Picking up our cross isn’t easy. It’s beautiful, but it requires death to self. Author Colleen Duggan shares her own struggles with the humbling nature of Catholic Motherhood.
After fourteen years of parenting, here’s what I know:
I know my children will probably balk when I tell them to do the dishes, the laundry or pick up their shoes.
I know my pre-teens and teenagers will have emotional meltdowns and will—in moments of weakness—backtalk.
I know my toddlers will throw temper tantrums, creating nuclear scenes at the most inconvenient times in the most public places.
I know parenting is hard and requires my A game and as soon as I figure out how to appropriately handle a behavioral issue with one kid, another one crops up with another.
I know these things and yet…. I am still surprised by them.
I read recently that when we are confronted with certain behaviors of another, we can know that one time was a fluke, two times was a coincidence, and three times makes a pattern. In other words, if we encounter a behavior from another repeatedly, that behavioral tendency can act as a harbinger for us to change our response to the person.
For example, teenage surliness is something I’ve encountered more than three times in my house.
It is a pattern.
My emotional reaction to the teenagers, however, doesn’t have to be part of the pattern. I don’t have to take teenage surliness personally (especially because, in my experience, it rarely is personal).
I can choose to do something different than lecture, cajole or shame.
When confronted with teenage surliness, I can change my attitude—I can ignore it, remain pleasant in the face of rudeness, or even try to seek to understand the child. I can abandon my tendency to be surprised or angry and I can accept my children for who they are and where they are developmentally. I can ask God to show me what I’m supposed to learn, how I’m supposed to lovingly respond to them or if I’m supposed to respond at all.
On paper, this sounds like a lovely idea, a no-brainer. Easy-peasy.
But in reality? It requires I die to myself.
In Christian speak, accepting the difficulties imposed upon us by others is called Picking Up Our Cross.
And picking up my parenting cross is heavy and hard because it requires conversion—my conversion, not the conversion of my children (or my spouse). It requires a daily death to myself, a carving of myself from the inside out.
My ego abhors and repels that kind of change.
Spiritual writers, myself included here, sometimes present the cross— the penances we otherwise wouldn’t have chosen in life on our own—as an easy dance we can adopt without practice.
But that’s an inaccurate picture to paint.
It’s shallow, light-handed and skips over what is required when we acquiesce to the burden. The Instagram images, books and blogs that depict the saccharine aspects of parenting make the same mistake. To present picking up our cross as a walk in the park or parenting as a series of joyful moments strung together neglects a huge part of the story.
It neglects the radical call to holiness parents encounter when they are forced face to face with difficult parenting situations that require we abandon our desire to control, fix, manipulate, or have things our way.
In presenting only the warm and fuzziest aspects of childrearing, we miss the personal invitation Christ issues to us to sit with him in the Garden of Gethsemane, weep tears of blood, and walk alongside him on the way to His crucifixion.
It misses the call to accept things as they are, not as we would have them, which is the example Jesus Christ himself set.
It is easy to overlook Christ’s call to learn new ways of living via this parenting vocation (and we are all called to new ways of living. If we weren’t, we’d all be saints already).
It’s tempting to see our children as the problem while simultaneously failing to look where we are also at fault or how we might be exacerbating this problem. It’s easy to hold on tight to unrealistic expectations, ignore times we have also failed, and to force solutions that will never work. It’s easy to insist everyone around us change so that we can be happy.
Here’s what I also now know in fourteen years of parenting:
I will never be able to change my children (though you can bet I’ve tried.)
After fourteen years of parenting, I now know I can only change myself.
But this change requires me to pick up the cross: to abandon my ego, selfishness, and desire to have things my way.
It requires my death and this death is slow, painful.
The weight of a cross wears me down.
“Of course there are consolations and joys,” Dorothy Day wrote of parenting in her book On Pilgrimage. “Babies and small children are pure beauty, love, joy—the truest in this world. But the thorns are there—of night watches, of illnesses, of infant perversities and contrariness. These are glimpses of heaven and hell.”
I’ve seen both heaven and hell in my parenting days and the hellish days are even more unpleasant when I refuse to leave all—my pride, ego, my comfort—and follow him.
“God, I offer myself to Thee—to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relive me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and They Way of life. May I do Thy Will always.”
–The Third Step Prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous
Colleen Duggan is the author of Good Enough Is Good Enough: Confessions of An Imperfect Catholic Mom. She is a Catholic writer, catechist, and speaker who’s work has appeared in many Catholic media outlets including Catholic Digest, Creative Catechist, CatholicMom.com, Aleteia and Integrated Catholic Life. Connect with Colleen at her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
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