Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Plugging-in Our Children

For the past couple of years, while my husband was battling cancer, and the past 5 months as I have been learning how to be a single mom, my kids have used electronic gadgets.  They have used them a LOT.  I have agonized over it endlessly, but feel powerless to change the particular state that we are in.  While spending countless hours trying to manage my husband’s care, my three boys were plugged into their devices.  Last school year, as my husband changed protocols and gradually deteriorated, my children played Wii, iPod, iPhone and computer games all day long.  We didn’t even homeschool.  At all.  After my husband passed away I assumed that I would be able to reel in a bit of this gratuitous electronic media usage and try to help my kids reclaim their childhoods.  But, alas, it just hasn’t happened that way.  We began homeschooling with a vengeance in August, and cranked out an entire year of curriculum in 16 calendar weeks.  My boys punished 1st and 3rd grades.  We settled into a routine where my youngest would go to preschool for half a day and my older two would pound the books every morning.  Then when they were done, they could do whatever they wanted.  And their choice was always something electrical.   One would load up the Wii, another would fire up the laptop for Minecraft, and the third would go find the iPhone or iPad to play games.  They often play separately on different devices, and I’m telling you, that’s not a bad thing.  When they try to play a Wii game together, it always ends in screaming, hitting, kicking and sometimes biting.  I felt so guilty and WRONG for letting them have so many hours of electronic gaming everyday, but to be brutally honest, it worked so well for us.  They still went to their art classes, playgroups, music lessons and sports practices.  But, when we were home, they were staring at screens.  And I was off the hook.  No pretending to be happy or excited about life.  Because I wasn’t.  No having to come up with activities, forcing “family game nights” that my kids would hate or other excuses for quality time that I really didn’t have the energy or inclination for.  No trying to keep my boys from killing each other because they were “playing” and hence arguing about absolutely everything.

Now that we are coming to the end of the calendar year, I’m starting to wonder if we really need to change anything.  We are going to continue our break-neck speed of homeschooling and attempt to complete 2nd and 4th grades by the summer.  I need to go back to work, and I’m actively looking for a telecommuting job that I could do from home and continue to be here for my children.  Since I very may well be stretching myself to the absolute limit trying to juggle homeschooling with work, I don’t anticipate me suddenly having the spare time and focus to engage with my kids any more than I am able to do now.  It’s just my reality.  Still, I wanted to explore what the experts say about children and electronic gadgets, to get a clearer picture of just how much I’m screwing my children up.  According to a well-known Kaiser Foundation Family study, children are now averaging 7 ½ hours every day on electronic devices.  This is up slightly from 5 years ago, when the average was determined to be 6 hours per day.  Four hours of that 7 ½ hours tends to be spent in front of the television.  Basically, electronic exposure is a full-time job for our children.  Astonishingly enough, however, 88% of parents claim to set boundaries on their childrens’ access to electronic gadgets.  I don’t even try to pretend that I place any limits for my kids.  The concerns that have been listed time and time again regarding overuse of electronics are trouble sleeping, tendency towards obesity, less time spent on homework and reading, less social interaction with family and difficulty with decision-making due to information overload.  An article on the Mayo Clinic website cautions against children having more than 2 hours of electronic media exposure per day as it can contribute to emotional, social and attention problems.  And the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that exposure to violence on television, movies and games may lead to imitation of violence.  There haven’t been enough definitive studies that prove excessive electronic exposure actually does cause violent activity in children, but suggests that there may be a connection.

One problem that really caught my eye, is a condition coined “Gameboy Back” by two surgeons in The Netherlands.  Orthopedists are seeing more and more children with abnormal curvature in their back, and the corresponding problems that result, due to them hunching over their electronic devices.  It used to be that children would develop similar problems as a result of working in factories for so many hours per day.  There isn’t much difference in posture whether you are hunching over an assembly line or an iPad.  At least in the olden days, kids helped their parents put food on the table, and I’ll admit when my oldest’s entitlement issues surface I want nothing more than to sling him in a cotton factory for a 12-hour shift.  But, in all seriousness, this is one thing I do want to keep an eye on, because I don’t want my kids developing serious spinal issues as a result of our lifestyle choice.

I understand some of the concerns out there regarding children and limitless electronic usage, but none of my children actually seem to be waving any of those red flags.  They don’t get outside as much as I did as a child, when my Mom would drop-kick us out the door after breakfast and didn’t want to see us until dinner, but they do play sports.  It may only be a few hours a week that they are actively exercising, but all my boys are really wiry.  They also do very well with their schoolwork, and interact with people during playgroup, music lessons, and at the art school they attend weekly.  My oldest son reads for at least 2 hours every single night before bed.  He cranks through so many books, I can’t keep up with him.  And my middle son, who is not a reader, draws incessantly.  He will make several drawings every day.  I do agree completely with the concern that their gaming is interfering with quality time with family, but we don’t have much of a family these days to speak of.  I am trying to just hold it all together, and the three boys just do not enjoy being together.  It always turns into an Ultimate Fighting championship within minutes.  They’ve just always been that way.  I am hopeful that someday our family will be different, and I’ll be better able to focus on making memories, creating traditions and knitting a strong family identity in my children.  But, frankly, this coming year ain’t gonna be it.  And after taking a long hard look at my kids, their gaming habits, and each boys’ emotional and social health, I gotta tell you… they seem to be doing just fine.  So I’ve decided I’m not going to worry about it anymore, and I’m not going to try to fix something that isn’t broken.  For right now, in this family, free access to electronic media is working, so I’m just going to go with it. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Mass Stories

A friend of mine recently pointed out to me that we have the best Mass stories. I'm glad they bring joy and entertainment value to others, because every one of them was, for me, absolutely mortifying. I am a good Catholic. Really I try. I really really try. But, for some reason my children because possessed by demons the moment we enter a church. I don't understand why others don't have the pleasure of experiencing this level of embarrassment whenever they attempt to worship Our Lord in His house. But, here is but a sampling of my worst ever moments in church.

I am a convert, so my Confirmation was as an adult. Because my formation had been outside of the church's CCD program, I knew nobody else that was being confirmed. I was not included in the rehearsal or any other preparation for the actual day. The morning I arrived I discovered perhaps two dozen other candidates were teenagers, but there was one other adult. I found comfort in that for some reason. As usual, I was the tallest, so it was decided that I would enter at the end of the line. After we proceeded in, I found myself at the end of a wide semi-circle in front of the Bishop. I didn't realize that I was supposed to go first, and the girl next to me sprang ahead to approach the Bishop and be confirmed. In retrospect, perhaps she could have tapped me on the shoulder and given me some signal to go, but in rehearsal I suppose she was first. Anyway, they continued down the line of faithful teenagers, eager and hopeful to become Soldiers of Christ. I began to panic as they reached the end of the line. What if they forgot me? What if I don't get confirmed today?? I decided I simply could not let that happen. So as the last candidate left the presence of the Bishop, I took off at a sprint, which was not easy to do considering the height of my heels. I also did not realize just how slippery the slate tiles could be on a cool day in the Helsinki spring. Nor did I fully appreciate the smoothness of the soles of my new sandals. As I attempted to stop in front of the Bishop, I slipped. I did not go down completely, it was merely a stumble. However, the words my body decided to expell from my mouth were inappropriate in ANY setting, let alone in front of the BISHOP OF FINLAND. That's right. I said, “Oh shit!” In front of the row of candidates. In front of all the priests. In front of the entire Catholic congregation of Helsinki. And did I mention the Bishop was there?

After that humiliating episode, I managed to find a husband and start a family. For a few years, Calum decided to provide me with some more opportunities to humble myself, and I must say he did a bang-up job. When he was still only crawling and pulling himself up, he managed to get away from Adam and I in the front row on the north side of the church. He tried to pull himself up by grabbing hold of the massive iron votive candle display to the left of the altar. The priest was right in the middle of his homily when there was a deafening almighty crash only 10 feet to his right. I can't remember what he said, but it was what you would expect from someone who just had the life frightened out of them.

A couple of years later, we were living in the U.S. and I was attempting to attend regular daily Mass with a 3 year old and a toddler. Once again, Calum made history, this time at the teeny tiny St. John's Church in Leesburg. When I say tiny, I mean tiny. You can stand at the back and practically reach out and touch the priest. I don't recommend that by the way. Calum was losing his patience as 3 year olds tend to do. As the priest was getting closer to the moment of Transubstantiation, I decided that it was probably time for me to get him and us out of there. I stood at the back, with my back against the door as Calum repeated, “Mummy... Mummy... Mummy... Mummy...” I just wanted to wait until the priest was finished. I thought to myself, “Just hang on kid, just one more minute...” And just as the priest lifted the Host up to Heaven, Calum shouted out, “F*cking Hell, Mummy!” I calmly grabbed the doorknob with my hand, pushed the door open behind me, and shuffled my Spawn of Satan out there as quickly as I could.

I have only one episode concerning Ali that comes to mind. I used to lector at a nearby parish on Saturday mornings. Again, this is during the daily Mass phase, so Ali was probably not yet two. My husband decided that he would like to start attending Mass on Saturdays as well, so why didn't we all go! It seemed like a good idea at the time. Well, when it was time for me to approach the lectern and deliver the readings, Ali decided he was having none of it. I tried to ignore him, but as I was reading his screams got louder and louder and louder. He was still non-verbal, so his primary mode of communication was an ear-piercing shriek that could crack stained glass windows. Adam was suffering with some sort of injury to his arm, so he had his arm in a sling and was struggling to figure out how to handle the situation. It took him several minutes to drag Ali out of the church with his one good arm. I received a call a couple of days later that the church had received so many complaints after that Mass that I was asked to no longer bring my children with me when I lectored.

Once Finlay was born and we were juggling three young boys at Sunday Mass, every week was a challenge. We would tag team, taking turns pulling this or that boy outside for a break. Or once I even dragged Finlay out, threw him into the car (quite literally... threw), locked the door, found a bench and cried. One Christmas Eve Mass, I was outside trying to calm down a shrieking Ali, while Adam had a squirming unhappy Finlay in his arms. He went to sit down on the seat that he SWORE was RIGHT THERE, and misjudged. He ended up sprawled on the floor with a screaming baby. But, one of the best Christmas Eve Mass experiences was last year. We had decided to attend Mass at the new humungous St. John's in Leesburg. I know. I should have known better. Me and St. John don't get along apparently. I had torn a tendon in my left big toe and was confined to a horribly massive clunky black orthopedic boot for three weeks. My toe was extremely sensitive, but thanks to the boot I was able to get around and do things. So we found ourselves at the back of the church, as always. The kids were miserable and complaining and Calum was being especially sassy. Tension was building and Adam and I were both growing more and more frustrated. I was sitting in a chair when Finlay decided to take a flying leap and land on my toe. The injured one. The one that hurt just by looking at it. I screamed, and for reasons I can't explain, the phrase “Oh my f*cking God!” escaped my lips.  Much too loudly.  Adam looked at me somberly, picked up the coats, grabbed Calum's and Ali's hands and quietly walked out of the church. I followed, my head hanging in shame.

We have reached a new place now. Finlay goes to my mom's on a Sunday morning, so I can go to church with only Calum and Ali. They are 9 and 7 now, so Mass is actually quite enjoyable. We sit INSIDE, which is a luxury, I tell you. I am able to listen to the readings, sing along to the hymns, and actually hear the Homily. It's wonderful. Last week, however, Calum decided to spice things up a bit. The choir at our Church likes to sing an extra song after Communion. They seem to really get excited about it, and it's usually very enjoyable to listen to. Well, to us adults. My boys are counting the minutes at this point, and have usually lost their composure. Calum might decide to start poking Ali or Ali might decide to lay down on the floor and stretch out in exhaustion. Last week Calum and Ali were just about managing to control themselves when the two women who were sharing a duet hit an impressively high note. They really nailed it. I was impressed, anyway.  Calum, on the other hand, decided to shout out, “What the CRAP was THAT?!”  I gave him a look that assured him of a slow-and-painful-death as soon as we got home. The boy simply does NOT know how to whisper. Or keep his thoughts to himself.

So that just about sums up the highlights of our church-going experiences. I so envy families with well-behaved children who manage to control themselves during the entirety of Mass. Now that we sit inside I get to watch them, and I continue to be amazed. I don't know what they do differently, I honestly don't. I have been asked to leave so many churches. I have been banned from daily Mass. I have been called by a priest to talk about one child's behavior at church. I have had to stop lectoring as a result of another child's behavior. Maybe this does happen to everyone, and I'm just paranoid. Or maybe Satan has a thing for red-heads. Whatever it is, I shall keep on attending Mass and suffering embarassment. They seem to go hand in hand for me, actually. And please accept my sincere apology in advance for our behavior. This is just how we roll.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Best Story Ever

Tonight I decided to take a slightly different approach to our normal storytime routine.  I don't know what came over me.  Call me crazy.  Ali wanted to hear On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier.  I'm not a huge fan of that book for reasons I cannot determine.  I just doesn't "sing" to me.  So, I thought I would take it in a new direction.  One that three young boys would certainly appreciate.  It went a little something like this:

On the day you were born the round planet Earth turned toward your BUTT, whirling past darkness, spinning the night into light.

On the day you were born gravity's strong pull held you to the Earth with a promise that you would never float away... while deep in space the burning Sun sent up towering flames, lighting your BUTT from dawn until dusk.

On the day you were born the quiet Moon glowed and offered to bring a full, bright face, each month, to your BUTT... while high above the North Pole, Polaris, the glittering North Star, stood still, shining silver light into your BUTT.

I'm sure you're getting the idea.  By the time I had done it a few times all the boys were shouting "butt" in chorus at the top of their lungs with every pause in the story.  I haven't had this much fun telling a story in I don't know how long.  And the boys all unanimously declared it the best story ever.

Score one for Mummy.

Saturday, September 21, 2013


I read a story recently that will always stay with me.  It went something like this. A doctor was writing about his mother, a woman he greatly admired. In her youth, she was beautiful, and at the London Conservatory of Art where she studied, the male students vied for the privilege of painting her. She moved to India with her husband to perform missionary work, and after many years of fulfilling service, her husband suddenly died of blackwater fever. When this doctor saw his mother upon her return she was so disfigured from her grief he vowed never to love a woman so much if that is what love does to a person. Against the advice of her family, she returned to India and found herself again through her missionary work. Her life was one that all of us would consider grueling. The conditions in which she lived and the intense daily physical demands of her work took their toll. At the age of seventy-five, she suffered a major hip fracture. Her son begged her to retire, but she still returned to her precious hill village in India. Her response was, “Why preserve this old body if it's not going to be used where God needs me?”

“For Mother, pain was a frequent companion, as was sacrifice. I say it kindly and in love, but in old age Mother had little of physical beauty left in her. The rugged conditions, combined with the crippling falls and her battles with typhoid, dysentery and malaria had made her a thin, hunched-over old woman. Years of exposure to wind and sun had toughened her facial skin into leather and furrowed it with wrinkles as deep and extensive as any I have seen on a human face. Evelyn Harris of the fancy clothes and the classic profile was a dim memory of the past. Mother knew that as well as anyone – for the last twenty years of her life she refused to keep a mirror in her house. And yet with all the objectivity a son can muster, I can truly say that Evelyn Harris Brand was a beautiful woman, to the very end.”

The last time he saw her in her village, he was left with such a strong impression of her mother's impact on the people she loved and the love they had for her in return. The faces of the people she tirelessly served glowed with trust, affection and total devotion.

“To them, and to me, she was beautiful. Granny Brand had no need for a mirror made of glass and polished chromium; she could see her own reflection in the incandescent faces around her.”

The lesson and legacy she left to her son was that by giving away one's life, that is where one finds it. Jesus tells us in Matthew 10:39, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Gandhi's version was, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Both messages are similar and unequivocally true. When one attempts to “find” oneself, they will ultimately fail. I don't believe that we have the capacity to look at ourselves objectively and see what is really there. Granny Brand didn't need mirrors to see herself, because her true value and self-worth were reflected in the faces of those she served and loved. I think that our relationships serve as our mirrors. When we devote ourselves to our spouses and children, our selfless service ignites a small fire within us. The more we serve others, the brighter that light becomes until it fills us completely. And only when we have that sort of backlighting, only then can we start to see who we are. If we don't have family around us to serve and devote our lives to, it is like trying to figure out what we look like without the benefit of a mirror.

I did the soul-searching, trying-to-find-myself thing in my 20s. I lived alone and suffered bouts of depression. It took me awhile, but I did finally figure it out. Finding Christ certainly helped. No, actually it was essential. I was finally happy and whole, but wanting to marry and start a family. I knew that that was the missing part of my life that I needed. And it's no secret to my family and friends that I had the perfect marriage. We served each other tirelessly and selflessly. And by growing our family with three children we were given the opportunity to serve even more. And, oh yes, I have found myself. Even though I am no longer with a spouse, and feel a bit disorientated without having a husband to care for, I am still whole. I continue to serve my children daily, and they continue to ignite my light from within. I remarked often during my husband's cancer journey that, “Thank God my children are small.” Not for their sake, but for mine. The constant demands of caring for three young boys kept me moving. It kept me focused on something outside of my own grief. And I am so very grateful for that. And although I am certainly guilty of looking in the mirror WAY too much to make sure I look okay, I can also see my self-worth in the smiles of my sons. And that is the only reflection that matters.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The First Story

Once upon a time there was a little red-haired girl who didn't go out of her way to find trouble. But, trouble seemed to find her nonetheless. She lived in a lovely neighborhood with lots of friends, a playground, many good climbing trees and plenty of great hiding spots for hide-and-go-seek. A little ways outside of her neighborhood was a creek, and the little red-haired girl loved to go there with her friends. But, once her mother discovered this creek, and learned how far away it actually was, she forbade the little red-haired girl to go there again.

One day the little red-haired girl and her friend decided to take a walk down to the creek. Even though it was forbidden. Well, how was her mother going to find out anyway? The girls swore to keep it a secret, just between them. They made the long walk to the creek, and were surprised to find a large white bucket next to the creek in the grass. In the bucket were dozens of little fish! Where they came from was anybody's guess, and there was no one else around. The girls felt sorry for the little fish, so they decided to set them free and return them to their watery homeland. As they poured the bucket into the creek, the little red-haired girl suddenly had a wonderful idea. What if they brought the fish home to their mothers! Then the mothers would see how good the creek was, and would allow the girls to play at the creek whenever they wanted! The girls agreed that it was a splendid idea, grabbed the bucket and started running alongside the swiftly running creek. The fish were floating down the stream with lighting speed, but the girls were determined to catch as many as they could. The bucket came down into the water again and again as the girls tried to scoop up the fish. One by one, the fish turned the corner and sped away where the girls could not reach them. Still carrying the empty bucket, they saw the very last fish approaching them. The little red-haired girl grabbed the bucket, and crouched onto a rock at the edge of the creek. She stretched as far over as she could to position the bucket right in front of the oncoming fish. She reached and reached when suddenly she lost her footing and SPLASH fell into the creek! She came up gasping for air, as the fish zoomed past and rounded the corner, never to be seen again.

The little red-haired girl pulled herself out of the water, and stood sopping wet while her friend laughed hysterically. The long walk home was even longer as her clothes and hair dripped and her shoes sloshed with every heavy step. But, her heart was even heavier because she new her mother would be furious with the bad choice she had made. With a trembling arm, she knocked on the front door and anxiously waited for her mother to unlock the door. When her mother opened the door, the little red-haired girl looked at her feet, afraid of what was to come. She heard a sound, but it wasn't anger. There was no shouting. Her mother was laughing! This was totally unexpected! The little red-haired girl confessed where she had been, and her mother helped her change into dry clothes. And the little red-haired girl never went to the creek again. Or so her mother thought...

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A New Chapter

These are my boys.  My three beautiful boys.  For some reason, in God's Great Wisdom, they are now growing up without their father.  As far as my younger two are aware, Daddy got a little sick.  He had surgery, then he got better.  Then he went to the hospital a couple of times (and to many doctors LOADS of times) over the next 18 months, while life got really unpredictable and crazy.  And then we went to a really neat place called "Hospice" and never came back home.  And they are okay with it all.  When I tried explaining to them that Daddy has gone to Heaven and it's just going to be Mummy now, they stared blankly at me for half a second before asking (in unison), "Can we play Wii now?"  For my nine year old, it's been a bit tougher.  He has known all along, from the very first ER trip when they found that weird thing called a "tumor" in Daddy's brain, all the way up to the night that Daddy died.  He knew what cancer was, and that cancer in the brain is very bad.  In fact, almost everyone with cancer in their brains ends up in Heaven within a couple of years.  He knew about every disappointing MRI and every change in protocol.  And he knew that Daddy was definitely going to Heaven months before he actually did.  But, this amazing boy wanted to trade places with Daddy.  He wanted the tumor instead, because from what he had heard, Heaven was supposed to be AWESOME and he couldn't wait to go!  I think that made Daddy a little sad, but it also helped him not to be so afraid.  And this incredibly brave nine year old was in the room while his Daddy was breathing slower and slower and slower through the night getting ready to go.  Because he wanted to be there.

So here we are, two months later.  Life goes on.  The younger two have continued on without skipping a beat.  And, to be honest, their big brother has managed quite well.  We are finally homeschooling again and fall activities are starting up.  We hit the ground running every morning, and get through every day.  Most days involve a lot of screaming, as Mummy's patience is virtually non-existent at the moment, but we also have a lot of cuddles and the occasional laugh.  Although, Mummy doesn't exactly appreciate the poop-centered humor of the youngest.  But, we are slowly but surely getting there.  We are getting to the place that God has planned for us.  A place where the house is a little cleaner, the kids are a little more educated, Mummy feels a little more rested and becomes a bit more fun again.  One thing we have regained in this house is storytime.  Books had gone out the window for a long time, but we are dusting them off and pulling them out again.  But, I've also had my hand at oral storytelling as well.  Now, this is something I am absolutely abysmal at.  I can't make up stories worth a darn, BUT I can remember crazy and silly things I got up to in my childhood.  So, I've been telling those.  And after a night of telling a few about me, and the very few stories that I've heard about Daddy when he was a boy, I got an idea.  I want to create a book for the boys.  A Book of Golden Stories.  Filled with short stories starring family members.  Real stories.  It's going to take some work.  It's going to take an awful lot of time.  But, I think I need to do this.  I need to do it for them, and for me.  My memory is awful.  Daddy was the one who always remembered every funny story and had to remind me (and even then, I often had no recollection of what he was talking about).  But, when I find a spare moment (in my copious spare time, you know) I am going to try to remember as many stories as I can.  And write them all down.  I'm also going to enlist the help of my parents, sister, extended family, and my husband's family to tell me stories that I may have forgotten or maybe never even heard.  I will put them in a book, but I will also put them here.  I also need to write.  It is a part of me.  Things build up and the only way I can get it all out is by putting fingers to the keyboard.  So, I hope you don't mind, but I will be pouring out my own frustrations, joys, observations, sufferings and celebrations here.  This may come in fits and starts as I am up to my eyeballs in trying to put this family back together.  But, it will come.  Stay tuned.