Hard as it is to believe, Lent is nearly upon us. Ash Wednesday is the day after tomorrow. For those of you who just put away the last of your Christmas decorations on Candlemas it may seem particularly weird when Lent comes so early.
I've seen a few "Lenten preparation" posts out there, and many of them are full of good resources, food for reflection, and so forth. They are also (many of them) written by Catholics who have actual qualifications to write such things: clergy, religious, scholars, catechists, theologians, apologists, canon lawyers, etc. Compared to those people I'm not qualified at all to write about Lent, and I admit honestly that even as a lifelong Catholic I am still trying to figure Lent out. If I live to be a hundred I may eventually get it, but for now I just do my best, which is all any of us can do anyway.
Despite my lack of overall qualifications I still wanted to write a Lenten post, because I think that many of the posts I read out there are for everybody and are sort of general, and I wanted to write a post that is more specifically for those people out there who share my vocation--that is, for moms. I think that having spent the last twenty Lents as a mom, I may have a couple of insights here or there that I didn't have back when I was a younger mom, so in a spirit of solidarity and encouragement I share the following "ten commandments of Lent" just for moms:
1. Thou shalt not feel guilty when you can't do Stations of the Cross (etc.) with a baby. One of the weird things about becoming a mom is that those early Lents just sort of fly by just like every other season with a baby: up during the night, up again absurdly early, spending your days on that endless merry-go-round of feeding and burping and changing and bathing and feeding and laundry and changing and speed-cleaning the important stuff when the baby actually naps for twenty whole minutes at once and so on. If you were the sort of person who used to do All the Lenten Things (or at least all of them that you could fit into your workday), it can seem really weird to have a Lent where you pretty much stay home doing Baby Stuff just like you did over Christmas and during Thanksgiving and, well, every day since the baby was born. But one of the things we learn during Lent is that God wants us to live our vocations, and if that means we're the one staying home with the baby, that's okay!
2. Thou shalt not fret about Ash Wednesday Mass. This has been a big one for me, especially the last few years as my older daughters have joined the "mandatory fasting brigade." I have always known that Ash Wednesday is NOT a Holy Day of Obligation, but I sort of treated it as if it were, up until the point where it became logistically impossible for us to get to Mass that day and actually feed all of the fasting people who were also at work and/or school during the day and could not eat their main meal at midday. I finally made peace with it all by remembering that on Ash Wednesday fasting is mandatory but Mass is not. Just like when my children were babies, though, I know that this time in my life is a season, not a permanency; there will come a time when Ash Wednesday Mass will be possible for me again, and I will probably appreciate it more the next time I can go.
3. Thou shalt not confuse Lent with a weight-loss program. I know this isn't universal to moms; you naturally skinny moms out there can skip this one. But I know I'm not alone in sometimes thinking, "Hey, Lent is coming! I can lose those unwanted pounds if I just plan my Lenten sacrifices craftily enough!" There's nothing at all wrong with wanting to tackle such things as gluttony or laziness during Lent--in fact, the Church encourages us to work on our faults. But seeing Lent primarily as a way to get in shape and lose a few pounds isn't quite right, and it usually backfires rather badly, too, at least in my experience.
4. Honor your husband's Lent. This one mostly applies to those of us who are married to Catholic men, though some who are married to serious Christians may also relate. It can be hard for a wife, though, to strike the right note of being supportive and encouraging about her husband's Lent plans on the one hand, and to avoid being critical or nagging on the other. Whether your husband is the kind of man who wants to sign up for all the Lenten things going on at the parish, or whether his idea of Lent is giving up one hour of TV sports-watching per week, it is not a wife's job to micromanage her husband's Lent, to treat him like a child, or to insist that he has to tailor his own Lenten plans to suit hers. I do think it's a great idea for married couples to plan some sort of Lenten activity together (and the "almsgiving" portion of Lent is particularly suited for joint planning, as most couples share finances). But there's a difference between planning some Lenten activities together, and thinking that it's your job to tell your husband what he should be doing for Lent.
5. Direct and encourage your children, but don't take over their Lent plans, either. Obviously some things that the family will be doing together will involve your children, such as a special evening prayer, an extra daily Mass, parish Stations of the Cross, etc. And equally obviously the youngest children among those old enough to observe Lent will need the most help coming up with a meaningful but age-appropriate Lenten sacrifice. But try to avoid the habit of running the whole family's Lent for them. I learned that when I backed off and let my children make suggestions, they came up with some really good ideas on their own, and were able to offer their own prayers and sacrifices in a more generous and loving spirit than I would have thought possible.
6. Thou Shalt Avoid Catholic Lenten Peer Pressure. This is especially hard to do in this Internet age, when you may have friends posting on Facebook about some thing or other they have done for Lent, and instead of thinking, "Hey, that's neat! Maybe we could try something like that next year?" you think, "What's wrong with my family that we're not doing All The Things like that, and how can I cram this New Thing into my already overdrawn and overwrought Lenten schedule so we can be just as stressed out and miserable as everybody else?"
7. Remember the purpose of Lent. Speaking of "stressed out and miserable," I know there are moms out there who, like my younger self, actually think that "stressed out and miserable" is how you are supposed to be during Lent. I'm not sure how this sort of thing gets started, but I know that for me it always seemed as though the whole purpose of Lent was to be as hungry, cranky, cold, irritable, joyless, depressed, unhappy and guilty-feeling as possible, so that when Easter came we would really appreciate that bleeping candy-basket (oh, and Easter Sunday Mass, of course). Newsflash: the purpose of Lent is to become closer to God, to love Him more, to follow Christ more closely, and to deepen the virtues, especially those of faith, hope, and charity. It is not to mutter curse words when you pass the candy aisle in the grocery store or to spend hours convincing yourself that a Pop-Tart (tm) isn't really dessert in the hopes that a bit of sugar will make you start actually liking your family again.
8. Follow the laws of the Church on fasting/abstinence with a cheerful and obedient spirit. Granted, I'm talking to those moms who aren't currently pregnant or nursing, or who don't have a medical reason they can't fast. But the fasting is only required for two days of the year, and those of us who can do it shouldn't stress too much over the details (and I say this as a veteran of fasting stress who still spends too much time worrying about it all, but I'm trying to improve). As far as the law of abstinence goes, though, I think pretty much everybody can avoid meat for one day out of seven, and I also want to speak to those who think that Friday meals must not only be meatless, but must also be sparse, tasteless, and as unpleasant as possible: that is not what the Church requires. It is okay to have cheese pizza on Lenten Fridays. It might violate the spirit of the fast to indulge on lobster every Friday, but even lobster isn't actually forbidden (unless, like me, you have a fish/shellfish allergy). If you personally want to go farther than what the Church requires out of devotion (not out of pride), then you should do so--but we moms (plus any stay-at-home dads out there), who have a whole family to feed, do have to consider the Church's requirement of meatless Friday meals in light of our obligation to feed our families.
9. Be realistic about Lenten prayer and spiritual reading. I always, always, always want to say more daily prayers and read more books than I possibly can in six weeks, and that's with young adult daughters and more time now than I ever used to have. My advice to moms of all ages/stages of life is simple: start small. Pick one thing you want to read and one prayer/devotion you want to add to your daily prayer schedule. If life cooperates, you can always add more, but you'll be at less risk of burnout (and the accompanying feelings of failure) if you don't start out Lent with a list of eighteen books and prayer plans that include the Liturgy of the Hours plus a daily twenty-decade rosary plus six specific novenas for friends and family.
10. Thou shalt--indeed, thou MUST--relax. We moms have this terrible tendency to think that the reason we must do All The Lenten Things is because it is our job to get our husbands and our children to Heaven as well as our wretched selves, and more than one of us has probably had terrible daydreams of being sentenced to ten million years in Purgatory because, owing to our failure to Do Lent Right, someone under our watch actually stumbled into sin and it's all our fault. If you are anywhere near that particular place, you should remember, again, that the purpose of Lent is to draw closer to God, and that He is the one who is in charge, not only of us, but of our husbands and children and extended families and neighbors and friends as well. We should do our best with Lent just as we should do our best with life, but if we think of God as this sort of vindictive Person who is just waiting to smite us because we didn't make the parish mission this year, then we're not doing very well with that Lenten purpose of getting closer to Him.
So: pray, don't worry, and have a good Lent!