"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.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Conundrum of Post-Vatican II Lenten Sacrifices

Prior to 1966, when the United States bishops released their pastoral letter modifying the practice of Lenten fasting, every Catholic shared a common Lenten sacrifice. That fasting - now restricted to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday - was something done every day, by everyone (aside from those who were dispensed for various reasons and substituted other sacrifices).

Now that we all have the "freedom" to choose our own Lenten sacrifices, we often end up in a conundrum. Do we tell people or not tell people about our chosen sacrifice?

If we tell them, will it lead to spiritual pride on our part? Will we seem to be bragging? Will it make them feel jealous or competitive? If we hear about others' sacrifices, will it make our own seem insufficient? Will it make us feel that we should be trying to do something more difficult? Or can it challenge us and help us to support others?

If we don't tell people, how do we hide our sacrifices from people in a way that's not obnoxious and doesn't make us seem unusual (especially if we're hosting guests or visiting others)? How do we avoid getting spiritually prideful about our little "hidden" sacrifices?

It would seem best just not to tell people about our Lenten sacrifice, except that it can really help to feel like we're being supported. When everyone had the same sacrifice, it was something that everyone did together. It was a communal activity that did not require explanation and did not have to be hidden (from other Catholics, that is). It was not about individual willpower, as our Lenten sacrifices now tend to be.

In a family context, a spouse (and even children) can be a good support for Lenten sacrifices.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Obligatory Baby Dancing Video

Really, though, do you see how much he's smiling? He LOVES dancing!

Budding Iconographer?

Maia made this picture - three angels sitting at a table. I asked her where she got the idea for it and she said, "I don't know, I just had it in my head." They're the angels that Abraham gave dinner to."

I thought this was just absolutely amazing. How did she know that story? And how could she by chance draw it so similar in format to the famous Rublev icon?

I shared my amazement with Jeff when he returned from work. He reminded me that the Rublev icon is the wallpaper on his laptop. In other words it was probably in Maia's mind because she sees it on his computer.

Oh, well.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Weddings and Children

The above photo captures one of the most delightful elements of our wedding, namely, our lovely flower girl and ring bearer. Children have an unbelievable excitement for what they recognize as important events. And having children share closely in our special day made it all the more special for us. They made it, well, fun!
Here in the United States, it's become commonplace to exclude children from weddings, for various reasons - the noise, the expense, the hassle, the number, the distraction. I had never given the issue much thought until I went to a friend's wedding shortly after Maia was born. I took her without even thinking, but when I arrived I found another friend had left her daughter at home because she said it was the bride's preference. Oops! I hadn't even thought to ask permission to bring my newborn...
But if I had, and she'd said no, I wouldn't have gone to the wedding. I really prefer not to leave my babies (especially nursing babies) with other people, even for short periods of time. Not all women are like this; in fact many don't mind getting a sitter. Some people even say that they enjoy the events more when they're not worried about their children behaving.
In the last year, my husband and I were invited to two weddings where our children were specifically not invited. Overpersonalizing as I tend to do, I took the first invitation as a non-invitation of me, not just my children. That was probably unfair. But I would have loved to attend the wedding, just didn't know how I could leave my kids with a stranger out-of-town. For the second wedding, the parents of the bride arranged for a sitter for our kids, and the hotel was only minutes from the reception, so it was very convenient. I appreciated that extra effort on their part because it communicated that they really did want both Jeff and I to attend the wedding, and they also invited our whole family to the rehearsal and the morning after brunch. During the wedding weekend, we were only away from the girls for a few hours.
But, nonetheless... do children belong at weddings? At the risk of revealing that I've once again been catching up on the upcoming royal wedding, it seems that Kate Middleton and Prince William think that children do belong at a wedding. Check this out, aside from the maid of honour and the best man, everyone in the bridal party are children of family and friends, and are ages 7, 8, 3, 3, 10, and 8. Three are the prince's godchildren. Maybe this is just customary in England - I don't know. I'm curious to see how they'll pull this off, especially with the two 3-year old girls. Imagine the logistics of getting that many children to behave at a wedding!
But it made me think that, cohabitation question aside, perhaps William and Kate understand the importance of children. It makes sense for a royal couple in particular to realize the value of continuing the family line. I was struck by this too because of the Mass reading for Saturday from the book of Sirach (44:11-13):

"Their wealth remains in their families,
their heritage with their descendants;
Through God’s covenant with them their family endures,
their posterity, for their sake.

And for all time their progeny will endure,
their glory will never be blotted out."

Once I was at a funeral for someone I didn't know (this happened frequently at my parish in California as they just used their daily Mass slot for funerals, if necessary; I never knew when I went to Mass in the morning if it would be a funeral or not), and it turned out to be an experience I would never forget. At the very end of the service, the priest asked the ten children of the deceased, elderly man to step forward near the altar. He then asked the grandchildren to step forward; each of the ten children had at least four of their own, so this was about 40 people (adults). Then he asked the great-grandchildren to come forward. Then the great-great-grandchildren. By the end of this there were well over 100 people up there. Wow - imagine living to see yourself having that many descendants.

Of course, it's the rare couple that does live to see that many descendants, and of course, it's not really the number of descendants that matters anyway. It's the fact of our own lives being short - of us being part of a larger story in which we are merely the trustees for the next generation.

Getting back to my main point, marriage and children seem to go together well. A marriage is the environment in which children are best nurtured and raised. In our modern culture, however, we are tending to push kids out of marriages (hence DINKs who choose to be DINKs, sometimes forever, sometimes for a decade or more or less) and I guess it's no surprise that kids also get excluded from weddings. Weddings are becoming adults-only events, excluding that simple joy and excitement of children, who not only make the day special, but also, foreshadow the joy that is still to come, as well as the continuation of God's promises for future generations that will share in the faith.

You shouldn't have to have a royal concern for continuing the family line to want to include children at a wedding, right?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why are kids so difficult?

It's probably a comment you've heard before. Someone with one kid is telling you that she doesn't know if she will ever have another, because "Kids are just so difficult." This comment is likely followed by some story about her particular child throwing tantrums, destroying property, hitting other kids, climbing furniture, not listening, or whatever. Sometimes you'll hear this comment from a mother who has two young children, saying that there's just no way she could ever handle three.

I was thinking about this today when I ran into an acquaintance as I was walking to the library with Eva and Patrick for song & story. Her son is almost three, and, no doubt, he is difficult. In the few occasions our kids have played together, he has hit or kicked or otherwise attacked Eva in some form. Of course, I didn't like that, but I can forgive him because, well, he's a kid. But when she made the comment about being afraid to have another, I started musing about why kids today are so difficult.

Of course, there's always a tendency to romanticize the "good old days." And perhaps I do that, especially since I'm writing my dissertation on 1955-1975. Just recently I've been reading a book on the sacrament of confession that was published in 1969. Wow - the presumptions about family life are just amazing.
Anyway, why are kids so difficult? Here are some of my hypotheses.

1. They have too much attention. I remember hearing advice once that those first two kids should be 18 months apart, to take the pressure off the first. Patrick and Eva were 22 months apart, and that to me seemed pretty challenging. But I also understand the point, and sometimes, like when I was talking to this acquaintance today about how "difficult" her child is, I think to myself that maybe he'd be a little easier if he'd been forced to share attention early on and been given a permanent playmate. Between Maia and Eva there are 2 years, 9 months, and I remember by the time I was pregnant with Eva thinking that Maia was definitely showing symptoms of being "an only child." In my experience, I would say that two can be easier than one. And, yes, three can be easier than two.

2. Modern society has little room for children. This might just be my romanticization of the past, again. But, back when there were more children, people expected to see more children, and there were more accommodations for children. This is not to say that kids were welcome at the opera or the business meeting, but at events like weddings and places like churches, people didn't think it odd that there were children present. Nowadays, it can be hard to go from having a happening childless life to finding suddenly that many of the things you used to do are now off-limits with young children or at least bring you glares from strangers: things like flying on an airplane, going to a coffee shop, browsing in a bookstore, eating at a nice restaurant, seeing a movie in a theater, and so on.

3. Less family emphasis/people are more selfish now. Many parents today grew up in small families, where they got much of what they wanted and basically just worried about themselves. Even those who were raised with expectations of family service may have had self-centered single lives prior to marriage. Even people who think they are giving, service-oriented people (like myself), may find themselves fighting selfishness as parents. I know I struggle with wanting to keep my possessions nice, clean and in good shape (like I'd prefer the dining room chairs NOT to have holes poked in them with a pen). I'd rather NOT get off the treadmill to wipe a tushy. I'd like to set my own sleeping hours. My kids interfere with my desires sometimes, and that makes them seem difficult.

4. Isolated single-family homes. As parents, we often feel like we're simply on our own. We have to do it all ourselves, with our children. Or we have to pay someone to watch our kids or clean our house so we don't have to do it all ourselves. Kids will definitely seem difficult in this situation, but it takes some humility reach out for help, or even just accept help. But help is available... even neighbor kids can be a good help.

5. Medicalization/safety/bureaucratization issues. I should ask my mom if she had to go to 13 prenatal visits when she was pregnant with me, or take me as an infant for check-ups every two months. Now, I'm a fan of vaccines and keeping my kids healthy, and I think prenatal care is important, but let's be honest, it can make kids seem difficult. Especially when you're pregnant with your third and you have to tote the other two around to your appointments. Just recently I had a challenging time taking all three kids to a lab so that Eva could get a urinalysis to see if she has a UTI. Let me tell you, there's nothing like trying to get your 2-year old to pee in a cup while your baby's crying in a stroller and your almost-5-year old is asking when you can go home... oh, and there's a line outside the bathroom.

Also related to medicalization is safety issues. The paranoia about kids' safety has made kids seem difficult. Car seats, not leaving kids in cars alone, not letting kids play outside alone, choking hazards and so on... these are all great safety precautions that have no doubt saved many lives. But they also make kids difficult (and more expensive); anything is a potential hazard. And I've talked to many parents who have their "confessions" to make about the one time they ________________ when they knew they shouldn't have done it (fill in the blank with something like "left the baby in the tub to answer the phone," "left the baby asleep in the crib to pick up another kid from school," "let the toddler eat food unsupervised while I ran to the bathroom," etc.). Being so vigilant is definitely difficult.

Also related is bureaucratization, for example, the 20-page long packet I'm supposed to fill out for Maia to start public kindergarten next year. Kids now require a lot of paperwork. And that makes them seem difficult.

6. Sleep changes. For thousands of years, mothers slept with their babies and nursed through the night. These women got much more sleep than mothers today. Kids can certainly be trained to sleep by themselves, alone in a dark room, and parents (tucked into bed cozied up with each other, I might add) can get a full night's sleep (minus the time they spent staying up late watching television or checking email or writing a blogpost or talking on their cell or writing on people's Facebook walls...which, by the way, is not their kids' fault). The normalization of the crib and separate sleeping has definitely made kids seem difficult. That's why parents of infants/toddlers spend so much time talking about their kids' sleep patterns/challenges. I can't tell you how many conversations about kid sleep I've participated in or overheard.

7. Formula. It may have seemed to make kids easier, and bottles (whether formula or breastmilk) do allow women more independence, which has its benefits. But really - spending money, sterilizing, mixing, warming, toting around everywhere. Not easy. Not to mention that formula-fed babies are more likely to get sick, so more trips to the doctor.

8. Technology. Television, computers, cell phones. Yes, they can keep your kid busy, even quiet, possibly even sitting still for extended periods of time. But they also rewire your kids' brains. And, as I've witnessed in regard to kids aged 10 and older, these pieces of technology become serious sources of tension between parent and child. Maia, who sees very little television (only ND football games and shows when she's at other people's houses), loves watching movies, and we've had various arguments about when/how much/for what reason (usually Sunday, 30 minutes, or if Mom's combing out lice) movies are acceptable...and which movies are acceptable. Technology may make kids seem easier. But I think it's possible that it actually makes them more difficult.

9. Giving kids "everything." They need nice clothes, good shoes, a great cellphone, a trip to Disney, a PSP, an X-box, an i-pod, a laptop, a portable DVD player, gymnastics lessons, trips to the beach, a Y membership, a beautifully decorated bedroom of their own, piano lessons, a cute haircut, elaborate (and expensive) birthday parties, sleepovers, a playroom, a fancy Easter dress, regular meals at Panera, frappuccinos from Starbucks, playdates, and one heck of a huge toybox. Yes, if you try to give your kids everything, that will be difficult. And they will become more difficult because of it.
One friend with a large family told my husband that it's not having nine kids that's tough - it's having two kids that's tough. I'm not sure about that (nor do I think I'll find out!), but I do think that part of kids' seeming difficult is societal expectations (formula, separate sleeping, excluding children from normal life, parental selfishness, the desire to give a kid "everything," safety paranoia, the normalcy of technology). On the other hand, kids can be genuinely difficult. We can accept those challenges and try to use them to make ourselves and them better people. Or we can decide to stop at having one kid and spend the rest of their childhood focusing on how difficult it is to raise a child.

The good news is that kids actually do grow up. They don't stay 2 years old forever.