Breaking and Healing the Hearts of Our Children

It is an insomnia season. A season when all the elements converge and conspire against the coveted commodity called sleep... deep sleep. And in spite of my fondness for Instagram, I  lay tonight's struggle partially at the feet of that glorious time sucker. (As a friend wisely said, I wouldn't have the extra worries if I didn't go seeking them out on social media!) I met a mom there recently whose struggle looked a lot like mine and when she shared a little piece of her grief, my own heart broke. So here I am... awake. 

The grieving woman on Instagram wanted to know if we moms can entertain a reasonable hope of repairing the damage we do to our households over the years. Tell me we can! she begged. Tell me we can go back and reverse what we have done!  

I whispered a tiny and sad no inside my head and in the following seconds, my racing mind was flooded with a torrent of memories; all personal failures I have owned in the last 21 years of motherhood. Some of them stick to me like fly paper and the guilt is so heavy that if I dwell too long, I go down, down, down into the ugly deep. But I didn't dwell this time, I simply let the projector reel of time run out as I held my breath, as if riding out a labor pain. I answered on Instagram then... and I answer now as I lie awake, preoccupied with the gravity of this question...

No. You can't go back. You can't repair all the damage. The hope lies in the possibility of renewal, repentance, and healing - but the scars will probably stay. Some will stay for a little while and some for a lifetime, heedless of our grief and the gripping, aching guilt of regret.

The children forget our mistakes when they are 12 months old but it doesn't take long before the memories stick. They are formed under our love.... and our sin. My first two children have entered adulthood and I know that when they walk out the front door, they take all the hidden heart wounds with them. Perhaps they’ll over spend the rest of his life healing from and forgiving me the consequences of my sins...

My laziness.
My impatience.
My lack of charity.
My selfishness.
My willful ignorance.
All of those things which fall into those categories in big and small ways.

Countless hours of my motherhood have been spent lying awake, grieving over my words and actions and raising my fist against the injustice of the human condition… 

Why must it be that we are destined to leave these marks on the souls of our children when it is our deepest desire to raise them to be whole and healthy and happy? 

There simply is no answer apart from The Fall and The Cross. Jesus is the Savior. And I am not He. In our journey toward sanctity, we eventually realize that either He will be the answer to the heartache of our homes... or no one will. 

For years, I spent much of my motherly frustration on those outside of my home who hurt my children, dwelling on the difficulty of free will. Why, Lord, do You allow people to choose evil? To choose sin? To hurt my children? And then... the day came when raised my hands and yelled: 

WHY? Why, Lord, have You allowed ME to wound?  

I love my large family and take tremendous delight in watching it grow and thrive; however, the process of sanctification in this vocation can be intense. And perhaps that's putting it mildly. The walls that used to get washed... don't.

The attention I used to have for one... I must somehow divide by seven.

The virtues I thought would blossom in my life... have proven to be remarkably weak under pressure.

My plans for holiness and household peace and perfect... skuttled by the reality of human will.

We love and we wound. They adore us and then feel our weakness pierce their hearts. We make them the center of our vocation, and then they remind us that they are not meant to be bent and molded and pressed... but to be mentored and to fly. In my imagination, I saw that I would become better and more competent over time. I never would have believed that I would feel that the opposite was happening.

Motherhood will not be planned. Children will not be controlled. And against every prayer and supplication, God will always allow more struggle than the person can handle. Would we ever turn to Him if He didn't?

For years, I thought it was just me. I thought that I was the lone failure among my friends and my community. I knew others were struggling, but in my self-centered anxiety, I thought that I must be at the bottom of the barrel of incompetent mothers.

Over the years, this belief (coupled with a heavy dose of postpartum hormonal imbalances) brought a period of depression which led into a lingering sorrow and a companion anger that comes with a feeling of cosmic injustice…

If large families are a blessing, then WHY am I suffering under the burden of my inadequacy? If this is the right equation, then I must be the wrong answer. Why would God allow my beautiful children to be placed in the care of such a weak, wounded, and ridiculous mother? 

I couldn't find an answer because I did not understand that His perfection only comes in our weakness. In the cloud of my monumental pride, the grace of God was obscured. All that was visible to me was my failure.

This harsh and deep sorrow softened over time and was eventually companioned by a deep and strengthening faith. I acknowledged my constant failure and recognized that I would always fail. I read adult versions of the lives of the saints and recognized their humanity; their allergies, their tempers, their errors, their conflicts. I began to know them a little better and to forgive in myself what I had previously seen as unforgivable.

At the beginning of my motherhood, I grew in confidence as I led my little army. That great confidence faded as I saw my failures mirrored to me in the lives of my growing kids. My pride lay stretched out and broken on the living room rug every single day. There didn't seem to be a way out of that. Mary, Mother of Sorrows became an ally for the first time. And the Cross of motherhood, once a lovely but distant mystery, became nestled deeply in my heart. My greatest consolation was the abiding love of God. He made Himself very present to me, even as my broken heart bled out into every area of my life.

Why did He allow this kind of stripping of soul? Perhaps because once I knew that I was absolutely nothing without Him, I might finally learn how to pray and truly seek Him.  

The grace of God began to rain down upon me and carried me through what I have privately referred to as my adult childhood. I had to learn how to walk again and to relearn what it meant to be alive as a child of God. Formerly, I thought that faith would make me a shiny flawless saint, like the drawings in my children's picture books. The hard lesson was that the pursuit of perfection did not mean that I could be perfect in myself, but only by allowing Christ to fill my soul entirely. The Refiner's Fire was consuming me. Terrifically painful (and ongoing)... but still a place of Life and unparalleled joy. 

How was I to grow in sanctity and perfection? How was I to learn to stand up straight and tall in the midst of my failures? It really boils down to the annihilation of my pride and the pursuit of only one vision: God's.

I am now in a stage I can only refer to as the fighting stage. I see that I am overwhelmed by losses to my own sinful nature, my kids' free will, and the many obligations of life that I do not feel equipped to meet. And yet... I know that I am fighting for souls. I used to want to build the perfect Catholic dominion... and now I am fighting for each step against many enemies and odds, to simply love all my people into heaven.

I do not count the wins as a general would, I tend the soldiers and the wounded, regardless of whether the battle being waged is won or lost. The larger battle will never be mine to fight. My battle is love and love alone.

We were made for greatness. We were made for everything good He ordains for us, be that with a short obscure life or a lengthy stay in the midst of a large community. My fiat is not my yes to success... it is my yes to faithful obedience and an act of faith with the promise of joy. My failures are like stepping stones to grace. Each time I fall, He lifts me up higher than I could have gone without Him. And if I get to heaven at all, it will be because I have simply let Him carry me the whole way. 

This vocation... It doesn't look at all like I thought it would. The sorrow is still there. The crosses seem to multiply at times. The stakes are higher. It used to be about simply keeping the children alive and clean each day and now it's about their immortal souls. It is hard in a startling way and perhaps that is why God gives us the easy stuff first. Pregnancy, labor, and bloody breastfeeding ain’t got nothin' on teenage/young adult growing and stretching pains and the realization that I've screwed up more small and big things than I can count. My pride has been sorely touched by this new stage in motherhood. 

Eventually, all of the days of humiliation and dying give way to days of rising. You will fall hard. And your children will fall hard. It is on those days that you will know without question where your true priorities lie. You will drop everything and run to tend to their skinned knees and hearts (and sometimes even harder, clean up after the wounds they have inflicted on others) and you will question everything that you do and why you do it. 

Our tendency is to run, fast and hard, away from that pain and discomfort and our culture does this with a will. As Christians, we feel the struggle coming on and are tempted to turn and start running with everyone else. It makes sense…

Leave it, medicate it, drink it away, distract, cover, deny, pretend, and shout it down. But we... those moms who know the heart and hurt is all for Christ... we stop mid stream and do an intentional turning. We see our crosses waiting behind us and we turn and take them up with love. 

I'm not going to leave.
I'm never going to leave.
I give myself in love for you.
I will work until I'm old and gray (and beyond) for you.
My talents are yours.
My treasure is yours. 
My time is yours.
My cheerful, joyful, sunny days are yours.

But my anger, resentfulness, selfishness, and crankiness? Those are mine. And I leave them at the foot of the Cross for Jesus to sweep away. Because His name is Mercy.

To the beautiful Instagram lady who came face to face with her priorities, I just want to let you know that it is a day for rejoicing. God has chosen to gift you with holy vision. And now? He will give you the grace to press on. Thanks be to God.

A Catholic Girls' Guide to Unmasking a Predator

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I have written this article 16 different ways trying to soften the language and avoid giving offense to anyone. The trouble is that my conscience won't allow the softening. With the sex abuse scandals exploding in every industry, sport, religion, and educational institution, it is clear that we don't have time or good reason to spare feelings over safety. Those examples don't even include the endless experiences that we have personally had in our communities and homes.

It's an evil that has become systemic. We have been culturally conditioned - publicly groomed actually - to accept a degree of certain abusive behaviors as normal. 

We feel a false sense of security because we have aggressively rooted out the most egregious offenders, put them on registries, taken away their positions of authority but, we ignore the elephant in our own living room. We have been silent. We have been complicit. And yes, we have been trained and groomed by evil people whom we allow access to our minds and families.

I have put together a short list of qualities in men that are red flags for a discerning Catholic girl or woman. These guidelines will also apply to my Protestant sisters in Christ. If even one of these risk factors exists, that is a solid reason to put on the brakes. If you want to jump right to the list, scroll down. If you want to understand the problem a little better and how you can better serve your daughters (or yourself), hang with me for two minutes. 

COLLECTIVE GROOMING

I rarely watch TV but recently fell into a YouTube vortex of shows that are currently popular. I don't know if it's just because I've been away from regular watching for so long but I was struck hard by one thing I saw...

The distinct and unhidden patterns of grooming and predatory behavior in media are constant. There is no coverup. No shame. No outcry. 

Men and women have always enjoyed the thrill of the chase and old TV shows are sprinkled heavily with the same messages, but I found the aggressiveness and crassness of the newer shows to be alarming and constant; acclimating us through clever scripting to a system that breeds abuse. It's the same culture I met so strongly in high school - having to constantly share close space with guys who were openly and aggressively predatory - and in so many other places. 

My hope for this article is to sharpen our Catholic axes so that we are better prepared to fight this battle and to help those specifically whose souls, minds, and bodies fall under our care.  I am concerned for both males and females but my gifts are more suited to helping other women - that is my unique perspective - and so my focus will be on helping protect our Catholic teen and young adult daughters from false and predatory men.

We don't have to be powerless. The easiest way to become a victim of evil is to give our consent and an open door. So... let's teach each other to retain our power. Some of our sisters and daughters will need our help to climb out of the trap of attraction, manipulation and possibly shame. Let's do this. Let's be strong in mercy, love, and willingness to go a little Joan-of-Arc on the enemy.

THE PRACTICAL STUFF 

I will go over some practical guidelines for being able to spot possible predators. This is a defensive maneuver only. There are many excellent resources out there for identifying healthy qualities in a man and I encourage you to look those up as well. 

Are you currently dating?
Are you involved in a relationship?
Are you a teen girl interested in boys?
Are you a parent entrusted with the care of young men and women?

Let's talk about our predatory culture and practical ways to protect them against the common (criminal and non-criminal) predatory male. 

SURELY YOU DON'T MEAN TO SAY 'PREDATOR?' THAT'S A STRONG WORD.

Actually, yes. Yes, I do. When I say predatory, I am referring to boys and men whose ultimate aim is not the eternal well-being of the girl, but the satisfaction of their ego and sexual urges. That is not necessarily a criminal action but it absolutely makes them a hunter/user of women and ultimately, dangerous. Whether it is a behavior that is studied and deliberate or simply learned by being a part of a hedonistic culture is irrelevant to the safety of the young woman involved. It’s still predatory. 

There's a difference between a man struggling with virtue and a man who is a predatory and we should acknowledge that. But it is also true that an habitual lack of virtue is the path to all evil actions. So... 

Some of you will get hung up on the term "predatory." I stick by it and won't soften it. I'm tired of the silence. We see where silence gets us. It gives us a broken, bleeding wound delivered by evil permitted to flourish. 

Back to the bad guys who want to date our daughters...

Some of these guys are impatient, boorish, and angry; some of them are poetic, gentle and willing to play the game and wait (some even profess a love of Christ). Regardless of the differences, both have the same end goal which is satisfaction of their own ego and physical desires. Both engage in a form of grooming.

Because this topic always seems to get some "boy mom" defenses up, I have to give the standard disclaimer: 

I am a "boy mom" of 4 boys. I married a man. I have male friends and beloved male family members. I know many good (male) priests. This post is not male-bashing. I don't hate men. I do not think men are the only ones at fault. This is wholly and simply a practical and instructive resource for single women and those who love them.

It's also a resource for teenage girls not yet ready for marriage who are uniquely vulnerable to false and bad men... and possibly a self-check for good men who don't want to be that guy

So for the record, girls: Don't be losers. Don't use or entrap guys. This post can be helpful for teaching you how not to be abusive (simply apply the points to your own behaviors) and also to avoid getting yourself caught up with one. 

DEAR MOMS OF GIRLS...

We've all been around the block a few times. We know things that our girls don't know. But our girls haven't lived in our shoes, haven't learned our lessons, and haven't undergone our conversions. We cannot assume that they are equipped to weather the storms we are accustomed to withstanding. We cannot assume that when they nod their heads in agreement with our maternal rants that they actually have a deep enough grasp of the truth or an unwavering relationship with Jesus Christ. 

We have to be willing to go to the mat for them; to make ourselves a righteous nuisance about technology, defensive protocols, and constant instruction in the art of navigating the human condition. 

I'm not going to sugarcoat this. Some of you think your girl is okay... and she's not. 

God didn't allow me to wade through the sewage in my own life only to stay silent and watch other hearts, minds, and bodies assaulted by wickedness. Here is your warning and I give it with all the sisterly and motherly love in my feminine heart:

Evil hardly ever comes looking like a monster... but usually appearing like the deepest desires of our heart. We have to be prepared. 

Evil slips through the cracks through our weaknesses and our pride. It finds our sorrows and our loneliness. It listens to our doubts and becomes the consolation and affirmation that we deeply desire. 

CATHOLIC GIRLS ARE PARTICULARLY VULNERABLE

Young women from good homes who are pursuing virtue are particularly vulnerable to the snake in the grass because they are more trusting. They are surrounded early in life by people pursuing virtue. Consequently, they more quickly believe the lies from the forked tongue of a compassionate admirer. The answer isn't to expose them to more and earlier wickedness but to better prepare them with the truth before, during, and after they hear the lies.

I love you.
I want you to be happy.
I can make you happy.

Your parents don't understand you.
I'm Catholic.
I go to church at St. fill-in-the-blank.
I will take care of you. 
You're beautiful.

Some of your daughters will fall. If they do, you will strap on your armor of maternal justice and mercy... and you can use this list to help them climb out of the hole of sorrow. To destroy lies and restore the order of truth.

I would be negligent if I didn't add that this list holds true for any person in a position of authority over our children including teachers and priests. If even one of these things is true, a relationship of vulnerability and trust should not be pursued. Safeguards should be in place. No spiritual direction or personal mentorship. No outings. No private phone calls. No car rides. It should go without saying that private meetings (closed off from others) with an adult male even without these markers are generally imprudent. 

Please note that not all of these indicate that a boy or man is bad beyond recovery or that he only has evil intentions. But the presence of even one of these factors increases risk significantly. Even one of these is sufficient to decline a single date, an exclusive relationship, and certainly marriage discernment. You don't even have to have a reason if your gut tells you "no."

Some of us fell hard to predators as young women and didn't have the support that we needed. Here's what I wish I knew... 


A Catholic Girl's Guide to Detecting a Predator

Give your guy 1 point for each of the 13 risk factors.

Scroll down for an explanation of each warning sign. Again, a man struggling with virtue is not necessarily the same as a predatory man. But he can be... and that is why this is a list of risk factors and not definitive statements. 

  1. He is not a Christian.

  2. He is not a Catholic.

  3. He is a bad Catholic.

  4. He is a liar.

  5. He is secretive.

  6. He isolates you.

  7. He is vulgar.

  8. He is divisive.

  9. He is mean.

  10. He pressures you to abandon your morals.

  11. He is fast.

  12. He is immersed in foul music and media (or porn).

  13. He doesn't want to talk to your dad.


1. HE IS NOT A CHRISTIAN

He may be a "nice" guy or a "decent" guy. He may claim to be a moral person and pursue natural virtues but, if he does not submit his heart and actions to Christ, there is no standard for him to follow when he feels like straying. 

This is a non-negotiable for a Catholic girl. 

"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters." - Matthew 12:30

Aside from his own comfort and passions, a man who does not follow Christ has no guide. He has no reason to be honest when it will cost him. No reason to remain chaste when he feels that he is in love. No reason to forego worldly pleasures. 

Why should he tell you the truth about anything?
Why should he wait for marriage?
Why shouldn't he use you?

Every man can eventually choose to follow Christ. But if he wants to date you and does not currently adhere to a Christ-centered worldview, he will only be able to follow his own ego and his passions. 

You cannot save him. Only Christ can save him. Perhaps he will be ready someday to discern a relationship with you... but not yet. This does not necessarily make a man a predator, but it is a significant risk since he does not yet know how to love as he was made to love. He does not yet know that love is an act of service with an aim of heaven... and not just a way to gratify ego and urges.


2. HE IS NOT A CATHOLIC

What if he's a follower of Christ but not a Catholic? I deeply love my Protestant brothers and sisters and have found them to be some of the greatest examples of Christian love I have ever seen. They've taught me how to better love Christ and express His love to others. They've taught me how to joyfully worship and how to speak like a true believer. They've taught me about what it means to suffer well for Christ and have given noble examples of red and white martyrdom for His sake. They've also been an incredible support for learning how to navigate the cesspool of secular culture. 

But because there is no one governing body or thought in Protestantism, it cannot be said that all non-Catholic Christians have the same beliefs and behaviors. 

This does not necessarily make a man a predator, but can be a relationship risk since he likely rejects some boundaries set in place by Catholic moral teaching. If he accepts sexual deviancy of one kind (i.e. homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, contraception, etc), then he may also be less resistant theologically to things like porn and premarital sex. This is a problem among Catholic men who have clear and permanent boundaries. How much more so if there are movable boundaries?

Let's be straight about this. This post is primarily for Catholic women who want to be safe and want to remain Catholic. If that's what you want, then you will have to fight hard for it and make uncomfortable, unpopular decision... because most of the world is going to think you're nuts. 


3. HE IS A BAD CATHOLIC

This is probably the most dangerous dating category for a young woman who wishes to remain Catholic. Once a predatory man finds out that she is a committed Catholic, he will know exactly what to say to gain her confidence. He knows the externals and how to appear pious. He will go to Mass with her and talk about his Catholic school upbringing. They will have deep conversations about matters of faith and he will listen attentively while she expounds on moral and theological matters. He may even go through RCIA if he was never confirmed.

He's a liar because he doesn't believe and doesn't want to believe. He's already been a Catholic and rejected it and Christ. He's been living in a state of mortal sin. And he thinks he's got a sure bet with his innocent Catholic victim. 

Another example of this is a boy or man who is living as if he is a believing Catholic but is rebellious in his heart. A priest who has stopped praying and who is sexually active but who is still in active ministry to other souls. A Catholic school teenager who goes to Mass to please his parents but who prefers the ways of the world. 

I know the observation is harsh but it is not wrong. This is a very dangerous man. And he lives in our parishes, in our schools, and all over the internet. 

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. - Matthew 7:15-17


4. HE IS A LIAR

If a man has a habit of lying, walk away. If he encourages you to lie in order to be with him, run. If he will lie to your parents or his, he will lie to you. And if he lies to you, you are not safe in his care. 

"Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'" - John 14:6


5. HE IS SECRETIVE

There is no place for secrets in a healthy relationship. If you have to sneak to meet him, he's not the one. A good man will not make you jump through hoops so that he can hide in the dark. A good man will walk up to your front door and ask courteously to speak to your dad. 

If your relationship has developed entirely (or almost entirely) on the internet for the purpose of staying hidden and in isolation from your family, it is a bad relationship and you should end it. 

A good man who loves you will want to know your family and introduce you to his. He will want to become a part of your life not hide away in a dark corner with you. 

If he doesn't want to meet your parents and doesn't want you to meet his, he is a liar and a thief. His objective is to keep you away from your safety net and the people who can protect you. Run. Run. Run. 


6. HE ISOLATES YOU

Technology is a wonderful and terrible thing. In the case of relationships, it is often absolutely devastating. One primary tactic of predators is to isolate and alienate someone from their support system. They are narcissists and demand all of your undivided attention. The existence of texting, messaging via many social media platforms, and things like Google Hangouts means that you have unrestricted access to each other at any time of the day or night. In bed, at school, in the bathroom, at work, at church, on family outings... 

That. is. not. healthy.

To be fair, we are a society of technology addicts and many otherwise healthy people spend far too much time on devices. Relationship development is completely different than it was even 15 years ago and I acknowledge that imprudence is not the same as predation. 

However, predatory behavior easily includes isolating via technology. 

There is no accountability, no protection, no loved one observing visitors or phone calls in a healthy way. There is no way to ignore a communication, no way to be unobserved or to take time to yourself... UNLESS it is a healthy relationship where boundaries are observed and appreciated.

If he is constantly checking on you, jealous of your family and friends, demanding of your time, and punishing you emotionally for claiming healthy space... that's a red flag.


7. HE IS VULGAR

If your guy's mouth is dirty and you would be ashamed to have him overheard by your grandmother, father, or parish priest, then you've got a problem. This may just be a problem of his upbringing (in that he never learned it was wrong) but it is no less concerning. A man should be conscious of the dignity of a woman and take care to be polite and refrain from crude talk. If he is constantly dropping the F-bomb and talking using explicit language, he is not yet a trustworthy man. He is a vulgar boy and not worthy of your time. 

If you adopt vulgar or coarse speech as a result of hanging around him, then you are being false in order to gain attention and affirmation. It is not love. It doesn't attract true love. It does not build up, heal, bless, or make beautiful. It is ugly and you should reject it. 


8. HE IS DIVISIVE

One of the hallmark actions of narcissists and predators is to isolate a person from her support system and family.

A good man will want to know the rules of your family and abide by them. He will not put you in situations in which you are vulnerable or separated from your support system. If you find this to be the case, you may very well be dealing with a predatory person. Or at least someone who is self-absorbed and not good relationship material.


9. HE IS MEAN

If he reacts angrily or unkindly to your efforts to maintain connection with what is good and true in your life, regularly puts you down, or easily erupts into angry outbursts... end the relationship. You are headed for a life of sorrow. 


10. HE PRESSURES YOU TO ABANDON YOUR MORALS

He may be supportive at first but many predators will start to chip away at the foundation of your beliefs after they have gained your trust. They might start to do this by asking innocent sounding questions about moral issues and then increase negativity once they find gaps in your knowledge or faith. They will press into your doubt and use your affection to their advantage. 

A predatory person is often excited to learn that you are a religious-minded person because it makes the catch that much more exhilarating. They know if you want to be pure and possibly if you are a virgin. They've just entered the most thrilling video game ever

They are willing to wait a long time for you if they think they can ultimately "win." Studies of criminal sexual predators show that some of them will groom a victim for years. In relationships where a man isn't criminal but simply lacks virtue, he may also be willing to wait a long time for you if he is enjoying the ego-affirming chase. 

If your guy is pressuring you to abandon your morals and isn't Christian or Catholic, see points #1 and #2. If he claims to be a Catholic, see #3. If you are certain that he is a practicing Catholic and he regularly pressures you to abandon your moral compass, especially in matters of sexuality... see #4. Run from them all. They don't love you. 


11. HE IS FAST

You've known him for a few weeks and he already says "I love you." You've just had a first date and he gives you a full body hug (pressing thighs, hips, abdomen, chest, and shoulders together). He is quick to hold your hand, quick to kiss you, quick to talk about the future. Quick to demand the majority of your time. 

This is not proof positive of a bad man, especially since most young men simply suffer from terrible formation or a tendency toward imprudence. But just know...

Healthy discernment is not generally that fast and predators are willing to wait a long time but will also go as quickly as they are allowed to go. Pushing physical boundaries early is often a way of grooming for rapid physical intimacy. It shows them how far they can go without resistance and it shows you one of two things 1) Dude hasn't been taught boundaries and respectful behavior to women, 2) He lacks self-discipline and maturity, or 3) He doesn't care.


12. HE IS IMMERSED IN FOUL MUSIC AND MEDIA (OR VIEWS PORN)

When he gets in the car, he turns on music that would make your grandma blush. He regularly views television, YouTube videos, and movies which depict sexually explicit content. He views pornography. 

Many practicing Catholics also do these things and it can get very confusing. I have seen practicing Catholic men and women defend soft porn in movies and explicit music lyrics. I do not agree with them and have written about it before but I understand that it can be a difficult point of navigation. 

My point here is to say that if someone has become desensitized to material which degrades, disrespects, distorts, and hates the truth and beauty of God-given sexuality... that's a red flag. As for pornography... someone who currently and unapologetically uses porn is not a safe person for a young woman. 

You are made in the image of God (the Imago Dei). You were made to love and be loved. You are not an object. You deserve better. 


13. HE DOESN'T WANT TO TALK TO YOUR DAD

This is an excellent gauge of a man's integrity and strength of character. 

Not everyone likes, admires, or gets along with their dad but, if your dad is still in your life and isn't a criminal, then a man who wants to date you should be ready and willing to come face to face with him and express his interest in you. 

This practice has almost entirely fallen away in our culture but it is worth restoring even if only as a general barometer of character. Ideally, a guy should reach out to your dad first but most have never been presented with such an idea. You may have to bring it up. And then know....

A guy who refuses to talk to your dad is likely a man of secrets, lies, poor character, and a hidden agenda. He doesn't want his cover blown by dad and is averse to the proper order of relationships.

Some predators can even fool dad and Eddie Haskell their way through a meeting. But I maintain that if your guy is happy to meet with your dad (even if he's nervous), discuss expectations, accountability, intentions, etc, and shake his hand... then your odds of happiness are greatly increased. 


Now... add up the points. 

I can't tell you what to do with them because I do not claim this to be a fool proof formula for discernment. I only offer you food for thought. 

If you have one point, you need to figure out if it really is a concern or not (unless it's a non-negotiable like sexual pressure) . If you have multiple, I recommend bringing the information to someone you trust with your very life (not the guy) and prayerfully considering the potential concerns. 

I don't want to end this article... I want to keep talking about it. I want to put my arms around every girl and make sure she gets it. I had to keep it relatively brief here because the internet has robbed our collective ability to read something even as long as this post. I know most will just skim.

But let's get the conversation started. 

A girl should be prepared early on to understand her dignity and to become accustomed to defending boundaries. She will need those tools her entire life. She will need them in the Church, in school, in sports, in family life, and in friendships. 

She will be tempted to become like the culture in order to find love. The predators are waiting. 

Break the silence. Restore the culture. Protect each other. 

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How Can We Help? Please Reply. A Letter to Catholic Families

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The letter was a stunner. I sat at my desk with tears streaming down my face, reading the words from a friend which seemed to open old wounds and heal them at the same time. He was asking for my thoughts (and the the input of other Catholic families) as he and his wife discern their family's role in living out the Gospel message. And now they have granted my request to share this letter with you. 

My friend is a faithful Catholic man married to a beautiful woman of God, and their marriage is a blessing to those who know them. Like other families, they carry crosses, and have been carrying the heavy cross of infertility for 8 years. I have watched them blossom beautifully, watered by grace, even under that difficult weight; and I have been so blessed by their continuous and fervent effort to discern the will of God for their lives. 

In the midst of their own trials, they have observed the unique crosses of Catholic parents and are wondering how those burdens can be lightened. 

They know that their primary call is to holiness... but they continue to pursue the "what" and "how" of the specific call of their marital vocation... and they are asking for input. In asking "How can we use our vocation to help support other families?" they are also asking "How can we help restore Christendom?"

Will you please take a few minutes to read and to answer his questions? Put your thoughts in the comments here or on Facebook, or email them to me and I will send them along. Also, please share this post and get this conversation rolling among the larger community. Perhaps we will all learn something in the process of pondering and sharing. 


Dear Friends, 

I am increasingly convinced that my wife's and my role (and perhaps mission) in this season of life is to serve in some way as support and aid to others attempting to raise their families in an authentically Catholic way. Everyone included here is already doing a wonderful job of raising beautiful families - I'm just wondering if there's some way it could be even better. I've spoken of this to many of you already, and want to pursue the idea to see if and how it might develop. 

Right now, I'm not sure what this means (if it means anything at all) or how it looks; but, the more I think and talk about it, the more beneficial and needed it appears. This may not lead to anything, but not pursuing the idea will certainly lead to nothing. So please take some time to thoughtfully consider together as parents and spouses and respond, which will help both us (in determining if this even a thing for us) and potentially many others.

The question at the heart of my idea is basically this: If you could have help in raising and forming your family, what would that help look like?

I think many parents have become inured to the challenges, struggles, and difficulties of raising a family, and accept them as "normal." And, of course, there will always be those. But how might they be lessened or eased? What would "someone to help" look like?

Would it be someone...

  • ...to help tutor/homeschool/supplement kids' education?
  • ...to help clean?
  • ...to help babysit?
  • ...to have adult conversation with?
  • ...to just come visit and spend some "quantity time"?
  • ...to help arrange real-education related events/trips?
  • (e.g. a trip to a farm to plant vegetables or collect eggs is far more educational than reading a book about gardening. Mom may not be able to take age-appropriate kid because younger kids need attention, but what if a trusted family friend could help chaperone a group of age-appropriate kids from several families? Etc.)
  • ...to help develop a more-enveloping/holistic vision for Catholic culture/community?
  • ...to recommend reading/music/media?
  • ...to help share the good ideas and experience you've already had with others?
  • ...to....? Dare to dream!
  • I've included several friends who represent different stages of family life, demographics, needs, and means. But everyone at least shares a commitment to raising Catholic families in some way. And everyone has something to contribute, no matter where on the family-life spectrum you are. 

I've been developing my own understanding of what Catholic culture (which will only be rebuilt through the family) looks like; most recently based on Anthony Esolen's book Out of the Ashes, and the concepts of Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option. In short: real friendship, real community, built on Truth and a pursuit of virtue and true human formation. But I want to hear from you "in the trenches," who have real day-to-day experiences in this thing.

Finally, I anticipate some resistance to your thinking and replying on this. Some of the things you might think:

  • "I don't want to bother anyone."
  • "This is my family and I chose to have the kids, so I don't want to burden anyone else by asking for help."
  • "I don't want anyone to think I'm a bad mom/dad."
  • "I don't want to admit it's hard."
  • "I don't want anyone to see my messy house."
  • "I don't want anyone to judge me."
  • "I don't need help."
  • "Nothing will change anyway, this is just fantasy."
  • "I don't know what I don't know."

Please, please, please do not allow fear, pride, vanity, negativity, or a sense of "bothering someone" prevent you from thinking, replying, and embracing this idea. I don't know where this will lead (if anywhere), but I do know that not asking the question, and not trying will lead exactly no where. The perfect guarantee of nothing changing. I'm not trying to create a "program" or impose obligations - just trying to figure out if there's a way to help serve the needs of good friends raising good families.

The world and secular culture is encroaching and the Enemy is ever seeking to destroy the family. We must take those threats seriously stand firm and do something to help one another in this spiritual battle for the souls of our families and friends. I hope just asking these questions will help foster some ideas as to how we might work together in love, friendship, and virtue to rebuild and re-claim authentic Culture. I look forward to your thoughts!

Oremus pro invicem,
Your brother in Christ

Three Reasons to Stop Photoshopping Your Face

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I had long resisted the urge to click on the "make-yourself-into-a-star" Facebook apps. I don't click on any of them as a general rule but... after the 15th person in my feed shared her transformation, my idle and itchy social media trigger finger just... clicked. 

What I already knew is that my friends' images had been changed in ways that made me the tiniest bit sad. They are beautiful women... but they don't look like that. And I battled with myself over the questions this raised for me...

Shouldn't we all be allowed to dress up and become the "princess" every once in a while? Can't we have a little fun? Isn't this what we would all look like if we had a boatload of cash to pour into cosmetics and salon appointments? 

But we don't. We don't. And I think it's important that we (or at least I) face the uncomfortable truth that I love photoshop and all the face-smoothing apps primarily because... they don't really look like me. I don't like my face or my teeth, the way I do my makeup, or my hairstyle. I never have. These apps take away all the discomfort of having my vanity pricked. 

I was raised in a American culture that taught me to be dissatisfied with all of myself and I went through intense periods of self-hatred. I hated looking in the mirror and was ashamed (this is hard to admit) to leave the house looking like me, with my skin and my figure and my everything. 

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The picture above - a screenshot from that Facebook app - shows the face of a beautiful woman. Hollywood gorgeous. They used my picture and added my name but I know that's not me. It's a photoshopped me and what I might look like if I was a teenager with a professional team of stylists; or maybe with a talented cosmetic surgeon.

I shouldn't have clicked on that app but I did. I also spent too much time scrolling through Instagram and noticed far too many of us (women, that is) with obviously airbrushed wrinkles and smoothed laugh lines. We take the digital pen to the parts of us that we don't love before we are ready and willing to share with others... even though those who love us most already know our imperfections.

My heart sank and I headed right to my keyboard to share three reasons why you shouldn't photoshop yourself.

1. It's a lie.

Listen to me... You DO have crows' feet and gray sprinkled in that hair. The more you attack it and fuzz it out of your pictures, the more you communicate a lie to yourself: That you aren't okay the way you are.  

I'm not talking about using makeup and fashions to accentuate what is beautiful about you... I happen to think those can be important items in a feminine toolbox! There is absolutely nothing wrong with highlighting our natural beauty and and adding some color and props. But that's not the kind of photo correction I'm talking about. 

It is one thing to use a cool filter once in a while, stand in the best light, delete a big red mark on your nose, or find a flattering angle. It is another to paint over or change what is overwhelmingly real. And it is a lie straight from the enemy himself that you need to be something other than you are in order to be worthy of a ridiculous social media post... surrounded by millions of other terribly insecure people filtering their own faces.

2. You're hurting others.

Yes, it's true. Over time, we paint an unrealistic portrait of ourselves for others and contribute to the manic insecurity of the souls inhabiting the internet. I don't have to describe the comparison game for you because you already know all about it. It can crush us slowly over time. 

It's not necessarily something we can control, you know? It is an emotion that comes unbidden... this feeling of insecurity... or fear... or inadequacy. It is what we do with that emotion that makes all the difference. Does that emotion inspire joy, peace, confidence, and virtue in us? Or does it make us feel... irritable, angry, jealous, ugly, inadequate?

And aren't those latter emotions often the fruits of our social media explorations. We think we're fine and secure, but there is a deeper level at which we are learning about who we are and who others are as well. Who are we allowing to be our teachers and what are we teaching others? 

Ladies... Our friends love to see us looking beautiful. Go ahead and look like your gorgeous self! But if your 40-year old face isn't flat and smooth like a baby's (and most aren't), please allow us to see you anyway.

The truth is that it's not that important to others what YOU look like... each person is mostly just wrapped up in our own insecurities. If we see you, our beautiful friend, in all your weathered glory, it will be balm to our trembling souls. Those broken people who will find the flaws and pick at them and mock? They are dealing with their own deep insecurities and sufferings and I suspect their words are less to hurt us than to protect themselves. We don't have to let their baggage become our albatross. Let it go. Show your face. 

3. You are hurting your daughters

I recently watched several video projects put together by high schoolers. The goal was to document reactions to fellow students being called beautiful and to spread some joy. The most interesting thing about these videos for me was the surprise, delight, and sometimes even the pain that the compliment triggered. 

In one of the videos, there was even a hostile response. "Shut up," she says. "I'm going to cut your face." Others immediately feel the need to argue. "No... no... I don't think so. Thank you, but...no."

These are children and young adults and yet the pain is evident. And I think the reasons are clear.

  •  We have bought the lie that we are too deficient to be admired without a mask. 
  •  We have been deeply hurt by others who perpetrate that lie. 

What does this have to do with our daughters? 

Let me ask you: Are we preaching with our actions what we claim to believe about the beauty and dignity our children and all of humanity (including ourselves)? Our children see what we are doing to our own pictures and and they also see what we are doing to theirs. It is teaching them about what we believe is necessary to be liked and loved. 

I am not advocating that we embarrass people by posting their image in unflattering ways and then tagging them on Facebook. Nope, that's pretty careless and awful. I've been on the receiving end of that! I'm also not saying that we can't use a mild filter for a special portrait. 

But they do know what they look like and they do notice if you've smoothed out or eliminated their "worst" features in your random Instagram post. You made their eyes bigger, their hair less frizzy, their nose thinner, their lips plumper. They know that you tinkered and they LIKE the result... but they also incorrectly identify that you fixed them because they needed fixing in order to be photo worthy. 

They don't. 

Unfortunately, our tinkering only confirms their belief that they do. Ah, yes... mommy doesn't like the circles under my eyes either. I'm glad she fixed that.

She's glad on on level; but on another level, it is a blow to the very soul. 

One of the most difficult aspects of having a visual social media presence for me (as a business owner with a need to be here) is having to put my face in front of a camera, especially now that my autoimmune disease periodically reveals itself on my face. (See my unfiltered pics HERE.) All of my teenage insecurities come pouring out and I realize that I've never really fully healed. I am still overcoming that self-hatred with time and care. The first step is to simply ignore the emotion and do what needs to be done, walking past my vanity and pride and learning true humility; but I pray that the next step is a gentle and loving acceptance of my God-given skin. 

I imagine that is one of the greatest potential blessings of old age... that we can no longer hide our physical flaws. We can finally stop messing with the filter and just focus on the soul. Finally ready to be loved. 

"Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong. Your every act should be done with love." Corinthians 16:13-14

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Spacing Children Without NFP

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The average space between our children is a little over two years. This fact often inspires random strangers to comment about how nicely planned our family is. The "perfect" spacing they say. 

"Oh! Three boys and four girls! How Peeerfect! How did you manage that?"

To which I reply...

Thank you very much for your enthusiasm. But I didn't have anything to do with it. God planned it all. Really.

And that's the full truth. I'm going to make an intimate confession here and reveal that we don't know a thing about NFP. Well, we know some things and own a bunch of books about it -- but it's been, oh, about 19 years since our class and since we haven't used it really at all, well, we've forgotten some things. (We are not anti-NFP. We simply haven't used it.)

But in those years we've also learned a lot about the nitty gritty of life-giving love and the physiology of fertility and motherhood. We were also given a gift when our oldest was several months old that became one of the greatest blessings of my motherhood. The book Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing is not just a technical how-to for postponing fertility through breastfeeding, but a way of life... of beautiful, natural, sacrificial love. It's less a manual for family planning and more an encouragement to surrender wholly to the vocation God has blessed us with.

There's no charting, no temp taking, no lengthy abstinence. But there is a reason that it is not a more popular method, and that is because it requires a total lifestyle commitment to breastfeeding on demand. Over the years, I have come to realize that this sacrificial way of life is actually one of the most beautiful and consoling aspects of my motherhood. God has allowed me the ability to perfectly nourish and nurture my youngest children... and the icing on the cake is that refreshing pause in fertility.

How does it work?

It's rather simple, actually.

God designed the act of breastfeeding to suppress the hormones that cause a return to fertility. So, a lifestyle of nursing on demand very naturally allows some space. To maximize that space, certain basic guidelines need to be followed. As I said, this is not particularly restrictive for me because it has become a way of life. The blessings far outweigh the discomfort. But it is definitely more challenging in our "freedom" and gadget-loving culture which seeks constantly to separate mother and child and frowns upon lengthy nursing. 

My return to fertility has between 13 and 24 months postpartum with 8 children and I generally nurse my children for two years. The following are the "rules" (I hate to even use that term) that we follow but it all boils down to frequency of nursing and physical contact with the baby

~ Nothing but breastfeeding for the first six months of life.

Period. Barring any medical contraindications, nothing else is needed. Even during the hot Summer months when hydration is extra important, frequent nursing is sufficient.

NO BOTTLES OR PACIFIERS

Mamas are designed to pacify and babies are designed with a strong need to be pacified. God created us that way and a plastic pacifier is a only weak substitute for His original design.  Babies will nurse when they are hungry (which is designed to be frequent) but also because it comforts them, makes them happy, and reduces pain. (Incidentally, if you've never nursed a baby through a vaccination, insist on it next time. The baby will be happier and the staff astonished at how quiet your child is.)

We have briefly used pacifiers to calm screaming infants on car trips but have always considered it to be an emergency measure and not the norm for comforting a child. As they get older, our ecologically breastfed babies have all rejected the pacifier (much to my astonishment), even in the car.

FREQUENT NIGHT FEEDING / CO-SLEEPING

Night feeding is a critical element in hormone suppression because estrogen levels tend to rise at night. If you follow the other elements of ecological breastfeeding but sleep apart from your baby at night, you will likely experience an earlier return to fertility. And I can tell you from firsthand experience, that getting out of bed 3 to 5 times per night is practically unsustainable.

I know the objections so I don't need to be lectured. There are many safe ways to be next to baby at night. It takes creativity and a little sacrifice but the balance for me has been overwhelmingly positive. I am a terrible sleeper so night feeding is a definitely a sacrifice . The upside is that I am able to remain in the comfort of my own bed and have the most beautiful bonding during the shortest developmental period of my child's life!

A note about safety: It is easy and intuitive to make a safe sleeping space that you can share with your child. Certain things do increase safety risk, such as morbid obesity and big blankets. I don't ever put a child next to my husband who sleeps extremely heavily. Common sense stuff that is certainly variable according to individual circumstances.

Sleeping close to my infants has actually allowed me to keep my children safer. In one case, I was able to save the life of my son thanks to my poor sleeping habits and close physical proximity. He was struggling to breathe. Completely silent. Nothing that would have been heard on a monitor. His small movements awakened me and as I admired my sleeping beauty, I became aware of his barely noticeable distress. Thanks be to God. In his own room, he would have quietly died. In my household, co-sleeping has reduced the incidents of SIDS.

FREQUENT HOLDING / ALLOWING BABY TO FALL ASLEEP AT THE BREAST

I know. I know. Totally opposite to what grandma keeps telling you. I can't tell you how many times in life well-meaning maternally oriented people have told me to "put that baby down." All I gotta say is... No. My kids are all extremely social, confident people. And I "spoiled" them all rotten in my arms when they were babies. Holding a baby is not spoiling but rather meeting a strong, God-given need to be physically nurtured. Yes, they do get used to being held and rocked to sleep. Yes, they do eventually sleep fine on their own. This time is brief. Embracing these small sacrifices allows us to enjoy the incredible blessing of the moment.

NO SCHEDULES

This is hard for moms, particularly for those of us who have other children to care for, but breastfeeding is not designed to work with a schedule. Breast milk is quickly digested and babies needs are constantly, constantly changing. During periods of tremendous growth in infancy, there are days when a breastfeeding mother thinks that she does nothing but nurse, and it's almost literally true. Those are the days when mama has to figure out how to brush her teeth or make lunch with a crying baby in her arms.  New mothers often lose confidence and feel like they are "not making enough milk" or that they have a particularly difficult baby. I have learned that ALL babies are "high need" and some just express it more loudly. It is challenging but the baby is only following God's design of supply and demand for nursing. They want to grow. They are not ready to be independent. It is a gift we give... and we can't give it well only on our terms. We must surrender.

A personal note about schedules: My firstborn had severe reflux as an infant, losing every single feeding all over me, the floor, the bed, whatever was in the way. He did this as a toddler and threw up almost all of his meals.  As a baby, he nursed constantly, for nourishment and comfort, and I was exhausted all of the time. A well-meaning family friend gave me a book on how to structure the feeding of infants and, in desperation,  I began to follow it, to the detriment of my malnourished and suffering son. He cried even more and was not thriving. A couple weeks into the experiment, another friend mailed me a copy of Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing. I read it in an  afternoon, scooped up my baby boy, and didn't put him down for 3 years.

SACRIFICIAL!! It was hard. I nursed that boy 24/7. He'd spit up, I'd clean up, and nurse him again. He clung to me fiercely for three years but he grew in stature and love. And then, he let go. Today, he's preparing his college applications... and I have no regrets.

NO RESTRICTIONS

Stay away from any practice that restricts nursing or keeps you away from your baby. Yes, for a brief window in his life, you will be your baby's everything. You will take him to adult functions (or stay home) and find super creative ways to spend time with your spouse. There will be times when you just want to run away and be free... there will be other times when you will find brief glimpses of the perfection of your vocation from the rocking chair in your living room.

In these "rules," I have, more or less, summed up the Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing promoted by Sheila Kippley. Her original book changed my life. I do not live out attachment parenting exactly as she prescribes it but her words have challenged me to give more than I ever considered giving. I honestly have no regrets. I have had to make many sacrifices to live this way but it is a beautiful way to live.

For those of you who do not wish to live this lifestyle. I'm not judging you and I expect that there are preferences and exceptions and challenges that make your lifestyle different from mine. I am writing only to publicly share a largely unknown treasure for those who have never heard of it or who just need a little encouragement to explore it.

This method is not perfect by worldly standards because, by it's very nature, it requires flexibility and openness. There are many variables that cannot be perfectly controlled. Again, it is less of a method than a natural lifestyle. Before pacifiers, before bottles, before bouncy seats and swings... there were mamas' arms. Thanks be to God for the gift of technology, especially for those with medical needs! But all things being equal, God's original design is perfect.

EXCEPTIONS

I have met many women over the years for whom this method does not work. They are often telling me this while their babies drink from a bottle or suck on a pacifier. Or it is revealed later that they have frequent babysitting or do not co-sleep or do not let the baby fall asleep at the breast. Or that they will go on outings without baby and use a pump. Doing those things does not make someone a bad mother, but it does interfere with the biological law which governs a return to fertility.

But there are also those women whose fertility returns in spite of all their efforts... 

For those who have followed every guideline and still find their fertility returning very early, Mariette over at The Natural Catholic Mom has some theories about why that might be the case. I think her thoughts have a lot of merit. Exclusive and Ecological Breastfeeding Are Not the Same

For more information on the nitty gritty of the amazing, God-gifted method of spacing babies naturally through breastfeeding, please refer to the following resources:

Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing: The Ecology of Natural Mothering (Kippley)

Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood: God's Plan for You and Your Baby (Kippley)

The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding: The Frequency Factor (Kippley)

 The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing (PDF)

Traveling With Your Sensitive Toddler

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"I want to go home."

She looked straight into my eyes and I knew she wasn't bluffing. She wasn't whining, she was insisting. We had been on the road for only an hour. Yes, this was going to be a long trip. She repeated those words many times over the next week and then finally, we were home. But the middle days... Oh those middle days.

Having raised 6 children out of toddlerhood (so far), I should be the expert. I should have been completely prepared for my 7th when she reached the age of two. Not so much. 

My current toddler is brilliant, loving, and sweet but she also happens to be highly sensitive. Call it a sensory processing issue or whatever... she's an amazing kid with huge intensity. Add a new baby brother to her world and... BOOM... many of you have toddlers and you know what that looks like!

So our recent 9-hour trip to drop my oldest off at college was a source of anxiety for me. My own stress level was only secondary to hers and that was the fundamental problem and my primary concern. She's an amazing kid who loves life in a big way; but life gets bigger and bigger for her until it overwhelms.

Too much too often too quickly too loudly.

I had no idea how we would help her navigate all the sounds, sights, smells, strange people, noises, and routine disruptions. Naturally, I consulted the Parenting Manual under the section "How to Mother a Passionate Toddler" and read...

HaHaHaHaHaHa!

Right. That's what I thought it would say. But with a little planning and a lot of compassion and patience, we made it and it wasn't horrible. For those of you who have sweet little tigers like mine - full of life and love and then some - I've compiled a few tips that helped with our trip. Again, I'm no expert and haven't experienced much of this with my other kids, but these are things that helped my girl...

  1. Pay attention to the Bucket
  2. Buy a carrier and use it
  3. Sleep consistency
  4. Grounding tools
  5. Sit down and read books
  6. Good Nutrition (No candy!)
  7. Limit activities
  8. Steady Discipline
  9. Plan B (When all else fails)

1. PAY ATTENTION TO THE BUCKET

The "bucket theory" for human beings goes something like this: The body is like a bucket and fills over time, drop by drop. When the bucket is filled with toxins, irritants, allergens, etc., it starts to overflow and react. There's only so much it can hold without negative effect. For a sensitive child (or adult), each new person, sound, smell, etc. fills the bucket and sometimes cause an overflow.

For a toddler, "overflow" = breakdown.

I can tell you firsthand that once the bucket is full, it takes a long time to empty it. Preventing the full bucket in the first place is much easier than restoring it to a healthy level. All of the tips that follow below are geared toward keeping drips below the brim while traveling. (Here's a link to a brief and helpful overview of the bucket theory for sensitive people: The Bucket)

2. BUY A CARRIER AND USE IT

For the times when the world is just too big for a toddler, a carrier is parenting gold. Being close to you is a stress reliever. You become a safe zone... home base... and they never have to leave it even on the go. 

Our Ergobaby carrier carries up to 45 pouds so it's perfect for a toddler. She's too heavy for me but my sons and husband can carry her easily. We have both the Performance model and the original and the guys really love the Performance.

3. SLEEP CONSISTENCY

It is helpful to keep sleep habits and location as consistent as possible. My smarty pants 3-year old was definitely nervous about all the places we were going since they were all new. She kept asking to go home and we couldn't oblige... but we were at least able to come back to the same hotel bed every night. We had the opportunity to stay with friends but we opted not to (much to the other kids' chagrin) and instead made an investment in stability and toddler peace. 

If location consistency isn't possible, keep the routine and accessories consistent. Same blanket. Same pillow. Same stuffed animal. Same PJ's. Same prayers. Same kisses and hugs.

4. GROUNDING TOOLS

Bring the familiar. Bring the controllable. Be prepared to place something in their hands to help help them feel secure when all else seems to them like it's hectic, scary, and unfamiliar. My daughter likes to draw and erase and she will work feverishly at a little dry erase board when she is stressed. She also likes to look at familiar pictures on our phones or other devices. I've noticed that when she's feeling anxious or tired, she usually asks for pictures. It has become something of a cue for us, letting us know that she needs decompressing.

Another tool we prepared in advance was a teething toy. Even though she's 3 now, we've noticed that she chews things to bits when she's out of sorts; clothes, books, purses, whatever. So we bought a pretty pink chewy thing in the baby section and when the going got tough in the car, presented it to her. She was skeptical at first (You mean I'm allowed to chew on this?) and a little sheepish (she knew it was for babies) but ended up falling happily asleep with it in her sweet little paws.

Calming essential oils are another wonderful tool. Find your child's favorite calming and "happy" oils before the trip and have them ready. 

5. SIT DOWN AND READ HER BOOKS

As long as she hasn't moved past the reasonable stage, this IS the magic pill of toddlerhood. 

6. GOOD NUTRITION {NO CANDY}

When my older kids were smaller and needed to spend long hours waiting at the pool or gym, I often controlled their behavior by bringing snacks or treats. Most of the time that meant candy or garbage food. I learned the hard way that candy makes people feel lousy and causes energy crashes. Yes, there are times to thank God for the well-timed lollipop but regular use backfires.

If a kid feels lousy, she will act lousy. Keeping her body nourished properly and in a timely manner saves us (and her) and lot of misery, especially when on the road. She's hungry and it's not dinner time? At this age it doesn't matter... feed her anyway. And feed her good stuff.

7. SIMPLIFY YOUR SCHEDULE

If the carrier isn't enough to keep your child steady, limit activity and known stimuli. Instead of doing five things in a day, do two. And decline the overwhelming Omnimax. I know... it's a bummer. But this motherhood thing is about loving people not collecting experiences. 

8. STEADY DISCIPLINE

I am so tempted with this girl to just throw in the towel and give her whatever she wants anytime she wants it to keep the peace, especially when traveling. But it is so important to keep steady and consistent. They crave the stability, they need the consistency, and loving boundaries will prevent bad habits from forming. 

When reasonable and loving discipline fails, distraction methods, book reading, naps, food, and cuddles have all been tried, and the total breakdown comesanyway, I have nothing really to offer except for Plan B...

9. PLAN B {WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS}

Sometimes there's just nothing you can do. You've used every tool in your box and your sweet kitten has become a raging cornered tiger. It happens. And it has happened to us more times in the last few months of my motherhood than all the 18 years combined. When hugs don't work. When bribes don't work. When food is refused and sleep is impossible. When discipline has no effect. When the child has lost control over her passions. When the kitten becomes the tiger...

  • Summon up every bit of compassion in your soul and use it liberally. 
  • Find the quietest, darkest place you can to ride out the storm with them.
  • Don't react in anger.
  • Respect boundaries (sensitive kids can get overwhelmed and might not want to be touched) but stay close for when they're ready.
  • Speak softly.
  • Pray out loud softly but loud enough for them to hear, asking Jesus and Mary to bless them with peace.
  • If others are around, ignore the prick of pride welling up. Pride brings embarrassment. Embarrassment can sometimes lead us to unwarranted anger. Prideful anger can lead us to act sinfully.
  • Take as long as the child needs. Let your plans go. 

I know it's hard but we can't give in to resentment. They need us. They are enveloped in emotion and stress and they need the love of Christ Jesus through those into whose care they've been entrusted. There's no one else in the world better equipped to love that child in their moment of need than we are. It's a cross but we'll carry it just fine. And one day, it will feel lighter again and all the love we have poured into our child will have been a part of their formation. Isn't that a beautiful thought? Formation in love. 

Happy travels! St. Christopher, pray for us!

Do you have suggestions for loving sensitive little ones during travels? Please share in the comments!

Catholic Spiritual Bouquet Coloring Page

{This post contains affiliate links. More info Here.} 

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Once upon a time in a land far away, I thought that I could be anything I wanted to be and I imagined that I would end up in a prestigious art school. I knew that they could (and would) take my rough little attempts and refine them until I was a master. 

Little did I know then that art school would never happen, and that I would not only end up with no training, no art degree, and no claim to the name "artist"... but that I would ultimately be okay with that and be satisfied with periodically drawing something to please my children.

I simply didn't know that God's dreams for me were bigger. I didn't know that success wasn't quite that linear and that He would draw a depth of talent out of me in other ways that looked sort of like art... but are less easily grasped and touched. And so... in gratitude that God saw fit to give me more than I even knew to ask for, I drew a little something to share with you...

So that you can bless others.

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This spiritual bouquet prints out black and white to an 8.5" x 11" piece of paper unless you scale it down to make smaller cards. I think it's the perfect Catholic Valentine but can be given for any occasion. 

It prints as a black and white outline to leave room for coloring and creative expression. The middle of the page is blank for you to write in whatever you want. I chose a simple hand written spiritual bouquet for my sample. It can be the background for a birthday letter or an Easter greeting, a Mother's Day spiritual bouquet, an ordination anniversary, or... just to color for fun.

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We have printed these on card stock and used art markers and illustration markers (in the pics above) and have also used crayons, colored pencils, and have printed on a lightweight watercolor paper to use with watercolors

I never did learn how to use oil paints or fully refined my natural gifts. But I love to throw in my pennies here and there to contribute to the wealth of Catholic culture, built by the hands of the faithful... by the grace of God. 

While I certainly take advantage of the mass marketed cards and gifts at the box and dollar stores, there is something so satisfying and deep about building and sharing smaller. 

If you can use this FREE template, sign up at the link below and enjoy! If not, perhaps you can share this post with someone else who can. Thank you so much... and thanks be to God! 

...

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Crossing the Threshold to Joy in the New Year

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My heavenly Father spoils me when He knows it isn't going to ruin me; and the rest of the time He allows me to grow strong in Him, even when growth requires that I first be broken...

I stepped up to the precipice of the New Year with a burden of sorrow on my heart. It thumped a dull but steady pain, and I stumbled over the exhausting thought that another year was starting... and I had nothing left in the tank to bring. The knowledge of how truly blessed I am sustained me... but the feeling of blessing was gone. 

I knew those truths but still lost courage, slowed to a crawl, and barely inched over the threshold of 2018. 

My Lord loves me passionately, foolishly, endlessly... and knowing that kept me pushing through these last months even though I raised my petulant, childish fists in His direction more than once.   So much like my 1-year old who is all cuddles and peaches until he is sick or tired... and then his tiny frantic clenched hands will swing even at his own mama.

My "Where is God?" sounded pathetic even to me while I swam in a life of absolute treasure and abundant love and goodness. Pathetic little fists of fury.

I am LOVE. Why do you strike at me? 

Because I need you... but I am tired. I am afraid.

When I'm healthy and in control, I don't necessarily feel His absence or His Presence at all since my focus is solely on me. It is so easy to say "I AM BLESSED!" and "I feel God's Presence" when things go my way; but the consequence of that shallow understanding of relationship means that the slightest discomfort can throw me into a mini faith crisis.

I assume that my comfort means that He is present and that my discomfort equals His absence... like a feverish toddler who doesn't understand that the hand of Love is not also the cause of the pain. 

And this year... oh my... this year...

He let me hit bottom hard in so many ways... mentally, physically, spiritually... even while He held my wounded body and soul.  My sufferings are truly so small when held up to the heartache of the world. But I hadn't prepared well to carry even a light cross and my own small heart filled, swelled, and burst.

Am I going to die soon, Lord? Is that what's going on? Why the sacrificial pile-on? If you try to give me that kind of medicine, I'm going to wail and thrash and throw it up. You'll have to hold me down...

So He did.

My faith was rocked. My body was attacked by disease. My heart died and grieved a thousand times and I grew smaller.

You have left me, Lord! Shall I just become a Protestant now? Or maybe just a nothing? Yes, a nothing... Then there will be no expectations and no disappointment.

That tiny and ridiculous threat poured out of my broken soul with a torrent of tears and a weight of sorrow which I could not bear on my own. I felt it and knew it and...

He called my bluff instantly.

He created me, formed me, restored me, awakened me... and He knew that I would not go. He held me down like the petulant toddler that I am, not with force but with irresistible fire... 

Twenty years ago, I would have left you, Lord, because I wouldn't have been sure about you. But I know Who You are. You are irrefutable. You are solid and deep and forever. You are flower, you are ocean, you are Life. If I deny you now, I deny myself and could not just become a nothing but would necessarily become depraved. I cannot choose that.

So I chose joy.

I chose to remain at His feet and let Him be Father. 

From that place, I was safe and free to look around and see how He has woven my joy and my salvation into the very fiber of my enormously beautiful and bountiful life. 

God sends His Holy Spirit endlessly across the wasteland. He pours life into the cracks of our brokenness and whispers the gentle command: TRUST. And He sends us His earthly servants and heavenly brethren to carry us faithfully and tenderly. 

I recently chose my saint of the year... or rather let the saint choose me... St. George.

I thought that was very appropriate since I sought courage and strength for the next leg of the journey. Then I chose my word of the year through a random generator... STRENGTH.

Yes. I'll take it. Not on the false premise that I will grow in strength and power but that God will use the emptying of this last year to fill my life with His Presence. I will still be broken, still be small, still be weak, tempted, stumbling, and humiliated. But I will be strong in His majesty...

... and what a blessed relief. I'm ready to hand over the weight.

New Year's passed along with a birthday party and a feast day celebration. I shut off the parts of my heart that couldn't bear another step and just kept going. And then... joy began to grow again.

I know you, Joy... I have known you all along but I have been battered and torn and tired. But the Spirit buried you deep in my soul many years ago and that is how You return to me...

Not from the outside pouring in... but from the inside blossoming out. 

You are showering me with grace.
You are restoring my faith and my hope.
You are washing my eyes free from the dust.
You are sanctifying the suffering and...
Breathing life into the lifeless.

I open a book and You speak to me about STRENGTH...

Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death... (Revelation 3:2)

And I rise again with Christ.

However...

I didn't rise until I had cried out to God with raging tears.
I didn't rise until I had been physically broken and felt real fear of death for the first time.
I didn't rise until my heart had been broken by loss.
I didn't rise until I suffered humiliation.
I didn't rise until I had failed people I love.
Until I saw that I couldn't shake the cross.
Until I couldn't reconcile the scandal.
Until I lost the sunshine.
Couldn't fill the void.
Couldn't mend my own heart.
Couldn't. Be. God.

Then... THEN He rose in my heart like the gentle morning sunshine and invited me to begin again with the consolation of His hope and joy planted deep in my soul. 

You are not lost, Daughter... You were just sleeping...

Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death... (Revelation 3:2)

2018 is not going to be a cake walk. For all I know, it could surpass the startling 2017. But He makes it all easy and sweet in His time. Thanks be to God.

"...and as they sailed he fell asleep. And a storm of wind came down on the lake, and they were filling with water, and were in danger. And they went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; and they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, “Where is your faith?” And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even wind and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:23-25)

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My Biggest Mistake as Mom of Teens

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True story: My kids' greatest strengths are usually things that I never taught them. Remembering that helps me to be a better mother because I put less effort into molding them into a mini version of me and more into loving them into the people God created them to be. 

When I first became a mother, my plan was to mold my kids into little versions of perfect. My assumption was that I could teach goodness and talent (even if I didn't have it), they would learn it, and the outcome would be controllable. If they eventually wandered off the reservation, it would be with full knowledge of what they could have been and as such... a ridiculous option.

So... I was pretty much assured of success. 

When I started homeschooling, that mindset transitioned perfectly into our educational model. I provide the input through books, videos, experiences, etc., and they would naturally drink it in and be formed to that material input. 

Twenty years later, I am not only less confident in that model of motherhood and education, but I am convinced that I was wrong on at least one major point...

I thought that my purpose as a parent was to form my children to my own image (or at least a perfected version). I was wrong. My purpose as a parent is to love my children and lead them to God's will for their lives. What that looks like for each child looks very little like anything I ever envisioned... and it often means that I am left feeling unsettled or surprised by their actions, successes, and failures.

Oh, how painful these parental epiphanies can be! All this time I thought I was just loving them when the reality was that I was often serving my own needs...

The need to be right.
The need to be in control.
The need to be admired.
The need to be validated by my children's achievements.
The need to be successful.

In a crazy mix of pride and authentic love, I want to be that Catholic mom who doesn't have any children stray now or later. The brutal truth is that this desire is driven by two things:

 1) I truly love my children and want them to gain heaven
2) I simply don't want to be that mom. 

Teenagers have a way of knocking your pride all of over kingdom come. Some of it's their fault and some of it's mine. And since I'm focusing on on my faults in this article today, I'll just repeat it again...

My biggest mistake as a mom of teens... has been trying to raise them in my own image instead of raising them into God's vision. 

Teens can be stinkers and they push back hard sometimes. For the first time, I see the gift in that. I see that I need to be reminded of my prideful overreaching. I see that they need to sometimes fight for the room to stretch into their own space and identity. And what a tragedy it would be if they really did end up just a younger version of me.


Dear Children,

Parents dream of raising great children to great things; but true greatness lies in our capacity to love and serve others. I pray that you will grow into the beautiful elements of your parents dream for you... and then explode that mold. Make it bigger than our little dreams. Make it fruitful beyond our plans. If we have given your heart any inclination towards love and service, take it and run straight to God with it. He will perfect what we have muddled. He will heal the bruises and raise it up to greatness in His time. 

Those bruises though... I'm sorry for the times I've failed you. There's a lot I didn't know and a lot I did know but just ignored out of selfishness. I pray that my own faults will never be a significant stumbling block for you, but I won't lie... I know who I am and how I am. And I'm sorry.

If I could do it all over again, I'd probably still make the same mistakes. But maybe I would make them less often and less harshly. Perhaps I would be able to communicate God's love for you more effectively through my own witness. And yell less. And apologize more. 

Perhaps I still can. 

Love you forever,

Mom


Homeschooling Through Chronic Illness (when mom is sick)

I have a secret about my homeschool and it's finally time to tell it. Okay, I have a few secrets...

I don't know much more about how to successfully homeschool today than I did at the beginning almost 20 years ago. I don't really go to homeschool conferences. I don't belong to a co-op. I know a lot about homeschooling and I've read all the books and purchased all the programs... but my days... they've been uncertain and long. And I've spent more than a few of them battling chronic illness.

I guess that's not the most flattering picture to paint of myself but... that's not the secret that I came here to tell anyway.  

This post is really about the secret that I discovered while slogging uphill for this dream and for my family. It's about the real gift beyond the details of these days and what I want to be able to pass on to every homeschool mom I know...

Truly successful homeschooling is never about how much material we can stuff into a kids' brain, it's about lighting a fire in their very souls. And there is no one best way to do that. It is much more about trusting the process than about planning for perfection. Success isn't for the perfect, it's for the persistent.

I clearly remember the time I kicked an American Doll horse in anger and broke my toe. That's often what my version of "persistence" looks like...

Fail, wail, move on, stop kicking toys.

That toe has never healed completely and that's frustrating but it makes for a great story that the kids love to tell. And in a strange rubber-meets-the-road-on-Calvary kind of way that usually only homeschooling moms can understand, I think I can call that a success.

The family is made to nurture body, mind, and soul. We were created to do this. We don't really look like a school. We often look like a first class mess. But that is the gift... 

That God allows us to become nothing so that the flame of His Love might rise and become a blaze in the heart of the family. 

One of the best lessons I ever learned about homeschooling was from a local mom who faced a life-threatening illness and was sick for an extended period of time. She told me that she spent many days resting in a hammock on their enclosed patio while the kids pressed on, more or less, with their homeschooling. Her kids told me how they used to pretend to work or study and they laughed and teased each other about what they really did when they were supposed to be working. She told me (with a smile) that she never doubted their decision to continue homeschooling even when she wasn't able to do a thing. Because it wasn't about her. She knew their decision was right and she trusted that God had a plan for her illness. 

Her kids are all grown now - successful, happy, smart, faithful, and all good friends - and I've never forgotten what she told me. She successfully homeschooled imperfectly from a hammock. And joy grew out of that. 

When I went through my own early years of chronic pain, illness, and fatigue, I didn't call her. I didn't really know what was wrong with me and I thought I was just a loser homeschooler. I didn't think that anyone was as lousy at this as I was and I imposed a kind of isolation on myself, determined to figure it out on my own.

But I wish I would have called her. I wish I would have let her see the tears. 

Six years ago, God allowed me to set down my cross of illness for a time. Since then, I have been on a journey of healing; not just my body, but also my battered mind and soul. And while I have never doubted for a moment that homeschooling was a worthwhile journey and blessed by God, I have never stopped doubting my own role in that beautiful dream.

Why did He make these beautiful children and then give them this wildly inadequate mother? 

It's all about the secret:

The mess is part of the gift. It is the stripping down of ego until we can see nothing but the grace of God. 

That is the secret, the gift of chronic illness. That through all the pain and struggle, we are presented with the reality that we, in ourselves, are small.... and that it is God who stands in the gap and enables us to rise. Thanks be to God.

John 12:24–25
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.

How Motherhood Can Heal the Jaded Woman

New motherhood is a golden moment in a woman's life where the opportunity to be permanently changed is tangible, powerful, and immediate. No, I'm not talking about whether or not YOU feel or see any difference. The change happens regardless; because the child is placed into your arms and instantly, you are loved... by a brand new person who doesn't know anything about your failures. And frankly, doesn't care.

Doesn't care if your hair is all messy from labor.
Doesn't care if you've got dark circles under your eyes.
Doesn't care if you are struggling to find words.
Doesn't care if you aren't sure about this whole motherhood thing. 

His love is yours. Period. 

It is an exquisite moment of renewal. There is no history. No memory of wrongs done. A clean slate. 

Those eyes and tiny fingers... they seek you out as often as possible. To connect with you and to love and be loved. Special talent is not required... simply your presence. 

We tend to think of ourselves as being in a role of power over our little ones, but perhaps the greatest potential power is that of the child over a mother's heart. We think we are the lovers and the healers. But I don't know... seems to me that the greater power lies in the helpless devotion of the child.

I was just 21 years old when I held my firstborn; and those initial moments were not ones in which I felt dominant or in control, but ones in which I felt smaller and more humbled than I ever had in my life.

My arrogance fell away.
My selfishness fell away.
My knowledge fell away.
My self-importance fell away.

I held a tiny human in my arms and felt as though I held the mysteries of the universe all wrapped up in my soft baby. Aware of my complete insignificance, I let the awe and fear wash over me in giant waves as the nurses showed me how to care for my son. Those waves crashed upon me again and again as he cried in hunger and turned toward me for nourishment and comfort. And again as I changed him for the first time. Imperfectly.

And still he loved me. 

As those waves of emotion rolled over me, I felt the sharp edges of my womanhood softening, smoothed by the tiny majestic moments. My memories now forever included this child and were filled by him. And no pain or bitterness that I had felt in my life would ever again be felt as sharply simply because he was there. No wound that I had received could hurt as much as the love of this child could heal. 

When I tell people that I've had 8 children, they often stare in astonishment. You must be crazy! Life must be very hard! But I have a secret that they don't know...

The births and the love and the precious lives of my children have continuously washed over me for the last twenty years... and my bitterness doesn't stand a chance. My heart hardens and then it softens; washed over time and again by the smiles and tears of the most precious people on earth.

I am sometimes envious of the beautiful professional women I see around town with their pretty shoes and manicures. I wonder if I will ever be without a little one on my hip or a baby nursing at my breast. And then I remember...

I am happy. I am softened. I am loved. 

As the children have grown, that hard edge sometimes threatens to creep back into my soul again alongside the sufferings and sorrows of life. Shut the door! It cries. You can't be hurt if you keep it closed. And I shout back...

It is a lie.

Let your love wash over me, Jesus... let your love wash me soft. That even when the bitterness rises in my memory, it can never stand against the rolling power of your merciful love. 

Surviving the Teen Years (Confessions of a Tired Mom)

I was that mom who was going to have the best teens ever; the ones who were obedient and cheerful and faithful. I was convinced that I would be able to mold them into happy, good people by the sheer power of my love and that there would be no arguing in my house ever. There were only two problems:

1) Me
2) Them

My plan was rolling along marvelously before they were teenagers. Those years between 10 and 12 are really deceiving... They have a mom convinced that she has successfully managed to navigate the uncertain transitional period between childhood and big-kidness. Thirteen was actually a pretty great year, too, and then 14 started to make me nervous. I sensed a little bit of stretching and pushing and expanding. And my world started to change. 

It was right and good of course. It's supposed to happen that way. And yet... it wasn't the way I planned it. My primary mistake was that while they were transitioning into autonomous human beings, I forgot to make the transition as well. I still saw them as an extension of myself, and that natural stretching of mind, body, and soul felt more like a painful tearing that I was not prepared for.

Moms of littles, don't let anyone tell you that teenagers are horrible. They certainly don't have to be that! But I've seen enough now in my own and other families to know that teenagers are often stressful on a mom... in new and wild ways that can hurt and startle. You only have a moment for a sharp intake of breath before you begin to frantically search that young-old teen face for a remnant of the 12-year old you think maybe got left behind on the last vacation.

Because seriously, that is not my kid.

I once asked a good friend why there are so many Catholic mom bloggers of young children and so few with teens. She said: Because they are fully engaged in their vocation. They do not have time for blogging. Seriously. Not only do teenagers have a way of sucking your brain and lifeblood from you but you can't post cute stories about their potty training adventures anymore either. And you can't really post their struggles and drama. They're not you anymore. They have a reputation. They are growing, growing, growing... gone.

How do you do it with all these kids? Oh, how many times I gave myself a mental pat on the back and straightened up tall and answered: Oh, well the big kids help a lot. It makes it so much easier. Now, in humility, I must admit that it's harder than it ever was... because a teenager tying a sibling's shoe before Mass in no way offsets the drama of the growing up and out years. Give me a choice and I'll take untied shoes at Mass every time. But there is no choice...

Can't go around it... gotta go through it.

No toddler is capable of doing what a fully aware stretching teen can do on a bad day... None. Give me your hairy screaming fit of a toddler at lunch time and I'll raise you the intense life or death teen drama at 2am. 

My kids are good kids. I love them. I like them. But they are kicking off the old self and trying to fly and it gets a little messy sometimes. You can't write that stuff on a blog. Not really. 

If you don't have teens yet, the best pieces of advice I have to give you are these:

1. Jealously guard and nurture your relationship with your husband.

Because one day, you're going to get kicked around a bit by those kids you poured yourself into... and you're going to turn to your husband and feel a twinge of regret that you didn't give him more. 

Those kids are made to fly. You two are together for keeps. 

There will come a day when you'll call him on the phone (especially if you have multiple teens) and you'll tell him "Honey, these kids don't like me at all and there's nothing I can do about it. I have to be the mom because I love them. But I really need someone to LIKE me today." And you'll see with new eyes how God designed your people to grow... and how he designed your marriage to blossom. 

If I could do it over again, I would still pour the same amount of energy and devotion into my kids. But I would give my husband the same... and more.

2. Remember that your kids are not you. And take care of yourself.

All of that energy and effort of mind, body, and soul that you've poured into your little kids... it's all good and worth it. But you've got a long way to go, mama... and you need to make sure you're prepared for the long haul. Take care of yourself. Not in a selfish way. But in a way that honors the God-given gift of who you are. Twenty years from now, God's going to ask you to keep serving your people, so make sure you've been a good steward of mind, body, and soul.

Make sure you know who you are apart from your children. 

3. Pray without ceasing. 

This is your lifeline. Pray, work, and trust. Lord, have mercy.

I could write for days about those three points but there are a couple more things I want you to know before I close...

I would rather clean a blowout poopy diaper than argue with a teen. I would rather deal with hairy toddler fits than teen meltdowns. I would rather break up arguments over who used whose red crayon than engage in teenage drama. Because on one end of the spectrum, the primary concern is the care of little bodies and emotions. On the other, is the hardcore care of souls. I've got three teens now. Stuff just got real. 

I'll say it again just to be sure you didn't miss it. Teenagers are incredible people. I just don't want you to be surprised or distressed when they start to act a little like you did when you were a teen. You'll see "the look" for the first time and it'll freak you out. AH! I did this to my parents! But it's okay if you remember that because it will help you have empathy when you want to kick them out...

With only the clothes on their backs.
And no dinner.
With a sign that says: "I know everything so it probably won't take me too long to get a job, a house, a car and my next meal."

I often stand in awe of these beautiful maturing people. But I also stand in authority over the not yet flown. And I have never been more grateful for the gift of my spouse. Maybe it's just that I feel so often like punting the kids through the door. Or perhaps it's simply that I have finally learned that my children have an identity. And that it's not me.  

Come, Holy Spirit. 

*Permission received from all of my teens to post this publicly. They understand that it was not written about any one of them specifically and we had a healthy laugh over some memories. :)

Mateo's Story: The Day I Met Jesus (Guest Post)

This story was first shared on Facebook by my friend, Jen. I asked permission to share it here and the words written below are hers. I thank God for the gift of Mateo and his amazing parents. May the testimony of his life and death bring courage, hope, and healing to those reading.


Mateo's Story

by Jennifer Calabretta

I'll be honest, I am hesitant to share this story this morning. It starts out as a real downer, ha... But it has been TEN years today since we said our goodbyes to this sweet baby and began really walking down this crazy road that we never saw coming. And while many think it sounds like entirely too much, I cannot imagine our life any other way (especially without Mateo & later our daughter Sofia, and the 2 other sweet babies we have miscarried).

But I decided it is important to share for 2 reasons.

ONE, so many people go through the pain of a hard diagnosis, or losing a loved one, or just LIFE, and it remains only their cross. It is lonely. But life is never something you should go through alone. Grief and Anger require people to talk and share and reach out and cry; just to get through it still standing up! So many people reached out to us, and it made every difference.

TWO... It serves as a reminder to me that God is good. All the time. He walks through every single storm with us, and continues to do so. I do not know how Andre and I (& our family) would have survived all of this without Him. He sent us answered prayers, beautiful kids, homemade meals, loving friends, concerned family, well time scripture verses and moving song lyrics... all reminders that even the HARDEST situations can be gotten through.

So again, I apologize for the toughness of this. You don't need to read our story throughout the album if you don't want to. But I just felt compelled to share this today; and to share that God is always present, especially in our hardest moments. And with Him ALL things are possible. So keep on working through whatever life has handed you; you're destined to win:)

Mateo was born at 12:00pm on April 21, 2007. I finally figured out that I was in labor around 6 am that morning. I think I actually started earlier than that, but because I was only 35 weeks along, I didn't really think that it would be labor!! But when Andre came out to our Living Room at 6am and saw me taking giant breaths and squatting in the "Fat-Man" chair, he sort of figured it out right away.... 

So there we were, at 8 o'clock in the morning in the Labor & Delivery ER. No nurse really seemed to believe that I was in labor, despite the fact that I was swearing unholy words under my breath between contractions and shared with anyone who would listen that I had no problem giving birth in the wheelchair I was being escorted in if no one wanted to put me in a bed:)

So obviously - it was quickly concluded that I was in labor. 8cm the whole 30 minute ride on the slow and bumpy highway!!! Then my water broke, and we were sure Mateo would just come shooting out (sorry for the graphic imagery:))... but the weird part was that my labor actually stopped then and there. He just decided to slow it down. It would be another 4 hours before Mateo would come; it was really our calm before the storm.

At 12:00pm, the urge to push came and we went for it. 3 good pushed and Mateo was OUT! This whole labor, all we kept saying was, "How is he coming 6 weeks early? My entire pregnancy has been perfect, what's going on?" 

Nothing seemed to make sense. And then Mateo was born... and we realized we were in for so many more questions. Mateo was 5lbs 6oz when he was born, with a full head of black hair (as you can see in the photos!!). He had all 10 fingers, all 10 toes, and he was beautiful. Yes, I know I am partial because I'm his Mom... but he was perfect:)

But there were so many problems as well. When Mateo was first born, we had the NICU staff nearby as a precaution because he was early. Little did we know that they would be angels in our midst. Mateo wasn't breathing when he came out, and it actually took the NICU doctors and nurses 10 minutes to get a tube in to help him breathe. His fingers and toes were stiff and misshapen. And his arms and legs were not straight. 

We would later learn that the medical term for this is arthrogryposis multiplex congenita. It is a congenital condition that forms in the womb. When muscles aren't exercised during development (as Mateo's apparently were not), they become stiff and contracted. So when Mateo was born, all of his major joints were stuck in this manner. Needless to say, he was flown to the Cleveland Clinic NICU within an hour of his birth... and there we were, left with a whole lot of questions... and NO answers. 

But we love(d) him... and that was really all that mattered.

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Over the course of the next 2 weeks, we learned a lot of things about Mateo. We learned that whatever he was "suffering" from was probably a completely random occurrence. However, this randomness left him with very weak and brittle bones (that would fracture very easily), misshappen and underdeveloped external body parts, and no responsiveness to us. At least not externally.

I knew, in my heart, that every song we sang him and every book we read him was heard. I know that he appreciated the Lullaby CD that we played for him all day every day. I know that he hated the girly socks I put on him every time we came to visit. And I knew that he loved us - even at 3 days old - I just knew.

And on the inside...he was perfect. 

His heart, his organs, his blood... Christlike, right? Broken on the outside, but perfect on the inside.

It was amazing that every day we would keep getting these terrible diagnoses from doctors, and our glimmer of hope for a recovery kept moving farther and farther off ... but somehow, Andre and I knew Mateo was bigger than all of this. 

We knew that no matter what happened; that our lives were better having spent it, even a short amount of time, with him.

And a short amount of time it would be.

On a side note - most of my adult Catholic life I have struggled with this image of Mary. Understanding what it is like to be a mother to such a great son; understanding how you just stand by them watching such a great sadness and pain happen to one you love so much... It was always so beyond me... But I will tell you what, my greatest solace - in not only those 2 weeks, but NOW as well - was in Mary. Because it was in those moments that I felt so alone, thinking "who the heck does this stuff happen to?", I knew that there was at least one other person who had... I had a companion. And what greater Mother to learn from...

But May 4, 2007, is not a day we will quickly forget. It is the day we decided to take Mateo off of life support. To some, it might seem impossible to imagine ever making a decision to say good bye to your child. But there was a point, when we realized that the life HE was living was not the one he was meant to live. 

We had spent two weeks with NO answers. No reasons. It seemed that Mateo should have been this perfect baby with this perfect life. But life happened differently.

The evening before, on May 3, Mateo's doctors told us that they had done a biopsy to test his muscle for possible answers, but they, in fact, were not able to find any muscle; ANYWHERE in his body. In essence, while his organs grew, his body stopped growing very early on in the womb. And unfortunately, what you don't grow in the womb, you cannot grow outside of the womb. So we were left with no other choice.

It was such a sad day; the day we made that decision. But we knew that Mateo had a greater Life waiting for him in Heaven.

We made sure that we got our whole family together at least once. Dante, our oldest, got to meet his little brother. We thought it was important, even if it only lasted for a few moments.

Mateo mustered all of his strength to stay with us for a whole 15 minutes on his own. They took Mateo off of all of his machines, they brought him and put him in my arms. It was 12noon on Friday. And I breathed in every bit of him that I could.

This picture here is one of the last we took before taking him off of the machines and saying goodbye - and while it is one of the hardest to relive, it reminds me of the Miracle of Life. It reminds me that God is so much greater than the circumstances He meets us in. 

It reminds me that on THAT DAY - I MET JESUS ...

And I held Him in my arms, and I kissed Him when He died... and I loved Him, the best way I knew how; and I knew that he held together the pieces of my broken heart so that I could remember every piece of love I had for him.

And I will take that memory with me, every day, for the rest of my life.

And that same love, that I had for my son and my God at that moment, is unequivocally the same love that I have today for my husband, for Dante, for Cabrini... and for our other angels, Jeremiah, Sofia & Gabriel. And it is a love that binds and renews and purifies...

He really is our "Gift of God" (Which, in fact, is what Mateo means in Latin... awesome, huh:).

Amen.

Jennifer Calabretta is a wife, mother, and graphic designer from Northeast Ohio. All photos above are her property and permission must be granted for use.The "Courageous" graphic above is her design and you are welcome to share. 

Raising Strong Daughters in a Dog Eat Dog World

As the mother of four daughters, I have a lot of complicated thoughts about them, about the world, and about them coming into contact with the world. My own experience as an American woman plays into those thoughts heavily and I will not lie... sometimes they terrify me.

This world is dog eat dog and many women get chewed up and spit out right from the beginning. 

But because I cannot keep these girls locked up in the house (I mean, please... we'd drive each other mad eventually), I have had to face those real fears and determine a solid path for raising my little women. 

I was not a confident young woman. I was a "feminist" (because what secular young female isn't?) but it was all bluster and silliness. The truth was that I was just a young girl trying hard to be loved by someone (anyone) and not get kicked around too much by life. My self-confidence could be shattered by a finicky bottle of hairspray or a devastating break up... Sometimes it all seemed mashed up together in a sloppy painful heap. 

Unfortunately, that left me in a difficult blank space where I was neither nurtured fully as a human being nor protected from the predatory "dogs" of the world. I look back on my youth with much sorrow and regret. It wasn't until adulthood that I really learned my worth and discovered a depth of true joy...

So how do we raise our daughters to be the beautiful, sensitive, strong, wonderful women God created them to be... without hardening their hearts or turning them into dog bait? 

I don't have the answers, but I have a few ideas...

1. Stop Knocking Her Down (Be an Encourager)

If we want our girls to rise up straight and tall, we can't keep kicking them down. And moms, I mean we have to stop nitpicking the life breath out of them. I am guilty of this and I do it because I care... or rather because I worry. I want to fix everything and make it all perfect and better so that they are happy forever and ever. 

But oh my... sometimes I'm stomping on those sweet toes when I should be washing their feet. I forget my role as soul-lover and wear the gaudy hat of nagging tyrant. Awful. Fear-based mothering is a drag on the gentle soul and a bludgeon on innocent heads.

As moms, we have to keep them accountable and maintain certain expectations so that our kids can grow healthy and succeed. But we've got to make the balance of our interactions fall on the positive side, so that when they are grown and gone, the "mom voice" in their heads (yes, it will be there), is one that communicates truth, joy, beauty, encouragement, and strength.

2. Don't Let Others Knock Her Down (Rise up, Mama Bear!)

Dear sister mama bears... this is your cue. The common thought is that kids are resilient but let's not forget the dramatic rise in teen depression, suicide, and abuse. Resiliency does not mean that children can't be deeply wounded, simply that they learn coping strategies and have the ability to heal (or hide) their scars. Not every injury heals well but there are many injuries which are preventable. You daughters are vulnerable to predators (emotional, spiritual, and physical) and they need you to be "that mom" who is in the right place to mentor their young souls. 

You don't have to be helicopter mom but you do need to be alert. Do what you can to keep her physically, emotionally, and spiritually safe during her formative years and all the eye rolling will be worth it someday. 

I was a sensitive kid trying to fight my way through a dog eat dog youth culture. That did not go well. I didn't know how to fight. I needed someone to see what was going on and fight for me when I didn't have the skills, courage, or strength. I needed to know that I wasn't on my own. 

3. Teach Her How to Fight (Mentor Her as She Grows)

Okay, I don't mean sharpening her nails before a behind-the-school scratch fest. I mean that mamas have to teach their girls to defend what is good and beautiful about themselves. A feminine heart is one of God's greatest gifts to the world because it thrives on serving the needs of others. It is worth protecting. 

So, define what it means to "fight" and teach her how...

A woman's "fight" should never be an attack on others but only a defense of what is good and true. We are strongest when we lead others to be their best, not when we force them into doing what we want them to do. Our inner lioness is not designed to defend our egos... but to serve and ignite the world. 

Teach her to defend those who are weak and oppressed, marginalized and vulnerable. Teach her that she is worth fighting for and defending and give her the specific words and action steps to use when faced with someone who makes themselves her enemy. And teach her to identify an enemy... Because sometimes enemies come disguised as our greatest desires. I'm convinced that behind every angry feminist is a little girl left defenseless in the presence of "dogs"... male and female. 

4. Reveal Her Beauty (Be A Mirror To Show Her the Truth)

How ugly I felt as a young girl and woman! No shower could take away that feeling of disgust that I had for myself. I fell short in every way in my own eyes and it wasn't until I met my future husband (who then introduced me to Jesus), that I could see the truth mirrored for me. It is still difficult to believe! But the gentle love of my man and my God have taught me how to receive love without being afraid of a follow-up kick to the heart. 

The dogs of life had shouted lie after lie at me on a daily basis and I learned to believe them. As a mother, I realize that I have a  duty to show my girls who they really are... because the world will always feed them lies. 

When they are in your home, they should have no doubt that you love them and they should always see their beauty mirrored in your eyes. Tell them, show them, hug them, strengthen them. 

5. Introduce Her to Strong Women (Model Strong Womanhood)

Worldly wisdom says that "strong" women are successful, rich, and bold. True wisdom says that strong women are those who serve with such love and joy that they change the world, one soul at a time. Truly strong women are those women who refuse to become a "dog" in society and who use their feminine gifts to make the world a beautiful place where every soul knows its worth. They don't step on people to get where they want to go... they lift others up and are carried upward in the process. 

You're far more likely to find truly strong women in your own families and communities than you are on a Hollywood screen. I'm talking strong like Grandma... not brash like Beyonce. Big difference!

And be the strong woman you want her to be. Show her what it looks like. 

6. Teach Her That She Has Value Unattached to Her Successes or Failures (Be a Truth-teller)

The measuring stick of our culture is unforgiving and seems to unalterably attach our individual value to our successes. What we do becomes synonymous with who we are and inevitably, young women lose their identity in the midst of their activities. Life is rocky. And when a girl asks herself who she really is, the words that often invade her heart are...

worthless
ugly
failure
unlovable
stupid
miserable

We need to teach our daughters that they are valuable for WHO they are apart from what they do, what mistakes they have made, what victories they have won. Then when life gets a little crazy, they won't lose themselves in it. They will know... I am valuable simply because I exist.

The only way I know how to do that for a girl is to share with her the love of Jesus Christ, Who loves all, knows all, forgives all, and became man so that He could enter into our suffering... and shatter it. They not only need the consolation of such knowledge but they need the truth that accompanies it. We have a purpose. Happiness comes with discovering and acting on that purpose.

Dear Daughter,

You are amazing. Created in love out of love so that you might live in joy for eternity. Ignore the dogs. You are made for more. And when you forget that and need reminding, I'll be right here to tell you. Again and again and again.

7. Be Ready To Catch Her (Be a Healer)

She's going to get hurt. She's going to fall. Be there. 

Be that mom... 

Encourager.
Mama Bear.
Mentor.
Mirror.
Model.
Truth-teller.
Healer.

That's the best you can do. I will be praying for you! 

Miscellany in Pics {Life is Good}

How about a little update inspired by some recent Instagram pics? Our life isn't particularly exciting but we are blessed with the sweet mundane of our domestic church. For example, I'm tapping out this post while sitting next to my toddler. She has pink eye, is holding her stuffed dog (Jehoshaphat), and is eating her probiotic supplement. Exciting stuff. But I wouldn't trade it....

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Professor's first trip home from college seminary. I'll just let this pic tell the whole story. Nothing earth shattering happened during his short visit except that we remembered how much we love him aaand he got to see his baby brother's first tooth. We won't talk about how I broke down into tears as I hugged him goodbye again. 

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Okay, I lied. We have been doing exciting things. Can you think of anything more exciting than a book sale??? Break out the Ergo carrier... mama has some shopping to do!

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Creepy pic, I know. But it's that time of year again in which I pull all nighters prepping for All Saints' Day. That makes it much more fun, right? Because 40-year old mothers of 8 just love all nighters with yarn. If you are looking for a great DIY beard tutorial, check out this one: Dwarven yarn beard. I would have liked to use some fancy yarn to make a super authentic looking beard, but this white stuff? Was FREE. That is what I call easy decision making. 

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My princess cowgirl. Oh, how this girl has stretched my understanding of my motherhood! For all of you parents out there struggling to know how to love your little tigers, I understand. I'm there. Lots of us are. Micaela posted about her struggle today and I've posted about our travel challenge HERE. Surviving and working on thriving. 

But I have to tell you in humility that I've been doing a lot wrong up to now with this one. I am a firm believer in attachment but I am not accustomed to a child with such a high need,  so I was pushing away instead of drawing near. I'm changing that, but with this girl, that means that I don't get much done at all. It means that I don't go out very often with or without the kids. It means moving a mattress onto the floor next to her so that when she wakes up every hour, she knows I'm there and we all actually sleep. It means a different way of life.

When I say yes to that strong need of hers, she is calm and happy. It's a worthwhile investment... for all of us. The picture above is an off day, when all the roses and lavender, and pink in the world can't seem to touch her needs. And it teaches me something... that those things are bandaids... because what she really needs is me. 

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Behind the scenes, these boys are often accidentally lighting things on fire or debating football. It all comes together pretty beautifully though. Thanks be to God.

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Look what we found on a recent trip to a sporting goods store! This boy is content wherever he is. I pray that he is able to sustain that throughout his life.


In other news not pictured...

  • Sign ups for the November group training session with Fit Catholic Mom are ending this weekend. I know you will be blessed. Please consider investing in your health and wellness. Check it out here: W.I.S.E Gals

You don't need to be perfect or in shape already to start... you just have to have the small flame of desire. I had a huge flare up of health symptoms recently and I was still able to hobble through with Rebecca's encouragement. It's not about physical perfection... it's about giving all to God. In gratitude. In joy. I do hope to see you there.

  • There are some tickets left for the 2017 Arise Retreat with Fr. Nathan Cromly. I attended last year and my soul was just blown up. That sounds bad but it was all good. Read about it here. Pray about attending? It is not free but is worth every penny. More info here: Arise 2017

A Mother's Secret Moment {surrendering to life}

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I sit in the darkness and count my blessings. Over and over I count them... and then add one more. It is that profound moment in a mother's life. That isolated, heavy, light, surreal moment when no one in the whole world knows except mother of the biggest thing that really ever happens. A new soul... a new soul. The whole world swirls around me in the dark. And I sway and count rhythmically and slowly. Buying a little time, catching  my breath. Measuring time so that I won't miss the breathtaking moment when the soul chooses surrender... and joy.

It takes two days to find that surrender. It isn't that I'm not willing or that I don't know it will come... but that the world is noisy and fast and I need time - time to be alone with this seedling - and to allow the unfolding to occur. 

It never feels like a yesat first but rather a moment of sheer stark terror when mortality and heaven collide with tremendous force. And the first and only thing I want to do in that moment... is to set down my cross. May I, Lord? May I set it down? Just for a moment?

Just for a moment, He says. I will take it. Lean in, Melody... lean in. I will carry your cross until you are ready to pick it up.

Am I ever really ready to pick it up again? From the very first moment two decades ago when I learned I was a mother, I was ready to run. That first time I only feared the unknown. After that, I knew very well why I was afraid; and it is for that reason that I need this precious moment in the silent isolated darkness... to face it and surrender over and over again. Nine times now I have done it. And nine times I have watched my capacity for life expand beyond reasonable bounds. I know the truth about joy. But I just need a moment.

I used to have to wait for the little plus sign... but now I just know the signs of my body. I've done this enough to know the drill. My body changes. My emotions change. My cravings change. My very soul begins to change. Another weak fiat is clasped in my nervous hands - two pink lines -and I slowly uncurl those stubborn fingers. 

What will the world think, Lord?
What do youthink, daughter?

I am overwhelmed by the injustice of the dampening of pure joy by the hardness of worldly hearts... and my temper flares. This child is too beautiful for the world! Too glorious for their eyes and judgments! But I am tainted like the world... and I am tired. And... I just need a moment.

So the darkness remains and my eyes are squeezed shut, wishing the cross to be lighter. But I will my hands to rise up with my fiat. My fingers splay outward and surrender rolls off the tips and also off my tongue and out of my very soul...

Yes. I surrender. With joy.

A tremendous wave of grace crashes upon me, reminding me that He is powerful. That love is not a sentiment but a wild sea. It is a raging storm that draws in the heart and raises it higher... higher... higher. But it takes crazy courage to invite it in and let it reign. 

This child is more than my fear. An immortal soul. Imago Dei.I surrender to awe. I surrender to love. I speak my fears one more time but it is only a ceremonial act. I throw them out fiercely one by one and watch my mighty God strike them down...

Sickness.
Weakness.
Failure.
Discomfort.
Loss of control.
Ridicule.
Miscarriage.
Loss of freedom.
The pains of birth.
Loss of time.

I shout them out and He slays them as dragons and binds the lies which grip my heart. And He replaces them with a song...

You are enough. Your baby is enough. You are free to love. You are free to know joy. Dance in the Presence of your heavenly Father and make an offering of your very life. It is beautiful and good and you know it is. You look into the eyes of your children and you know that you have already embraced this little one... that this moment is the beginning of surrender to joy. Let the blossoming begin. 

It used to be that I was eager to share our news immediately. As the years have gone by and our numbers increased, I am less and less eager. It seems the moment the word is spoken, the mystery is diminished under blithe speech and gossip. The sacred treasure is exposed to harsh light. The talk turns to names and dates and nausea and numbers. And really... all I want to do is breathe in the unspeakable beauty of the sacred dignity of the newly created soul. Eventually, I will get to those other details... but for now, I just rest in the moment. Thanks be to God.