As pregnancies go, ‘Lisa’ was born far sooner than expected. At least that’s what I told Miss Leah in my kindergarten Montessori class some 25 years ago. When my dad picked me up from school that day, Miss Leah ducked her head into the car to wish my dad congratulations on the new child – Joey’s new younger sister, Lisa.
“Lisa?” My dad spun his head around to look at me in the backseat. Both he and Miss Leah searched my face for an explanation.
Uh oh, I thought, the jig is up.
I wanted desperately to be a big brother, so much so that I told people that my mother gave birth to a sister, whom I christened “Lisa”, well before my actual sister Alex was born.
I think back to this periodically, as I watch friends and coworkers juggle their new little ones. Because whenever I see a new little baby, I’m transfixed. Adult conversations suddenly pale in comparison as I turn abruptly into a beneficent baby thief, bouncing them in my arms, dipping them backwards, and making the same goofy faces my mom and dad made with me and my younger siblings. For toddlers I’ll even pull out the old wiggle-my-ears-like-grandpa-did gag. Whatever it takes to induce a smile, or, better yet, a gale of laughter.
To the parents out there: I don’t understand when priests get skittish or irritable around little kids. I’m sorry if that has been your experience of Church. I love kids. And why not?! Like the spoiling uncle, I get to be the fun guy who winds the kids up and then hands them back to the parents (sorry about that). I don’t have to deal with temper tantrums, fitful sleep, diaper changes, and whatever “blow outs” are (I’m told they require a complete change of baby wardrobe… ‘nuff said). In many ways – although not in all, I’d say – we who are without children have it easy compared to you young parents. After work, no matter how stressful, we come home to a house with a relatively low chance of stepping on spilled cheerios.
When I’m at Mass, talking adults drive me nuts. But not kids. As they squirm and roam the space with their clear eyes and mouths agape, I smile. As Meg Hunter-Kilmer writes here, we need your wailing kids at church not despite the distractions they bring, but exactly because they are distractions from what otherwise can be – let’s admit – a sometimes selfish time. We need them to pull us out of ourselves, or at least I do. And although we usually don’t say welcome or thank you, we should. Because, as Ms. Hunter-Kilmer puts it,
More often than not you [parents] don’t notice the smiles. You notice the rolled eyes and raised eyebrows and dirty looks and you think that at best you’re not making anyone angry. But that’s not true – at best, you’re making the people around you saints. You’re pulling them out of their self-obsession and reminding them that being at Church is about emptying ourselves for God and each other.
I see you parents, struggling to control young kids with armbar hugs and steely glares, with ziplocked cheerios and coloring books. I can’t imagine the amount of coordinating and patience it takes to suit your little ones up and get them to Mass. I don’t mind their stomping, kicking or pew lounging, really. Please don’t apologize. Ms. Hunter-Kilmer again:
…Because yes, your kids are distracting me. They’re distracting me from my narcissism. They’re distracting me from the idol I’ve made of worship, making me encounter God as he really is, not as I want him to be. They’re distracting me from the endless series of irrelevant thoughts that occupy my “praying” mind.
That’s something I’m certainly grateful for. Because “prayer is so often just a veil for narcissism. We talk and talk and talk about ourselves and then slap an “Amen” on the end and consider ourselves holy. When your kids start screaming, it distracts us from ourselves. We start praying for you. Or for them.”
So parents, I admire you. Thank you for trying so hard to get your kids to behave, and for all of the effort you put in to helping them experience something of the joy at Mass. But when they (or you) are having a bad day I hope it helps for me to say: thank you for not sequestering yourselves in the cry room. The Church needs to hear kids’ voices because they are a distraction. Your “yes” to kids helps the rest of us say “yes” to the God who chooses the messiness of the human condition. “Yes” to the One who says, in no uncertain terms, “Let the children come to me.”
And oh yeah, one final thought for all those friends of mine with kids: don’t be afraid to call if you need a babysitter sometime. It’ll bring a smile to my face trying to bring a smile to theirs.