Family-Loving Freak

Maybe I’m a freak. On a local mamapreneur thread we were asked what we would want to have, if we had the courage to ask for it—everyone else was asking for Teslas and winning the lottery; I want six kids.

I realized there are two things I’ve treasured most in life and regretted the least: travelling around the world and adding to my family. For me, “big family” brings up memories of choking-on-our-tears laughter with all my siblings and my parents in one room, memories of sitting around the living room with the fire burning while we all did our own thing but still together, memories of travelling across Canada in a van and pitching tents along the way. A big family increases the likelihood you’ll have someone you can turn to when you just don’t know where to go. A big family increases the likelihood that when I’m old, I’ll have someone to talk to—like I joked with my physiotherapist today, if I have six kids, I’ll have one to call me on every day of the week plus one day of rest!

And maybe I am crazy. And maybe I wouldn’t enjoy having another three kids or so. And maybe I won’t even be able to bring more live children into the world. I don’t know. But there’s a joy in not knowing, the same kind of joy you get when you’re travelling: you don’t know exactly what experiences you’re going to have, but you know it will be an adventure, and the odds are pretty highly in favour of this being a pretty grand adventure.

I’m travelling in this adventure with my best friend, the man whose company I enjoy more than anyone else I’ve ever met and whom I’ve vowed my life over to. He’s amazing. I never imagined marriage could be so fun and so beautiful. (Of course we argue! But I hadn’t realized that arguing in marriage can be good, that it can be a sign that we consider each other worth wrestling with until we come to a mutual conclusion). This man is also extraordinarily courageous: in some ways, the idea of having more kids makes him nervous, but he’s open to it, both because he loves me and because he honours God. That’s true courage right there.  He’s courageous, he’s interesting, he makes me laugh, and he honours God—that’s one heck of a life companion. And so far I’m crazy about the little people we’ve made together.

We’ve been blessed with four children so far, three with us. Each pregnancy has demanded a lot of trust from us that all things would work out well. With the first, my husband was unemployed and in the country on a vistor’s visa. With the second, we had to find a new home and we suffered through his terminal diagnosis and death. With the third, my doctor had advised against getting pregnant again so soon for mental health reasons (but I knew she was mistaken), again we had to find a new home, I felt like I was dying from what turned out to be gallstones, and my body was severely taxed by the weight and bulk of two wonderfully lively babies, and then we somehow survived a very blurry first year with twins. I haven’t regretted a single one of these pregnancies. Each child has been an awesome gift I have the privilege of continually deepening my understanding of—even Matthew.

We’ve used Natural Family Planning, which some people erroneously equate with the Rhythm Method, and it’s been very effective (my favourite method under the NFP umbrella term is the Marquette Method, perhaps because I get to do little science lab experiments in my bathroom, but perhaps also because I just find it extremely easy). If we were to discern through prayer that we shouldn’t have more children for some grave reason, we could limit ourselves to three as effectively as if I were to ply my body with artificial hormones, which, thanks be to God, I have never considered. (We’re not even supposed to eat the meat of animals given hormones—how is messing with my own hormones for years on end for an elective reason a good idea?).

But I want more kids. Sometimes, I’m not even sure why. After all, three kids is hard, really hard. I’m tired. I’m overwhelmed. I’m on antidepressants. I’m not sure I’m a great mother. I don’t like all the chores. I like my “alone time.” Yet, none of this would magically transform for the better if I stopped at three. I guess I’d be past the “baby stage” sooner, but then what? I don’t want to be surrounded by Teslas at the end of my life. I want my kids there, my beautiful children I’m so proud of because they are.

I want to think that maybe, if I really do love my kids as much as I hope I might, they will take that love and multiply it, spreading it through the world. I want them to take the joy they discover at home and the talents they develop with the support of our home, and I want them to take those into the world and make it a better place. I hope to instil in them this little flame of God’s love that I have and invite them to spread it—just as at the Easter vigil, the flame from the Easter Candle is spread to the little candles of all the attendants in the church, so too do I want our light from Christ to be passed on.

And me? What will be my reward? I probably will never drive a Tesla. I may never even own a house. But to know that the Light has spread exponentially because I was open to sacrificing a little more sleep, a little more time, a little more money, a little more me—then I will know without a doubt that my life was not wasted.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.

Matthew 16:19-20

Parenting Advice – Delight

Well, I’m back again with the audacity to write yet more about parenting and how to do it. I’d never claim that one size fits all when it comes to parenting, although I think certain principles might be universally applicable. Today’s topic is, I am quite confident, one of these universally applicable principles. As I’ve been reflecting on parenting for the last month or so, a theme has been recurring in my mind, one that I think must be the foundation of good parenting: delighting in one’s children.

I’ve been reflecting on this for a couple reasons. First of all, some weeks ago, I took my son to the emergency in the middle of the night, worried he might have meningitis as he had been woken by neck pain. Happily, we were not given that diagnosis, but what I was given was a great gift: a doctor-in-training who examined my son happened to have the most amazing bedside manner of any doctor I have yet met, and he showed that he not only cared for my son physically, but he talked familiarly with my not-quite-four-year-old son. He asked my son extensively about his favourite tv show and about school, and he conversed with my son in such a way that my son opened up to him completely. For me, this was a wake-up call. I had felt so guilty about the copious amounts of time I’d let my son watch tv that my censorious judgement told me not to talk about it with him, so as not to encourage an interest. How utterly ridiculous! The truth of the matter is that my son likes cartoons, and I should therefore take an interest in them and, if anything, guide him to think about cartoons and the world in the way I want him to see these things, to use cartoons as the basis of forming his perspective. But at the very least, I really must step into his world and not try to ignore it. He’s a small child so many of his interests may well be dull to me, but that’s where love steps in: we take a certain interest in the things the people we love enjoy simply because we love them. The second reason I’ve been reflecting on this topic is that, at the urging of my family who could tell I was not myself, I’ve started taking an antidepressant, and the effect has been so liberating that I find myself with much more energy and natural impulse to shower my children with affection and give them the attention they’ve been longing for.

I am one of those lucky people who grew up with parents who adored me and all of my siblings. Quite possibly the best gift my parents gave us is that they made it absolutely clear that they loved us and that we are loveable. Their love never expired, and it was unconditional, nor was it competitive: they did not choose “favourites.” Although they very much wanted and expected us to behave, we knew that even if they were disappointed in us, they would never love us any less. My parents communicated their delight in us in a number of ways. My little encounter with the medical student reminded me of one of them: taking time to talk and taking a sincere interest in us. My mother especially, as a stay-at-home mum, took on the role of entering into the minutiae of our everyday lives, but my father would also express interest and spend lots of time talking with us, albeit in a different way than my mother would.

My father has often emphasized that with children, it’s not quality time that matters so much as quantity of time. It’s the repeated, consistent, everyday engagements that build a solid foundation. How each parent does this will differ, although there are some basic patterns. If you’ve read Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, you’ll be familiar with various ways in which you can express love, and that for each person, some ways are more effective than others. As a parent, I try to be aware of how my children best respond to love, but I also aim to cover all my bases and show them that I love them all by using words, showing physical affection, taking time with them, doing things for them, and giving them things they enjoy.  The first two come most naturally to me, and the others come fairly naturally as a parent as well, although I have room for improvement.

One thing I do not remember Gary Chapman addressing, however, is the look of delight. This is something my parents excelled in, and something I learned about in words from the Sisters of Life, who actively try to bring Jesus to women who feel alone and unloved. One of the most important things that they do is delight in these women.

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A picture I was given at my First Communion that exemplifies for me the Gaze of Delight/Love

The way we look at people can have a tremendous impact on how they feel about themselves. Even the Gospels deemed it significant to record that Jesus looked upon people with love, a crucial detail for a people who so easily buy into the Devil’s lie that we should only expect isolated punishment from a harsh and exacting God. I remember as a child how much it mattered to me how my parents looked at me, and that they looked at me. There was even one particular moment I remember doing or saying something I hoped would get me “that look,” and, God bless my parents, I was not disappointed. I knew my parents delighted in me and saw the goodness of God’s creation in me. They looked upon me and were satisfied, and by doing so all throughout my life they imprinted deeply on my soul that I am a creature worthy of love, deserving of being cherished, simply because I exist.

Without the gaze of love, words and actions lose their efficacy. Our brains might accept that we are loved, but our souls have not felt it. Has it not been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul? For all the poetry of that expression, there is truth in it. As a parent, I aim to look at my children with love, to delight in them, to communicate to them that they mean everything to me, that they light up my world, that when I look upon their beautiful bodies, I see that they are Very Good, that their souls are worth more than all the stars in the sky, and that they (and their father) bring me more joy than anything of this world. When my children do something “cute” and seek my glance, I hope I am there, gazing upon them with love. When they try to share their world with me, I hope I give them my full attention and interest. When I look into their eyes, I hope they get the sense, even if they don’t quite recognize what it is, that I see in them the beauty and sacredness of God himself.

Now, practically speaking, I can’t look upon my children with this contemplative gaze of love at every moment of the day. I can’t even listen to my son’s chatter at every moment of the day, if for no other reason than I find it completely exhausting! That is fine; it is realistic. This is why quantity of time matters. If, every day, I spend some time with my children, looking upon them with love, spending time getting to know their little persons, they will find it hard to doubt that they are loved unconditionally.

This also lays the foundation for discipline. If I devote so much energy to demonstrating my love, will my children not understand that even when they are being corrected and even punished for their misdeeds, that I love them? There is much fear that punishing a child will lead to psychological damage. I think there is certainly a risk of this, particularly if the child does not know he is his parents’ whole world. If a child is secure in his parents’ love, though, he will ultimately understand that his parents discipline him and outline strict boundaries out of love, because they have his best interests at heart and are applying the full force of whatever wisdom they have acquired to his upbringing. This is why I am no longer afraid to mother my children with authority: because I am confident that they will know that they are loved, and that in fact it is love that motivates me to correct and discipline them. My parents always made this clear. They even made it clear by apologizing to us when they later realized that they misjudged situations or responded in ways they shouldn’t have. This is important, too: to have the humility to apologize to your children when you make mistakes. Rather than weaken your authority, I believe it strengthens it because, after all, true authority is built on love. Because we knew that our parents only wanted what was best for us, we learned to trust them. Time also taught us that although our parents aren’t right all the time, they do have a lot of wisdom and it is in our best interests to consult with them, even now as adults when we have outgrown obedience to them. The disciplinary structures that I enforce now will hopefully lead to such a beautiful and mature relationship with my children when they grow up, too.

There is such a sacredness to this life as parents. We are given precious souls to foster and guide, to shower with love and to act towards as God acts towards us. There was a time I hoped I might be a contemplative nun (even though I knew in my heart it did not suit my personality at all), and in recent weeks I’ve been discovering that the beauty of the contemplative life is not restricted to convent walls by any means. When I look upon my child, I gaze at him with a look similar to that I have received from God myself. When I spend time with him, it reminds me of time I spend in prayer: time set aside to be completely present, time during which I’m constantly swatting distractions away, time in which I abandon the constraints of chronos and enter into kairos.

May God bless you and your family!

Let all that you do be done in love. ~ 1 Cor. 16:14