Talking About Hard Things (With Kids)

(Everyday Bravery, Day 4)

As I related on my other blog last month, my six-year-old son recently asked me about the Zika virus:

While I was driving, my boy spotted a bug in the car and I told him that I’d seen a mosquito. “Is that mosquito virus here yet?” he asked.

“Mosquito virus? Do you mean Zika?”

He did.

“Well, it’s here in the United States,” I told him. “But it’s not here in our area. It’s in Florida.”

“Oh, that’s too bad for the babies there. There will be a lot of babies dying in their mommies’ tummies.”

Most people would probably be appalled to know that my six-year-old was thinking of such things. I’ll admit to feeling a little guilty about it. But mostly, I just felt proud. My boy is paying attention. He’s understanding. He’s asking questions. He’s caring. And he wrapped up our conversation by suggesting that we pray for the babies.

“God, please take care of the babies in their mommies’ tummies. Please keep them from getting the mosquito virus. That’s all.”

In reality, the conversation was a little longer than I made it out in my post. When he mentioned the babies that would be dying in their mommies’ tummies, I explained to him how Zika works. I told him that it impacts the brains of babies born to women with the virus, causing them to be too small. That the babies wouldn’t necessarily die from the illness, but that it would cause a lot of problems for them. I was as honest as I could be.

Because in our family, we talk about hard things with our kids.

We talk about death. We talk about life after death and about war and illness and guns and racism and bullying. We answer their questions as honestly as we can. We try to simplify these sometimes-complicated concepts so that our kids can begin to understand them.

Our boys know that all people – including them and us and other people they love – will die. We tell them that we hope it won’t happen for a long, long, long, long, long, long, LONG time, when we/they have become very, very old and have lived good, long lives – but that we just can’t know.

When they ask what happens to people when they die, I tell them that we hope they go to heaven. I say that we should try to be very, very good during our lives and to love Jesus very, very much – so much that when we die we go straight to heaven to be with Him. And I encourage them to pray for the dead: “Dear Lord, please help Grandpa Ed go to heaven to be with you.”

Our boys know that sometimes very sad things happen and that younger people – including children – die too. When we admonish them for dangerous behaviors, they routinely ask if they (or their siblings) could die from them. If they could, we tell them so. (The other day we caught one of them shaking the baby, so I brought up shaken baby syndrome.)

Sometimes I hate these conversations. I absolutely hated planting the horrible sadness of shaken baby syndrome in my kids’ minds. Sometimes I worry that we’ll make our children too fearful by talking about such things. (And I’m sure others will think we’re wrong to be so blunt.)

But so far, we haven’t made them too fearful. And so far, I think we’ve struck the right balance between honest information and loving tenderness.

We talk about hard things with our kids because we want our children to have their bearings. We want them to have a sense of the importance of it all, of consequences and underlying reasons. We want them to know that life here on earth is temporary, because you never know when that lesson will fly at them with ferocious sadness.

I listen to NPR almost all day long, in the car and in the kitchen, so my boys routinely hear snippets of war and shootings and unrest and disaster. (That’s how my son knew about the Zika virus.) Sometimes I turn it off if I think it’s gotten to be too much for them. But mostly, I welcome their questions about what they’re hearing and I try to help them process the information:

“Sometimes people become very angry with one another and they begin to fight. Sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes people aren’t careful enough. Sometimes people don’t like other people because of how they look or what they believe about God. Sometimes the ground shakes. Sometimes big storms come.”

And then, “What do you do when you’re angry?” or “Do you sometimes make mistakes?” or “It’s all very, very sad. How about we pray for those people?”

We pray when something sad comes up on the news. We pray when we hear sirens. We pray when we learn that someone is hurt or ill or has died.

We talk about hard things. We try to help our children to understand them. We try to give them context. I do my best to plant the idea in my children’s minds that they have a role in it all – that they will encounter difficult things in life and that they will sometimes have opportunities to make them better. And that no matter how hopeless something seems, they can always pray.

I hope all of this – the talking about hard things, the honesty, the questions, the praying – I hope it encourages them to be brave.

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This post is the fourth in a series called Everyday Bravery: A Write 31 Days Challenge. Every day this month I’m publishing a blog post on Everyday bravery – not the heroic kind, not the kind that involves running into a burning building or overcoming some incredible hardship. Rather, the kinds of bravery that you and I can undertake in our real, regular lives. To see the full list of posts in the series, please check out its introduction.

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~~~

Interested in coming along with me as I share stories about my family and chew on the topics of motherhood, politics, and society? Like These Walls on Facebook or follow the blog via email. (Click the link on the sidebar to the right.) You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram and you can find me at my politics blog at the Catholic Review, called The Space Between.

 

In Pursuit of Good Behavior: Our 8-part strategy for getting kids to behave in church

I am about to do something stupid.

I’m about to hit “publish” on a blog post on how to get children to behave well in church, mere hours before taking my own children to Mass. They’re going to be terrible – I just know it.

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Anyway!

Generally speaking (and I cringe to say this – see above), my children are pretty well behaved at church. We – cringe – even receive compliments on their behavior. (Of course, these might better reflect our fellow parishioners’ expectations upon seeing three small boys and a baby ushered into a pew, but I’ll take them.)

Since it seems to be a perennial question on social media (and because I’m a glutton for punishment), I thought I’d share our strategy for getting our children to refrain from causing a ruckus during Mass. But I’m not going to lie to you – it is not made up of quick fixes. There is no magic bullet – at all, for anything – when it comes to children. There’s a lot of hard work, a few clever ideas, and a decent measure of luck.

In this post, I’m going to first offer you the two “hard work” elements of our strategy and then the six that might fall into the “clever ideas” category. The luck is up to you.

1. We have an expectation that our children will obey us.

Our kids operate under the assumption that when Mommy or Daddy say to do x,y,z, it is to be done. They certainly don’t obey us all the time, but we have reasonable confidence that when we give them a direction, they’ll follow it.

To some, this will seem so obvious as to not be worth mentioning. To others, it will seem like a pie-in-the-sky idea. Either way, unless you’ve been blessed with a child who is naturally mild-mannered (not us!) and pleasing to the general public, it’s the most basic of foundations for functioning well outside the home. (And inside the home too, I’d wager.) We have to trust that when we tell our child to stop and we raise an eyebrow and give him that look, he’ll stop.

How do we do this? How have we gotten to the point where we can reasonably expect our children to obey us, at least in public? Lots of hard work. Lots of consistency, follow-through, consequences… and some yelling. I’ll admit it.

2. Our children are able to sit for the duration of a meal.

I figure that if our children are unable to sit for any length of time in our home, they’ll be unable to do so anywhere else either. Partly for that reason, but mostly because I just think that meals should be eaten at tables, we insist that our children stay seated for the duration of every meal. This is not always easy. It is not uncommon for our meals to be punctuated with, “Sit on your bottom. Sit on your bottom. Sit on your bottom. I said, sit on your bottom.”

In our home, you stay strapped in a booster until you can demonstrate that you’re able to stay seated without it. We’re currently in the transition stage with our two-year-old. If the mood is right, we’ll let him sit there unstrapped, but once he starts trying to get up (and ignores our calls for him to sit back down), we strap him in. He’s learning.

At any rate, I really think the meal thing helps. Our boys are used to sitting in one place three times a day, for between 20 and 60 minutes a pop. So while sitting in church can be a challenge, it’s not a shock to the system.

3. We have age-appropriate expectations for how our children should behave in Mass.

First of all, let’s just make an exception for the 12-24 month range, shall we? My husband and I have found, with each of our children, that little babies in church are no big deal. Bigger babies may need some creative hushing when they become vocal, but they’re still not that difficult. But then you bang up against mobility. From the time our children can crawl through the time (somewhere around the age of two) we can begin to reason with them, there’s just really not much to be done. We can try all the strategies above and below, but it’s always going to be a crapshoot.

In that age range, we keep them in Mass as long as possible, but if they become disruptive, we take them to the back of the church. I prefer to stand in the vestibule with the child, letting him walk around but not run, hushing him when necessary, and demonstrating to him that I’m still paying attention to the Mass. My husband sometimes prefers to take the child downstairs or outside.

Beyond that age, we start with two simple requirements: Our child is to be quiet (not silent!) and he is to stay in the pew. He may whisper, he may move around, he may climb up onto the seat, off the seat, onto the seat, off the seat – he just has to stay in the pew.

Once our child has mastered those two expectations, we add more. He has to stop climbing… he has to stop talking… he has to sit. Ultimately, he’ll have to sit still. (Our oldest is five; we’re not to that last one yet.) We add requirements as our boys are able to handle them and we try to keep them as simple as possible.

4. We talk with our children beforehand about our expectations.

The first Mass behavior expectations we ever voiced to our oldest son were “Remember that you have to be quiet, you have to stay with Mommy and Daddy, and you should set a good example for your brother.” His brother was a baby – he was not yet paying attention to anyone’s example. But the idea that he was the big kid, that he had a big-kid responsibility – it stuck with our oldest. So we still use it.

On our way to Mass, or as we walk from the car into the church, we say something like, “Remember, you’ll be in church. We are not here to play; we are here to pray and to think about Jesus and to thank God for all the good things in our lives. You need to be quiet and you need to set a good example for your brothers.”

We also have particular instructions for those who need them. One of our sons has a tendency to end up sprawled across the pew, his head on our laps. So he is told to sit up straight. Talkers who think they are whisperers get told not to talk at all.

5. We model good Mass behavior. (In other words, we mostly ignore the kids.)

The last part of that line might get me in trouble. To be clear, I don’t mean that we actually ignore our children. I just mean that we utilize those eyes we have in the backs of our heads to monitor them and we reserve the ones in the fronts of our heads for the altar.

I try to keep track of what my boys are doing without making eye contact with them. That may sound cold, but I’m just trying to discourage my chatty guys from starting a conversation. Or from doing something silly to make me laugh. So I sit or stand or kneel (as the case may be), my body and mind oriented as much as possible toward the Mass, and I encourage my children to do the same.

6. We snuggle our children.

While I try not to engage directly with our children during Mass, I do try to take advantage of those quiet, holy moments to be lovingly, physically present to them. I sit with my arms around my boys, I stroke their backs, I give them a pat. When it’s time to sing, I open the hymnal with them, singing in their ears and tracing my finger across the notes on the page. I hope that our one hour in Mass every week begins to take hold in their little minds as a time for tenderness and love.

7. We explain things at appropriate moments. (And sometimes the most appropriate moment is after Mass.)

I want my kids to understand as much as possible about the Mass, and anyway I want to get/keep their interest, so when the time seems right, I’ll lean over and whisper a “Did you hear what Father said there?” or “Can you see what he’s doing?” I offer a quick explanation and then go back to my ignoring/snuggling strategy.

If my boys ask a genuine question that can be easily and simply answered, I go for it. But only if the timing seems appropriate and I don’t think we’ll be disruptive to our fellow parishioners. If they’re asking a question that requires a more complicated response, we tell them we’ll answer it when Mass is over.

8. We bring small distractions (just small ones) to church with us.

We are a thirsty family, never traveling anywhere without a beverage (and my boys are all pretty much addicted to milk), so I’m sure to always stow their sippy cups/bottle in my purse. They make for a great distraction when the first wave of wiggles hits. But beyond that, we keep it very spare. We never bring snacks, because crumbs and wrapper noises and my thing about thinking tables are important. Sometimes I will bring a couple of quiet toys for a baby, but mostly I keep it to one or two books per child. Just religious ones. The images contained in them not only help to keep the boys occupied, but provide a jumping-off point for their questions and imaginations. And I think that’s important.

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So that’s how we do it. I’ve probably seen dozens of strategies in my people-observing and blog-reading days, but this is the one that works for us. I offer it here for the curious or the desperate or the only vaguely annoyed. Good luck!

(And wish me luck too – we’re off to Mass shortly.)

These Walls - In Pursuit of Good Behavior - Our 8-part strategy for getting kids to behave in church

It is Good to be In Love

I am not the most patient mother.

I have a temper, I have a limited capacity for dealing with noise and activity, and I have zero tolerance for whining. (Seriously: we have a “no whining near Mommy” rule in our family. You may either whine or be in Mommy’s company, but you may not do the two simultaneously.)

So I go through lots and lots of seasons when my primary attitude towards motherhood is resentment or annoyance or a strangled sort of desperation.

But right now? I am just in love with my children.

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I always love them. The love is nothing new. What’s new or different or fresh in the feeling is that I’m mostly feeling it free of the things that pull it down. Often I love my children with a sort of “You’re driving me crazy, so I’ll remind myself over and over again how much I actually love you!” Or, “I love you, but do you have to be so difficult?”

Lately, for whatever reason, I’ve been looking at my children and only feeling the love.

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I glance at the baby and my heart does a big, cheesy leap. The toddler tugs at me, wanting my attention, and I smother him with kisses and tickles. I pick up my sons from school and I’m so happy to have them back with me that I cup their faces in my hands and smile kisses onto their soft cheeks.

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That may sound saccharine sweet. It may sound manufactured. But I’ll tell you what: It is such a relief to feel this way.

Too often, my feelings toward my children are a tug-of-war of love, frustration, anger, pride, enjoyment, resentment, and more. This is difficult work. It wears on a soul.

So moments like these – days, weeks, minutes when the peace and joy and love of parenting somehow overshadow everything else – they are so welcome. They are so important. They fill me up; they give me something to draw upon when times get hard.

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You Won’t Hear Me Say I’m Done

The other night my mom stopped by with two of her girlfriends for a quick-ish visit.

Wait. Let me be clearer: These women didn’t simply stop by. No, they had driven an hour and a half for the express purpose of meeting my boys. Mom’s friends were in town from other parts of the country and amazingly, they’d decided that their visit just had to include this brand of mayhem:

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I could be wrong, but I think Mom’s (lovely, kind) friends are probably from smaller families, because they seemed equal parts delighted and exhausted by my boys’ lively, LOUD antics.

Either way, their reactions reminded me that most people in our society aren’t actually raising (soon-to-be) four children aged five and under. Huh. Imagine that. I’ve gotten so used to this madness that it’s easy for me to forget that some find it curious. (Also, I’m sufficiently immersed in the Catholic mom blog world that four seems like nothing in comparison to others’ six, eight, or ten.)

Then I go out in public with my three small boys and my not-so-small belly and I’m stared at and I remember: This intense, chaotic, busy, yes-I-have-my-hands-full life that I’m living? Most people are daunted by it, even if they’re kind enough to find it endearing. Most people I encounter have not, and would not choose it.

Sometimes I question whether I should have.

Sometimes I think of how much peace I would have in the middle of the day if I had just two children who were both in school full time. (Note that I said peace, not leisure – I’m well aware that running a household and a family makes for quite enough responsibilities to keep even the parents of smaller families perpetually well-occupied.)

Sometimes I see pictures of friends’ vacations and weekend camping trips and visits to museums and I pine for the freedom that one or two semi-reasonable, potty-trained children would give my family to enjoy the world around us.

Sometimes I hear other moms’ declarations that they couldn’t possibly handle any more than the two or three children they already have and I wonder whether I’m foolish to think that I can.

Sometimes I even post things like this on Facebook:

I’m making a real dinner tonight, which means I’ve had yet another opportunity to reflect on how OH MY GOSH THEY’RE DRIVING ME MAD I’M GOING TO LOSE MY FLIPPING MIND WHY DID GOD GIVE ME ALL BOYS? WHAT WAS I ON TO THINK I COULD HANDLE ALL THESE LITTLE KIDS AT ONCE?

But then.

Then I look at my boys’ sweet (or mischievous or even sobbing) faces and I thank God for my foolishness, for my lack of freedom and peace. I wonder how I could have ever lived without these infinitely precious little people in my life.

I thank Him for the experiences that lead me down this path to a larger-than-average family. And I look forward to where the path will take me.

Because as much work as it takes to raise a bunch of little kids, as much sleep and sanity as it costs you, the reward is mind-bogglingly huge.

Today, I get the love and snuggles and hilarious stories and charming questions. I get to witness my boys’ camaraderie. I get to watch my husband struggle to perch all three on his lap at once. I get to feel my boys’ jostling against my belly, vying to feel their baby sister move within it.

Tomorrow – many tomorrows from now, I hope to get so much more.

I hope to experience jolly, chaotic Christmases. I hope to never know which loved one will walk through the door next. I hope to have sons who will step forward to fix something around the house so their dad won’t have to. I hope my daughter and her sisters-in-law will bring each other meals when they have babies. I hope to have enough grandchildren running around this place to make my head spin.

I hope my children and grandchildren enjoy the security that I grew up with – the comfort of knowing that no matter what life brings, they will have plenty of people to love and care for them.

I am blessed to come from a very large, very close family. My mom’s family, in particular, includes her six siblings and their spouses, more than twenty grandchildren and (with only six of us having kids so far) another twenty some great-grandchildren. Plus, my family maintains close connections to many of my grandparents’ siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews (as well as great and great-great ones).

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All but four of us.

But beyond all the numbers, there is the love. There is the love that is expressed and the love that is shown in helpfulness and kindness and patience and laughter.

There is not perfection, but there is more food on the table than one family could possibly eat. There are jokes over late-night card games and extra hands when a new baby is born. There is medical advice from the nurses, real estate tips from the realtor, construction and renovation and decorating expertise from the family members in those fields.

There is the knowledge that should tragedy strike and someone be left without the one(s) he loves best, there are dozens prepared to stand there beside him.

I know that my extended family’s closeness is unusual in this day and age and I know that my husband and I have no guarantee that our own one-day family will echo it. But I’m hopeful that if we raise our children with as much love as my grandparents and parents did with theirs, then maybe we’ll have a pretty good shot.

So that’s what I look forward to. That’s what I hope to build. That’s what consoles me on the days when they’re pulling at my clothes and I’m pulling out my hair.

And that’s why you won’t hear me declaring that I’m done – that no way, no how could I handle another child.

Because as long as these days may be, these years – these years of exhaustion and NOISE and limitless responsibilities – I know that one day they’ll seem short. And that when they’re through, my husband and I will be left with the fruit of all our work: our people.

Our people.

No matter how many they number, I know that each and every one will seem infinitely precious to us. I’m sure I’ll wonder how I could have ever lived without them.

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Are you new here? Welcome! I’m glad you’ve stopped by!

If you liked this post, here are some more you might want to check out:

Wonderful Because They’re Them: Thoughts on Mothering All Boys
Here’s to Another Fifty-Four
Another to Love
The Unremarkable Worth Remembering
Honesty From a Fed-up Mommy
What Matters to Him

To get an idea of what else to expect from These Walls, check out this post.

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I hope to “see” you back here soon!

These Walls - You Won't Hear Me Say I'm Done

Splash

It’s so hard to be four years old.

It’s exhausting to feel all of the emotions, with all of the intensity that could possibly be mustered, only to have your mother banish you to the dining room until you can pull yourself together.

It’s frustrating to possess the creativity to build a replica of Elsa’s ice castle out of wooden blocks, but not the fine motor skills to prevent you from knocking it over.

It’s maddening to want so badly to help your father move a refrigerator, but, in his estimation, to be too small and fragile (and wiggly?) to be trusted with the task.

But tonight, mostly it’s tragic to have suffered the indignity of standing on your tippy-tippy toes to tuck the hand towel back onto its ring, only to lose your balance…

and reach down to catch yourself…

to find that you didn’t put the toilet lid back down.

SPLASH!

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It’s so hard to be four.

~~~

I know it’s been quiet around here lately. I have lots on my mind, lots I’d like to write, but last week my mother-in-law (who lives with us) underwent a knee replacement surgery. We have family in town to help with her recovery and we’re trying to help in our own ways too. Hopefully soon we’ll all get back to something approaching normal. If you would be so kind, we’d appreciate your prayers that Hilde heals well and gains mobility quickly. Thank you!

Sometimes Mommy Wars Are Worth Fighting: Let’s Have a Healthy Debate About Vaccines

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Vaccines.

There, I said it: vaccines, vaccines, vaccines.

I feel like the topic of childhood vaccinations has become something that people either GET REALLY, VERY ANGRY ABOUT or avoid altogether. I tend toward the latter. I’m 100% uninterested in online shouting matches, so I steer clear of anything that seems to be devolving into one.

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But I do have my (pro-vaccine) opinions on the matter and I am rather fond of sharing my opinions generally (hence the blog), so every once in a while I jump in when the jumping seems good.

A couple of days ago, I spotted just such an opportunity: a conversation was brewing in response to a Facebook friend’s post. I thought I’d answer another person’s comment with a little something calm and polite before the thread got too hot.

The commenter and I went back and forth a bit. We remained respectful. There were no fireworks. Still, she seemed a little hurt, a little defensive. She seemed to want affirmation. More than anything, she seemed to want people to be okay with her position.

I see that a lot on this topic. I don’t see many anti-vaxxers trying to convince the rest of us that they’re right. (Though maybe that’s just the crowd I run in.) I see them trying to convince us that their decision to not vaccinate should be just as acceptable as our decision to vaccinate.

In response to them, I generally see the combative pro-vaxxers SHOUT REALLY, VERY ANGRY THINGS and the peaceful pro-vaxxers come dangerously close (or completely buy in) to the “everything-is-equal” mentality. You know: We all need to make the decisions that are right for us. That kind of thing.

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Last week I was one of the many thousands of women, I’m sure, who laughed and then cried at Similac’s Mother ‘Hood video. In it, different parenting factions bump up against each other at a playground: the crunchy moms, the working moms, the babywearers, the breastfeeders, the bottle feeders, etc. They’re each convinced of their own superiority and they’re itching for a fight.

Until a stroller starts rolling down a hill.

Right on cue, all the parents rush to the stroller. They stop it in time, the baby is shown to be safe, and everyone is relieved. “No matter our beliefs, we’re parents first,” the ad says.

It’s incredibly touching; I whimper like a baby every time I see it.

But we’re just shown the two extremes. We parents seem to be expected to fit into one of two molds: Mommy War Combatants or Enlightened Pacifists.

What about the middle?

What about not seeing every disagreement as a FIGHT, but also not letting ourselves fall into the intellectually lazy, PC trap that is “let’s agree to disagree”?

What about having the courage to defend our beliefs and the openness to listen to others’ opinions? What about honoring the love that parents have for their children but recognizing that sometimes people make poor choices? What about distinguishing between parenting practices that are matters of taste and those that are matters of safety?

What about accepting that, as valid as our disagreements might be, sometimes they’re worth airing and sometimes they’re not?

Personally, I’m a stay-at-home, from-scratch cooking, no-organic buying, bottle feeding, stroller pushing and Ergo-wearing, time-out using, sometimes-yelling mom. But I’m not about to say a thing to convince crunchy, breastfeeding, exclusive baby-wearing, peaceful parenting moms that they’re wrong. I may disagree with elements of their parenting styles, but I concede that these are matters of taste. What works for me and my family will not be what works for another woman and her family.

Vaccines, though, are not a matter of taste; they are a matter of safety.

It’s blessedly easy for us to forget these days, but for most of human history, it was terribly dangerous to be a child. If you survived childbirth, you had to withstand round after round of disease (not to mention dangers related to hygiene and malnutrition). And if you survived the diseases, you had to withstand whatever effects they left on you. You might be left scarred or crippled or disabled in some other way.

Just walk around any old cemetery and take a look at the headstones – you’ll get a sense of how many children lost their lives too soon.

Thank goodness, these days most of us don’t have to think much about the possibility of losing a child. A major reason for this is childhood vaccinations. They’ve been keeping us safe for generations, in some cases bringing diseases close to the point of eradication. Or, in the case of smallpox, even getting to that point.

Until other diseases get there too, we’ve simply got to keep vaccinating.

We’ve each got to do our own part, as small as it may seem, to stop the spread of disease. When I get my child vaccinated, I not only protect him, but I protect those he comes in contact with. I protect those they come in contact with. And so on.

Some will rely on my protection (and that of others) because for medical reasons they are ineligible to be vaccinated (infants, those with compromised immune systems, those with allergies to vaccine components).

Others may not seem to need my protection because they’ve been vaccinated too. But nothing in this world is perfect. Though vaccines work the vast majority of the time, sometimes immune systems don’t respond as you would hope. Sometimes vaccinated people have to rely on that beautifully-termed “herd immunity” for protection, just as infants and otherwise medically-ineligible individuals have to.

That’s why, when I make the decision to vaccinate my child, I don’t just make the decision for my own family. I make it for yours too.

And – whether you’re thinking of us or not – when you make your decision regarding vaccination for your family, you do so for mine as well.

Please decide to protect us.

I have a 9-month-old baby, not yet old enough to have been vaccinated against the measles. Please decide to protect him.

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Combative pro-vaxxers: Please stop yelling. Please stop calling people names. Please stop questioning motives. Please try not to be so angry.

I know you care about this issue and you want anti-vaxxers to come to see it from your point of view, but anger rarely convinces anyone of anything. If you care enough to weigh in on an issue, you should care enough to try to be persuasive. So, persuade.

Calm down. Think about the issue from your opponents’ viewpoints and do your best to figure out how to make your points in ways that will resonate with them. Go forth and try to make a difference.

Peaceful pro-vaxxers: Please think for a moment about why you vaccinate your own children. If you’re convinced that vaccinations are necessary to keep them safe, then wouldn’t they also be necessary to keep other families’ children safe?

Please consider that maybe issues of safety are worth having a firm opinion on, even worth weighing in on – uncomfortable though they may be. I know you don’t want to hurt others’ feelings. So, don’t be hurtful.

Be brave. Think about the issue from your opponents’ viewpoints and do your best to figure out how to make your points in ways that will resonate with them. Go forth and try to make a difference.

Anti-vaxxers: Please think for a moment about why you don’t vaccinate your own children. If you’re convinced that vaccinations would be harmful to them, then wouldn’t they also be harmful to other families’ children?

If you feel confident in your decision to not vaccinate, then you should want to convince other parents to follow your example. If you feel confident in your decision to not vaccinate, then you should be able to defend your decision. Explain your rationale. Provide your evidence. Own it.

Do not seek affirmation for its own sake. Earn it by convincing others that your side is the right one.

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This is an important issue. Precious little lives are at stake. Let’s do right by our discussion of it.

Let’s fight the good fight – one conducted fairly, one for a worthy cause. Let’s remember that refusing to fight fairly is a mark of doubting your own position. And that refusing to enter the fray can be a mark of doubting its importance.

I Couldn’t Help But Cry

… this morning, when I heard this report:

Six heavily armed gunmen stormed a military school in Peshawar, Pakistan killing more than 130 people, mostly teenagers, and many the children of military officers. Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the deadly attack, possibly in retaliation for Pakistan’s military operations against it. The death toll makes this attack one of the worst in the region in decades and is a grim reminder of the ongoing political turmoil.

All those children, all those families. It’s overwhelming to think on what they must be going through right now.

Loving, of course, makes us vulnerable. And loving our children makes that vulnerability seem infinite. It’s hard to imagine a greater pain – a pain that will go on and on, perhaps overtaking us – than losing a child. To lose someone who is (in the case of a biological child) literally, physically part of you, to lose someone (in the case of any child, no matter how he or she came to be yours) into whom you have poured so much work and love, and in whom you have seen such beauty and promise… the magnitude of such a loss is difficult to comprehend.

Which is why the Taliban chose such a target. It’s why bitter, angry, attention-seeking, sometimes ill people choose, over and over again, to attack schools: They house the treasures we hold most dear – the treasures our minds and hearts go wild at the prospect of losing.

My own heart had a small scare last week as I sat in my eight-month-old’s room, listening to him wheeze, watching his torso heave as he struggled to breathe. But my fear was short-lived. Soon we were in the hospital where he was monitored and cared for; the assistance he needed was within easy reach and I was pacified. I felt badly for the discomfort he felt, but my fear was gone.

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Fear rears up, though, from time to time. I love. I’m vulnerable. I fear when my children gag on their food. (They gag all the time.) I fear when I see them ride away in someone else’s car. I fear when I call for them in the back yard and they take too long to respond. Soon enough, I’ll fear when I send them off to school – real school, all-day school. I’ll fear when they’re the ones driving the cars, when they begin to claim their independence from us, when they leave home altogether.

It’s horrible, all that fear. It’s also enticing in a perverse sort of way. If I let myself, I could roll around in it, enfold myself in it. It would be in my nature: I remember convincing myself as a child, time and again, that something horrible would happen to my parents and they’d be taken from me. The fear was quick to take over. It was hard to see through.

Now, with a little more perspective, I’ve come to realize how difficult it can be to enjoy something you’re too afraid of losing. (And I’ve come to see how hard it can be to enjoy life while focusing on all that can be taken from it.)

So I try, these days, not to let the fears rule me. (I’m fortunate that I’m in a good position to do so, of course – my children are healthy and we live in a safe, stable part of the world.) I try to remember that fearing someone’s loss is a symptom of truly loving them. So there’s some beauty in the fear. It’s horrible and beautiful, all at once.

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My friend Mary is currently losing her daughter Courtney. My friend Amanda continues, rightly, to mourn the stillbirth of her precious daughter Brianna, even as she has welcomed Brianna’s younger sister and brother into this world. My family remembers our little Leah, whom my aunt and uncle lost far too soon. I can’t begin to count the number of women I know who have suffered the loss of their babies through miscarriage.

Given the events in Peshawar, I can’t help but turn my mind today towards those who have lost their children. Those friends and family of mine, those parents of Peshawar, those of Sandy Hook and Beslan and Columbine, those of Syria, Iraq, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, those whose children have been taken by violence and disease.

All that grief, all that fear – the wild, the heavy, the sharp, the lingering kinds. They swirl in my mind today, they squeeze my heart.

Lord, be with these families. Bless them. Bring them your comfort.

Disappointment, Truth, And Chocolate Cake

Is it Monday yet?

Because I’m really, really done with last week. With the last fortnight, actually. (“Fortnight” – let’s bring back that word. Isn’t it delightful?)

In the last fortnight the members of our household have suffered: a (thankfully, minor) car accident, a decently bad fall, a fever, a mild stomach bug, an ear infection, a glass shattering high enough up that we needed to clean a fine dust of glass off half the kitchen, two thwarted birthday celebrations before we hit upon a successful one, enough internet connectivity issues to make me somewhat concerned for my mental health, and a pickle juice spill in the refrigerator. (You might think that last one’s silly, but you didn’t have to clean out the refrigerator.)

Lesson: Steer clear of our family right now. You don’t want to be standing next to us when whatever’s-coming-next happens.

Folded into that litany of woes were two great disappointments for yours truly: First, due to my boy’s little stomach bug, I had to miss Jen Fulwiler’s talk at the Catholic Information Center in DC. And second, what “should” have been a nice evening of board meeting/reception/birthday dinner/walk by the water/maybe-even-ice-cream turned into a sad, stressful, embarrassing couple of hours of trying to distract my boy from the intense pain in his ears. And stop him screaming. (Poor boy – he suffered all those ailments in the span of three days.)

However, as disappointments sometimes do, these gems helped me recognize a few truths:

1) It’s not so awful to miss out on a good thing when you do so for the sake of someone you love. I’m definitely an angsty, crying-over-spilled-milk type of person by nature, so I surprised myself a little last Monday evening when I wasn’t a whiny, resentful mess over missing Jen’s talk. In fact, once the decision to stay home was made, I relaxed. I gained some clarity. I left my dress laid out on the bed and took my freshly-made-up face downstairs to spend some time with my sickly boy. We snuggled on the sofa and read his brother’s new books. I don’t do that often enough – just sit with him on the sofa to read. It was a lovely silver lining to our disappointing change of plans and it felt so right and so good.

2) Small children don’t care as much about plans as grown-ups do. My middle son turned three last week. Because we had a commitment the evening of his birthday, I made a few days’ worth of birthday plans so we could fit in everything I thought necessary to “properly” celebrate the occasion. Then most everything went wrong.

On Sunday, when we were to have our birthday dinner as a family – spaghetti and “wochate cake”* and presents and all – our oldest son and Brennan’s mother were both unwell. They ended up half-way joining us for the meal, present but not entirely so. Most of the birthday boy’s gifts (all but the bedtime books) were put off for another day. We sang “Happy Birthday” tired and deflated and sad about the unwell grandma and the glassy-eyed, red-cheeked, somber little boy who just needed to go to bed. We ate just a little bit of cake.

When they don't eat their cake, you know they're sick.

You’ve got to be sick when you won’t eat your cake.

On Tuesday (the actual birthday), we were due to head to Annapolis. I was to attend a board meeting while Brennan watched the boys, then we were all to attend an informal little reception. Afterward we planned to walk toward the water for a pizza dinner, maybe some ice cream. But as soon as we arrived, (though he’d seemed perfectly fine all day) my oldest son mentioned that his ear hurt.

Soon, that little off-hand comment turned into full-on wailing. The poor child couldn’t stop moving; he seemed to be trying to walk away from the pain. He wandered around, screaming. “My ear huuurts! I want Daaaddy!” (Daddy had gone to the drug store for some Children’s Advil.) “I want to go hooome!” (Please understand that this might be the first time in his life that this child has ever uttered those words. Our little social butterfly would usually rather be anywhere but home.) I tried to help. I sat on some steps and tried to hold him, to comfort him, but he was beyond comforting. All he wanted from me was pain relief, but until Daddy arrived, I couldn’t provide any.

But the birthday boy? (Getting back to my point now – promise.) He was fine. I could wish that he’d had enough empathy to be concerned about his brother’s plight, but I’m really just glad he was fine. He followed us around wherever we walked, singing and performing and pretending that a formal little flourish to the concrete steps was a trophy he’d won racing back and forth across the lawn. He showed me how fast he could go. He threw himself down on the ground and rolled in the grass. He ate a little cupcake.

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He didn’t care that we’d driven so far for a couple of hours of confusion and concern and wailing. He didn’t care that we never got the pizza or walked along the docks or ate the ice cream. He was fine with pretending to be a race car. He was fine with the mini cupcake. He was fine with the chicken tenders he ate on the way home. He was fine with the frazzled, grumpy parents on his birthday evening. He’d been fine, too, with his sad little birthday meal on Sunday night. He was fine.

The plans, as it turned out, were for me, not him. He had people who loved him and wished him a happy birthday. He had a couple of presents. He had a “wochate”* cake. He was a perfectly happy little boy.

*(When I’d asked him what kind of cake he wanted for his birthday, he answered, “wochate.” “A rocket cake?” I asked. “No, not wocket, wochate.” (They sound the same.) “Oh, you want a chocolate cake? We can do that! But what do you want it to look like?” “Wochate,” he repeated, “wiff eminems.”)

I obliged.

I obliged.

3) As hard as you try, as well as you mean, as much as you plan, sometimes taking your children out into the world is going to go horribly. I’m a very stubborn person. I tend to think I can just force something into place. I tend to think that if I’ve thought something through and tried very, very hard to achieve it, I will. And even though I know theoretically that everything can fall apart for reasons outside of my control, I really don’t expect them to.

So it’s not like I went into Tuesday’s meeting/reception/dinner plans thing on a whim. I usually don’t take my children with me to such events. (Or the mobile children, at least; I routinely bring my infants to meetings.) I’d arranged to have my husband meet me there to watch our boys during the meeting. I knew he’d enjoy chatting with some of the people at the reception anyway. I knew we’d be at a location where the boys could run and play with some freedom. I knew that my boys enjoy being around new people and that they’re generally well-behaved in public. I knew that we’d only be at the reception (i.e. my little people in the same space as all the grown-ups) for about an hour before we walked into the land of pizza and ice cream and water viewing. We weren’t there because of a thoughtless, “Hey, I want to do this thing! Let’s bring everybody, regardless of temperaments/accommodations/situation!” I’d thought it through.

But it didn’t matter! Just as small children don’t care about plans, neither do ear infections. My poor boy was caught unawares by a sudden onslaught of pain, and so were we.

I wish I could tell you that when my child was wandering around that beautiful place, wailing his sad little head off, he was my only concern. But he wasn’t. Though I felt horrible for him and hated how helpless I felt not being able to make him feel better, I was concerned about the other people at the reception too. I felt badly about our family creating such a distraction. I was embarrassed. (What a cliché we must have seemed: harried parents chasing after screaming children!) I was frustrated that I couldn’t force this situation back into place.

Just keep thinking about the cake.

Just keep thinking about the cake.

This must sound like another cliché, but I feel like I learn something new from this motherhood gig all the time. And even when the something isn’t entirely new, it becomes more present in my mind or more relevant than I’d previously considered. So it was during this (wonderful! terrific! ha!) past fortnight. And like so much of what I learn, this fortnight’s truths can be boiled down to one simple message:

“Chill, Julie.”

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Opening That Window To The World

One day this summer, my boys rediscovered the sprinkler in their grandma’s garden. I walked into the backyard to find them sopping wet, grinning from ear to ear. Even over their whooping and hollering, I could hear water sloshing in their rain boots.

It was a beautiful afternoon, unseasonably cool for the end of July, so I sat down on a nearby lawn chair and plopped the baby onto my lap. Together we watched his older brothers race back and forth through the spray.

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The whole scene was just about a cliché of summer: the grass and trees were a beautiful, lush green; the children played happily under the warm late-day sun; the water droplets glowed gold as they fell through the air. At one point I laid the baby down so I could pull boots and soaking-wet socks off his brothers’ feet. The baby lay there in the grass and stared up at the leaves and the sky. It was positively idyllic.

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An hour later we were back inside the house with the television turned to the evening news. The program opened with a report on the fighting in Gaza: footage of destroyed buildings, mostly. My four-year-old, who normally begs me to change the channel on the rare occasions that I turn on televised news, was captivated. He wanted to understand what was going on.

I tried to explain, as gently as possible, about fighting in another part of the world, which breaks buildings and hurts people. But soon enough footage of crying, injured children popped onto the screen and I scrambled to the remote to change the channel as quickly as I could. I didn’t want those images stuck in my boys’ minds.

My boys are still small – just four and almost-three – so they understand little of how the world is organized, let alone its potential for conflict. We’ve taught them their town and they know the name of our state, even if they don’t understand what a state is. They recognize the American flag, but probably wouldn’t be able to tell you what country we live in. In fact, they’d probably say something like, “Merican Fwag!”

They know we’re Catholic, though that probably doesn’t mean much more to them than that we attend church on Sundays, where we have to be really quiet because we’re there to pray to God and thank him for the good things in our lives. They have no inkling that many worship God in other ways, that others don’t worship Him at all, and that some people use God as an excuse to hurt one another.

We’ve talked about death. Indeed, the concept has so intrigued my four-year-old that he routinely asks, “If I do diss, could I die?” (Doing “diss” can apply to any number of daring/stupid things, such as jumping off the third-floor landing.) If you mention Jesus to him, the first (and probably only) thing he’ll say about Him is, “Jesus died on da sign of da cwoss!”

I think it’s important for all people to be aware of major events happening in other parts of the world. I think it’s important to be empathetic towards those who suffer and to be engaged in trying to alleviate suffering. I think it’s important to make your voice heard on issues of consequence.

I want to raise my children to do all of these things.

I want my children to pay attention to the news, to think critically about the information they’re given, to care about those who hurt, to pray and act towards just resolutions.

But right now they’re little, and at least one of them is very sensitive to all things scary. (Seriously, he has on more than one occasion been brought to tears because “Dat bad man!” stole Elmo’s blankie in a silly little Sesame Street movie.) Right now their nightmares center on monsters and shadows and “sary wobots.” I’d like to keep it that way as long as possible.

So how do I begin to break it to them that so many people around the world don’t enjoy the comfort and security we do? How do I make others’ experiences seem relevant to our lives? How do I inform them without scaring them?

I don’t really know. So far, they listen to NPR with me, though I’m sure they don’t pay attention to or understand most of what they hear. When they ask questions, I answer them. And on the rare occasions that I notice relevant, teachable moments in the daily experiences of preschoolers, I try to take advantage of them. Maybe I’ll try to watch televised news with them more often, but only if I’m prepared to make that scramble for the remote.

More experienced parents (and more thoughtful people, parents and non-parents alike), I’d love to hear from you: How much of the world’s suffering do you let into your children’s lives? At what age do you start? How do you inform your children about conflict, war, terrorism, and other scary things without making them feel unsafe? Does there come an age when “feeling safe” is no longer your goal?

I would love to hear from you! Please share your experience/insight/expertise/best guess in the comments. I could use them! Many thanks in advance.