when did we decide that we were bad at art?

Here are watercolors, she said. Paint.

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Here are pastels, she said. Draw.

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Here is clay, she said. Create.

birth retreat 2A gathering of mothers. A time and space set apart. A whole afternoon to ourselves, to pause and pray and ponder what it means to approach pregnancy and childbirth as something spiritual.

At Peg’s retreat, I thought about birth and babies and becoming a mother all over again. But weaving between these weighty meditations were simpler sensations: the chalky smear of pastels on my fingers, the ghost-white trace of clay under my nails, the wavy curl of paper as watercolors dried.

When was the last time I let myself make art for an entire afternoon?

Sometimes I sit down with the kids at their small table in front of the sunny window and I doodle while they draw. Or I dip a brush and make soft strokes while they paint. Or I roll playdough into long coils while they squish and smash their creations.

But I never make art. Not on my own.

Why? Because I’m too busy. Because it’s not what grown-ups do. Because I’m not good at it.

. . .

All the way home from the birth retreat, I turned one question over and over in my mind: when did we decide that we were bad at art?

Many adults I know, who colored and drew and painted and pasted their way through childhood, no longer make time for artistic expression. It’s considered child’s play. Delightfully entertaining or developmentally enriching for little ones, but not a serious way to spend time as mature, productive members of society.

But when did this shift start? When did art cease to be an essential way we explored the world? When did it become reserved for the talented, the elite, the lucky few?

I used to love making art – at school, at home, in classes at our local art institute. I especially loved the pottery classes: the whirl of the wheel between my knees, the slippery slide of the glossy clay between my fingers, the surprising emergence of something new and warm between my hands.

But then I stopped. I can’t quite remember why – maybe sports seemed more important, maybe art seemed less cool, maybe the insecurity of adolescence whispered that I should shy away from somewhere I didn’t excel.

So now it seems daunting to start making art again – how? where? when? Why am I afraid of what used to seem so simple? Is it still the worry of looking like a fool? The intimidation of not knowing where to begin?

Or the primal, pulsing fear of failure?

. . .

Only six weeks left till the due date. Of course my thoughts wind birth-ward every day.

Heavy with baby, I watch my boys scrawl with sidewalk chalk, paint pages with watery doodles, color their latest crayoned masterpiece. I see how they trust themselves to create, how un-intimidated they are by the blank page, how much energy they pour into their work and how much delight they take in showing it to others.

At night when I dip into the childbirth books on my nightstand, I find myself turning over and over one question: when did I decide that I was intimidated by birth? When did this biological capacity become something to fear, medicate, suppress, or evade? Why do I have to psych myself up with the mental focus of a marathoner for a natural process that my body was created to do?

It’s a gross oversimplification of a complicated question, I know. The process of labor and delivery can be complex and dangerous, to say nothing of long and painful. Even if I had seen a hundred births in my lifetime, as other women my age would have in other cultures or eras, I might still be as terrified of the known as of the unknown.

But I can’t help but wonder what difference it might make to laboring women if we thought of ourselves as powerful co-creators.

If birth had remained at the center of our culture rather than being shoved to the side.

If we understood more about our bodies and their potential.

If we didn’t listen to the voices who told us we weren’t strong enough.

If we hadn’t decided we weren’t good at it.

. . .

I’m trying to practice, a little every day. (Easier said than done.)

Breathe, don’t balk, through the Braxton-Hicks contractions. Focus, don’t flinch, when the pressure of baby gets too intense.

Paint something, don’t write, when my mind wants to muse. Sit with the kids, don’t scurry, when they’re creating.

Step aside from the well-worn grooves of thinking one way. Sit with the possibility that there might be another path.

. . .

Yesterday afternoon my son came to me in tears because the tail of the monkey he was coloring had torn off.

“I can’t do it another way!” he wailed when I gently suggested that he might try coloring the animal before cutting it out, so that he didn’t have to color on such a skinny tail. “I only can do it this way!”

What if we tried it again? I suggested. What if he took a deep breath to calm down? What if we worked together to try a new way?

His bottom lip still puffed out in a quiver, he hesitated. And then he nodded yes as he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, fingers still stained from the morning’s markers.

What if we were all brave enough to try, again?

this is church right now

Five minutes late (aren’t we always these days). Smudged nametags, courtesy of Crayola markers. Pile of coats on the end of the pew (will it ever be spring?).

Loud whispers requesting books as soon as the lector starts to read. Why can’t we sing that psalm again – I like that one.

Puzzle pieces scattered on the floor during the Gospel. Homily about poverty and divorce and addiction and all the wants we bring before God. Tears over who gets to put the envelope in the collection basket (next Sunday remember to bring two).

No, we are not going to the potty like that little boy. Because you went before Mass and you can hold it, that’s why.

Eucharistic prayers for a bishop at the center of the latest sex abuse scandal. Whining about how hard it is to keep standing (I know, sweetie, I get tired, too). Eyes that light up at the Our Father – I know this one.

Shaking hands with every person within lunging range. Can you be gentle for the Sign of Peace? Headlocks between brothers broken up while the priest breaks the bread. A smiling whisper from the grandma behind us: of course they’re fighting but you have a beautiful family.

Wandering up behind us for a blessing at communion time. Why can’t I have the bread yet? Why doesn’t Mama drink the wine while she’s growing the baby? Snuggles while we sing. Watching babies in the communion line (7 more weeks and everyone will stop asking when I’m due).

Yes, we can read the book about the saints again. Use a Kleenex, not your fingers.

Announcements about a new unemployment support group. Careful practice of the Sign of the Cross at the final blessing. If there’s drumming on the last song, you can dance. But sometimes in Lent we sing quieter songs because it’s a solemn time. Solemn means quiet.

Requests to visit the tabernacle and light a candle and I want to pray for the baby and rainbows and everyone and God. Put down the kneeler carefully, please. Squabbling and a shove over who gets to pick the candle to light.

Why can’t we have donuts during Lent and are we going to Trader Joe’s on the way home? High-five from the priest on the way out to the parking lot. Please hold hands.

You boys did a great job at church today. Thank you. Attempts to revisit the homily’s high points over mounting requests for a favorite CD for the drive home. Brainstorming babysitters for Holy Week services (7:30 on Thursday night will be a disaster otherwise).

Closing antiphon from the littlest one, car seat in the back, dirty boots swinging against the driver’s seat, can you please stop kicking, sweetie:

I love going to church.

. . .

Has it always been so small and so huge, all these questions and concerns wrapped under one roof of one church? Maybe.

It’s the juxtaposition of the miniscule and the momentous, the ordinary and the overwhelming – praying for mudslide victims and pulling up trousers that were indeed too big for Mass this morning, hearing stories of healing in the Gospel while rummaging around in the diaper bag. The whiplash back and forth that defines this time in our lives. All of this is church right now.

Some day we may find ourselves just two again, a quiet couple that takes up only part of a pew. But for now church is chaos. And that’s ok, too.

. . .

Today at Practicing Families I answered our oldest son’s question from last Sunday, a response to his tantrum at the back door:

Why do you have to go to church?

I thought I wasn’t going to have to answer that snarly question for a few more years. Maybe even a decade before you started stomping around with teenage eye rolls of disgust when I ask you to get dressed on Sunday morning, and not in those ratty jeans with the holes in the knees, either. boots

But here we are today, already five minutes late and you’re standing at the back door whining in protest, coat clenched in your fist and your stubborn stocking feet kicking the mud-caked boots you refuse to put on so we can scramble into the car.

Do you want my answer? Ok. This is why you have to go to church.

Read the rest at Practicing Families

morbid? motherhood & mortality

“Mommy, I don’t want to die.”

His big blue eyes stare up at me, full of – what? Worry? Seriousness? Wonder?

We’ve been revisiting this conversation for months, variations on a theme: Mommy, I don’t want to go to be with God. Mommy, I want to live to be 100. Mommy, I don’t want you to die.

He hasn’t yet brushed with death, not in the aching loss of one he loves. But he’s a curious child, and his love of numbers and wonder about God swirl together to stir up questions of how old God is and how old people can be.

All of which added up in his head to a budding realization of finitude in the face of the infinite.

What do I say? Blunder through the typical lines about how I hope he’ll have a long life, and then when his life is done, he’ll get to go be with God in a new way, and God loves him even more than any person ever could, so wouldn’t that be amazing?

Except, of course, it’s all strange and skeptical enough to make wise adults anxious.

So why would any precocious preschooler accept it at face value either?

. . .

Every year on my birthday, I find myself genuinely astonished to still be here.

I only realized in the past few years that most people don’t share this stark sense of mortality, not at the tender age of thirty-something anyway. And while I wouldn’t say that I wake each morning eager to stare my own death in the face, whenever I think about the length of my life I only see so far ahead of me.

So each March I honestly marvel at how I’ve been blessed to have these many years to my name.

You can analyze it easily as any armchair therapist. My older brother died of cancer when I was 10, so I grew up living with death and loss and grief in a way that many children do not. All of that made me who I am, shaped my faith and my worldview in unmistakable ways, here endeth the college admissions essay.

But now as a mother to young ones waking up to the strange and sad ways the world works, I wonder what I should pass on to them from my own sense of mortality and what I might need to set aside.

Keeping death daily before our eyes is St. Benedict’s healthy advice to his brothers, but how helpful is this for preschoolers?

Mystery is good. Morbidity is not.

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So we talk about not being afraid of death, because it is part of life. We talk about the love that is waiting for us in whatever comes next, because it is full of God who is love.

We talk about how some people might live to be almost 100 like Great-Grandpa, and how some people might only live to be 21 like Uncle Jay. We talk about how we can’t know everything that God knows or make everything happen in the way we would like. But we can trust that God will take care of us.

Is that enough? For now, perhaps. If my wee ones continue to be blessed with a childhood free from trauma or loss, unlike so many children in the world.

But if they are not – if death or sickness or suffering enter into this home as an unwelcome guest, the darkest thoughts that only the thin, lonely hours before dawn tempt me to imagine – will any of that make sense? Or sustain them?

Motherhood is supposed to be about life: its nurturing and nourishing. But is there a place for death in this daily work and love, too?

. . .

Lent is a grateful time to practice all this death-talk, all this suffering-preparation, of course.

In small ways we choose to die to our own whims and wants, setting our sights on the deeper growth that comes from drawing further from our fears and nearer to God.

As with our own short lives, we know that death lies at the end of this liturgical journey, too. There it is on the calendar, Good Friday in all its starkness: church stripped bare, silence echoing in an empty tabernacle.

But beyond this loss lies a truth equally baffling to comprehend: an Easter reversal of everything we thought we knew, a game-changer of existential expectation, a flip-side resurrection of death itself.

Every day we are walking towards Friday’s death-as-we-fear-it. But we also edge towards Sunday’s life-as-we-dare-to-dream-it.

And children are a part of this journey, too.

This is my favorite part of Ash Wednesday. That for once we don’t banish babies to the nursery or preschoolers to the Sunday School classroom. We all walk up together, regardless of age or status, and someone smears dark grey ash on every forehead and tells us that from dust we have come and to dust we will return.

Every tiny curl of a newborn, every wide-eyed toddler, every curious kindergartner – their mortality stares us smack in the face, too. Tiny crosses of truth on softest skin.

Maybe this is part of Lent’s gift. Reminding us that these beautiful beginnings of youth are part of our shared journey toward death.

Be not afraid.

. . .

I started this post several weeks ago and haven’t known how to finish it.

Because there isn’t an easy ending, of course. There are no pat answers when it comes to talking about death. So many of the rote responses and tired clichés we use to wrestle our arms around such a vast and thorny subject are just that – rote and tired.

Theologically unsound, pastorally maddening.

As in so many dark corners of this strange land called motherhood, I find myself flinging wide my arms and releasing my fears, partly in hope, partly in despair.

I do not have the answers, and the questions will only become more complicated.

All I am learning to do is letting my babies go, day by day, into the arms of God who is love.

here is the prayer

We’re back in the tundra today, snow heaped so high by the mailbox you can barely see to inch the car onto the icy street. Wind whips through the front door when I crack it to let the dog limp inside, paws frozen by the sub-zero ground. The forecast for the foreseeable future goes like this: freezing, bitter, worse, terrible, painful, record-breaking, complete surrender.

“Isn’t March supposed to be spring soon?” he sighs when he looks up from his coloring book.

24 hours ago we were beach-side, bare feet in the sugary white sand, skin browning in delicious sun. Hours in the pool every morning watching our frozen children melt into slippery fish. Blue skies and palm trees and a taste of life where winter doesn’t hurt.

A day into our southern sojourn, my latest piece ran at Practicing Families. One of the many to-dos that never got done before we snapped the suitcases shut was to write something here that would tease you to read it, because I was surprised by how much I ended up loving that piece, loved how it sparked out of nowhere on the day of deadline, loved how it hummed with the right refrain, loved how it captured something of the sacred in This Time in Our Lives.

But each lovely, lazy day as I padded up and down the same long sidewalk to the beach with our youngest boy, the toddler who insists on stopping and bending low and smelling every single blessed bloom of every flower he spots, regardless of its appearance or ability to produce fragrance, I thought about that post. And prayer. And what it means to practice as a family.

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I realized I had forgotten something. Prayer is beholding; prayer is presence; prayer is promise, yes. But prayer is also pace.

Slowing down, way down, to the steady pulse of life underneath. Pausing long enough to let the soul catch up. Resting into the remembrance that all we mere mortals were asked to do was to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.

So I walked slowly and humbly in the heat, soaking up the long-forgotten sun, remembering the feel of concrete on bare feet, imprinting the memory of a small chubby hand pressed in my palm, stopping to witness a small boy’s wonder at the tiny beauty of hidden flowers, letting the walk back home take twice as long as it should because who’s watching the clock anyway?

And there was the prayer. Once again, without fail. The most and least surprising of all truths: God right before our eyes.

From Practicing Families

We laugh in low voices as he gets dressed for work. The kids are still sleeping, and as I splash my face with warm water, I contemplate the sweet prospect of a quiet kitchen and a hot cup of tea. Maybe I could pull out the journal and pray for a bit before they wake. I slip on warm socks for the cold winter floors downstairs and turn the knob on our bedroom door.

Then I find our oldest boy waiting right outside, gazing up at me with wide eyes.

I sink to my knees and without a word he folds himself into my lap, clutching his beloved stuffed animal to his chest. We snuggle in the silence for a few minutes, and then he whispers, “Mama, sing ‘Morning Has Broken.’”

I forget about the journal downstairs. Here is the prayer.

introducing…the book!

First, thanks to all of you who sent so much love with my big announcement last week! I’m floored by your support and can’t wait to share my “baby” with you very soon.

Second, I’ve been getting lots of questions on the details (apparently cryptic reflections on liturgical feasts aren’t enough to satisfy your curiosity?) so I wanted to answer the questions I’ve been getting via email and social media.

What’s the title? What’s it all about?

The book is called Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting.

I call it a spiritual-memoir-meets-parenting-memoir with a twist. It takes the seven Catholic sacraments as a lens for looking at life with little ones in a whole new light. So it’s a sacramental theology from the ground up – the sticky, Lego-strewn, does-anyone-ever-mop-this-floor? ground zero of parenting.

But the book can perhaps be best summed up by this hysterical – unofficial! – trailer that my brother made me. (Ok, actually it’s nothing like this, but I can’t stop laughing when I watch it.) If anyone can catch every single pop culture reference upon first viewing, I will send you an autographed copy of the book:

Who’s the publisher? When is it coming out?

I’m delighted to be working with Liturgical Press, and the book should be out by early fall 2014. Will keep you posted!

And finally, the #1 question I seem to get regarding the book:

How did you find time to write this???

People always want to know how I do this. (I know I’m far from the only mother-writer who gets these baffled looks.) My guess is that it’s the same way any of us make time for the passions we love: stealing spare moments and carving out corners.

But here are five ways I able to write this book (while raising two young kids, working part-time, and surviving a challenging pregnancy or two in the past year):

1) I slacked off elsewhere. I cancelled my gym membership after our second son arrived, and I’ve felt guilty about the lack of exercise ever since. But something’s gotta give in every season of life, and in this stage with little ones underfoot, working out is what I let go. Physically? Not so healthy. Emotionally and spiritually? I’m much happier if I spend my free time on writing. I know someday I’ll have time for regular exercise again, but for now chasing preschoolers and squeezing in yoga will have to suffice.

Also, housekeeping chez nous took a sharp nosedive in early 2013 when I started seriously working on this project, and it has barely recovered. Don’t look too closely at the bathrooms next time you come over. Trust me.

2) I had lots of help. Being blessed with a supportive spouse who sees my writing as a calling makes this work possible. I took a lot of Saturday mornings to write at coffee shops, and he regularly took on the boys’ bath/bedtime routine solo to give me extra hours to write at night. I couldn’t have done this without him.

But I also asked for help from others when I needed it: I paid for a few extra hours of childcare with our sitter when my schedule allowed it, and I leapt at my parents’ offers to watch the kids whenever we were visiting them. Writing a book is a team effort.

3) I learned when I work best. Once I started paying attention to the natural rhythms of my mind and body, I figured when the best times are for me to do creative work: before dawn, between 10 am and noon, and after 9 pm. Now I don’t try to force myself to write during other times of the day, and I find that flow comes much easier.

Of course, my life doesn’t always align with my creative energy. So I stock up on caffeine and chocolate to work during naptime when I’m home with the kids, or I stick to editing tasks during my “off” hours. But knowing when I find flow helps me stop banging my head against a wall when things aren’t going well: I check the clock and decide when to start again later.

4) I organized against my nature. This might contradict my own advice in #3 (know thyself). But I am not a type-A person. I’d much rather enjoy a lazy day, go with the flow, and act spontaneously. Most of the time that doesn’t jive with running a household or raising kids. So over the past year I’ve forced myself – with gritted teeth - to develop some type-A habits.

I methodically meal-plan every week so I never have to come up with dinner ideas at 5:00. I charted all our household chores and made a weekly/monthly schedule so I don’t have to remember what needs to be done. I still bristle at sticking to these uber-organized systems, but they’ve freed up enough precious moments for writing every day to make it worth it.

5) I stuck to a schedule. This is what happens when a humanities major meets an engineer: one person delights in work plans, the other rolls their eyes. But when I got serious about finishing this book in one year, my husband sat down and helped me make a weekly calendar that would allow me to write and edit every single chapter within the allotted months. (I guess this combines #2 – team effort – and #4 - unnatural organization.)

Bless his heart, he hoped I’d track every hour I spent on the project so that I could know exactly how much time it took to write the book. But I will say that knowing exactly what I needed to work on every week, rather than following inspiration’s whim as is my fancy, made it possible to pull off pregnancy + book in a way that surprised even me.

So there you have it: what it is and how I did it. And what a gift this opportunity has been – I am so humbled and excited by how everything has worked out. I can’t wait to see what this year will bring…

to witness: the toddler

His careful movements caught my attention out of the corner of my eye, as I emailed and meal-planned and sorted the mail and remembered wet laundry in the washer and half-checked the clock to see when we needed to leave.

Slowly he lifted the oversized magnifying glass to his eyes, peering down at the book on the table in front of him. Gently he brought the glass down towards the page. Then raised it back up again. Turned slightly from where he stood. Saw a pencil next to the book. Peered down again. Brought the lens up towards his face. Then lowered it to watch the perspective change.

For fifteen minutes he did this. Silently. Carefully. Moving gradually from table to chair to couch, inspecting anything and everything that might be of interest. The texture of fabric. The color of pictures. The edges of corners.

At first I noticed. But then I stopped to see.

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Our spitfire boy – the stubborn strong-will, the coil of energy, the tough temper, the second child slapped with labels simply because he was not the unfettered first forging the way.

Here he was the quiet observer. The gentle soul. The patient scientist.

He was mesmerized. He was watching.

. . .

Evangelists extol what it means to be a witness – the bold brashness of shouting truth. Such a shining, staunch ideal: to dig in your heels and declare loudly this is what I stand for!

Witness means standing on soap boxes, slapping stickers across car bumpers, screaming from op-ed columns, spamming up online comment boxes. Witness is unwavering, unrelenting, unapologetic defense of the one-and-only way.

Can’t you see?

But I wonder what happened to the eye in witness.

The careful, quiet watching it takes to notice truth. The gentle passing of the moment in front of us. The small opening of invitation in which to imagine.

. . .

Slowly I snapped the laptop shut, set down the grocery list, pushed aside the pile of mail. I leaned my elbows on the counter (I noticed it felt cool and hard and glinted in flecks through the morning light) and I looked at him. The same way he watched the world through that huge orange magnifying glass. Intentionally. Openly. Wonder-fully.

Of course the mother-guilt snuck in for a second, as it always creeps. How often do I miss these moments? When am I too wrapped up in my own whirl to see this beauty in front of me? Did I even notice when he got this big?

But I stopped myself. I let myself sink into the moment and the breath we both held as he observed.

The whole house seemed to fall silent – the tick of the clock and the rumble of the furnace and the hum of the fridge and the buzz of the phone and the click of the dog’s nails on the floor – and everything, it seemed, was watching him with me.

It was the holiest moment of prayer I have felt in ages.

. . .

What do you see when you see?

Our professor used to intone these words from the front of the classroom, over and over again, imploring us behind eyes that had seen decades of change in the church we all loved, urging us to become keener seers of the world around us.

What do you see when you see?

. . .

I see him now.

I see him reading quietly to himself, flipping pages, staring intently at illustrations that intrigue him.

I see him swirling water in the jar for watercolors, dabbing his paintbrush in careful patterns.

I see him pushing trucks, watching the wheels spin, bending his head so far down to see them turn that he nearly rests his forehead on the floor.

I see him holding the cup under the stream from the faucet, fluttering his tiny fingers in the rush of cool, pouring and filling and pouring again.

He is a witness.

I am, too.

are moms the choices they make?

When I was a few months pregnant with my first child, I signed up for BabyCenter’s weekly emails on the development of my baby. My husband and I got a kick out of learning which fruit or vegetable the baby’s size matched that week, and I was amused by the cutaway illustrations revealing what miraculous change might be taking place deep in the dark inside me: eyelashes! kidneys! fingernails!

Then I made a naïve mistake.

I also signed up for BabyCenter’s online “Birth Club” for the month my baby was due to arrive. Pitched as a way to connect with other expectant moms, the birth club was supposedly a great source of support and community as we prepared for our babies to arrive.

But I quickly found myself in a strange new world, more mysterious than anything of the wonders of the womb. Peppered across every post on the online message board were bizarre abbreviations and acronyms:

I’m a EBF, CD-ing, CS-ing AP (Translation: I’m an extended breastfeeding, cloth diapering, co-sleeping attachment parent)

Or: FF, WAHM, LO EDD = 8/24/09 (Translation: formula-feeding, work-at-home mom, little one’s expected due date August 24, 2009)

I couldn’t catch on to their jargon. Was this really how moms conversed? My head spinning, I quickly signed off the birth club as quickly as I signed on.

Yet over the years that followed, I came to see how many women defined themselves by their parenting choices, even if they didn’t use an alphabet of abbreviations. Whether or not to offer a pacifier, let your baby cry it out, vaccinate, circumcise, delay solid foods, use a stroller, or allow screen time – these apparently were not casual choices but commitments that defined you as a parent. And as a person.

Frankly, this phenomenon both terrified and fascinated me. As a first-time mom who felt clueless about nearly everything she was doing in relation to her child, I was overwhelmed by the idea that I should pick a “parenting philosophy” that aligned with my beliefs.

But I was also intrigued by this conception of personhood: that you were the sum of your choices, and that the implementation of your ideals defined you.

. . .

I don’t dispute that some of the ways I’ve approached parenting have shaped me as a person. Breastfeeding changed how I viewed my body, for example. Helping my kids develop good sleep habits taught me how much I value rest and quiet.

But I just couldn’t accept the idea that offering my baby a pacifier or getting him on a nap schedule somehow defined me as a mother. Motherhood meant something deeper, more primal, even more universal than the particular choices I made, given my time and place and social location.

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I thought about these questions – what kind of mother am I? what defines me as a parent? - as I wrote today’s column for Catholic Mom. Settling into my new identity as a mom over the past few years, I’ve come to see that it’s often the overlooked categories or characteristics that drive my self-definition: I’m a mom who craves community, I’m a mom who loves laughing, I’m a mom who hates clutter:

Labels often get a bad rap when it comes to parenting. Too often they back us into opposite corners, squaring off against each other in rival camps.

We want to say something about the kind of mothering we do – breastfeeding, homeschooling, attachment parenting, working outside the home – but these descriptors can have unintended effects. They can heap another layer of judgment on moms who didn’t make the same choices and feel the need to defend their own.

But adjectives are helpful and important, too, as any good English teacher will remind you. Adjectives bring color to our lives, appeal to our five senses, and let our imaginations run wild as we wonder how to describe the world around us.

Maybe if we get more creative about the ways we describe ourselves as moms, we can break out of the tired divisions and find the beauty in our differences and similarities.

What kind of mom are you? Here are a few ways I can fill-in-the-blank:

I’m a goofy mom. I’m a silly nicknames for everyone, dance parties in the kitchen, funny faces in the bathroom mirror, squawky sounds to make them eat their veggies kind of mom. I’m a making up songs in the car, tickle fests before bath, shouting “boo!” from the stairway to make the baby giggle kind of mom..(read the rest at Catholic Mom)

It’s not that I think our choices don’t impact us. Today I also have a piece (re)running at Practicing Families about the choice to approach parenting as a spiritual practice. How the small decisions we make every day can offer us opportunities to put our core beliefs into action:

The more trips I take around the sun, the more I become convinced that the spiritual life is mostly about two things: paying attention and shifting perspective.

It’s about seeing the abundance of grace in small moments.

It’s about reframing my vision to remember God.

Whenever I do these two things – see differently and re-member myself back to the God who is love – it’s no exaggeration to say everything changes. Or at least all the important things change.

These two practices remind me of how to be in right relationship with all that is around me: my God, myself, the people who challenge me, the tasks ahead of me…

Read more at Practicing Families.

But I still can’t define myself as an attachment parent, even if I nurse my babies till they’re two. Or a tiger mom, even if I believe kids need strict discipline at times.

Theological anthropology teaches me that my deepest identity is as a human being created for relationship, in the image and likeness of God. For me, that means every other part of my identity springs from this communal, created, beloved reality.

So I think about parenthood in these terms, too – as the relationship I have with the children I have been given to raise. How I feed or diaper or carry them can’t change the essence of that love.

(Although can I secretly admit that maybe I love them a teensy bit more when they bless me with the first simul-nap in months so that I could crank out this blog post?)

How do you define yourself as a parent? What choices have been the most important for you?

a new year: what to treasure, what to trash

We’ve been playing endless rounds of Sorry!

Two, three, four games a day aren’t enough for my boy’s insatiable appetite. Maybe it’s the combination of cards with numbers (which he’s always loved) and games for a group (which he’s learning to love). Or maybe it’s because beloved cousins introduced him to the board game at the cabin over New Year’s, thus cementing in his 4 year-old mind the concrete connection of coolness that links friends and getaway and holiday.

Whatever the reason, we’re stuck playing Sorry! from morning till night.

There are worse childhood games to get roped into, as any adult who’s ever tried to cheat to end Candyland can attest. And I actually enjoy playing Sorry! (at least the first time or two) because it takes me back to sprawling on the living room floor as a kid, flipping over the dog-eared deck to crow at the cards that would send my younger brothers back home. Even more than Memory, this game offers enough surprise and strategy to hold a grown-up’s wandering interest.

And it makes me wonder if there’s something to be said for saying Sorry! all day long.

sorry

. . .

Forgiveness is the thorniest bramble of the Christian life. Sometimes I dare to dream I could do a decent job at this Christ-following business if it weren’t for this aggravating truth: that love means forgiveness and forgiveness means love.

Instead, I’m much more inclined – as any cerebral introvert will understand – to brood over the times I’ve been wronged. To nurse secret, sullen grudges over the times I’ve been hurt.

I turn them over and over in my mind, these small slights or serious wounds, until my brooding polishes their jagged edges into smooth stones, comforting to hold in the warmth of my palm. Whenever an old hurt arises – when I’m back in the company of someone who hurt me, or when a memory re-surfaces painful words from long ago – I dig around in dusty pockets for these trusty rocks, to trace their familiar outlines once again, to assure myself that I was right in feeling wronged.

But to what end? What good does this brooding and turning and returning bring me? Perhaps it soothes the soft, small child inside who wants the world to go her way. Or perhaps it builds up a false façade of maturity, of look-what-I’ve-endured.

Either way it rings hollow.

There is no love in resentment.

. . .

I love the dawning of a new year: its hope of renewal, its promise of change.

Lately I’ve found the practice of resolutions to be an encouraging inspiration. As in New Year’s past, I’ve made a few that I hope will bring blessing, no matter how much or how little I end up pursuing them. (And since sharing resolutions here has helped me keep them in the past, I’ll try again.)

First, after a year in which I threw myself into a writing project that stole nearly every moment of my scant free time, I want to return to nurturing friendships that too often got pushed to back burners in 2013.

Second, in an effort to be more mindful of the way I spend time with my kids, I want to be more intentional about their faith formation at home. (An effort which you think might flow effortlessly from a theologically-trained mother, but too often tends to stumble over too much head knowledge and too much fear of screwing up.)

As in every year, both of these resolutions spring from an ever-growing desire for a slower, simpler life and the yearning to nurture meaningful relationships with those around me.

But in resolving to deepen love in these concrete ways, I wonder if I’ve pondered how much forgiveness this will take along the way. How often these happy-new-year prospects will ask me to pardon myself and others.

How often I will have to practice saying sorry!

. . .

On January 1st, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Maybe there’s something fitting for our own resolutions in starting the new year by remembering a woman who said yes to great change. Who made a decision that transformed her life. Who let herself be open to the ways God would call her to become something new.

For this feast of Mary, Notre Dame’s FaithND invited me to reflect on the day’s Gospel. As I studied the story from Luke, I found myself returning again and again to this line:

But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

For a woman who must have known deep hurt, who surely heard the cruel words that others tossed behind her back, who had plenty of reasons to become bitter by brooding, Mary chose instead to collect the small gems of beauty and hope. She cast aside the trash of other people’s opinions. She smoothed into tiny treasures the words that she could cling to in darkest hours.

Here, finally, were words of wonder and hope—from the mouths of people just like her. Here were shepherds who stopped their daily work to bring her stories of angels singing glory. Here were strangers who asked to see her baby and marveled at what his birth might mean.

Of course she treasured their words, turning them over and over in her heart, wondering what they might mean. While she learned to care for her child, as squalling and sleepless and hungry as any newborn, she gathered strength from their promise.

Perhaps this prayer practice was what sustained her as a mother: to treasure and to ponder

I’m in awe of such wisdom and confidence, such trust and courage. What might it mean for my own habits and choices, my own decisions and resolutions?

. . .

A few months ago, I came across these words: “Other people’s opinion of you is none of your business.”

Such an intriguing twist on our insecurities.

I’ve carried these words with me, trying to muddle out their meaning for my own bad habit of brooding. And I’ve come to this conclusion.

The judgments, comments, even whispers of others only matter to the extent that I respond with love (which is to say, 9 times out of 10, with a heart full of forgiveness.) The opinions of those I cherish, like my children and my friends, should certainly be my business – but only to the extent that I keep trying to respond to them in love, to allow myself to be changed in ways that draw me closer to Christ.

Who is forgiveness, love, and peace.

So I launch into the new year with these questions in mind: What do I treasure? What do I trash?

What serves God and what serves only me? With my resolutions – and Mary’s courage – close to my heart, what changes could this fresh start hold?

from mama to mommy

He picked it up over Thanksgiving, the inevitable result of spending the week with two older cousins he adores. All their echoes of “Mommy” must have kept ringing in his head long after the plane touched back down in snowy Minnesota, because ever since then I’ve been “Mommy,” too.

And it takes some getting used to.

I never meant to be anti-Mommy. It’s what I remember calling my own mom in my earliest memory, so of course it’s a name filled with love. But when it came time to babble at my own babies, Mama came more naturally.

Blog 002Maybe it was all those Romance languages bubbling around in my head, with their lilting “a”s and their sharing of these most basic words in every tongue.

Maybe it was because its two-syllable cadence closely mirrored my own first name, and I could adjust more easily to the title (and the idea) of motherhood when it reflected what I knew best.

Or maybe it was because it echoed my babies’ own first words, the mouths of little ones full of repeating sounds that over time smoothed into recognizable language.

Whatever the reason, I always loved Mama.

And now, with him, I have to let it go.

. . .

I am starting to learn a few strong truths about parenting from these early years that I suspect will endure till my own children are bringing their families back home for Thanksgiving.

One of these is that I cannot control who my children are or what they need. I can only respond to them as best I know how, with the love and wisdom I’m given at that time.

He does not need Mama now. Of course he needs me, but he is becoming his own boy, full of his own view of the world and his own playful use of the language he is coming to command. He needs to move on when he is ready, and he needs me to catch up.

He needs me to let him go, little by little, word by word. So that when the bigger steps come - the kindergarten bus and the solo bike ride round the neighborhood and the sleepovers and the middle school dance and the driver’s license and the high school graduation – I will be practiced in all these smaller releases.

This has always been the way mother love works.

But every goodbye is a tiny sorrow, too. A turning from the comfort of what was to the unknown of what will be.

. . .

For a few days my husband kept wrinkling his nose every time he overheard “Mommy.”

“When’s he going to drop that?” he grumbled, himself the bearer of “Babbo,” an Italian endearment for daddy. Maybe he saw himself next, losing that link to his own father and the family he loves.

(Or maybe the nasally whine so easily attached to Mommeeeeeee was starting to grate on him, too.)

“I don’t know,” I shrugged as we each stood at half of the kitchen sink, rinsing the dinner dishes.

“Maybe it’s just a phase.”

Or not, it seems. Every day the insistence grows stronger: Mommy, can you help me? Mommy, can you get my breakfast? Mommy, what’s 72-31? Mommy, will you read my story for bed tonight?

Once in a while when he cries, from a bumped knee or a brotherly wrong or the sheer exhaustion of being four, he still calls out for Mama. Old habits die hard, and the earliest words are the easiest to wail. The hardest to root out completely.

But we seem to be firmly planted in the new land of Mommy. My ears are still adjusting. Clearly my heart is, too.

Someday, I remind myself, I will be mourning the loss of Mommy for Mom – so short, so crisp and curt, so easily tossed over the shoulder on the way out the front door. Then I will long for one more syllable to pull him back towards childhood, back when my lap could be enough and my kiss could heal his hurts.

This is only one more first step. Only one more last. 

Of course there is still his younger brother who clings to Mama with a koala’s claws. And there is another on the way who has yet to babble a single syllable. Mama will still echo off these walls for years to come.

But now we have new words, and every linguist knows the subtleties mean new realities.

And I always have to squirm a bit before I settle into someplace new.

. . .

This week I’m reflecting on Advent and the power of names at CatholicMom. What does it mean to choose a name? To be given a name? To live into what a name might become?

Perhaps it’s a dreamy part of pregnancy, this playing with possibilities, this lying in bed at night wondering what we’ll call him or her.

But I find it a daunting prospect each time, to name another person. To shape the beginning of identity by vowel and consonant. To help mold their life by the meaning of what they are called…

I wonder what Mary and Joseph and Zechariah each thought when they received a mystical announcement of their child’s name.

Did they love the choice from the moment it slipped the angel’s lips? Would it never have made it onto their own mental list of possibilities? Did they have to grow into the idea just like they had to grow into the surprising prospect of parenting—one couple before they were even married, the other couple long after they thought the chance had slipped them by?

Click here to read the rest at CatholicMom.

the sweet aggravation of teaching kids to pray

Have you ever noticed that young children’s timing is absolutely perfect – for them and only them?

Case in point: they only want to put on their own shoes/coat/mittens when we’re already running 10 minutes late.

See also: they realize they are, in fact, capable of recognizing their own need for the potty when we’re in the middle of driving/dinner/Target/bedtime/church.

Otherwise known as: their internal clocks continue to rouse them right on time, regardless of what daylight savings says.

This phenomenon takes on particular irony for those of us with theological training when it comes to prayer. img_3001

Case in point: my toddler now makes a pitiful plea for his bedtime prayer routine to PLEASE be repeated at naptime (when I used to get away with only a quick story-and-song before skipping out the door for blessed quiet to myself).

See also: the mornings we’re rushing to get out the door to school are the ONLY days that my boys ever insist on saying grace, rather than having me instigate the burdening of their every mealtime with my unbearable requests for them to give God thanks.

Otherwise known as: my preschooler inevitably makes his charming request for “meditation AND a Psalm AND OurFatherandHailMary” on the nights when their shrieking bathtime splash-fest soaks up every last precious ounce of energy and all I want to do is rush through bedtime to collapse on the couch.

Every time, the tired/selfish/cop-out words almost trip tempting off my tongue: no, we don’t do prayer at naptime! no, we don’t have time for grace this morning! no, I am too tired to do meditation!

But inevitably, something stops me - whether that stubborn MDiv, or the years I’ve spent trying to develop my own prayer life, or plain old-fashioned nagging Catholic guilt. Whatever it is, I catch the words and cough them back down my throat and try to ignore the clock/exhaustion/aggravation. Deep breath, refocus, slow down.

Of course we can pray. Even now.

I won’t saintly sugarcoat it to say I’m always glad we do. Sometimes I would still rather have gotten out the door 2 minutes earlier or collapsed on the couch 10 minutes sooner. But beyond any momentary annoyance, I’m always reminded where I want the long arc of our family life to bend: towards prayer, towards peaceful rhythms, towards the God who pulls us back together.

Tonight I’m posting about our bedtime psalm-praying at Practicing Families. My oldest and I started praying this way a long time ago, and I have come to love how meaningful this simple, slowing, centering line of Scripture becomes for both of us.

(Even on the evenings I’m fairly itching to close the bedroom door behind me and be done for the day.)

Every night as we go, no matter how antsy I am for bedtime to be done and my few precious hours sans-kids to begin, I always find that one phrase will inevitably catch me and do just what the psalmist says: slow me down and remind me that God is God.

Be still.

Make no mistake about it: he wiggles and giggles the whole way through. Months and months of reciting the ancient centering prayer has not magically transformer my preschooler into a patient monk.

But he knows the words by heart, forward and back, inside and out. The Sunday we sang the same psalm at church and his eyes shot up, astonished that everyone else knew his prayer, too? That was one of the rare moments I tucked away to remember for always.

These words have become so close to him, already in his mouth and in his heart. Now all he has to do is learn how to live them.

All I can tell him is that it takes a lifetime.

Read the rest at Practicing Families

When and how do you love to pray with the kids in your life? (Even if it sometimes drives you crazy, too?)