Take the Children to Church, No Matter What They’re Flinging

Yesterday, as on every Sunday, Mrs and Mr S took the children to mass. Church attendance is non-negotiable in the S household. Illness and misadventure are the only excuses for missing a week. Anything else can be rescheduled. This is not to say that mass with three children, aged two, four and six, is a deeply spiritual experience. Even when the children are good it’s not by chance, but through the exhausting efforts of their parents. The last time any of Mrs S’s neurons vibrated in prayer during mass was probably the second of August when she was at mass at a conference in Oxfordshire and the children were tormenting the S-in-laws in Buckinghamshire. Be that as it may, the fact remains that children do not learn to behave in church by staying at home. So the S children go to church. 

Not everyone is happy to see young children at church, and to these people Mrs S has vociferously defended parents who bring barely-civilised hoodlums into this sacred space: how else are they to show them the importance of religious practice? Parents are the first teachers of the faith, and they have an obligation to bring their children to mass. Sunday worship is not just about personal contact with God, it is a matter of justice to the Creator. In short, it doesn’t matter if you get nothing out of it (and parents should expect to get nothing out of it for at least ten years and likely longer, because they will be far too busy looking after their children). Sunday obligation is not about having good or powerful feelings: it’s about doing what is right. Of course, within certain tolerances, parents should ensure the good behaviour of their children, and, if possible, remove them if they are uncontrollably disruptive; but some wiggling, baby babble, and quiet conversations between parent and child concerning the mass should be tolerated. There should be no loud toys, no buffet of crunchy food in crinkly packets, no running naked & screaming (or even clothed & screaming) down the aisle without swift and draconian repercussions. Cuddly toys and simple books for the tiny ones are fine. Bribes are expedient. (After-mass donuts are the accepted currency in the US; in the UK biscuits/cookie seem to be the norm.) When there is a lone parent grappling with a pack of children who, having separated the doe from the herd, are circling her like irreverent, screeching and dancing wolves going for the kill — death by social humiliation — allowances have to be made, even if the wolves start howling naked in the aisle. If they’re still doing it as teenagers, then you may judge. In the meantime, if the children of others offend you during mass, offer it up. Pray for the grace of imperviousness to distraction. Stay after mass to pray in silence. Find a different mass to attend. Befriend a struggling parent and offer to help, since you are clearly an expert in such matters. Jesus knows you’re there. Be at peace.

So, to the dismay of some members of the congregation, the S children go to church. This week Mrs S was feeling smug, because none of them were howling naked in the aisles and R, now six and a half, was even following along with the readings in the mass book. 

“Cleary,” Mrs S thought, as she knelt for the consecration, “the children are so good because I am a good and worthy parent, unlike those other parents with little monsters…” 

This made the Lord chuckle, and He guided two-year-old N’s hands to a fascinating little pouch in her mother’s handbag. N took out said pouch and, tugging at the zipper, exerted rather more force than was required. The pouch flew out of her hands, and the venerable ninety-three-year-old woman kneeling one row back was pelted with a large number of brightly-wrapped tampons.  This created a dilemma: when an unsuspecting elderly parishioner has just been assaulted with feminine hygiene products, does one pretend to be deep in prayer and remain kneeling; apologise, even during this most sacred part of the liturgy; or scramble around the pew to tidy up? Fortunately, four-year-old C took the initiative and returned the items to Mrs S’s bag. 

N, who it must be said is a child possessed of a quiet dignity but a carrying voice, waited for a pause in the words of institution and then said sombrely to the victim of the flying tampons: “I sorry. Those for Mommy’s bottom.”

Mrs S considered that perhaps she had been hasty in her insistence that parents of young children should not expect to get anything out of the Sunday church. It appears there is always soul-enriching humiliation on offer. Embrace it, parents! For the sake of your children’s souls, embrace it!

The Virtue of Not Yet


The Frozen makeup box Mrs S believed would be less troublesome than the Frozen DVD

 Mrs S bought C a Frozen-themed make-up set. She had thought it would be fun to play with alongside the dress-up clothes. What little girl doesn’t like dabbling? But she had unwittingly created a cosmetic-fiend. The rule is that C may wear a bit of makeup at home on the weekends to play princesses, or mums and dads, or ballerinas, or whatever, but she may not wear makeup when the family goes out. Four year olds are too young to wear makeup in public. But now C wanted to wear makeup to church. Of course, being a born negotiator, C did not ask. She informed her mother she was just going to put on a bit of eyeshadow and some lipstick.”No,” said Mrs S. “You know the rules. You can put some on to play dress up when we get home.”

“But I want to be beautiful!” C exclaimed.

“You’re beautiful already!” Mrs S told her truthfully. There are days when she worries she will give C a conceited streak, or teach her that looks maketh the girl, for it is nearly impossible not to constantly heap praise her auburn ringlets, cornflower blue eyes, peaches-and-cream complexion, and searingly radiant smile. C is a beautiful child.

“But I want to be more beautiful!” C shot back, before stomping her foot and leaving the room in a huff.

Mrs S followed her to retrieve the makeup case. She knows her daughter too well to believe she had won the argument. But more to the point, she remembers that feeling: thinking that beautiful meant looking older. It’s a hard lesson to teach: the ‘you are too young for that’ lesson, the virtue of Not Yet.

Mrs S wears makeup everyday; partly from vanity, or course, and to stop the angry villagers from burning her as a witch, but mostly because it is one of the only things that makes her feel like a genuine, functional adult, capable of managing the whirlwind of motherhood. It’s warpaint, really. It gives her courage. But, unaware of this, and too young to understand, nearly every morning C stands in the bathroom watching Mrs S doing her face and sighs at each stage: “You look so pretty, Mommy. I like your eyeshadow. Why don’t you wear some really pink lipstick today?”

Mrs S traded C the makeup kit for a tropical fruit-flavoured chapstick, which somewhat mollified the child, who tucked this new “lipstick” in her handbag next to her change purse, sunglasses, notebook and pencils, hairbrush, and tissue pack. Mrs S shook her head and smiled. The problem with C, or rather, the problem Mrs S runs up against while trying to kindly, effectively and properly parent her, is that C is tremendously precocious. She is remarkably self-possessed, socially-aware, clever, articulate, nurturing towards her little sister, independent, and sophisticated in her tastes. A decaf cappuccino at the local Italian café is her favourite after-school treat. She has been known to ask Mrs S to read her sonnets for her bedtime story. At four she can read simple stories aloud, write legibly and with plausible spelling, and follow complex, muti-step instructions to the letter. She has lovely manners with adults, and bursts of confidence that allow her to chat with most people, should the whim take her. Of course she is not perfect. The tantrums when she is tired, or thwarted, can be amazing and terrible all at once, and the teenage-level back-chat is a habit Mr and Mrs S are keen to nip in the bud. And she never — truly never — stops chattering: if she runs out of things to say, she’ll just start over from the beginning. But all in all, Mrs S has always thought she had one key advantage over C: the child is a carbon-copy of the mother. In nearly every situation Mrs S knows what C will think before she thinks it. She knows what C will do before she does it. And she can usually spot the tantrums coming a mile off, even if she is powerless to actually stop them. And it is this fearsome knowledge that makes Mrs S nervous, because her mind races ahead just as C’s does: four is nearly five, which is nearly ten, which is nearly twelve, which is nearly eighteen, which is nearly twenty-two. So you see, despite her vestigial toddler traits, C is already all grown up. Mrs S too has spent the whole of her life being, by her reckoning, already all grown up.

Thinking back to her own childhood and adolescence makes Mrs S blush. From the age of nine she was convinced she was not really a child, and began to think of boys in ‘that way’. She recalls a journal entry in which she wrote about how she thought one of the neighborhood boys should take her on a date. He was sixteen or seventeen and she had it all planned out: outifit (ruffley neon skirt and pink top with denim jacket), destination (McDonalds), menu (big mac for him, happy meal for her), and outcome (a kiss). It took a few years before she was embarrassed by this fantasy, before she dismissed it as silly and childish, before she was really all grown up, before she turned eleven. From the age of twelve she was completely preoccupied with romantic fantasies. It is the preserve of teenagers, particularly teenage girls, to feel misunderstood, and to long for someone special who appreciates them as the adults they believe that they are. And it is perfectly natural that this desire would take shape as a romantic yearning. Romantic relationships are ideally equal, exclusive, and necessarily exclude one’s parents and other authority figures. And Mrs S has never been as unique as she would like to think she is, so she can well-imagine that many many teenage girls were led down the same path. From early on she had a decided disdain for boys her own age.  

 At twelve she may have had eyes for a sixteen or eighteen-year-old, but by fourteen her romantic longings, shaped partly by Jane Austen and partly by trashy, historical-themed romance novels, was focused on grown men.  

 She was probably only saved from serious romantic or sexual disaster in her teenage years due to the fact that these love interestes fell into three categories: (1) Imaginary; (2) Inaccessible; (3) Morally-Decent Human Beings.

Mrs S recently read an article by Simcha Fisher that brought back this teenage period in vivid toe-curling detail. Following the lenient sentencing (30 days) of a fifty year old man who repeatedly raped a fourteen year old girl (who subsequently committed suicide), Mrs Fischer looks at the tragedy of a society that thinks young girls, outwardly mature, are to blame, or at least complicit, when they are used and abused by older men. Because they appear “older than their chronological age,” we miss how vulnerable they truly are. Mrs S was never vulnerable in the sense of being unprotected or from a chaotic home. She had a good family that told her she was beautiful, valuable and clever. She had a mother who would not allow her to dress provocatively, or paint her face like a porn star, and who always knew where she was and who she was with. Then as now, she was deeply rooted int he Catholic faith. And still, she was vulnerable, because no one could have persuaded Mrs S that she was too young to have the kind of relationship she thought about day and night, wrote about in her school notebooks (preferring as she did to scribble stories rather than take notes), and read about in dozens, even hundreds, of poorly-written, ridiculously-plotted, stupidly-imagined romance novels. There was nothing you could have said to Mrs S to change her mind because she found childhood to be agony. She was drowning in an ocean of not-yets. She was sophisticated enough to find Romeo and Juliet a repellant tale due to Juliet’s youth (twelve or thirteen! read the text!) and the dumb irony of committing suicide out of love, but not precient enough to apply this moral rubric to her own life and desires.

This is why Mrs S quails when C wants to wear makeup. She is not worried about her becoming Lolita, and she doesn’t want to keep her a child forever, but she knows if she lets her “grow up” to the makeup wearing stage at four, she can’t wrestle her back into the realm of childhood at twelve, when C will be more independant and less obviously a child in other ways. Mrs S knows that both her daughters will spend years feeling like butterflies forced to dress in the garb of homely caterpillars. When all of childhood is — rightly — ordered towards growing up, it is hard to teach the virtue of Not Yet. It is hard to keep young girls from taking on the trappings of adulthood before they are actually full grown women, or at least nearly so. It’s had to resign oneself to allowing them heartache, with the lessons it brings, but still be vigilant enough to keep them from real harm and from making mistakes they cannot recover from.

This all seems to require depths of wisdom that Mrs S is no longer confident she possesses. Rather than straining ahead to the next big grown-up thing, Mrs S now spends most of her days wondering how it is that she is allowed to operate without adult supervision. Madness. But having spent substantial time meditating on the futility of closing barn doors after the horses have bolted, slippery slopes, the impossibility of unringing a bell, and all manner of other folksy bons môts, she is convinced that someday, with the benefit of hindsight, C will be glad that her mother didn’t let her charge headlong into the world of make-up, sexy clothes and adult relationships. What grown woman says ‘I wish my mother had just let me do as I please at twelve!”? And the virtue of Not Yet is harder at twelve than it is at four, so C will need some practice. And that is why Mrs S, the meanest mother in the world, has put the Frozen-themed makeup box on a high shelf, to be brought out only when it is time to play dress up.