Suffer the children: A post for my Catholic readers who are just about fed-up


The question of taking little children to church is one that most parents face at some point in their journey. Church and toddlers rarely mix, at least they don’t in Roman Catholic churches where we don’t do Sunday School and nurseries. From happy screams to whining and full-body-meltdowns, there is something inherently unnatural about sitting in a confined space for the best part of an hour, especially when you are around 2.

I have 9 children. The younger 4 have embarrassed me in church in every way you can think of and some you can’t even imagine. We’ve been asked to leave the pews. We’ve been asked the leave the narthex. We’ve been asked the leave the freakin’ cry room. When a couple explained to me that they took turns looking after the little ones on alternating Sundays, that spoke to me… And I’m a Catholic! Sunday church attendance is a precept of the Church: we have to go. I started going to Mass in 2000 when I was pregnant with my third child and I have been dealing with untenable toddlers ever since. You might think that going to church every single Sunday for 17 years might get children used to the idea but you would be mistaken: my children are determined to win this war. I have grown a pretty thick skin as a result and a different understanding of my role and expectations during Mass. It has helped me grow spiritually and that’s the spirit in which I am sharing this today.

We often expect Mass to feed us, and it is true that the Eucharist feeds us spiritually. Where our problems lie is that we often expect the Eucharist to feed us in the same way that normal bread feeds us, by giving us a sense of physical and emotional well-being. With the Eucharist, we are fed not so we can feel fed but so we can feed into the Body of Christ. That’s why we are expected to attend Mass every Sunday no matter how boring the homilies or how ridiculous the music or how mean the ushers. When we receive the Body of Christ, we become a moving Tabernacle, taking Christ into the world. Even when grumpy old folks behave like jerks, even if it’s too cold or too hot, and even if we can’t hear the readings from the parking lot where we have taken our screaming toddler. For many of us, Mass attendance falls squarely into the “sacrifice of praise” category: the idea that praise comes at a cost. My vocation calls me to raise little Catholics who understand that if we do one thing this week, it will be to go to Mass and partake in the Eucharistic celebration so we can take Christ to the world around us. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, even when it’s hard, especially when there is sacrifice in the receiving, even if we are busy during the readings and we can’t remember what the homily was about.

The first thing I like to meditate on when things get crazy and I feel like giving-up is that Christianity, the following of Christ, calls us to push the limits of our comfort zones. The Son of God died on a cross, that’s our aspiration of self-giving. So what if we organize our lives in order to show-up to church on time, with our clothes on right, without anyone pushing our buttons, so we can sit and listen? Where is the growth? Where is the cross? Where is the gift of self? Or we can come with our toddlers and get pushed around, spat on, stared at, and tell God: “You know the depth of my heart, pour into it the Grace I need. I can’t even articulate a prayer but here I am.” Jesus is made strong in weakness. He doesn’t lie when He says blessed are the weak, the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted. Sometimes I feel like all of the above when I take my twins and toddler to Mass, especially when we attend Mass in a church where we are not known. We can “get fed” by listening to a good homily and sitting comfortably, or we can get a fire hose of Grace by walking all over our pride and personal preferences taking our toddlers to Mass. Sometimes redemption doesn’t feel all that redeeming, just think of Calvary.

“Without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. The gift of grace increases as the struggles increase.” — St Rose of Lima

My “affliction” is healthy, happy, but spirited and loud children. Children blessed with a very strong will. These children will someday be leaders. They have everything needed to become productive members of society, committed to live by principles of integrity. Taking these children to Mass can be challenging but it’s ultimately small happy fry in the big scheme of what life can throw at someone.

The other thing I like to reflect on when the Mass-going gets tough is somewhat related to the theology of the body. As Catholics, we believe that our bodies and our souls exist in union. We believe that what we do with our bodies is relevant to the state of our souls, hence the Church’s teachings on contraception and human sexuality. That’s why we hold that pilgrimages and some forms of physical mortification such as fasting are keys to the purification of the soul. That’s why people haul their butts up the Camino and skin their knees on the Santa Scala. There is spiritual growth in physically getting your sorry self to Mass with your screaming toddler in a football hold. There are graces in physically keeping your child in the presence of God during Mass. The struggle is blessed a hundredth fold compared to the contained Mass attendance with your dress unruffled and your hair in place. Mass attendance is your Camino, make it count.

I don’t mean to cast shadows on my fellow sisters who manage to attend Mass without a fight. Our paths to spiritual growth are as different as we are. But whatever your cross is, don’t leave it at home when you go to Mass.

Ontario’s new Health and Phys Ed curriculum: this is not a cafeteria


The roll out of Ontario’s new Health & Physical Education curriculum (better known as “sex ed”) has caused a flurry of activity on my Facebook feed. I feel blessed to have friends and acquaintances on every side of this issue but it makes Facebook commenting a bit of a mine field. Try as I may to post nuanced positions, the reality is that social media is a not a friend of nuance. That’s why I have my blog: so I can annoy everybody — from left to right — at the same time… But only if they choose to read me.

This? That's me in my natural state.

First, let’s get the elephant out of the way. I am a practicing Roman Catholic. As a matter of religious doctrine, I believe myself — and that handsome guy I make kids with — to be my children’s primary educators. This means that the responsibility to choose what my children learn falls squarely and unequivocally on my shoulders. The decision to send my children to school or to keep them at home is a religious right, or should be. Many Catholic parents oppose the new sex ed curriculum because they see it as an usurpation of parental authority and their role as primary educators. Not, take note, because they are afraid of the real names of their genitals or what they are used for. In fact, many of us wish teens would learn more about how their reproductive systems work. More on that later. 

I am a Catholic parent but I am also a citizen. I live in a democracy which is — as Sir Winston Churchill reminds us — the worst form of government except for all the others we have tried so far. When Premier Dalton McGuinty announced the new and improved curriculum a few years ago, the outcry on the eve of provincial elections caused the hasty retreat of the controversial new elements. The new Premier Kathleen Wynne promised to reintroduce the curriculum and is showing no sign of backing down. The people who have elected her are reacting with a collective shrug or, as a Facebook friend of a friend wrote: “I’m so glad they’ll be teaching consent.” Because really, how else are young men and women supposed to learn what a consensual sexual relationship is unless they learn it in school? My point is that the people who elected the Ontario Liberal Party are generally happy with the curriculum changes, either because it reflects their own values on health and sexuality or because they don’t care. The parents currently storming the barricades are not those who elected Premier Wynne. Is it a surprise to learn that she is not sensitive to their plight?

As my friend John Robson explains very well in this short video, the provincial government is in the business of teaching civics and morals. You may argue that the government should limit itself to value-neutral academics such a reading, writing and arithmetic but this would be a theoretical exercise at best: the Education Act spells the role of the school system in shaping values and morals very clearly. You’re in for a penny you’re in for a pound: once your children are under the auspices of our state-run education system, the system makes the rules. And that includes the rules about dating, mating and reproducing (or, preferably, not reproducing). As Justice Deschamp wrote for the majority in the 2012 case pitting Quebec parents against the Quebec government over the contested Ethics, Culture and Religion (ECR) curriculum (emphasis is mine):

Parents are free to pass their personal beliefs on to their children if they so wish. However, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society. The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education.

Yup. That’s right. While this decision refers to a different curriculum in a different province, it does a good job of highlighting the highest court’s sentiment with regard to parental rights in education. I have heard many people, several teachers themselves, argue that the school had to teach sex ed because the parents weren’t. That’s not true. The Ontario education system has to teach sex ed because matters of civics and morals are part and parcel of its mandate. You might argue that this does not correspond to your idea of civics and morals but you ascribed to that vision when you registered your children in school. Remember that dotted line? Your name’s on it.

In an address at the Maryvale Academy Gala last January, Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast  tore into Kathleen Wynne’s new Health & Physical Education curriculum calling it a “seizure of parental authority”. He said (emphasis mine):

“We know that the proposed program threatens the fundamental right of parents to educate their children in the moral dimension of sexual behaviour (…). Parents are best qualified and have the greatest interest in working with their own children to handle this serious topic at an age and developmentally sensitive time,” he continued. “More notably, parents have the fundamental right to do so―a right the Province appears willing to usurp without due consideration.”

(You can read the entire address here.)

Willing to usurp? The Province is not merely “willing to usurp” the role of parents as primary educators, it’s obligated by law to do so. As for the fundamental right to educate children in matters of morals, this is a right that is not recognized by law. As the Supreme Court clearly stated, that right stops at your front door. Some of my Facebook friends who support the curriculum updates shrugged: “It’s a great curriculum. Those who don’t agree just have to opt out.” Believe me, as a parent who had to pull an anxious child out of Health & PE:

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I had to collude with my daughter to find out exactly when to pick her up. Had my daughter not been a willing participant, I would have had no way of knowing when the Health component of the PE class was being taught. Then she would be marked as “absent” — which adds up on her report card — and still expected to write the Health & PE test, failure to do so would also show on her report card. I was glad to give my daughter an occasional break from “Health” but on the whole, she still had to learn the stuff and write the test. Opting out? Not exactly. And here’s the difficult lesson of my post so far: you can’t really opt out of Health & PE even though you have a theoretical right to, as per the Education Act. You have to opt out of the system. We took our children out of Health. And French, math, science and history too. We homeschool. You’re not happy with the extent of government encroachment on your role as primary educator? Your options are: (1) change the Education Act; (2) force the rolling back of the curriculum by electing a government that supports your vision; (3) take your children out of public school. I’m sad to inform you that the happy middle where you get to send your kids to school to learn things you want them to learn at the exclusion of those you don’t like is not an option. Sorry. This is not a cafeteria.

Education is always political. Remember what they say about the hand that rocks the cradle? Well, if you don’t, the Provincial government does, as does Canada’s highest court. There is no such thing as a value-neutral sexual education class. The term “safe sex” is not value neutral. Neither is “risky behaviour”. When I helped my grade 8 daughter study for her Health exam, I learned that Natural Family Planning was also known as “the calendar method” and had a success rate of 30%. This kind of misinformation is not value-neutral.

What your children learn in school is always political. It may look neutral if you share the values promoted in the curriculum but your comfort is only as safe as our democratic system: someday, the tables may turn. After all, the social conservatives — be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish — are having all the babies. Do you think Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar are raising feminists and allies? Doesn’t this make you a little squirmy about the world your 1.3 children will grow into?

Believe it or not, I am not losing sleep over the so-called graphic content of the new curriculum. My extended family has a few same-sex married couples and a transgendered woman. I have dear friends of all colours of the rainbow. Gender fluidity is a fact of life in my family. The mention of masturbation in grade 6 and sexually transmitted diseases and co-related risky behaviours in grade 7 are not phasing me in the least: by then, my children had long been exposed to them in the school yard and especially the school bus. Our bus drivers always listened to mainstream pop radio, where hip hop songs are way more explicit than anything their gym teachers could dream-up. Honestly, your children’s innocence is only as safe as that of their peers.

If anything, I wish the curriculum taught more about how babies are made! I had a conversation with my daughter a few years back while she was texting a friend. Both girls had received the best sex ed the school system could provide. A friend had had unprotected sex during her periods and wanted to know if she could get pregnant. Both thought that ovulation happened during menstruation. So here we are, giving our teens all the information they need to have safe sex. All the information except how babies are made. 16 year-old girls are having unprotected sex without the foggiest clue of when they are fertile. Great. Have we thought of letting kids figure out how to masturbate on their own and teach them how babies are actually made instead? Just a thought.

Nobody should be complaisant about the government’s mandate to teach sexual education. You may be fine with the current state of sexual education but if you — like me — live in a democracy and enjoy the perks of political freedom, you may very well find yourself on my side of the barricades one day. And I promise that I will still be there with you.

Why are we doing this?


We moved last week, the realization of 3 years of planning and strategic decision-making. In 2010, when I announced that I was expecting twins to a friend (and fellow twin mama) she exclaimed: “This is wonderful! This will really focus you on your family!” I remember being a little taken-aback. We had 6 children, why did she think we were not family-focused already? I should have known better than to question the wisdom of a mother of 10. Of course she was right. After welcoming the twins in 2011, the futility of our lifestyle really hit us like a ton of brick. My husband was working himself to an early grave for the sake of keeping us ensconced in our busy and abundant lifestyle. We decided to sell our house, pay-off our debts, offload a lot of our stuff and live a life that was more coherent with our beliefs and principles. We bought a piece of land in the country where we eventually built a house. A house designed with the needs and requirements of a large homeschooling family in mind, where square-footage is not a thing in and of itself.
Our little piece of Canadian shield sits about an hour’s drive away from the east end of Ottawa where our children were born and raised. It is a radical move from a suburban lifestyle to a rural lifestyle, from school to homeschool, and it leaves no one indifferent.

Decisions based on convictions rarely leave people indifferent. Returning to school full time to get a Master’s degree didn’t leave people indifferent. Selling our house to pay off our debts and move into a rental house didn’t leave people indifferent. Having another child didn’t leave people indifferent. Building a house in the country didn’t leave people indifferent. Homeschooling didn’t leave people indifferent. We always elicit a reaction. We are either living the dream or delusional.

Last week, we moved 9 children away from the community they have known since birth. Four of those 9 children are teenagers. Rightfully, people are asking: “What are the children thinking about this move?” Uprooting teenagers is a bold move, especially in the absence of a non-negotiable driver such as a job posting. But if anyone thinks that we’re delusional to move teenagers on purpose, let me assure you that this move, at this time, is intentional. We are under no illusion that the move will be seamless or even easy for our teenagers but we are doing it because we believe it’s the right thing to do for our family.

We are committed to make it work for our teenagers and we are often asking for their input on ways to facilitate the transition. Don’t get me wrong, the teenagers never held the power to stop the move. But there is a difference between asking for input and veto power. Our teenagers know that we have an ear for well thought-through plans. They do not like to plan much — neither do their friends – preferring to pick-up as they go. We believe — and this is how this decision was intentional — that the cream of friendships will rise to the top. This happens to most of us through the post-secondary years. Our move has only provoked a natural progression of high school dalliances and connections. We see this as a positive aspect of the move, not a negative one. Our society sees the teenage years as an end in itself, a last grab at the freedom of childhood. We see the teenage years as a transition into adulthood. Our vision for our family is to raise adults, not big children. It’s very difficult to cast this approach as essentially affirmative when the children grow-up in a cultural environment where this formation is seen as essentially restrictive. I love the analogy of arrows in the hand of the warrior: to launch arrows, you need tension. If you make everything easy for your teenagers to avoid tension, the arrow will fall flatly to the ground. Too much tension and the bow breaks, not enough tension and the arrow doesn’t launch. Moving teenagers is causing some tension, I will not lie. However, we see tension as an essential component of growth, maturation and individualization.

Our decision to move to the country was also a decision to slow right down. We wanted to move away from the tyranny of activities and the pressure of wanting to keep-up with everyone else. We were tired of fighting our environment to instill the values we wanted to instill in our children. Here, in the country the rhythms are different, the expectations are different. For instance, our new church’s children’s choir rehearsal takes place right after Mass while the families are still around. No need to book another evening off for choir practice. All the children are welcome, regardless of age, because everybody needs to make the most out of their country mileage. This is just an example of the many ways in which country folks are more practical. This is how we want our family to start thinking and living.

You may read this in complete agreement or recoil in horror, your reaction is rooted in your own values and priorities. I believe that the proof will be in the fruit. I will tend my garden and let the fruit ripen.

The family, a conference


I have been invited to speak at a conference on the family taking place next week at Dominican College in Ottawa. My topic is Christian virtue and the family. You can find registration information here. Please send me your best thoughts and prayers! Being added to the line-up late in the game means that I have little time to prepare. If you are in Ottawa, consider coming! I would hate to speak to an empty room.