Let me just say upfront that my children are 6 and 3. My oldest has Sensory Processing Disorder, and my youngest has been diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum (though very high functioning). Our children are not those children that you see sitting in the pew quietly beside their parents, never moving about. My children are the ones who wiggle, lap the pew, lay on the kneeler and while they do quite well at being quiet, they do whisper a little too loud occasionally. But they’re there, and we’re doing the best we can.
It might sound as though we don’t place any expectations of behavior on them during Mass, but we do. We just place realistic expectations. We know that they are incapable of sitting still during Mass, so we allow them to move about within the pew, or play with a small toy that we bring, both of which must be done quietly. For our son, who is 6, we also expect him to stand and kneel at the appropriate times, and while we desire that he pay attention throughout the entire Mass, realistically, we expect him to pay attention especially during the prayers. We encourage our daughter (3) to follow along in all of this, but we do not demand it of her as of yet. It would be foolish to do so.
And so, we went to Mass last Sunday. It had been one of those mornings, and we should have known something was coming. I had completely lost track of time, we were running late and therefore, as an imperfect mother, I took my frustration at myself, out on the children. I was snapping at them to hurry up, get their shoes on faster, their jackets on faster, reminding them that we were going to be late. My husband not any too politely reminded me of whose fault that was, and that perhaps I should remember that before snapping at the children. He was right of course, and I did apologize. That didn’t change the fact that we were late, though.
Our son goes to Faith Formation (the Catholic equivalent of Sunday School) at 10:00 (well, 10:15 that day), while my husband, daughter and I go over to the parish hall for coffee and biscuits. Then we all attend the 11:00 mass together. That morning, our daughter was acting abnormally shy with her aunt. She was just a bit off, not herself. In hindsight, that should have been another clue that we were in for a rough Mass.
Honestly, I can’t even remember all the things the children did during Mass. I think I tried to block it out thirty seconds after we left. I do know that my daughter was especially restless and loud that morning. She refused to sit, she wasn’t even content stay in the pew, but wanted to splay out in the aisle and crawl under the pews and visit our neighbors. She was far from quiet, too. At first it was kind of cute, she started singing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ – and who doesn’t smile, or have their heart warm a bit at hearing a three year old sing that song? However, sometimes she can get stuck on a phrase or song, and she sang it over and over, getting louder and louder, until finally we had to tell her to stop. She didn’t appreciate that.
So, she decided she was done, and asked to leave. At first it was quietly enough, but her ever volume-increasing whispered requests of, “Get me out of here!” finally culminated in her saying quite loudly, “I hate church! Get. Me. Out. Of. Here!” To my dismay (though to a bit of my relief as well), the woman’s shoulders in the pew in front of us started shaking in laughter, and I saw her press a hand to her mouth as she tried not to laugh out loud. “You’re welcome. Always happy to amuse others,” I thought to myself dryly, ” ‘The Hansons: St. Gertrude’s Comic Relief Family’, at your service.” It was at that point, just before she started screaming that I took her out of our pew and took her to the upstairs balcony, where another family with a restless child had escaped.
Meanwhile, down below, my husband was left with our son. While I was too far away to see exactly what was going on, I saw the frustrated shake of my husband’s head, several times. I later learned that while he was far quieter and less restless than his sister, our son just would not cooperate. He would sit instead of stand, he didn’t pay attention to the prayers, he whined. The bulging vein in my husband’s forehead when we rejoined them for communion, told me of my husband’s mounting frustration.
At the end of Mass, I think we all burst out of that church with a, “Oh thank Heaven’s, it’s over!” feeling – the children, thankful they were released from their apparent torture, my husband and I thankful that we made it through without a total meltdown from one or both of the children. However, the storm was just about to unleash itself. Our daughter decided she was not going in her car seat. Now, I will mention that she does have issues with restraint, and the car seat has been a battle ever since she was a baby. It’s getting better, but still flares up sometimes. So, she was not going in, and she stiffened herself up harder than an oak plank. When she realized that didn’t work and we were still going to try and get her in the seat, her fury let loose. Screams that I’m surprised didn’t shatter the stained glass windows poured forth from our daughter, as I nodded and smiled through clenched teeth at the family next to us, getting in their car. Thankfully, she was so focused on screaming that she relaxed her body enough that we were able to get her strapped in the car seat.
The morning got worse before it got better, and it left us feeling frustrated and worn out, and I’ll admit, questioning the value of trying to wrangle our children to Mass each Sunday. It was one of those mornings that left you feeling that you didn’t get anything out of the Mass, and you certainly know your children took nothing away from it – so why bother? Having come from a Baptist background, used to churches with nurseries and Sunday Schools that ran during the church service (meaning there were not many children present during the service), I often struggle with the, “I don’t know why we come. I’m not getting anything out of it. It would be so much easier if there was a nursery to take the kids to – it’s not like they’re getting anything out of it, they’re too young to understand.”
But as I’m growing in my faith, I’m realizing just how wrong those thoughts are. I love what I was told once: “We don’t come to church just to “get” something, coming to church isn’t supposed to be about “us”. We come to give. We are giving God our sacrifice of time, we give Him our effort, our heart. We are saying, ‘God, you are important in my life.’ And those children, no they may not understand the words, but they understand that they’re wanted, and that they belong, they understand the difference between being excluded and included. What better place for them to grow up feeling included, that their presence is wanted, than in church?”
This morning as I popped onto Facebook I saw a friend had posted this blog to her page a couple days ago, one of many about parents who take their small children to church. And as I read it, I felt refreshed. I remembered what I had been told about why Catholics feel so strongly about having their children present during Mass, and I knew they were right. I left a brief comment on the article, sharing (in a much shorter form) what I have shared here. A friend of mine then shared her view, which I want to share with you, because I found it so encouraging, and it truly helped me to put last weekend’s disaster of a Mass in perspective:
“There have been times I thought I was more of a nuisance [with her 3 children], and that my being there was a total distraction for others. But at the same time, I know that I am serving the Lord. In training my children to attend the Church, I am giving them opportunity to hear the gospel, to hear the wise words from those who speak the truth at the meetings. It is worth all the struggle. Every time.”
And my friend was right. It is worth the struggle. We left Mass last Sunday stressed out, angry and frustrated. Truthfully, I think we both felt like not taking them back anytime soon, and yet… it was one bad morning. One, in how many? And while the majority of the morning may not have been great, there were good moments: going up as a family to receive the priest’s blessing and to receive the Eucharist. The moments of kneeling in prayer with my husband – even knowing we were both praying for patience to not strangle our children (insert an LOL here). I love watching my son as he learns to cross himself in prayer – all of those were good, love and faith-filled moments, that did make the struggle worth it.