Busted Halo

Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft tries to balance her traditional Mexican-American cultural heritage and Catholic identity, personified by her grandmother La Lupe, with her roles as a young wife and mother.

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September 15th, 2010

The Humility of Parenthood


lalupe-humilityparenting-flashThroughout my life I have worked with kids a lot.  I started babysitting when I was twelve.  I have about fifty cousins and at least half of them are younger than me.  All throughout high school and college I’ve tutored, mentored, camp counseled, and run programs for kids.  At the Catholic Worker I was basically a second mom to at least 8 kids at any one time.  I helped moms load newborns into the car to ride home from the hospital and had to keep the peace when the kids would fight at dinnertime.  Not that after all this experience I thought I was an expert on kids and discipline but I definitely thought I had a pretty good handle on what it meant to be a parent.

I could not have been more wrong.

I have quickly come to realize that kids are going to cry, scream, shout, kick, and fuss at exactly the wrong time regardless of how good your parenting is.  Parents should still try to lovingly teach their children discipline, but even the most well-behaved kid will sometimes just totally breakdown in public.

Despite our best efforts to teach Olivia how to act respectfully, she is totally in control when we are out of the house.  Nothing we do affects her mood or behavior.  If she’s in a bad mood then it is impossible to have her in a public place.

Of course this is most apparent when we go to Mass on Sunday.  We do everything we can to ensure a calm Mass time.  We let her take her morning nap, we feed her right before we leave, we bring a bottle in case, and we bring a book she can flip through.

I’ve always been super-critical of parents and their kids at Mass.  I hate it when parents feed their kids in Mass.  When they munch on cheerios and goldfish.  I hate it when parents bring a gazillion toys for kids to play with.  I hate it when kids have crayons or markers and are coloring away during the liturgy of the Eucharist.  I’ve always thought this was inappropriate and setting a bad precedent for the kids.  They should be sitting quietly and attentively all through the Mass.

Olivia is now one year old.  While she was once content to be held all through Mass, she no longer wants to be such a passive spectator.  She wants to chew on the pew.  She wants to flip through the hymnal.  She wants to talk to the people around us.  She wants to crawl all over the floor.  Pretty much after 3 months, Mass has been an uphill battle.

Last Sunday I had the realization that we have become those parents I used to slyly look at out of the corner of my eye and judge for not having children that act like adults.  We got to Mass early.  Good for us.  Bad for Olivia.  Her patience was already worn thin by the time the opening song started.  Then another baby sat in the pew behind us.  Shoot.  We couldn’t do anything to keep her from yelling, “Hey!” at the baby over and over.  By the time we hit the first reading, her Baby Einstein book was out.  That kept her quiet all of 3 seconds.  So out came the sippy cup.  This held until the Gospel where she promptly threw the cup and book and started squirming so much she almost fell out of my arms.  So the carrots came out.  She took one, chewed it, then spit it out.  Awesome.  Then the crackers came out.  This kept us going until the Eucharistic prayer.  So we unleashed our final and ultimate tactic.  Her bottle.  And this is how we got through one hour of Mass.

Now you might be asking, why didn’t you just go to the cry room?  Because the cry room is the worst idea in the world.  Sure, we do it when we have no choice but I HATE the cry room.  It just takes one parent to treat the room like a glorified playpen.  You know, the kind of parent that has an eight year old literally bouncing off the walls and does not flinch to try and settle them down.  It only takes this one kid to get all the other ones doing the exact same thing and all the parents are left powerless in the midst of this the chaos.  I could learn to ignore this but it gets Olivia so riled up that we cannot control her and all she wants to do is play with kids that are three times her age that would trample her in a second.

Point is, we really try to avoid the cry room at all costs.

This whole time I had chalked up food, drink, and toys for little ones in Mass as bad parenting, it was really just a method of survival.  We are now the parents that get the stares of judgment.  The stares that say, “Will you please just control your child?”  Truth is, we can’t.  I cannot get Olivia to act like an adult no matter how much I will it.

Parenting requires humility.  One thing I wasn’t ready for.  I was prepared for the no sleep, limited social life, messy house but not the need for humility that is thrust upon us daily.  It sucks to be the parent of that kid that is throwing a tantrum in the middle of Mass or that kid that just knocked a plate onto the floor of the restaurant.  But it is inevitable and you just have to suck up your ego and keep moving.  I can’t get mad at Olivia for these things.  She doesn’t understand.  If she were older, ok, maybe I could sit her down and reason with her a bit more but we are far from being able to do that.

So here’s my apology to all those parents that I have given dirty looks or judged for having kids do something embarrassing or inappropriate in public.  I’m definitely getting my comeuppance.

The Author : Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft
Vanessa, a Notre Dame grad, loves the Catholic Worker Movement, Catholic education, and overbearing Mexican mothers, which she may or may not be. She lives in Austin with her husband and five daughters and is a freelance writer. You can find Vanessa at v.kraft.im or follow Vanessa on Twitter @laluped.
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  • Marie

    thank you so much for this! we normally sit upstairs in the open choir loft since grandmother is the organist, and i think my most humiliating (and hilarious) moment was when my 3 year old tossed her lovey lamb over the loft. it landed smack in the lap of a 70 year old parishioner (with a good sense of humor, thank goodness). thanks again for reminding me i am not the only mother feeling humiliated and frustrated in mass. :-D

  • Laura

    Wonderful reflection – glad to know we are not alone in the struggles of parenting a toddler through Mass! In fact I wrote about the same subject here and stumbled across your blog while I was writing my own: http://motheringspirit.wordpress.com/2010/09/18/parenting-at-mass/
    Parenting is indeed a school of humility, isn’t it? I love the saying, “Before I had children, I had six theories about parenting. Now I have six children and no theories.” Thanks for your honesty.

  • Rita Rogers

    Always be aware that
    christianity is very messy. They are realparticipants albeit small and very attached to you. I write from the perspective of six children and ten grandchildren who were not picture perfect

  • Amber Fogarty

    I’m in the same boat, now with two little people at Mass – a 3 year old and a now crawling 8 month old. The best piece of advice I got from a friend when discussing the challenges of taking young children to Mass and the fact that it’s hard for the parents to pay attention – There is grace in being there.

    I’ve had to remind myself of this pretty much every Sunday, especially those weeks when I’m walking out of Mass with no clue what the homily was about.

    Hang in there, everyone…we’ll miss these days when our kids are all grown up!

  • Becky

    Oh, and I will totally agree that nothing prepared me for parenting. I worked in childcare and often rolled my eyes and how incompetent parents seemed, but I discovered that one of my own children is harder to manage than a room full of two year olds that belong to someone else.

  • Becky

    I have found that books, food, toys and drink backfire. The best advice I ever got was: until the child is at least three and has proven that they can sit (reasonably) still, they are ALWAYS sitting on the lap of a parent or being held. If the baby gets too loud, stand up in the back of the church or the foyer, but don’t ever, ever put the baby down to let her run around. This means that often one of the parents ends up standing in the back with the one year old, but by two or so the baby is back to being more manageable, and has not learned that she may get rewarded for misbehavior by being given a treat or being allowed to play.

    We also sit in the front, and point out various parts of the mass, and this helps once kids get a little older. We don’t take my 18 month old out for simple chatter, I’m sure Jesus doesn’t mind, although we do try to hush her. Disruptive screaming does mean we remove her from the Church.

  • maryann

    Like Genny I found this article and its comments delightful. Mostly, because my children are young adults. I DO remember trying all of these suggestions. I DO remember the pro’s and con’s of the crying room. Try most of all, to relax and do your best. What works one week, may not the next. If it is getting to you, go to Mass individually for a few weeks and try again. Being patient and perservering will pay off. My children, now, are active members as liturgical ministers. My heart is filled with joy. Relax. It will get better.

  • Genny

    This article and comments had me roaring with laughter. My daughter is now 7 yrs old and I remember too well what Mass was like during the younger years. We would attend Mass with my parents and my father thought ignoring her would work and so he would ignore her so much that she’d slip past him to the aisle and run up towards the Altar. The whole time he’s still ignoring her! I was horrified because I, like Christine, didn’t like to be a disruption to the rest of the congregation and running down the aisle was the biggest disruption ever! Whenever my daughter would be at her worse it would be during the most quietest times in the Mass! I remember her once singing Frosty the Snowman. Antoher time during Communion she screamed and cried because she couldn’t receive and all you heard was her screaming “I want the Bread” as I dragged her out of the church! Fun times! Now she’s 7 and things have calmed down some except when she sees her friends enter and then it’s all about her turning around to say hi! Or complaining because she can’t see who’s talking. Maybe I’ll take the advice of Marion and try sitting in the front pew this Sunday. Now when I see or hear those younger kids being loud and their parents trying to control them I just put a smile on my face because I remember being in the exact same place.

  • Christine

    My children are adults now but I never hesitated to bring them to the nursery every Sunday until they were about 5 years old. I did this for two reasons, First, I wanted to be PRESENT at Mass. I did not want my attention to be on my children. Secondly, I wanted every one near me to have the opportunity to be present as well. I will never understand why parents think it is so important to “go to Mass as a family”. Believe me, there will be plenty of years to enjoy that. Also, when my children WERE old enough to attend Mass we ALWAYS sat in the front pew so their attention would be on the Mass.

  • JennyMarie

    @Marion +1 on your comment: “… I am shocked at what a difference sitting in the front pew makes…” Absolutely! 100% improvement in behavior when we started sitting up front. Kids see what’s going on, are more attentive, and thus feel more inclined to participate in worship. I highly recommend it for every parent of restless children. Guess what — you’ll get more out of the Mass too.

    @Megan – yes, the noises that babies and toddlers make are necessary sounds for a growing church!

    Just so you know — it’s not the kids who are the distraction; it’s often the parents who are the distraction. Especially micro-managing parents. Also, if your child has you trained to take him/her out of Mass every time they get fussy, know that you CAN reverse the training. There is hope!

  • Theresa

    LOVED this article. My daughter is now two and although she does fairly well at Mass, we’ve had our moments of embarasment. But I think it is important to bring children to Mass, if at all possible. Even my little 2 year old has started to kneel and make the Sign of the Cross. I whisper to her at certain parts to help her look for things that she will understand: “Look, Father is washing his hands!” “Listen for the bells.” “Is Father drinking from a cup?” “Now he is washing the dishes.” We still bring toys and books for her to play with, but if she gets a little crazy, we try to have her look for something that is going on, like people playing the music or reading from a big book, etc. The other day we passed the church and she pointed and said “bread house” so I know some things are starting to sink in.

  • Megan

    Vanessa, I could have written your article!! I, too, thought I was totally prepared to be a parent after spending so much time caring for other people’s children… and I seriously had NO IDEA what I was in for. And Mass with a one-year-old is seriously painful, and at times, awfully embarassing. I am so grateful that our church doesn’t have a cry room, and that Catholic churches generally don’t have the tradition of the “church nursery” in the way that most of my Protestant friends’ churches too. Because I think it’s really important that children, even crazy screaming children, are invited to be a part of our community’s worship. Even when they can’t pay attention, even when it takes a pound of Goldfish crackers to keep them in one place, still, STILL, they see us doing the same thing, every week, and they learn that it’s important to us as a family. AND, they learn that their presence is important to us as a community — which is no less important!!! I WANT my church to be full of screaming children, because that’s a church that has a future. And our perserverance is being rewarded now that our daughter is 16 months old — she’s starting to sing along (loudly, and completely off-key) with all the Mass responses. It makes everyone around us laugh. In my opinion, we need more laughter in our Masses, so this is great!

  • Marion

    I struggled with this dilemma for a while until I recently concluded that it’s selfish for me to feel shortchanged at Mass because my daughter is distracting me. As a parent, my job in Mass has changed. My priority during Mass is now to teach my one year old daughter to behave in Church and instill in her the importance of going to Mass every week and celebrating the Eucharist with our parish community. Yes, we bring a couple of quiet toys/books to keep her attention when it gets rough (or the homily gets a little lengthy), but for the most part, we try to engage her in what’s going on. I am shocked at what a difference sitting in the front pew makes so she can see our priest (who she loves) and what’s going on rather than sitting in the back prepared to make a run for it and subject to so many more distractions. We sing and dance with her during fun songs as we praise the Lord, we make the Sign of the Cross with her, etc. Yes, she’s only 1 year old but we started this from the beginning, so that it will become a part of the ritual as she gets older and understands more. And don’t get me wrong, some weeks are rough and I am so exhausted from keeping her quiet for the past hour! I have similar feelings towards the cry room. Being taking out of Mass shouldn’t be rewarding, so when she is taken out, she has to be held and is shushed (just as if she were in Church) until she is ready to re-enter. It’s my hope that sticking thru this more difficult time now will make it easier for all of us (my daughter included) to get the most out of Mass in the future. Of course, in the end, I’m in the same boat as everyone else… just trying to make the right decision for our kids and ourselves without a clue as to what’s truly ‘right’. Everyone has to do what they think is best for their family, and we’re all called to respect and support each other’s choices, which includes keeping your judgey stares to yourself! ;)

  • Theresa Henderson

    Oh try being a single parent. Once my son reached up a whoosh down came all my long hair. I put it into a rubber band and he quietly climbed onto the seat ad burried his face inmy hair. I thought “oh good, he loves my hair he’ll be quiet.” Two seconds later he’d grabbed twoo handfulls and yelled YEHAWWW GIDDYAP HORSEY!” Even the priest roared with laughter. Once i was so sure I could make him behave with the ultimate threat “Behave or I will take youout for aspanking” But mommy your spankings don’t hurt. Teh family of ten behind me was in stitches. I told him “With the hairbrush!” He settled down for all of 3 minutes. So I took him outside, and screamed all the way out “Don’t spank me with the hairbrush!” People grinned ear to ear. But God was good, He gave my son TWO sons just like him.

  • Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft

    You know, we’ve considered this. What we struggle with is what is more important to us, going as a family and putting up with her shenanigans or us actually being able to fully participate in Mass. I think there is something to be said for kids being in Mass just for the formation that they get being there. For example, I used to go to Mass with a friend’s three year old and she was old enough to start copying us when we would kneel and hold out our hands, etc. She even could sing along a little with the alleluia. Even though she maybe didn’t get anything out of the actual words, I can’t say that she didn’t get anything out of being in a sacred space and around a faith community every Sunday. Of course I say this now but ask me again when Olivia is walking and talking. I might be singing a different tune.

  • jim

    The question my wife and I struggled with was why are we taking our 18 month old daughter to Mass? Since we were, like you, paying attention to our child, we felt we were too distracted and weren’t getting anything out of it, and neither was our daughter. We decided to that Mom would go to one Mass, Dad to another and our baby would wait until she was old enough to go to the nursery-it starts at 3 years old. It’s kind of inconvenient, but Mass is too important to us to shortchange.

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