Monday, December 31, 2007

When the Monsters Win: Wifely Insurrections

Calling all readers! Sarah at "Just Another Day of Catholic Pondering" has orchestrated the latest Catholic Carnival with characteristic creativity and insight. Be sure to ring in the New Year with a cup of your favorite tea (see below) and a good read! Happy New Year!

Before I get to the insurrection bit, I'd like to alert you to a soothing, guilt-free bit of pampering that was given to me yesterday by my favorite sister-in-law (her husband, Craig's older brother, is also a prince). At Craig's birthday party yesterday, she handed me a box of Higgins & Burke "Black Currant Herbal Tea." After tasting it at a friend's house she had called around to every food distributer in the greater Michigan area, looking for it ... finally sent away to Canada for a six-pack (in boxes) of the heavenly brew (the aroma is the best part), which I've been chain-sipping ever since. (Did I mention there's no caffeine in it?) Lovely ...

Given everything else that happened yesterday, I confess such a soothing treat was monumentally undeserved yet doubly appreciated. My "Mommy Monsters" were in rare form. I was mad, mad, mad ... and I was not going to let it go without a fight. Right before Mass. On my husband's birthday, yet. (Oh, Heidi, when will you learn?)

To add to the irony, this weekend Catholic Exchange ran my article on the second reading. "The Beauty of Feminine Genius" reflected on the wisdom behind Colossians (3:17), which touched upon the complementarity of married intimacy that I had all but destroyed in one ill-timed tongue-lashing. One verse in particular stung as it fell upon my ears:

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them....

There is something humiliating, yet undeniably effective, about reading such a well-timed admonishment in an article I had penned myself. I had to admit, first to myself and then to my dear husband, that the insurrection in our children had been largely attributable to my own failure to surrender to the "unity of two."

First, a little background. For the past two days, Craig had crawled home from work in the wee hours, giving him just a couple of hours of sleep before leaving to go to work again. If I had taken my own advice and tried to be a beautiful "feminine genius," I could have gently reminded him that working such long hours several days in a row was not good for his health, not good for our family, and not good for his productivity levels.

Instead I lectured him about how he had not kept his promise and come home before midnight. Twice. And how his daughter's nocturnal antics (up every two hours, like clockwork) were not going to improve until we resumed our regular family routine. Shrieking like a fishwife, hands on hips ... in the words of Ray Barone, "unhuggable." (Kinda makes a guy look forward to coming home after working so hard to provide for his family, don't you think?)

The children picked up on the tension between us, and it backfired in a bad way. When I stood up to do the first reading at Mass that morning, the entire congregation was treated to a full-blown temper tantrum. Our five-year-old daughter proclaimed in the shrillest possible manner that she wanted to come WITH me to the lecturn, and she DID NOT want Dad. Finally he picked her up football style and carried her, kicking and screaming, out of the sanctuary. My face was hot as I found my place in the lectionary and began to read from the book of Sirach:

Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children,
and, when he prays, is heard.
Whoever reveres his father will live a long life;
he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.

As I read the words out loud, a thought struck me: How can I expect my children to revere their father, if I treat him like a child? Why should they want to be with him, or seek out his company, if the peace of our home is being disturbed by my score-keeping?

Craig and I have been married nine years this coming year, and clearly I still have much to learn about wedded bliss. Fortunately, I had the good sense to marry the most patient and mild-mannered man on the planet. We managed to make it to the end of the liturgy without another incident. Then we went home, and Craig took both kids out for a little Daddy Time in the local park, leaving me home to get the house ready for the birthday/Christmas celebration that afternoon. Ninety blissful minutes to straighten up, chop vegetables for my Southwest Nibblers, hunt for birthday candles, and put on my party face. And I needed every single, solitary minute.
Now, a day later, I sip my tea and think about marital promises. On our wedding day, we promised to be faithful to each other "for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health..." Overt infidelity is unthinkable for either of us -- when he comes in at three in the morning, I know he's been battling the computer gremlins again. Yet, "fidelity" takes many forms, doesn't it?

Respect. Kindness. Consideration. Putting others' needs first.

It is the stubborn intention to love, honor, and cherish ... till death parts us.

  • Not, "unless he loses track of time again."
  • Not, "until he leaves me cooped up with the kids for seventy-two hours straight with a headcold."
  • Not, "provided he is sufficiently penitent when he isn't as kind and considerate as I expect."

No, love that lasts goes deeper than this, knowing that each offense against the "unity of two" is a kind of death, too. And so, we work together to rebuild that "shining barrier" against such atrocities. Like Van and Davy in my favorite love story, A Severe Mercy, we use these momentary lapses to inch our way closer to each other -- and, holding on to one another, to stumble toward holiness.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Catholic Carnival #151

Merry Christmas, dear readers! If you have a little extra time in your Christmas stocking this week, be sure to check out Ebeth's gift to us ... a lovely, Rockwell-themed Carnival full of thoughtful posts that will nourish both mind and spirit. So head to "A Catholic Mum Climbing the Pillars" with a hot mug of toddy and enjoy!

To be honest, I was a little late opening this particular gift this year. We were out of power for three and a half days, and got to experience our own frenetic version of the

"Twelve Days of Christmas."

Twelve meals a'grilling,
Eleven stores a'hitting,
Ten gas cans pouring (into the generator),
Nine children dancing (really only three, if you count the dog, but seemed like more),
Eight Kleenex-boxes emptying (did I mention I have a cold?)
Seven piles of snowgear melting,
Six loads of dishes a'washing (yes, by hand),
Five pumpkin pies (one at a time in the convection oven)!
Four new DVD's (still in the box)
Three indoor campouts (another round of Scrabble, anyone?),
Two out-of-town guests,
And one Christmas tree without the lights (fa, la, la)!
Next year it's Christmas at Grandma's (in Georgia, where my mother says the power never goes out).

The highlight of this Christmas was the "midnight Mass" (10 p.m. at my church), which my parents attended with us. Craig is singing in the choir, and they came specifically to hear him sing! It was nice to have mom sitting next to me, to belt out the alto part of the Christmas carols.
The other Christmas gift, serving on the altar with our senior priest were five (count 'em) young men from our parish currently in seminary studies. I feel a little guilty admitting this, when there are so many other parishes closing -- even here in Michigan -- due to shortages of vocations. But we have two priests and two deacons ... and we keep them all busy, all the time. Father Will has a gift with teenagers, and his hard work is bearing rich fruit.
Even with the little inconveniences of powerlessness (thanks, DTE!), we had so much to be thankful for. Family who had traveled all the way from Georgia, and didn't turn back when they heard it would be a dark Christmas. A warm, generator-powered home with outdoor grill to do the turkey and convection oven to do the pies. (No oven, but stove is gas.) Two children who are growing up fast. Christopher got his first "big boy" suit (complete with jacket and vest), and we were delighted to discover he was as quiet as a mouse at Mass "because this is how a gentleman behaves at Mass!") Sarah got her very first watch ... I think we're going to have to wrestle it off her when it's bathtime.
Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Congratulations, Lisa Hendey @ Catholic Moments!

My friend Lisa Hendey just got word that her "Catholic Moments" podcast has been picked up at SQPN -- a giant leap forward for this powerhouse communicator of the faith!

For more details, click on the title above ... or go directly to the SQPN link here.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Leap for Joy ... with Compassion

The voice of my beloved!
Behold, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
By beloved is like a gazelle,
or a young stag.
Behold, there he stands behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows
looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
For lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.... (Song of Songs 2:8-12)

It seems like a strange reading, given where we are in the liturgical calendar (so close to Christmas). And yet, the Gospel reading gives us a hint (Luke 1:39ff). A young woman, full of life and wonder, hastens toward her dear, infertile friend Elizabeth, with whom she is about to share one of the most profound of all womanly experiences: motherhood. And as Mary's delighted greeting fell upon Elizabeth's ears, the new life within her leaped for joy.

Today something happened to me that made me consider this passage in a whole new light. Craig and I attended Christopher and Sarah's school Christmas pageant, and I struck up a conversation with a woman whose son was in one of my children's preschool class. "Anna" has three children and has never been married. I asked Anna whether she was planning to do something special with her kids over the Christmas break, and she admitted that she only had off work Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The rest of the time the children -- the youngest not quite two -- would be in daycare.

At this time of year, she admits, she lives on credit cards and basically works to pay for daycare. With no help from the children's father -- she can't afford a lawyer to fight for her in family court, while his lawyer has had the father's childcare payments reduced twice -- she doesn't feel she has much choice. And to a point, she's right. Many of the most important choices she could have made are behind her: the most important being the choice "up and come away with" a wild stag, and to have and raise on her own several children. Like many single moms, she puts her head down and copes as best she can, fighting to keep the wolf away from the door ... while her "stag" leaps and grazes far ahead, oblivious to her plight. How does one begin to give this woman the kind of assistance she needs, help that will remove both her and her children from this swirling pool of despair?

Back to today's Gospel. We tend to read this account of the Visitation with the eyes of faith, with Mary running joyfully to share her news with Elizabeth, who welcomes her young cousin with unabashed joy.

As I left the program today, I had a different thought: Was it possible that Mary's haste was even partly due to the fact that she needed time and space to process what was happening to her? That she ran to Elizabeth not with elation ... but a teensy bit panicked? Her fiat had been willing and unreserved while she basked in Gabriel's heavenly radiance. But when the aura disappeared, did her misgivings creep in with the shadows?

How different, then, was Elizabeth's role. She was not simply the recipient of grace, but a benefactor as well. "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" Because of infertility, Elizabeth knew what it felt like to bear the judgment and shame of wagging tongues, and was in a unique place to be able to reassure Mary. She must have known difficult times were ahead of her young cousin. While she did not doubt Mary's story -- that God had chosen her to be the mother of His Son -- she knew that the young woman would still need help. A listening ear. A helping hand. Above all, an open heart.

It's the same for all of us. We all make choices (some intrinsically sinful, some merely imprudent) from which we need to be rescued, or certainly assisted. In this case, Mary had made a courageous choice (just as my friend Anna chose life for each of her children). She made it, knowing full well that tongues would wag and even those closest to her might judge her harshly. But she did it anyway, trusting that God would make her way straight.

This Christmas, as we celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, is there someone in your life -- perhaps someone God has specifically placed in your path -- that needs your help? It may be that this person is suffering the consequences of his or her deliberate actions. Then again, this person may simply be "Jesus in distressing disguise," as Blessed Mother Teresa used to say. Take up the Spirit of compassion, relinquish judgment, and extend yourself in the name of the Christ Child, who gave up all of heaven so that one day we might share it with Him.

If you don't know anyone personally, this might be a good year to pitch in at your local domestic violence or crisis pregnancy center, shelter, or soup kitchen. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Adoptive Family Planning: A Wise Choice

Today on the adoptive parent channel of “CafĂ© Mom,” a story was posted about an adoption gone terribly, horribly wrong: A Dutch couple living in Hong Kong, who had adopted a South Korean infant, decided to “return” the little girl (now seven years old) to the orphanage where they had found her. Claiming that the little girl had not adapted well to their culture, they decided to “return” the little girl soon after her mother became pregnant (they had been told she could not conceive).

Reading the story, I was reminded that people with limited adoption experience tend to paint both the adoption process and adoptive parenting in black-and-white terms: overly sentimental on one hand, overly critical on the other. In reality, both the people and the process tend to be far more complex. In the example above, the press vilified the Dutch couple, painting them as cold and heartless individuals who cast away their own daughter like so much trash simply because they had a “real” child on the way.

Doubtless the reality was far more complex. Consider what it would be like to be a mother in a strange land without the support of family and friends, married to a man with a demanding job that took him away from home for prolonged periods. You decide to open your heart and home to a little girl in need of a family – and discover the reality of adoptive parenting is a lot harder than you thought. The little girl has needs and challenges that were not initially apparent when the child was placed with you. Still, you persevere, hoping that the difficulties will smooth themselves out.

Instead, the pressures build. The child does not get better. Then you and your husband are ecstatic to find out that – miracle of miracles – you are pregnant. After the initial exhilaration, reality begins to set in. You have barely been able to manage the needs of the one child, and now you will be juggling the needs of two!

Looking for reassurance and support, you call home … and get a series of well-meaning but demoralizing half-truths. “You’ve done everything you could. Now you have a child of your own – your own flesh-and-blood. You’ve got to think of her. Soon you’ll be coming home; if you bring that Asian child with you, she’ll never fit in. She’ll always know – everyone will know – that she isn’t really yours. Is that fair to her? No, better to find a family for her among her own people. It’s really for the best…”

And so, back to the orphanage from which you got her. The dark-haired little girl doesn’t even cry. She just looks at you reproachfully, clutches her doll a little tighter, and follows the social worker back inside the cold gray building you all thought she had left for good.

Now, it is possible that I’ve added or omitted details that belong in this story – I don’t know these people, nor do I have details about the case itself. What I do know is that there is more to the story than meets the eye. Because when it comes to adoption, there is always more going on than can be perceived by the casual observer.

How Could She Do It?

It’s hard to imagine how that mother felt – barely able to breathe, torn between horror and relief, anxiety and a guilty sense of liberation. The nightmare was over, the fairy tale about to begin. And yet, she felt more like the selfish stepmother than the princess. And in her heart of hearts she knows that the joy of motherhood will always be tainted by the memory of the child she failed, the child she left behind.

How can I pretend to get inside this woman’s head, when I’ve never met her? In reality, I can only draw upon the memory of how it felt for me when Craig and I asked the agency to find another home for our oldest foster child, after she had been with us for more than a year. We had our reasons – most of which would not be appropriate for me to discuss here (for her sake, not mine).

I will always be grateful for the couple who stepped forward to love and care for this little girl, who will always be a part of our lives. She is my children’s sister, and she has grown up to be a beautiful young woman – just as her older brother, adopted by another couple, has grown up to be a fine young man.

But how much heartache could have been avoided – how much needless pain was inflicted on everyone concerned – because we overestimated our own abilities and resources as new parents, and underestimated the challenges ahead. It was an easy mistake to make under pressure. I looked into those three little faces, and my heart shouted, “Yes, I can! They need me … and I just know God wants us to do this.”

Again, I know whereof I speak. Because of that, I encourage prospective adoptive parents to assess – as accurately and dispassionately as possible – their own situations to avoid making an impulsive decision they may one day regret.

“Should We Take This Child?”
Questions to Consider …

Among the questions you need to consider before accepting a foster care or adoptive placement:

Have you spent enough time around and alone with children to have an accurate picture of the ongoing demands of parenting? Reading is an important part of parenting, but there is no substitute for hands-on experience. If you’re unsure you’re up to the challenge, consider “borrowing” the child of a friend or relative for a weekend or even longer.

Have you decided what age and/or gender of the child you feel best able to help? For example, some adoption experts strongly advise against disrupting the natural birth order – fostering or adopting a child who is older than children already in the family.

Do you know how you respond – physically as well as emotionally – to prolonged periods of sleep disruption and other environmental stressors? (New parents wanting to adopt or foster more than one child may want to consider carefully “spacing” placements to allow time for bonding and adjustment.)

What commitments do you have at present (e.g. existing immediate and extended family needs, work or educational goals, etc.)? How will a child affect these commitments? If the mother is currently working outside the home, can the family get along without her salary? (If at all possible, adoptive mothers stand the best chance of forming a strong bond of trust with their new child if she is the sole caregiver, especially early in the placement.)

If the child is part of a sibling group, is additional support available to ensure that each child gets enough individual “bonding time” with her new family? Does one or more sibling have extraordinary emotional or physical needs that make it difficult to meet the needs of the others? (If so, is it possible to separate the siblings, even temporarily, if it would mean the difference between a successful and disrupted placement?)

What do you know about the child’s medical case history, including information about his birth family? Does the child have siblings or extended family with which the child should maintain contact? Especially with domestic adoptions, have the rights of both birthparents been relinquished or terminated? If the child has been in more than one foster home, do those foster parents have observations or concerns about the child and his or her ability to bond with another family?

Does the child have a history of abuse or neglect, or suspected history of abuse or neglect, that may require extraordinary time and attention or jeopardize the health or wellbeing of other members of the family? If so, have you received sufficient training so that you will be able to help this child? Approach those with unknown or sketchy histories with an extra measure of caution, spending extra time and securing independent assessments as necessary in order to get the most accurate picture possible. Those with special needs deserve a loving family – an informed, loving family that is prepared to help that child become all God wants him to be.)

Are your families and friends generally supportive of your decision to adopt – that is, are they willing to lend practical assistance as needed? If not, be cautious about making a permanent commitment to a child with extensive physical or emotional needs.

Have you spent significant time talking and praying through your decision, both alone and with those who will be part of your support system after the children become part of your family? Take the time you need to be sure you are basing your decision on the Holy Spirit’s leading – and not just your own idealistic wishes and dreams.

Adoption and foster care can be a beautiful, joy-filled experience. Yes, it is possible to love a child – fiercely and without reserve – who comes to you through adoption. However, the bonding process may happen on a somewhat different timetable. Be patient. Gather as many facts as you can before making your decision. Tune out those who are unnecessarily negative on one hand – or overly idealistic or “pushy” on the other. (This especially holds true to caseworkers, whose first priority is often finding homes for as many children as possible, as quickly as possible.)

Above all, remember the words of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “God does not call the equipped; He equips the called.” If God is indeed leading you to bring another child into your home, you can count on Him to give you everything you need – and peace above all – to bring your family together as He intends.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

This morning as I frantically stitched up the last of my Christmas gifts, and ran to get ready for the first of several family celebrations this weekend. (Why do we always do this to ourselves?), I suddenly realized that I have not done a blessed thing about Christmas cards this year.

Something has to give. And so, this morning I decided to take a moment while my lasagna noodles boil, and share with you (and remind myself) some of the many ways God has blessed us in this past year.

As I whip up the third batch of royal icing to make 22 gingerbread houses for Sarah's kindergarten class to decorate, I'm thankful for my own home. Especially now, with the aroma of gingerbread and pine in the air, and the twinkly lights and Advent wreath. And I remember those who have lost a home this year due to unemployment or other financial hardships. May the Incarnate Lord, born in a stable, be close to them.

As I ponder what to get for the men in my life -- particularly my husband and our fathers -- I'm thankful for the wonderful, intrinsically manly qualities they possess. And I remember the many boys and girls in this country who are growing up without a loving father at the breakfast table. May St. Joseph, patron saint of families, be their constant intercessor.

As I think about my soldier nephew and my niece who wants to be a missionary, I'm thankful for them ... and for the wonderful example of motherhood my sister (their mother) has been to me. And I think of the Wise Men from the East who traveled the world to find the true Source of Light ... and for all those who are struggling to find and follow the truth. May the Star of Bethlehem shine in their hearts.

As I pull out yet another batch of cookies from the oven, I'm thankful for each of the friends and family members who will be enjoying them over the next few weeks. I think about friendships that have grown "inactive" in the past few years, and pray for each of those families by name. We may not see each other very often anymore, but I'm so grateful for the part each of these families have played in our lives.

Yesterday at the grocery store, I ran into our associate priest -- a vibrant young priest who genuinely seems to like being around people. I'm so thankful for what Father Gordon has added to our parish community, and I pray for vocations to serve the many parishes in the U.S. who are struggling without a priest in residence. May Our Lady whisper into the hearts of our young Catholic men, and lead them deep into the Sacred Heart, where they will serve their Lord faithfully and well.

Finally, I think of all that is going on this busy weekend: dinner with Christopher's godparents tonight, "Messiah" community sing followed by my husband's company Christmas party tomorrow, "girls" Advent tea Sunday afternoon, and my husband's performance in "Amahl and the Night Visitors" Sunday night. Whew! But then I remember those who are alone and isolated this Christmas, especially those in nursing homes and hospitals, single parents whose families are celebrating without them this Christmas, and children "in the system" who are longing for families of their own. May the Holy Family make a special place at their table, and possibly even prompt us to make a place at ours!

Oh, come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!
Merry Christmas!

For Women Only...

Cheryl Dickow asked me to help spread the word about the new online women's study that is going to be going on at starting January 7.

She writes: "Catholic Exchange is sponsoring a unique onine woman's study to celebrate the 20th anniversary of John Paul's Apostolic Letter on the Dignity of Women. We are asking that you share this link with friends and family as a way to help us spread the word about this fun
and rewarding experience. Registration is currently underway and the study begins January 7th."

For more information, click here.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Be Not Afraid: A Prayer Request

This week the "Catholic Carnival" (#148) is hosted at Bryan Murdaugh's blog (thanks Bryan). If you have a moment, stop by and have a look! Here's the link.

Yesterday Sarah came down with her doll baby, holding her in the "feeding" position and kissing her tenderly. "Aren't I a good Mommy?" she asked me. I smiled and assured her that she would make a wonderful mother someday.

Then she casually walked over to the stash of paper grocery bags, pulled one down and opened it, then gently lowered her baby into it. "There! Now she's in the dead box." (Have I mentioned we attended my grandmother's funeral over Thanksgiving week?)

So perhaps it isn't all that surprising that Sarah refuses to let me out of her sight, even to go to church, without breaking down into a torrent of sobbing. She will not stay in her bed, and only reluctantly agreed to a spot on the floor.

I'm afraid I've scarred my daughter. And I'm not sure what to do about it.

In his new encyclical, the Holy Father writes about the hope that is the lifeblood of all Christians:

Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himsef as Love .... The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through.

Spe Salvi (5-6)

I'm sure the preoccupation with death is temporary; Sarah knows all about heaven, and talks eagerly about going there so she can play with Missy again. And yet, there also seems to be an untapped well of fear and anger in Sarah that is just now beginning to break to the surface. These strong emotions are compounded by the fact that she isn't sleeping well because she keeps checking to be sure we're still there. If I wrap her up like a burrito and hold her on my lap, she'll nap ... but it doesn't last long.

My best guess is that it's an attachment issue, based on the books I've read. And so there will be some work ahead of us. Please say a prayer, if you think of it, that little Sarah will learn to "Be Not Afraid."