Monday, September 8, 2014

how I (almost) ruined Mary's birthday

When I opened the pantry this morning, there wasn't enough flour. I could have used a boxed mix, but there wasn't enough milk left after breakfast to make the frosting, anyway. 

I texted George to bring home some dessert. You can't really have a birthday party without dessert. Under my breath, I told Mary I was sorry and trusted she would understand.

After all, she is a mother. The Mother of Mothers.

I should have been more prepared, I thought, but I forgot until yesterday at Mass, when I remembered it was coming in early September and made a note to check the date- what day is today, anyway?- as we straggled in to find seats during the first verse of the opening hymn. We ended up in the overflow, in the daily Mass chapel, just under the watchful gaze of Mother Mary. She stood tall, holding her smiling Son, the picture of competent Motherhood.

I thought she looked a little disappointed in me.

As my kids flopped around in the pew, kicking each other and repeatedly dropping their books, I tried to keep myself together. It had been such a long week- the kind of week where everything just feels too hard, like forcing pieces into places they weren't meant to fit. Tears pressed and pricked the backs of my eyes. 

What am I even doing? I asked her, pulling Lucy out from under the row in front of ours. I'm not cut out for this.

Then suddenly, today was here and it was Monday again, and I had forgotten to remember that today was her birthday. As I picked up the dirty clothes and hoisted a crying child onto my hip while patting the fussy baby in the sling with my other hand, I felt it again.

I'm not doing a good enough job at this mothering thing.

The crying child, who turned out to have a fever, was clingy and weepy all day. She couldn't hide her frustration that I had a baby and two other children to tend to, also, and told me, "I wish you only loved me for your baby." The first-grader resisted all requests, refused to help clean up the books, and wouldn't sit in his chair at lunch time. I bounced around the house, singing, rocking, cajoling, encouraging, sweeping, wiping, and generally trying to keep the chaos from getting out of control. 

There was no chance of bringing order today. Today was a survive the chaos kind of day.

I tried to remember the me of a year ago, the one who wrote thank you notes promptly, ran lots of miles during nap time, and blogged about her family's humble celebrations of liturgical feasts. Now it was Mary's birthday, and we were having spaghetti with sauce from the jar for dinner and I couldn't even bake a cake.

Forget cake. I couldn't even get the dishwasher unloaded.

George got home with the box of spaghetti and the store-bought cupcakes. Sam painted a birthday picture for Mary "with her symbol and her color," he said, and solemnly taped it to the wall. I jiggled the baby and cleared away our school day and threw together a salad, and we gathered around the table. It was Nora's turn to choose the blessing, and our voices all joined together in her favorite: "Bless us, O Lord..." 

I studied all of their faces, and I was grateful.

I wasn't magically less tired or less overwhelmed.

I didn't instantly feel hopeful and bright about tomorrow.

I wasn't suddenly enthused about the potentially sleepless night ahead of me with the fussy baby and the feverish girl.

But into the back of my mind crept a friend of mine- a friend beloved of Mary, who says that Mary always gives you a gift on her birthday. Although I didn't remember asking for anything, I realized that I had already received it.

I had been sustained. Somehow, I made it through this day. I didn't yell at anyone. I kept everyone fed, changed, wiped, soothed, and safe. I made food and served it and cleaned it up. I washed and folded some clothes. I taught and read and sang and prayed. It wasn't perfect, and the bathrooms didn't get cleaned again, but I survived.

This feels like a gift....maybe a gift from a mother to her daughter. 

Thank you, Mother Mary...and happy birthday. Maybe I didn't ruin it, after all.

Monday, September 1, 2014

right words, right time

I have a real love for post it notes. I love all the types and sizes and colors- the giant pad ones that can stick on the wall for leading group discussions all the way down to the teensy pink and orange flag ones sticking out of my hymnal to mark the songs I need to play next. Writing things down helps me remember them better. I keep the visual post-it note cue around, too, just in case, but usually the act of scribbling the words on that bright paper and sticking it someplace is enough to fix the information in my mind.

I've always been a post-it note person when it comes to scripture, too. I remember my mom's old blue bedroom curtains, covering the window where we always stood in the mornings for her to fix our hair, and the faded yellow post-it note she had pinned there with a verse she wanted to remember:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.  --Ephesians 3:20-21

I followed her example, dutiful Sunday School pupil that I was, and wrote down the verses that I liked as I encountered them, posting the little yellow squares on the back of my bedroom door and around the edge of my mirror. As I grew, special verses seemed to show up at just the right moments, and I kept writing them down. By the time I left for college, I had a vast collection of neon paper squares decorating my car, my windows, my bathroom mirror, my desk and my computer monitor. There were verses I'd found encouraging, verses that comforted me, verses that reminded me of special people who had loved those same words or who had given them to me as exhortations at some point in my journey. I took a lot of them with me to school, and in my shared hall bathroom freshman year, I still posted a verse on the wall every week because I needed to see it there.

Lately, I haven't given as much thought to scripture. I read Bible stories with my children, and I try to go over the Sunday readings before Mass every week. (Mostly, this is because there's a good chance I won't hear them clearly when they are read at church and I'm juggling my children, a picture missal, several board books and a handful of ballpoint pens...sometimes, we're standing for the Gospel reading before I realize I haven't heard the Old Testament or the Epistle at all).

Maybe I am just distracted. Maybe I'm not paying enough attention. Maybe I just don't have as many encounters these days with people who quote Bible verses at me. Whatever the reason, I was surprised last week when the perfect verse showed up at the perfect time. In the middle of a tough day, I parked my three bigger kids at the lunch table and slowly walked with Baby Felix to the mailbox. Inside, I found a card from my cousin and her husband with a little blue baby buggy on the front. The message inside was crafted with the perfect combination of humor and support.

And then there was this:

There in the card, in my cousin's handwriting, the words of St. Paul to the church in Corinth had met me where I was, in my pajama bottoms at the mailbox with a fussy baby and a sinkful of dirty dishes waiting inside for me...the right words at just the right time.

These days, my hands are full, and my brain is busy, and I don't often find the time for in-depth Bible study like I used to enjoy, sitting with parallel texts and my seminary-trained husband and talking for hours about which Greek word was used there and what it could have meant in context. Right now, post-it notes with verses on them are about all I have (and sometimes, they need to show up in my mail box for me to pay attention!). Maybe you can relate to this. A lot of us are busy, but we still want to be able to read scripture and ponder it in our hearts.

That's why I am so excited to be involved with a new project called Blessed Is She.

Blessed Is She gives each of us a chance to reflect more deeply on scripture through short daily devotions written by faithful Catholic Christian women from different walks of life. Each devotion will be based on the day's scriptures in the lectionary. You can follow along on the facebook page, on the web site, or even subscribe via e-mail to have the day's reflection sent directly to your inbox...what could be easier? For those of you who love Instagram, some of our group are posting daily images with the verses there, also. It's kind of like a post-it note, really...only a lot more beautiful and less likely to stick to the bottom of your shoe.

Like this:

You can also follow Blessed Is She on Twitter. There is a Twitter chat scheduled tonight (September 1) at 9pm EST- follow along with the hashtag #blessedisshe.

I'm honored and delighted to be keeping company with this group of women as a writer for this project. I'm also grateful to have this opportunity to encounter the words of scripture and let them take root in my heart as I go about my life. Then, whenever my hands feel especially full, my heart and mind will be full, too- full of the right words at the right time.

I hope you will join us on this journey. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Surviving Mass with Little Ones: Our Top Ten Tips

Last Sunday after Mass, there was a long line for the bathroom. When it was finally our turn, my children and I squeezed into the only open stall (not the handicapped accessible one with the changing table, unfortunately). When I opened the door to herd everyone toward the sink for handwashing, the kids tumbled out into the bathroom like undersized occupants of a clown car. A woman who was waiting her turn looked at me, eyes wide, and said, "Wow, they sure are all close together, aren't they?"

They aren't that close together, but they're close enough to make certain things, like group bathroom trips and attendance at Mass, challenging. Right now, we have four kids under six, and two of them are two year olds. (That's one thing about twins...they are usually pretty close in age.)

When I dreamed about having children, I never imagined the part about struggling to get them to behave in church week after week. Attending Mass with tiny children can feel like a full-contact sport. By the time church is over, I am often sweating from the physical effort of managing my four little angels. Sometimes, on Monday, my arms or my chest or my quads are actually sore.

Why didn't anyone warn us about this ahead of time and give us some tips? We could have started training in advance. Perhaps an exercise DVD handed out at baptismal classes would be helpful.  I picture a video with a roomful of parents lined up in their Sunday clothes, shuffling sideways through pews without knocking people over while carrying huge diaper bags, scooping Cheerios off the floor while doing deep knee bends in the aisle, passing fussy toddlers back and forth at chest level like medicine balls, balancing their hymnals with two fingers while holding a squirmy baby on one hip and blocking the pew exit with the opposite knee.

If you are a new or expectant parent, you might find this a little hard to imagine, but kneeling while holding a squirmy baby away from the back of the pew (so she can't eat the pencils and missals or chew the hair of the woman in front of you) can be almost as good as an ab workout. 

I'm only sort of kidding. 

Once we are all sitting down, the physical challenges ease up a little, but the mental challenges have just begun. As I try to occupy everyone as quietly as possible until Mass begins, I notice that people around me are actually praying silently and reverently. I remember that I, too, used to do that, and I wonder how long it will be before I can close my eyes in church without worrying about someone falling out of the pew. I settle for repeating, "Lord, have mercy," over and over in my mind. When my husband gives me a weird look, I realize that I've actually been saying it out loud.

So what are we supposed to do, those of us who want to have our children with us during church? Is it impossible to experience Mass as a family with young children?

It's not impossible.

Although the physical challenges can be grueling, surviving church with little ones doesn't have to feel like the weekly equivalent of a marathon. Some common sense, some time-tested tricks, and a well-stocked Mass bag go a long way toward getting our family through Mass in one piece.   

Here are the Top Ten Things I have learned in my six short years of taking my children to Mass: 

1. We always bring the Mass bag.

Our Mass bag has changed as our children have changed. When I first wrote about it here, we only had one child who was old enough to be distracted by most of the books and items in the bag. Now, he is old enough to follow along in his missal and use a Mass worksheet or Magnifikids to help him focus. His Mass behavior isn't perfect, but it's come a long, long way. 

Even though some of the items in our bag have changed, my guidelines for deciding what goes in it are still the same:
  • We don't include snacks. I know other parents who successfully put snacks in the bag for their family, but it's just too messy for us. Before we made this rule, many Cheerios rolled far away under multiple pews and were crushed by others' feet three rows ahead. We crawled around under the pews after church trying to clean them was just too much to handle.
  • The items need to be church-related. There is time every other minute of every other day to play with our regular toys. The things in this bag are special, are only be used at church, and are to help our children develop their spiritual imaginations. 
  • No bad art. The pictures have to be beautiful. Three of my children aren't readers yet, so the pictures are all they have. I still remember the pictures from the Bible I had as a child...those illustrations shape the way our kids imagine Jesus and heaven and many other important things. There's no room in our bag for silly cartoon illustrations - I want the art to be good quality (and worthy of helping to shape someone's image of God...that's pretty important, don't you think?).
  • The things in the bag have to encourage the children to be quiet. If they make our group volume go up even slightly, they're out. This is why we no longer have crayons in our bag. There was too much discussion about colors and who should have the yellow and who broke the tip off the magenta. (I love colors and I know God made them and everything, but we can talk about crayons after church.)
  • No tiny pieces that will be lost under the pews. I choose not to deal with this. We have too much going on already.
  • I don't want the items to distract the people around us. That includes other people's children who might be sitting nearby. 

Based on these criteria, here's what is inside our current Mass bag:
rosaries for each child

a set of holy cards on a ring

clipboards with paper and ballpoint pens (always one extra pen, just in case one stops working or gets dropped)

SuperSam's Magnifikid or a Mass worksheet

a few board books that rotate with the liturgical year

a picture missal

Sometimes I include our Betty Lukens felt book, but I found that having it in there every week made the girls more likely to fight over it. 

2. Everyone goes to the bathroom before church starts. This means we need to get there early. Sometimes we don't manage this, but it's our goal.

3. We always pack four more diapers than we think we will need. Just trust me on this one. We've never needed all four, but we've come close.
4. When we have a child under age two, I always wear my baby sling, even if George is carrying the baby. Chances are, I'm going to need an extra set of hands, and the sling is the closest thing I have.

5. I usually wear my charm bracelet...not as a lucky charm, but as a distraction. I've been collecting charms for it since middle school, and it can distract a child in my lap for quite a long time. Even SuperSam still likes to turn it around on my wrist to look for his favorites.  

6. We are choosy about our seats. We try to sit near the end of a pew so we can escape easily if someone needs to be taken out. We also try to be close enough to the front so that our children can see what's happening, but far enough back that we are not distracting if our people get wiggly. Arriving early helps a lot with this, too. If we come in too late to find those choice seats, we err on the side of caution and sit in the back. We're also careful about how we position ourselves as barriers among the children. If two of them have been fighting the whole way there in the car, they're getting separated during Mass.

7. We use bribery when necessary. We often stop for donuts or another treat after Mass if everyone has behaved well. 

8. Until our kids are about 3 years old, their feet don't touch the floor at Mass. They can choose to sit on our laps or beside us on the pew, but when we stand up, we pick them up, too. This helps keep them out of trouble but also makes it easier for them to see what's happening.

9. We are clear about our expectations for behavior at church. We make these expectations developmentally appropriate and we go over them every week before we go inside. Quiet whispers. Quiet hands and feet. Stay in your own space. Stand, sit and kneel when we do. Beyond that, we hope they will follow along and sing and pray the parts they know, but we don't force this. This year, SuperSam will be starting preparation for First Communion, so we will raise the expectations for him accordingly. 

10. We take deep breaths, work as a team, and don't despair if we have a terrible week where no one behaves well. Everyone has off days. It doesn't mean our children will never behave at Mass. It doesn't mean they are godless heathens and that we are doing a terrible job of raising them in the faith. It means we skip the donuts that week and try again the next week. (Or it might mean the children skip their donuts and the grownups still get them, depending on how much we had to endure.)

As SuperSam has gotten older, he has done much better at church and usually sits quietly now. Most weeks, he even participates in large portions of the Mass. My twins are also getting older, but they are not necessarily getting any easier to manage in a church service yet. We still hold them a lot of the time. They are, however, getting heavier all the time, which makes them more challenging to hold during church. By the time they are four or five, I will have the most amazing biceps of anyone I know. People will ask me what I do to get in shape. 

I'll just tell them we go to Mass every week.

This post is part of a kids + Mass blog carnival! Check out these other great posts on handling children in Mass:

27 Books for Your Mass Bag (and Tips for Dealing with Little Ones in Mass) at Carrots for Michaelmas

Survival Skills for Mass with Kids at Fountains of Home

Mass Effect: Why We Bring Our Kids to Church at two Os plus more

Age-Appropriate Goals for Mass Behavior at Catholic All Year

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Theme Thursday: Google Image Search (who are all those other people?)

So, in the interest of keeping things going over here on a squishy brain and limited sleep, I'm trying to jump back into some of my favorite linkups. It's Thursday, and that means one of my favorites is up...Theme Thursday!

Today's challenge is simple (which, honestly, is why I'm participating)- search for yourself on Google images and post the first picture that comes up in the results.

I've googled myself before, just to see what came up. It used to be a bunch of race results from 5Ks and half marathons. Then for a while, the results were mostly interchurch and interfaith family links because of our involvement in Bridgefolk. Now that I'm blogging, most of the results are related to that. (So many meatless recipes...)

I can honestly say it hadn't occurred to me to wonder what images would come up if I just searched for those. Thanks to Cari at Clan Donaldson, now I know:

Care to see what the whole page looks like? (I still can't figure out how some of these other people are connected to me!)

I'm not even IN most of those pictures. And that's not my car or my local fire chief. I do have to claim the laundry, though.

Maybe I'm the only one who finds this interesting, but I enjoyed looking at the other Google images linked up today. I guess I'm curious about how Google sees us. If you are, too, go check out the other posts here.

Friday, August 15, 2014

An introduction (and baby pictures)

Hello, friends! It's been a while. 

I've got lots to catch you up on...and lots of laundry to catch up on...and some sleep, too.

But first, there's this guy- I just have to introduce you.

Baby Felix Alexander was born Friday, August 1at 3:10 pm after 3 hours (plus two and a half weeks) of labor. We brought him home on Saturday to a delighted and welcoming crowd of little reaching arms and cooing voices.

And he is making life so blessedly, happily full these days.

I've really never felt more immediately at ease with a baby. He's just a perfectly snuggly and mellow guy so far. 

We had a lovely two week getting acquainted period, lovingly dubbed "Felixcation," when George was home from work and we could all hang out together. 

We have learned some key things about Felix:

He likes to move.

He wants to be held.

He has the cutest toes in the known universe.

He makes loud humming noises while he nurses,

He enjoys a rousing rendition of The Itsy Bitsy Spider. If sung loudly enough, it can even quiet him when he is upset in the car.

His sneezes sound like the sneezes of a fully-grown person, and he always sneezes twice.

His favorite time to poop is whenever his diaper is off.

So, consider yourself introduced. Now that I've finally posted that, I can gradually catch you up on the other things. 

Enough is enough for one day, though, right? I have baby rocking to do. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

When life seems just cruel and unfair

This has been a tough week for some people I hold very dear, and there aren't any answers to all our questions of "why?" and "how?" and "surely, not again?!"

I don't know why. I cry and then wring my hands and then shake my fist at the sky and then cry some more, like one of my children in the midst of an angry tantrum. I'm so mad at you, God...please hold me and make me feel better!

Sometimes we cannot figure out the answers because there aren't any, really. 

The thing I hate most at times like this is hearing people try to explain away the pain.

It's better this way.

At least he didn't suffer.

God needed another angel.

God needed her for a special job.

You can try again.

God has a better plan for you.

At least you have another child.

You can always adopt.

I don't know why these things happen. More than that, I don't know why people feel like they have to say something to us to explain our own experience. Maybe they're trying to be helpful...but I wish they wouldn't.

The only thing I know in my heart is that God does not make bad things happen to teach us a lesson, to make us more grateful, or to break us down.

God wants all things for our good.

Jesus knew pain. His mother knew pain, even the incredibly unfair, piercing pain of losing a child, a pain that is like no other pain. 

We may never know why life presents us with cruel losses and suffering, but we know that God understands. Mary and Jesus understand. They have suffered as we do. They stand with us, hold us and cry with us and for us. We are never alone in our pain. We are wrapped in Jesus' arms, covered in his grace, and accompanied in our grief. His tears fall for us and on us and in solidarity with us. 

It's holy, messy, and much more difficult to explain than those platitudes that get tossed around so freely.

And although he may not be as neat and tidy as a convenient explanation of why things happen as they do, I'd rather have the crying Jesus, his face covered with those messy tears, any day.

Please join me in praying for my sweet friend who lost her child this past week. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Surviving the early days of parenthood

So, my plan for keeping things quiet over here while I wait patiently for baby's arrival isn't quite going as I'd hoped. Well, except for the waiting part. There is a whole lot of waiting going on. Everyone is heading off to Edel this weekend, and I'm still sitting here, very pregnant, with nightly early labor that fizzles predictably as the sky turns light.

I know. Patience. I'm just tired and grumpy. And if I can't be in Austin with my friends, shouldn't I at least be holding a baby?

Anyway, since I can't put coherent sentences together, The Amazing Kelly from This Ain't the Lyceum has graciously shared some words of wisdom on surviving the early days of parenthood. She's always funny, of course, but also a wise mothering role model for me. Enjoy her post...and if you have some extra prayers for patience and stamina, I could really use them about now.

And...if you have special intentions or prayer requests, feel free to send them my way. You can leave a comment here, on the blog Facebook page, or send me an e-mail. I'd love the chance to pray for any of you in the coming days.

While Abbey is busy gestating I wanted to stop by and offer some deep thoughts on parenthood during those first few weeks once baby arrives home. I think it’s fitting that Abbey’s blog is entitled “Surviving Our Blessings” because that’s exactly what being a parent looks like from the get go: it’s a matter of survival. Yours and your child's. As a new mom, or dad, you’re dealing with a lack of sleep you never imagined possible, and yet somehow, while stumbling through your day, incoherent and with the speed of a one legged zombie, you’re still responsible for keeping another tiny human being alive.

I vaguely remember people telling me before my first child was born about needing to feed a baby through the night or new parents being tired, but I seriously put these ominous threats on par with being faced with the prospect of pulling an all nighter in college. And then I had my daughter and I quickly realized the issue wasn’t with having to wake every few hours to feed her, it was that she had the audacity to eat and then not go back to sleep. “What kind of horrible game is this child?! You’re changed, fed and cozied up to your mama in a very overpriced pillow top mattress; what’s with the waterworks?!”

Of course, the lack of sleep and constant screaming (from the child and I) would create a bit of tension between my husband and I; two people who usually never argued or raised our voices. Things my good natured hubby and I would fight about at 3 in the morning after not sleeping for several nights included:





(ten minutes later) 







While my husband would go off on vacation everyday, i.e. work, I would flounder through my mornings trying to remember a basic hygiene regimen that would at the very least get the smell of baby poo and vomit off my body for ten minutes. Afternoons were a blur. There are large chunks of my life from that period of time I simply can’t remember. Some useful facts that would be helpful to remember when you find yourself in a similar position, a.k.a. the newborn zone would be:

Take all the naps. Baby sleeping? Nap. Baby playing contentedly in swing/ on mat or in crib? Nap. Feeding the baby? Nap. When not to nap: while driving the baby, bathing the baby or during an attempt to get a night out with your spouse.

Accept all the food. Casseroles? Thank you. Slab of cooked meat? Thank you. Weird ethnic food created especially to help milk production? Looks very interesting. Thank you.

Accept all the help. When people ask how they can help, tell them to come clean your house, pick up your groceries, sit with the baby so you can take a long shower and SHAVE YOUR LEGS. Heck, anything on this list would rock your world. Never, ever, ever turn down help. You are probably a hot mess right now. Please, let someone help you. And if you live far from friends or family, hire help. You’d be surprised at how affordable getting your house deep cleaned once every other week actually can be. Plus paying someone to babysit your child for two hours does not make you the worst person on the face of the Earth. Promise.

Talk to all the moms. You can even try talking to your own mom or grandmother. Any friends with babies? Call and talk or email regularly. No friends with babies? Find some moms at playgroup or online through a friendly chat group or message board. Does a woman with only a small dog try to talk to you like she understands what you’re going through? You don’t need to talk to her. Try to remember to not smack her in your sleep-deprived state.

Say all the prayers. Pray for yourself, your husband and your new baby. Try a few quick Hail Marys uttered throughout the day. As you sit and feed your child, maybe try a morning offering. I know if I want to guarantee I’ll quickly drift off to sleep, I start saying a rosary when I lie down.

And always, just try to do the best you can, or at least 65 percent of your best. When my first was born, baby powder was considered okay, but by the time my fifth was born, they told me it could cause asthma so don’t you dare use baby powder!!! I was sternly reminded with my first and second to LAY THEM ON THEIR BACKS TO SLEEP...ALWAYS...forever and ever AMEN. But by my last three, the nurses in the hospital were laying them on their sides. And by then I’d met moms whose colicky kids only stopped crying on their stomachs! *gasp!* Plus, the Bumbo. How the mighty have fallen; once the registry gift of the century, it is now nothing more than a carefully molded piece of pure child abuse. So anyway, just try your darndest and realize what you’re doing is probably going to be considered a hazard at some point now or in the future. Frankly, it a miracle any of us survive the first 18 years of our life. But here we are, not only alive, but responsible for the next generation. 

We can do it. You can do it. Baby powder inhalation risks and all.