Parenting Advice

This past week, a mother in a Facebook group I’m a part of posted a plea for help: her children were driving her and her husband crazy and they were at their wit’s end. The behaviour she described sounded oh-so familiar: hitting, whining, demanding, talking back, throwing, screaming, tantrums. She described these behaviours as regular in their home, and as a consequence, she and her husband were miserable (and her kids didn’t sound happy, either!). This description of a home that was a constant battlefield of conflict and wounds reminded me of my own home about a year ago, for my son (then 2/3 years old) exemplified much of it.

There were reasons for our crazy home. Foremost among them was that I was suffering deep depression from the loss of our second child. However, even if we hadn’t suffered that blow to our family, I look back and see that we were heading in the direction of chaos anyway. As the eldest in a family that erred on the side of being too strict, I’d been the kid that had perhaps suffered a little too heavy of a hand from my very well-intentioned but inexperienced parents, so even though I judge my parents as having done a truly exceptional job raising my sisters and me overall, I was reacting against those early experiences and I spent more time remembering the few times they were overly harsh rather than the other 99% of the time they got it just right. Furthermore, my husband is a very gentle man and adores his kids; he can’t bear to hear them cry, which had led to a more indulgent approach. Lastly, my sense is that child-led, gentle parenting is quite popular right now, so those are the influences I absorbed from media.

When I wasn’t too overwhelmed and exhausted, I could glimpse that, objectively, things weren’t working so well in the home. I admired my son’s independent spirit, but I occasionally sensed that perhaps we allowed him a little too much independence. Gradually, I acknowledged that his unruliness was not making me nor my husband nor even my son himself ultimately happy. I felt overwhelmed, discouraged, exhausted, and I didn’t know what to do. I was sick of the bedtime battles, the dinner dramas, the overall disrespect. What my parents had quietly been observing to themselves from the sidelines finally dawned on me: I was raising a spoilt brat, and it was making everyone miserable.

Long had I reasoned to myself that my son’s behaviour was perfectly natural according to his age. Unfortunately, my reason did not take me to the next important conclusion for some time: that, although it might be natural, as human beings we are supposed to rule over nature, to tame our wills and to use them to subdue what is wild where needed. Unlike the other earthly creatures, God gave us free will and it is in fact because of this that he gave us responsibility and vastly higher expectations. The human will is extremely strong, and it’s something we can never be deprived of. Sometimes it reminds me of a wild horse, resistant to taming, not wishing to be of use to anyone else. However, since we are profoundly relational creatures, allowing our wills to run wild is ultimately harmful not only to others but also to ourselves. Men and women are at their finest and most glorious when we have full control of our wills and passions; that is what makes us truly free, truly in control, truly powerful. I have come to understand that training my children’s natural behaviour to align with virtuous behaviour is my vocation. Moreover, I’ve come to understand that by constructing a home for them with high expectations for behaviour, rather than damaging their independence and creativity, I am doing them a favour: after all, virtues are easiest to practise when they are habitual. It’s easier to say no to chocolate cake when I’m not used to eating cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One day, I hope my children will find it easy to say no to the myriad of enticing sins the devil has put on display for us, and I believe strengthening their resilience begins now.

I can confidently say that after a year of following the suggestions of my parents and having them demonstrate tactics and assist me, my home is much happier and more peaceful, and I believe this is something most parents can achieve.

As I continue this little series on parenting, I’ll address the following points:

  • Building an identity as a parent and a vision for the home
  • Setting reasonable expectations
  • Using consequences wisely and effectively
  • The importance of forming both behaviour and attitude
  • Why manners matter

A Gift of God

Life has been busy, and I’ve had little time to write in spite of having no shortage of thoughts and ideas I’d love to develop. An important date is approaching, however, and love compels me to honour it.

Today in Mass, I don’t remember exactly how it came up yet it is no surprise such a subject should arise, death was mentioned. I think we were being urged to contemplate how we hope all to be united with the Father in the end. It is impossible for me to think of death now without remembering our son, Matthew. In one week, it will have been two years since his death, and as the intense pain of losing him seems at last to be diminishing, the yearning to be united with him one day is as strong as ever.

Our experience with Matthew was somewhat unique: not many people, thankfully, receive the news that their unborn baby has a condition that is incompatible with life outside the womb. We had only begun to rejoice in his arrival in our family when we learned he would not be with us for much longer. Fiat! It is truly amazing how the Lord in His great mercy gives us the graces we need to face the trials He allows us to bear for His greater glory. The Lord gave us the grace to believe that this sick baby was a gift to our family, even if we could scarcely understand how. It is why we named him Matthew, which means “gift of God,” so that we would never forget.

Now, two years later, standing in Mass, struggling to pay full attention as a somewhat weary mother of three, I am graced with glimpses into the meaning of our special gift from God. I see that it is thanks to Matthew that I have had to face my brokenness and my littleness and seek help in my growth towards wholeness. It is thanks to Matthew that I have learnt all the more profoundly that all is grace – bootstraps be hanged! all we can do is make an immolation of ourselves! It is thanks to Matthew that I have learned what it is to reach into the deepest recesses of my heart to give all that I am and have to others and not to make excuses, for so many people served me in this way when I was desolate. It is thanks to Matthew that I have greater empathy with those who have lost babies or who have no babies, having been thrown together with other suffering women. And I really have no doubt that it is thanks to Matthew’s intercession that we now have his twin sisters, born also on his birthday. There will always be pain when one has lost a child, but such a child can also bring a special joy, and my heart is confident that some bright morning when this life is over, my Matthew and I will enjoy the embrace we were denied in this world.

Today is Father’s Day. I am filled with joy and gratitude for the man who is the father of my children, for my father, for the father who raised my husband, and for all the men who have been fathers to others, be it biologically or spiritually. I am also filled with an intense joy and gratitude for our Father, Jesus’ Father, the God who loves us with more love than we can possibly imagine but which we can catch a glimpse of in the relationship of a truly loving earthly father with his children. His mercy and His generosity are beyond telling, and I do look forward to snuggling up to Him in the next life, however that might play out in the mystery of heaven! One almost begins to perceive death as a gift to be awaited and received with reverence, for it is through death that we are transformed and invited to new life… Well, that is a very large topic to consider at some point. I am grateful also for St Joseph, foster father to Jesus and patron of a good death; may he pray for us, especially the fathers among us, and that we may be prepared to meet our Father at the end of our lives.

Gift, gift! All is gift. May my little Matthew Gabriel pray for all of you who are reading this, that you may see how all that has come to pass in your lives has been a gift from God in some mysterious way, for He makes all things new!

Accompaniment: Loving as God Loves

This past week, we received the Spring 2018 issue of the Sisters’ of Life Imprint magazine, a quarterly publication both my husband and I read eagerly as soon as it arrives. One of my favourite (and most practical) excerpts I will share here:

“In our work with women, we have tried to learn the great art of being with others, which we call accompaniment. It’s a way of receiving another – looking at the person before me, not as a project or a problem to be solved, but as a gift, a unique masterpiece of God’s love. It’s developing the habit of gazing at this person with the heart, seeing things that are hidden beneath the surface. It’s a way of listening for precisely the things that are not said out loud. Perhaps after much tending, a heart can be awakened and come alive in a new way. A new beauty is revealed. In this exchange, a hidden treasure is discovered; something that was limping can move more freely; buried reservoirs of strength can be uncovered; new areas of the heart are brought to life.” – ninth page of Imprint, Sisters of Life, Spring 2018 Issue

Anyone else perceive the fruit of Eucharistic prayer here? I think it’s quite obvious that the women who wrote this have a habit of practising Adoration, wherein, indeed, one really learns the depths of this sort of love.

A Curious Topic: “My Daily Bread” on Needless Curiosity, and its social media implications

I love using Facebook. I love seeing what my friends and relatives and even acquaintances are up to. It keeps me connected with them, even though I might live far away from them. It also connects me to groups that help me grow in various areas such as my faith, housekeeping, recipe collecting, etc. What a wonderful medium! Yet I have often felt a little discomfort with my use of Facebook – even though I see a lot of good come out of it, my conscience will often needle me, suggesting that I am wasting my time. Frequently I’ll give it up to some extent for Lent, or at other spontaneous times during the year when I feel overwhelmed by it. Somewhere deep down, a small little voice tries to warn me that I should be careful not to let Facebook rule me to the extent that I do. When I read the following reflection from “My Daily Bread” tonight, I understood why.

CHRIST: My Child, uncontrolled curiosity draws your attention away from your duties and brings needless distractions. It can waste a good deal of time and energy which you might use to greater good. It leads to pointless visiting and useless conversations. It fills the mind with so many empty distractions, which prevent you from freely receiving the holy thoughts and good desires which I send you throughout the day.

2. You would have great peace if you were less curious about things which do not concern you. One who is too interested in the sayings and doings of others, becomes forgetful of the glorious ideal which I present to him – the ideal of pleasing Me in all things and thereby gaining eternal life.

3. Many things occur during the day which do not help you become a better person. What does it matter whether this one has a new garment or that one has failed in some personal project? Think of what concerns you, and of any good which you can do to others. Keep your heavenly goal before your mind, as far as your daily occupations will permit. Avoid idle words and useless activities.

THINK: A curious nature, intelligently controlled, has often led men to make great discoveries. Yet, unless curiosity is controlled, it can hurt me forever. My highest interest must be to follow God’s law, and so to enter into eternal life. The less I burden my mind with unnecessary interests, the more will I understand and appreciate my supernatural purpose on earth. too many worldly interests make me forget or disregard my heavenly goal. Many sins of omission and carelessness spring from uncontrolled curiosity.

PRAY: Jesus, my King, Your enemies are whoever and whatever draws me farther from You and closer to sin. Therefore uncontrolled curiosity is Your enemy. If I am loyal to You, I will fight this enemy of Yours. In so doing, I will also be fighting for my own eternal happiness. Lord, give me light to recognize this enemy and to oppose it in my daily life. Amen.

  • Book I, Chapter 86: Needless Curiosity, My Daily Bread (1954), Confraternity of the Precious Blood

I like that the passage acknowledges that curiosity can be good, but it must be disciplined if it is going to benefit us. Curiosity in itself is not a virtue, and unbridled curiosity will often do more harm than good. Perhaps I might be tempted to deem my curiosity in the goings-on of Facebook a neutral curiosity, but it is a distraction – and at times a very great distraction – from better things, such as paying full attention to my family, finishing (or starting) chores, reading, or even simply praying and contemplating God. Indeed, if a pastime is a wholesome one, I find it directs my mind to God. While I’ve tried to redeem Facebook by subscribing to numerous Catholic pages and groups, even these wholesome feed-fillers begin to act as unwholesome distraction from my life.

I don’t think every activity has to be based in an explicitly God-minded pursuit in order to be wholesome. Saints often talk about sanctifying the ordinary day by offering up dishes or mopping. I have even found myself considering BBC’s Planet documentaries spiritually nourishing, as I can’t watch them without admiring God’s gorgeous design. And Facebook, too, can direct my mind to God, either in rejoicing in the people He’s made or in the spiritually inspirational quotations and articles I often encounter there. I can pray for the people who show up on my feed. However, as the Greeks so wisely observed millennia ago, μηδὲν ἄγαν – nothing in excess!

Perhaps Facebook is not your great temptation, but all social media and even old-fashioned media (news, magazines, books) can work the same way and distract us from our heavenly goals and the things we need to do to get to Heaven. Since our society no longer even pretends to put any focus on God, I think it’s quite a common error to fall into idle curiosity, to the point that people frequently do not even see it as error! And then we wonder why our hearts are troubled and we have no peace in our souls….

Why Do I Want to Become a Saint?

After my last entry, I got to reflecting anew upon why I want to become a saint. It’s been my life goal for twenty years or so — long enough, that is, that I forget on a daily basis why I came to it in the first place. However, though my memory is poor for external events, it tends to serve me very well for internal experiences.

Of course, the best reason to become a saint is because God wills it. Indeed, there really is no other way to strive for sainthood ultimately. It’s not about us; it’s about glorifying His ineffable goodness. But we can be inspired to desire this path from a number of lesser paths that come together like rivulets merging together in a river before it pours out into the sea.

I think my first inspiration was reading the stories of the Saints. Not long after I was confirmed, I watched the movie The Mission, and fell in love with it. In perhaps my first personal historical research project, I went to the library to take out as many books as I could about the history of the Jesuits and St Ignatius of Loyola. I’ve always been attracted to intelligence and courage, so this order bore a lot of natural attraction for me. The public library had a surprising number of books on Saints, and I remember being indebted to it for Patricia Treece’s biography of St Maximilian Kolbe as well. I found more books at our parish library, too. I read many different kinds of books, ciphening out information from books less than perfectly friendly towards the Church, and sifting out inspiration from the sometimes somewhat cheesy accounts written by simple, earnest believers. In the end, I got what I wanted: stories of men and women who had lived lives remarkable for their love for God and neighbour. It was impossible not to be seduced by their holy examples of courage, resilience, humility, and love! If the Bible seemed inaccessible to me as a young teenager, these stories revealed Christ to me like stained glass windows commute the sunlight, each in its own individual way. I admired the Saints; they were heroic. I wanted to be like them.

So there was the romance, but there was also the practicality of dedicating one’s life and efforts to holiness. After all, if death and taxes are the two inevitables in life and one carries over consequences into eternity, it only makes sense to be particularly well prepared for that. I’m not one of those people for whom Eternity has been a source of anxiety. I did try to think my way to understanding it as a child, but I eventually learned that the understanding of Eternity, as with so many other mysteries, is not something we grasp through mental exercises but more through life experience, for these mysteries are embedded in the world around us, and especially in our souls. So I looked at the Truth of Eternity calmly and reasoned simply that I ought to pack my umbrella — strive to make the necessary preparations, that is. Adventures appeal to me (they demand courage!), so knowing that this one promises to be a good one so long as we’re prepared was good enough for me.

Another reason I wanted to become a saint was that I’d gone through a philosophical phase when I was ten or eleven, thanks to my Dad. I loved reflecting on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and how this trinity, so to speak, was one in God, and I suppose in my little child way, I adored that and desired to be united with that above all. Sin and sorrow over the years to come only served to strengthen that yearning.

These are my roots, or some of the bigger ones. It’s remarkable, I note now, how formative those years transitioning from child to teenager are, or can be. They set me on the path I’ve been struggling to follow since, influenced the choices I’ve made, the renunciations I’ve made. It would seem, too, that though I have changed a lot since then, my foundation remains the same: I want to become a saint because it is the heroic and admirable path, because it is the best life investment a person can make for the long term, and because God is so dang attractive I can’t help myself.

Teetering on a brink, an answer comes

Last night, my husband and I had the opportunity to talk a little, and we discussed the day’s homily and got onto the topic of the Narrow Gate Christ speaks of, and how the purifications of Purgatory are reportedly more painful than any purifications we might endure in this life, and this brought me to a place of frustration I’ve been heading towards for some time now:

“I’ve been trying to become a saint since I was something like twelve years old, and look at me! I’m still impatient, still moody, still irritable, more irascible than ever, and I still crave the regard of others! For all my striving, I don’t seem to be getting very far. It’s like there is a delicate balance of making an effort and relying upon God’s grace, and I can’t strike it. Recently, I just feel like giving up trying. Maybe the secret is to nag God: hey, God, I need more grace because, as you can see, I’m still pretty pathetic and not getting anywhere, so if you want me to become a saint, you better give me a lot more help!”

Shortly thereafter, we acknowledged the hour was late and we should go to bed, and on my way, I picked up one of the most densely inspirational books in the way of Christian living that I know, My Daily Bread, written by the Confraternity of the Precious Blood. I flipped through and landed upon the following – it was a bit of a tollelege moment, if you recall St Augustine. Each chapter begins with the (imagined, yet arguably inspired) voice of Christ, followed by a reflection, followed by a prayer.

“Son, the grace of devotion is not just a holy feeling, nor is it a religious mood. It is an intelligent attachment of your will to Me and to whatever I command or desire of you.

2. This is a very great grace. I will grant it to you if you will make a sincere effort to turn your back on whatever hinders your spiritual progress. You must empty your heart of all useless interests in order to make room for Me.

3. Often it is such a small matter that prevents one from obtaining this grace. Misguided self-interest cuts many people off from this glorious gift.

4. I desire you to have this grace. It will make you loyal to Me in all things. If you do not have it yet, it is because you have not yet prepared your soul for it. Pray for it and labor for it. Gain control of your feelings and unreasoning desires by acts of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Above all, begin a determined battle against the outstanding faults in your daily life.

5. With this grace of true devotion, you will find many things easy which now seem difficult and impossible. You will never again lose sight of My power, wisdom, and love, and you will consider it a privilege to follow My Will.

THINK: If I make a firm and persevering effort to abandon my foolish love for unnecessary distractions, God will give me the gift of devotion. From then on, I will no longer depend on feelings or moods, but will follow God’s Will intelligently and faithfully even when I do not feel like doing so.

PRAY: My loyal and loving Saviour, you lived an earthly life of devotion to Your Father’s Will. By self-giving action You made reparation for my many acts of disobedience to His holy commandments. By self-giving action You also proved Your love for me. You gave me an example of true devotion. Grant me the grace of true and solid devotion to You, so that I may prove my love for You by self-giving. No matter how I may feel, let me do only what is pleasing to You. I desire not only to avoid all sin, but also to do many little extra things for Your sake. Make my devotion like Yours – a constant self-offering which will prove my love beyond all doubt. Amen.

My Daily Bread, Confraternity of the Precious Blood (1954), Book 2, Ch. 13

It can be hard to find a good spiritual director. I’ve had the guidance of a number over the years, and only one felt like a perfect fit for me, and he I only enjoyed the companionship of over the course of a three-day retreat. Jesus has not left me orphaned, though. When I was a teenager, I prayed that if He would not send me a spiritual director, then would He please send me the books I need when I need them and guide me thus. I have often noticed Him answering this prayer, and this was surely yet another instance.

I need to continue striving, but I need to refocus. I need to assess my life objectively, and I need to do things the way God wants me to do them rather than the way I want to do them, for my will’s discernment is still often clouded by “misguided self-interest.” In the past few months, it’s become clear that I need to make time to be alone, something that used to be easy but with three children is a challenge. I’ve started taking Saturday mornings to myself while my husband minds the kids, and it’s been a wonderful time to recollect myself and look objectively at my life and try to bring some intelligent order to it. I suspect my next sabbatical should be devoted to my spiritual plan of life.

Easters

I have known many Easters: happy Easters, lonely Easters, Easters of immense joy, Easters clouded by depression, and one Easter when my soul felt dead within me as my Good Friday hadn’t played itself out yet. Some Easters I’ve felt prepared for; others have almost caught me by surprise. I remember my first “cloudy” Easter: the weather truly was dismal, and I was surprised — and almost a little distressed — that I did not feel happier. But the work that the Lord has been accomplishing in me over the years has been largely that of impressing upon me that life isn’t about me. Whether I feel happy or sad or nothing at all does not change the fact that Christ has risen from the dead. And whether I’ve kept a good Lent or not does not determine whether God will grace me with joyful feelings on a day of high celebration, nor does it preclude a last minute conversion of heart. Those years that even Easter feels arid I can remember the years that felt lush, and I can offer the darkness to Him, for I am determined to believe that He is Lord of All, including Death.

This Easter is neither here nor there. I’m experiencing typical parent exhaustion and though I kept Lent respectably enough, I could not enter into the mysteries as deeply as I have in other years. This seems fairly typical of my experience so far as a mother: unable to spend the kind of time I spent in prayer as a single person, I feel much more like I’m walking blindly and in faith. I’m forced to trust more that God is working in me whether I’m aware of it or not, and there is almost no way I could deceive myself into thinking that I’m earning heaven by my pious deeds. No, if I earn heaven, as I hope, it will be purely through Christ’s merciful assessment of my poor attempts to be faithful and obedient to my vocation. Whereas I might have fallen into Pharisaical delusion had I entered religious life, family life has by its very demands impoverished my spirit. Thanks be to God!

May your Easter, be it happy or sad or otherwise, be blessed. Christ is risen!