Before I became a mother, I had definite opinions about Mass attendance and behavior with regards to children. When I was pregnant, I listened to a mother of 3 children ages 3 and under lament the fact that they could not attend Mass as a family. It was impossible, she said. She and her husband rotated, one going to morning Mass, another in the evening. She said her 2 year old twin daughters did not attend Mass. Period. I remained silent, but in my head I judged. I judged hard. Children were supposed to go to Mass. How would they ever learn to behave at Mass if they weren’t taken?
From the time I was just a little girl, piety and perfect Mass behavior were inextricably linked. By the age of 3, I knew the order of the Mass, had memorized what to say, and reveled in the singing. I basked in the approval and praise of my devout grandmother. As I grew up, I was hyper vigilant about Mass decorum. I hushed my sister, placed their hands in their laps, shook my head at them when they weren’t concentrating on the right things. I was basically the Chief of the Mass Police.
When I taught pre-school, I attended Mass with 20 four year olds. Many times, my assistant was absent or busy, and I was responsible for all of them on my own. I went home exhausted, battling muscle tension, and in need of a good glass of wine, but let me tell you—those kids paid attention, did what they were supposed to, and behaved appropriately. If they didn’t, they felt the wrath of their usually warm, sweet teacher. I’m only slightly exaggerating. I was not above scaring them a little or guilting them. Retrospectively this was probably not the right approach. I even had ideas about who regularly attended Mass and who did not based on behavior and drew conclusions about their parents accordingly.
Right here, you’re sensing a big fall coming for me, right? A tumble due from my high horse?
I taught elementary school for six years. I was nurturing and warm and loved my kids. But they were well aware of my expectations. They knew I was strict and could be stern if necessary. Most of the time, they loved me and just wanted to please, so it was easy. One of my favorite little boys of all time, who came from a very difficult home, punched a child and cursed at him on the very first day of first grade. Just a few weeks later, after he and I had bonded, the whole school did not recognize him. He was a model student in my class. I could get 4 year olds to walk in a line on the very first day of school. No matter the grade, my class was always the best behaved of the bunch. I prided myself on it.
And there it is—pride.
Then I had my own longed for, prayed for, beloved baby girl. And everything changed. My sweet, loving, observant, precious angel baby is also extremely high energy, spirited, strong willed, and incapable of sitting still or being quiet for any length of time. Any length of time, people. I’ll never forget the ultrasound tech saying, “Wow, you have one very active baby girl! Get ready, Mom and Dad. She’s going to keep you on her toes.” And she was right. Before she even came out into the world, she was already a force of nature! As I told many parents countless times—these can be good qualities. There are some big positives to this. However, these characteristics make Mass challenging.
I say challenging because that is the kind of language I used with parents when I was a teacher. But if I’m being honest, I’d say it is a battle of epic endurance. An excruciating wrestling match in the pew. A chase down the aisles. A struggle of only an hour that feels in actuality endless.
I have read all the blog posts, listened to all the podcasts, done all the things you are supposed to do, experimented, prayed, talked with her about it, sat in the front, sat in the back, brought soft toys, brought books, brought no toys or books. Y’all, I’ve done it all. It’s just hard. She’s 16 months old, and she is high energy. There doesn’t seem to be much that will change that.
We keep trying. I leave Mass feeling like I need a neck brace and therapy. After the screaming and crying became too disturbing to others, I took her outside, calmed her down, and then tried to return to Mass. I watched in horror as she pushed the door closed as I was opening it. She did not want to go back. I don’t want her to have negative associations with Mass. But we have to go as a family. She will never learn unless we keep at it.
Are you all reveling in the irony? Are you laughing at my tumble from my high horse? Do you enjoy how God stripped me of arrogance and rid me of my judgmental nature by sending me this amazing, blessed, crazy little person?
All my life, from the time I was very small, I appeared to be the perfect child at Mass and later, a devout adult. But I wasn’t a perfect Christian or Catholic. In my heart I judged others and held myself in high regard. How wrong I was.
You are supposed to thank God through all things. So I’ve decided to start thanking Him when I’m losing my mind trying to stop my daughter from guillotining herself with the kneeler, pulling the woman’s hair in the pew in front of us, or kicking and screaming as I carry her in line for Communion. I may not hear the homily or come out with a sense of tranquility, but I am sure reminded of my fallibility as a human being and of God’s mercy and forgiveness. And I have suddenly acquired tremendous compassion and empathy for so many people.
My mother spent my entire life trying to ingrain in me a sense of humility. My daughter is finally achieving what she could not. Perhaps they are in cahoots. I wouldn’t put it past them.
Thank you, God, for my newfound humility. And please help us to get through Mass in one piece.