Friday, January 18, 2008

In All Things, Charity

I've been reflecting on the Attachment Parenting debate from last week, and it has made me think about a particularly human, and especially human female, dilemma.

Four women are sitting around a table, sipping coffee and chatting, enjoying a rare break from the work of home and family. The first mentions, proudly, that her two-year-old has mastered the use of the toilet.

The second raises an eyebrow: "Two? Really? That old? Mine were all trained by eighteen months, except for poor Jack, who took an extra month to learn to wipe himself properly."

The third says, defensively, "Well, I don't agree with pushing them to do it. All the books say you should wait until they're ready. Sometimes that's well after two."

The fourth says, humorously, "If I had waited until Christina Therese were ready, she'd still be in diapers!"

The others laugh, dutifully, as they know that Christina Therese is a polished young lady with a college degree and marriage prospects. Still, the mother who began the conversation feels diminished. Did she push her child, as mom number three indicated? Was she a slacker, as mom number two clearly thinks, and mom number four may be hinting at? She thought she was sharing a universal mom-triumph moment, and instead her joy is being picked to shreds by people who are telling her she did it wrong, or at least, that she could have done better.

As for moms two through four, each of them jumped on this particular bandwagon for their own particular reasons, carrying their own designer baggage. Mom two may be tired of being criticized for pushing her children, though she may be inordinately proud of their precocious toilet habits, too (and the possibility that she's varnishing the truth a bit must be considered, as few eighteen- or nineteen-month-olds can wipe themselves unassisted without falling into the commode). But if she is trying to forestall attacks or exaggerating in order to feel special, her listeners don't know that; all they hear are her words.

Similarly, mom three may be defensive because she has a five-year-old who still wears pull-up diapers to bed, because it's easier than having to change the sheets four mornings out of seven; but she may second-guess herself all the time about this, wondering if she shouldn't, instead, be waking the child up every four hours to take her to the bathroom, which will be difficult what with the baby being up two or three times a night as well; she may hear the critical voices of other relatives and friends in the voices of moms one and two, and be lashing out to keep herself immune from the criticism she fears will follow if she is strictly honest.

And mom four is, in some ways, the most devastating of all; turning the whole thing into a joke, highlighting the importance of the parent's role in toilet training without admitting that it wasn't Christina Therese, but Michael Raphael who caused her real anxiety and nights of sleepless worry as she wondered whether he would ever outgrow his need for a diaper at naptime. Better to make a joke than admit her own real difficulties in this arena; these younger moms look up to her, after all.

What could have been a moment of grace, of building each other up out of solidarity in their similar vocations, became instead a moment where each retreated into herself, fortifying her own defenses while preparing to lob a cannonball or two over the others' battlements. And we moms do this to each other all the time, because we fear at our very core that if someone else is right about something, than it follows that we are wrong.

The worst thing is, that's not even close to being true.

Oh, sure, there are wrong ways to parent. Putting beer in the baby's bedtime bottle to make sure she sleeps through the night would qualify. Letting a toddler live on ice cream and soda would make the grade, too, as would letting a six-year-old drive the car, or leaving seven-year-old home alone with the baby. I'm sure you can think of plenty of other outrageous examples of clearly wrong parenting, and that's even beyond the Britney Spears headlines.

But although there are ways of doing things that are wrong, it simply doesn't follow that there is one right way to parent, one best and most holy and most proper way. Anyone who claims that there is such a way is out of line, and I mean that with the utmost respect to Dr. Popcak; but it is the truth. If there were a way to raise our children that guaranteed both them and us sainthood, the Church would be urgently disseminating that information, would she not? There are myriads of ways of doing the little day-to-day acts of love and service for our children, and all of them are the right way. All of them.

How do I know? It's quite simple, really. In the first place, I believe that all good Catholic parents are indeed cognizant of their awesome responsibility to raise up future citizens of the Heavenly kingdom, and that every one of them is at a basic level acting in complete good faith to do this.

In the second place, I recognize that good Catholic families come in all forms, with all sorts of different struggles and joys and sorrows and triumphs. No parenting method can claim to be the only right way if there are more families who can't follow its precepts than who can, for that would mean that being a good Catholic parent is something almost gnostic, available only to a select few who know and follow some set of rules understood only by the initiate. But it is a simple fact that there isn't any one method that all families can always and everywhere follow, and unless you believe that God Himself creates a situation where only a handful of people can live as He wants them to live, then we have to accept that there are as many variations in good, holy, Catholic parenting as there are good, holy, Catholic parents.

To the extent that we don't want to accept this, I believe, it goes back to the idea that we want very much to be right, which means we want other people to be wrong. If I am right, than the Attachment Parenting parents are wrong; if I am wrong then they have to be right. If I am right, than the bottle-feeding parents must be wrong; if I am wrong they must be right. If I am right, then the delayed toilet-trainers must be wrong; if I am wrong they must be right...

...or so we start to think. And soon in our every encounter with other people living the same vocation we are living we must begin the battle to affirm ourselves in our rightness while attacking everyone else for being wrong, because if we don't do this, we will be left alone with the hideous possibility that we've been doing everything wrong from the beginning, have scarred our children for life and have ruined their, and our, chances of gaining Heaven.

Which is not just balderdash; it's presumptuous and blasphemous balderdash.

God, in His infinite wisdom, has chosen you to be the wife of your particular husband and the mother of your particular children. He has whispered into your heart His trust and confidence in you, and in your ability to raise your children well. He graces each of your days with His Presence; the Holy Spirit surrounds you with His love. Turning to Him with childlike trust, you seek to discern His will for your family and your life, but He in return reminds you that even your faults and failings can be turned to His purposes, provided you humbly beg His aid, and seek frequent and honest recourse to the Sacrament of Penance. If you are worried about some aspect of parenting, your husband is the first person to speak to; the two of you can then seek the aid of a spiritual director if further guidance is needed; but no one else should trouble you, and no comparison of yourself to families that look perfect from the outside or that champion some method or other should disturb your peace of mind and heart.

And you, in turn, should be cheerful and loving toward other mothers. If they honestly seek advice, offer it with humble love; but never insist that there is only one "right" way to do anything in the parenting realm--the little souls in her care are quite unique and different from the little souls in your own.

I, too, need to remember this constantly. We are charged to keep it before us, to remember to conduct ourselves as Christians and not as the coffee table equivalent of amazon warriors. We are to remember that the one thing that is necessary, in all things, is charity.


Alexandra said...

Bravo! Great post. "... in all things, is charity."

I think there are too many of us who never got this memo. ;)

freddy said...

thank you!

Charlie and Andrea said...

This is a *beautiful* post! Thank you very much - I'm going to print this.

Sheila said...

There is great truth in what you say and we have a grave responsibility to encourage and support each other. One small point: you say that if there were a method guaranteed to secure our and our children's sainthood, wouldn't the Church be "urgently disseminating" that information? Do not Dr. Popcak and others argues is that AP--with all its variables--is best seen through the lens of Theology of the Body? If so, then, I think they would argue that the Church indeed is speaking urgently about these matters.

Lisa said...

Here! Here! So well stated, Red! I see a link to you in my future!

nicole said...

Lots of good words, Red. I think we tend to be most critical of those we don't know in person--via online discussion, or assumptions we make after a visit to the library, or whatever. I can say that I have been blessed to be around women who truly offer support and encouragement all the time, even though our parenting styles are sometimes so different. In fact, I would say that we are doing a great job of building each other up in parenting, but too often fall into the habit of criticizing our husbands, and turn into a gaggle of hens pecking away at our men. I've made a conscious effort to stop, but it is hard sometimes. Anyway, I've rambled on--as usual. Thanks for the food for thought.