Have a look at a piece I wrote for Pray.com.au on the Nativity. It got me reflecting on what it felt like to be a new mother. Did Mary feel this way too?
Have a look at a piece I wrote for Pray.com.au on the Nativity. It got me reflecting on what it felt like to be a new mother. Did Mary feel this way too?
As you may know, if you’ve been reading my constant bragging, I’ve been doing a little work lately for Jesuit Publications (bear with me, I’m going somewhere here). One of the pieces I wrote a few months ago for Australian Catholics was a sort of how-to guide for taking children to Mass. Words can’t describe how smug I felt writing that article. I was the guru. I had all of the answers. I had finally made it and could now dispense wisdom for the masses (‘Masses’?).
I did not yet have twin toddlers.
Over the past several Sundays, my complacent words have been echoing in my ears as my husband and I have struggled to grapple with two rowdy little people who seem to have a liturgy allergy (sorry). They are so noisy. And they’re always making bids to escape. And they conspire against us.
Daisy and Poppy also have their own language that they’ve settled on between themselves. For example, they don’t call Christopher Robin by his actual name. Christopher spent so much time trying to get the girls to say ‘bum’, that they have decided that this is his name. We’re all kind of used to it. But when the altar servers process in to church and Daisy and Poppy see their brother solemnly carrying the candle, it gets a little awkward when they start shouting “BUM! BUM! BUUUUM!!”
Things were at their worst last Thursday. It was Holy Thursday Mass, which started at 7:30pm, which meant I had to get the children fed and dressed and into a crowded church at a time when everybody was tired and cranky, especially me. We were all squashed in together at a pew up the front, near the side door. The twins were fairly well behaved (though not completely silent) throughout the Blessing of the Holy Oils, and the Liturgy of the Word, and the special-edition homily, and the rather ponderous Washing of the Feet (since when was Holy Thursday Mass so LONG?). But when it got to the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, Poppy decided she’d had enough. For a while now, Poppy had been making bids to escape and I had been stopping her. I knew from experience that if I let her go, she would dash out of the church, or go dancing around the aisles, or dart into the sacristy and emerge, beaming, from the side door out onto the altar, like some special guest on This is Your Life. Poppy was making her indignation loudly known. It was time for me to scoop her up and take her out. As I stepped into the side room of the church, I noticed the neat, fortysomething man who had been sitting behind us at the beginning of Mass. Had he moved here to escape us? He did not return my rueful, apologetic smile. As I remonstrated with Poppy, I could hear Daisy’s loud proclamations from inside the church. I winced.
We managed to survive the rest of Mass, but it was a slog. Daisy also had a turn in the room next door. Neat Man was still there and still unsmiling. By some miracle, my husband and I managed to keep our faces straight when Annie constructed DJ headphones from her Alice-band and two Project Compassion boxes and pretended to spin discs. But it wasn’t until afterwards, that my husband filled me in on what happened when I was in the other room.
While I was having stern words with Poppy and sharing awkward space with Neat Man, Daisy was chattering loudly in her dad’s arms. Neat Man’s wife (who is also very neat and who looks like Sarah Palin) tapped my husband on the shoulder.
“You will have to take her out. I just can’t concentrate!”
My husband remained where he was. He wasn’t going to leave the other children by themselves and he knew that the Consecration happened by virtue of the Holy Spirit and not Sarah Palin’s brain power. Later, at the Sign of Peace, Sarah Palin turned her back abruptly on us and only shook the hands of the people behind her.
I must admit I felt a little heartbroken when I heard about this. I didn’t know Sarah Palin that well, but I had always imagined she was my ally. She was a mum, after all. Didn’t she know how hard it was to raise children in the faith? Did she think I brought my children to Mass on purpose just to mess with her? All of a sudden, I didn’t feel welcome at the Lord’s table. Perhaps Mass just wasn’t supposed to be for young families. Or perhaps it was only for families that had it all together. I decided in that moment that we wouldn’t go to the big Easter vigil Mass with the fire and the candles and the incense and the bells, but instead attend the more subdued Sunday morning Mass. I didn’t want another run-in with Neat Man and his Alaskan wife.
I might also mention here that we got through the Good Friday service without too much trouble, because the twins slept through most of it. The family behind us had small noisy children, however, and, while I felt deeply for them, I was also acutely aware that Neatman and Palin (who were sitting further away this time) probably assumed it was us making all that noise again.
Anyway, on Sunday morning, we tumbled into church, almost on time, though Poppy was still in her pyjamas. I was working so hard at focussing on all the nice parishioners who smile and look dotingly at the twins that I didn’t notice that NeatPalin were standing rigidly at the other side of the church. When Poppy let out a yelp towards the end of Mass, Neatman turned and looked right at us. EEK!
I’m feeling better now for telling you about it, my blog friend. And I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in the family who was really upset by it. Mr Knightley takes all things in his stride. Daisy and Poppy continue to run things their way. Annie is stoked with her charity-box headphones. And as for Matilda, Bum and Harry, they couldn’t be happier. They’ve discovered a new recruit to work at the Barbara Feeney Shush Helpline!
Meanwhile, I think I need to contact the Australian Catholics editor. I want to add a footnote to my article: “Please note: if you have toddlers, none of these rules apply. All you can do is pray for God’s sweet mercy and wait for the storm to pass.”
Although it might be later by the time I actually publish this post, as I write, today is the Feast of the Holy Family. I always find going to Mass on this Sunday a bit of a rude shock. I mean, we only just went to Mass on Chrismas Eve, three days ago. I can clearly remember acting as a human straitjacket for my five-year-old in a stifling heat that no number of ceiling fans would dispel. The time that followed was filled with sugar and excitement and late nights and tears and tantrums, and, what’s more, the children have been misbehaving too.
It felt like a bit of a stretch to get everyone out of bed this morning to go to Mass. I know it’s wrong to feel that way. I do love Mass more than anything, deep down. Really, I do. I just don’t enjoy putting clothes on children and saying ‘shush’ for forty minutes.
I know some of you will be thinking “Why are you so strict on yourself? Surely God will understand if you don’t go just this once?”. This is a good question with a long answer, so perhaps it’s a conversation for another day. The short answer is that I know myself well enough to realise that the moment I start making excuses for not making the effort, it becomes a whole lot easier to not make the effort the next time and the next until I find I’ve stopped going to church altogether. I’m the same way with exercise. Plus, the children are watching (that sounds like a good title for a horror movie, don’t you think? The Children Are Watching…) and it’s important that they know that going to Mass is a part of who we are.
I just wish I could have called these noble principles to mind this morning as I tried to prise my reluctant three-year-old out of bed and convince my eight-year-old that ‘glacial’ is not the best speed-setting for his morning weetbix consumption. Mr Knightley had taken Matilda to 9am Mass early so that she could be an altar server, and it was up to me to get the remaining children clothed and in the car and to Mass on time. Harry was dressed and ready like a champion, his methodical nature is a godsend on mornings like this. I was even willing to overlook the fact that his outfit was the same one he’d been wearing obstinately for the past three days. Christopher Robin, as I mentioned, was performing some sort of tai-chi inspired slow dance with his bowl and spoon, but was dressed at least. Annie was barefoot in her pyjamas staring blankly at her breakfast like it was the last clue in the cryptic crossword. The twins were asleep in their cot. And it was five-to-nine.
So I started my sheep-dog routine, gathering bags and babies, rounding everyone up into the car. I had already decided that the pyjamas Annie had been wearing (a plain pink t-shirt and black Star Wars shorts) looked enough like regular clothes to get away with. There was no time. It was only later I noticed that she’d somehow managed to get vegemite stains down the front of it.
I read a lot of blog posts about the importance of dressing your best for Sunday Mass. I’ve written before about this desire of my heart. My children were not looking well turned-out this morning. Even the babies’ jumpsuits seemed grubby. Nothing about their clothing expressed respect for this blessed institution. But there was no time; there was no time.
Annie and Harry were putting their seatbelts on in the back of our van as Christopher and I organised the twins. “Annie, are you wearing shoes?” I call back whilst grappling with a four-month-old in a five-point-harness. “Yes, Mummy”, Annie responds in her sweetest voice.
And we were on our way, but we were oh-so-late.
As I was pulling into the church car park, I made some quick decisions. Unloading the pram and strapping the babies into it would take too much time. Christopher and I could carry a baby each. Let’s go, let’s go!
I pulled back the middle seats to let Annie and Harry out. Annie grinned broadly, “Actually, I forgot my shoes!”, she announced triumphantly, like it was the punchline to some wonderful joke.
I’m not sure I can properly describe the full extent of shouting and searching that followed. Annie alone remained calm and unruffled. We found one shoe hidden in the car. There was only one. I think this was a million times worse than if there had been no shoes at all.
I had two options. I could rush home to get shoes for Annie. This would make us abysmally late for Mass. We would achieve nothing more than a Drive-Thru Communion Service, if that. Or, in another failed attempt at ‘Natural Consequences’, Annie could attend the Holy Mass barefoot.
The Gospel reading had just finished as I sidled into Mass with my rag-tag posse of children and slid into the pew next to Mr Knightley. Annie remained unshod. If we kept a low profile, we might just get away with it. In a quick series of whispers and a fair bit of sign language (I believe I employed the international sign for ‘I wish to strangle my child’), I brought Mr Knightley up to speed with the situation. His response was devastating, his expression deadpan:
“We’re on Offertory.”
In theory, being invited to bring the gifts of bread and wine to the altar is a wonderful privilege, I really should have felt honoured that somebody had tapped my husband on the shoulder before Mass started and asked him to participate with his family in this special way. Unfortunately, the idea of parading my dirty, barefoot, misbehaving children down the aisle for all to see was not altogether a tempting one. The corner of my husband’s mouth was twitching ever so slightly. But I didn’t punch him. I had other problems.
When I took the babies out of the car, I forgot to grab their bunny rugs or wipes. I was a little distracted, you see. Now Daisy was in my arms, forcing her fingers into her mouth wrist-deep and bringing up little pockets of spew, like some deranged supermodel (I’m sorry. That joke is inappropriate, I know. But it’s been a long day for me). I only had a couple of tissues to work with and those tissues had to work very hard. I could sense the people in the pew behind me silently promising themselves not to shake my hand when it came time for the Sign of Peace and I didn’t blame them one bit.
When it came time for the Offertory Procession, I assumed a confident expression. Perhaps, if I smiled bravely and walked tall, people might not notice that my three-year-old was sans footwear. That aisle seemed a lot longer than usual. Father Jacob, flanked by Matilda and another altar server were miles away. After traipsing barefoot through the gauntlet of parishioners, Annie imperiously insisted on delivering her bowl of communion wafers to Matilda and not the priest. Father Jacob seemed to be struggling to suppress a snort of laughter. I didn’t punch him either.
The rest of Mass passed smoothly enough apart from the following:
The final hymn was Joy to the World. I joined in lustily. As we prepared ourselves for a swift exit, I felt somebody grasp my elbow. It was Mrs Price Who’s Ever So Nice.
“I just wanted to let you know how much joy it gave my heart to see your beautiful family bringing up the gifts,” she said with genuine warmth. My heart melted a little bit. Mrs Price is almost old enough to be my grandmother. She has raised six children herself and is still grieving her beloved husband who passed away last year. Mrs Price chose not to see the unwashed clothes or exposed feet or complete lack of liturgical style. She saw a family trying their best despite all their imperfections, and loved us. In that moment, Mrs Price was God to me.
I opened my mouth to respond, but was interrupted by a loud yowling. Annie, it would seem, had stubbed her little toe on the kneeler.
And that, my friend, is why you should always wear shoes to church.
I have been dying to tell you this for so long. But you’re not the absolute last to know – I haven’t told Facebook yet…
A couple of months ago, I went to visit my obstetrician. I like my obstetrician: he’s a reassuring man with a deep voice who exudes calm, warmth and good humour. He’s been helping me give birth for almost ten years now. OK, so maybe I did the lion’s share of the work when it came to labour, but he has definitely been a good person to have in my corner. In my mind, he’s the best baby doctor in Melbourne. But I wouldn’t tell him that.
Anyway, I was visiting my obstetrician a couple of months ago and – well – it wasn’t a social visit (excited squeal). I was eagerly anticipating Baby Number Five and very keen to hear that everything was in good order. Mr Knightley was at work, but he wanted to hear the heartbeat too, so I planned to give him a call so he could listen in when the time came.
After the intial boring stuff (checking blood pressure, reading over blood tests, getting weighed on the rude scales that tell me to ‘GET OFF’ before they calculate my weight), it was time for Doc to play with his ultrasound machine. This is the best bit. Doc squirts my belly with cold goo and examines the screen as he presses the wand thingy onto my bump.
And then he stops.
And he takes the wand thing off.
“What?” I say.
Doc just looks at me and tries to frown. But his eyes are twinkling.
“What?!” I demand.
Doc shakes his head solemnly. His mouth is twitching. I wonder idly what would happen if I throttle him with the curly cable from his ultrasound machine.
“WHAT. IS. IT?” I enunciate in sheer desperation.
Doc draws a deep breath. Then he somehow manages to find three words to say.
“There are two.”
It proves impossible to continue the ultrasound for the next few minutes as I can’t stop giggling manaically. My belly is wobbling all over the place and it makes the pictures all blurry. Then I call Mr Knightley.
“Are you ready to hear the heartbeat, George?” (That’s Mr Knightley’s first name. It’s only mentioned once in the whole of Emma, but it’s there if you know where to look. And did you know that Mr Darcy’s first name is ‘Fitzwilliam’? No wonder he’s so uptight! But I digress…)
“Yes.” says Mr Knightley
“Erm…which one would you like to hear first?” And then I burst into a fresh peal of giggles which makes everything impossible again. Mr Knightley is laughing too, although I think I also hear him groan “we’re going to need a new car!”. Doc waits patiently for me to calm down again.
And then I manage to lie still and the three of us listen to two perfect heartbeats. As I lay there, watching two small babies kick their tiny legs and wave at me, I reflect on God’s sense of humour, his abundant generosity and his rather unnerving faith in me.
This is unpredictable, insane, terrifying, a major challenge – and yet somehow it makes perfect sense. I can’t explain it. I have no control at all over this situation, but that’s OK, because I feel in my heart that God does. And relying on God is something I need to get better at.
Now, does anyone know the patron saint for procuring good-quality, second hand, 8-seat people movers?
This is not a God post. I wish it were. I haven’t written a God post for ages. I long to write something witty and heartfelt and spiritual and profound. But you just won’t find that here. I’m sorry.
I look back at the God posts I used to write, Soul Diet and Mary, Help of Kitchens and Clomp, Clomp, Clomp. What gives? I used to be so spiritual, so tuned in to my faith. And Mrs Monk. Did you ever read Mrs Monk? I was so holy when I wrote that. I wanted to “transform my home from domestic to monastic in eight easy steps”. I totally wrote that.
I guess I’m just not like that at the moment. I think that’s why I haven’t written a God post in such a long time. I don’t feel like I have anything to offer.
It’s not like there’s something very wrong. I’m not having a crisis of faith (I’m really not that interesting a person). God and I are still on good terms. I’ve just lost the sort of rich, fragrant faith that permeates everything I do and everyone I meet. Instead, I have something a bit stale and cold. Kind of like the toast you put on for breakfast, but then forget about until the end of the day when you happen to look at the toaster again.
It wasn’t some big, dramatic change either. Bit by bit, I’ve somehow lost all of my prayer habits. I used to be in this lovely mum’s prayer group that met every week, but that stopped running. I used to meditate as I hung out the washing, but when rainy weather came, I had to resort to clothes horses and dryers (and wearing dirty clothes) and sort of fell out of practice. I used to get up early each morning and read the bible and pray, but – and this one’s really embarrassing – when the house next door was demolished, a mouse moved in downstairs (lured in, no doubt, by the smell of abandoned toast). I was so terrified of spending alone-time with this small, nocturnal beastie that I stopped getting up before dark and gave up on my morning prayer ritual. For the record, the mouse’s sojourn was very short-lived, but the damage had been done. This is why I always maintain that mice and rats are the DEVIL’S CREATURES. Ugh!
I can sort of see why the Church insists on Sunday Mass attendance, much as it makes her sound like a bossy parent. It’s like an anchor when all else falls away. If it wasn’t expected of me, if the deal was “Come along whenever you feel like it” or “whenever you feel up to it ” or “whenever you feel holy enough“, then that would be the end of it, I would keep sliding away until I had nothing.
So what’s the solution? How do I find butter for my cold-dry-toast faith?
Well, I guess part of it is in what I’ve just done. I had to overcome my pride to write this awkwardly-worded post. I say I talk about ‘God in the Mess’, but I would rather avoid the mess. I would prefer to have it all together all of the time. To be such an awesome Christian that I don’t even need God at all. The rest, I suppose has something to do with little things. In building back gently what has been so gradually eroded.
There might even be a God post in that.
So if you don’t already think I’m nuts for homeschooling my daughter this year, you might when I tell you why.
You see, I was resisting the idea a lot. It was a stupid, harebrained scheme. Who homeschools? How would I even begin to explain this to people? How was I going to cope with it all? Would the school be upset with me? But God kept poking me.
What is a God poke? Well, it’s not like I hear the voice of God and he tells me to do things in a deep, rich baritone, or there’s this big thunderbolt and I fall off the horse I’m riding and the statue of Mary gets all weepy and the fish poke their heads out of the water to listen to me preach and it starts raining flowers. It’s kind of like this persistent gut feeling every time I pray. And good people seem to turn up in my path with the right advice at the right time. I know that I can tell God to back off with these crazy suggestions and he would. But I don’t want to tell him to back off, not right away. I’m curious and a little excited. I know that in the past when I’ve gone along with God in his ridiculous suggestions, it’s turned out to be the best thing I could have done.
This all might sound mental, but it’s not really. It’s not like some compulsion – like I have to do something right now or something bad will happen. And it’s not like I feel compelled by creepy voices in my head. Nothing bad will happen if I don’t listen to God and his quiet suggestions (except I might miss out on an adventure exactly suited to my personality and stage of life. I might miss an opportunity to grow and reach my true potential). And I don’t feel compelled (or hear voices, for that matter) – like I said before, I feel really conflicted. I keep telling God his ideas are mental and he keeps bugging me. I need to really trust God, there’s always that leap of faith required, I guess.
I should probably point out here that I don’t think I’m some child of destiny, that God has a plan for me and me alone. Everyone gets poked by God at some time or another. Some of us ignore it, some of us don’t call it ‘God’, but ‘intuition’ or ‘conscience’ or some other name that best fits our chosen religion.
I can hear as I write this what my atheist friends would say to all this. What about all those awful people who commit atrocities and say they were doing God’s will? Surely it’s dangerous to blindly follow an idea like this? It’s true. Not all ‘gut feelings’ come from God. I don’t like to give him too much attention, but there is an evil mischief-maker out there who likes to trip us up. That’s why it’s important that we don’t follow our concept of God’s will blindly. Here’s a helpful test set out in the beautiful form of an ordered list:
Of course, I always try to make God fit into a box, but God does not conform to ordered lists, and the best way to discern his will in a tricky situation is to pray, pray, pray. Read the scripture and pray, Sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament and pray. Peg out the washing and pray. Pray formally, with the rosary or a novena. Pray informally, in silence or amidst the noise and mess. Ask others to pray for you. Ask Mary to pray for you (she said yes to God’s harebrained scheme too, remember?). Just pray. Pray lots.
Then maybe it might be time to poke back.
I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while now. I’m not sure how to tell you without making you thinking I’m totally bonkers.
See, this thing is, this year, when Christopher Robin trots off to Grade One, at our local Catholic Primary, Matilda will be doing Grade Four.
A few months ago, I was sitting with Mr Knightley on what we lovingly call our front ‘porch’. Those of you who have visited me physically (and not just virtually) will know that this description is rather generous, but we love the chairs and table squished up next to our front door very much indeed. As we sipped our coffee, we watched Matilda playing in our front yard, lost in her own happy world. I sighed.
“I just don’t want her spirit to get crushed.” I announced suddenly.
Mr Knightley looked at me and looked across to Matilda. It’s not unusual for me to burst into a new topic of conversation like this. I didn’t need to explain. We both knew what a rough year Matilda had suffered. The constant undermining and alienation from a group of girls who, while I’m sure are lovely individuals, seem to create a toxic culture when put together.
Tilly isn’t your typical eight-year-old girl. She is an individual. While she is articulate and has well-developed social skills, she would probably prefer to attend a political rally than a One Direction concert. At my birthday party, after getting fed up with all the bonfire smoke blowing in her face, Matilda disappeared inside briefly, only to reappear nonchalantly sporting a pair of swimming goggles. She was the hero of the party and pretty soon the other kids sent her back inside to fetch goggles for them too. She wouldn’t have dared to stand out so much with her group at school.
It wasn’t often these days that we saw her relaxed and cheerful like this. Over the course of the year, Matilda’s confidence had plummeted whilst her anxieties soared. The school had valiantly tried different strategies, but none had worked for longer than a week.
The lowest point came a few months ago when Matilda confided in me that some of the girls in her group had accessed hard-core fetish pornography on their computers at home and were describing it in graphic detail over lunch time. When Matilda objected to this topic, she was branded a baby. Eventually, she made some excuses and nicked off.
I tried to write a post about this when it happened, but it was just too difficult. Besides, I try hard to keep this blog PG-rated and I don’t think that would have been possible if I’d gone into any more detail than I have here. It’s not that I’m prudish and think that eight-year-olds shouldn’t be curious about sex, and I’m happy to answer any questions (Matilda thanked me politely but said she didn’t feel she was ready to learn about sex yet. She promised that when she did she would come to me, and not YouTube…), but I find it deeply disturbing that they have access to such damaging misinformation as porn. It also struck me that, while I can go nuts with passwords and filters and monitoring screen time, I have no control over the boundaries that Matilda’s peers have with their computers.
Of course, I spoke to the school and the school spoke to parents (and I felt like a rotten snitch) and everybody was very shocked. But a few months later, the girls were still talking about it, only this time, they banished Matilda from the conversation so that she wouldn’t dob on them again.
Mr Knightley sipped his coffee, “We could always try homeschooling,” he suggested. I laughed. Mr Knightley had been extolling the virtues of homeschooling since before Matilda was born. But this was no off-hand comment. Mr Knightley went on to put forward some very convincing arguments for giving Matilda a year of homeschooling, to give her a break from the stress, to challenge her gifted brain, to lean in to the relationship, and to give her back her childhood. But it wasn’t this that convinced me, nor the excitement I felt bubbling up as I thought about curriculum and excursions and the fun we could have together. A classroom with one student who itched to learn. There was something else, quiet but persistent.
It was God. He was poking me.