Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Their Tenderest Years

I tried to take 5 kids, ages 3-9, to Mass by myself last night. 

At one point, I self-consciously carried my 3-year-old, who was quacking intermittently at the rate of a smoke detector's low battery warning, to the back of the church. Not wanting to disrupt the homily with a rambling parade of children through the aisles, I left twin 5-year-olds and an 8-year-old alone in the pew.

"Wow, what a dumb call," every Catholic mother just said in unison.

Yes, yes, of course, it was undoubtedly the dumbest of dumb calls for a mother to make!

But all of us brilliant moms knowing that now sure doesn't help the poor woman last night as she hiked to the back with a quacking 3-year-old while abandoning three children in a pew with nothing but three MagnifiKid! magazines, one hardcover songbook, two precariously-bound missalettes, a burp cloth, a Bible, a bottle of hand sanitizer, and their own imaginations. 

Safely behind the last row of pews, my ducky preschooler began to crawl around a pillar, a minor infraction I could easily ignore -- until he shifted noisily into reverse: "Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beeeeeep." Surely the homily would end any moment! Catholic liturgy is usually the perfect cover for errant duck quacks and truck horns; it all blends so easily into the joyful noise of collective prayers and singing. But this homily clearly was not ending anytime soon.

Summoning my inner Blessed Mother, I stepped directly into my son's bulldozing path, scooped him into my arms like the expert parent I am, and never once broke eye contact with my trio of well-behaved kids -- such cherubs! -- left alone in our third row pew. Or that's how I imagined it would happen one holy moment before stepping directly onto my baby's bulldozer fingers, instinctively scooping him high into my arms for comfort, and creating a truly statue-worthy "Madonna and Child" moment as his whimpering amplified into a tornado siren howl within the stone echo chamber of our parish nave.

I rushed for the nearest door, my youngest wailing fire engines, and could only hope the best for his three older brothers, now completely unsupervised, in the pew. Unfortunately, the nearest door was also a one-way secured exit to the parking lot.

Determined not to disrupt the [world's longest] homily and gifted with the problem-solving optimism of any Catholic mother at Mass, I wedged one foot in the gap of the closing fire door while deep lunging in a maxi skirt as far from the cracked door as possible to calm my bawling baby.

I don't know what happened next. Did I put him down intentionally? Did he squirm out of my arms? All I saw was his back, running away down the sidewalk. As luck would have it, after whisper-yelling my best threats to "GET BACK IN CHURCH THIS INSTANT," he listened and obeyed his Momma as cheerfully as any three-year-old might, which is to say, not a damn bit.

Divine help arrived in the form of a teenage boy playing hooky from Mass. Realizing my plight -- one foot jammed in the secured exit door of the church while my delirious preschooler spun circles down the sidewalk -- this bemused teenager acted with all the compassion and kindness of Jesus as he chased down my runaway child and held the door open for us to rush, flustered, back into Mass.

From behind all the pews, I could see my pre-kindergarteners' identical bobbleheads as they shoved each other jovially in the third row. It seemed, having rolled up their children's Mass books, they were... sword fighting? My 8-year-old was nowhere in sight.

Panicked, I hustled intemperately down the aisle, toddler on hip, and arrived at our pew on child-abduction high alert only to find my 8-year-old laying on his stomach across four seats of the pew intensively reading his Bible. I'm embarrassed to admit that my annoyance with his posture -- "The pew is not a bed!" -- far outweighed my delight at his captive immersion in scripture.

If I'd waited a second longer before raining down justice, I'm pretty sure I would have glimpsed his guardian angel sitting casually on the kneeler beside him, wings to the homilist, pointing out something absolutely fascinating in whatever passage they were reading.

Instead, I huffily confiscated the 5-year-olds' book-swords, swept the feet of my 8-year-old to the floor, forcing him to a proper sitting position, and returned an armament of songbooks and missalettes to the back of the pew in front of us.

Pausing in a moment of humble realization at my own fault in leaving three young kids without direct supervision in a pew during what would later be confirmed the longest homily ever in the history of homilies, I determined -- with a resolve familiar to anyone who's ever taken an indoor cat on a leash to the parish's outdoor Blessing of Animals on the Feast of St. Francis -- to calm myself down.

The homily, unaffected, meandered on; my 3-year-old quacked; and I lost it.

What's the point of coming to Mass when my kids just can't sit calmly in a pew for an hour? Everyone here must think I'm a terrible parent. If my children can't behave nicely in public, then I just can't bring them to church. 

I gathered up our stuff and led my kids on the long parade of shame to the back of the church. Had my 9-year-old not been altar serving -- there's number five, for anyone counting kids through this story and continually coming up short -- I'm sure we would have left.

It's worth mentioning that I only sensed pity and compassion from those around us. No one shook their heads disapprovingly at my perceived failed parenting. No one nodded in agreement with my choice to give up. Excepting one woman, everyone in the congregation simply accepted with chagrin and a shrug that it was what it was: a futile attempt to bring young kids to Mass.

That one exceptional woman was a family friend sitting on the other side of the church. She sent her husband to meet us in the narthex on our way out and invited my 8-year-old and twin 5-year-olds to sit with them. This mother and her family just spent an entire eternal homily distracted by my family of crazy kids, and rather than smile contently down her row of EIGHT saintly children, she sent her husband to come collect my kids too.

I happily sent them.

For the rest of Mass, I sat in timeout in the narthex with my 3-year-old.

I thought about why "kids behaving nicely in public" seems so important to me at church. Why was I more concerned with my children's reputation than their reverence? And why is it fair to judge a young child's reverence solely by time impositions of posture and stillness?

If God wants us, as adults, to come to Mass in all our messy honesty, how much must He delight in the natural honest presence of our children? We're exhorted, as parents, to "associate [our children] from their tenderest years with the life of the Church" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2225). Surely God is not surprised by the peculiar antics of our kids in their "tenderest years" at Mass!

If there's one consistent theme to my writing, it's the call, especially for Christians, to be genuine. And as a Catholic mom whose husband works nontraditional hours, showing up at Mass with five kids acting like … kids … is as genuine as it gets.

Some Sundays, my kids are impressively robotic in their liturgical presence: sit, stand, kneel, sing, stand, bow, kneel... Other Sundays, I've got sword-fighting five-year-olds, an 8-year-old who's two pillows short a reading nook, an altar-serving 9-year-old, and one foot wedged in the fire door while chasing down a toddler.

To God be the glory. He's always happy to see us.

What does it mean for your family to be genuinely present at Mass? Do you believe God is happy to see you?

Photo by Russell Ward (2015) via Freely.

*Also published January 2020 at

Monday, December 16, 2019

"Everything smells weird and I have a poor relationship with the cat." -- An Interview with Simcha Fisher

Did I shriek like a fan-girl when Simcha Fisher agreed to an interview, and then, did some of her answers make me cry? You better believe it.

What an honor to share with the world more of Simcha's humbly genuine, comfortably stream-of-conscience insights about life, work, family, and faith.


FemCatholic: Your writing is nationally and internationally syndicated, you travel the country as a well-loved speaker, you’re a respected Catholic commentator and moderator, a published author, a regular podcast host, a wife, and a mom, raising 10 kids with your husband, Damien. Am I leaving anything out?

Simcha Fisher: No, but when you put it that way, it sounds like a completely different person. Sometimes people ask me how I manage to do it all, and I'm kind of baffled. Then I realize, "Oh, they think I'm doing everything well." I'm not. My house is a wreck. I miss deadlines. Everything smells weird and I have a very poor relationship with the cat. My spiritual life is a circus act, and not in the fun way. But I do have a preternatural ability to pick myself up and start over ten billion times, and that has proved very useful.

Please read the rest -- how she wrote & published The Sinner's Guide to NFP, personal worries about parenting, podcasting with her husband, and where to send your kids for a good education (spoiler: it depends) -- over at FemCatholic!

Simcha Fisher, speaking at the FemCatholic Conference, March 2019

Monday, October 7, 2019

When Women Pray

“Please pray for my parents, my job, my daughter, my husband, my car, my mind…”

How often I’ve entrusted the concerns of my heart to our parish’s sagacious women prayer warriors!

I'm grateful for their intercession, because my own life — with a husband, five kids, two work schedules, three school schedules, extracurricular activities, and volunteer obligations — is much too busy for me to move mountains with prayer. (And why bother if someone else can do it for me?)

If prayer is the intense workout class that meets at my local park, then I’m the well-intentioned member who signs a commitment pledge, shows up every day for a week, sporadically misses class for months — and then possibly, eventually, and unintentionally never shows up again. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Much like exercise, prayer just isn’t as effective when it’s skipped and outsourced.

But what if prayer isn’t an obligatory task that requires us to wake up at 4:00 a.m. or choose between eating lunch and saying a rosary? 

What if prayer is a practical tool that blends easily into whatever life we’re currently living and will make us better at whatever work we’re supposed to be doing? 

Why is it surprising to so many of us that this is actually what the Catholic Church believes and teaches a formed life of prayer can be?

When it comes to prayer, if you sometimes ask, "Why bother?" or "Who has the time?" these posts at FemCatholic might bring some encouragement:

Part I: Why We Pray

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Free Catholic Ed Resources

Click on the title of each resource (not the photo) for a free, full-size PDF digital download to standard paper sizes. (Advice for cheap printing is below.)

These are basic resources for Catholic students of any age. Keeping with this evangelistic intention, please do not print or sell these for money.

If you'd like to improve any of these, feel free! I'll update the link to your improved design and give you credit for it.

If you'd like to offer your own designs (for free) to the Catholic world, send me the PDF, and I'll provide a link to it below.

BOOKMARKS (8.5in x 11in):

Catholic Books of the Bible Bookmarks (Color, Double-sided, 8.5in x 11in, 6 per page)
Catholic Books of the Bible Bookmarks (Black-and-white, Double-sided, 8.5in x 11in, 6 per page)

Basic Prayers Bookmarks (Color, Double-sided, 8.5in x 11in, 4 per page)
Basic Prayers Bookmarks (Black-and-white, Double-sided, 8.5in x 11in, 4 per page)

Basic Prayers Bookmarks SPANISH (Color, Double-sided, 8.5 x 11in, 4 per page) (provided by Silvia Lesko)

POSTERS (22inx28in or smaller):

Seven Sacraments Poster

WORKSHEETS (8.5in x 11in):
Coming soon...


For bookmarks and posters, I use our local office supply store's printing services (Office Depot). You can upload documents online and pick them up at the print center in the store.

For bookmarks:
I print on Glossy 100# White Cover Stock. It's about $1.25 per page. (Be sure to select "double-sided.") If you print in black-and-white, it's even cheaper.

For posters:
I print as blueprints. This is large-format, 24# paper.
A black-and-white, 18in x 24in page costs $1.79 to print.
A color, 24in x 36in page costs $5.89 to print.
Once printed, I attach the poster to a sheet of poster board. (Standard poster board is 22in x 28in.)

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Saint Who Looked Like She Was Failing At Life

As the love child of a French aristocrat and his girlfriend, it seems St. Louise de Marillac’s failure to blend into mainstream Catholic culture started from conception.

From there, each time Louise’s life veered toward any kind of social normalcy, something would happen to block her, once again, from the comfort of fitting in. Unlike the focused life trajectories of her successful Catholic peers, Louise was all over the place.

In many ways — an unstable home life, failure to complete a Catholic education, absence of extended family support, roadblocks and confusion in her vocation — Louise’s early life lacked the basic hallmarks commonly ascribed to Catholic success. In the 1600s, it must have seemed like she was on the loser track for women.

And yet, the Lord assured Louise that despite all the difficulties and confusion, she was right where she was supposed to be.

Some well-intentioned biographers splice out Louise’s dysfunctional family problems, rejections and predicated social failures in an attempt to construct a sweeter, simpler saint story. But these revisions eliminate the integral details that testify to God’s personal providence in Louise’s life: We can trace each disappointment in her formative years to a strength in the ministry of her later years.

Perhaps, like St. Louise de Marillac, the places in our lives where we most feel like failures will be the tools that God uses to accomplish prolific good in the world.

Please read more about Louise's life and legacy in my latest over at FemCatholic!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Tooth Fairy Story

"The Tooth Fairy is a game that other families play, but not ours." 

I don't recall whether it disappointed my older kids to learn their pillows weren't magical portals to a generous fairy realm. My husband was working the overnight shift, which left me caring solo for a 6-year-old, 4-year-old, two 1-year-olds, and a newborn through the Tooth Fairy's working hours, and I just couldn't. So I dispelled all Tooth Fairy magic from our house.

Santa is another disappointingly inconsistent stranger. He only ever fills stockings at Mommom and Poppop's house, never at ours. Don't get me started on the Easter bunny.

Our pretty little corner house was a near vacuum of magic for years.

They say the best gift you can give a kid is a sibling. "Built-in friends-for-life!" they say. And if that's the case, we've more than blessed our kids with the best of gifts.

But what they don't tell you is that siblings are the kind of gift that improves with time. A savings bond. A 529 Education Plan. An unaged barrel of wine. A sibling.

Unfortunately, the collateral damage in our family of overwhelmed parents prioritizing younger siblings' needs for food and hygiene over older siblings' need for wonder wasn't limited to only the secular. We hadn't made it through the Advent calendar to Christmas until this past year when my oldest son took charge and made it happen. He was eight. I don't remember the baptismal anniversaries of my children. I certainly don't light a candle and make a cake. Where even are their baptismal candles? Probably still packed from our move across state three years ago. Possibly melted in a box in the attic.

I love the Lord. I love His Church. I love my children. But a woman can only create so much magic out of the day she's been given, and for many years, the lioness share of our household wonder revolved around diaper cycles and breasts that make milk.

"The tooth fairy is a game that other families play, but not ours." 

It's strange, the coping mechanisms we adopt as parents, the ideals we're forced to let go, either voluntarily or with a losing fight, but gone all the same. The tooth fairy's become a taunting mascot of my parenthood journey. It represents the magic I want my children to enjoy congruent with my failure to make it happen.

Not that prioritization only affects kids with many siblings. Every parent has limits of time, money, emotional and mental capacity. Somewhere between our ideals and our humanity, we reckon with the parental reality of "just doing our best."

When kids uncover this mystery -- that parents aren't omnipotent demigods, just exhaustible mortals "doing our best" -- it's a melancholy comfort. We lose some of their sweet childhood idealism, but we gain a small ally in our goals to accomplish what is good and necessary over what is everything.

"The tooth fairy is a game that other families play, but not ours." 

How quickly my 4-year-old's eyes lost their glow when I broke the news to him last week, the excitement of losing two teeth in one day suddenly quelled by an uncertainty over what to do with the tiny tooth treasure box he'd been rattling relentlessly since arriving home from school.

I didn't expect such discouragement. I don't remember my oldest son responding like this. To be fair, I don't remember much of anything the year my oldest son lost his first tooth.

Oh how I wanted to rekindle that ember of wonder that I'd just stomped out with my declaration against the tooth fairy. My brain sputtered through complicated parental thoughts of whether it's OK to play Tooth Fairy with the younger children if I hadn't with the older ones, and how I can retract what I just put out as truth without losing credibility, and what am I going to make for dinner tonight…

And then, sweetly and cunningly, with an independent confidence inevitable to older siblings, my oldest son pulled his younger brother aside and whispered that the magic is real, that he'd better make sure that tooth box gets tucked under his pillow.

For a time, my 4-year-old delighted in the absurdity of the Tooth Fairy created by his oldest brother.

Unfortunately, the work of creating magic -- an effort muddled by miscommunicated intentions, the accidental theft of another brother's penny, some intense shoving, and slammed doors -- so overwhelmed my oldest son that he loudly declared the Tooth Fairy would never return for another tooth in our house ever. Sometimes, I see myself in my children.

How I wish I could save him from these small reckonings with our angry, reasonable, magic-less adult world.

Still, I'm proud of him for seeing a situation that made him uncomfortable despite being the norm, recognizing in himself the power to help, and desiring for others what wasn't done for him.

It's the classic story arc of the best older siblings. And a reminder to the rest of us that a mission of mercy is always at hand.

The next morning, I tried to set things right by encouraging my oldest son to write a conciliatory note from the Tooth Fairy to his younger brother. I'd woken up early to set up his art supplies after stirring all night with my own extravagant guilt. If only I'd done it all and a little more when they were younger, my children would be perfect and perfectly happy today.

As it turns out, my fail-proof plan to fix everything only proved irrelevant and perplexing to everyone. Why start an art project when there were pillow forts to build and blanket rivers to forge? Dissipated by the matchless magic of sibling friendship, their rivalry from the day before had long since been forgiven and forgotten. Even the Tooth Fairy was dismissed as an old and uninteresting game.

"The Tooth Fairy is a game that other families play, but not ours."

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Life Lessons With Josh Harris

About 20 years ago, I attempted -- with about a million other single teens and young adults, through many documented failures -- to find a Christian soulmate by following the strict formula outlined in Joshua Harris' 1997 bestseller I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

Like the author of this ill-fated book, I also held strong ideas about God, religion, and relationships when I was 20. Unlike Josh, I didn't write a cult classic that influenced two generations of young Christians. Thank God.

Maybe I didn't officially publish my stupid, untried opinions on life at age 20, but I sure did run my mouth about them.

And for that, mea maxima culpa in excelsis. (That's, like, all the Catholic street Latin that I know -- sacred liturgy with a side of Christmas carol -- crammed together into an apology. I hope it is a salve both to those who want to know that I'm sorry for speaking out of ignorance and also to those who would feel validated by a grating public example of my self-realized ignorance.)

While Joshua Harris' marriage method worked for some, many others experienced disappointment, marginalization, and even abuse as unintended side effects of the purity culture movementThe National Review describes his approach as a prosperity gospel for sex. Josh himself has apologized extensively for years, founded a support group for survivors on his website, and is currently going through a divorce and questioning his faith.

Given all of that, it seems that Josh and I have at least one more thing in common than just unfortunate relationship experiences sourced from the advice of his book: the Lord teaches us both through immersive experiential lessons in empathy.

(I'll pause here to clarify: no, I'm not going through a divorce or leaving the Church.)

But many of the hardline beliefs I held at age 20 -- poverty is the result of laziness, NFP is a super-effective form of birth control, the public behavior of young children is a direct reflection of the effort put forth by their parents -- have only softened through personal experiences of poverty, unplanned pregnancy, and public humiliation by my children.

And it's not like the untried stupid opinions stopped when I was 21. Even recently, I've deleted past blog posts that I once preached strongly and now renounce: victim-blaming those affected by domestic abuse, undermining President Obama's healthcare initiatives, sharing exaggerated statements against President Trump, presuming women who choose abortion don't seriously and conscientiously consider their available options, insisting that the best way to pursue a Catholic marriage vocation is to just marry someone who presents themselves as a good Catholic... I have said and shared some stupid stuff, and I am sorry.

In a 2017 TED talk, Josh talks about the difficulty of owning up to dumb things we've said or done in the past: "A lot of times I just want to run away from the whole process. And the reason I don't is because I believe that this is a pathway of growth for me, that I'm going to learn things in facing up to what I got wrong that I won't be able to learn any other way."

Unfortunately, apologies don't clear Internet archives or heal all of those affected or turn back time for a do-over. If only I could have learned my truisms through listening better to the true experiences of others. If only I had been slower to speak. 

Just as an aside, Ben Shapiro -- with whom I disagree more often than I agree -- has earned my respect through his willingness to publicly acknowledge past stupidity.

Alas. As it stands, me and Josh Harris -- and anyone else who sometimes runs their mouth ahead of their soul and wants to jump on this bandwagon -- are committed to change.

What does that look like?

It means choosing not to just "find someone on the Internet that agrees with you," an attractive option that Josh described while discerning the negative effects of I Kissed Dating Goodbye: "It would have been so easy to just write the critics off as haters… and then find people who liked my book and hide behind them… No matter who you are or what you think, you can find someone on the Internet that agrees with you." 

["No matter who you are or what you think, you can find someone on the Internet that agrees with you." - Josh Harris]

It means honest, respectful, vulnerable dialogue with those around us, especially those with whom we disagree. If we're talking with friends, it makes it harder to just write them off as angry trolls behind a computer screen. "I want connection and relationships and dialogue with real people," Josh explains in a recent Instagram post about his plans going forward.

It means quality over quantity. It's tempting to share every coherent thought that crosses my mind. It's tempting to run with what's popular or trending or easily-received by those whose opinions matter most to me. It's challenging to sit still and listen intentionally for a hot minute.

Our news cycle is currently churning up a 44-year-old man whose naive idealism is catching up to him two decades late. Rather than run and hide behind a willing-and-waiting fan club, Josh Harris has chosen to pause, dialogue, reflect, apologize, and dialogue some more.

Would that we could all be a little more like Josh. 

TEDx Harrisburg 2017