"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.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Aspirations for Advent

As a part of the research for my dissertation, I've been reading a bit about Advent, focusing especially upon the penitential aspect. For the past decade or so, I have been the kind of person who likes to keep my Advent separate from my Christmas. Christmas is a beautiful season filled with joy, but Advent is a wonderful season of preparation for that season of Christmas. And, as Church traditions have long indicated, better preparation makes for better celebration...fast before the feast! The key Advent sacramentals in our household are of course, the Advent wreath and the ever-popular chocolate-filled Advent calendars. As the beginning of Advent is liturgically focused upon the coming of Christ at the end of time, we generally keep the  Nativity sets and Christmas tree for a little later in the season, e.g. when "O" antiphons start seven days before Christmas. The last thing I want is for my kids to be sick of Christmas (songs, decorations, foods) by the time it's actually Christmas.

We live in a country that has little appreciation for the season of Advent. The Christmas celebrations inch earlier each year. Moreover, the preparation for Christmas becomes more and more focused on gifts - which ones to give, which ones to get, and, of course, where to get the best deal.

I wish that I could say I'm immune to the materialism of Christmas. But since becoming a mom of a few children, I've realized something important. Like most great family celebrations, Mom has to make it happen. In other words, there is no Santa Claus. If I want my kids to have gifts on Christmas, I have to play a crucial role in that happening, whether it's suggesting gifts to family members or purchasing them myself.

Recently I felt defensive, and then convicted by an article from December of 1955 in the liturgical magazine Worship. Martin Hellriegel wrote the following:

"Unfortunately a money-mad and thoughtless world has greatly disturbed the holy quiet of this [Christmas] blessed vigil. A day that should be most restful has become most restless. So many people are more concerned about preparing stockings than preparing hearts. "This day you shall know that the Lord will come to save us, and tomorrow you shall see His glory." During Advent old and young, especially mothers, must be admonished to be "prudent virgins" with lamps of faith and love in readiness, so that when "the eternal gates are lifted up, the King of glory may enter in,"enter into our hearts and homes" (67-8).

As I said, my first reaction was defensive, as this is not the first male author I've heard make comments in this vein. He says "So many people are more concerned about preparing stockings than preparing hearts." And notice how the author emphasizes "especially mothers." Well guess what? If you don't prepare the stockings, then your kids don't have any stockings to open. And presumably, if your kids are going to have filled stockings on Christmas day, you [the mom] will have to fill them on Christmas vigil. I've sometimes felt that Advent is a season that can be spiritually enjoyed by men while women do all the work, including trying to come up with gifts for everyone in the extended family, as well as the immediate family. Here's my defensiveness: it's easy for the childless male to say we need to focus on the spiritual during Advent, and it's easier for him to do it since he has no responsibility in the practicalities of preparing a family home for Christmas.

But of course, in actuality, I agree with Hellriegel's sentiments. Advent is supposed to be about joyful anticipation, prayerful expectation, penitential preparation. It's not supposed to be about spending thousands of dollars on things we all don't really need anyway. So how does the mom who has to "make it happen" avoid letting Advent become a materially-focused few weeks of gift-shopping and deal-finding?

My initial answer to this has been to try to get my shopping (or at least, my shopping ideas) done before Advent even begins. I know it sounds strange, but I always have the idea it will help me appreciate Advent more supernaturally if I don't have to spend every spare moment searching online for Christmas gifts or wracking my brain for appropriate gifts for people or debating in my head the Christmas gift budget. But this approach has not been totally satisfying to me either, not only because it's difficult to accomplish, but because  frantic shopping doesn't seem like a good preparation for Advent!

So I have a few other answers to the question of how to "make Christmas happen" while still having an Advent that is, well, Advent!

1. Don't be defensive or lament the responsibility the role of "Mom" places upon your shoulders. It's not a good idea to say, "Well I could have a great Advent, if it weren't for the fact I have to come up with all these gift ideas and spend all my time shopping." This is setting up a false cross and then using it as an excuse for spiritual sloth. It's a challenge, but it's an opportunity.

2. Part of making the most of the opportunity is firmly to fight the materialism of Christmas in America. With young children, this is easier than it seems. They aren't yet into the competitive nature of gifts, so they won't know that their peers are getting more gifts or more expensive gifts than theirs. They'll be happy with a little tin drum or a few additions to the dress-up clothes, so there's no reason to go overboard. (Oh, and use Advent as a great time to go through the toys and clear out that toybox to make room for more!)

3. The other part of making the most of the opportunity is to emphasize the spiritual aspect of Christmas. To quote Tomie DePaola, "Christmas has a magic of its own." The story of Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus is one that has infinite appeal to children. They can have hours of fun playing with a nativity set and they can get into the Christmas spirit by reading many wonderful Christmas books. Singing "O Come O Come Emmanuel" before dinner makes it exciting and special, as does shouting "Maranatha - come, Lord Jesus!" every morning before getting their Advent chocolate. Experiencing Advent with and through your children has a powerful way of making it real. And nothing better than having a baby to snuggle with on Christmas Eve!

4. Be organized. Keep a list of gifts and gift ideas, beginning as early in the year as you'd like. And instead of seeing the gift-giving aspect as a chore, try to view it as a way of preparing. As I said above, if you don't fill your kids' stockings, they won't have stockings to enjoy on Christmas. But you can do this in a prayerful way, as with buying and wrapping gifts. Pray for guidance in selecting gifts, and don't overthink them. Gifting is one of the five love languages, after all, so think of gifts in terms of love, and let the gift-giving be part of your spiritual preparation for Advent.

5. Keep the shopping under control. You may have to pay attention to your internet time and seek ways to regulate it, sometimes just by minding the time that you've spent online. You may have to be content with less-than-perfect gifts rather than making every evening a shopping excursion. Once you've purchased something for someone, cross it off the list and don't think about it again.

6. Counter the focus on materialism by increasing prayer and other spiritual practices. I was also convicted by this line from another Worship article, this time written in 1953: "Why do we steal so much of our precious time from prayer in favor of a restless activity?" (Ermin Vitry, December, 26). What a great question to reflect on during the season of Advent. Instead of restless activity, how about some extra spiritual reading, meditation on the infancy narratives from the gospel, or an extra Rosary? The liturgical readings for Advent are rich in content, so making a commitment to reflect on the daily Mass readings is also a great idea. Come up with a few aspirations you want to turn to during Advent. One of my favorites, again, is from Tomie DePaola, this time from The Clown of God - "For you sweet child, for you!" says the old clown as he juggles for the statue of the child Jesus in Mary's arms. Or, from the brieviary, "Come let us worship the Lord, the King who is to come" or "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the path of our God!"

7. In the penitential spirit of Advent, it might be a good idea to choose a voluntary mortification, much like we do in Lent. For the past couple of years I've given up sweets during Advent (excepting certain feast days, of course). Since sweets are one of my favorite parts of Christmas, I find that this small sacrifice greatly increases my desire for Christmas and aids me in focusing my preparation. Traditionally, Wednesdays and Fridays were days of abstinence from meat during Advent. This is another way to remind yourself that Advent is a special season of expectation.

8. Keep Dad involved. Again, no complaining, no bitterness, but rather open discussion and clear direction. In my experience, Mom's make it happen. But it doesn't have to be that way. Dads can come up with gift ideas, shop, wrap, stuff stockings, and watch the kids during Christmas cooking. Making Christmas happen is a Dad and Mom thing, a team sport. Plan ahead and communicate well about your plans and expectations.

9. Fight to keep the Christmas "specials" for Christmas. No eating those peppermint coated pretzels during Advent! Don't be baking sugar cookies every other day! And when the kids are asking about all the special foods, use it as an opportunity to talk about Advent and patience in waiting.

10. When you do get to Christmas, just celebrate! If your Advent hasn't lived up to your expectations, oh well! Try again next year! For now, just enjoy - Gloria, gloria, gloria!

Any other ideas out there?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Baby Rants

In my ideal world, Robert would usually look like this:
 Sleeping peacefully.
Gazing contentedly.
Smiling cheerfully.

In reality, he often looks like this:
 And not just when Patrick is holding him either.

Yes, Robert is more of a fussy baby than my last two. Since I'm a more experienced mother, I don't let the crying get to me as much as I did with my first. I still don't like the sound of a crying baby, but I'm just more rational about it, and more inclined to think in the long-term. One of the ways I keep calm is to let Robert explain why he's upset. To do this, I use my high "baby-voice," and launch into monologues for the "audience," which usually consists of Eva and Patrick.

"Ahhhh!!!! That was the worst diaper change EVER! There I was just sitting in my carseat in the kitchen, minding my own business when suddenly, I felt like my tush was all wet and gooky. Well, I'm not one to just sit around when something like that happens. So what do you think I did? That's right, I started screaming - I don't mean crying, I mean screaming! And there I was, sitting in gook and screaming, and what do you think Mom did? Yep, she finished pouring Eva's milk. You heard me!

"But then, things got even worse. Finally, after a VERY LONG five seconds, Mom picked me up and laid me down on that plastic foam cushion thing. And next thing I know, she's unsnapped my pajamas and is exposing me to the world. And let me tell you, that air was cold! I'm not one to appreciate breezes down there, so I let the world know what was going on. Then, before I could have a say in the matter, Mom had one of those cold, wet wipey things, which she used to make my life even worse. You better believe the neighbors heard about that one!

"I just do NOT like being a baby. I would not recommend it to ANYone. When I grow up, I am definitely NOT going to be a baby. It is simply awful. So why am I a baby, you might ask, if I don't recommend it to anyone? I can't help it. I was just born this way. But believe you me, I do not intend to stay a baby for long. People always moving you around, changing your diaper, dressing you in horizontal stripes, and so on. First chance I get, I'm becoming a toddler. In fact, this time next year, you'll see that I'm no longer a baby. And then, a few years later, I'm going to quit being a toddler too. I do not plan on spending my life as a baby! One year is about all I can take, and then I'm going to leave this horrible baby life behind!"

I always like to throw in Robert's little reminder that he's only going to be a baby for one year. It helps me keep perspective on things and stay calm when he's crying for no apparent reason. Babyhood is very short-lived. By the time I get the earplugs in, it'll be over.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

From Hurricane to Baptism: A Planner in an Unplannable World

Since we moved to New Jersey, I've gotten lots of compliments from people about how relaxed and easy-going I am with my parenting, the state of the house, etc. Friends who know me well, especially college and graduate-school friends, might find this a little funny. The truth is, I tend to lean in the direction of being both a planner and a perfectionist. So my house may not be perfect, but this does actually bother me. I think I have gotten more relaxed about this stuff recently, but that's mostly because I don't really have a choice, what with four children, six years and under.

One of the great challenges of pregnancy is not being able to "plan" the birth date, and I think this lack of control is in fact what drives many people to elective inductions and elective C-sections. As a planner, I sympathize with wanting to KNOW when the baby's coming. We were caught off guard by Robert's early delivery. I had planned on having a couple of more weeks to wash his clothes, buy diapers, etc. And I had channeled most of my nesting energy toward writing my dissertation. 

The month of October was really a whirlwind of activities for our family. As the month ended we got news of  Hurricane Sandy on the way. As a planner, I definitely appreciate weather forecasts, especially when something major like a hurricane is on the way. But even with this knowledge, it's hard to know what the devastation is going to be or how to prepare. For example, I don't think anyone anticipated the gas shortage that became Jersey's latest crisis associated with the hurricane.

Anyway, Jeff and I are not ones to delay baptism. We started talking dates for the baptism probably back in August. We weren't sure if Robert would come more towards the beginning or the middle of October (or even the end!). We wanted to avoid having to send out baptism invites before Robert was born (that's what we ended up doing with Patrick, who was born a mere two weeks before his baptism). November 4th seemed like a safe date. Robert would surely be born by then, and my parents could probably stay until the baptism - an added bonus.

Then we got the forecast for the hurricane. It was really a feeling of impending doom and very strange trying to live life normally in the days leading up to it. The general atmosphere of panic doesn't help matters. Consider that on the Friday prior to the hurricane, we went to Costco at 8:00 p.m., hoping to avoid the crowds that would no doubt be shopping Saturday and Sunday before the hurricane came on Monday. We misjudged that one... Costco's parking lot was completely full, and they were out of both bottled water and flashlights. 

I went to confession on Saturday, not because I was anticipating an early death due to an act of nature, but just because I usually go on Saturdays. Afterwards, I asked Fr. Jim if we'd still have the baptism if the church had no power. He reassured me we'd have power by then, etc.
As it turned out, we didn't have power by then. Well, I should say that the church had electricity (in fact, I'm not sure the church lost it for more than a few hours). And at our house, we got power back on the Friday before the Saturday baptism. It came on at 10:00 a.m., and I went crazy trying to catch up on laundry, vaccuuming, and so on. But then at 5:00 p.m. it flickered and went out again. No one was happy to be in the dark again, but I was proud of myself for calling out a quotation from Job: "The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away!" And Jeff answered from a different room, "Blessed be the name of the Lord!" 

I hoped it was just some minor tweak by the power company, and we'd have electricity in the next hour or so. I was still hoping that when we woke up on Saturday morning. But it soon became clear that we were going to be hosting a party for about 50 people in a house that had no electricity. At least the reception was during the day; we could count on natural lighting. This, however, was definitely NOT what I had planned. I like to have things under my control in my own house; I like to put a personal touch on hosting. With many stores closed and no way to turn on my oven, I had a hard time getting paper plates and I couldn't bake or cook anything for the party. Thank goodness for Robert's very kind, generous and helpful godparents who made sure we had paper goods and plenty of food.

I was reflecting during all this how the natural limits imposed by the hurricane really helped me to focus on the supernatural. Sitting in the dark all evening, I had lots of time to think about how what really mattered was not having an awesome party, but just getting my son baptized. It's nice to have coordinating paper plates and napkins and delicious home-baked goods, but it's no prerequisite for the indelible mark of the Holy Spirit on the soul of a child.

So while I can say that the party was more of a "Plan B" party than a "Plan A" party, I can also say that the baptism itself was exactly what we planned. Robert entered the Church, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The reception was fine. We even got our power back... during the party! It was a little baptism gift from God, I think.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

 This was our backyard (well, actually, this shot is mostly our neighbors' backyard) Monday evening before the hurricane hit.
 This was our backyard on Tuesday morning. In particular, a sweet gum tree dropped some big branches, and lots and lots of gumballs.
Thank goodness, the big old oak stayed strong, but we had quite a few branches down, so we started clean-up right away.
 The kids helped out, but Grandpa and Grandma did a lot of the work.
 Patrick loaded branches into the wagon.

 They thought it was great to climb on branches that a day ago were so high they could never have reached them.

We had some roof damage - shingles everywhere.

Our neighbor Mrs. Pagnetti's tree split during the last hurricane, and this time split for good. It was cut down today.

It took down the cable and power lines for our street.

A couple of days after the hurricane, we went for a walk around the neighborhood.
Power lines and trees were just down everywhere - a lot of big, old trees.

 Someone added a Halloween theme to the downed tree in their front yard. Have to make the best of it, since there was no trick-or-treating this year.
 This tree is awkwardly leaning without leaning ON anything.
 This is another shot of the same tree. Maybe it is suspended on a power line; I'm not sure.
 Some of these trees had significant root systems. And, as you can see above, many sidewalks were uprooted with the trees.
This is just a couple of minutes from our house, literally around the corner. Both of these houses were hit, but I don't think either sustained structural damage.
This house is probably the worst in our borough. The tree took off the front porch (I think), and you can see into their living room. There is even a branch still balancing on the rooftop.
Then, to add insult to injury, the same tree also crushed this car.