Wednesday, December 5, 2007

On the Public Nature of Parenting

Preface: In its heyday this blog had only two or three readers, which is one of the reasons I haven’t gotten around to writing for the last three months. Another reason is there’s been a lot of stress in my life: a job search, a personally difficult part-time job, preparing to teach my second college course, and of course that danged dissertation. But maybe it will do me well to let out a little of that stress through writing. So instead of just sending this to my two or three readers, I’ll make it a little more formal and put it up on the web. Here’s a reflection on another, more personal pain I’ve been dealing with. Maybe the blog will help me complain less and reflect more.

One of the first things that drew me to Catholicism was the anonymity of the Mass. I first started attending Mass regularly at a small-town parish in southern Minnesota, a long-ish walk from Carleton College, when I was a freshman there. I remember being so enchanted by the fact that many of the small town folks never took off their winter coats. It’s still a very romantic image for me. I was also attracted by the liturgy itself. I was a very arrogant young religion major, totally relativistic, and what really attracted me about the liturgy was that I thought there were things going on that I understood and the priest didn’t—or really, it didn’t matter whether I understood. I was just glad to know that the priest didn’t. The liturgy is just so much bigger than us.

St. Dominic’s was a relatively nice example of that fashion in mid-twentieth century church architecture that sort of imitates a gymnasium: huge concrete and wood walls, simple vaulted ceilings, not many images, and big flowing wall drapings. Somehow in that big empty space, the priest seemed so insignificant. I really sensed, even with my screwed up mentality and that ugly architecture, that the liturgy is much bigger than any of us. The priest is participating in something he did not make.

I think that’s what made the winter coats so important to me, too. The people looked like “huddled masses,” like strangers and sojourners—so different from the Evangelical and Quaker services I had known, where everyone makes themselves comfortable, and shakes hands and smiles at their neighbors. None of those are bad things, I guess, but what those winter coats communicated to me is that the Mass isn’t about us. We are entering into something we did not make, like immigrants in New York harbor.

This idea is still central to my spirituality. I feel that the Mass, and liturgy in general, is more intensely personal the less personal it is externally. The person beside me is kneeling, with head down: is she praying? Composing an email? Planning a party? Just daydreaming? I have no idea – and it doesn’t effect me. Nor does anyone else know what’s going on in me. The depersonalized nature of the liturgy leaves me totally alone with the Lord, face to face, head to head. Somehow, I feel more alone, more intensely one-on-one, in this public, liturgical context than when I am physically alone. Part of that is the sacramental order: Jesus comes to me, flesh and blood, in the Eucharist, so he is really present in a way he otherwise is not. But part of it is liturgical: the fact that other people are in the silence, in the alone-ness, intensifies my own solitude. Sometimes I like to take off my glasses during Mass and keep my eyes down the entire time (except the peace), just to intensify this sense of being perfectly, totally alone with Jesus.

But now I am a father. Parenthood means never being alone, always caring for another person. And yet that person is part of me. This is a very important doctrine in Aristotle and Thomas: the child is part of the parent, so that what touches the child touches the parent—even more intensely. Indeed, this is why parenthood is so emotional: when I am attacked, I can deal with it, but if someone touches my child . . . it is not just a matter of coming to the help of the defenseless. When someone threatens my child, he threatens me in a way infinitely more personal, more emotional than even a direct insult to myself.

And so I love to bring my children to Mass. Just as the public nature of the liturgy enhances my solitude, so, in a way, do my children. Nowadays I spend almost every minute at Mass caring for my three year old, usually in pretty mundane ways. This Sunday he was telling me about the nails in Jesus’s hands and the bodily presence of Jesus on the altar. That was a truly transcendent kind of meditation: seeing more deeply because I saw through my little boys eyes. But mostly, I draw kitty cats or race car, point out a bird in the stained glass window, listen to him tell me about his favorite book, just trying to keep him still.

But again, even this non-liturgical, other-focused activity is intensely personal, a deeper experience of the solitude of Mass, because the other is my child, my very self. Everything I do to help him preserve the silence draws me deeper into it—deeper, in some senses, than I could ever go on my own. Bringing my little boy to daily Mass is a whole new level of Eucharistic adoration, a devotion deeper than I have ever known before.

The great pain in my life lately has been a perceived assault on this solitude. About a month ago, a priest pulled me aside after Mass to say my child was disruptive. After a little cool-down, we talked for a long time and mostly smoothed things out, but he said things like “why do you bother?” His comments pierced through my solitude. A professor I do not know personally but respect from a distance, an old, apparently single woman, has taken to turning all the way around in her pew and glaring at us when we come to Mass at my university. Another old lady has done the same to my wife at Sunday Mass. This last week my pastor published an item in the bulletin that seemed to me—everyone now agrees that I overreacted—to suggest a minimal tolerance for the inevitable noise my children make. I expressed concern in a voice mail, and asked to talk to him; my tone was inappropriately harsh, as if someone had attacked my child. That Sunday he approached me after communion (he was not saying Mass), with my infant daughter in my arms, to tell me my concerns were “unreasonable,” that I was “just a complainer,” and that “there is nothing to talk about.” Piercing the solitude.

Perhaps even more hurtful, though, I feel intensely the suffering of my wife. She has received the same judging glares, heard about what the priests have said to me. She was even asked recently to leave the foyer of our university church because someone thought my daughter’s happy squeals were inappropriate.

Maybe they were.

Why is this so painful for me? Why do I react so strongly—overreact? Because the silence is broken. The solitude is broken. I loved being alone at Mass. I loved even more being alone with my child at Mass. But suddenly there is a spotlight shining on us. We are surrounded by judgment. Even our friends agree that we should be under judgment, that we need to “be mindful of others’ concerns.” That is a reasonable request, of course. What hurts is the fact of being always under judgment, every time I try to enter into the solitude of Mass. Everyone watching, listening, wondering whether I—nay, my child, who is more me than myself and yet utterly beyond the reach of my own will—whether I will transgress, whether I should be cast out, whether I am being “inconsiderate.” Normally, you can’t be inconsiderate without doing something. But with my children at Mass, my very being is under constant judgment. The solitude has been replaced with a spotlight.

I could leave the children at home. That’s the “practical” answer. But to go to Mass without my children is not only impractical (because someone has to babysit the children, so that my wife and I have to go to two Masses), but is to be less than fully present. I can escape the spotlight only by forsaking part of my self.

Of course, this is universally the case with parenthood. I was on a plane recently with a shrieking child. The whole plane was talking about him. The woman next to me pronounced that the child should be medicated, and the people across the aisle – parents of an older child themselves – announced that the child was spoiled. My heart withered.

Last night I took my children, three and one, to a bluegrass concert. Shifting my seat to the side so that my son could see past the people in front of us, I laid the chair down on my daughter’s foot. The music was loud enough that I didn’t hear her cry. The usher pointed it out. Then he—a crusty, middle-aged man, who sure didn’t look to me like a daddy—picked up my daughter and tried to comfort her. (That sure kept her screaming!) It took several moments to convince him that he should let me hold her. I am no longer clumsy—I am a bad parent, under judgment.

(Margaret was fine. She was wearing a heavy boot, and she stopped crying as soon as she came to Daddy.)

This is what it is to be a parent: to have your deepest self on constant display, under constant judgment, every time a little yelp escapes from your innocent child. Does my little boy talk because he is spoiled? Does my daughter squeal with glee, or cry, because I am a bad parent? These are hard enough questions around the family hearth. But the publicity of parenthood is almost too much to bear. To hold your dearest self in your arms is perfect joy. To have your dearest self under judgment is a terror like I’ve never known.

But all the worse at Mass, at that point of perfect solitude, and that perfect opportunity to share the solitude with my little boy. I have been told, from a thousand sides, that I cannot expect priests to preserve me from this judgment. I suppose it’s true. So I write not to ask for anything, but only to express my pain.