Friday, December 11, 2009

December, 2009 Christmas traditions

Keeping Christ in Christmas doesn’t need to be one more “to-do” on your already packed December calendar. Jesus was born to bring peace, not to stress you out. Try inviting him to be a part of some of your existing holiday traditions—doing so can help both parents and kids to remember the deeper meaning of the season. 
Christmas cards: Turn this chore into a time of Advent reflection for parents. Wait until the kids are tucked in, then put on some quiet Christmas music, pour yourselves some eggnog (or hot buttered rum), and light a candle. Approach your stack of cards with a spirit of thankfulness for the family and friends God has given you. Talk about who has stood out this year—maybe a family struggling with a difficulty or one who has become closer to your own family.  Even if you’re normally not one to write personal notes, pick a handful of people you are especially thankful for and tell them why you appreciate them. Don’t worry that you’re not being “fair” by not writing such notes to everyone—maybe someone else will receive a note from you another year.
Watch the calendar:
“My kids and I make a point of never walking down a Christmas aisle before December,” said Carol, mother of four school-aged kids. “Doing this makes the kids feel ‘in the know’ about when our church seasons actually are. It also gives us the chance to talk about Advent and separate ourselves from what’s being done commercially for Christmas.”

Decorating the tree: Before you start untangling the lights, gather around your bare tree and read a story from Scripture— the John the Baptist story; the annunciation; an infancy narrative. Have each family member pick out one ornament and pray for the something that ornament brings to mind.
Light the Advent wreath: Even if you can’t commit to lighting the candles every night of Advent, do so whenever you can. Keep a Bible on the kitchen counter with a bookmark in one of your favorite passages. As you light the candle, have one of your kids read just a couple verses of the passage.
Pay attention to your nativity set: If your Christmas decorations include a crèche, use it as a change of pace for your before-bed prayers. Rather than praying with kids in their rooms, take them down to the crèche to pray. Whether you say the Hail Mary or Our Father, read Scripture, or have the kids pray spontaneously, you will be reminding your children that there is something different and holy about the time before Christmas.
            “During Advent, I put out our unbreakable crêch and let the kids play with it,” said Denise, mother of three kids under nine. “They have the angels babysit the animals and Jesus while Mary and Joseph go out. I have resisted bringing more structure or meaning to their play in fear it would kill the joy of their imagination.  But it secretly focuses me on the preparation of all those people who were brought to the manger.”
And on Christmas morning:

“We put a small, empty bassinet under our Christmas tree, next to the presents,” said Regina, mother of five. “On Christmas, before we open the presents, we place a baby doll in it. The empty bassinet reminds the kids what we are waiting for.”

Monday, November 9, 2009

November, 2009 Abortion, foster care and adoption

Pro-life bumper stickers make me uncomfortable. So do pro-life t-shirts with their large pictures unborn babies.
            They don’t make me uncomfortable because I’m pro-abortion. I agree with the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life at every stage. I do not believe in the death penalty; don’t believe in euthanasia and rarely think that war is the only answer to an international problem.  Rather, my discomfort with some aspects of the pro-life movement in general, and the Catholic piece of it in particular, arises from my perspective as a foster and adoptive parent. I see too little of a connection between the pro-life movement and the foster and adoptive community.
            As of December of 2008, there were 2,638 children in Milwaukee County who needed placement outside of their homes because of allegations of neglect or abuse by their parents. That year, there were just 857 active, licensed foster homes able to receive those children. The rest of the children had to be placed with unlicensed relatives or in group homes. In Milwaukee, as well as in other cities its size or larger, the families who do step forward to foster are too often marginal themselves. Recent tragedies highlighted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s series on the ills of the Milwaukee foster care system illustrate just how dire the situation is.
            While I understand that not every Catholic family is called to foster or adopt, a Catholic pro-life identity must include a highly visible commitment to those children who were not initially aborted, but whose current life of neglect and abuse leaves them vulnerable and at risk.
            Our Catholic pro-life voice is well-known. But what if we could become equally well-known for our commitment to providing safe families for foster children? If alongside their work to change legislation regarding abortion, pro-life groups would work within the foster care arena, the movement would gain necessary credibility. A commitment to foster care, when put next to a commitment to end abortion, demonstrates an understanding of the complexity of the abortion question. It underlines our Catholic teaching of the sanctity of life— life threatened within the womb, but also facing just as serious danger outside the mother’s body. At a recent Catholic conference I attended in Chicago, there were four booths dedicated to the anti-abortion aspect of the pro-life movement. Yet, I didn’t see even one booth—or even one small part of a pro-life booth— dedicated to recruiting new foster parents.
            Although Adoption, not abortion! makes a catchy bumper sticker slogan, the issue of adopting would-be aborted children is not as simple as it might appear. Of the more than a hundred thousand children currently awaiting adoption in the U.S., almost half are African American, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of this group, severely disabled children and black boys must wait the longest for adoption. At the same time, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s statistics show that more than a third of the U.S. women each year who choose abortion are black. When we, as church, tell these women to put their children up for adoption, do we back up our words by pointing to families open to adopting black children? Right now, the answer is no — there is a shortage of parents willing to adopt black children, and our words are hollow. 
            I recognize that some pro-life activists might bristle at the idea that they are not doing enough for children. Many of these people give tremendous amounts of time and energy trying to prevent the tragedy of abortion and the emotional fallout it causes for women. I am not suggesting that they stop. But I am suggesting that we, as Catholics, begin to look at the issue of abortion in a less simplistic way. I’m suggesting that we open our arms even wider—that we challenge each other to create a line of households ready and waiting to accept unwanted, abused or neglected children. And when we do this, when the word “Catholic” is linked with foster care just as surely as it is with “pro-life,” then we will be able to hold our heads high when we tell others to “Choose life.” Because others will have our assurance that life will be protected, once it is chosen. 


Sunday, October 11, 2009

October, 2009 Marshmallows and self-control

Marshmallows are on my mind. We’re at the tail end of campfire s’mores season and have not yet moved into the hot-chocolate-and-marshmallow season, so I have a large untouched bag of marshmallows in my cupboard. Perhaps I’ll make Rice Krispie treats. But that’s not the reason I’m thinking of marshmallows. Marshmallows were brought to my attention when I recently re-read the results of the famous Stanford University Marshmallow study.
            In a longitudinal study that began in the late 1960s, psychology researcher Michael Mischel used marshmallows and four-year-olds to demonstrate just how important the concept of delayed gratification was to lifelong success.
            In his experiment, he offered hungry four-year-olds a marshmallow, but told them that if they could wait for the experimenter to return after an errand, they could have two marshmallows. Those who could wait for the experimenter to return would be showing that they could control their impulse and delay gratification. About a third of the children gobbled the marshmallow right away; another third waited a bit, but then ate the marshmallow; and the final third waited until the experimenter returned and were rewarded with the coveted two marshmallows.
            Fourteen years later, when the children graduated from high school, the differences between the marshmallow-eaters and the marshmallow-waiters were dramatic. Those who waited for their marshmallow at four were more persistent and motivated as high school graduates. They were able to delay gratification to reach their goals. The marshmallow eaters, on the other hand, were more likely to be troubled, mistrustful and indecisive. They had difficulty holding down their impulses on the way to reach long-term goals, such as studying for a test was still weeks away. The results carried on after high school as well, with the marshmallow resisters reporting better marriages, landing better-paying jobs, and having higher levels of career satisfaction. Marshmallow eaters, on the other hand, were more likely to have unsuccessful marriages and be unhappy in their jobs.
            Delaying gratification isn’t a value held dear by society as a whole. From soda and candy placed right next to the checkout counter to auto dealers who allow us to buy a car (a car!) with no money down, much of our economy is built on our refusal to delay our gratification.
            In the entertainment sector, punch lines come fast and furious in most sit-coms, and over-the-top action is the rule in thrillers. There’s little need to wait for the funny or exciting part, or to work a bit to understand subtle or dry humor. Barry, a friend of mine who took his fifth grade boy to see the Blue Angels said his son and his friends were unimpressed with the show.
            “I think they are used to seeing such amazing stunts and graphics up close in the movies and video games that they can’t even recognize something remarkable in real life,” he said.
            Instant messaging, texting and an always-on cell phone mean that we rarely have to wait to get in contact with friends and family. And even the way we package food shows how little tolerance we have for waiting — instant rice; ready-made dinners; just-add-water. 
            But in our world of instant communication and fast food, we can’t ignore the marshmallow study’s startling results, because they say something important about how our children are going to turn out if we don’t teach them self-discipline and waiting. The study reminds us that even with all the technology around us, there is value in telling kids they will need to wait for the weekend to play video games; that they can’t go online until after they practice piano; that they won’t get a cell phone until high school. The marshmallow study reminds us that having a small child wait to ask a question until adults have finished talking is about more than politeness—it may be a survival skill. As we as parents learn to say “no” or “wait” to our children’s demands to purchase the newest jeans or the newest gadget; to be the first to see a movie or download a song, we are ensuring that they will better be able to wait (and work for) the important things in adult life.

            As ironic as it may seem, our children’s future happiness is dependent not on us making them happy right now, but in our ability to help them learn to wait a bit to be happy. And we can’t delay in teaching them this. Because there was nothing fluffy about this marshmallow study.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September, 2009-- Control

When our oldest son, now 14, was a preschooler, my friend Brigid told me about an experience she had with her own preschooler after Mass one Sunday. It was shortly before Christmas and gifts for needy children were arranged under a tree near the front of church. While Brigid and her husband were chatting with some friends and the priest, her son grabbed a present, brought it back to the group, and asked if he could open it.
            “I let the priest handle that one,” I remember Brigid telling me. “I wanted to see how he would explain to a four-year-old that the presents were for other children.”
            At the time, I remember being amazed that Brigid decided to give the situation to the priest. I knew that if Jacob had done something similar, I would have been mortified and would have quickly taken matters into my own hands.
            But a decade more into parenting, Brigid’s decision to let someone else lead the lesson sticks with me.
            Parenting seems to be a lifelong dance of knowing when to take control and when to let it go. On one hand, parents are co-creators with God; our children are entrusted to us to form and shape; to teach, discipline and bless. On the other hand, our children do not really belong to us at all. Ultimately, they are God’s children, given a free will and a life all their own. Yes, we parents may be the primary teachers, but we are not the only ones. And while we may take some satisfaction when our children do well, and some blame when they do not, we cannot be so full of our own importance to think that every success and failure of our children is a direct reflection on us.
            Having a mix of biological, adopted and foster children has caused me to bump  into the control issue earlier perhaps than some parents.
            There are close to four years of our foster daughter’s life that I cannot account for. She is almost eight, and social services has sent her to live with us on three separate occasions over the course of her life. It’s likely this third placement with us will end in adoption. While I know a bit of what her life was like, and how she suffered, when she wasn’t living with us, I don’t know the whole story. Indeed, Teenasia herself doesn’t know the whole story because for much of the time she wasn’t with us, she was so young.
Learning to love T as a daughter has tested me as a parent. Especially early on when she came back the third time, I felt that I was looking at her without recognizing her. I saw little of myself or Bill reflected back at me. Yet, I knew without a doubt, that I was called to love her; called to be her mom.
            What Teenasia taught me—and is still teaching me—is that parenting with faith requires a mental relinquishing of control. It’s a daily rhythm of do what I can, and give her to God. Love her as best I am able, and ask God to deepen my love. Teenasia’s arrival this third time was accompanied by a huge question to me, directly from God—  so obvious it may as well be written in block letters in the sky above my home. The question is: Do you trust Me?
            It’s not a one-time question, and it’s not a question just for me. I believe it’s a question that God asks each parent on a daily basis. And it’s can’t be answered with a yes or no. It must be answered with our being. For when I wake up in the night, worrying about Teenasia, I’m not trusting God— I’m putting it on myself. When I yell in frustration instead of grabbing a teachable moment; or think that maybe I won’t be able to have the same expectations for Teenasia that I have for my other kids, I am not trusting God. I am putting myself at the center of center of the circle and saying that Teenasia’s success is dependent on Bill and me.
            Mother Teresa once said, “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.” In that statement is a challenge to all parents. No matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, the outcome is ultimately not ours to control. This is not to say that we should give up efforts with a shrug of, “it’s in God’s hands.” On the contrary, Mother Teresa herself demonstrated that being faithful involves a tremendous amount of work and action. But somehow, Mother Teresa was able to separate the toil of faithfulness with the expectation of controlling the end product. Maybe, amid all the poverty and the squalor and the hurt she saw on a daily basis, she also looked up to see the writing in the sky: Do you trust Me?  And, with a willingness to live up to her title of “Mother,” she answered with her being.

            Yes, I trust you.

Monday, August 17, 2009

August, 2009 First day of high school

            I gave Dominican High School my oldest child today.
            I suppose some would argue we didn’t actually give our son to the small Catholic high school in Whitefish Bay; we paid them to take him, but that is quibbling over details. It has been my experience over fourteen years of parenting, that every time I enroll my child for the first time in something new—from kindergarten to swim lessons to soccer—I have a sense of turning over a piece of my child to another person or institution.
            The statement I am making every time I drop off my child somewhere else is: “You can do it better than I.” Because if I didn’t believe the organization could do it better than I, why would I drop him or her off at all?
            Call it arrogance or simply the truth, but the reason I have chosen not to work full time since becoming a mom is that I’ve always had at least one young child at home who I have felt could benefit from being around me—and only me—much of the time.  For the day-to-day life of forming my children-- establishing morals, habits and behavior—I believe I am number one. (Bill is number one, too, in a different way.)
            But good as I might be at nurturing my children, giving them standards and boundaries, starting them on the road to become who they need to be, I also recognize that I cannot—I should not—be their world.
            And this is why we signed Liam up for tee-ball when he was five; and why Jacob played touch-football at ten; it’s why T is learning African dance and why Jamie might join a children’s choir.
            It’s why we signed Jacob up for Dominican.
            Every activity or institution makes a promise to Bill and me, as parents. They tell us they’ll teach our children about teamwork, or help them learn the basics of a sport; the steps to a dance. Each activity or institution names a skill or experience they can give our child that we cannot. But the older the child gets, the larger and more important the promises become.
            Dominican promised us that they would help Jacob discover and grow into the Jacob he is called to become. It was a promise that ultimately gave us the confidence to send him there.
            But it’s also what makes me feel so much that I am turning my son over to them. If the school only promised to teach Jacob his academics and develop him as an artist or athlete, I’m not sure I would feel as much like I was holding my breath, to see how they’d do it. Academically strong schools with good arts and sports programs are very similar to each other. As stunning as it is to watch the child you taught to hold a spoon learn to do trigonometry, it happens all over the place.
            But what I’ve heard happens at Dominican is not quite so universal. Dominican’s mission statement not only encompasses academics, the arts and sports like our neighborhood high school, it also includes phrases like “Our faith-driven school community fosters spirituality,” and “We commission our students to develop a heightened sense of social responsibility and respect for human dignity.” 
            Parents I’ve spoken to who have graduates or upperclassmen at the school assure me that Dominican will follow through on their promise to Jacob. They say I won’t be disappointed— that on the contrary, I will be amazed at the young man he will become.
            That remains to be seen.  But right now, I’m choosing to believe in this small school with a big promise. And I choose to believe in the promise because the school is based on Christ, who has never been about small promises.
            So, Dominican, here you go. We’re giving you our oldest boy. We hope he’ll give you some of himself, as well. Take care of each other.