Category Archives: Lessons Learned

2 x 2 = Faith

 

The 2nd grade class of St. James Catholic School in Oregon City, OR was not a particularly bright bunch in 1989. We slouched our socks and picked our noses and jockeyed to be Teacher’s Pet. There was seriously not a lot to write home about this particular group of kids. We were also forced to memorize the multiplication tables through the twelves. Did us puny, distracted 8 year olds really know anything about the grouping of numbers? No. I don’t think we were even taught what it meant to multiply until another year or so. But we drilled those rote, memorized facts every day, until the whole class knew their times tables forward and back. And when we did progress through the years and get tested periodically, we were glad to have those facts at the ready. We plugged those facts into our problems, confident that they were true… even if we didn’t know why they were true.

I was thinking about this the other day when I was knocking my head against the wall in trying to fully comprehend what it means in the Bible where it says “Faith is a free gift…” I used to beg and beg and beg for this free gift and wonder where the heck it was?! Why didn’t I ever feel all warm and fuzzy and start ordering mountains around and such?! I prayed hard for faith all the time! Well, because I am the queen of strange (and sometimes, mildly inappropriate) analogies, my 2nd grade multiplication tables came back to me. Those facts have been a “free gift” to me my whole life. And while I’m no math whiz, I clearly understand the methodology behind the number facts now. But for a very long time, I didn’t. I could just plug in the right answers because I knew they were right… not because I understood them.

This is very often my faith life as an adult now. I’ll be honest. I don’t “get it” more often than not these days. I can not intellectually conquer the theology behind Romans 8:28: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him…”. But the older I get, the more delighted I am to become childlike in ‘not getting it.’ After decades of trying to research and philosophize and “grasp” Catholicism, I have reached a point where I just throw my hands up now and want to leave that to smarter people than me. Plumbing the depths and breadth of our faith is so far beyond what my brain can handle in the context of the life I’ve been given… I am content anymore to simply play in the shallow end of the pool where I just take everything at face value.

Jesus says “Have no fear.” Okay. Jesus says “Eat my body.” Okay. Jesus says “Have faith.” Okay. Trying to master the enormity of what that means is just plain too hard. The Catechism defines faith like this: “[Faith is] both a gift of God and a human act by which the believer gives personal adherence to God who invites his response, and freely assents to the whole truth that God has revealed.”

There is nothing about warm fuzzies there. Joy! Faith is an act of the will, a choice to be made. A response to a gift we receive from God but don’t necessarily understand or feel! I’m pretty sure Flannery O’Connor is considered on par with the Catechism right?! Well, she is responsible for my very favorite definition of faith of all time: “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.” Amen.

So when I’m faced with extraordinary situations that challenge my relationship with God and my identity in Him… I think of Romans 8:28. Then I shrug my shoulders and say “Okay. I choose faith. I choose He who has the words of Eternal Life…”

Because I’ve got no better answer to the question. Thankfully the cheat sheet to the Exam of Life has already been imprinted on my mind. 2 x 2 = 4 whether we understand that fact or not. And God has us in the palm of His hand and is working constantly for our good… whether we understand that or not. What a relief.

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Pride: A Self-Inventory

Have you ever been tired of your tummy pudge and after consulting Dr. Google, found out that the idea of “spot toning” is really not a viable one?  Depressing isn’t it? When you realize that you can’t just do 50 sit-ups a day and poof! the spare tire will disappear.  The reality is that, any physical trainer worth their salt will recommend a much more holistic approach and be sure to  include cardio and strength training along with healthy eating in order to combat excess weight.  There are no magic short-cuts for long-term changes.

So it is with the spiritual life. Some people recognize how much they struggle with gossip, so they start to shut their mouths and ears just a little bit more and hope to beat it.  Others have a short temper… so they practice deep breathing techniques and maybe invest in a punching bag.  And these things will help.  Every isolated struggle we face can be addressed and combatted head on and small changes (with varying degrees of success) can be expected.

But it won’t work for the long haul. There will be backsliding. You’ll wonder why your list of sins sounds like a tired old record player, even though you feel true contrition and have true amendment to change. To be forged by fire into who we are called to be, I.e. saints, there’s only one painful path:  taking a shotgun and firing a heavy round of buckshot into your ego.  As pride is the father of all sins, humility is the mother of all virtues.

I have loved praying the Litany of Humility ever since I first heard about it… but it’s alway been a struggle to pray it with sincere enthusiasm.  Over the years, and after logging a little more time in at the Range of Life Humiliations, the prayer has become a comforting salve to me, healing and protecting me from the inevitable defects that set me back. But I keep returning to it, so prone I am to the inflammation of pride. And it does its job on some level—reawakens in me the desire to be grounded in my identity as nothing other than a fool for God. Indeed I only grit my teeth a tiny bit now, toward the end of the prayer… I’m still a work in progress.

Anyway, one of the things that has taken me many years to learn is just how interwoven pride is in so many of my character defects.  I’ve never had to uproot it so thoroughly from my heart as I have lately and turns out that pride is a nasty weed that has a quite the complicated root system.  (As an aside, if a gardener could do his weeding with a shotgun, I’m sure he would, but the rest of us will have to labor through my awkward, mixed metaphors here with patience.) Something like ‘being a control freak’… is a form of pride.  Obsessing over your imperfect looks… a form of pride. Wanting to divulge others’ secrets… a form of pride.  I was stunned when I learned that even the horrible feeling of “self hate” is a mutated form of pride (Fr. Jacque Philippe said so, okay!  And that means it’s Gospel.  The two cent version of this concept is that if we loathe ourselves, it’s because we have created a false idea of who we are supposed to be and rely on our powers—rather than God— to be that way… despairing when we fall short. More or less anyway.)

I thought it might be useful to make a corollary list for sinners like me to go through.  I got all excited thinking how useful it would be to my readers and how great of an idea it was before I found out that St. Josemaria Escriva (and probably hundreds of others) have already been there, done that, and I’m only a couple hundred years late to the ball game.  So. I will only distil some of what far smarter people have already conceptualized for us (and before I forget, the chapter called “The Great Sin” in Mere Christianity is an absolute must read for all Christians. Read that chapter every other month or so, in fact.)  Please don’t use this list as a prompting to scupulosity. Most of these aren’t sins per se, but warts on our character that just need to be filed off to really maximize the efforts we are making to truly grow in virtue.  As with all the vices, the way to beat pride isn’t to just try and eliminate it… but to replace it by practicing the opposite virtue.

Self-inventory for the Litany of Humility

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.


From the desire of being esteemed,

Deliver me, Jesus.

  • Do I enjoy being considered pious, virtuous or holy and try to demonstrate what that “looks like” outwardly?

From the desire of being loved…

  • Do I try to make myself seem interesting or unique to win the esteem of others?

From the desire of being extolled …

  • Do I bat away compliments in an effort to hear them emphasized or repeated?
  • Do I forget that all the gifts, talents or blessings I have are simply on loan to me, and not my own?

From the desire of being honored …

  • Do I make a point to name drop so others will be impressed by my associations?
  • Do I get annoyed when I feel like someone is patronizing me?

From the desire of being praised …

  • Do I purposefully put myself down in an underhanded attempt to get people to contradict and praise me?

From the desire of being preferred to others…

  • Do I get jealous of the attention others get from people I admire?

From the desire of being consulted …

  • Do I like to be considered an expert in any area (cooking, web design, babywearing, fantasy football, etc.)?
  • Do I regularly offer my opinions when they are not asked?

From the desire of being approved …

  • Do I make a point to demonstrate how witty, knowledgeable, or special I am by inserting my anecdotes into conversations?
  • Do I try and serve only the best food or wear only the most fashionable clothing or drive only the nicest cars?

From the fear of being humiliated …

  • Do I hide or make excuses for my flaws or bad decisions?
  • Do I refuse to accept help or charity even when needed?

From the fear of being despised…

  • Do I avoid controversial situations or debates because I don’t want people to think badly of me?

From the fear of suffering rebukes …

  • Do I have the need to get the last word in an argument… even if I’m right?
  • Do I refuse to back down on a position even if I’m wrong?
  • Do I resist apologizing to others, especially under the reasoning of ‘they don’t deserve it.’?

From the fear of being calumniated …

  • Do I have to clear my name whenever I perceive it to be sullied?

From the fear of being forgotten …

  • Do I always have a story to share in group conversations?
  • Do I like to be in the know regarding the details of everyone’s personal lives?

From the fear of being ridiculed …

  • Am I embarrassed by doing menial jobs or not having certain possessions or lifestyles?

From the fear of being wronged …

From the fear of being suspected …

  • Do I act defensively or deny wrongdoing rather than sometimes, bearing wrongs patiently?

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

  • Am I envious of the happiness in others’ close friendships and/or romances?

That others may be esteemed more than I …

  • Do I think my ideas are always the right or best ones?
  • Do I resist taking the advice of others?

That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease …

  • Do I want to be considered the “life of the party”, the “brains behind the operation”, the “deep thinker” or “the fantastic host” etc. ?
  • Do I insist on having my own way?

That others may be chosen and I set aside…

  • Do I put myself in position to be recommended or chosen in some way?

That others may be praised and I unnoticed …

  • Do I get hurt or annoyed when I hear others being complimented or praised, even if they don’t deserve it?
  • Do I make sure people see me being generous or doing good works?

That others may be preferred to me in everything…

  • Do I get upset if I’ve not been invited to social events, chosen for a leadership position or selected for promotion?
  • Do I compare myself to others all the time?

That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…

  • Do I have ‘spiritual envy’?
  • Do I get discouraged when I sin and dwell on my shortcomings?
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How to Be Pregnant

pregInspired by this highly readable and important post by Blythe Fike: How to Postpartum Like a Boss, I thought I’d chime in with some thoughts you might not typically hear supported in books
like What to Expect When You’re Expecting (*shudder*) and simply call it “How to Be Pregnant”.  Similar to the postpartum period, so much of how we can better our lot comes in the very simple idea to stop. feeling. guilty. So these will mostly come at you in bulleted points:

1- Don’t stress about how or when to announce your pregnancy.  Do what is comfortable IMG_1959to you. I used to be of the school that ‘waited’ until a good 10-12 weeks at least before sharing our news “just in case” we miscarried.  I just don’t really buy into that mentality anymore. After having three miscarriages, I can tell you that it doesn’t make a difference. Grieving your lost baby isn’t any easier if the world never knew about your pregnancy. And it can be awkward for your friends who lament that they didn’t even know you were pregnant and are shocked into how to support you best. The earlier you share your news, the sooner people can begin praying for you.  The only exception to this rule is when you are tasked with sharing baby news with less-than-thrilled family members. Wait as long as you need so as not to stretch out their disgust. In fact, just don’t even say anything and show up with a newborn at Christmas and let me know how that technique works. My own mother never told her mother-in-law about her final pregnancy. My grandma was dying and very anti-life and my mom didn’t want to add to her despair by announcing a ninth baby… this is so sad and disordered to me, but I can totally respect what my mom was trying to do here.

2- Survive those first 13 weeks or so. Don’t get all bent out of shape trying to thrive. There will be a scant week or so between the time you find out you are pregnant and the time you start to feel nauseated. USE THIS WEEK. Prepare for the storm that is first trimester and make a bunch of easy, freezer foods for your family. Stash a lot of protein snack on hand for only you: nuts, beef jerky, sunflower seeds, peanut butter jars tucked under your bed… whatever. Have quality videos for your children to watch ready to go, including some new, novel ones… because they’ll only tolerate Planet Earth so many times.  Be like a ‘prepper’ and act like the end of the world is coming. Because it kind of is.

See, “Morning sickness” is a cruel misnomer as you will likely feel like garbage most of the time during this phase.  I can tell you one significant thing that has helped, though not “cured” this nausea: Massive amounts of protein.  If you can especially eat a high protein snack before going to bed, you’ll be able to actually get out of bed in the morning, not quite singing with joy, but at least not seeing stars. Protein is your best friend in the first trimester. Do not compromise on protein!  You’ll be doing a lot of household delegating from the couch. Don’t. Feel. Guilty. Let your older children prepare junky macaroni for dinner for the kids. Let it go. The hard part here is that because you don’t “look” that pregnant yet, it’s hard for the world to see that you may need more support than usual.  Everyone chimes in with wanting to help during the awkward third trimester, but people generally think a first trimester woman gets a sweet little 30 minutes of nausea in the morning and should be good to go for the rest of the day. Not so. Meal ministries should figure out how to support mothers during this phase!  So much like the postpartum phase, you’re house is going to go to the pits and your children will probably watch way too many cartoons while you are just laying around… growing a baby. And that’s okay.

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How did we NOT win the ugly sweater contest?!?!

3- Avoid Pinterest. Avoid any high ideals to start really complicated, new Easter traditions or start doing Jesse Tree readings complete with hand-crocheted ornaments. Don’t do it! You. Are. Enough. If you skip Jesse Tree this year, it’ll be okay. If you don’t organize a living reenactment of the Stations of the Cross, it’ll be okay. If all you do is lay on the couch while the kids suck on store-bought candy canes on Christmas Eve… it’s okay. You are enough. I’ll even up this and remind you that your excuse needn’t only be physical sickness. The “pregnancy brain” syndrome is not a myth. And it gets worse with each subsequent pregnancy in my experience. Avoid any situations that will overload your brain or overstimulate your very limited capacity for critical thinking.

4- Nap.  Because you are sleeping for two now.

5- If you can afford hired help, get some. And, of course, don’t feel guilty. Our culture has lost so many of the domestic traditions and we are often geographically removed from family support… and we need support! It’s one thing when your friends say “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help!” but frankly, they are often wrestling their own busy lives, and it’s not easy to say “I need you to drop everything and move in, make meals, watch children and manage my entire household while I lay on the couch feeling gross.” That’s just not a feasible request to make of anyone except wonderful mothers and available sisters. The rest of us just have to suck it up Seabee and get through it.

6- Ignore the weight gain charts. (*Warning, these statements are not FDA approved and I only come from the Medical School of Life with my experiences.*) I’ll tell you. I regularly gain over 40 pounds with each of my babies. I know some women who gain more than that. It’ll be okay if two things can apply:  1) You nurse like a fool, on demand, after baby is born. Not all women can or are willing to do this. None of my babies ever followed the “every 2-3 hours” recommendation for food and could be regularly found suckling even every hour or 30 minutes in some cases. This has lots of other benefits of course, but one primary one is that lots of nursing is a surefire way to kick off baby weight! Stay hydrated and you’ll be fine.  2) Eat whatever you want, as much as you want while pregnant if you can follow two very simple rules… and this is coming from someone very, very skittish about food wars: 1-Eat as much real food as possible (not food-like substances). And, I hate to say it, I really do! But avoid sugar as much as possible. I know. It’s painful. Horrible. But so helpful. And so unrealistic for the sugartooths among us. I can’t manage to be fastidious on this point, so I do my best (imperfectly) to save my sugar splurge for the Sabbath only. And like any good Catholic, I observe the Sabbath beginning around vigil time on Saturday night of course. 🙂

Similarly, don’t stress about exercise during pregnancy. If you were already working out, keep on it! Your body will tell you when it’s too much. Don’t turn into a vegetable though; walk, bike (until it’s too awkward), swim. Now isn’t the time to try and start an new routine. But, an important caveat!  If you CAN manage it… take some time to really strengthen your core and back muscles before you get too big to do so. Planks. And plank variations. If you can do those with good form, you’ll be in a remarkably better position going into labor and delivery.

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Can do. Because I’m 20 weeks along.

7- Rock the 2nd Trimester. These are the glory days. You should be feeling better and you look legitimately pregnant by now so public sympathy/support should increase. This is the time to treat yourself to some fresh maternity clothes… because looking at your giant tupperware bin of maternity clothes that’s been around for literally a decade or more can be quite a downer. Do what you can to look and feel your best; a few fresh items will do wonders in making you feel happier. You can visit Pinterest during this phase… with moderation. Do all the little projects you wanted to do. Paint. Sew. Go swimming. Whatever. Do yourself a favor and prepare NOW for the third trimester. Nest now.  After you have a baby, you may get meal support, but that last month of pregnancy is like a long walk in the Sahara desert… don’t go into it unprepared.  Make a ton of burritos to freeze. Bake several loaves of zucchini bread and freeze a bunch of soups or casseroles. You’re probably going to be on your own for food help and it can be demoralizing and budget straining to eat pizza, yet again, during those final weeks of pregnancy just because you don’t have energy to make a meal. The magical 2nd trimester is your ticket to all things productive. Take advantage of it.

8- Iron. Natural and/or supplements. One of the best things I ever learned (five kids too late) was the importance of iron in having a healthy birth. Right at week 28 or so, amp up your iron intake. A lot. You will bleed less. You will have more energy. It’s one of the single best things you can do to get ready for birth. I am very sensitive to iron in most forms (and I’ve tried many; they cause headaches for me), so I prefer to get mine in the form of brewer’s yeast and this brand has been the hands down winner for a safe, effective intake for me.

9- Have a glass of wine.
Because you are a responsible adult. And IMG_3153it’ll help your nerves. Your child will not get fetal alcohol syndrome from the occasional glass of wine or good beer. Those warnings are made because the net has to be cast wide to catch the fools who abuse alcohol while pregnant. I do not recommend, however, going to a bar to do your drinking. I wouldn’t hesitate to enjoy some champagne at a friend’s wedding while pregnant, but most of the world is still in the being-scandalized-by-pregnant-women-drinking mode so it’d be best to avoid that.

10- Be kind to your body during those last few weeks. Try hard not to slouch back on comfy couches. Keep your baby from floating and flipping in utero by sitting up straight or laying on your side. Get the yoga ball out. Do your kegals like a dutiful preggo; they help with pushing but also with control when you shouldn’t push too hard. Sciatica will strike many of us here. Bear with it. Drink absurd amounts of water. Be patient… so patient.  I can assure you that all the old wive’s tales about natural induction are wive’s tales (with the exception of castor oil… gross; you have to be desperate and way overdue to justify this one). I have tried everything. Yes everything. Even the unmentionable things to try and get babies to come… not even on time, just a week overdue was all I was asking! I am firmly convinced that he/she will come when they are good and ready and we needn’t try and rush it. Those excruciating days when your due date is long past are difficult but offer them up and trust that your body is doing what it’s supposed to… growing a baby. There’s no rushing perfection.

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Misunderstood.

“Oh Lord! Please don’t let me be misunderstood!”

In a purple robe clinging to His freshly made wounds and with spittle dripping down His bloody face, He could’ve transformed that Crown of Thorns into pure jewel-laden gold and smote His enemies with the blink of an eye. King of the Jews indeed… but He didn’t.

One of my favorite things to meditate on throughout the Sorrowful Mysteries is just how often Jesus Christ allowed Himself to be misunderstood. Pilate couldn’t probe Him. The soldiers couldn’t break Him. Father forgive them for they know not what they do. He lived who He was very clearly and very transparently, but never made it His mission to make sure every single person understood His every single word. Nor did He ensure that every heart would be converted to His message.

Today, so many of us are crippled by the perceived need to make ourselves understood to the world. It’s something I’ve fought for years. If we are newly converted, we want to shove all our conversion books on everyone we know. If we send our kids to public school, or private school or home-school, we feel defensive and want everyone to know how carefully we’ve considered our choices. We need to explain why we go to the Latin Mass or the Ordinary Form Mass. Or why we dress the way we do or why we eat this and not that, making sure everyone knows that we don’t normally allow our children soda and cookies, but it’s a special occasion. Or that your house isn’t normally this messy but, what are the chances?!… your visitor showed up on laundry day. Oh to strengthen those tongue muscles by just. keeping. silence!

And then there’s the whole other, though related, pity the develops when we misspeak and spend so much faithful energy trying to explain what we really meant or backpedalling to make sure people don’t get the wrong idea about what we were trying to say. (Oh how I know this one well…)

Don’t misunderstand me (!), I think clarity of expression is critical in our world. And I think we need to be responsible in the perceptions we create to others with our choice of words, dress, lifestyle, etc. But we can not become slaves to the god of living in the other’s minds. And I think it’s sad that we feel the need to rationalize all our decisions to our pretend jury and explain ourselves over and over to our pretend judge. Somewhere inside us, if we are being honest, it’s clear that desires to explain and defend ourselves result from a misplaced need to be valued and respected by the other person. This is human and understandable. But we are called to something greater and it often comes at the price of losing human respect…

The truth is, we will be misunderstood. It’s a guarantee if you are living life they way you are supposed to be living! The best speakers, the best writers, the best communicators… all of us will be taken for acting hateful or self-righteous or harboring ulterior motives. For those who take great pains to be articulate in expression, this is a painful cross. But how absurd to think we can be greater than our Master!

There are a couple people in my life to whom I have sincerely wanted to create a particular impression. I admit it. God forgive my pride, but I wanted these people to think I was thoughtful, intelligent and holy. Invariably, He has allowed circumstances to be such that I am always somehow presenting the most foolish, inane, regrettable parts of me in front of these people. I accept it now. It keeps me humble to know that I can’t escape the fool inside of me apparently just clamoring to get out.

But the real pain comes from those whom we love the most. Our spouses. Our children. Our parents, siblings and close friends. Sometimes we do or say something to these dear ones and it causes confusion or hurt or anger. Sometimes they think we’ve deliberately tried to offend them or they misinterpret our motives. And sometimes no amount of defense or pleading or explaining can make it better… and we ache to know that we’ve been yet again, misunderstood.

We can not control what people will think of us. We can only be authentic and hope to live with a consistent ethic of life. It’s not our job to change the world or to convince others about how sensible we are or intelligent we are or thoughtful we are, not even those who know us best and love us best. Sometimes, despite pure motives, despite holy motives, we are asked to suffer the great tragedy of being misunderstood. Our job in life is not to control perceptions, is not to change minds or win converts like trophies on a shelf. It’s not even to be understood. People will hate you. And they will misunderstand you. And that’s okay. We have a One Man audience to please and He knows our hearts and will count all those moments as roses laid before His throne…

Why should we defend ourselves when we are misunderstood and misjudged? Let us leave that aside. Let us not say anything. It is so sweet to let others judge us in any way they like. O blessed silence, which gives so much peace to the soul!

—St. Thérèse of Liseux

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Becoming Like Children

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My youngest child is a bundle of sly giggles and untamed hair.  She responds to each new day in virtually the same way regardless of circumstances. She looks to me for guidance. She gets it. She’s got more figured out about life at 18 months than I do at 33 years. She wakes up. She eats. She plays.  She stacks blocks up and topples them over. She naps. She gets into mischief. She snuggles. She harasses the puppy and puts bowls on her head. When the world gets overwhelming, she totters over to me and lifts her arms up. She wraps her little fingers around my neck and holds me. And she buries her head in my neck to find her center. If I’m wearing a scarf, even better. She’ll lift it over her head—not to be silly or playful, but to seek shelter— and hide from the lights or the noise or the prying hands or the unfamiliar faces. If the opportunity presents itself, I will feel her little body relax and she’ll fall asleep like that, enveloped in Mama’s scarf. Life can get crazy or strange but she is okay as long as she is with me. She has slept with me on couches, on floors, in hospital rooms, in the rain, in the sun, alone and in crowds. Surroundings are unimportant when you enjoy the protection of a loving and capable parent.

Babies don’t have to think about life. They don’t have to entertain abstract theories about the meaning of suffering or the purpose of existence. They live each day with complete abandon and unfailing trust in their parent. There is no worry that lasts long. No fear that can’t be abated. Babies know they’ll get fed and loved and cleaned up… they can ride high in the luxury of a mother or father’s arms and know they’ll be carried safely through their day. That’s the genius of a child.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

—Matthew 18: 1-3

For the first time in my life (I’m a little slow…) I finally understand what it means to have the “child-like faith” that is talked about in the Bible.  It means living with complete abandon to the mercy of God. There is nowhere else to go. There really isn’t. As adults we let our own limited brains and our own damaged hearts trip us up so much.* We get lost in the maze of introspection, putting ourselves in temperament and personality boxes, trying to pinpoint our place in the universe. We analyze the meaning of suffering and try to clamor on top of the heap of trials that rain down on us. We worry and agonize about doing it right and stumble about in the wilderness. Crying. Angry. Depressed. Overstimulated. Wondering how to fix our problems and how to find peace.

And this is ridiculous. Really. I’m allowed to say that because I’ve lived this and I struggle to shake this still, every day. Living this way is ridiculous.

We have to look to our babies to understand what’s really going on here. You are a child and I am a child. We have a Father who loves us and wants the best for us. And a Mother willing to walk us straight over to Him. Mary, I want to crawl under your mantle and hide sometimes! He’s willing to carry us through everything if only we let Him. He sees us wandering miserably in our wretchedness and is simply waiting for us to reach our arms up. It’s almost amusing (if it weren’t so pitiful) to think that we could possibly have anything to worry about when we have a Father like we have. The Alpha and the Omega is our daddy. And we are babies in His arms… whom or what shall we fear?!

Will life be blissful once we surrender to Him? Absolutely, definitively NOT. Like any good parent, our Father lets us get hurt sometimes; he lets us grow up. He wants to teach us something. He wants us to know there is nowhere to go but Him. One day, I watched one of my children closely in a crowd. She was being restless and wouldn’t sit still with me on the blanket. I warned her she would get lost if she didn’t stay close to me but the allure of new sights, sounds and smells was too much for her. She scampered off, unaware that I was watching closely. Eventually, as I suspected, she got confused and couldn’t find me through the movement of all the people around her. And I saw her face tense up in fear and agitation. Now, you may think I’m cruel, but I didn’t rush to her instantly. I waited for just 20 seconds or so… letting her feel what it was like to be alone just until it became unbearable and I saw that she was about to unravel into tears. Then I swooped in and soothed her fears and eased her worry.  She didn’t stray again. At other stages in development, we let our children touch a (not too) hot oven. They only do it once… and they learn their lesson:  Mama knows best. Her admonitions aren’t for nothing. There is wisdom in her warnings but also comfort to be found when the blows of pain are felt.

Exponentially more-so is it with God!  He lets us get hurt. For our own good. For the big picture of sanctification and the knitting of holy souls and the catalyst to conversion that we can not see, so blinded we are to the experience of injustice and sorrows. The darkest chasms of physical and emotional pain are still all around us, but He holds us and nothing can harm us without His nod.

I like to think about what the greatest of saints were like… and even which living people I am attracted to most today. Is it the intellectual academic? The artist who is untouchable? The mysteriously deep entrepreneur?  The enigmatic free-thinker? The polished and articulate world leader? No. All the people I admire most today have a quality that the greatest saints had in their lives— a faith so developed that it’s evolved into a humble simplicity. A child-like authenticity and openness. These people radiate goodness. They draw you in. There is something about them that attracts you and the reason is because they have learned, they are living, the truth that the more we know, the more we don’t know. They are confident in their surrender to their Father. They have become like children. They are people you want to be with and follow because somewhere deep inside ourselves, we recognize that “theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”

 

 

*And really, this is a first-world problem. We have the luxury and the curse of too much introspection because the basic conditions on our hierarchy of needs (food, shelter, water, etc.) have been met. Ironically, the extremely poor and destitute in this world usually aren’t burdened with metaphysical conundrums. In some ways they are more free to achieve happiness in life because their circumstances are— either by choice or corruption— so simple.

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The Martyr’s Folly

I wrote this 4 years ago for an issue of Soul Gardening. Today—faced with daunting spiritual, logistical, emotional, financial and health hurdles— I wouldn’t change a word. I am so grateful for every single one of my Simons of Cyrene who are helping our family shoulder a large cross right now.

*  *  *

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The Lion & the Mouse: a lesson not just for kids

This is directed to all you martyr types.  You know who you are.  You are the kind of woman who takes pride in being capable, industrious, and pulled together.  Yes, you can admit that you have your off days—like the rest of us—but you do your best to keep those to yourself for the most part.  After all, you wouldn’t want to burden anyone with your problems or put anyone out. If you do an honest self examination, you may even detect a bit of an ego involved there;  you may want to appear to be organized, confident and strong, or worse—you may let others know (directly or indirectly) that you are struggling but you stalwartly refuse any offers of help.  You may sigh with a weary smile “God has certainly blessed me with a lot of crosses right now…”

Pity.  Now don’t get me wrong—the life of a Christian is destined to be filled with trials.  There’s no doubt about it; we are called to pick up our cross and follow after Him.  But I’m convinced that Christ didn’t intend for all of us to live independently of each other’s sorrows.  It seems that many women are trying too hard to live up to the “Superwoman” identity.  They think they should be able to do it all and they are failures if they cannot.  I know because I’ve been there.  We are the types who don’t allow the “something’s got to give” mentality in our homes.  We think we should be able to be excellent housekeepers, gourmet chefs, master educators, attentive nurses, efficient chauffeurs, doting wives, nurturing mothers, and prayerful Christians all at once… at the same time.  Even if I was missing a couple digits, I could count on one hand the number of times when I’ve achieved all of those titles in one day in almost ten years of married life.  Usually the reality is that something’s got to give.  And I’d wager that most of you agree that it’s unreasonable to expect a woman to be able to do everything.  We all know what it’s like to struggle with wearing many hats. The trouble is that so many of us are reluctant or flat out refuse to ask for or even accept help that was genuinely offered. We are martyrs! We’re working off our purgatory time!  No one can take our crosses away from us!  We may not be able to do it all, but we sure aren’t going to dump our problems on anyone else!  Yes, my child is sick and clingy and I’ve got a fever myself and the dishes are backed up and there’s no food in the fridge with which to make dinner and Billy needs help with a science project that’s due tomorrow and my husband has no clean clothes to wear to work tomorrow but I do NOT need any help from you! No way, no how!

I can count three distinct tragedies that result from this mindset:

1) We don’t receive any help.  We allow the full weight of our trials to crush us down when it could be greatly alleviated by allowing someone to make us a meal, watch our children for an hour, or run to the grocery story to fetch a gallon of milk and some cough drops.

2) We deprive another person the opportunity for grace.  Why is it okay for us to practice the works of mercy, but never to allow ourselves to be in the position to receive charity?!  Most of us think people aren’t being sincere when they say “Well, let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”  Or “Call me if you need anything.”  And truthfully, while the sincerity is there, I do think many people say these things not expecting that you’ll take them up on it… because most of us would rather suffer silently than burden anyone else.  There is certainly merit to that to some degree.  But it is good for the sake of humility to allow someone the opportunity to be charitable.  Their own lives are sanctified by the actions they perform and we allow a good moment of self mortification to temper our pride.  Our children also get to see firsthand what it means to be a friend and to practice a corporal work of mercy.  It’s a win-win-win situation that we truly should allow for more often.

3) We close a door to bonding. One of the few things the entire human race has in common is suffering. In one way or another, we all face hurdles in our lives and I believe that allowing others into an element of our suffering draws us close to each other.  Think of the people in your life who are the nearest and dearest to your heart.  These are the ones with whom you can share your heart.  These are the ones from whom you will accept an offer for supper or babysitting. These are the ones you are comfortable letting know that you hurt and you struggle and you can’t do it all.  While discretion is important in all our relationships, and we certainly shouldn’t be vulnerable with everyone we meet, we do need to let our guard, our pride and our image down once in a while to let others share in our sufferings.  These are the spiritual works of mercy.  And the true blue kinds of friendships are built on the rocks of these types.  Women feel a connection with other women when they share their struggles.  We find encouragement knowing that Superwoman is just a character from a comic book.  It is both reaffirming to our own selves and a consolation to her that she can feel comfortable letting her hair down and admitting she does need help every now and again.

We are all sojourning together toward heaven.  When we are strong, we would do well to reach out to those who are weak.  When we are weak, we would do well to allow the strong to help us.  A dear friend once said the wisest thing to me that has comforted me greatly in many, many different situations:  “Even Jesus needed help carrying His cross.”  We cannot pretend to be greater than our Master…

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Dimensions of Friendship

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Let’s Be Enemies by Janice Udry

In the high school cafeteria, battle lines are clearly drawn. Groups have staked out their tables, identities have been fixated and the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ exaggerated theme in teen movies has just enough truth in it to sting us. Young people know who their friends are and just as importantly, they know who their friends aren’t.

Growing older, this doesn’t seem to change for a large demographic of American people. We fuss about Facebook drama, we spend time exclusively with those of a similiar socio-economic status or lifestyle. We may have acquired a new best friend or your friendship has stood the test of time, still be holding onto the BFF locket from middle school. Besties rule!

As a Christian, this makes me uncomfortable. The way friendships are defined. The way we put people in boxes. The way our social lives are carefully regulated within circles of familiarity and the way we let some in and keep others at an arm’s length.

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Our Best Friends by Gyo Fujikawa

It’s natural to develop a comfortable vulnerability with certain, like-minded people. It’s natural to enjoy the company of some people more than others. It’s natural to share the deepest part of your heart only with one or two very trusted, dear souls. What isn’t natural is extenuating the battle lines of high school… demarcating some people as “friend material” and others as not worth your time.

As Christians, I don’t think we are called to be friends with everybody. But I do think we are called to alter our understanding of friendship and evangelization. Writer Heather King nails it:

“We’re called to speak to people to whom we often don’t feel like speaking; to refrain from surrounding ourselves with people “just like us,” whose thoughts, ideas, and actions we can more or less manage and control; to share not just with the poor, but with the rich, the mediocre, the irritating, the Republicans, the Democrats, because we never know who the poor are. We never know whose heart is hemorrhaging. We never know who needs a kind work, a smile, a helping hand.” 

In my adult friendships, I’ve learned many valuable lessons.  I’ve learned that I can’t please everyone. I’ve learned that in spite of my best intentions, I have let my friends down. I’ve learned that I can’t spend all my time with the people I most want to. I’ve learned that I am called to deepen my understanding of what different layers of friendship means for a person of faith.

Young people experience friendships in basically two dimensions. It is very transparent who you love, who you like and who you dislike. There are “best friends”, “close friends”, “friendly acquaintances” and then everyone else.  As one grows older, it seems like new dimensions of friendship open up. People come into your life for reasons sometimes not immediately apparent, and they have something unique to offer you… or you to them.  Other people have access to a very limited, but very personal part of your soul that no one else does… yet you wouldn’t join up to go out shopping or watch movies together. Still other people exist with whom there isn’t a mutual attraction or interest in a personal friendship… people you would’ve ran away from in high school. Yet there is a need to be served here, a heart to meet, a hand to hold. Equally important, but often unseen, is that such people are able to sanctify you in a way your dearest friends can not. They are the sandpaper smoothing out the rough spots on your personality.

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The Rag Coat by Lauren Mills

To be Christ-like, we have to open up all of ourselves… frankly to everyone. We have to be willing to raise a few eyebrows by sitting with people with whom we aren’t comfortable. We have to challenge assumptions about cliquey groups that tend to form in our communities. We have to reach past age, family, clothing styles, financial status, lifestyle preference and neighborhood to be all things to all people. We can’t be best friends with everyone. We simply don’t have the time nor the emotional reserve to do so. But we can be open to opportunities for authentic conversation, a searching smile or an exchange of ideas.

Closing ourselves off to people… crossing our arms and avoiding eye contact… or worse, keeping the relationship constantly at stiffly defined nods and fake smile status, limits our experience of who the Creator is. Every single person united under any place together is carrying around hidden sorrows. Every single person reflects, in a specific and unrepeatable way, some tiny part of the face of God that no one else on the planet ever has or ever will again. Search for Him in all people, and what we find may be more that we ever could’ve hoped for.

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You Can’t Cure Foot in Mouth Disease, But You Can Ease the Recovery.

footinmouthThe words fell out of my mouth while all the neurons in my brain shouted, “Wait! Stop!  Too much!”  But it was no use. I said it anyway.  Willpower has nothing on a fool’s tongue. And there, in that all too familiar pregnant pause of awkwardness, the words suspended in the air while I driveled out more meaningless chatter trying to hide what was just said.

I had done it again.  Said something so stupid that I am kicking myself now. I wish this was a new feeling but it’s one that has become my happy bedfellow: this foot in mouth problem.  *sigh*  And now I’m replaying the incident over and over in my brain and intensifying the interior self-flogging for being such an idiot.

The situation wasn’t even that big of deal really..  I was at a social function—alone without husband or children (!)— feeling childish for filling myself a cup of hot chocolate when my pastor walked in the room.  He makes me nervous. I tend to say stupid things if I’m nervous. While a good man and devout priest, he is extraordinarily busy and I always feel like his brisk conversation means I need to fill the precious half minute that I have of his attention with something interesting or witty to say.  (Why do I feel that way?!) What came out of my mouth? The asinine. “Don’t judge me Father.”  His confused look made me have to blather out an explanation about filling a cup of hot cocoa at a late hour and it being so sugary and I know how healthy he tries to be. Blah. Blah. Blah. It was not a well-articulated greeting to my priest.  Unfortunately, he’s heard me a say a number of things I wish I could take back by now.

This was just a teaser for the next stupid thing I said.  See, he was introducing me to someone, because he believes strongly in helping new people make connections and there was a new person there.  A young man, about my age or a wee bit younger. Single. I dumped the words “Oh, I was so excited to see Ashton Kutcher coming to Mass!”  Idiot. Confused looks from the men ensue. Me realizing how odd and flirty that sounded begins to turn red.  So I do the best patch up job I can muster by uttering more preposterous blather about how from the back he looked like Ashton Kutcher, but he clearly looked nothing like him from the front. “I mean, your face is TOTALLY different.”  (What brain comes up with this brilliant recovery?!) And oh, ahem, so what did Mr. Not-Ashton Kutcher do for a living or what brings him to the area?  (Meanwhile, I’m scanning the room for a social helper… faking disinterest so the implications of the weird insult-flirting would go away.) Where were my children!!!

Anyway, the whole thing was awkward and my boys finally did show up and my marital status was quickly solidified, but my fool status has begun to develop a greenish patina.

I know this wasn’t as bad as the time I told someone that her newborn baby girl looked like Chewbacca (Hi Kathy!) but it still had me doing the post-gaff beatup routine. And then me feeling guilty for spending so much mental time on agonizing over this.  And I’m tired of this.

I can’t seem to find a cure for my verbal diarrhea (I have often fantasized about how wonderful it would be for me —and the world— if I was a mute) but I can do something about how to respond to this character defect. I’m convinced that God wants to use this as a source of constant surrender and humility.  Letting go.  So all my foot-in-mouth friends should pray with me to rid ourselves of the mental anguish over thoughtless words.

  • Let go of the need to be clever, witty or even interesting.
  • Don’t fill empty space just to fill it.  A smile pads a lack of conversation just fine sometimes.
  • Stop wasting emotional energy over things have already happened and words already said.
  • Stop trying to craft the perfect impression of who you are on the world.
  • Don’t trip over your tongue!  Zip it up!
  • But you will mess up. And people may get the wrong impression (or think you a jerk). This will happen. And you will have to let it sometimes.
  • Apologize if appropriate and move on in a gracious manner.

That’s all you can do.  Allow these stings to your dignity shape you and sanctify you… surrendering all your blemishes to Christ at the end of each day and promising to try again tomorrow.

 

 

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I made someone cry.

A few days ago I made someone cry.  I’ve done this before—certainly we all have through our harmful or thoughtless actions or inactions, or our viperous tongues lashing when they shouldn’t have.

But this time, I made someone cry for no apparent reason.  She was trying to tell me something.  Our relationship was one of brief smiles of acknowledgement before.  But she approached me with trepidation on Friday saying she had something to tell me.  Then she begged for patience and forgiveness while she collected herself.  Breathing deeply she eventually stated what she had come to say: Could I please spread the word that the parish mothers were trying to get together to take turns watching children while the others went into confession?  Some moms, especially in military communities such as ours, never get a chance to be toddler or baby free enough for the sacrament…

Hmm.

I was certain that while she was fighting her tears of trepidation before speaking that she was going to tell me that she accidentally ran over my son in the parking lot or maybe my family had all been gunned down and I was the lone survivor.  I couldn’t fathom what could cause someone such angst in telling me what is a fairly routine thing.

But I intimidated her. And I don’t know why exactly.  I’d like to think I am kind and approachable.  Am I not?!  But I had never made any real efforts in wanting to know this woman. In reaching out to her in a meaningful way. She who is a shy, amiable soul with a few young children saw something in me—that created a distance between us enough to fear our exchange. I can see some external differences in us and in how we compose ourselves but I can not on the surface see a barrier to friendship or conversational ease.

Yet there was.

I don’t have it all figured out yet, but I do think it bears important reflection.  How our apparent composure and/or confidence (feigned or authentic) can be frightening to some sensitive souls… steamrolling such people even unintentionally, is a barrier to evangelization. To mercy.  What to djesus3o? Crawl out of my comfort zone even more, every day. Can you imagine if Mother Teresa only sat with the sisters she liked best during lunch.  Only chatted with the sick people who had the most attractive personalities to her?! No. She was magnetic. Living the Gospel has to be a magnetic, deliberate action.  It will be uncomfortable.  And it will require heroic effort. I have to speak to others when I just want to run away or socialize only with those whom I have much in common. I have to branch out, introduce myself, sit at other tables in hospitality hour. I have to be approachable.  I have to stretch my arms past the comfortable point just like Him whose open embrace was nailed on the Cross for all eternity saying “Here I am. I am for everyone.”

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Got Disenchantment?

rainI don’t think it’s anecdotal to feel that motherhood today is more difficult than it was 60 years ago. We all know that today’s struggles seem infinitely more pressing and prevalent than those faced by parents a couple generations ago. We get assaulted with drugs, pornography, early sexualization, technological interruptions, and an entirely rotten moral code as a culture. It’s easy to think that the issues we face completely trump the issues our grandmothers faced. But let’s not forget some of what they had to go through either: e.g. higher rates of infant mortality/diseases, back-breaking farm and household labor without the convenience of modern machinery, etc. So, I’ve been chewing on an idea that leads me to believe that our greatest struggles today really aren’t in content but in our methods of dealing with them. Why do so many mothers feel ill-equipped, lost and overwhelmingly frustrated with the demands of parenthood? Why are mothers the number one users and abusers of prescription anxiety drugs? I believe that even if the variables of what we face today compared to mothers of yesteryear were controlled, most women now are beginning the motherhood journey with a severe handicap. And I’m not sure how to name it: lack of “generational continuum” maybe?

Here’s my theory: something strangely ironic was lost when the choices for women’s careers opened up. Most good (and bad) feminists will agree that vocational ‘choice’ is a good thing: women should have the right to choose a career or motherhood and in some cases both. The interesting thing to me is that when masses of women defaulted to choosing careers over motherhood, expectations were changed, preparations were shifted and skills were lost in translation. In most schools, children are prepared for college or for careers. There is usually no formal preparation for domestic life: “Home Ec” is pretty much obsolete anymore. Do they still teach students how to balance a checkbook, hem a pair of pants or plan a menu? I have my doubts. What’s more, is that the informal teaching that got naturally passed down from mother to daughter seems to have dissolved in many ways too. If a working mother is understandably dog-tired at the end of the day, it’s all she can do to pop a store bought, frozen lasagna in the oven to feed her kids. How can she be expected to spend time with her daughters showing and explaining ways to make a soup stretch to feed more people? Or when to use butter vs. oil? What is a “simmer” compared to a rolling boil? All these nuances of meal prep are ones women have to learn by practice.

But it doesn’t just stop in the kitchen. Women today go into motherhood clinging with desperate abandon to all the parenting expert books out there because they don’t have a confidence in their own instincts. (Indeed, how can we, if our instincts have been stunted in deference to the experience of being pruned for job interviews and college applications?) This, coupled with the fact that families are often making their homes far away from their family of origin leads to a sense of parenting isolation that previous generations rarely experienced.

When I brought my first boy home to an empty apartment at the tender age of 20, I couldn’t believe they let me out of the hospital with this tiny, helpless person. Who was I?! My own dear mother was a thousand miles away, my husband was deployed across the world and I had barely a friend to lean on for help. I was bewildered to say the least and didn’t know what to do. He cried all night and I was so scared and tired I just put him in a bassinet and wheeled it into the farthest corner of my home away from my bedroom, shut my door and curled up on my bed in tears… afraid of being so angry with my son and not having a clue on what to do to help him. Coming into motherhood, I didn’t know about things like colic, thrush, or mastitis. I also wasn’t ready for later children’s night terrors, oppositional defiance, or food sensitivities. Of course, no one can ever plan for all the challenges that will come up in family life, but I do believe women can come into marriage with more practically defined coping skills and godly expectations than what we generally do today.

There are so very many things that I had to learn the hard way because I wasn’t ready for domestic life in the practical sense. I was completely career oriented before I got married. I had planned on post-graduate degrees and teaching overseas. I never picked my mother’s brain on how to cut up a whole chicken or what to do for a diaper rash. When I began the romance that led to marriage, I wish I would’ve spent time with my mom learning things about domestic life. But while she would’ve been glad to teach me, I never even thought to seek her guidance. I was just a starry-eyed dope who figured everything would fall in place. Society told me love was a beautiful thing; marriage was bliss and I’d live happily ever after.

And now the stage was set for the rude awakening that I certainly wasn’t alone in experiencing. How many of us knew just how badly breastfeeding would hurt at first? How to prioritize communicating with our husbands? How to make those dollars stretch in between paychecks?  How to handle a toddler’s tantrum in public? Sleepless nights? Post-partum depression? Feelings of fear and loneliness despite being surrounded by a bunch of little people? And we want to scream that there ought to be major warning labels on the beautiful package called marriage and motherhood because this “true love” thing, this “agape” thing?! They sure don’t seem to be all they’re cracked up to be. Women today suffering from anxiety and depression in tremendously higher numbers than women of yesterday is not just a coincidence. Our lives can be brutal and the fact is that we just aren’t properly disposed to bear it! Growing up to expect a life that is more free-spirited, socially fulfilling or professionally oriented can leave us in motherhood feeling instead like a caged bird.

The majority of us come into this vocation almost hindered by the beautiful promises of career freedom. In generations past, women didn’t have the choices we do so they very wisely learned everything they needed to succeed as a wife and mother because that was all that was open to them. I don’t think they experienced the level of disenchantment we face today that paves the way for our hardships and mental breakdowns. No, I think most women saw their own mothers struggle and they figured their future would be a struggle too. And that wisdom of practical preparation was consciously and sub-consciously passed down to daughters through the generations. Their coping skills were sharpened to a fine point. Today, our girls grow up being asked “What do you want to do when you grow up?” “What glass ceilings will you break?” And the choices are beautiful: we see glamorous actresses, happy news anchors, smiling doctors, and confident female politicians. I’ve witnessed the awkward, embarrassed surprise that follows the answer a girl gives when she says that she just wants to be a wife and mama.

So, lost in that myriad of career promise is the rock-encrusted diamond of motherhood. It’s tough as nails and more glorious than all other professions… but it takes a lot of work to make it shine compared to the glitter of happy careers. And little girls don’t necessarily see that right away as a default. So their attention goes elsewhere and they rightfully flirt with a million ‘choices’ as they grow up, but they forget to focus on the one choice for which all others exist: family. And we as a society and as parents don’t do enough on our parts to prepare them.

I’m not suggesting that we revert back to women being shunned from the workplace. But I am suggesting that we must reverse this downward spiral and turn our fates around. We have to prepare our daughters with skills needed to be the genius and heart of their homes, regardless of whatever they ultimately choose to do. We have to teach them very basic skills like how to sew on a button, how to swaddle a baby, and how to hard boil an egg. How to iron a shirt, re-purpose leftovers and ward off feelings of spousal resentment. Today’s modern adult often learns these this by watching YouTube videos or even paying for classes! Some might think there’s nothing wrong with that but I think it’s symptomatic of the larger problem: loss of generational interdependence.

Preparing our kids for their vocations doesn’t mean they need to take formal classes or have long, drawn out conversations about every scenario that will ever come up. Women 60 years ago surely didn’t do this. What they experienced was probably something more like osmosis. We just have to be more proactive about what we are already doing… allowing our children to naturally be a part of making a home and raising a family. Talking with them (not just at them) and explaining steps of cooking rather than always shooing them out of the kitchen. Keeping the lines of communication open and talking honestly about what it means to be a wife, a husband or a parent. Loving them to the best of our abilities and training them in all that we’ve learned on our own journeys. We have to teach our children to aim for the stars and to dream big… but still give them a pragmatic set of expectations on what the domestic world brings.  If we can prepare them with a proper understanding of how tough being a wife and mom is, we will hopefully keep them a step ahead of emotional breakdowns and debilitating anxiety.

Maybe we are thinking that it’s too late for us; we are having to learn the hard way. But it’s not too late for our own daughters. Raising them to expect and properly deal with all the inevitable struggles of family life is the only real way their hearts can be prepared for its glory as well.  And while bringing that goal into focus, we ourselves will eventually get our own set of sea legs and learn to learn to embrace our crosses and find in this vocation more meaning and fulfillment than we ever thought possible.

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