Thursday, May 26, 2016

In Response to An Accusation of Selfishness ~ My Thoughts On the Benefits of Raising Teens Alongside Babies

Last week my dear husband exercised his masterful negotiation skills to secure a sweet deal on some new furniture for our living room. Ever since our mold remediation project last winter, we've been furniture-free and, given my current condition, the floor has becoming less and less hospitable to my limited grace and flexibility.

So every afternoon from  2p.m. - 4 p.m., my heart sings the Hallelujah Chorus because I get the recliner all to myself, and it's heavenly!  I pop in my earplugs (if you don't own a pair, you don't know what you're missing!), prop my ten ELEVEN days overdue swollen self up and rexaaaaax while the boys run willy nilly around me.

Yesterday, while reclining, I gazed in amusement at our little Joseph, who stood silently at the front door, his nose pressed to the foggy glass, humid breaths clouding his view of the driveway. He waited patiently for the brother he most adores, but soon the wait was over.  His eyes brightened, ears perked, and a chubby finger rose up to point out the tall figure that sauntered up the sidewalk. Under his breath I could hear him chant, "Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben...."

JOEY!!! 

To the floor fell the big brother's backpack, and with the weight of the day released, his arms were now free to scoop up some love.

I never, ever tire of watching their after school reunions.  It's a marvelous gift, their relationship - tender, feisty, earnest.

A little footage from a recent track meet:
Ooooo yay! Dandelions! 
 Hold still, Ben, while I blow these fluffy white things in yo face.
I'm gonna watch you PR in triple jump just as soon as I get done bwowin' deese  fwuffies off a here.

Sibling relationships truly are a treasure, but they are also something that I think can be so easily overlooked and undervalued in our world today...

I remember it was sometime last fall when a message from a fellow blogging friend appeared in my inbox.  She was confronting comments that had been made to her concerning family size, specifically about how couples, who continue to welcome babies into the family while raising teenagers at the same time, are behaving selfishly, and she wanted my opinion on the matter.

I nearly fell out of my chair.  Having a baby....when you have a teenager in the home....is selfish???

*Please note, before I continue, that the remainder of this post is meant to address the following comments toward raising teenagers alongside of babies.  It is not meant, in any way, to suggest that meaningful relationships and a virtuous life cannot be obtained outside of the home or outside of a large family unit.  Again, I am simply offering a positive perspective on the less-obvious merits of parenting teens and little ones at the same time.

Reading on, the comments she shared with me were this:

  • It's not fair to expect teens to give up their personal time and freedom to help take care of little siblings.
  • Having a newborn in the home compromises the amount of time and focused attention a parent can give their teens, time and attention that is critical to their own development and maturation.
  • Teenagers shouldn't have to give up precious opportunities academically or athletically because parents can't facilitate or afford to support their teens personal growth and interests. 

After my locked jaw and gritted teeth finally relaxed, I decided to postpone my reactive response and instead seek out the perspective of a trusted teen source - my oldest son.

I simply opened our dialogue with this question:

Ben, do you ever feel like you are missing out on certain life experiences or opportunities because you have younger siblings in the home that require our time and attention? Younger siblings that you also are often asked to help take care of?

The look on his face said it all.  But do you want to know what his response was?

Mom, if you're asking if I would rather have golf lessons or that our family could take more trips, or I could have my own four wheeler (which I know he desperately wants), instead of another little brother then the answer is, NO. I could never want any of those things more than Joseph or Charlie or any of my brothers.

While my heart was soothed by his answer, I wanted to press him even further....

Yes, but, you know that you have more responsibilities here at home, since Dad and I often need your help.  Not many kids your age have to change diapers, give baths, or read picture books at night to toddlers, so that I can keep the laundry going and dad can help with homework. And, I want you to know it's okay to tell me exactly how you feel about it all.

He looked me in the eye, and short and sweet said this:

Mom, honestly, I don't mind.  In fact, I think I'm going to miss it when I'm gone.

After my conversation with Ben, I wasn't sure exactly how to respond to my friend's e-mail.  I really believe that the person confronting her was not trying to be offensive in sharing her opinions - in fact, I think most people who agree with her or follow her train of thought really do believe that their points are valid and worth discussing.

So, I don't fault her, whoever she is. However, if she is going to press those of us - all of us - who have babies and teens in the same house, with such opinions, then she must certainly be ready for an honest response, and this is mine:

In a nutshell - we are undoubtedly living in a time and culture where self-centeredness is encouraged and facilitated to such a great degree, that we no longer recognize the value of sacrificing for the greater good of the other above our own self-interests. Social media offers a plethora of evidence to to this truth.

Naturally, any sort of family structure that fosters opportunities for sacrificial acts of selflessness would seem countercultural, and certainly counterproductive by todays child-rearing standards. Because many parents today do not recognize the home as a place where their children might discover themselves through a sincere gift of self (St. John Paul II) to their family (primarily through sacrificial acts of generosity), opportunities for self-discovery and affirmation are typically sought in popularly social venues outside of the home, such as sports, music, and even academic fields.

While these opportunities have their own merit and value in a child's life (our children certainly enjoy participating in all of those things), I don't believe that they were ever meant to become an arena in which parents lives constantly revolve around the potential success and admiration of their children by others, nor were they meant to replace the vital relationships that can only be built through children serving within the family.

"You have been created for the glory of God and for your own eternal salvation; 
this is your end, this is the object of your soul and the treasure of your heart." 
- St. Robert Bellermine

As Christians we believe that our ultimate goal in life, our ultimate end is heaven.  The road to heaven is paved with love, and we recognize this truth most clearly through the example of Christ, whose love was and is infinite and immeasurable, sacrificial and not self-seeking.

The beautiful thing about family life is that God, in his wisdom, has fashioned it to be, in itself, a culture that offers tremendous opportunities to obtain virtues such as compassion, charity, justice and prudence simply through the offering of oneself in the ordinary duties and responsibilities of caring for the home and for one another.

Of course, the challenge of embracing such opportunities is that not only does it require sacrifice on the part of the parents and children, but it also requires some bit of resiliency toward the influences of modern society - influences which promote finding life's purpose through an inward gaze rather than an outward one.

By today's standards, popularity and success, whether it be in sports or music or academics is held in much higher esteem than being virtuous, and therefore the popularity and recognition is what most kids (and adults) strive for every day.  Daily persistence in such goals naturally tend toward the fostering of a self-centered focus, rather than an other-centered focus.

The weight of society's influence doesn't just affect teens, it affects all of us to some degree.  Social media contains strong evidence that we live in a culture that seeks affirmation and approval for everything and places an unreasonably high value upon that affirmation. Nothing we do and no part of who we are should go unnoticed, unrecognized, or heaven forbid "unliked."

So what does that mean for a teenager growing up in a family where some of their time and energy, by necessity, must be offered for the care of the home and for the little ones who reside there? I can't imagine any teen Snapchatting photos of themselves changing a diaper or cheerfully picking up toys when without being asked. What glory is there in reading a picture book for the thousandth time to a fussy toddler, or delivering a cup of water to a thirsty sibling.  Who of their friends would possibly ever admire such a grand lifestyle?

Ask my sons - there is no glory, no admiration, no public affirmation for such contributions.  And yet, the works of mercy that they participate in every day, the great acts of love and charity that they are asked to offer at present, are the very things that root out selfishness and anchor in their place the everlasting Christ-like virtues that will serve them far beyond any self-absorbed lifestyle which offers only temporary and fleeting comforts and a false sense of satisfaction.

Though such acts of sacrificial familial love often remain hidden, their greatness is not diminished by a lack of recognition or admiration. 

In fact, it is the hidden nature of generosity within family life is actually what makes it so beautiful, so transforming.  When we are called to serve, and respond in obedience to that call, our prideful nature (the part of us that desires to be recognized) is less likely to get in the way, making room for humility to blossom.

How can serving others and pride possibly be spoken about in the same sentence? Let me explain...

I find that it is easy to be generous and giving of my time and attention to others when it is convenient, or when I think that it might demonstrate to others that  I really am a caring and generous person, who loves others and longs to be helpful. How about a soup kitchen selfie, y'all? (I can see my grandparents rolling their eyes as I type.)

Darn that desire to be validated and appreciated.  It's a tough one, isn't it? 

As a mom, if I myself am not immune to the temptation toward recognition, it's important that I do not underestimate the possibility that this "doing good when it feels good to do good" might also be a challenge for my teens.

Our two oldest sons will be going on a mission trip to New Mexico in a couple of weeks.  And, while I believe whole-heartily that their journey will be blessed in ways that I cannot even begin to comprehend, I can only pray that their service will be rooted in true humility and not pride.

My oldest children most likely cannot yet comprehend the value in the opportunities that their upbringing offers them to become virtuous.  In fact, they may not even agree with or like those servant oriented opportunities (what teen would?). But, as their parents, it is up to Steve and I to place a higher trust in the Lord's plan for each and every person in our family, and to trust it far above our own plans for them - especially when our personal desires for our children can be so easily influenced by a culture whose loud and pertinent voice often drowns out the whisper of reason within us.

Today Benedict will have completed his freshman year of high school.  Many of my friends, who have raised teens, have told me how quickly time flies once our children reach the teen years.  Sadly, I recognize real truth in their sentiments, as it feels as though I will blink and tomorrow Ben will be gone.

I remember when he was born, how I thought I was ready for motherhood and everything that becoming a mother would mean.  I thought I was generous, but I wasn't.  I though I knew what it meant to sacrifice for another, but I didn't. My children and my husband have stretched me, grace has stretched me toward generosity, charity and greater depths of love.

Flannery O'Connor put it well when she said,

"All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful."  

Change is painful.  But, what if we could raise our children to live their lives in such a way that when they reach their vocation, be it married life, religious life, or mission life, that there be less of a need for interior change, and therefore less pain?

I believe that family life, in it's very sacrificial nature, offers children just that - a wonderful opportunity to gain the virtues that will guide them to live the vocation they are called to with greater freedom and with fewer interior struggles.

The pain of change doesn't just reside in the hardships and struggles that are thrown our way, but rather it emanates from the very process of detachment from our selfish ways, habits, desires and attitudes.

I know this because I have lived it - I continue to live it! Detachment hurts! But, it is necessary for us to become less of ourselves and more like Christ if we are to walk the hard road of love toward heaven.

I didn't realize when Steve and I were first married, and when we began a family, just how many amputations the Lord would have to perform on my infected soul, but He did so, and continues to do so, out of love for me.

He will do the same for our children.

It is my great hope that our sons, who are called today to sacrificially serve one another within our family, will experience a lesser degree of frustration and pain when it comes to interior conversion, because they will have already experienced and embraced the fruits of virtue borne of the sacrifices they have offered to love and care for their family while at home.

If you are interested, these are the highlights of the response I gave to my friend via e-mail...

Is it selfish for me to expect our sons to give up their "personal time and freedom" to help care for a younger sibling or to do chores?
First and foremost, if the Lord is calling Steve and I to have more children, we must trust Him above any confidence we have in ourselves, to provide what is necessary for all of us to thrive and to find joy within the life that He wills for us. It would be more selfish for us to deny our teens the opportunity to make personal sacrifices for their siblings than to offer them every earthly opportunity and comfort, because the long term benefits of doing so by far outweigh the temporary comforts of a duty-free lifestyle. Parents today are masters at serving our children, but are we teaching our children to serve?

Are Steve and I being selfish by welcoming another baby into our hearts and home, because it compromises the time and attention we can give our oldest children?

I think it would be selfish for us to deny our sons the opportunity to mature in independence and confidence by cradling them in a false net of continuous comfort, individual time and attention, only to throw them out into the real world where their professors, employers, friends and spouses will not support the overly attentive self-focused affirmative lifestyle they've been conditioned to feel that they deserve. 

Finally, while I whole-heartily agree that opportunities for our children outside of the home, whether they be academically, athletically, musically, or in other avenues of interest are fantastic ways in which our children can grow and mature in self-knowledge and virtue, they are not the be-all, end-all of their purpose and existence. And, as much as we wish this were true, those experiences will never trump the everlasting rewards that those opportunities, which require our children to sacrifice for the greater good of another, may obtain for us when it comes to reaching our heavenly reward.

16 comments:

  1. I'm the oldest of 8, with my youngest sibling being 16 years younger than me. Sometimes I got frustrated with all the work I had to do. But now...being a mom myself I'm so grateful. I was so much more prepared for real life because of new babies growing up. I have a better understanding of what's normal with raising kids because I was exposed to all ages growing up. I think having babies when you have teenagers is wonderful :) plus the help is nice for mom ;)

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  2. I'm the oldest of 8, with my youngest sibling being 16 years younger than me. Sometimes I got frustrated with all the work I had to do. But now...being a mom myself I'm so grateful. I was so much more prepared for real life because of new babies growing up. I have a better understanding of what's normal with raising kids because I was exposed to all ages growing up. I think having babies when you have teenagers is wonderful :) plus the help is nice for mom ;)

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  3. Why can't people see the riches that all the sibling with gain by having siblings younger/older ? (Full disclosure: I was born when my older brother was 15, and I myself have kids from 21-2 yrs.) My teens have always loved having a baby in the house. They do help out, but we're careful not to take advantage of them too often, and they still have plenty of time for their own pursuits. And due to this, my teens are often the ones that people point out as being responsible, mature, and the ones to be trusted. Teens are capable of more than those "other people" seem to think. Having younger brothers and sister teaches empathy, dedication, and the little ones regard the bigger kids like rock stars- awesome and fun.
    Sometimes, a teen might be a little resentful of the demands of having a little one in the family (constant stinky diapers and temper tantrums are not fun), but it's never long lasting. And quite frankly, any teen is capable of feeling resentment about anything at any time anyways (bless them - the teen yrs can be rough!),
    Your defense is better than any I can come up with - thank you!

    I hope your last days (hours?) of pregnancy go smoothly, and that you're welcoming your sweet baby soon. I thought being 1 day overdue with my later babies was torture - 11 days must be beyond frustrating. I'll pray for you!

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  4. This is beautiful and so encouraging, Susan, thank you! I'm already feeling the doubts and voice of the world in myself as I ask my older boys to help more. It's so easy to let pop culture guilt slip in that I'm somehow going to raise resentful angsty young adults or that I am depriving them of something the world says they need. But then I see my one year old and my oldest wrestling on the floor and how their eyes light up when they see each other. They have something beautiful that is better than any worldly good I could offer. I also have to remind myself that whatever vocation they are called to, their years here of (hopefully) learning to serve will be a huge blessing to their parish or wife or community. Thank you for sharing this!

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  5. Wonderfully Written! Thank You & May God Continue To Bless You & Your Whole Family!

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  6. "Sacrifice" has become a negative word these days. I think there is a certain segment of the population who hears "big family" and pictures a family of 12 kids from the depression era in dusty overalls working in the field instead of going to school. Things might be hard, but they aren't necessarily awful just because one has more than 3 children. I wish there was a way to let people understand that...

    I'm the oldest of *only* six, and I definitely spent more time helping at home than going out on the weekends. But-- I also had ample opportunities to explore all my interests. And the strong relationship I have with my youngest sister is probably thanks to all the time I spent helping take care of her.

    Ben's answers to your questions brought tears to my eyes. I can only hope that my children feel the same way when they grow up and look back on our little life. Thanks for sharing!

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  7. You are always so eloquently spoken and hit the nail on the head, putting out things I know in my heart but have not taken the time to articulate. Thank you for being such an amazing inspiration and role model! I've been praying hard for you and baby in this final stretch! Hope to see their sweet face soon, but in the meantime, keep those feet up! ;)

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  9. I will come back to finish reading when my eyes are not so cloudy! ;-)
    Too, a teenager will soon be off to a different life...and what - all his/her adult life before him/her, who says they need "freedom" and travel and all the world is demanding they must be given -- while under 18! I had my youngest at 44, and do not regret it one minute.

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  10. I can see how someone who hasn't lived it could think that older kids miss out. Those thought go through my own mind on my bad days like "how can I ever be enough? Give them what they need? Aren't they missing out some?" I feel like I am spread pretty thin. I know with certainty if I asked the same question you did to my oldest he would say he'd rather have lots of siblings than anything else. Mine are younger than yours, but old enough to realize now that we don't do everything that their friends do. I feel the pressure to provide lots of activities/vacations/sleep overs, etc. and it just isn't going to happen! Ha. It's great to hear from other moms of many that it's ok:) In my sleep deprived newborn state, our summer activities include backyard play and the neighborhood pool, if daddy's home. That's about it!

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  11. Susan,

    Longtime reader occasional commenter. I love this post! So beautifully and eloquently written. I have 8 children and I see how well and how lovingly (most of the time!) the older ones care for the little ones and how this benefits our entire family.

    Cannot wait to hear the news of the arrival of your little one. I've been checking your blog obsessively, lol!

    -Jenny

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  12. This is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing. Your son's responses were such a testament to the love that obviously abounds in your family and in him. Thank you for the encouragement you give to others and know that you are doing an amazing job, Mama. Your family is so beautiful. Praying for you as you wait for baby!!

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  13. Beautifully written, as someone who stops by here from time to time, I always appreciate your words shared. This one spoke so much to my heart, our 6 range from teenage down to 3. Some of our younger kiddos have "special needs"- I just like to think about the special ways their Heavenly Father created them and what I blessing it is that I get to be their mama in it all! We have had many ask us similar things about whether it is fair to our older kids, your post encouraged my heart which feels as you do, that God has called us to this place and I wouldn't trade it for the world!

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