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It Takes a Church

It’s Saturday night and I’m at Mass with my two daughters, ages four and almost-two. My husband is not there. He was supposed to meet us at the church but got caught up at work (he’s a police officer). This is my first time taking my kids to Mass completely alone. And I am five months pregnant.

At the beginning of Mass I have a modicum of confidence, or at least some feigned confidence. I think, I can do it by myself. They are just little children, right?

It’s only a few minutes into the Mass when I realize that I need to take them into the daily Mass chapel, which functions as a “cry room” during weekend Masses (there is only a glass wall that separates it from the main church so people can still participate in the Mass). My younger daughter has been talking incessantly in a normal voice rather than a whisper, which of course sounds like shouting when you are in a relatively quiet church. And she’s been scurrying down the mostly-empty pew away from me. My older one will not sit still, either. So, out we go.

I think, this will be better. I won’t let them run wild, but I won’t have to worry so much about every little peep and movement being a distraction to those around me. Shortly after we sit down, an older mother sitting behind me with her tweenage daughter gets up and leaves. Of course, I think this is because of me and my unruly children (but I really have no idea if that is the real reason). Oh well, the cry room isn’t really for her and her tween anyway, right? But for some reason it stings—a lot—to think this mother was annoyed with my children, in the cry room of all places.

I try to pay attention to the Mass, while also trying to keep my children relatively well-behaved. It’s not going well, and the minutes are ticking by at the slowest imaginable pace.  I think, I can’t do this, and wonder how I’m going to make it through the rest of the Mass. What follows is 30 minutes of me struggling with an active toddler who won’t even be still in my arms, and a defiant preschooler who refuses to obey even while I threaten loss of TV privileges! Part of this time is spent in the secluded stairwell, where no one will hear the sound of me being defeated by a four year old. There are tears shed, and they aren’t just the children’s.

We’re back in the cry room for the Consecration. I guess I close my eyes for a brief moment to help me concentrate, because suddenly I am looking up to see my toddler climbing up the back of one of the chairs in front of us, and flipping herself head-first over the other side. I get up to go get her, and I start crying again, in front of everyone in the cry room. I guess I am giving new meaning to the term “cry room”… but then again, I can’t be the first overwhelmed mother to have cried in there, right?

At this point, I stand in the back with the toddler, holding her squirming body tightly in my arms, despite the toll this is taking on my pregnant body. And I continue to cry. I think, I’m a complete failure of a mother (a thought which will not go away for another 24 hours… and is sure to come back).

And then an angel appears next to me.

The teenaged daughter of some friends from church, who saw me through the glass wall of the chapel, comes up to me and asks if I want her to hold my toddler. I hand her over to the teenager without saying a word, and I cry some more. I am touched by the kindness of this young woman, and so relieved to finally have some help. When the toddler decides she’s done being held by this relative stranger, the teenager offers to hold the four year old. And she even takes her with her to Communion. After Mass, she helps me take the kids to the car and get them buckled in their car seats. I hug her and thank her, but I don’t think I could ever communicate how much her help meant to me.

This incident led me to start thinking more about something that has been rattling around in my brain for a while. There is an old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I usually cringe when I hear it, and think instead of that newer saying that goes “I’ve seen the village, and I don’t want it raising my children.” But when I think more deeply, I realize that there is something fundamentally true about that original saying, even though I believe it has been distorted in recent times by people who want to justify things like government intrusion into parental rights. That fundamental truth is that we mothers (and fathers) can’t raise our children alone. It’s not that our children need a hundred different authority figures telling them what to do, or that we parents need a hundred people telling us how to raise them, but that we need helping hands and supportive shoulders in order for us to do our job most effectively.

We need an extra pair of arms at Mass when we are tired, pregnant and trying to wrangle an active toddler and a defiant preschooler. We need someone to listen without condemnation when we are feeling like the biggest failure of a mother, and to remind us that we aren’t failures at all. We need someone to make us a meal when we’ve just given birth or are exhausted from pregnancy. We need someone to remind us, as a friend recently did for me, “Don’t compare yourself to other mothers. You are usually seeing them at their best, whereas you see yourself at your worst.”

Sometimes, too, we do need someone to gently correct our children when our backs are turned and we don’t see them stealing their eighth chocolate chip cookie off the dessert table at a party. We even may need someone to offer us parenting advice (with charity, not condescension) when they see us struggling with Godly parenting.

And all of that is okay! We are not bad parents for needing those things.

Sadly, though, in the “village” of our society today, there is often more discouragement, criticism, and even competition from other parents than there is encouragement and help. Further, there is more ridiculing of the values that we hold dear as Catholics than there is support in bringing up our children with those values.

Some people would see a harried mom struggling to control her four children in the grocery store, and look on her with disdain for having “so many” children – and unruly ones, at that! It wouldn’t occur to them to offer a kind word or ask if they can help her get her groceries to the car. Some people would listen to a mother express distress at her utter exhaustion from getting up four times a night to nurse a a 14 month old, and simply scoff at her for the fact that she is still breastfeeding a 14 month old, and hasn’t let the baby “cry-it-out” yet. It wouldn’t occur to them to offer  an afternoon of babysitting, or even the comforting words that “this too shall pass.” Some people would see a mother trying to raise her children with traditional Christian values, and purposefully work against her efforts while looking down on her for her “intolerance.” It wouldn’t occur to them that maybe they are the intolerant ones.

I think the picture I’m trying to paint is obvious. It would seem that many people’s idea of the meaning of “it takes a village” is that raising children takes a village-worth of people all criticizing and condemning everyone else’s parenting choices and abilities — based only on appearances, of course. And let’s not forget the village’s need to make sure every child—no more than two per family, please—is being indoctrinated with the same worldview.

Thankfully, through the grace and generosity of God, I have been the recipient of a huge outpouring of encouragement and support during those mothering moments where I’ve needed it the most. I’ve been given many hugs, encouraging words, advice, offers to babysit or play with my children, meals, and listening ears from many different people in my life – some of whom barely know me. I’ve also received plenty of scoffing and criticism. But that doesn’t hurt as badly when you have the positive experiences to balance it out. I hope I can return the kindness I’ve received, or at least pay it forward. So many other mothers are in need of it.

No, we Catholics do not want or need “the village” of modern-day American society to “help” us raise our children. We don’t need the “mommy wars.” We don’t want our children learning values from those who think that abortion is a fundamental right, and that “intolerance” of someone else’s lifestyle is the worst–or the only–sin. We don’t want people (or the government) critically telling us how to parent, or coming between us and our children.

What we do want and need, however, is for the Body of Christ to be that proverbial village. We need our Christian brothers and sisters to support us in having as many children as God blesses us with, to give us the practical help and the encouragement we need to raise them in a way that is pleasing to Him, and perhaps most importantly of all, to pray for us in our vocation as parents. Many in the Church are doing just that. But some are no better than their secular counterparts. And some just do not realize the fact that so many of us young parents (especially those that do not work outside the home) are raising our children in practical isolation, and are often overwhelmed and discouraged. Many of the overwhelmed and discouraged don’t realize how many other parents feel just like they do, partly because we are all too afraid or proud to admit our struggles.

It would be beautiful if we could each make a commitment to open our eyes and reach out to those parents who are in need around us, just as my friend’s teenaged daughter reached out to me. We also each need to be honest with ourselves and others about the fact that we are not perfect parents, and we could use some assistance in our vocations sometimes! If we all were to do that, imagine what kind of “village” we could create, and how wonderful it would be to raise our children there.

 

 

*Photo of little girl by Chance Agrella.

*Photo of hands from FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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About Mary

Mary is a 20-something wife and mother of two beautiful girls and one baby boy. She has been a Catholic since her baptism as a baby, married for six years, and a mom for five years. She loves studying theology and apologetics and is very passionate about our beautiful Faith.

June 30, 2012 - 7:10 am

Mary - Mary, I wish I knew if you lived by me! Some of my best Mass moments were when I went with my friends with little children. Whether guiding the older ones through Mass or holding the babies and toddlers, when you haven’t had a baby or toddler to hold like me, it’s a joy to help.

Thanks for both reminding me to help my friends and to not be shy about helping moms in distress. I do my best to teach my tween and teen daughters to do the same.

P.S. When my nieces were toddlers, they would mind me much more at Mass than they would my sister! ;-)

June 30, 2012 - 7:52 am

Peggy - Mary, I am afraid that I may be one of the ones at Mass that offends a mother! Your eloquent post is a great reminder that we should offer kind words and help at the right times. Thank you for posting.

June 30, 2012 - 8:11 am

Tricia - What a wonderful article! It was just what I needed. Mass can be a big struggle for me too. My 20 mo. old daughter is such a hand full, and my 5 year old son (and sometimes even my 9 yr old son) can be such wiggle worms! I try so hard to concentrate on what is going on, try having my heart in the right place to receive Christ, while wrestling my daughter and trying to keep my children from disturbing everyone around us. I have cried on the way home a few times, and sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for everyone if I just stayed home. But, I know that is not the truth, that I need to be there, even if some weeks it just feels like a struggle. Through God’s grace we too have received help and encouragement at our church. I agree with you that as mothers, we need to encourage and support each other, instead of looking at each other at competition for who can be the best Mother!

God Bless you and your family!

PS As a fellow Cop’s wife, I can totally empathize with the whole weird hours/shift work thing!

June 30, 2012 - 8:51 am

Jill - Beautifully written post. Thank you! (Been there, struggled with that)
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June 30, 2012 - 9:54 am

BirgitJ - Mary, this was a very touching post that explains so beautifully the inner torments the vocation of motherhood can present! Bless you and your little ones in your virtuous attempts to be present to Christ even as your babies seem to take your attention from Him. He fully understands and I can’t help but think that he smiles a bit at your strength of faith in the face of their antics. The part about the teen helping you out brought tears to my eyes! God bless!
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June 30, 2012 - 10:08 am

Suzanne - Yes! And, we all need to be teaching our teenage daughters to have an eye out for moms in need land be like the one who came to your aid!

June 30, 2012 - 12:34 pm

Amy - Mary, this is a beautiful article. I sometimes find myself at Mass alone with my 5, 3, and 1 year old and it is so difficult. Many times I have wanted to leave or just not even go because it is so hard! When other people reach out to help or offer a kind word or even just a smile it helps tremendously. We mothers need that support!

June 30, 2012 - 1:45 pm

Brittany - Mary, this is simply beautiful. I, like you, am one of those (sometimes desperate) mama’s of little ones who could really use a helping hand once in awhile. I feel so blessed that my husband and I have the privilege of raising our family near our own parents as well- they are a huge part of our “village”. Your article is a beautiful reminder that uniting in support of one another will always make the world a better place.

June 30, 2012 - 2:17 pm

Mary - Thank you to all for the comments. It’s comforting to hear from other mothers that they can relate.

Brittany, we too are very blessed to have both our families nearby… which is why I had managed previously to avoid going to Mass completely alone with my two children. I didn’t make other arrangements for Mass this time because I really thought my husband would make it. I feel sorry for myself sometimes, but I have it a lot easier than the many parents who have no family nearby to help!

June 30, 2012 - 2:36 pm

Thaeda - What a lovely article! Truly we need to support those in our family of faith! My oldest child has autism. I am a convert and when I came Home, he was only 7 or 8. He was pretty loud and disruptive sometimes. The first church we went to, we were asked to leave because my son could not be quiet in Mass and this church really valued their quiet. Fortunately God led us to a church where my son was welcomed, loved, and accepted- noise and all!! What a blessing. :)

June 30, 2012 - 3:27 pm

Charla - Mary, I was reminded of something our deacon told me when I was glared at because my 10 month old at the time was “singing” along with the choir. Our children are just as welcome in God’s house as is the silent pensive elderly woman who sneered at me. If they are loud and boisterous and active it means they are well-nourished enough to be energetic; many of the world’s children are not. Their parents love them enough to bring them to church; many parents do not. There is no shame in children being children. How else will we teach them proper behavior? It may seem futile, but it will eventually work and we will have children who respect the house of the Lord as they get older and as they become adults. Keep plugging away at it.
Great post :)

June 30, 2012 - 7:09 pm

Rosemary - Mary, your blog trully blessed me and reminded me that sometimes when I see those mom’s struggling with kids thatmI would LOVE to hold, that it’s okay to offer to help! you are a wonderful mom, I can tell that by the love and joy in your posts. God bless you and Your husband and kids!

June 30, 2012 - 8:07 pm

Claire - After one Mass where my children were particularly horribly behaved, I was complaining to my mother-in-law that I didn’t think it even “counted” that I went to Mass. My kind, understanding mother-in-law said that she thinks those Masses “count” twice, as we are bringing the little ones to God. :)

June 30, 2012 - 9:00 pm

Amelia - This is perfect, as well as perfectly timed. Thank you, Mary, for voicing that which is in every mother’s heart. I have been that crying mother at church. Heck, I am still that mother, pregnant with often unruly little ones, desperately trying to teach them about God while attempting to focus on the Mass in between temper tantrums (sometimes the children’s). I, too, have sometimes been helped, and it feels like God is sending me a much-needed hug. I hope I have the opportunity to help other mothers the way you and I have been helped. God bless you, sista!

July 1, 2012 - 2:45 am

Billy T. - SO proud! :) Love you.

July 1, 2012 - 7:56 pm

Nadia - You have no idea how much I needed to read this today. My husband is often away, too. I look forward to Mass but when he is gone for work I am torn between going and not going because I don’t want to interfere on anyone else’s time in prayer and thanksgiving.

I teared up while reading your post and can totally relate to what you feel. Thank you so much!

July 2, 2012 - 4:48 pm

Andi - Sounds like we are leading similar lives. I’m in my mid 20s, been married for almost 5 years, my baby is turning 4 tomorrow, and she has 2 little sisters ages 2 and 6 months. I feel awful for truly dreading Mass some weeks. Now that the baby is cooing more she makes more noise which means she ends up in the back because people just shoot us the dirtiest looks if she squeaks. Our pastor has definitely loosened up a bit about kids in the sanctuary. I am hoping that he’s realizing that many of the young families are truly following Church teaching and that’s why we have so many little ones around these days! Good lick next week!

July 3, 2012 - 8:28 am

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July 3, 2012 - 2:12 pm

Margaret Kelly - Been there , done that with children and grandchildren. It’s important for us all to remember that the sound of chidren in church is the sound of the future Church. I hope none of us would want a deafening silence!

July 3, 2012 - 11:39 pm

Ann Moloney - Mary, one of the best things I ever did for my church was to start a nursery, it was after the birth of my third baby. It was a real sacrifice for me to do this, but it lasted 16 years! Lots of moms kept their sanity because of it. I had nine babies over a 20 year span, and that nursery I started enabled me to get something out of mass besides tears, frustration, and humiliation.

July 3, 2012 - 11:54 pm

Rose - Thank you for this awesome read! It’s like you read my heart and mind! One thing I’ve been trying to remember, usually well after the sting is gone, is to pray for those who don’t get it about moms and their little ones. I am also mortified by my own naive and selfish negative thoughts when I critiqued others at mass as a single woman. Oh how I have been humbled and rightly so. My four children under age seven are all wiggle worms and even my oldest doesn’t really seem to participate much yet (although I hope and guess that he’s absorbing a lot anyway). Pray for me and mine please, as I will for you!

July 4, 2012 - 12:26 pm

ladyj - I love the story However If the children are accustomned to an hour of quiet time at home each day 1 HOUR of QUIET TIME DAILY then when you go out with them and say this is quiet time while we pray or visit etc the kids will be no trouble TRY IT U MAY LIKE IT……..

July 4, 2012 - 12:57 pm

Mary - I am blessed and uplifted by the comments, and the fact that what I wrote touched and encouraged others. Thank you to everyone that commented.

LadyJ- We do have quiet time every day. It’s truly a lifesaver for me… but doesn’t help with behavior outside the house. Unfortunately, not every parenting strategy works the same for every child. I wish I could find that magic technique that made them behave perfectly, though. I will keep searching.

July 13, 2012 - 12:19 pm

amber - Reading this actually brought me to tears! I went through this just yesterday. On sunday I read in my church’s bulliten they needed more people to attend adoration on thursday so i called and signed up (even asked the secretary if it was okay to bring my kids-ages 2.5years and 14months-she said yes). I’m all excited to get there and theres maybe 3 other people. Of course my 14 month old gets a little loud wanting to hear herself echo. My 2.5 yr old is quietly sshhing her, then my little one crawls down from the pew and starts walking through the aisle. I quickly scoop her up along with my other kid and bags and go to the very last row in the back where they are more quiet and managable when a lady looks back at me and walks on over. She tells me I cant be here with my kids. I instantly start to feel the tears well up as she finishes by saying “this is no place for children they are distracting, if you need time with Jesus come back alone”. I was so upset and embarrased i couldnt even speak i just nodded, grabbed everything and left. And cried for like an hour!
Im pretty used to taking my kids to mass alone since my husbands schedule is pretty hectic in the summer(if he cant go to mass with me then he’ll go at a later time) but lately I’ve been overly sensitive and emotional when it comes to my kids. If someone looks at them wrong it makes me want to cry. I’m 7 month pregnant with our 3rd baby so i blame hormones Lol
But my point is Im glad that i read your post and know i’m not alone! I wish more people would be more understanding with young children and parents (especially at CHURCH) rather than throwing back dirty looks and head shakes.

August 10, 2012 - 3:49 am

Andrea - I too can relate to this. I always have help with my husband at Mass but my kids are still quite a handful. I have a 3 year old who is starting to get really rebellious but is still quite attached to nursing. He always turns to the breast for comfort when he is bored, tired, upset, ANYTHING. I also have a 10 month old baby who is also nursing, and there is NO way to discreetly nurse both of them so I’m trying to get the oldest one through Mass without nursing (which makes him more upset and irritable) and trying to nurse the baby discreetly and keep him quiet (he is very talkative and active!) at the same time. I have to go to the crying room a lot (Some days we just stay there) or another place where I can nurse both. It’s really a strain. Before my second child I looked down on other children who were loud and crazy at church, and then I had my second who is not shy and is the same way and it was a slice of humble pie for me. I just really try not to stress about Mass anymore. If people get mad, I brush it off. At least I cared enough to take myself and my kids to Mass. Others don’t. Anyone who has been a parent should understand what its like to have little one. Our society often has unrealistic expectations. In other cultures children at mass is a different story- they roam free and no one is bothered because it is normal. I say a prayer on Saturday to help us get through, and just try to block it out the best I can. Sometimes we have the “worst” kids at church. Other days, another family will come in the crying room and I can hear the stress in their voice and I know what they are feeling. If they apologize or something I make a comment like “That was us last week!” or something like that so they don’t feel more stressed. I try to play peekaboo or something with their kid or smile at them to help keep them in a good mood. We are one body in Christ- and we do need to help each other. I think we have made ourselves a lot harder with our “independence”. Now moms have to run a house and raise their kids (and school them too!) by themselves. Back in the day, in small villages, everyone worked together and often times more than one generation in a household so you had help with the house and kids. But now we all have our own homes, own cars, etc, and no help and a lot of stress.

March 7, 2013 - 11:30 am

Terry Dempsey - Congratulations on your beautiful family + new baby arrival!
Your letter brought back memories and joyous tears…now, not back then when I spent a decade or so in the crying room and felt so disconnected from mass and my own family. I also would often stand outside the back door or in the vestibule. The day will honestly come when you will attend mass fuss-free, except for getting teenagers out of bed! It is a blessing, and cause for fun comments as your family takes a whole pew! Best wishes to you, and thank you for your frank discussion about neighborly and Catholic charity as opposed to (my also dreaded)”..it takes a village.” I want to scream, “No, it takes responsible, caring parents!” You’ve now aptly add,”and the kindness of others!”

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