The Lie of the Apostolate {How I Left My Children Poor}

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They said that I should have an apostolate if I wanted my kids to grow in faith. That I should build up the kingdom. Use my skills. Be a leader. Be salt and light to the world. They said that it wasn't enough to love my kids...that God made me for more. 

They were wrong. 

My family is my apostolate. My home is my headquarters. My husband is my fundraiser. If God calls me to do some further outreach, it will only be that which does not leave my family unloved, uncared for, or with only the leftovers of who I am. 

My apostolic works have often been excuses... distractions...ways of feeling like a productive Christian while avoiding the harder work. A way of breaking up the boredom of sacrificial work done without devotion. 

I would have been a better woman, wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and homeschooler over the last 20 years if I hadn't bought into the idea that I needed to become some kind of minister to the world. Some moms have the gift of being high energy. I am not one of them. And I have expended myself in so many different directions, convinced that my outreaches and apostolic works were the moral equivalent of what I was doing at home. I was wrong. 

I once printed out the words of Pope St. John Paul II when speaking about the poor of the world. I wanted to recall them during my daily work. He said:

"You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs of the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table."

I fancied myself a real winner because I thought I understood his message. Give to those less fortunate and give until it hurts and costs more than a mild inconvenience. I knew what it meant to be on the receiving end of Christ-like sacrificial love and I knew the power of the mercy of Jesus and I wanted to be that for others.  My problem was that I didn't see the hypocrisy of leaving the crumbs for my own children while I fed strangers.

I didn't see them as guests.
I didn't see them as the poor.
I didn't see them…
Not through the lens of Christ anyway, but only through the vision of a self-oriented mom. 

Oh, how the narcissism of our age seeps into the cracks of our ships! 

It was preceding Mother Teresa's canonization when I heard her words with a new intensity. And I realized that I never fully understood her in spite of the boldness and simplicity of her message. I was too busy patting myself on the back for being apostolic. 

I had distorted her words into placards with which to console myself that I was doing just fine. Point to Jesus. Love all the people. I did. But...it was the easy way out. Kind of like buying pretty trinkets at the Dollar Tree to feel good about saving money instead of showing up for work to pay the bills. An apparent good which distracts from the hard work to which we are really called.

It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.

— Mother Teresa of Calcutta

We are all called to spread the Gospel, but it is a lie to say that spreading the Gospel to my children is not enough. The Church has enough apostolates. What she needs is a revival of sacrificial hardcore love in the domestic church. Not just a put-'em-in-a-good-school-so-the-experts-can-do-it kind of revival, but real transformation. It has always been that way because real love is not about big numbers...it is about one soul at a time. 

As parents, we ARE the experts designated by God and by virtue of our vocation and our sacramental graces. And it IS our apostolic work to raise our children to know the love of Jesus Christ. If we have been faithful in that mentorship of love, perhaps someday we will see our children go out and give Gospel witness to all the world - and to the souls with whom they have been entrusted.

They will carry the fire.
They will witness through their lives.
Others will ask your family the cause of your hope and the reason for your joy. 
And that is how true apostolic work begins. 

We hear the truth over and over again. Go home and love your families. And yet we are always seeking elsewhere... as if our path to holiness can ever be found elsewhere than in loving God and the souls He places in our paths. Those little hearts need us as badly as our neighbor does. And they have been given specifically to us. They are our poor and it is for them that our hearts should burn with compassion.

It's not an either/or when it comes to loving family and neighbor. It's a both/and. And yet... and yet... one must take priority in the order of love. 

The truth is that we only need fund-raising, event-holding apostolates because our shepherds have wavered, Christians have sold their inheritance, and our families have abdicated their roles as the domestic church (Ecclesia Domestica). It's a truth that stings and I take responsibility for my part. I repent... 

If I bless another soul, let it never again be at the expense of the ones with whom I have been entrusted.

I am not saying that we should never engage in any apostolic work apart from our home and families. Many families are doing this work together in a beautiful and life-giving way. But there are plenty of people who have led neighboring souls into the Church while their own families were starved for love. God will always work where people are seeking Him. But those families can tell you about the lie they bought at the price of their children's hearts. It is a painful lesson to learn. Let it not be said of us that our families were left starving while we worked for the Church...or that our families flourished in spite of us.

Our great works become just dusty monuments to our own pride if we have sacrificed our children in order to build them.

If I were asked for advice about whether a mother or father should start an apostolic work in addition to their labors at home, I would say: Yes, do it if it is God's will. Let it be an extension - an expansion - of the life-giving love present in your family. But don't ever do it in such a way that Mother Teresa has to call you out on the lie. Mea culpa.

Everybody today seems to be in such a terrible rush, anxious for greater developments and greater riches and so on, so that children have very little time for their parents. Parents have very little time for each other, and in the home begins the disruption of peace of the world.

— Mother Teresa of Calcutta

When Busy is Beautiful: Transforming Frenetic into Fruitful

It has been several years since I first published this and we walked away from a lifestyle centered around youth sports. I have no regrets…


We used to be busy. I mean B.U.S.Y... with practices and lessons and coaching and training and tournaments. There were times (embarrassed as I am to admit this) that we actually spent 20 to 40 hours in one week investing in the sport of 1 to 3 children. Our kids were successful and success can be like a vacuum. It sucks you in, demanding more and more... until it sucks the very soul out of you.

We have reached the one year anniversary of our departure from B.U.S.Y. We have spent quite a bit of time floundering about trying to reestablish our identity as a faith-centered family and it has been a time of tremendous growth and learning. Not the least for me.

Busy can be a state of affairs (as in, "we have a lot to do") or it can be an identity.

I AM busy. This activity in which I am involved is WHO I am. I identify myself with it. I am not me without it. I am a swimmer. I am a volleyball player. I am an athlete. I am the mother of an athlete.

But when it comes down to it... I am a follower of Christ. And how does the busyness in my life reflect that without question?

When we walked away cold turkey from club sports, we told the Lord...

We are opening up our lives to You... please fill us up with Your Divine Will. Choose our adventure!

It was a scary but exhilarating time and I first wrote about it this way:

”We have pulled our highly talented and successful athletic children out of all team sports... and we are recommitting our time, talent, and treasure to the Lord.

That statement encompasses so many months of prayer and discernment, tears, confusion, rejoicing, discovering, dreaming, worrying... I just don't know how to cover it all adequately. It was something like delivering a baby. Painful, but rather worth it. I will just tell you one thing...

When God wants to do great work in the family, the family has to make room. We made room and now we are in an uncomfortable, yet exciting, period of rediscovery. It is time to uncover God's greater plans, not because athletics aren't a good thing when properly used, but because they were preventing us from being open to something better.

We are definitely fumbling around a bit. Wandering. Growing. Spending much more time at home while we wait for God's plan to unfold a bit. We have been dabbling a little in music and expanding our  involvement in pro-life work. There is a lot to say but again, it's almost too much to speak to yet. Here’s to new beginnings! Thanks be to God!”

Now, one year later, He has answered that prayer in this take-us-whereever-You-want-us-to-go adventure. It is not walking in blind faith because our eyes are open and fixed on Him, but the details certainly continue to surprise.

I have an intense fondness for the sporting lifestyle and could be easily tempted back into it. I like the energy and the challenge and the rises and falls. I like coaching. I like the smell of the gym and the pool. I like braiding hair and feeding kids and cheering and comforting. I even like the thrill of getting up at 3am to make sure that food and bags are prepared for the 8am meet with a 7:30 arrive time and a 2-hour drive preceding... and certainly the haul of medals and ribbons for the way home.

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I will always love the beauty of well performed athletic action. We didn't step away because sport is intrinsically bad but because we don't compete halfway... and modern youth sport culture demands life blood as the price of success. For example, if Cookie were playing in her well-deserved position on a team aiming for a national championship this year, our family would be spending Easter in Baltimore. And every year thereafter. Thank God for clear signs. This particular one served simply to highlight all the other misdirected decisions we were making.

Not even for a college scholarship. We will not sell our family for a bag of gold.

As we conclude this pivotal year, we have been unexpectedly given a period of pure B.U.S.Y. and the competitor in me is jazzed and ready to go. But not for sport... for the dignity of all people, for the greater glory of God, for Love. This is a new busy. At the moment, it is rather intense and requires the kids to explore a new set of skills and experiences. But that adrenaline rush is still there. For all the right reasons this time.

To be completely honest, I have become quite comfortable with our slower pace. Even a little spoiled by it. We have commitments but they are carefully chosen and two nights a week are "busy" with Holy Mass. Although I used to taxi all over creation for sport, I whine a little now when I have to be disengaged from the house, especially when there's a fire in the wood stove! But I'm ready for an expansion. We've done a lot of healing. And even with this growing pregnant belly, I know that I can plan and tote car seats and pack food with the best. But this time, I pray that my heart will be focused on the work of the Lord.

I pray that our hearts will continue to be centered around the sacraments and our domestic church. That God will be glorified by all of our busy days. That He will provide the grace and strength that we need to reach out when He calls us to do so... and to retreat to our hearth when it is best for our souls.

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I once wrote the following to my kids:

“I pray you always remember the final goal. Don't forget that there will always be someone faster than you. Always someone stronger. Always someone who can jump higher. There will be times when you lose because someone cheats; when you lose because someone on your team gives up; when you lose because you just didn't give your best; or because of injury.

There will be times when people hate you for your success and times when they will attempt to hurt you because of it... you have felt that sting. You know. There will be times when you give everything you have and it will not be enough. And times when people give you too much credit, too much attention and praise... and you will be tempted to forget to Whom proper gratitude is due.

Remember the lessons of the pool: "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?" ~ Mark 8:36

Do not forget the final goal. Pursue goodness. Pursue truth. Pursue beauty. There are millions of other people pursuing success in your sport. If fighting for success costs you permanent things, then let those people have success. And let it go. It is fleeting... and you will never regret the prize you have gained in its place.”

Since I wrote that, they have grown so much. I know that they miss it but they also understand that giving up their primary identity as athletes was a critical step in discovering the adventure that God has chosen for them. A year after we walked away, my oldest commented to me:

Imagine if we had kept going! We would have been completely swept away by now. There would be no end to it. More money. More time. More drama. Further and further from where we should really be. For what? 

And that comment came from my most intense competitor. Praise the Lord! He shown us how to make busy beautiful.

Originally published in 2012

Potty Training 101: Stay Cool, Communicate Well, Embrace the Mess

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We're currently potty training our 8th child. It is about this time that I wonder if it would really be so terrible to let the kids wear diapers just a little bit longer. But he's almost 3 years old and diapers are expensive... so on with the adventure!

For those of you who haven't done this yet, I’ll share one of my favorite potty training interactions with a child and then provide a convenient list of helpful tips. I am not an expert. I just have a lot of experience in the ups and downs of it all…


In this memory from several years ago, Little Cub came running up the stairs in nothing but his new underpants. Where are you going? I asked...

To the bafroom.
Did you already pee in your pants?
Yes.
Okay. Go sit on the potty and I'll be right there to help you.

*Child does a sumo wrestler walk up the stairs, trying not to let his legs touch his wet unders*

As I followed him up, I stepped into wet carpet where he had been standing and sighed, making a mental note to come back to that.

Once in the bathroom, I noted a little puddle on the floor in front of his little potty and his soiled pair of pants next to that. He had been watching a Veggietales video with his sisters and missed his body cues. I calmly sat down on the edge of the bathtub and smiled encouragingly as he concentrated while still trying to pretend that I wasn't paying too much attention to him.

I'm done! he shouted. And he lifted up the little bowl filled with his accomplishments. I smiled and told him what a great big boy he was becoming and we flushed together.

I then put a diaper on him. It was getting late in the day, you know. Enough is enough. We can scrub up and cheer on more tomorrow.

I sent him on his way back to his sisters and proceeded to wash the carpet, the bathroom floor, the little potty bowl, and do the proper thing with the underpants (if you must know, I threw them into the bathtub until I could get them into the wash later on).

That's reality and it's okay. I trust that they will be trained by high school and relax. For those of you new to this (or just needing a little multi-child boost), I offer you a list of helpful hints based on my experience...

1. If you have carpets and plan on potty training more than one child, replace the carpets with hard flooring asap if possible. I know carpeting is comfy, but it will only take a couple accidents before you know the value of my advice.

2. Embrace the mess. It happens. Sometimes all over the place. Don't freak out. Say a prayer and just clean it up. If you freak out, you'll just make it harder on yourself and the kid.

3. Don't yell at the kid for an oops. Just don't. It never helps and just freaks them out about the whole experience. Express your frustration audibly one too many times and you will be rewarded by a fearful child who suddenly figures out how to hide urine-soaked underpants… probably under your couch.

4. Don't throw a party every time they go. Enthusiasm is warranted but try not to give the thing more than it deserves. Just act like it's the most natural thing in the world. Give smiles and hugs liberally but not disproportionate to your normal encouraging behavior. Remember that there will probably be momentary lapses... and if your general approach is even and not overboard, the child won't feel like a horrific failure during the oops times. Instead of "OH NO! WHAT DID YOU DO???!!!" try "Oops... oh well, it happens. Try to get it into the potty next time okay? Don't forget to come get mommy if you need me to fly you there super fast. Shall we get you another pair of underpants? Uh oh... they're all dirty. That's okay. I have an extra diaper."

Communicate and love well. Refrain from excessive drama and your child will take your cue and transition more calmly

5. Encourage a healthy relationship with the "big potty" as soon as possible. If the child is overly attached to the little plastic trainer, peeing at Grandma's and in public restrooms is going to be challenging. This is physically challenging for tiny people but not impossible. You know how they can move the chair, climb onto the counter and find the candy you've hidden on top of the fridge? Yeah... they can handle the potty with a little practice.

6. Refrain from buying an expensive neon singing training potty. See #4. I like our plain white Baby Bjorn (pictured at the top of this post) because it is so normal looking. No frills. Get on, get off, move along. I also really like this potty seat topper for the same reasons and because it is soft and secure for the big potty transition.

7. Bring sanitizer wipes, plastic bags, a towel, and DIAPERS in the car and keep them there while training. No need to be a hero. Prepare well. This is a process.

8. Try to schedule the first days with underpants during warm weather. This will make it a whole lot easier to manage laundry since there will be fewer clothes to soil. There is also more time spent outside in the grass instead of on your living room carpet.

9. Every child is different. Honor that if you're working on kiddo #2 or beyond and be flexible with expectations.

10. Some children will do well during the day and not so great at night. Some kids are naturally very deep sleepers. We have had two of these (a smoke detector sounding in the same room would not wake them so wet sheets certainly made no impact). Don't panic. Don't freak out. If you are losing sleep and changing sheets DAILY, just buy pull-ups and gently work on it. You need your sleep. Don't talk about it in front of others and don't put undue importance on the matter. Just love them through it and make sure you find the wet pull-ups if they try to hide them under the bed.

11. Ask them frequently if they have to go and learn the signs of "holding it." Seriously, this is a big part of the process. They need to learn how to pay attention to and evaluate their body signals and it is not as easy as we imagine it should be. Even if they say "no".... just use your mommy sense and take them when it seems like it should be time.

12. If your boys are too short to reach, do not attempt to teach them the standing up method yet. In fact, even if they are not too short, don't teach them that yet. You will regret it. Everything is a target and you won’t regret buying yourself some time. Just sayin.’

13Don't be afraid to wait for readiness. I know there are mamas out there who claim to be able to train babies. I admire that but have no experience with it. My own experience is with toddlers and that the process goes a lot more smoothly when maturity (mental, emotional, and physical) is in line with my goals.

14. Practice firm, loving discipline in all areas of life. Don't freak out. Communicate well.

I'm sure there are more. Add them in the comments if you'd like. Here are a few possible obstacles (there are countless) to potty training to be aware of:

1. Child is afraid of falling in the toilet and getting flushed.
2. Child is afraid of a little black thing on the floor that looks like a spider.
3. Child is afraid of his own stool. I'm not joking.
4. Child is afraid of being in the bathroom by himself.
5. Child is afraid of turning on the light by himself (or is unable to reach it).
6. Child does not wish to interrupt playtime in order to go and would rather sit in it.
7. Child has an extremely laid back temperament and simply isn't interested.
8. Child is accustomed to being allowed to throw terrible fits when anything doesn't go his way and refuses to cooperate (this is a much larger discipline problem that will certainly affect potty training).
9. Primary caregiver (that's most likely you, mama) has issues with drama/temper and has undermined the child's confidence.
10. Child doesn't like the color of his underpants. Please see #8
11. Child has an underlying health issue.

The answer to all of these obstacles is patient, calm, firm, and attentive caregiving. Just like everything else in parenting. There will be many times as they grow that you wish parenting was as easy as potty training. This moment is a blessing and, by the way, makes hilarious memories. 
Stay cool, mama... and love well.


Photo by Amy Reed on Unsplash

When There is No Money Tree: Stewardship in a Large Family

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Several years ago, my daughter and I stood out in the rain looking out across the yard. I wasn't facing her but I could feel her strong presence and her eyes looking down on me, waiting to find out why I had brought her there. She has been taller than I since she was ten. She's now a teenager. She took off her socks so they wouldn't get wet and waited for me to speak. I hesitated to explain, hating the way I had to disappoint her. I didn't know the right way to say it, so I just said what I knew..

We can't afford it. We don't have the money. I'm sorry. You can't play this season.

She stood as still and quiet as a statue. A beautiful statue. The only movement I saw was the slight flicker of pain in her eyes and a tear that gathered there, not quite ready to fall. I kept talking but mostly just to fill the space and to try to somehow comfort her. In the back of my mind, a memory was playing of a conversation I had just had with another mom at the gym. We were talking about the expenses that seemed bigger than our husband's paychecks. The woman said:

Oh, I know what you mean. It's so much money. But it means so much to her that we just find the money somehow.

I wanted to ask her what she meant. I have heard that phrase many times over the years and I really don't know what it means. How does a family just find money? Do they find it under a mattress? On a money tree? Rob a bank? From generous family members? Do they take on more debt? Or find it in their healthy retirement account or their kids' college funds?

How do I explain to my talented daughter that we looked and looked and we cannot find that money... but somehow, everyone else can?

This is one of those moments in parenthood when a husband wonders why he can't provide certain things for his family... even though he provides everything essential. And when a wife wonders if it's time to get a job, even though her hands work so hard at home. It is a moment when all priorities are hastily thrown into a huge pile and carefully and painfully put back into order.

The temptation is to redesign the order. To bump things up that should stay down and to demote those priorities which seem to be holding us back... but are actually the glue that holds us together.

The girls had already been practicing and scrimmaging together. The coach had already given her an integral place on the team. They already cared about her and they'd made t-shirts together. They had prayed together and picked prayer partners. Then they told us about the added tournaments. And...

... we can't find the money.

We live in a middle class culture that doesn't understand those words. We pick up debt like we pick up a dirty sock off of our living room floor. We throw it in the laundry basket hoping it all turns out okay in the wash. Easy. Until we find that debt is not like dirty socks but more like a cancer that denies what is life-giving and steals from the future. In my family, we fight debt like cancer. And when we have it, we work diligently to repay those to whom we are indebted.

So we stood in the rain and cried in each other's arms, knowing that sport is not the center of life... but hurting like crazy all the same. If guided by my emotions, I would give her everything. Thank God for the safety net of Biblical wisdom and long-sighted husbands. She wouldn't be the strong and grace-filled girl she is today if I had my way.

My confident and strong girl. With the beautiful nurturing heart. Who longs to give support and grace to souls. My mini-me who has already surpassed her mama in so many ways. The girl who is constantly inspiring me to be better than I think I can be.

She told me that she understood and that it was okay. And then she stayed up late writing me a love note and attached a picture of her smiling face. She was letting me know she was okay. I opened it in the morning and cried in gratitude.

I couldn't help but think about the popular women’s conferences I had longed to attend but could not. And the retreat that I would pass up and opportunities that I let fall by the wayside. The truth is that I crunched the numbers to see if it was possible for me to do these things even while knowing that it wasn't. I thought maybe I could find it somewhere. And like my daughter, I wondered how it is that all these other people can find it precisely when they want it.

We are not destitute. We have all of our needs met and much more besides. I often feel like a princess in my nice home looking out on wooded acreage. It was always my dream. My husband is a good provider and has kept us above water and one of the ways he has done that is by saying no to what we can't actually pay for. Because of that, it sometimes seems that we have less. We never went on a honeymoon. We rarely vacation. A good portion of our clothes are secondhand. We have never owned a brand new vehicle. We waited for years to put some carpeting in our concrete-floored family room. We went without a shower for months while we saved to pay for a bathroom reno. First world problems. Our hope is that in the end, we will find that we have made the right investments... and that the reward will have multiplied.

Stewardship seems pretty straight forward... but it is a hard, hard lesson learned in the rain and through the tears.

The one and only thing that should ever be at the top of our priority list is to do God's will. Perhaps it is is His will that my daughter have the experience of high school sports on a Christ-centered team. But if it truly is God's will, I know that He is big enough to provide the means for us to do it. Since He has not, I think the answer is pretty clear.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!

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The Hard Truth About Raising Catholic Teens

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Everyone tells you not to blink... because your kids grow up that fast. What people fail to point out (because they are probably just being polite) is that while our kids are applying for college (about 5 minutes after you changed their last diaper), you are getting OLD. I ought to know. I've leveled up this year to being a mom of two adult children and with two high schoolers hot on their heels - and I'm noticing for first time that I'm moving into grandma territory with alarming speed.

The point of this post is not to highlight the ways in which I am feeling the strain of having slipped past 40; it is more about the changes that I have seen in my 21 years of motherhood. How culture has changed. How I just never expected it to, especially within the Church, and why it's important for young (and middle and old) parents to know.

When I was a young mother, there were a lot of little families like ours, praying rosaries and boycotting Disney and talking about modesty while our kids played. We chatted about homeschooling and which curriculum we were using, and had All Saints' Day and St. Valentine's Day parties at which we actually prayed together.

As the years have flown by, our lives have changed (mostly because our children have grown) and we have had to decide how to respond to the pressures of the culture. I'm not going to lie. It gets messy in both families and communities. It isn't really enough to go to daily Mass and pray the rosary and bake feast day cakes. I'm not saying that Jesus isn't enough. Just that, as parents, we are not enough.

Let me explain…

We can pass on the faith to a point, but we can never force a soul to receive it. A child has to develop that relationship with Jesus and begin to personally embrace and love His Word. Otherwise, all those hours of family adoration are just one-sided and our tallest kids might be approaching the Eucharistic table unworthily, with hardened hearts, and a growing antagonism toward the things of God.  

We don’t know what is going on in their hearts.

I have spent years pondering the secret to really passing on the faith; to presenting it in such a way that it is more inviting than all the attractions of the world. Personal prayer is essential... but it must be accompanied by heroic actions that allow Christ to work strongly within a family and keep the lures of the world at bay. My motherhood demands sanctity. My vocation is made for it. And as we know, the saints had to battle the world, many of them only achieving popularity in the hearts of the Catholic faithful well after their deaths. It is not my job to mold my children into saints. It is my job to give them every opportunity, motivation and protection to allow them to say yes to Jesus. Then He is the one who will make them saints.

I'm in the midst of my vocation which means that I am a rough work in progress. Before I continue my rambling, I want to make three points. I bother to make them at all because if we are going to raise up a new generation of faithful Catholics, we have to start turning our American Catholic cultural ship around...

1) PAY ATTENTION TO A SHIFTING CULTURE

First, I see that the trend in Catholic families has shifted in the last 20 years. Instead of encouraging each other to keep the culture of death at bay, exhorting one another to practice heroic virtue, and helping to keep each other accountable, many are falling into the mindset that we can have our cake and eat it, too. That we are so secure in our personal journeys that the music, media, movies, books, clothes, and lifestyle we consume will not harm our ability to keep Jesus at the center of our lives. 

My perspective as a mother of teens is that it is hardly possible to keep the secular culture from consuming the hearts of our children if we do not stand up and deny it entrance to our activities and homes. That post is bigger than I'm able to write but I'm living it and I want to give you that warning. Jesus promised us we would be persecuted for righteousness sake. If you are not feeling that pressure as a Catholic parent, I guarantee you that you are doing it wrong.


2) IDENTIFY OBSTACLES TO GOODNESS

My second point is actually a short list of the primary means through which a culture of death reaches our children. Before you denounce me as a Puritan wannabe, examine your family culture for holes. Go through your kids' phones and rooms and your own and ask: Do these influences honor and glorify Christ?

PEERS - In my estimation, this is the single biggest contributing factor to the loss of faith in our young. If your kids are not homeschooled, your immediate obstacles are greater than mine in this regard. But homeschoolers are not shut off from the world and negative peer influence can have a profoundly damaging effect. Don't underestimate it. It sometimes happens that bad kids will change for the better because of your good kids. But human nature being what it is, that is not the typical the result.

MUSIC - Music is a powerful force on our minds, bodies and souls. If our kids listen to music, they are being mentored and formed by it. Pretty much every kid listens to music... so how are their choices forming them? Most pop culture music teaches them to accept (even passively) a culture of death.

INTERNET - Oh, heaven help us. I don't have the answer to the problems this marvelous beast creates. Let me just say that there is no such thing as "moderate" internet access. The door is either open or it isn't. I am not impressed by security features and whatnot. Eventually, the door opens, often even before we realize it has. And then you'd better be a praying mama who isn't afraid to lose household popularity.

MOVIES/TV - The kids are learning. Absorbing everything. Do we teach them God's commands and then undermine it with garbage on the screen? They learn quickly that we don't really mean what we say. We are hypocrites if we don't live out our love for Christ by setting proper boundaries for ourselves and our kids. They see everything.

BOOKS - Fifteen years ago, moms I knew were banging on the doors of the local Catholic school wanting to know why trash was in the school library. That rarely happens anymore. We have lost our collective identity, our sensitivity, and our nerve. 

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3) DISRUPT THE ENTRENCHED PATTERN OF BAD CATECHESIS

Younger families, please pay attention, because you don't know yet what a difference the next decade will make in the life of the Church and you should be prepared for the sake of your kids...

My generation, the JPII generation... has failed to properly catechize younger Catholics.

We thought we had it all together and that our kids would catch the same fire we had. We thought we had fixed the errors of our parents' poorly catechized upbringing and that we would do it differently with our own kids. And then they would fall in love with the Church just like we did. Some of us still believe that is what is going on - and perhaps it is in small pockets around the country. But the broader truth is not as pretty.

We are now seeing a new generation of failed catechesis. Worse than the one before. Because let's be honest, the ones who poorly formed us (before we caught Holy Fire) are still teaching... and they taught the teachers... who teach our kids. And us? We are still working through our own limitations, especially if we had later conversions or were poorly catechized ourselves. We too heavily rely on a support system that has not fully recovered from a near death blow. The ship is full of holes but we just cheerfully keep repainting the hull.

Many of the young people I am seeing grow up in the Church (who fill our youth groups and Catholic colleges) can be marked by a defining characteristic: Their faith is only skin deep.

They love being Catholic in all the fun and cool ways. They appear devout and attend youth group and go to Steubenville conferences every year. They go to all 42 chastity talks put on by their church and school. But they aren't really living the moral teachings of the Church. And if they are, they drop it as soon as it is no longer convenient. They are becoming the next cafeteria Catholics, with a minimal understanding of what it means to pursue virtue and almost no understanding of a real spiritual life. And they have a lot of people completely snowed, including their youth group leaders, their priests and their parents. This does not exclude homeschoolers. In fact, homeschooled kids with wandering hearts are often exceptionally good at playing the role of dutiful child.

I'm generalizing. Obviously. But, by virtue of being a mother of teens, I have unwittingly entered the drama of youth and I'm going to be very blunt here about what I see. It is difficult beyond what I imagined to find holy friendships for my teens; friendships where there is a mutual effort towards sanctity and faithfulness. I thank God for the blessing of friends in my children's lives but it does not look at all like I thought it would. I thought it would be somehow... bigger. I thought there would be more families who hadn't given up the fight. I thought my kids would be perfect. I thought I could make it happen.

So I'm getting older. And part of my oldness is that I don't care nearly so much about what other moms are doing anymore because I'm just busy fighting like heck for the souls of my children and climbing my own mountains. I was that mom who thought MY teens would be different. And they are. I have good kids who I love and like (well, usually). But it’s not what I thought it would be.

When young moms publicly share their struggles with having multiple small children and their deep desire to just get a shower and a few hours sleep... and about reading Green Eggs and Ham for the hundredth time while all the kids are crying at once and the baby pees in her lap and the toddler accidentally swallows the miraculous medal he ripped off her chain... well, I secretly kind of wish I had those days back with my older kids. If I did, I would do some things differently…

I would slow down. I still have little ones around me but it's different now and I can't really ever go back to that treasured time. Time is flying and we are getting older. It is a breathtaking, exhilarating, beautiful adventure. And wow... I just wish I had been a little better prepared.

To all you young families who are relying on your Jesse Trees and daily rosaries to get your kids to heaven, I have hard news for you. There will come a day when your best weapon will be your knees hitting the cold floor. Like a reality game show where you create your masterpiece going a mile a minute and then the buzzer sounds and... hands up!... done. Whatever you left undone remains undone. And you start learning a few more things about prayer and long suffering. Because your kids have free will. And the culture is a devouring lion. Do what you can now to instill not only a solid liturgical rhythm in your home, but also a strong culture of Christian mission. Of radical discipleship. 

Does it honor Jesus? No? GET RID OF IT. Tell your kids why. And build them an alternative that outshines the allure of sin.

I'm not writing just to rant for others. I'm writing for selfish reasons. Because I need a Catholic community that is courageous in virtue and radical in discipleship to catch my kids when they step out of the nest. I am an imperfect mother and long for support. I am not content with what exists right now. We were made for something greater. 

Go Activist or Go Home: Why I Came Back to Catholic Blogging

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I wrote this in the Summer of 2014 after taking an extended blogging break to just live and to discern. I revisit these words from time to time and I find that I still mean every word of it. For those of you who are new here... welcome! This is why I blog. This is why I have occasionally quit. And this is why I keep coming back. Since I wrote this, I have ushered two of my teens into adulthood and two more young ones into their teens. And it’s all still true.

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Go Activist or Go Home: Why I Came Back to Catholic Blogging

I'm supposed to be on long sabbatical… but I changed my mind. I came back to support a friend, to share life-changing books, and for fellowship. I stayed because I have teenagers. Teenagers really change everything...

I used to have a family with several adorable little people. I was a Catholic mom; open to life and living in our little domestic church where nothing could touch us.

And then they grew up.

It happened so quickly that we almost got blown off course. One day, my son was taking swimming lessons at the local Y, and the next, he was swimming every day of the week and breaking records. Another day, we decided to have the kids play CYO volleyball (just for fun) and shortly after that we were making hotel reservations for national tournaments. One day, I  was reading Dr. Seuss all. day. long. and the next, I was crying in a natatorium (that's fancy for "big pool room") because swim moms are mean.

And remember the kid next door whose parents gave him booze at parties when he was three? Yeah, well, now he's driving and he thinks your daughter is hot. Good morning, mama... Drink your coffee black. The battle used to be in the streets but now it is on your driveway, your front porch, and in your home.

I woke up one figurative morning and had a loud thought that I was just tired of being a Catholic always fighting the world on the world's terms. So we left enemy territory for a while and returned home to strengthen our small army. We quit a bunch of stuff and patched up our wounds. We returned to our cloister to regroup and we emerged as something slightly different than we were before.

We came face-to-face with silence again. With ourselves. With God. I wouldn't say it was the most comfortable time but it was fruitful. We learned a lot about who we really were as individuals and as a family...

My son was a fast swimmer. Then he was more. My daughter was starting setter. Then she was more. My little ones were gym/pool rats. Then they were more. 

And me? I'm a mommy. A wifey. A dreamer. A talker with a keyboard. And more.

And...

I'm an activist.

A Catholic activist. I'm a traditionalist-charismatic-vernacular-liking-Latin-loving-praise-and-worship-singing-Holy-Spirit-petitioning kind of Catholic activist.  I don't wear a mantilla but my teenage daughter has... because she wanted to. I don't kneel to receive Jesus when there's no altar rail, but my kids often do. They just got it into their heads that God is awesome and showed me a thing or two about love. I do wear bathing suits to swim and a miraculous medal everywhere except the pool (until the babies break the chain... they always do.) I don't eat fish during Lent (or mostly ever) but I like to make a mean grain-free chocolate chip cookie for feast days. 

I have a soft spot for priests and bishops but I hate when they peddle pablum, compromise on the Church's moral teachings, and abuse or overlook abuse. I worship God, not men. I follow truth, not silver tongues. I tell my discerning sons that if they grow up to become that kind of priest that I will haunt them after I die. And my rather literal teenage son frowns at me and tells me that's impossible.

Which is impossible? I ask. Both. I laugh out loud but he does not... because he just doesn't think it's funny.

My kids are growing up and our cloister is... well... it's different now. Those first magical years are really gone for good; we averted some heavy storms and now, we stand at the door together and face the giant world. 

My kid once started a pro-life youth organization because he was tired of just speaking love of life instead of doing. 

They are killing babies, Mom. 
Yes they are. 

We need to speak up and stop it. 
Yes, we do. 

We need to pray and work for justice for these little ones. 
Let's go then. I'll follow you.

I’ve written many times about scandal in the Church and how good people are looking the other way while evil happens. I know why this happens... It happens because pro-life is HARD. Harder than repeating a few slogans. Harder than holding a sign. Harder than going to a nice pro-life dinner or giving a pro-life keynote or writing a pro-life blog post.

The pro-life message IS the Gospel message. And it says...

"Don't you even think about hurting any of My precious little ones. Ever. And don't you let it happen either."

The real scandal of every horror and corruption in the Church is not that people pretending to love the Church are doing evil things. The real scandal is that believing Catholics are doing NOTHING to stop it. I would have come back to this blog just to say that. If we are comfortable pro-life Gospel-livers, then we are doing it wrong.

So I'm here writing because I have teenagers to raise into men and women of God. And I want them to know that love means activism. Even a cloistered nun is an activist. She gives everything for the cause of Love and perpetually petitions the highest Authority for justice and mercy. 

Because I want my children to know how to speak their love with confidence, I must speak when I lack confidence. They know my limitations but they also know my passion. I have obligations and limitations that keep me from being out there... however, I can come here to be a witness.

It is my testimony to God's blessing in my life and it is what I owe Him. I have a platform and I'm using it so long as it is consistent with God's will for my life.

I have made a spectacle of myself in some ways over issues that many people don't even care about. But I'm a Catholic activist. I am fighting and advocating for Love. For those babies who are never born because of our bishops' corrupt foreign aid program. For the younger moms who are about to get painfully blindsided by the culture of death as their babies become teens. For victims of any kind of abuse. For my own babies. For the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For the dignity of all human persons. For a restoration of Catholic culture.

For many years, I thought it was enough to have a large family. Isn't that pro-life enough? But while we are busy with our littles, the enemies of life are active. They are activists. They are changing laws and cultural tides and overcoming the weak. And they are waiting for the day when your children are older and take their first steps outside your cloister. Don't just teach your kids how to live, show them how to do it. 

So here I am. A bumbling activist. With a good looking husband, a busy homeschool, a passion for natural healing, and a fascination with beautiful things. My little pleasures are reading, theology, writing, speaking, creative projects, and blogging… with a side helping of microblogging on Instagram and a tendency to poke around on Pinterest. Welcome to my digital domicile... and to my life of blossoming joy.

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.

Halloween {A Failed Catechesis on Holy Death}

This article was first published in 2014.


I wasn't going to write about Halloween this year. Honestly, I'm still recovering from last year when I learned the hard way that the classical standards of debate are all but dead on the internet. When I said I haven't recovered, I mean it. I still feel the loss. I still hear the silence from disrupted relationships. So I promised myself that I wasn't going to write about Halloween again. It was enough. But... I changed my mind. Fickle, I know.

I'm not trying to start any drama. I'm not writing for anyone, to anyone, or about anyone in particular. I'm  writing here to flesh out ideas and offer them as food for thought to anyone else who is interested in the topic.

Please remember... this article not about you. You are welcome to consider my viewpoints and take them or leave them. You take care of your own people and I'll take care of mine, okay? If you want to talk, I welcome a public rebuttal of points made. You are welcome to call my ideas stupid... but only if you offer an intelligent rebuttal of my actual words. But if you go off and tell everyone what an ignorant jerk I am without addressing actual content, I'll probably take offense. And you'll also probably ruin my relationships with other people. I know this. I speak from painful experience. But I think we can do better than that that. Let's give it a go...

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Halloween {A Failed Catechesis on Holy Death}
 

There are several reasons why I do not celebrate Halloween -- the most superficial being that we dress up for All Saints' Day and ain't nobody got time to make two costumes each for 7 kids. Aside from that, I think that secular Halloween practices often run contrary to a life of virtue and hope -- and that even a benign costume and candy celebration on October 31st tends to undermine the greatness of the feasts of All Saints' and All Souls'. But I'm not going to focus on those today...
 

Today I'm going to write about death. And why Halloween teaches the wrong thing about the most important thing.
 

I've had death on the brain lately. I spent the last half year immersed in the subject of dying (specifically miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss) as part of my bereavement doula certification process. I don't love the thought of death but I found my studies fascinating. It brought mortality very close to my daily life and, ultimately, was a spiritual shot in the arm. I thought more than usual about the fragility of life and the state of my soul. I also learned more about what grief does to the survivors and how it can grip and squeeze the heart into a state of unimaginable pain. Ultimately, I became convicted that understanding of and care during the time of death is a fundamental element to building a Culture of Life.
 

How does this relate to Halloween? 
 

It didn't at first... until I began my training course in psychological first aid. I was in the middle of a module about caring for survivors of trauma, specifically children who have learned (suddenly) about the death of a loved one. The recommended approach was determined by the age of the child. The youngest ones would presumably have little experience with death and a vague or non-existent understanding of what death means. But it was the description of the next group that stuck with me. These kids were a little older and mature enough to know what it means to die but still too young to have much experience. The material described the primary obstacle to communicating with this age group: That their understanding of death was generally limited to the known skeletons and monsters of Halloween. As a result, the primary response to death was one of ignorance and fear.
 

Most people fear death to some degree. That's not the issue. What struck me as noteworthy in this case was that this secular disaster relief organization recognized the cultural practices of Halloween as an inhibitor to a child's healthy understanding of death. The reality in a faith context is that our American version of Halloween is terrible catechesis. In fact, I would call it anti-catechesis for providing the wrong answer to life's most important questions. 
 

Such an attitude is typically modern American. We rush through grief. We sweep it under the rug. And we run from age and pain and death with a frantic passion. Halloween practices encourage this dysfunction by contributing to confusion and ignorance of something that, when rightly ordered and supported, is actually our greatest moment of grace on earth. 
 

I use the term "secular" Halloween practices but it begs the question: What are Catholic Halloween practices? They aren't defined by the Church. We do know that All Hallow's Eve (the Eve of All Saints'), is the vigil of one of the greatest feasts of the liturgical year. Feast day vigil masses are celebrated at this time. The day after All Saints' is All Souls' Day - the day that Catholics traditionally focus on the dead. So what role does the Eve of All Saints' (Hallow'een) technically have? Truly? Not much.

The celebration of Halloween has become a mammoth secular creature of our own making with the average American spending almost $80 on costumes alone. In an effort to "baptize" our cultural practices, modern Catholics have made the vigil into something of a Catholic cultural festival centered around the topics of death and fear. My non-scientific observations tell me that many have simply found a convincing justification for throwing a good creepy party. Or at least bringing in a good candy haul.
 

"Consult not your fears but your hopes and dreams" ~ Pope St. John XXIII
 

How does our cultural Halloween fail us?  The psychological first aid training drew attention to the problem: We teach our children that death is something creepy to be mocked, to be looked at as a piece of fun darkness. As a consequence, that darkness becomes the primary lens through which our children see death.

Many bereavement professionals will tell you that the American cultural approach to death is unhealthy. As Christians, this is a matter of grave consequence. We fool ourselves into thinking that the deepest parts of our human nature can be trivialized without spiritual consequences. Truly, a good death is the one thing that every soul should long for. This is why the saints entered their death scene with joy and hope. This is why we celebrate their feast days on the memorial of their deaths. For the saints, the day of death is a day of rejoicing, not of darkness.
 

"Death is nothing else but going home to God, the bond of love will be unbroken for all eternity." ~ Mother Teresa of Calcutta
 

Am I suggesting that we can never be "real" about scary things? Absolutely not. Am I suggesting that we can never jump out from behind a door to scare someone? Or put that horrible rubber rat in the pizza box to wait for a victim? No. What I am postulating is that the cultural secular Halloween is not a healthy context in which to explore the subject of death. We do not need to enter into sin to overcome sin. We do not need to don a mask of evil (especially in a superficial plastic costume way) in order to rise with Christ to new life. Jesus has won the victory through the Cross, and consequently, the Cross is beautiful to us. But only because the sacrificial act of Love is beautiful... not because we love or glorify the horror of the crucifixion. 
 

With our renewed understanding of the gift of the body through John Paul II's Theology of the Body, it is a wonder that we still tolerate the gruesome depictions of the flesh on Halloween night. Personhood is lost. Morphed into a mass of bleeding flesh and parade of hideous creatures. If we could put a true face on our sinfulness, perhaps this is what we would see. But the Truth, Christ Himself, is also within us, and demands sacred respect. 
 

St. John Bosco once called the Christian cemetery "an eloquent sign for those who enter in faith and prayer." Not creepy or frightening but "an eloquent sign." How beautiful! Unfortunately, it seems to be the human condition (concupiscence) to make ugly what God has made beautiful and to lose sensitivity to the joy of the eternal. 
 

Shall we mock death? Shall we mock our own moment of grace? The best way to "mock death' is to live so fully alive in Christ that fear is annihilated. To immerse oneself in the Word of God that promises that death brings peace to the pure soul. To enter into the fullness of Sacramental life so that life is a shower of grace. And then to step out, full of the power of the Holy Spirit, to serve the needs of the suffering. 
 

Mother Teresa did not throw a Halloween party to "mock death". She walked the streets of Calcutta and saw it in the eyes of the people and saw Christ Himself there. She picked up the abandoned, dying people of God whose wounds festered and were sometimes infested with maggots. She touched faces of pain and kissed the sores there. Was she too grave and rigid? Or shall we learn the lesson of her life as living catechesis. In light of her example and the model of all the saints, the modern Halloween custom becomes a mockery of true Love, which is the only worthy goal. 
 

We do not need to look far for real fear. Beheadings, wars, ebola, abortion, violence, human trafficking, accident trauma, personal loss. How are we teaching our children to prepare for death? Shall we usher them into a classroom of darkness in order to learn? Or shall we keep them wholly in the light as the inevitable pain and agony come to visit them?

What do I ultimately want for my children? A good death. The moment of death is a sacred event that will hopefully see us washed in unprecedented graces. It is the moment we have lived for, when a soul devoted to Love steps into the arms of mercy forever. Secular Halloween celebrations are often at best, a distraction from that goal and at worst, a distortion.
 

I have read many attempts to explain how the use of evil imagery draws us closer to Christ. The annual articles are starting to roll in and one defense in particular caught my eye yesterday. It already has hundreds of Facebook likes and is filled with big words and language that sounds like authoritative Church.  The author tells the reader why Catholics should absolutely participate in a dark Halloween. The ideas seem (on the surface) lofty and Catholic and spiritual. The Catholic author writes on a Catholic site:
 

"Halloween rejoices in this triumph through playful parody, or exultant mockery, of evil by subjecting the powerless symbols of the devil to satirical derision. Witches, goblins, ghosts, skeletons, and the other grotesque objects of man’s imagination are the caricatures of a dethroned evil. There is no fear in these, or even in the devil himself, by the indomitable strength of Christ. Men are the masters, and no longer the servants, of these elemental creatures."
 

This is wholly unsupportable through Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition. There is no approved tradition whereby we put on the mask of sin in order to prevail over it. The demons and angels are not "elemental" but spiritual and powerful. Nowhere are we exhorted to dance among the symbols of evil. Even if there is merit in the piece (which I contest), the reality is that most Catholics who like the article will use it primarily as a defense of their participation in the vacuous secular celebration... which is neither lofty, nor Catholic, nor profoundly spiritual. 
 

What is it that the Christian longs for more than anything in life? A GOOD DEATH. A holy death. Scripture tells us that "the sting of death is sin" and that "death has been swallowed up in victory." (Romans 8:31-39) Christ has conquered! There is nothing left to fear except the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. And yet we insist on spending our time playing in the dark. Mocking death.

Where is that exhortation in Catholic tradition? I have not yet found it.

I remember the day I delivered my lifeless baby, Matthew. He was two inches long and marvelous. Some might have seen his little body as gross or gruesome since his skin was translucent and bloodied and his eyes still unopened. But I thought he was beautiful. On that day, my soul also began to yearn much stronger for eternity. The mystery of death was slightly penetrated. And although I grieved heavily, I found that I was less afraid of death. Because of his life and loss, I no longer see death in a "Halloween way." And I do not wish to. Horror will come... sorrow will come... fear will come... all unwilled and unwanted. The true test of our culture is how we have prepared ourselves to deal with it. 
 

My own kids will someday wear blood and hold death in their hands. They will see tragedy and trauma. They will probably witness a beheading or live murder recorded on the internet. I will not shield them from the reality of death. My goal is to prepare them to serve the suffering and wounded who seek the merciful compassion of Christ. They will see plenty of horror on that journey. We don't need a night of candy and plastic ghouls to guide our souls to a Catholic understanding of these things. The real lessons come in the down and dirty of living the works of mercy in the context of a sacramental life. 
 

And that can get downright scary. Jesus, Light of the World, have mercy on us.
 


And again Jesus spoke to them, saying: "I am the light of the world; he who follows me with not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)


Gentle Help for the Struggling Math Student

{This post contains affiliate links. I may receive a commission for purchases made through links. More info Here.} 

Being a homeschooler allows me to call a full stop and redirect when one of my students is struggling. This is a huge advantage, particularly in math, because progression is necessarily linear. If a student gets stuck on a foundational concept, progressing with a grade of a C or a D may spell disaster at a later point.

My non-professional opinion is that no child should be forced to progress in Math until they have mastery in the previous concepts. I don’t know… it seems like a no-brainer but I can see that it would be difficult in an institutional school setting.

As a homeschooler, I do not focus on grades other than as an assessment for knowledge. So while I might not give a letter grade to a 2nd grader for history comprehension (for example), I do need to know if the concepts of addition and subtraction are nailed down before we move on.

I still don’t give permanent Math grades until high school though… because we simply don’t move on with foundational concepts until there is mastery. Nothing else makes sense when it comes to basic mathematics.

Most of my kids have had no trouble with beginning Math and pick it up quickly and move on. But every child is different and even very bright children might run into trouble with retention, slow processing speed, or confidence.

This recently happened to one of my amazing, talented, and intelligent kiddos who just has a bit of trouble with retention and processing speed. I kept moving the child along to the next chapter in Math even though they were losing confidence and secretly panicking every time a new set of problems. It was a newbie mistake that I shouldn’t have made. But…

I eventually caught on and knew that we had to make a full stop and redirect.

I was not moving on with this child until mastery… and mastery was impossible as long as we continued to add new concepts. So…

We put away the Math book and bought some games. We stopped all online Math games since the child was not processing as quickly enough to do anything but guess and was not learning and not building confidence.

These are the hands-on tools with which we have temporarily replaced linear textbook learning:

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CALCULADDERS

Calculadders is simply gentle timed repetition. The student competes against no one but herself. You can print at home and use for multiple grade levels. It is a Christian company with Scripture at the bottom of every page. We discovered them 15 years ago when they sold printable CD’s and were pleased to discover that they now have internet-based software at a reasonable price.


MOBI

Mobi is the Bananagrams of the Math world and follows almost identical rules except that instead of making words, the players make Math problems. If you haven’t played Bananagrams, it is like a freeform Scrabble where all players work simultaneously on their own word grid. (It also happens to be my favorite game for myself and my homeschool!)

With Mobi, I have found that the format allows slower processors to participate without feeling the pressure of others waiting on them to finish their turn and without being forced to compete with an uncomfortable pace. Since it is tactile, more senses are engaged in the learning process.

This regular version included addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Younger players do not have to use multiplication and division but might find the Mobi Kids version (below) more to their liking (subtraction and addition only)

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MOBI KIDS

Mobi Kids is identical to the original Mobi (above) but only includes the addition and subtraction tiles to simplify the game for younger players. They can still play the original version but with multiple players, the pluses and minuses do tend to run out.


ABSOLUTE ZERO

Absolute Zero is a simple card game that involves addition and subtraction skills. Players combine positive and negative numbers to create a value of zero. There are also alternative ways to play including a form of “War” in which players use simple subtraction to see who gets to keep the cards.


DICE

Yep… just plain old dice. I purchased this set of 100 in pretty translucent colors that came with a carrying bag. There are endless Math games that can be played with these little cubes. A good Google search will help you identify games to suit the skill level of your child.


At the end of the day, building a good foundation for a struggling child will go much better with gentle, appropriately paced, tactile fun. Every child is different but if the Math book is causing anxiety in a child’s life, there is no harm that can come from taking a step back and bringing joy back into learning.

If your child is in school and you don’t have the advantage of slowing down the pace of the curriculum, these games would be a great way to reinforce concepts without the tear-filled drills of desperation so common in the precious after dinner hours.

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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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Flotsam, Jetsam, and Homeschool Consolations

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Several years ago, we were trying to figure out how to fit in as homeschoolers in a vibrant, school-based parish with a DRE and pastor who weren't super supportive of homeschooling. We had previously enjoyed years of support and encouragement but our pastor was forced into retirement (he desired to serve longer) and the administration turned over to people who did not share his approach to shepherding. 

For years, our parish had been a place of joy, consolation, and respite. Suddenly, we were outsiders. 

There was rarely an open hostility but the passive aggressive punch that confronted us constantly became more than we were willing to absorb. This is not the way home should be and not the way children should be raised in the faith. We eventually left. But I haven't forgotten those difficult days and the important of encouragement and consolations that come when we most need them. 

If you need that kind of consolation today, I have a story for you...

I was in the parish office turning in some paperwork for the CYO team I was coaching and ran into the new DRE of our parish. It was not an encounter I wanted to have, especially since we had recently informed her that we would be exercising our right to opt out of her sacramental program for our Confirmandi. 

We said our hellos and she said she was praying for my family. That was much appreciated, especially because she was a religious sister! But she looked quite distressed and I got the idea from her countenance that perhaps she was praying for us specifically because we were bad eggs who needed urgent Divine intervention.

Our interactions in the past hadn't been exactly joyful. The general formula went like this:

Sister: Asks me if I got an email about upcoming events.
Me: Pleasantly acknowledges receipt of email and politely declines.
Sister: Bursts into tears and walks away

So I was already accustomed to constantly feeling like a thorn in the sides of... well... all the spiritual leaders of my home parish. Not a great feeling. But this, one of our final interactions, has stuck with me over time. It really did sting. And it really did contribute to our departure from our happy parish home of a decade. 

Immediately following her promise of prayers, she looked like she was going to cry, shook her head mournfully and said...

 "The homeschooling situation is so sad. They are going to be so behind." 

I was struck dumb because she was so obviously talking about my family. In spite of the fact that I was standing inches from her. In spite of the fact that there really was nothing sad at all about our "situation" nor with the healthy and happy homeschooling community which had flourished in our parish up to that point. In spite of the fact that my family had never been anything but kind to her and my children were obviously well-formed and flourishing. 

But she really didn't see us.
She didn't ask me what I thought.
She didn't ask me what I love, what I pursue, what I dream about...
What my family loved about our homeschooling life.

She spoke at me, not with me. 

I was a problem child and she had to figure out what to do with me... and I was not invited to the discussion. She was consumed with her own sad drama. And that is sad. And extremely difficult to engage fruitfully. 

Part of me wanted to stand up and fight the ignorance. I was completely fine with dying on that hill. But I chose silence at the time. Eventually, my family also chose to silently leave. And while homeschooling itself didn't get any easier, we were free from an institutional pressure to view our life as deeply flawed and "sad."

That's a lie straight from the mind of the enemy of God and I'm sorry that Sister fell for it. But I won't live by it. 

Shortly after that encounter, I read a book by Father George Rutler called Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive. It is not a book about homeschooling and I was certainly not expecting a homeschooling consolation from it; and yet there it was, right in the forward.

I don't suppose I'll ever be in a position to use the phrase "flotsam of their own infecundity" with any angst-filled educator, but it is awfully satisfying to hear Father Rutler use it!

Any homeschoolers need an arm to lean on today? A word from someone who knows why you do what you do?

Fr. Rutler offers you his. Enjoy! 

"While I have spent a lot of time in schools, the lives of people themselves are the best schools. When a friend asked me to coax his daughter, who had announced after her first day of kindergarten that she did not want to go back, I replied that the girls seemed to have sensed something quite right. With some rhetorical excess I said she should abandon kindergarten altogether, for it was my experience that school interrupted my education. It locks you in with your peers. That is a mistake. One's social circle should avoid one's equals. As a child I found children unexceptional and preferred the company of adults. I got to know lots of people who are dead now whom I never would have known had I waited a few years. So I have a collective memory, and oral tradition, that goes back to the eighteenth century, having spoken with people who knew people who knew people who knew people who lived then. The only real university is the universe and that is why an expression like New York University missed the point that the city is the university.

I exercised the child's father by suggesting that, instead of school, children should spend time in restaurant kitchens and shops and garages of all kinds, learning from people who actually make the world work. One day spent roaming through a real classical church building would be the equivalent of one academic term in any of our schools, and a little time spent inconspicuously in a police station would be more informative than many hours spent on social science. Formal lessons would only be required for accuracy in spelling and proficiency in public speaking, for which most public speakers in our culture are not models; and in exchange for performing some menial services, a child could learn the violin, harp, and piano from musicians in one of the better hotels or from performers in the public subways. I urged my friend to keep his child out of kindergarten because kindergarten will only lead to first grade and then the grim sequence of grade after grade begins and takes its inexorable toll on the mind born fertile but gradually numbed by the pedants who impose on the captive child the flotsam of their own infecundity."

What I Wish They Would Have Told Me About My Parents' Divorce

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As the Catholic discussions on divorce, remarriage, etc. increase as a result of current events in the Church, I throw in my unsolicited pennies and beg Catholics to avoid one thing during those discussions: Never, even under the generous umbrella of mercy, allow adult pastoral considerations to divert attention from the great needs of the suffering children of divorce. A faster annulment process (or other changes) may or may not be good for the Church... But it doesn't fundamentally change the crushing blow that divorce is to the family. Even when it is necessary, it is still a great suffering.

When we minimize the language of what divorce really is, we also minimize the real affect on human beings... and we unfortunately communicate lies to kids: "There must be something wrong with YOU to feel so bad and broken over something that isn't really a big deal."  It makes kids (and abandoned spouses) feel isolated and crazy. My own experience was that it caused me to bear an unwieldy burden of guilt even as a very young child. Over and over again I heard variations on the following...

"It's for the best."
"It's good for your parents... you should be glad that they can live happier lives."
"Don't you want them to be happy?"
"It is better this way."
"They did a brave thing."
"Nobody should have to live with someone they don't love."
"You'll understand when you're older."
"You are not being fair to them."
"Children do not understand what makes adults happy."
"Be grateful you didn't have to grow up in an unhappy household."
"You will learn to think and feel differently with time."
"Do you want to make your mom cry?"
"You were too young to be affected by it... you're just trying to get attention now."
"You are being ungrateful."
"God does not want your parents to be unhappy."

And over and over again I was pierced by the pain of isolation and brokenness that seemed to only have it's roots in MY guilty stupid soul. If divorce was "good" "better" and "best" and my parents were wholly justified and excellent decision makers, than I must have been a worthless person for all the sadness, grief, and anger I carried. While my own parents were lifted up and extolled for their courage by the long list of counselors, friends, and priests I sought out for help with my runaway grief, I was crushed under the knowledge that my grief (which I was helpless to) was standing in the way of their happiness.

In spite of the fact that I was very young when my parents divorced (and who received a declaration of nullity), I still had to process the loss through each developmental stage. Understanding does not come all at once. Grief progresses through the journey of understanding. That included not only my own developmental stages but theirs as well, as they entered into new relationships, changed jobs and homes, and progressed through their relationship with each other. Divorce isn't a one time event like getting a tooth pulled. It is a dramatic, traumatic, and ongoing change in human relationships.  (In my parents' defense, I do not think they understood those complexities in my life and did the best they could under the circumstances.)

I repeated the lies told to me by others for years because I thought my real feelings were wrong. I stuck to the party line: "Yeah... my folks split. It's for the best. I'm glad they're happier." The truth is that the best for any child is a loving intact family. While I know that it isn't always possible and that separation is sometimes necessary, I maintain that the tragedy and dysfunction should be acknowledged so that the child is fully free to grieve... and to heal. 

I caution those reading against telling children that divorce is a "good" thing. It might be a necessary thing, but that is a different matter entirely from good, better, or best. If it is a necessity, it is a *tragic* necessity. It is tragic that there is some kind of danger that would necessarily break a family apart. Recognition of that truth allows plenty of room for gratitude for safety and health and whatever respite comes from a necessary separation. But my caution is against speaking of the division as a good in itself. It doesn't compute in a child's mind... to say that it is "good" that their family is broken. Tell them you are sorry. And then allow them to grieve and heal. I am not a mental health professional and I don't know what every child needs...  but I know I would have given a lot to hear these words:

"What happened between your mom and dad was bad. Families are designed to love each other forever and that didn't happen in yours. Your family was dismantled without your consent. And now you are left with an anger and sorrow that are justified. Everything you are feeling is NORMAL. And you will grow through it... and thrive. God will bring joy out of suffering. And I will walk with you."

That wouldn't have fixed everything but it would have taken a burden off of my soul and freed my heart and mind to begin healing much earlier. But the counselors, teachers, priests and professionals in my K-12 years didn't say it. Not in Catholic grade schools, not in the first grade when I made an appointment with my pastor, not family friends, not the high school professionals; not even in the junior high and teen divorce support groups I joined in school desperately seeking a balm for my ongoing guilt and grief. Those groups focused instead on affirming my right to feel in general, but then attempted to change those feelings as if they were disordered and out of place. They were not. I was normal. But I didn't know. 

I live a good and happy life and the Lord has healed up so many of my childhood wounds and relationships. But I regret to see that the conversations in the Church still center around the feelings of adults to the detriment of the grieving children. If I had a dime for every time I heard a parent tell me his or her kid was "fine" after their divorce, I might not be rich but I'd be able to have a nice steak dinner for two! "Kids are resilient." Yes, they are. But they are not made of stone. And they are deeply impacted by division in the home. It becomes a part of their soul formation. 

It is very difficult to speak truth in love to people in a divorced situation. We worry it will damage relationships or make friends or family angry with us or cause the child to think poorly of their parents. But the alternative is letting a child believe destructive lies about themselves. The injury already exists and our acknowledging it does not make it appear where it wasn't before. So let's all just get over ourselves and speak life to children...

"Some things hurt because they are fundamentally disordered."
It's okay to tell that to kids. And... it's okay to tell that to their parents. 

To all my readers who have been touched by divorce... this post is not a judgment on your situation. I assume the best of you and am so sorry that this sorrow has come into your lives. I write only to draw attention to those children who are suffering while adults are preoccupied with adult needs. It is my great hope that conversations like this will help Catholics bring the needs of those young people into greater focus. You are invited to share your (charitable) stories and comments below. 

P.S. Some people ask if I would choose not to have my stepmom in my life. Would I erase all of that good to live in an unhappy household with married bio parents? That's not a fruitful question. God allows free will. He allows us to choose to hurt and to divide. He also brings tremendously beautiful fruits from the seed of suffering. I am grateful. 

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 approach to fertility, 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. For example, frequent baby wearing has been difficult for me with big babies and a postpartum core. 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 who do not experience extended suppression of fertility by following these guidelines. 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 can interfere with the biological laws which govern hormonal chemistry and 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!

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


The Beautiful Thing Project (Random Acts of Kindness)

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My middle school daughter told me about a secret adventure she recently took. She was going to the store with her dad and anticipated all of the sad and anxious people she would come across. "Hardly anyone smiles," she told me. So she planned in advance to smile at everyone she saw, regardless of whether they smiled back. 

Her mission was successful (with most people anyway) and we talked for a while about her desire to bring comfort to others who are feeling down for one reason or another. She recalled the many words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta about the power of a simple smile. 

My daughter's words reminded me of a special Advent project that my friend, Colleen, does with her children. I shared the Raising Lifelong Learners blog post with my girl and she immediately decided to do something similar for the Summer months. 

And so, The Beautiful Thing project was born, because as Mother Teresa said...

"Every time you smile at someone it is an act of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing."

Here's how it works:

1. Print out this PDF page of 6 (or make your own)...


2. Buy some candy or another inexpensive happy item to give with the notes. My daughter chose Smarties just in case people are gluten free and we bought in bulk HERE. She attached the Smarties to the papers with colorful Washi Tape

3. Leave your house. 

4. Ask God to send someone who needs some kindness your way. Pray like St. Ignatius...

Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.


5. Smile!

6. Give your little gifts to people who seem to need them most.

7. Always remain anonymous. Do not attach a website address, email, name, or other identification to the note. This act of kindness should not even indirectly place any obligation on the receiver, promote your website/projects/etc., or draw praise your way. Let it be a completely free gift. 

8. Repeat. Keep a stash with you in the car and when God presents a soul to love, respond with spontaneous generosity. 

9. If you are on social media, consider taking a pic of your ready-to-give notes with the hashtag #beautifulthingproject. I would love to show my girl how small acts of love are contagious! 

Finally, here is a note written to me by my daughter when she first presented me with this idea. It inspired me and hope it inspires you...

I think as Mother Teresa did, that a genuine smile is one of the most beautiful gifts a person can give to others. Not only does it give joy to the other person, it makes you feel less grumpy yourself. I like the idea of giving cards and candy to people because when I go places, I notice that not many people are smiling. In fact, many of them look hurried and sad. 

While I know that the expressions on their faces don't necessarily mean that they are suffering, I know that many people are and that sometimes the small things in life can make us sad. Maybe they are just trying to get through each day or have heard some bad news. 
A card and a smile from someone might make their day. I want to be that someone.

I also know that many people don't know Christ and perhaps they are sad and they don't know why. I want to give these cards (and a smile) to everyone who needs them, to make them happy, and to be a witness to Christ Who is the reason I smile. :)

Gifts to Keep Kids Active and Outside

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We used to be that sports family. The one that lived and breathed sports until we were financially, mentally, and physically tapped out. We are an athletic and competitive family but the club youth sport culture is insane and produces insanity in otherwise normal healthy people. *raising hand to testify and give a great big Amen* We step in and out of the youth sport scene from time to time, but let it never be said again that we sold the heart of our family for the hope of a championship trophy or college scholarship.

Anyway... *climbing off my soapbox*... where was I? 

Without a regular practice and game schedule, our kids absolutely need physical outlets to stay healthy in mind and body. The following items are fun and inexpensive solutions to lure them outside where they can burn off some steam and stay strong. 


Slackline

Tightrope walking gets athletic. Slacklining is fantastic for balance and strength. There are many YouTube videos to help you get started. Since we only have one line (Gibbon Classic), the kids can get a bit impatient for their turn so it helps to set it up with the Ninjaline and Olympic rings (listed below) to keep everyone busy. 

*Photo of us slacklining at the top of this post*

Olympic rings

Olympic rings are great indoors or outdoors. Find a sturdy branch or structure and simply attach the easy to assemble webbing. Take them down in a snap. Combine these with the slackline and Ninjaline for a great obstacle course!

Camping Hammock

Okay, hammocks don't generally bring to mind images of vigorous activity but they are amazing at doing one thing: They WILL get your kids outdoors. And that is a great good in itself. 

These camping hammocks are a snap to set up, especially if you buy them with straps. They are a favorite spot to do schoolwork, put the baby down for a nap, read, chat with a buddy, find some alone time, or cheer on the backyard athletes. 

Slackers Ninjaline

My kids love American Ninja Warrior and the older ones even recently went to see some of their favorites compete locally. It's definitely one television program that motivates them to get off the couch more than stay on it. This Ninjaline is harder than it looks and is an ingenious introduction to Ninja training for kids of all ages. It's essentially a overhead slackline with obstacles. Easy to set up and take down. I recommend a chalk bag to keep little hands from getting roughed up. 

Speedminton

Think badminton on steroids and you've got the idea. Speedminton looks at first like badminton but has a heavier, faster birdie called a Speeder... with racquets that remind me of racquet ball racquets. Fast, fun, and can be played anywhere you have a little space. There are various set options. We have a set that includes portable court lines that can be set up wherever you decide to play. Addictive. Super fun. Check out the video below. 

That should keep you busy for a while! Do you have any other favorite outdoor tools to share? Leave your suggestions in the comments!

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. :)

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 want to fix everything and make it all perfect… 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! 

Harry Potter: Keeping the Debate Alive

Harry Potter.jpg

To talk to some Catholics, one would think that the Harry Potter debates are over and that a winner (Harry Potter) has been decisively declared. And to read some online articles, one would think that those who choose to opt out of this particular pop fantasy series are fun-sapping idiots... or at least remarkably close. The purpose of this post is to declare that the debate is alive and well... and that it ought to be. 

I've never written about the Harry Potter phenomena publicly, largely because I didn't need to. Opposing viewpoints have been well represented and my voice wasn't (and really still isn't) needed. But I write today because I see that there has been a large cultural shift over the last 20 years in the Church (gaining more speed in the last three or so) and I want to draw some attention to it. I admit disappointment, not so much that people disagree with my particular opinion, but at the widespread idea that Catholic parents ought to unflinchingly embrace trending occult pop fiction simply because it's popular among a large percentage of Catholics.

It is alarming to see opposing ideas rejected out of hand with a heavy dose of ad hominem. (You know, because only stupid uptight people restrict their kids' reading like that).  I'm disappointed in that kind of community "dialogue" and I'm hoping for something better.

So what would I like to see?

The ideal Catholic culture is one in which we would all be indifferent to the world of Harry Potter. Not emotionally invested in its promotion. Not emotionally invested in its demise. Just completely detached as we should be to all things of the world. 

That indifference should be reflected in the ideal Catholic dialogue and should follow correct discernment. Good discernment does not cling to preferences but lays them before the foot of the cross saying: 

"Jesus, this is nothing to me. I let it go. I expect nothing to come of it. My goal is simply You." 

If careful discernment returns the object of desire to a person's life, it would then be received with the same spirit of detachment; I am grateful to have it but I can still do without. I could lose it again without losing peace. If it is never returned, then the soul remains fixed on Christ. There is no loss. There is no entangled ego. There should be no other investment of energy other than the pursuit of truth... and a faithful and purposeful response to that truth. 

What we find in the case of Harry Potter (or similarly hotly debated cultural pastimes) is that true dialogue has often been shouted down. The desire does not seem to be truth but rather the thing itself.  Secular/pagan fantasy genre proponents too often hold the untenable position that there is no danger posed to any Catholic youth through participation. That it is innocent fun and a great good to the community at large. This is clearly an erroneous position as it disregards what we know to be true about human nature, the psychology of youth, American culture, the real dangers of the occult, and the facts of this particular situation. On the other side, there is the obviously false position that serious harm will absolutely come to all Catholic youth who partake. Neither position is true, although one is more inherently dangerous than the other.

Harry Potter was first released in 1997, the same year that my first child was born. My motherhood was formed during the years when hot debates were first happening on the internet (dial-up, of course) and Catholic mothers demanded meetings with the school board and asked that Catholic schools remove Harry Potter from libraries... and Catholic schools clung to them tenaciously because of their entanglement with the thoroughly secular Scholastic Books which had/has the monopoly on direct sales and marketing to school kids. 

At that time, I had the great privilege of listening to and participating in the debate among intelligent, faithful, dynamic Catholics. It was healthy and invigorating and yes, sometimes got pretty heated, after which we all hugged or shook hands and went home in peace. I learned a tremendous amount about the impact of literature on the human person and had the opportunity to thoughtfully engage decisions regarding the direction of the intellectual life of our family.

My husband and I considered the arguments of both positions and decided that Harry Potter would not have a place in our home. After 21 years, we have not found a compelling reason to change that position. There are two primary reasons for this:

1) Any benefits of the books do not outweigh the spiritual dangers and moral flaws. 

2) It is not good literature (in the true sense, not the "fun" sense). If the Harry Potter books had not reached the level of popularity that they had (in particularly, finding favor with the ubiquitous and anti-Christian business called Scholastic Books), we never would have noticed them nor considered them for our home. 

Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of darkness, the devil.”
— Fr. Gabriele Amorth, Vatican Exorcist (2006)

So what are the spiritual risks? To put it simply…

An engaging, youth oriented, pagan fantasy series that glorifies magic is likely to provide a gateway to the occult for some kids. No parent should be shamed or bullied into foregoing serious discernment over those risks. I have had enough personal experience with the occult to have a healthy fear of the dangers. Spiritual warfare is real and frightening.

When I first read from the Harry Potter books I did not find them captivating, I found them alarming. It was quite clear to me how children (even well-formed Catholic kids) could easily be drawn to the dangerous elements. I know it because I lived it and it formed me. It was a high price to pay for the knowledge I bring to Harry Potter discernment. I have also noticed that many of those who oppose Harry Potter are also those who have lived through occult experiences. The risky side of occult "fun" is perhaps a bit too close to reality for them... and as such, not so fun.

As Toni Collins puts it: "Of the commentators I read who loved the Harry Potter books, virtually none of them had ever experienced the occult. To them this was a delightful fantasy in the same genre as J.R.R. Tolken and C.S. Lewis. In contrast, almost every commentator I read who had experience with the occult found the books disturbing."  

Those who have lived side by side with demonic influence know one important truth about toying with occult spiritualism: The demonic can manifest and enter children and homes even if you're Christian and even if you think it's all in "fun." And if someone claims that Harry Potter doesn't contain strong elements of real occult practices, then they either do not know much about the occult or about Harry Potter. 

Studies conducted by the Barna research group revealed a twelve percent increase in occult activities among Christian students in the U.S.A. after reading the Potter series, and which the students themselves attributed to the books.
— Michael O'Brien, Catholic author

 I know you wouldn't choose Harry Potter for your kids if you thought it was dangerous. I'm not judging your motivations and I trust that a loving, Christian home is a strong defense against any dangerous or immoral influence. But I freely share my serious concerns when asked (and sometimes when I'm not) because I don't think there are many things more important to Catholic parents than the souls of their children. And to be frank, I'm tired of my family being made to feel like extremists for what is a healthy decision within the bounds of reasonable, loving parental authority and consistent with our call to live a Christ-centered life.

2117 All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion.”
— Catechism of the Catholic Church

I'm not concerned about what people think of my parenting choices, but I grieve over what I see as a pronounced and unfortunate trend to fight to win instead of to seek truth and to make aggressive definitive statements (expressed more strongly than just personal opinions) about a work of pagan occult fiction. I don't think Catholic kids are the winner in that scenario.

It has been many years since I have seen truly excellent dialogue about Harry Potter floating around the internet. Perhaps it is because younger adult Catholics think that the issue has been decided... and that only a few fanatics still espouse the idea that a popular fantasy series could possibly have a negative impact on anyone. So I bring it up again, because not all of you have had the benefit of the best arguments against that position. And many seem to believe that this sort of debate is ridiculous or undesirable.

I couldn't disagree more. 

It should never be our own opinion which becomes the end goal of debate. Debate among Christians should always be oriented toward pursuit of truth. If it is your goal in writing to smack down families like mine who have made a careful, studied, prayerful decision, consistent with the Church's teaching related to our role as Catholic parents - or even to defend your own decisions - then you write and argue for the wrong reasons. You also betray a deep ignorance of priorities in Christian charity. If Harry Potter is important to you to a degree that you must attack those who have concerns, then it is too important to you. 

I'm not writing this to make anyone wrong (and anyway, I don’t have that power of truth). I'm writing because the conversation is still relevant and its flame needs a little fanning. It should not be allowed to die as long as Harry Potter remains a cultural force.

If you allow Harry Potter in your home, you should be constantly discerning its place there. Life does change. Cultural context does change. Understanding does change. Children have different and changing sensitivities and weaknesses. Even within one family, one child may be secure and another more susceptible to negative influence. Charity demands the kind of care and courtesy that never stops assessing those changing and personal elements and visiting the question again and again. It also demands humility... and acknowledgment of the weaknesses of our positions even while we hold them. 

It is good, that you enlighten people about Harry Potter, because those are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly
— Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (2003)

The truth is that the Harry Potter series can and does act as a gateway to the occult for some children... even Christian children. It is also true that it won't affect all children that way. Although a parent knows a child and his or her general personalities and sensitivities, there are regions of their autonomous souls which we can not access. We cannot enter into the interior life of the child where imagination and and the spiritual life are engaged. 

We must aggressively evaluate the influences in our home through the lens of Christian truth so that each child can develop their interior disposition in safety. The overall debate is really not about us or our preferences, but a seeking of truth for the greatest good of our children and the glory of God. Whether or not we think there are some good elements included in Harry Potter does not reduce our obligation to make sure that souls in formation are protected from the dangerous elements.

Although Harry Potter won't draw most kids into the occult, it seems clear that it does desensitize many families and has lowered their guard against occult dangers. I see it when Catholic parents allow their kids to dress up like Harry Potter characters and permit them to pretend to cast spells. Maybe if they really knew the hellish end of witchcraft and the swiftness with which the demonic responds to an open door (even opened in ignorance), they would not think such imitation is cute or harmless. I saw it recently in the comment box of a popular pro-Harry article. The commenter described how her homeschool Latin class was enhanced by creating a book of spells, both copying Rowling's and the student's own spells. I sat in horrified wonder at the naivete with which some approach the dark arts. And all I can say is I am confident in their good intentions - and that they don't know where it can lead - or else they wouldn't tinker. They certainly wouldn't let their kids knock on that door. 

My kids have access to thousands of books in our home, including works of fantasy such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings. There is almost no similarity between Narnia and Harry Potter since Narnia is very clearly and intentionally Christian allegory (even Rowling rejects comparisons). But between Tolkien and Rowling? The similarities are only superficial. 

The Lord of The Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision.
— J.R.R. Tolkien

I could write an entire series on the substantive differences between the Tolkien's work and Rowling's since they are plentiful. My husband and I do not dismiss out of hand the element of magic in Lord of the Rings, but examine each work on its own merit; its content, authorship, and context. You might say that we have an affinity for the written word. But among our copious volumes, you will not find Harry Potter. The series never made the cut as we made literature choices for our household.

My kids will survive. They might even thrive. (Since I first published this article, two of them have successfully navigated their way into adulthood.) And I hope they can grow up without continuing to be ridiculed by other Christians for not reading literature which has NO actual bearing on health, happiness, intelligence, or salvation. 

Finally, it is not my aim here to make you agree with me... simply to reignite some healthy and important conversation within Catholic homes. My husband and I still spend hours debating these important topics and probably awakened the neighborhood as we walked the street and passionately discussed these very subjects last night. As long as we live, we will never be done discerning.  It may feel a little uncomfortable to have the heat of real truth-seeking action warming us... but if approached with charity and a Christ focus, only good will come of it.

Comments of all respectful kinds are welcome below. Name-calling is not. (I apologize to all the thoughtful people whose comments were deleted when I moved to my new website!) I am not attacking you, I am discussing ideas... so I would also appreciate a discussion of ideas and not people. And please, if you are inclined to comment, make sure that you have read (not skimmed) my post. That simple effort would save a boatload of strife in comboxes everywhere. It would also benefit the conversation tremendously if you took advantage of the links included at the bottom for a fuller understanding of an anti-Potter position. Also, I know very little about the movies and they don't factor into this discussion at all. If your only experience is with the film version of any works discussed, then there may be obstacles to understanding between us. 


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