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.

Confronting Envy

It started innocently enough with an online sale. The kind of online sale that let’s you meet likeminded parents: cloth diapers, children’s bikes. This one was for a ring sling. While teaching the buyer to use my ring sling, we had stricken a conversation about twins. This young mama had 6 month-old twins, her first children. I looked at her with the confidence of the mother who has it all figured out and said: “I know how tough it is right now but don’t worry: they’ll sleep someday, it gets better.” She said: “Oh sleep is no problem! Since they were born we made sure to have a really consistent bedtime routine and when we tuck them in their beds they know it’s sleep time and they just go to sleep!”

Well, I try hard not to swear but F-my-luck. I haven’t slept a good night since 2009 and having twins nearly killed me. From the day they were born until Lucas was 16 months I did not sleep longer than 45 minutes in a row. When he was 10 months-old I realized that I had seen every single hour on my alarm clock, every single night, for the last 10 months so I got rid of the alarm clock. It was easier than getting rid of the baby. That young mom’s innocent comment made me feel like maybe I had missed something. Maybe I could have been sleeping all this time and my restless nights were due to a lack of skills or determination. And those negative feelings reopened a door I had long thought closed: the door of envy.

St. Thomas Aquinas defined envy as sorrow at the good fortune of others. Its flip side is rejoicing at the downfall of others. Envy is that silent “YES!!” moment when we learn of the downfall of someone we had been envying. As if something in us died when our neighbor succeeded.


I struggled for many years with envy after my older children were born. I was convinced that my decision to put my career on hold while my children were young (ha! Famous last words as I still have young children almost 20 years later) was the right decision for our family. Yet, I looked with envy at the material things my friends who worked outside the home could afford. Vacations, cute clothes, and my holy grail, matching furniture. I mentally wished that their children would grow-up troubled as if I needed to see the proof that having a parent at home was better for children. As if nothing I was doing would have been worth it unless my children were happy and their children were screwed-up.

Now that I am a bit older and a bit wiser — and that I have a house full of matching IKEA furniture — envy doesn’t rear its ugly head the same way it did when I was younger. I no longer envy material things as much as accomplishments. I envy confidence, safety, and a sense of control. Which is ironic isn’t it, since I decided to have a large family? But this is how fear works in the darkest confines of our souls, keeping us from becoming a better, bigger, version of ourselves.

I caught myself wishing that this young mom’s twins would suddenly stop sleeping so well. To show her that she wasn’t really in control. I wished that she would discover that her parenting skills at imposing a bedtime routine that sent her kids straight into Morpheus’ arms had everything to do with her children’s natural disposition to sleep on cue. I assumed that they must have been bottle-fed in hospital and molded to an institutional schedule. What are we breastfeeding mothers to do when our healthy children protest our best attempts to conform them to our schedule? We are not going home at the end of our shift!


A few months later, I learned that a friend with children had sold her house and purchased a similar-sized house in a less desirable suburban neighbourhood. The difference in prices allowed her and her husband to pay-off their mortgage and live comfortably debt-free.  I could just taste the freedom. Completely debt-free, home owning, new vehicle driving, holidaying, while in their prime earning years, with school-aged children…. Life: does it get better than that?

Well, of course the husband, you know…. And the wife well… That’s not mentioning the way their kids…. And the issues at school… Here comes envy again with its messy greasy hands leaving fingerprints all over my best wishes. Envy is the opposite of rose-coloured glasses. It stains what should be beautiful and inspiring and filters it through a dirty lens. Turned on itself, it makes us look like a diminished version of ourselves. Envy is self-limitation. It’s locking ourselves in a cage, with the key, wishing every one would join us in when we could simply fly away.

I realized that my envy was not only holding me down, it was preventing me from growing from my experiences and choices, whether good or bad. It also made small-fry of the fruits of those experiences and forks in the road. My life as a mother of 9 is fodder for this blog and countless helpful interventions with friends and strangers alike. I made poor financial and academic decisions that set me back in my career ambitions and my financial independence but these decisions have lead me down a path where I met dear friends, learned valuable lessons and grew more than I ever did playing it safe. Envy renders us myopic, deliberately blurring out distance and perspective, only allowing us to see what is directly in front of us. IMG_4132

How many “mommy wars” and “mama drama” are rooted in envy? How many poor choices are motivated by envy? How farther along would we be if we simply chose to learn from those who have done things better, or even just differently, than we have?

C.S. Lewis described hell as a door locked on the inside. When we let envy     pollute our relationships with others, we are not only locking ourselves in but expecting everyone to join us.

Palm Sunday Post

I don’t really write about my faith. I was raised in a Catholic family but I came to adulthood with very little formal knowledge of the Catholic Faith. I came to the practice of the faith through the heart rather than the mind and this is where I stayed. I don’t write about faith because others do it better. My most inspirational line would probably be “It sucked before. Now it’s better.” A supernatural outlook on life and a good sense of humour are staples of loving life in a big family. Today is Palm Sunday and Palm Sunday deserves a blog post.

Palm Sunday is my favorite Feast Day in the Catholic Liturgy. Not favorite as in “we get chocolate”, but favorite as in “every year, it chews me up and spits me out.” I’m a lousy Catholic, really. I don’t get the warm-and-fuzzies about Mary or the Pope. There are elements of Catholic doctrine I don’t understand, others I struggle with. There are elements of Catholic doctrine I live-out like a champ, like not using artificial birth control. But I chose to stop artificial birth control and embrace natural family planning before I returned to the Church. So even in that regard I’m not punching above my weight. I found affinity with conservative Catholics because I was not using birth control, not the other way around. So there.  But when I had deep questions about the meaning of life, suffering and happiness, Christianity and the Catholic Church had the most thorough answers. And when I thought that my 3 young children were going to drive me insane, Christian moms had a peace and a fortitude I longed for. That’s how I returned to the Church: I wanted a piece of what they had. I didn’t join because I had something for God but because God had something for me. And they used to let me sing at Church.

Palm Sunday is the Feast of the Lousy Christian. It used to drive me nuts. Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entrance of Christ into Jerusalem. The procession starts outside of the Church with the blessing of palms and continues into the church with the reading of the Passion. The procession reminds us that the same people who welcomed Christ as their King would later ask for his crucifixion. I always found the procession painful. It should be solemn. We are celebrating our hypocrisy after all. But instead, we sing and dance and smile and wave our silly little branches. Don’t we realize after 2000 years that it’s a parody of ourselves and our shallowness? It took me a long time to accept than the ridicule of welcoming the celebrant 5 minutes before a dramatic reading of the Passion of Christ was part of the penance. The Feast of the Lousy Christian starts with a reminder of how weak and fickle we are.

The Gospel on Palm Sunday is always a reading of the Passion, the story of Christ’s long, painful, death. But the most graphic depiction is not of what the crown of thorns and cross did to Christ, but of the betrayal of those who once professed their faith in him. And every year, a verse of the Passion stands-up, steps out of the book, walks over to my pew and punches me in the face.

Judas’ 3 pieces of silver represent my choice for comfort over the demands of self-sacrifice. Peter’s denials, they are mine. The two thieves, one challenging God, the other humble, are my struggle to understand suffering. Palm Sunday is the Feast of falling short, of saying things we didn’t mean and meaning things we never say. It’s the Feast of the weak and the proud, of thinking we know better, of wanting to go it alone.

Palm Sunday is the Feast of discomfort, of knowing we are capable of so much more. Judas broke down. Peter wept. The thief repented. It’s the Feast of coming face-to-face with our fears and our limitations and choosing the easy way out instead of pushing through. It’s the Feast of embracing our lousiness before embracing weakness and knowing we need help. Next week, we will celebrate the hand outstretch. This week, we are not ready to accept it.

It’s my Feast, it’s your Feast. It’s the Feast of all of us.

The pond on March 20th 2013, first day of Spring.
The pond on March 20th 2013, first day of Spring.


Walking in Peter’s footsteps: My long Lenten journey

I don’t often write about my faith… I don’t think I ever have. But there is something about a supernatural outlook that makes it easier to take the craziness of a large family.  I am neither formed enough or literate enough in faith matters to publish about it and I leave the inspirational material to skilled professionals (like Leila at Little Catholic Bubble). But this is the Easter season and the high point of the Christian liturgical year. It would feel wrong to let it pass on my blog unmentioned.

Continue reading “Walking in Peter’s footsteps: My long Lenten journey”