Category Archives: Lessons Learned

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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Shortcuts to Heaven

photo 3Maybe you are like many of us mothers who happen to have one child in particular who needs to be handled with kid gloves. This child may have been labeled ADD or ADHD at one point. He may be a textbook ‘oppositionally defiant’ child. Maybe he’s just some sort of loose amalgam of brilliance that makes conventional child-raising methods a little tricky to employ. I have one such child and I have frequently referred to him as my “path to Heaven.”  And I believe this with all sincerity. The difficulties and the abrasiveness my son presents to me allows me to think of him as sandpaper: he is scraping and polishing off so much of my impatience and imperfections.  Even if it hurts and is uncomfortable, we all need sandpaper people in our lives; I’m blessed to have one living with me every day whom I love dearly.

I’m not an expert on behavior deviances.  But I do know that sometimes my days feel so brutally unforgiving when dealing with this child that there has to be something out there to offer a bit of reprieve. I’ve identified ten small reminders to myself that I call “shortcuts” on this ‘path to Heaven’ that has been laid out for me. There are certainly counselors and internet articles galore that can offer more than this anecdotal advice, but I thought it might to be worthwhile to hear one mom’s perspective who lives this (and sometimes fails this) advice and has seen remarkable improvements.

1. Distinguish between disobedience and inability.  One mistake I used to make so often was getting very irritated and exasperated at having to repeat myself to my son over and over again.  I’d say his name when he was simply across the living room for me—know that everyone else in the room heard me— and he would seem to ignore me. By the time I would finally get his attention, I was at a full yell and he was startled to see me angry with him.  When he is playing with something detailed or immersed in a project, the world inside his head is so loud, that he literally can not hear me. It’s not fair for me to get angry with him for “ignoring me”, when he’s so caught up in his mind that he doesn’t even hear me. This is me needing to find another way to reach him.
2. Speak at eye level, using their name. This is how I have to get his attention. Sometimes, it’s inconvenient to stop what I’m doing, rather than call across the room, but if I want to avoid repeating myself over and over and avoid the temptation to anger, I have to stop and find him, crouch down if he’s on the floor playing Legos, say his name, wait for him to meet my eye, and then continue.
3.  Don’t raise your voice. One of the most damaging things for my son, despite being explosive himself, is to have others yelling at him. He is either overstimulated by the reciprocated noise or he is incredibly sensitive to feeling that he did something wrong. Whatever the case may be, so much of his behavior can be controlled simply by my husband and I controlling our behavior. We have to sometimes stop and employ breathing exercises before responding to our boy but it helps. He is even sensitive to hearing strain in our voice.
4. Keep tasks short and manageable. I used to have the ideal of getting all our schoolwork done in a certain block of time or all our chores done all at once. This feels overwhelming to my child. He responds best to doing an assignment then having a short break before doing another assignment. Whenever tasks pile on, he feels crushed by the perceived urgency and mountainous pile before him. So, even if it’s annoying for me and my schedule, I have to sacrifice my plans to accommodate his needs if I want a peaceful household.
5. Find his currency. When the need to punish my child comes up, I sometimes have to consider very carefully what the consequence is. Many of our other children respond very well to being sent to their rooms or getting assigned extra chores for disobedience. These didn’t make a mark on deterring my son’s poor behavior at all. He could spend all day in his room or get assigned lots of extra chores and not care a bit.  But once it was discovered how much he hated missing out on playing football with the neighbor kids in the park… that was our leverage point. Change was much more apparent then.
6. Consider diet. Many allergic or sensitive food reactions don’t just show up in a physical way but can be seen in behavior as well. This was news to me when I heard it! Common culprits are wheat, corn, dairy, and even eggs! If you have the fortitude to undergo it, try to do some elimination dieting to see if you notice improvement. This is not easy, but it may be worth a try. When we tried this, I made sure to be on the special diet with my son so he wouldn’t feel so ostracized from the family. It can also be helpful to supplement your child’s diet with high quality fish oils, A & D vitamins or essential oils as well.
7. Rest. Children of all temperaments suffer from having overstructured days, but especially ‘special’ kids it seems. If we try and do too much or are ferrying him from one activity to another, he starts to melt. Overstimulating environments are something else we try to avoid as much as we can. After going to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese years ago, our son was handed a cup of coins and set free to party.  He just stood there shell-shocked for quite some time before getting into it. Then, trying to bring him down off the party high afterward was really, really difficult. So we do our best to make sure our children are getting ample rest and free play or reading time during the day.
8. Do as much preliminary expectation clarification as possible.  Our days run much more smoothly when our boy knows exactly what the routine is and what is expected of him. Even though we shouldn’t have to keep telling our children to be good, it is remarkable what a 30 second conversation can do before going into the grocery store and reminding them that there will be no begging for treats and no running amuck, etc. Sometimes we bring this down to a smaller scale too.  Instead of just ordering my son around, I will often preface things with something like “_______, I’m going to ask you to do something for me and I know you can do it cheerfully and promptly, right?” And then I say it. More often than not, he responds beautifully when I take the time to ease him into it like this.
9. Deliberate kindness. I learned this lesson the hard way. One day, after I had been laying into my son about something or other, his eyes welled up with tears and he said to me, “It feels like you don’t even love me. You are just mad at me all day long.”  And I was immediately sorrowful.  He was right. When I took an honest look at my interactions with my son, most days I had been nagging him, exasperated with him or irritated with him… in addition to talking at him rather than with him. It was heartbreaking. Now, I make it a point to have a few moments of just kind moments with him.  I don’t always feel like being kind to him and I may be harboring sentiments of exasperation, but I absolutely HAVE to take time to hug him and listen to him and tell him something he’s doing really well that day. Otherwise, all his memories of his mother will be horrid ones and I desperately want to avoid that.
10. Don’t despair. Don’t blame yourself. Entrust your child to the Blessed Mother. Know that this child, perhaps more than any other, is one way to unite yourself to her sorrows and those of Our Lord as well. Surrender all things, and especially your weaknesses to Christ. He wants to carry your cross. Give the broken pieces of your day to God. And try again tomorrow.  It’s your faithfulness that pleases Him, not your success.

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photo 1Some of us may be tempted to feel like we are ‘bad Catholics’ if we aren’t feeling over the moon when we see those double pink lines of a new pregnancy. Then when we get around to announcing the baby, and people say “Congratulations!” we are thinking cynically: Yeah, really. But we can’t express our misgivings. We smile politely and make some joke about God’s sense of humor while inwardly feeling devastated. Our fears may be physical, mental, financial, emotional… whatever the case may be, we do NOT want to admit to our good, Catholic friends—much less to our hostile non-Catholic family— that the idea of more children is gut-wrenching.

So we all move along in this faux reality of a Catholicism where being open-to-life means everyone is giddy about being pregnant when it happens. But I think there are many of us living in this reality who have to constantly do some serious internal wrestling, trying to accept God’s will and trying to love yet another baby-on-the-way. The fear is sometimes crippling. We can’t talk about it. Will people think I don’t love my children? That I have a weak faith? That I’m a bad mom?  What about the duty to bear witness to the truth, to set a positive example of the Church’s teaching on openness to life? Yet after the weeks of pregnancy go on, we eventually become reconciled to the idea… and so by the time baby is born, or shortly thereafter, we are in love all over again with this new creation and we can’t imagine our lives any other way. Being horrified at the idea of yet another name-less, face-less pregnancy, is a completely different story than being horrified at another child in your family.

But I often wonder how helpful it would be, if we were a little more honest or vulnerable with our true feelings?! How many of us can raise our hands and say that we are testimonies to the fact that an “unwanted pregnancy” does NOT equal an “unwanted child”? I know I can.

* * *

  When I became pregnant with my fifth child, I had just gone through two back-to-back miscarriages. I was in a dark place, mentally. The pregnancy was fairly rough on me physically. I didn’t feel a sense of bonding with the baby the entire time. I confessed to my midwife toward the end that I was feeling a “pre-partum depression” if there was such a thing… she said there was. I was terrified to go through labor again and I honestly dreaded his birth. Who could I talk to about this? My husband knew, but didn’t really understand. And I think one or two of my closest girlfriends knew. And while I wouldn’t think it appropriate to dump all this on the general public, I made sure not to share the misgivings, dread or fear I had with my friends and certainly not family members who disapproved of my family size already. I felt guilty. I felt like I was a bad person for feeling such awful things. Who dreads her child’s birth after all? I didn’t want people to think I was crazy, depressed or faithless.

When the time came, I prayed to God to NOT let the baby be born just yet. All the kids had the Coxsackie Virus, and my husband and I were on different communication wavelengths. It was a bad time. Yet, he was ready, right on his due date. I labored silently alone for a couple hours… I had just read something by Blessed John Paul II where he kept encouraging his readers with the word: Corragio! (Courage!) For some reason, that became my prayer, my petition… and I whispered it to myself over and over. It was an awful, intense labor, lots of back pain, lots of emotional blockage. When he finally entered the world, in that last push of courage, agony, blood and water… I finally cried. But it wasn’t over the joy of my new baby. I was weeping in relief that it was over. I couldn’t look at my son. The midwife put him on my chest and I felt his warm, wet body breathing in his first gasps of air. But I couldn’t look at him. I just was thanking God that the labor was over. I wasn’t ready to see him. I didn’t feel ready to love him. But I did. I knew I did, even if I didn’t feel it immediately.

Eventually, we of course, bonded. And in all honesty—despite it sounding trite—that child became the absolute joy of my life. He is the most amazing, lovable baby and both my husband and I truly can’t remember enjoying the babyhood of any of our children quite this much. What miracles God can work on hearts! Who would have guessed, that this little one was once just a dreaded theory… a ‘pregnancy’ for so long?! Others would be ashamed to admit it; it is scary to be vulnerable! It takes corragio to admit the truth! But I want to have that courage. I want people to know the amazing graces showered on my unworthy heart. How can people know the goodness He is capable of, if we can’t reveal a little bit of just how far He’s brought us? How can we testimony to women who are experiencing fear or doubt over an unwanted pregnancy if we are afraid to empathize with them? So often women just want to feel like they aren’t alone. They want to have hope that it will indeed be okay. How can they know that if we aren’t open about living it? As far as they can tell, if you aren’t thrilled about a pregnancy, you will never want your child. What pity! What a lie! The transformation of the heart isn’t just some spiritual assumption people talk about. It’s a living and breathing presence that I believe many ‘open-to-life’ Catholics experience all the time. We have to be more willing to share that glorious hope in our culture of death!

We are now expecting our sixth child. This is the very first time, in all my pregnancies, that I have felt such an immediate sense of delight, hope, joy and wonder at the life inside of me. (Usually pregnancies were met with resignation or some such; I always wished for— but never had— that Hollywood-portrayed instant excitement.) A friend pointed out that the news came right after I finished making a consecration to the Blessed Mother, on the feast-day of Our Lady of Fatima. I’d like to think it was her gift to me—that I can know such an overwhelming sense of happiness at being a co-creator with God. My love for God may be weak. But every now and then, I have moments at looking at my flock of children and think of the ways each of them have brought me closer to Him. Each pregnancy may be a temporary test of faith, but the story always ends the same: each baby born stretches my willingness to surrender a little bit more. Each baby born stretches my capacity to love a little bit more. And each baby born has carved out new dimensions of joy that I never knew existed before. In that, there is truly nothing to fear.



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