Before I had kids, I imagined that Catholic motherhood would be some kind of Fatima tableau come to life. My favorite thing to do in those halcyon days of newlywed childlessness was to daydream about the fun I would have “training a child up in the way he should go.” (Proverbs 22:6)
I had visions of prayerful, wide-eyed, obedient children clustering around me as we all recited the rosary. I created Pinterest boards of craft ideas for “living liturgically” and Amazon lists of children’s religious books. I wondered secretly why the parents at my early morning Mass struggled to make their kids behave, believing that it couldn’t really be that hard, if you put a little effort into it — if you just tried to explain what was going on.
I had a lot of ridiculous expectations about parenting in general before I actually had children, but the most unrealistic definitely had to do with how I would transmit the faith.
Here is a much-abbreviated list of just a few of the dumb ideas I had about Catholic parenting:
Expectation: “The birth is going to be a really peaceful, spiritual environment. My husband will read Scripture passages I’ve carefully pre-selected while I labor. I just want the baby to enter the world really enveloped in God’s word, you know?”
Reality: Jesus himself could come down from Heaven and deliver the Sermon on the Mount entirely in Klingon, and no one in the labor room would even notice because I am screaming “Just give me a C-section” too loudly.
Expectation: “My kids aren’t going to have one of those stuffed Jesus dolls. It’s just really important to me that they understand the image of Our Lord is to be venerated, not snuggled.”
Reality: The kids each have a stuffed Sacred Heart of Jesus doll, and what’s worse, they have nicknamed him “Cheese-Cheese,” I think because it sounds vaguely like Jesus? I’m not sure. They like him an awful lot, though. Listen, I’m taking this as a win. Cheese-Cheese is a much less annoying toy than yet another dollar-store pony whose hair falls out everywhere. Maybe snuggling is their version of veneration?
Expectation: “We’re going to celebrate their baptism anniversary every year with a Holy Spirit-themed craft.”
Reality: I forget their baptism day each and every year until Facebook Memories reminds me, usually quite late in the day. I panic-order a cake from Instacart and pretend it was meant to be a surprise. We pull out their baptism photos, and I launch into a lengthy and overly complicated explanation of original sin that makes their eyes glaze over.
Expectation: “My children will enter fully into the beauty and mystery of the Triduum from a young age. I always want it to be a beautiful family memory for them.”
Reality: The kids don’t understand that Good Friday’s veneration of the cross is meant to be a reflective moment and not a call-and-response exercise. One year, things deteriorate so quickly that we hastily abandon our pew in the middle of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper because we realize we’ve grossly overestimated the kids’ ability to cope with a late bedtime. We run out of church like we’re on fire and peel out of the parking lot like bank robbers, leaving a sad little wake of discarded coloring pages and Cheerios.
Seven years into motherhood, I’m still processing the clash of expectations and reality, but in a different way. These days, life has a way of making my expectations so much less optimistic — dominated by doubt instead of by naiveté. After a long day, when I feel hamstrung by my own faults and weighed down by too many burdens, the expectation I have now sounds like this: “I’m not strong enough. I’m not holy enough. I’m not good enough. I can’t do this.”
And here’s the reality: I’m not. I can’t.
But Christ dragged a cross to Calvary. And Catholic parenting is getting used to the view from the back of church. It’s falling asleep praying the rosary more times than you actually finish it. It’s a big pile of unread spiritual books amassing on your bedside table. It’s a squirming baby in the confessional.
It’s recognizing that I will never be strong enough, holy enough, good enough — but that these shortcomings, these spaces between what I am and what my children need, are where God comes in. They are where grace comes in. They are where the miracles happen.
My 4-year-old recently drew a rudimentary picture of a cross with a corpus on it, during a family rosary that he resisted loudly (“I DON’T WANT TO PRAY”). He pointed to the corpus and said, “It’s God.” It was beautiful to hear him verbalize an understanding of Christ’s divinity, but it was even more beautiful to acknowledge that I did not make that understanding happen. I had nothing to do with it. That was the work of God.
In my pre-parenthood fantasies, I was such a perfect mother that I hardly needed God. In reality, I am such a mess that I don’t have a chance without him. And isn’t that true of us all?