What Catholic Parents Need to Know Before a Son Enters Seminary

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This is Part 2 of a series on solving the vocations crisis and preparing our sons to answer the call. It was written with parents in mind but maybe helpful for all Catholics. Read Part 1 here: Solving the Vocations Crisis Crisis: Serviam


When my son was 5-years old, he rushed into our room in the middle of the night and announced that God wanted him to be a priest.

How do you know?
Because he told me!

And we moved on with life, doing what we had always done, living a life centered around the liturgy, learning, playing, and living life fully together…knowing that the true test of vocation doesn’t generally come like a flash in the night but through a steady relationship with Christ.

His interest in the faith continued to grow alongside his athletic and academic interests. He loved to serve at the altar and studied about the liturgy during his free time (and also when he was supposed to be doing his Math). We homeschooled, which allowed more flexibility in allowing Thomistic and liturgical passions to grow; and his interest in life, the fairer sex, and the priesthood grew together in a natural progression to manhood.

Eventually, he decided to give the Church the “first fruits” of his discernment and take a step towards the priesthood. He attended several discernment events, one of which was a weekend at a college seminary. He enjoyed the weekend but decided he was not a good fit for the community.

The seminarians hosting him didn’t display much interest in the faith or liturgy outside of the fact that they were, in fact, in seminary. They wanted to play video games and talk about secular music and movies. And the one thing that was a driving passion in his life, the Catholic faith, seemed a taboo topic among young men who should have been most excited to engage. Some were openly irritated that he wanted to hear their thoughts about God.

He came home with the understanding that many young men (at that seminary anyway) were entering those doors as a blank page, with a sincere but vague idea that the priesthood was somehow just about bachelors helping people. They may make wonderful priests someday, but this is not an ideal scenario for a young man going into seminary — any seminary.

When a man enters the seminary doors, he walks onto a battlefield. He is giving his assent to be fitted with the future crown of martyrdom. Like the Apostles before Him. Like Christ.

Before entering, he should already be a man, with a healthy spiritual, mental, and physical formation. He must be open to learning while, at the same time, prepared for the possibility of having to navigate wrong teaching and complicated peer and formator relationships.

While God can work through any situation to bring about transformation and holiness, the reality is that American seminaries are not generally a green house for orthodoxy, where young shoots can grow under the loving hand of a St. Charles Borromeo and a community of holy, intelligent, and manly saints. Perhaps a great saint could run such an enclosed institution successfully without allowing a platform for abusers. However, St. Charles is gone and the seminary crisis in the United States is a horror story of institutionalized dysfunction that continues to be protected and perpetuated by corrupt and weak prelates ensconced in powerful positions.

In Dr. Alice von Hildebrand’s autobiography, she tells the story of one of her public college students, an angry and depressed young man who was raised in a devout Catholic family but lost his faith in seminary. He was accepted into the Maryknolls who “torpedoed his faith with their ‘new theology’ and modern Biblical scholarship.” He fell into despair and into a wild life. He eventually returned by the grace of God via von Hildebrand’s classes. But the story of his fall is not uncommon. And it doesn’t always end on a happy note.

Nestled solidly among the many good priests, a legion of bad ones have been placed in positions of power and have manipulated the system to perpetuate their corrupt ends. They are not in love with Christ. Some are liars and thieves. Some are abusers and violent criminals. Some are satanists. Some are mentally ill. Some are political and ideological activists who deliberately feast off the Church while working to destroy it. Some are simply badly formed and weak. And they have been in charge of forming, destroying, and confusing generation after generation... and putting up obstacles for the army of good men the Lord has raised up.

This is not new. This is the diabolical thread woven through Salvation History.

GAMING THE CATHOLIC SYSTEM

One of the most striking examples of how this happens is the Legionaries of Christ, whose perverse and narcissistic founder (Marciel Maciel) created the appearance of almost perfect institutional and personal piety while abusing so many and protecting other abusers.

He gamed the system and masterfully designed his own structure within the broader institution. He was so effective a manipulator that he fooled millions of Catholics and even a saintly pope, and became one of the wealthiest, most powerful, and most damaging men of the modern Church. The ripple effect will touch generations of souls.

We see similar methods of manipulation (to varying degrees) employed within some major religious orders (both men and women) and diocesan seminaries. The evidence rolls out daily as we clean up the bloody mess created by people who don’t love Christ or His Church…or those who are ill-equipped to lead through the confusion. In certain religious and priestly communities, there has been a deliberate network of deviancy that perpetuates and feeds disordered desires. These men and women know how to appear pious enough (like Maciel did with alarming perfection) and how to repeatedly fool the faithful who are so quick to love and to trust.

It is not that Christ has left His Church…but that evil has done what it always sets out to do. It is a liar, a thief, and a destroyer.

As a mom with several sons and a public Catholic platform, I am often asked where I would send my sons to seminary if they feel called. My current answer is: I’m not sure. It’s complicated. Am I willing to give my sons in service to the Church? Absolutely. But I will not quickly hand an inexperienced young man over to a seminary that is marked by tepidity, confusion, sexual immorality, leftist ideology, or externally pious but narcissistic clericalism.

WHAT SHOULD A CATHOLIC PARENT DO?

It is difficult to be constantly immersed bad news and it isn’t always the best use of our time. But we are living in a time of great sorrow and witnessing the collapse of an institutional house eaten through by the termites of the enemy.

We live in a time when one of the most powerful cardinals in the world — close to popes, an influencer of domestic and international policy on sex abuse, education, liturgy, politics, etc. — was discovered to be a vile and faithless pedophile fraud. McCarrick was surrounded by men who knew him and his lifestyle and who are still in positions of power in the Church.

These are not times for the tepid priest. It is a time for martyrs.

In the last few decades, the faithful have been able to live in the relative peace of ignorance, largely oblivious to the evil behind closed doors. If you think I’m extreme or negative, then you have either been protected from it or haven’t recognized it yet. But if you desire to help your sons be open to God’s call to the priestly vocation…

It’s time to wake up.

It is not within our power to fight the monster on our own. We must turn first build a foundation of personal holiness and raise our children to respond to the call of holiness (which I discussed in Part I). Then, we must prepare for battle.


DEFINING THE BATTLE

I know a man who, after decades, finally approached his diocese about the horrific things that happened to him while at seminary. To name those in authority who knew what was happening, covered it up, and are still in respected positions today. For decades, men who knew that seminarians were being abused continued to be given responsibility over the formation of the priests of a diocese. Unconscionable.

His is only one story of many. The physical, mental, and spiritual damage to young men leaving or graduating from seminary is Catholicism’s special trail of tears.

The crisis isn’t over. It is actually escalating. The enraging truth is that the enemy has been identified and very little is being done. Not in local dioceses or religious orders. Not in Rome. For every one abuser or heretic removed from office, a dozen more remain in place, going unpunished or permitted to defy the disciplinary actions assigned to them.

In order for our sons to answer the call, they must become warriors before they ever approach a seminary door. Or they may become casualties against an enemy that does not love, does not believe, does not care about your son, and continues to shout with the enemies of Christ: Non Serviam! I will not serve.

TAKING ACTION AS THE PRIMARY EDUCATORS OF OUR CHILDREN

I obviously don’t have all the answers and this article is not definitive; rather, it is what I would tell parents who approach me with questions about seminary for their son. If you’re open to entering into this discussion, consider printing this out, praying over the ideas brought forth, talking about them, doing battle with them. You are certainly not bound to accept my perspective but what I am begging you to do for the sake of your sons and the Church, is to at least be willing to wrestle with it.

Our rosaries and the hours on our knees on behalf of our children may be enough in the end but then again, they may not. Prayer moves mountains but bad formation is not undone simply by a mother’s fervent desire. If we throw our kids into a den of hungry wolves and then pray a rosary for their safety…well…we shouldn’t be surprised to see their bodies torn to shreds.

How can we prepare our sons to answer the call BEFORE they get to seminary? The following ideas and suggestions are a good place to start the conversation in your family and community. I explain each of them following the list below:

  • Seminary is not a good place for the weak man

  • Vocation formation should happen long before seminary

  • Reconsider college seminary

  • Teach your son to read well

  • A strong prayer life is essential

  • Serve at the altar and love the liturgy

  • Teach your son to recognize grooming

  • Stay close to your son

  • Teach your son his civil rights

  • Help him understand his canonical rights

  • Enter the battle.

  • RISE UP


SEMINARY IS NOT A GOOD PLACE FOR THE WEAK MAN

The strength of a man’s character is not necessarily evident in his outward demeanor. A man may be quiet and studious with great humility but still have the lion-heart of a St. Thomas Aquinas. That is not weakness but gentle strength. The weakness I am talking about is the kind which predisposes a man to be dominated, bullied, or too easily led by others. A warrior can be magnanimous, open-minded, and deferential, but he must not be easily overcome by the strength of another.

If you know this about your son, then please know that the seminary system is full of predators and narcissists who will seek to dominate him. He will become a target by bad men even in a relatively good institution. With this weakness, he odds of leaving most seminaries without significant wounds is unlikely.

If your son has known addictions (from drugs to porn to video games), these should be addressed prior to entrance. Seminary is not a treatment center! Addictions will not disappear simply because they walk through the doors of a seminary.

We all have weakness in our characters and having a submissive personality does not mean that a man cannot be a great saint or that he cannot grow to be a person of strength. This point is a practical one. Do not send a 120 pound athlete into an NFL football game…even if he has a big heart. He will be crushed.

This weakness may simply be the natural immaturity of youth. Even a mature 18-year old will not be equipped as well for battle as someone who has a few more years of experience. The solution may be simply waiting longer before applying to seminary, to gain some healthy life experience and develop stronger interpersonal and physical skills. (See “Reconsidering College Seminary” below).


VOCATION FORMATION SHOULD HAPPEN LONG BEFORE SEMINARY

Your sons should know what vocation means before they hit high school. The practice of holy discernment should be common well before seminary becomes an option. Enter into the liturgical rhythm of the Church year and model examples of faith in the workplace, at home, and among community.

Freely express the fire of your own love for Christ and make opportunities for ongoing formation as individuals and family. Make sure that there is silence built into each day. Teach him to pray. Teach him to serve. Teach him to read (more about that below). Provide him with exceptional role models in multiple vocations. And when you think he is mature enough, have discussions about clerical sexual abuse and homosexuality to help him wade through the increasingly porn-distorted culture.


RECONSIDER COLLEGE SEMINARY

I used to think that college seminary was a good idea. I’ve changed my mind in light of the current challenges in our seminary culture. It seems to me now that a young man should be a little older before he has to face the specific challenges of a seminary system. Greater life experiences may help him to navigate potentially complicated relationships and situations. Greater maturity may help him to understand if he is being manipulated by authority or through his education.

Catholic moms are sometimes afraid that if we allow our sons to go out into the world, that the young men will lose their vocations. We know that a hundred pretty girls lie in wait for a good Catholic man to come along and that seminary hardly stands a chance! Or we might be worried that the spirit of the world will overtake his desire for holiness.

Do not be afraid. If God wants your son to be a priest, He will pursue him. And if your son is inclined to be swept along by the attractions of the secular world, he will also face those challenges in the priesthood.

It is not a greenhouse. It is a battlefield.

Greater maturity will not harm him and may protect him. Even some secular professionals are now encouraging parents to give their students a gap year or more to mature before facing the dangers of college. The same case can easily be made for seminary for similar reasons.

To reiterate, these are my current thoughts - just opinions - open to change as new information and individual discernment enter the equation. I am not pronouncing judgment on your sons who are in college seminary nor on you. My own son went to college seminary with my blessing. But I would do things differently now.


TEACH YOUR SON TO READ

Teach him to read difficult material that includes great works of literature, history, philosophy, and the doctors of the Church. He should already have a grasp of Salvation History and the Scriptures. He should be familiar with the Catechism and the writings of the saints and the great encyclicals. His knowledge (and library) should include the documents of Vatican II and preceding councils, and he should have spent some hours familiarizing himself with St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica, the works of Chesterton, the spiritual writings of the saints, and have a solid grasp of the moral teachings of the Church. He should be encouraged as often as possible to refer to original sources and not simply to accept without question the opinions presented in popular textbooks and by modern Catholic authors.

I highly recommend having your teenage sons read Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen to begin to see the through eyes of a holy and happy priest.

If he cannot do this, he will not be intellectually prepared to engage in the academic battle being waged in seminaries everywhere. In this cultural climate, he must be able to intellectually engage or he may be easily swept away by a persuasive and kind (or bullying) professor who has authority and respect within a closed diocesan or religious system. He will be an empty bucket into which his professors will be able to pour their ideas…for better or worse.


A STRONG PRAYER LIFE IS ESSENTIAL

A strong prayer life should be established before going to seminary. It is the height of foolishness to expect to be strong without this element. As parents, we cannot control this in our children. They may be outwardly praying the rosary while inwardly thinking about football. We cannot know. It is not your responsibility to control his interior life and you cannot do it anyway. What is within our control is our own example of piety, creating a peaceful home environment conducive to prayer, opportunities for true silence, and frequent access to good spiritual leadership.


ENCOURAGE SERVICE AT THE ALTAR AND LOVE OF THE LITURGY

A surprisingly large number of seminarians and priests have only very shallow knowledge about serving at the altar and liturgy in general. Depending on the seminary, liturgy is not always prioritized and may only make it into one semester of study. That limited study may be led by a professor who is ideologically driven to change the liturgy to reflect a distorted theological or moral perspective.

Encourage your boys to serve whenever possible and also study the liturgy on their own before seminary (I will try to put some helpful resources on this in the near future and link here). Encourage them to become at least somewhat familiar with the Latin as well as the English — it is, after all, part of their heritage and will help them develop an appreciation and understanding of the liturgy as a whole. This will also help them know when the liturgy is being abused, taught incorrectly, or is invalid. As a priest, there will be no higher good than celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Their heart must begin there in the Eucharist and return there.


TEACH YOUR SON TO RECOGNIZE GROOMING

Our boys must know how to recognize the signs of grooming and defend themselves and others. Not all grooming leads to sexual abuse but it can lead to an abuse of power in other ways, especially in a system designed with a hierarchy of authority where those in power have control over your daily life and vocation. Hierarchy isn’t bad…SIN is bad. The grooming behaviors of a non-sexual narcissist can be extremely damaging, especially when combined with spiritual formation.

I wrote an article called A Catholic Girls’ Guide to Unmasking a Predator and I think that the general guidelines can be helpful for a young man in seminary as well. The details will vary but the basic guidelines are the same. I have adapted the list (only slightly) here.

Red flags to watch out for in superiors or peers:

  • He is a bad Catholic (faithful in externals but does not privately live the Gospel).

  • He is a liar.

  • He is secretive.

  • He isolates you physically and emotionally.

  • He is vulgar.

  • He is divisive.

  • He is mean.

  • He pressures you to abandon your morals.

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

  • He doesn't want to talk to your parents (or let you talk to your parents)

Some examples of grooming behaviors are emotional or physical isolation; creating a barrier between healthy relationships and the seminarian. All help is cut off and the formator has complete control of the most important aspects of the seminarians life.

Another example is breaking down boundaries and rules by degree. Sharing alcohol under forbidden circumstances and laughing it off. Watching a movie or listening to music together which breaches the boundaries of purity. Making off color jokes or using crude language regularly and generally pushing the boundaries until the seminarian is comfortable with a degree of “naughty.” This not only allows a truly evil formator to push boundaries further but to also have leverage against the seminarian in the future. Blackmail.

This grooming process is one reason why the culture of silence is the norm and why the laity are ignorant. If an evil man can draw a good (but weak) man into an indiscretion, he holds then power over the most important things in the weak man’s life. If a good man can get through the seminary in one piece, he still has to contend with the authority of corrupt power.

Teach your son to be a wall of strength against such predatory behaviors…and to think through ahead of time (like a war strategist) what he would do in different circumstances.

  • What will he do if he is threatened with expulsion?

  • What will he do if someone lies about him?

  • What will he do if a formation or spiritual director crosses a physical or emotional boundary?

  • What will he do if he is told not to tell the Bishop?

  • What will he do if his fellow seminarians are engaging in immoral behavior (with men, women, or media)?

These are not questions to think about as they are happening but well ahead of time. If you are starting to feel panicky…pray for the spirit of a warrior and to have the courage to walk through your fear. "O blood and water, which gushed forth from the heart of Jesus as a fountain of mercy for us, I trust in you"


STAY CLOSE TO YOUR SON

When all is said and done, the system which promises to be mother, father, teacher, and spiritual director to your kid may abandon him or deeply wound him. You may not even know. Be there. Be the constant thread in his life that doesn’t waiver and doesn’t harm. Be the constant offering of sacrificial love in prayer and action. Build a home of peace to which he can safely visit or return. Also, be the eyes and ears of wisdom which can help identify the dysfunctional behaviors in those in power over your seminarian.


TEACH YOUR SON HIS CIVIL RIGHTS

In an institutional system where obedience, humility, and authority carry meanings and applications different than the secular understating, it is vital that a man understand precisely what his rights are.

He should understand his American civil rights which are built upon natural law. These are not abrogated simply because he enters seminary, regardless of what a formation director says! The seminary staff should respect the natural rights of each seminarian which include the right to privacy, safe environment and health needs, freedom from whistle blower retaliation, freedom from harassment. If your son finds his rights violated and chooses to object, he may find himself out of the seminary one way or another, but that is a decision he must be able to make clearly.

Even a generally good seminary experience can include strain between one person in power and a seminarian who has no power at all. It can become a no-win situation in which the seminarian knows that there really is no one to turn to since the ones he would be reporting are also the ones responsible with recommending him for another year in seminary.

In a dysfunctional situation, righteous anger has no legitimate expression. The virtues of obedience and humility are used as weapons by a director to gaslight and manipulate a seminarian into submission and dependency. It is an injustice which cannot be corrected, an injury which can only be turned inward, and one element which ends up creating the next generation of narcissistic priests.


HELP YOUR SON LEARN HIS CANONICAL RIGHTS

Knowing canonical rights is equally important in these situations in which the external and internal forums are so closely intertwined. In the case of one seminary (known for its orthodoxy), it was a regular practice of one spiritual director to share seminarian details with the formation director. This is a grave violation of seminarian rights but the directors simply thought they were above that important rule. The end result was that the seminarian ended up leaving because he was not permitted to express himself against the injustice in a way that satisfied all parties.

The seminary handbook should lay out both civil and canonical rights and any points of concern should be clarified. The seminarian should know them and also have thought through what he will do if they are violated.

  • What will he do if his spiritual director reveals protected information to his rector?

  • What will he do if his physician shares private medical information with his rector?

  • What will he do if his rector demands obedience in areas which violate natural and canonical rights or face expulsion?

  • What will he do if he discovers that his formation director regularly lies to him and to others?


ENTER THE BATTLE

We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of Salvation History as the antiquated version of Marvel comics. Excitement, adventure, horror, romance! All wrapped up neatly in a collection of literature for our convenient perusal, entertainment, and edification.

We have to root that tendency out and come alive again to the reality of the Incarnation. Salvation History isn’t a thing that happened to people living long ago. It is happening now. We are in it. We are in the middle of the battle and it rages around us and even in our homes.

The enemy still prowls and attacks. Still destroys souls and nations and commits unspeakable atrocities. And I think because we have been granted a brief historical period of comfort and wealth, we forget…

Evil doesn’t care what you think. It doesn’t care if you forgive. It doesn’t care if you are compassionate. It doesn’t care if people suffer or die or weep in agony. It isn’t sorry. It doesn’t repent. It doesn’t care if you lose your faith. It doesn’t care if your son loses his faith in seminary or is molested or humiliated or lied about by a superior prelate. It doesn’t care if he is bullied out of seminary.

Evil delights in those things and boasts and dances in broad daylight in its perverse pride. It mocks us openly. We cannot afford to be naive.

As Christians, we believe that good will triumph. We’re not wrong in this. But we have a wrong understanding of what the battle looks like and have been protected from the worst by the blinding comfort of our American lifestyle and also by certain corrupt institutional systems designed to hide it.

We think the best of people, even the evil-doers. We look at sinful actions as “mistakes” and we are quick to forgive, but we are naive. When faced with the reality that the smoke of satan has not only entered the Church but is also wearing bishops’ mitres and Roman collars…well, that’s just very difficult to process. But it’s certainly nothing new.

Famous Catholic convert, Bella Dodd, worked with the Communists in the 1930’s to infiltrate the Catholic Church. She sought Confession and counsel from Venerable (soon to be Blessed) Fulton Sheen and described to him (and subsequently to the US government) how the she had followed the order of Stalin to “infiltrate Catholic seminaries and religious orders.” She personally placed over a 1000 false men into seminaries and worked with at least 4 cardinals who were active Communists.

Dodd’s close friend, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand writes about the infiltration:

“What I am writing on infiltration is not meant to deny that some bishops, some heads of religious orders, some priests have not fallen into the very grave sin of either closing their eyes to the horrible sins committed by people under their authority – but to make aware of the fact that a key factor hardly ever mentioned or mentioned at all, is that many of the worst culprits were not Catholic priests who had fallen prey to “unbridled lust” but infiltrators who had obtained false baptismal certificates and were plainly agents of communism. I heard from Bella Dodd that these evil men had even infiltrated the Vatican – for the Catholic Church is the arch enemy of Communism: and they know it.”

We are living the drama of Salvation History.

We cannot be afraid of hearing the negative. We must permit ourselves to experience the sorrow so that we can grieve and then gear up for battle. We now know that the Vatican knew about the sordid character of the Legionary founder, Maciel, as long ago as 1943 and did nothing. He was suspended as superior general and expelled from Rome for four years in the 1950’s for suspected pedophilia before being reinstated.

We must know.
We must make it our business.
We must decide to fight.
And if no one in authority will listen or act, then we must do it ourselves.

That there are good, holy priests fighting the good fight is absolutely true and I give thanks to God for these men who lay down their lives for us daily. In the midst of the chaos (although sometimes scattered and isolated) there is army of these good men! They know more than anyone of the danger within their own ranks and our failure to engage in the battle only harms them. It isolates them. It pierces them.

Let us stop our pearl clutching over harsh or negative news. We cannot escape the battle. And that means that we must choose which role we take in the fight.

IT COULD BE YOUR SON

When a lay person, priest, religious, bishop, or cardinal is being mistreated, abused, manipulated, silenced, or harassed by someone in authority over them, they often have nowhere to turn in the Church. Abuses are often ignored unless a civil court demands restitution for a proven crime or the laity yell loud enough. Groomed and abused seminarians are left to struggle with severe depression and loss of faith and identity. Priests are punished for their orthodoxy and  threatened with removal of faculties or even mental institutions. Good bishops are ignored by Rome. It is a painful thing but there is often no higher authority to which we can turn…and no outlet to which an abused or bullied member of the Church can use without increasing the abuse. Except…

Except for those in the Church who have been willing to look evil in the eye and call it out. And build again starting with the family.

As a parent of a young man discerning the priesthood, you must understand that those abused, harassed, alienated, and silenced priests could be your son…especially if your son is a particularly faithful Catholic. Start listening. Start speaking.

It’s time to level up.

Once you have begun to understand the true gravity of what is happening in the Church, you will have no choice but to cling to Jesus Christ, His promises, and His call to holiness. You will go through the grief and the doubt and then turn your heart back to Him with renewed fire and desire to serve and love and raise your sons to His Sacred Heart.

You will be able to stand in confidence and say “Enough! I’ve had enough.” And you will commit yourself to defending Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. It’s a battle with a known outcome. Now we just need to stand up and take our place in it.

Rise up, Church!
If God is calling men to become priests, then let Him call ours… and let us be prepared.

To again quote Dr. Alice von Hildebrand:

“What are faithful Catholics – aware of the gravity of the situation – to do? The answer is the one the Church has given us from the beginning: prayer, sacrifice, and the glorious conviction that the Forces of Evil shall not prevail.”


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!