is not hard at all...it just takes a willingness to fetch toys that have fallen or rolled away. Not to mention that the baby still wears diapers, but not the toddler! The satisfaction of NOT being a baby. That's baby therapy too!

Yes, I am grateful for this latest version of baby therapy.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Yes, I'm a Stay-at-Home Mom. No, My Time is Not Expendable.

Finally finishing my Ph.D. gave me the privilege of saying that I "don't work."

Today I encountered that question that makes moms like myself absolutely cringe, "...but do you work?" The context was someone implying that I should be available at any moment to receive a phone call, since I "don't work."

Given that this was a nurse at our pediatrician's office, she knew I was a mom. And you'd think at the office of a pediatrician they'd be sympathetic to the realities of parenthood. Here is what I did NOT say, but was thinking:

1. "No, I don't work. I just lie on the couch sipping mochas, playing Candy Crush Saga, and watching soap operas, and I'm worried that your phone call will interrupt my show."

2. "Yes, I work 24 hour days, seven days a week. But does your 'future appointments scheduler' ever work?"

3. "No, I don't work. But if I did, scheduling an appointment would be a breeze because I wouldn't have to worry about your office calling me when my kids are ____, _____, _____, or ______."

4. (Humility out the window...) "Yes, I work. I have a Ph.D. and I'm a university professor currently teaching a class. I'd prefer if you addressed me as 'Dr.' for the rest of this conversation."

What I actually said was, "The fact that I'm not currently working full-time does not mean that I am always available to receive a phone call."

I find making phone calls of this nature to be one of the most difficult tasks to complete while caring for three boys under the age of five. I'd even say it's right up there with mopping the kitchen the floor while caring for three boys under the age of five. And that's why, when I actually get a quiet moment, with two kids playing happily in the sandbox and a newborn taking a nap, I take the opportunity to make such phone calls (or mop the kitchen floor). It's the flexibility of creatively responding to the present situation in order to be efficient in my use of time.

The nurse suggested that I leave a voicemail detailing the best times to reach me. Hmmmm...would the length of such a voicemail fit on the average messaging system? Should I detail the pick up times for preschool, school, and after-school art? Could I accurately predict my toddler's exact nap time and length? Etc. I know from past experience, that I'm most likely to receive a phone call at the precise moment when three children all need my attention. So I will have to have the conversation with the background of screaming and crying.

But the real issue here is not simply about the challenges of being a stay-at-home mom or the difficulty of not only knowing and remembering, but also accurately predicting a schedule that is coordinating the lives of five children and two parents. No, the issue here is that, as a stay-at-home mom, my time is viewed by others as simply expendable. I'm not getting paid for my so-called "work" and therefore inconveniencing me is perfectly acceptable.

In the heat of my frustration, I told my husband that from now on, he could schedule the doctor's appointments. Not only does he have a quiet office away from home; he is also a man and hence less likely to experience disrespect. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the family calendar and kids' schedules down in the same way that I do. And, more significantly - as he pointed out - this would in no way solve the overarching problem.

Yes, I'm a stay-at-home mom. And, like anyone else, my time is not expendable. I only have 24 hours, and I fit a lot into those 24 hours. I shouldn't have to seek a full-time job outside of my house where people will acknowledge my Ph.D. and call me "Dr." in order to receive the recognition that my time matters and respect for the work that I do. The time that I spend each day in my home (or at the park or any other location) with little people is not of little significance, to be carelessly overlooked or dismissed by those who spend their days with big people in offices or other locations.

This was my choice. Yes, it has its perks...like having an excuse to be outside on a nice, warm, sunny day; chatting with neighbors; making myself bulletproof cafe lattes in the afternoon; cleaning poop off the bathroom tile with disinfecting wipes; and so on. Whatever the challenges, I'm glad to have made this decision, and if I had it to do over again, I would make the same choice again. My babies are growing up, and I am grateful for the immense amount of time that I get to spend with them in their infancy, toddlerhood, and childhood.

My willingness to forego seeking a full-time job and to live in a world made up of laundry, food service, diapers, Playmobil, and books that rhyme may be incomprehensible to many people. And that's fine. There are plenty of jobs that I have never experienced and do not understand. But whether someone is a nurse or a horticulturalist, an electrician or a roofer, I respect that work. I recognize that all work, done well, can bring a positive contribution to society.

My work, done well, also can make a positive contribution to society. There, I've said it. Yes, I'm a stay-at-home mom. My time is not expendable.

Monday, March 9, 2015

NFP Hacks

Recently I read an article entitled "Why everybody loses when we sugarcoat NFP" by Jenny Uebbing. Uebbing notes that one common remark about NFP that she has encountered recently is that it is hard. I really appreciated Uebbing's take on this, and I think she is right to point out that many Catholics encounter NFP as difficult.

"Is it staggeringly difficult? An incomprehensible level of suffering?"

"Yes, it is also that," writes Uebbing.

This is a valuable observation, and I understand where Uebbing is coming from in her concerns. Those couples looking into NFP need to get an accurate picture of the sacrifices it sometimes demands. But as I continued to reflect on my almost-ten years of marriage, I realized that "staggeringly difficult" and "an incomprehensible level of suffering" simply do not apply to my own experience of NFP. Marriage - and even more so, parenting - have certainly presented enormous challenges for me. I can honestly say, however, that adhering to the Church's sexual teachings have never been a tremendous burden for me. And that's what inspired me to write this list of NFP hacks. In short, this list summarizes why my experience of NFP has been minimal and therefore not difficult. Not all the items on this list may be tenable in a particular situation. Like other lists of hacks, these happen to be the hacks that have worked for us.

NFP Hacks

1. Breastfeeding and cosleeping with an infant. The introduction of the formula industry, and with it, the crib industry brought about significant changes to female fertility. My maternal grandmother provides a great example. Though poor and in a difficult marital situation, she saw the ads proclaiming formula as scientific and the best way to feed a baby. She managed to buy formula for her infants, and when my mother was born, she joined a three year old, a two year old, and a one year old. Without the lactation amenorrhea provided by breastfeeding, her fertility returned quickly.

In recent times, breastfeeding has once again become more popular. The research on cosleeping is indicating more that it is best for babies, and even for most parents. Of course, cosleeping can be dangerous if it is done accidentally (from parental exhaustion) on unsafe surfaces (a couch or a chair) or if it is done with parents under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Intentional, safe cosleeping, paired with on-demand breastfeeding provides a lactation amenorrhea for most women that ranges from five to fourteen months (or possibly even longer). When added to nine months of pregnancy, this means fourteen to twenty-three months of not "using" NFP, but rather natural spacing that does not require periodic abstinence.

2. Openness to a large family. My sense is that those with a "one and done" or "two and through" attitude will find NFP very difficult, as they will spend most of their marriage with regular periods of abstinence. NFP certainly can be used well in situations where additional children pose a real danger to the life of the mother, for example, but I would not consider fifteen or more years of regular abstinence during fertile times to be an ideal situation for a marriage. The Catholic commitment to the willingness to receive children from God (one of the vows made during the sacrament of marriage) should be one of generosity, as much as responsibility. From the very beginning of our marriage, my husband and I have received many questions as to "how many children we want." Our answer has always been (and still is) that we take them one at a time. The willingness to have children - and even a large family by American standards - has made our use of periods of abstinence associated with NFP minimal.

3. Use available days when postponing a pregnancy. (Or: Keep husband happy.) As most couples, especially the men of those couples, will point out, what makes NFP challenging is periods of abstinence, both determining them and adhering to them when the couple has discerned the need to postpone a pregnancy. To the wife, I will say this: narrow down the Phase II fertility window as much as you can (a Clearblue monitor can help with this or possibly determining your cervix opening). Attend as carefully to using non-fertile days as you do to not using fertile days. In other words, plan to initiate intimacy with your husband multiple times during Phase I and Phase III. This is also important during times of pregnancy and lactation amenorrhea. If you want a happy husband who feels loved, keep track and make a plan (at least once a week, for example, or preferably more than that). It's great to be "in the mood," but it's not a great idea to limit intimacy to those times, especially given the significant variation in female libido according to hormones of pregnancy, amenorrhea, and regular cycles.

4. Show love in multiple ways. (Or: Keep wife happy.) The use of NFP is only one aspect of love and commitment in marriage. Husband or wife can grow to feel resentment toward NFP's periods of abstinence when they are not placed in the context of a loving and committed marriage. To the husband, therefore, I will say this: do not let your lovemaking be the only communication of your love for your wife; it may result in her feeling used. As important as physical intimacy can be to a man, so also the other love languages (words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time) can be crucial for the wife (and the husband too), especially given the fluctuation in female libido due to pregnancy, amenorrhea, and regular cycles. The generosity, kindness, and consideration, as well as the gratitude, of a spouse should be expressed in multiple ways. When raising a family, it is important for both parents to be involved and dedicated to the children, but it is also important to maintain the marital relationship outside the bedroom as well as within. A weekly breakfast date and early bedtimes for young children can provide the quality time that greatly benefit the marriage relationship. The helpful husband who is attuned to when his wife is overwhelmed demonstrates his commitment to her as a person and not just a body.

So, there you have it. My NFP hacks. The first two hacks have combined for over eight years of not even needing to think about abstaining. The second two hacks have allowed our marriage to grow even when postponing a pregnancy.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Definitive Answer on Observing Lenten Resolutions on Sunday

I consider myself to have above average knowledge on the topic of penance, since I have spent a lot of time researching and writing about the topic. But, after just typing that attention-grabbing title above, I will now humbly admit that I do not profess to be giving "the definitive answer on observing Lenten resolutions on Sunday." That is because the changes to penance made by the National Catholic Conference of Bishops in November of 1966 have dramatically altered the way Lenten penance is practiced in the United States, by fracturing or diversifying penance and basically assigning responsibility for the Lenten resolution to the individual. This fact makes it difficult to provide an absolute answer as to observing Lenten resolutions on a Sunday.

The last Lent prior to the changes in the U.S. found Catholics fasting every day of Lent. This Catholic fast is characterized by one full meal and two smaller meals (or "collations") that do not total one full meal. Generally in the Catholic Church, Catholics abstain from meat during the season of Lent. In the United States, the so called "workingman's indult" had been extended to all the faithful, allowing for them to have meat at their principal meal (the one full meal). The change that allowed the faithful to choose their own Lenten penance reduced these fast days to two: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and it replaced the Lenten fast with the direction to choose one's own Lenten resolution.

The great variety of Lenten resolutions make it difficult to provide one definitive answer as to observing a Lenten resolution on Sundays. One could argue that it is better to observe the resolution on Sundays so as not to kill the momentum of the sacrifice. We form habits with our resolutions, habits that might be imperiled when we take a day off. People also argue that these are Sundays "of Lent," and that it is somehow lazy to take a day off from our Lenten penance. Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert; he didn't have a feast every seven days. Then there is always the possibility that someone might have a resolution focused on Sundays, such as visiting the elderly on Sunday afternoons. Obviously they wouldn't want to exempt themselves from this Lenten resolution on Sundays, since this is the day they have chosen to do it. So also if they have added an extra prayer they intend to do on Sundays, since as saying a Rosary.

On the other hand, Sundays are NOT counted within the forty days of Lent. This means that, technically speaking, Sunday can be a day of rest from the Lenten resolution. Of course, if you give up beer for Lent, you shouldn't use Sunday as an excuse to drink a six-pack. If you give up chocolate for Lent, you shouldn't indulge by eating a whole bag of Lindt truffles. But Sunday is a day to rejoice in the Lord, and though they are Sundays "of Lent," they are particular days to anticipate the upcoming Easter celebration. So there is nothing wrong with taking a break from a Lenten resolution on a Sunday. In fact, doing so can be a powerful reminder that Lent is not simply about our individual will-power and heroic virtue, but about the gift of God in the paschal mystery - the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The victory is already won for us, but it is not won through us, but rather through Jesus.

So there you have the definitive answer on observing Lenten resolutions. It's your choice. You shouldn't feel obligated to maintain your Lenten penance on a Sunday, and this means you should make the decision based on what you think will help you to grow closer to God and prepare best for Easter. That is the purpose of Lent, after all. Rather than spend too much time debating, deliberating, or discerning, you might instead think about how you can better observe Sunday as the Lord's Day.