"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.

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.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Ideas for Lent with Traditional Inspiration

Coming up with a good Lenten penance is often challenging for faithful Catholics. We might have high ambitions, but choosing and sticking with a Lenten sacrifice can be difficult. In my post on the historical background of Lenten practices in the U.S., I detailed the traditional fast and abstinence requirements. Perhaps the most striking point we might observe from the pre-1966 American fast/abstinence regulations is that they were very strict in comparison to our current regulations. The fast that now characterizes only our Ash Wednesday and Good Friday was in fact the standard fast for every day of Lent (excepting solemnities such as Sundays).

One question we might ask is how American Catholics once adhered to these obligations. There is much that could be said on this topic, but in short, I suggest two explanations: 1. They practiced penance throughout the year, hence developing it as a habit or virtue. 2. They did these penances together, as all the faithful were obliged to follow the same regulations. 

So if you find it hard to stick to your own chosen Lenten sacrifice, keep the above in mind. Lenten penance can be difficult, and that's partly because penance is not meant to be relegated to forty days of the year, nor is it meant to be done alone.When the bishops of the United States changed the penitential practices in the U.S., they introduced a great deal more choice, which in turn led to an individualism in the practice of penance. While this did provide the opportunity for Catholics to explore penances that would be more penitential for them than the standard, obligatory penances, it also diminished the communal support present in the practice of penance.

Nonetheless, there are ways that we can seek to base our own Lenten practices on the traditional (Latin-rite) Catholic sacrifices. Here are a few ideas.

Regarding fast/abstinence from food, note that traditionally Catholics abstained from meat, eggs, and dairy on the forty days of Lent. Hence you or your family might consider one of the options below:

1. Abstaining from meat during Lent.
2. Abstaining from eggs and dairy during Lent.
3. Observing the workingman's indult that limited meat-intake to once a day.

Today, with the variety of food available, the above sacrifices can be practiced without great inconvenience. So you might also consider adding:

1. Abstaining from dining out/ordering in food.
2. Abstaining from processed foods, or aiming for at least an 80/20 ratio of non-processed to processed foods.
3. Committing yourself to using up as much food in your pantry as possible while simultaneously limiting the food you purchase in your regular food shopping trip.
      (3a. You might also consider abstaining from clothes/shoes shopping during Lent, while also cleaning out your closet.)
4. Abstaining from sweets.
5. Abstaining from all beverages excepting water or milk. 

It was a typical practice to abstain from or give up certain forms of entertainment during Lent. Today, much of our entertainment comes in the form of technology. Hence you might consider:

1. Abstaining from or limiting time on the Internet, on Facebook specifically, playing online games, etc.
2. Abstaining from or curtailing time spent on watching television or movies.
3. Abstaining from or limiting online shopping.

Of course, there are two other practices included in the traditional triad of penance: prayer and almsgiving.

The sacrifices made in regard to food consumption should result in decreased spending and hence the opportunity to increase charitable giving.

The sacrifices made in regard to limiting technology should result in additional time for increased prayer. Consider one of these practices:

1. Praying the Rosary.
2. Praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
3. Attending regular Eucharistic adoration.
4. Attending daily Mass.
5. Reading the daily Mass readings.
6. Spending five minutes a day reading from one of the gospels.
7. Spending 10-15 minutes a day talking to God in mental prayer.
8. Committing 5-15 minutes a day to spiritual reading.
9. Praying the Stations of the Cross, especially on Fridays.
10. Keeping a gratitude journal to thank God for your blessings.

If it is possible, you might also want to consider the possibility of donating your time by volunteering for a charity or engaging directly in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

If your family life or work schedule do not permit volunteering for an organization, these practices can nonetheless be integrated into your life in whatever you do, including how you interact with your family.

Because Lenten resolutions are more feasible when done together, you might try to do one of the above practices as a family or as a group of friends. Remember, penance ought to be communal. Also, when Lent is over, celebrate Easter! But don't lose the penitential spirit altogether. Keep in mind that penance was never meant to be relegated to only 40 days of the year. Regular practice, e.g. on Fridays, will help you to ease into Lent again next year and hence allow you to intensify your Lenten practice.

Lent in the U.S. Prior to 1966

(The following is excerpted from my dissertation, for the reference of those who would like some historical background on Lenten practices in the United States.)

Prior to 1917, general law of the Church required fasting on all the days of Lent, excepting Sunday. This fast included one meal a day, abstinence from meat, and abstinence from eggs and milk.

In 1886, Leo XIII in Indultum Guadragesimale permitted the faithful of the U.S. to use meat, eggs, and milk products at all meals on Sundays during Lent, at the principal meal on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturdays, excepting Saturday of Ember week and Holy Week. It also allowed for the use of eggs and milk products at the evening collation daily during Lent and at the principal meal when meat was not allowed. Indultum Quadragesimale also allowed for the use of eggs and milk products at the evening collation daily during Lent and at the principal meal when meat was not allowed. Indultum Quadragesimale further allowed a small piece of bread in the morning with a beverage, the possibility of taking the principal meal at noon or in the evening, and the use of lard an meat drippings in the preparation of foods. Those exempt from the law of fasting were permitted to eat meat, eggs, and milk more than once a day.

The 1895 so-called “Workingmen’s Privilege” allowed the bishops in the United States to permit the use of meat in circumstances where there was difficulty in observing the common law of abstinence, excluding Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and the Vigil of Christmas. This workingmen’s privilege (or indult) allowed only for meat once a day during Lent, taken at the principal meal, and never taken in conjunction with fish. This particular indult was extended not only to the laborer but to his family as well.  The motivation of such an indult was no doubt to allow for enough sustenance such that the many Catholic immigrants to the U.S. who worked as manual laborers could perform their difficult, energy-demanding physical work without danger to their health. Moreover, those with little variety in terms of food options would not have it unnecessarily further narrowed.

After the 1917 Code, there were some additional documents modifying fast and abstinence rules, particularly to accommodate difficult wartime conditions that included limitations in food availability. In 1917 Pope Benedict XV granted the faithful of countries in World War I the privilege of transferring Saturday Lenten abstinence to any other day of the week, excepting Friday and Ash Wednesday. In 1919 Cardinal Gibbons was granted his request of transferring Saturday Lenten abstinence to Wednesday for all bishops’ dioceses in the U.S. This permission, as well as the workingmen’s privilege, were frequently renewed, but, after 1931, this was permission was only on the basis of personal requests from individual bishops. During World War II in 1941, Pope Pius XII granted to all bishops the power to dispense entirely from fast and abstinence, excepting Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. He extended this again in 1946. In 1949, several years after the close of World War II, Pius XII placed some restrictions on the earlier granted dispensations, once again requiring yearlong Friday abstinence, fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the Vigils of Assumption and Christmas, but allowing eggs and milk products at collations on days of fast and abstinence.

In 1951, the bishops prepared a report on the state of Fasting and Abstinence in the U.S. for a bishops’ conference. In it they wrote:

We earnestly exhort the faithful during the periods of fast and abstinence to attend daily Mass; to receive Holy Communion often; to take part more frequently in exercises of piety; to give generously to works of religion and charity; to perform acts of kindness toward the sick, the aged and the poor; to practice voluntary self-denial especially regarding alcoholic drink and worldly amusements; and to pray more frequently, particularly for the intentions of the Holy Father.[1]

The commentary that followed these regulations gave an account of the special faculties granted by the Holy See to bishops in the U.S. Of particular importance was Pius XII’s 1949 decree that set forth a minimum of abstinence and fast for the faithful throughout the world, regardless of prior indults; these regulations were abstinence on all Fridays, fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the vigils of the Assumption and Christmas.[2] However, this decree also allowed local ordinaries the authority to determine when to dispense from fast or abstinence.

Pius XII’s decree also gave the bishops the authority to determine how best to apply the workingmen’s privilege (or partial abstinence). The U.S. bishops chose to extend this indult to all the faithful in the U.S. in 1951 when they updated the fast and abstinence regulations. The workingmen’s privilege was a relative norm wherein a fast day was defined as allowing one full meal and two collations which together did not total a full meal. The relative norm had long been in use in Europe, until the absolute norm of two ounces (first collation) and eight ounces (second collation) was introduced by Alphonsus Ligouri to assist the scrupulous in deciding how much food they were allowed on a fast day.[3] The bishops thought that the relative norm allowed for the person to take enough food to do his daily work properly, and hence the relative norm “makes it possible for most persons to fast, whereas…most persons cannot fast according to the ‘absolute norm.’”[4]  In some places, such as Ireland, a modified relative norm allowed for one full meal (the size of which was to be determined by the individual) and two collations totaling no more than 12 ounces, or 18 total ounces of food for those who needed the sustenance to perform strenuous work.[5] By 1950, however, many other countries had agreed upon uniform fast and abstinence regulations for their regions by also sanctioning the relative norm.[6]
This and the other regulations detailed in the 1951 report were still in effect up until 1966, with a few modifications.

[1] “Report on Fast and Abstinence,” 5.
[2] “Report on Fast and Abstinence,” 7.
[3] It would be interesting to know how many people had access to the weight measurement that would be required by this absolute norm and how this amount compared to the amounts consumed by those using the relative norm.
[4] “Report on Fast and Abstinence,” 10.
[5] “Report on Fast and Abstinence,” 14.
[6] “Report on Fast and Abstinence,” 13-19.