This is a repost of a repost.
I posted it here in 2008, in response to the comment of a reader named Mary Beth. I'm posting again in response to Heather's comment on this post. Rare is the mom who hasn't wrestled with herself over whether to bundle a bunch of kids and take them church. You are so not alone:-).
In part, Mary Beth writes, "I am a young mom of a two year old and a three month old who has just happened upon your blog. My husband was out of town so I had taken the two of them to church on my own one recent Sunday and the two year old's behavior was out of control. I left after mass wondering where we were going wrong-how could I get him to behave during church and what exactly were reasonable expectations for behavior for a two year old during church? Especially a particularly active two year old. I was feeling very discouraged and really wanting a Mom Mentor."
Her words brought back this vivid memory, a column from early 1997:
Sometimes in this space, under this byline, I leave the impression that all is well in my household all the time and that we should all be striving for spiritual perfection. Or perhaps I lead you to believe that if all is not well, it can be resolved in 600 words or fewer to fit this space. Nothing could be further from the truth. (My apologies to the editor: this column is 859 words.)
A few months ago, my husband had worked 80 hours in a week and he was out of town on business. The baby was three weeks old, up to nurse several times at night. The two-year-old, who had had complicated surgery to repair his hand twice that month, was having nightmares that woke us all in the night, at different times than the baby woke us. It was Sunday morning and I was one exhausted mom with four tired, cranky children. I was so very tempted to skip Mass. Surely God would understand. But whatever gene controls guilt in cradle Catholics works very well in me. We went. And it was a disaster.
My first mistake was allowing the four-year-old to enter the pew first. That put him out of arm's reach. My second mistake was sitting so close to the front in a very small church with only one exit — in the back. I prayed we would make it through Mass.
The baby was an angel. The eight-year-old was an angel. Just as the homily began, the very active four-year-old bumped the overtired two-year-old (the one with the cast on his arm). The two-year-old "bumped" him back, cast and all. They both howled. Father stopped speaking and stared at me while I gathered my three youngest children and made my way to the back of the church and out the door. My cheeks burned as I felt what I was sure were disapproving glances. I left the children with an usher and went back just long enough to gather carseat and diaper bag and tell my eldest to go home with a neighbor. He tells me that as soon as I left the priest commented that it was a shame that the nursery wasn't open that day.
Since there was no place to go but outside and it was too cold for the baby, I put my children in the car and drove home. I was disappointed that I couldn't stay for Communion, humiliated by my exit, frustrated that I couldn't control my children all the time and very weary. Two extremely quiet, much chastened children sat in the backseat while Mommy cried all the way home.
My initial reaction was to scold and punish the boys. Their behavior was entirely inappropriate and they knew it. But then I began to reflect on what had happened. I was a young mom in church with several children that surely were God's blessings both to my husband and me and to the Catholic community. I thought about all the times in the past eight years that I have felt that events that should be opportunities for support and fellowship were occasions for judging parenting skills in light of personally held "absolute truths."
Committed Christians tend to be extremely conscious of the principles behind their parenting decisions. They spend a great deal of time discerning what is important in the effort to raise Godly children and they feel passionately about the choices they make. The problem is that not all Christian parents come to the same conclusions. There are many theories on child raising — many Godly theories. What is acceptable in one family may not be in another and both families are positive that their way is God's way. The disparity can make for a lot of judging and criticizing — both spoken and unspoken. It can also lead to much stress.
In her book Motherhood Stress, Deborah Shaw Lewis comments on this phenomenon in a chapter entitled "Everyone Knows My Job": "…I think our Christian community needs to realize that e unrealistic ideals of motherhood and family we sometimes espouse as `spiritual' can seem like one more stress on already stress-sensitive mothers. I have all these expectations; now it's my church or my minister saying I need to do this." Perfectly behaved children every Sunday is an unrealistic ideal.
The week after this incident, I went back to the same Mass (this took some convincing by my wonderful neighbor) People stopped to congratulate me on the new baby and comment on how well-behaved the boys were.
Their words were warm and comforting. Except for one woman, everyone who spoke to me that day was older; they had all raised large families of their own. Perhaps they knew from personal experience that this phase of motherhood is a mighty struggle and that I needed to feel welcome in my Father's house, despite my imperfections and those of my children.
I hope one day I can give the same support to another young woman; I certainly know how important it is.