When I am looking for inspiration on becoming a better parent, my parish priest is not the first resource I usually think of. While we have two excellent priests at Saints Peter and Paul, the fact remains they are celibate males, and therefore rarely have to say things like “Don’t lick the window,” or “Remember, you need to lift up the toilet seat before you start going.”
Some may argue that a priest who has never had to utter either of these statements can indeed preach effectively to those of us who must say them on a regular basis, but I’ve never been so sure. Following Jesus when you’re only responsible for yourself is difficult enough. Following Jesus when your nerves are frayed because your baby will only sleep if you are standing up and swaying at 3:00 a.m. is another thing entirely.
So when I went to Mass two Sundays ago, I did not expect the homily would be the most clear explanation tying together parenthood and being a follower of Christ that I had ever heard.
I don’t remember how Fr. Joe Juknialis began his homily. By the time the Gospel ended, I was in the back of the church pacing back and forth with our new foster daughter, Luchita, age 15 months. We had gone through all toys and books of interest during the opening prayer, a Ziplock bag of Cheerios during the first two readings, and a half bottle of milk during the Gospel. As Fr. Joe started the homily, Luchita was frantically kicking her arms and legs in need of some motion.
So I took my place in the very back of the church, pacing, as Fr. Joe spoke. Luchita, comforted by the step-step-bounce pattern of my walk, relaxed in my arms and I could listen.
In the Gospel, Jesus had cured a leper, and in doing so, became so sought after that he could barely walk through the town. In taking away some of the leper’s pain, Jesus, in essence, brought discomfort and pain upon himself. This is what being a Christian means, Fr. Joe said. In an effort to lessen another’s pain, we take some of their pain on ourselves. He said that parents do this constantly — a parent will stay up with a sick child — and in the process often become sick, too — so that the child is not alone in his or her sickness. A parent will listen to a child’s sorrow, and take some of that sorrow as his or her own so as to lighten the child’s burden. In doing this, he said, parents are acting as true followers of Christ.
As I walked with Luchita, Fr. Joe gave other examples, but I hung onto the parenting ones. Luchita had come into our lives about ten days earlier, part of the Milwaukee County child welfare system. Her arrival, while very welcome, had rocked our world. Full nights of sleep were now a memory, and our small Toyota Corolla seemed to have shrunk two sizes with the addition of another carseat. The constant motion of a toddler added intensity to our already-busy family life. Implicit in Father Joe’s words, though, was that our family took a hit of instability so that Luchita’s life could be more stable.
I thought of my friend Patty, mother of five, who had told me about an argument she helped her ten-year-old twins work through. She had known the twins were angry with one another, and she acted as a facilitator to their argument, allowing each twin to say what she needed to say, but preventing the fight from getting ugly or out of hand. Patty absorbed and diffused some of their anger. In choosing to become involved in their conflict, Fr. Joe would say she acted as Jesus, releasing some of her daughters’ tension by taking it on herself.
The reason parenting is so exhausting is that we are living our own lives plus those parts of our children’s lives that they are not up to yet. Every fanny wiped, every hotdog cut into small bits, every comforting hug after a nightmare is a way of taking a child’s difficulty and making it our difficulty. Parenting is the constant shelving of our own wants in favor of a child’s needs. And the twist that makes it even more difficult is that what we know is best for our children is not always what they themselves want. Parenting would be almost easy if children’s wishes reigned — four or five hours of TV a day, lots of junk food, no bedtime, no vegetables, no need to get dressed or be anywhere on time. The “no’s” we say, the limits we set, and the anger or tears or pouts we encounter because of those no’s and limits are also part of being Christ to our children. We absorb the momentary fury of a child rather than compromise that child’s future growth, health or development.
When Mass ended, I tried to thank Fr. Joe for his homily, but could just manage a few words before I had to run after Luchita, who, exhilarated with the freedom of finally being put down, was careening toward the steps. I caught her before she fell, helped Liam blow his nose, and held Jacob’s books while he zipped his jacket. I glanced at a nearby mother who was bundling her baby before going out into the cold. She nodded at me and smiled. Our work was holy.