cutting ourselves some slack

News flash from this morning’s paper: new parents have no time to exercise or eat right.

I love when obvious realities are the subject of extensive (and probably expensive) studies. I mean, really? Doctors and scientists were surprised to learn that new parents have worse exercise and eating habits than young adults without kids?

F and I laughed about this one over breakfast. What part of new parenthood – the sleep deprivation, the constant demands of young children, the physical toll exacted on your body – would make one think it would be a time in your life where well-rounded meals and hours at the gym would come easily? The focus is totally on the other, and yes, your self suffers at times.

Which, in a way, is what annoys me about the premise of this study. To me, new parenthood is by definition a time of sacrifice. It’s precisely when we think otherwise – when we feel like our life post-kids should resemble the pre-kids version, when we try to compete with Hollywood celebs who lose the baby weight in six weeks, when we buy into the delusion that we can have it all, all at once – that we beat ourselves up for falling short.

If new parents could instead be encouraged to see this time in their lives as a demanding, exhausting, but relatively brief period – a great sacrifice born out of love – then I think it would help us gain the perspective we sorely lack when our days are consumed by kid-dom. But instead we’re barraged again with one more source of guilt: while juggling baby and home and work and life, we’re supposed to find time for the gym on top of everything else. Give me a break.

The transition to parenthood is just that: a transition. Which is by definition uncertain, tumultuous, and transitory. (Ironically, I find this impossible to remember when in the stage of childbirth by the same name, yet that transition meets the same definition.)

In transitions, the old patterns are disrupted; the old rules no longer apply; the old ways of life no fit. I used to make it to the gym three times a week before work. Now I’m lucky if I get there three times a month. We used to enjoy long, leisurely dinners over new recipes and candlelight. Now we scarf down something quick before jumping into the bath/bed routine. In some ways our life with S and baby on the way in no way resembles our life pre-kids. But I know the time of just-the-two-of-us will come again someday. I’ll have long, lazy Saturdays to fill with whatever I want to do. But that’s not my work and my vocation right now. I’m called to sacrifice and to let my life be changed by little people who help my heart to grow, no matter how challenging that may be at times.

So I refuse to feel guilted by this study, and I invite you to join me. Certainly we all need to care for our health, take time for ourselves, eat well and exercise. But to think that it must be a primary focus of the transition to parenthood? Unrealistic in my view.

And it bugs me that this article and study offer no practical, helpful resources to remedy the situation. We all know we’re supposed to find time for exercise and eating healthily, but how – when you have no time and you’re sleep-deprived and the baby’s demands run your schedule? I say help new parents to do the best they can with the strapped time and resources they have right now. And help them to gain a long perspective that time for prioritizing working out and ditching junk food will come again in time.

Lest I let the church off the hook here, I don’t need to fund a study to back up my claim that if physical health suffers during the early years of parenting, spiritual health suffers as well. Finding time for prayer? Wrestling a wailing newborn or a screaming toddler to church on Sunday morning? Tasks that seem impossible at times. Again, the last thing new parents need is more guilt in this regard: they’re already struggling more days than not, and they beat themselves up well enough. But let’s give parents practical, realistic, simple resources for how to care for their spiritual health and their relationship to God through one of the most significant transitions of their lives.

As the article notes, parents do want to lead healthy lifestyles while raising kids: “The will is there for the playground parents.” We just have to help people find the way.

website wednesdays (follow up to fussiness)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about our challenges of keeping a toddler quiet, calm and occupied during Mass. While I wish I could follow up with a glowing report of a miraculous turnaround in our family’s Sunday Mass participation, I can say that we have taken a few baby steps (pun intended) towards addressing the issue.

The most fruitful and proactive step was to create a church book for S full of photos of the symbols and statues in our own parish, as well as pictures from his own baptism. He loves to flip through books and point to what he can name, so now at least we have a book that keeps us all focused on what we see and experience at Mass.

In searching for help on parenting a toddler during Mass, I had many good conversations with other parents. There are no magical fixes, but it helps to commiserate and to remind each other why we believe it’s important to bring young children to church.

I also came across articles on two websites I enjoy reading that speak directly to the same issue: what to do about fussy babies in church?

The first is from a pastor’s point-of-view. Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School runs a fantastic Call & Response blog for leaders in Christian churches. Very thoughtful, sometimes provocative reflections on issues facing today’s congregations. I appreciate this pastor’s musings on the place of the cry room in churches – the messages that its presence can convey about who belongs in worship and who doesn’t belong. It’s worth a good ponder.

The second is from a favorite website of mine for Catholic young adults, BustedHalo.com. The website, run by the Paulist Fathers out of NYC, is one of the best examples I’ve found of how to bring the Gospel to where today’s young people are – namely, online. This writer and mother reflects on the humility of parenthood and what she learned when it was her own daughter acting up in the pew during Mass.

Two thoughtful reflections that assured me I’m not along in struggling with this issue (or thinking that it’s an important one for congregations to consider). And two entry points into some quality websites on faith, ministry, theology, family. Both deserve a deeper look around…

shameless plug

It’s a gorgeous fall day. Apple orchards beckon; pumpkins plead to be picked. The temperature is slated to peak at 85 this afternoon – dreamlike for a summer girl who loves autumn colors! So after a long week of work and presentations, I’m ready to play hooky for a day and take S out to play in the great outdoors.

But not before I give you one shameless plug to check out a write-up of the presentations I’ve been doing around young adults and the church.

I gave a short talk on this subject last night, and another lively conversation ensued. Many older adults are passionately concerned about the declining involvement of young adults in congregations, and they want to know what their churches can do to reach out to pass along the faith to a new generation.

As I always say, there are no easy answers or magical solutions. But we need to understand the reality of how young adulthood is changing, and then turn to our beloved traditions and mission to discover opportunities for engaging young people in the life of our faith communities, through what we’re already doing as church.

And whether you’re a young adult who wonders what this generation is all about, or an older adult who’s scratching your head to figure out today’s 20- and 30-somethings, this article is worth a read. Part troubling, part inspiring, it raises provocative questions about “emerging adulthood” as a new stage in the lifespan. Do you agree?

lights will guide you home / and ignite your bones

Tomorrow I will be giving a presentation about young adults and their relationships to the church. It’s the first of four I’ll be doing over the next month, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to engage people around important questions that are close to my heart and my work. Namely:

  • Why aren’t today’s young adults coming back to the church as they did in generations past?
  • How can congregations reach out to young people in their communities?
  • Where are glimmers of hope, promising places to engage young adults about the mission and traditions of the church?

Every time I speak about young adults and the church, I get at least one (if not five) people who pull me aside after the talk and say with a heavy heart, “My son/daughter/grandchild doesn’t go to church anymore. S/he was raised in a good Catholic family, went to Catholic school, got confirmed – I don’t understand what happened!”

There are no easy answers to these questions. I don’t have a book that will fix the situation; I don’t have a program that will “save” their child. It’s hard enough for me to respond to the complexity of the situation as someone who care passionately about young adult ministry; it’s become equally hard for me to respond as a new mother.

S is just a year old and I already worry how we will raise him to understand and embrace what it means to be a follower of Christ. I have no illusions that just because I have a degree in theology, I know how to raise faith-filled children. That is a struggle all its own, and one that we are only beginning.

And despite the fact that I feel like I only know 0.08% of what it means to be a parent, I do know that my children will confound my expectations for them. Will S or his future siblings remain a part of a faith community as they grow up? Will they nurture their spiritual health and their relationship with God? Will they become men and women of faith, hope, and justice?

Maybe. I hope so. But it’s not entirely up to me. They will certainly reject what I love, at times. And their lives will be filled with the struggles and searchings that make us all human, that turn us towards God at certain points and away from God at others.

I pray for myself and for F as I pray for the parents and grandparents who will surely talk to me tomorrow about their pain and longing for young adults in their lives. While it’s not up to any of us to save another (that is the Holy Spirit’s work!), I do believe there is much that we can do to help facilitate this work, to be channels of God’s love.

Asking the questions is the first step. Continuing the conversation – with the young adults in our families, our workplaces, our parishes, and our communities – is the next.