Sunday, March 3, 2013

You Don't Have To Stay Home, But You Can't Come Here

Worthy conversations abound about the role of Catholic singles among our parish life and beyond. We're all enriched by having friends or relatives who don't have kids, for the perspective and levity they can bring to kid situations. (Not to mention the hope of recruiting a babysitter from time to time.) Among my fellow mommy friends, I can predict pretty accurately their individual reaction to queries or stories about family life. They are wise, introspective and filled with experience. That said, it's often refreshing to hear my bachelor Uncle or childhood friends' responses instead.

I remember once describing a harried morning with toddlers and a twenty-pound sack of dried pinto beans as "White Trash Montessori", a description met by the guttural laughter of a lifelong pal who was pregnant with her first baby at the time. Since the climax of the tale was less about the gleeful, malicious pouring of the beans in our tiled entryway, and more about how it took me three solid days to entirely clean up the mess, it helped to have a friend laugh at the story. It was funny. It was over. It didn't need further discourse.

People without kids who are content to be amused by kids are a treasure. I sense they're becoming a minority, and wonder if the root of 'brat bans' is the self-congratulatory stance of the larger child-free movement. As our society has relegated sex to a weekend adventure, and embraced contraception and abortion, the necessary lie becomes that little kids are the realm of the clueless and the careless.

Before I'm nailed as laissez-faire or unrealistic, I should clarify: many places are intended exclusively for adults. For the sake of sanity and unity, it's great to know those boundaries exist. A business owner can and ought to create the environment he believes has maximum market attraction. A party host(ess) has every right to request their celebration be without children. I wish them well. Conversely, I'm not lobbying for any one 'parenting style' over another. I realize the Europeans do it differently, often to mixed reviews.

After witnessing two women in particular who captured the essence of Matthew 19:14 ("But Jesus said to them: Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me: for the kingdom of heaven is for such." (Douay-Rheims 1899)), it's obvious that living this requires patience and willful abandonment to Love. In social invitations and leading Children's Eucharistic Adoration, theirs is an influence I've been grateful to receive. I'm really sloppy at imitating their gravitas, but nonetheless thankful for the examples. Likewise the gregarious priests whose comfort level or conviction allows them to encourage motherhood in the devotional and public sphere.

I'd love to highlight some realm outside of the insular Catholic homeschooling world as doing it correctly: accepting childhood as a valid state of being, using high expectations to instill pride and excellence in behavior, letting kids be kids without projecting hostility towards their parents. I try to venture out regularly. But go beyond the gates and we sound pretty clueless. No one wants to raise sullen jerks who stare into iPod screens, but the risky business of ushering kids from littleness to bigness has become a liability we'd rather not confront.

We're just not sure where kids fit anymore. We have the United Nations' Rights of the Child, but in daily life such global poetry is proving to be tough competition for actual children who make noise and eat food and learn manners and mess up.

Our family attended a performance art festival earlier this winter, which featured a few storytellers. They offered artful renditions of the Snow Queen and other classics; our oldest daughters, ages 5 and 8, were rapt. The younger kids were happily seated until I had the grand idea to usher them down to the dancing area, which only made them aware of the wide staircase, which made them antsy to climb the stairs. As a mom who refuses to let her little kids disrupt gatherings but operates under the human limitations of time and space, I've grown nerves of steel for the forty seconds required to swoop up the toddlers and duck out the door at the first sign of mutiny. The big girls and I have our pantomimed exchanges nearly perfected for any venue --- they're either given permission to find me in the foyer afterwards, or they're begged to grab coats and bolt at the next polite break. This January day found me circumspect, and before my escape I noticed the pinched faces of old white men with silver ponytails, visibly peeved that Storytime was being ruffled by the presence of children. Really?

I recently watched a Facebook comment stream about leaving children in a parked car while using an indoor restroom with particular interest. On its face, the attitude of those who disagreed with this practice was purely one of concern. But something more complex is at work, in many cases. Like the reflexive brother of the Prodigal Son, much of our culture wants the 'rightness' of their choices confirmed by maximizing the discomfort, even to the point of humiliation, of the 'wrongheaded' people. The confidence and serenity (also expressed as "benign neglect" by the ones with a sense of humor) that typifies the experienced mother or father is anathema to those who have convinced themselves that babies ruin everything. This mindset not only violates charity, it removes the chance to be of service to others, which destroys our sanctification. The devil himself would have set it up just so.

Nowhere is this schizophrenia more starkly presented than at church. Today I called a local parish to inquire about the plausibility of (me) offering childcare if parents wanted to attend a Saturday brown bag luncheon talk being offered there. I was either cordially rebuffed or given reluctant permission --- I still can't figure out which. The idea was met with a despairing sigh after mentioning that I'd like to attend with my five children. This is sad. I profess a Faith which upholds the dignity of welcoming a new baby each year if God so deigns. Pro-life posters in the stairwell are nice, but showing up to casual events with babies in tow? Poorly conceived, it seems.

Kids are a handful. They'll spill the beans everywhere, on purpose, and you'll be surprised how stealthily a single pinto can poke underfoot, days later. It's fair to be frank about their messy joys and surprise graces. Moreover, kids are the way we get new people, for better or worse. May we heed the words of PJ O'Rourke --- who said in endorsing Jonathan Last's book, "the only thing worse than having children is not having them."


  1. I love this post! We only have three, but I've been amazed at how having one more has changed the reactions of people to our family when we're out. The kids might be on their best behavior, sitting perfectly quietly and there are still people who will turn (in a family restaurant) to glare. On the other hand we've had people rush over to remember happily when they had a new born and a two year old and a four year old and those moments are precious and wonderful! It's such a strange world we live in, when the mere presence of children, regardless of behavior, causes such reactions! And it makes me all the more thankful for those that don't have children that appreciate them! Thank you for writing this!

  2. I get more "kid love" from nostalgic strangers in coffee shops while treating the kids to strawberry steamers than from silver-haired grandmothers in church ("oh, you're 43, thank God you're almost done, huh?"). Lovely.

    And I love this post as well! Bravo. Can we come over for beans and rice?

  3. Great post. One that desperately needed to be written.

    I've noticed that my typical local Catholic church is blithely unaware of how much more difficult it is to have children today than is was 50 years ago (little institutional support, carseat laws, insane medical costs, etc.) and not overly supportive even regarding church functions ($50 fees for religious ed or whatnot for kids come to mind).

    Agree with Allison too on the "nostalgic stranger" comment. My thoughts: the Catholic church has lots of old(ish) ladies who had the last large families during a time when that was going out of fashion...and thus have some 1960's anti-large-family vibes going on. They were the vanguard of this change, and every large family is a throwback to a "bad time".

  4. I agree with mdavid above. My grandmother had 14 kids. But she was the last of the non-contracepting generation and for many years people, even in Church, have become accustomed to a lack of children distracting them from...well, what I can't say.

    That being said, do I attend the only parish that is truly kid friendly in all of the world? I read these accounts of people's experiences with mouth agape. Agape, I tell you! Pro-life! Children! Duh!

  5. At my previous parish (I've moved) I was pianist for the Hispanic Mass at our bi-lingual parish. There were many large families there, and the dynamic was even more complex (not just large families, large BROWN families--don't get me started). Fortunately, our priest was one of fourteen children and LOVED large families, and gave substantial discounts to parents with more than one child in CCD, etc. We had lots of family oriented programs, etc. It was super. While there was some grousing from the "white people," I never failed to do my part by pointing out that they, too, could have large families if they wanted.

    My youngest is now twenty and I find it irritating, to say the least, that many Catholics, once the last bastion of the large family, are rapidly taking second place to some Protestant denominations with sketchy theological positions. Yet it doesn't seem to occur to them that they have a choice.

  6. These thoughts are all insightful, thanks for commenting! And I should clarify that our parish experience has been overwhelmingly positive --- just the contrast of a few sad responses is all the more surprising when it happens there.