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This is the third installment of “Putting Family First”, posted here for easier access.  The first part of the article can be found on a separate page on this blog.

Leading By Example

In taking care of ourselves, we thus become an example to our children of how one should treat oneself and others and why; how to manage our work and handle stress; and how to be a good friend.  We are our best examples to our children of the kind of adults which we are trying to raise them to be.  We can, after all, admonish our children all we want but it is that which they see us do that they will emulate.  This leads us to the third priority of a good parent:  the children.  We must, however, see this order of priorities not so much in place value but in the light of the fact that the children come because of husband and wife.

It is the children that really benefit from the strength and soundness of their parents’ loving marriage.  The family, thus, becomes the child’s refuge of learning, nurturing, education and loving.

In the World, Not Worldly

Our goal, as parents, is to love, nurture and teach our children to become responsible and loving men and women of character in the middle of the world.  We don’t want them holed up in some bubble, ignorant and clueless.  They are members of the human race and should be part of the rest of the world.  The only difference is that our family and our home is within which they are taught about life, people and the world, and where they can find solace and a true sense of what it means to love and be loved.  We should not coddle them or hide them from the world.

We need to get to know each one of them as individuals, with unique personalities and characters.  To be genuinely interested in them does not mean being obsessive or stifling in our attention.  We, as mothers, should remember not to smother.  They do not have to and should not be stuck to our side as if they were super-glued on.  They are separate persons and certainly not our clones.

We pass onto them those things, which are important to us – our values, wisdom and faith – through our traditions, customs and rituals within the family.  We should make the effort to share our life with them and not just “manage” or order them around.  They will get to know us on a deeper level when they learn of our childhood memories, our joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams and how we have overcome adversities.  In allowing them to get to know us, they realize that their parents are not just these people they call “mom” and “dad”.  They see our struggles and what we do in order to overcome challenges.

We need to spend time with them, doing both ordinary and special things:  to pray together, celebrate together, to share good and bad times together.  We cannot put off time with them as if we will always have tomorrow.  When the opportunities we let pass by go the way of yesterday’s what-ifs, we would have foregone chances to get to know and to love these most special people who have been entrusted to us as our children.  Our children need material things much, much less than they need our time and love.  We must make every effort to take this to heart because the world is full of propaganda aimed at convincing us of the need to get more money to buy more and more things and indulge in pleasures.

Our children need to hear us say that we will love them no matter what – that there is nothing that they could ever do that would make us stop loving them.  This is a powerful statement that speaks to them about the kind of love that does not impose conditions or sanctions.  It will act as a beacon to them in those moments when they find they have fallen, made mistakes and feel helpless.  They know they can always turn to us, their parents, for our love.

Life Lessons Worth Learning

It is very easy to feel lacking as a parent when it seems like every kid on the block (and their cousin) is enrolled in this or that after-school class or activity.  I know it because I have struggled with it many times.  Are our children really any worse for not having been able to take piano, singing, soccer, hockey, swimming, ballet or art lessons?  Are we much less for not going on vacations or to the cottage every summer?  I can assure you that while these extra-curricular activities and trips may very well be educational and beneficial, they are not the be-all and end-all of character formation.  In fact, if we stop to consider the really important things we need to teach our children, we will soon realize that the ordinary circumstances of life already provide us with ample opportunities for these lessons worth learning.

These are some of those life lessons we should teach our children about:

  • To appreciate the world and be grateful for it, without subscribing to the selfish values promoted within it:  materialism, consumerism, individualism;
  • How to use our freedom well and to make decisions by using critical thinking and a sense of responsibility;
  • To do our work well, to serve others through the work we do and that to serve is a good and honourable thing to do;
  • To foster an attitude of gratitude and a spirit of true generosity;
  • To be sincere in all things;
  • To foster true hope – not just optimism – and to inspire hope in others;
  • To treat every person with dignity:  young and old, rich or poor, male and female;
  • With consideration for the child’s age and experience, we do not shy away from talking about these realities which are a normal and necessary part of life;
  • Love is not just about feelings, hugs and kisses, but more importantly it is an act of the will – a verb, an action word;
  • To know how to forgive, which is an act of the will, and to ask for forgiveness, which is an act of love and humility.

Foundational Framework

It’s fine enough to talk about the things we want our children to learn and what we want them to be when they grow up.  But how do we do it?  Is there some super sophisticated mathematical or scientific formula that we apply to our family situation to make everything happen automatically and perfectly?  The short answer is no.

There is nothing automatic or even perfect about families because we, as human beings, have a free will to decide and act on our decisions.  We are not robots; our lives are not pre-destined.  The beauty of this is that we can do something and not just sit back consigned to our fate.  In getting to know and understanding each and every member of our family, we are able to create a framework of traditions, customs, rituals, routines and rules that are founded on our family’s unique identity, character and dynamics.  It is within this framework that we are able to establish and impart those values, which are important to the family.

Far from being tiresome, boring or dictatorial, this structure will in fact liberate and empower us to do achieve our goals as a family.  It enables us to move forward with purpose and direction, rather than haphazardly and indecisively.  It allows us to say no to those things that take us away or have nothing to do with our family’s overall mission.

These traditions, customs and rituals within the family – whether those from when we were children ourselves, or newly-established ones – have the power to strengthen the ties that bind the family together.  These give each member of the family a sense of what is familiar, thereby providing a sense of security.  We human beings are creatures of habit, after all.  These rituals can be as simple as the making and serving of coffee in the morning, or spending some time with each child by their side at bedtime.

This framework of family life provides many chances to be together as a family while helping and being with each other.  A history is constantly being created on which the family builds a stronghold of loving support and nurturing to draw upon in moments of adversity.  Loving traditions and customs create good memories on which to look back to with fondness and encourage us to hope for the future.  Birthdays become a time to recognize and appreciate a unique member of the family.  Anniversaries mark important milestones in the family’s life.  Special occasions, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, family trips and vacations are cherished moments to celebrate together.

Even the family meal — in which the preparation of the meal, the setting of the table, the consideration for preferences and manners at table, and the conversations that many times will seem to almost flow into each other — all make up what has become an important family ritual.  By doing all these things as a family, we create an atmosphere for our children and ourselves that is alive and vibrant, considerate of each member of the family and the family as a whole.  In teaching our children about unconditional love, we don’t just tell them we love them – we are showing them so.

Postscript:  Reality Check

Having said all this, we must be aware that in life there are no real guarantees.  The story of our lives is still being written – by us – and lived out day by day.  We must learn how to live one day at a time.  We have enough cares for one day without having to worry about tomorrow and the day after.  And although there are no guarantees, the ending has not been determined or set.  It is still to come in due time.

In the meantime, we must learn to live our lives to the fullest, living in the moment and doing our best.  Now is the only moment we can really do anything about, for the past if over and done, and the future is yet to come.  When you are with your husband and children, be with them completely and unreservedly.

Mistakes happen and we must not be surprised at all when they do.  It is not wasted time or useless effort on our part.  These are the learning moments from which we pick up ourselves and simply begin again.  We are human beings, and therefore imperfect.  We cannot do everything, but we can do a lot.  And what we can do, we must do well.  As St. Josemaria Escriva said, “A lot depends on what you and I must do.” (The Way)

In July of 2006, our family suffered a second miscarriage, which made my next pregnancy (in November 2006) that much more special.  When I shared the special news of the baby-to-come with our seven-year old son and asked him to just keep it within the family for the moment, he looked at me with a clearly concerned expression on his face and said, “But shouldn’t we be telling people so that they can pray for the baby not to die?” Right there and then, I knew this young son of ours loved his family and every single member, young and old, seen and unseen.  He knew what mattered, what was important and the power of coming together as a family.

So, when you find yourself — at any given time of the day, but especially at night — tired, frustrated, anxious, worried or stressed out – take heart and do not lose your peace.  There will be days when you feel as if nothing is going right.  There will be nights when you can hardly sleep for worrying about a problem.  There will be times that you feel so tired and worn out.  Know that if you are doing your best and giving yourself fully to the tasks and moments at hand, then ultimately everything works out for the good.  It may not seem so, but it does.

As successful American businessman Lee Iacoca put it, “The only rock I know that stays steady, the only institution I know that works is the family.” We must not ever lose hope.  Our efforts are worth it.  And there is always hope for those who love.

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On 3 May 2008, I gave a talk entitled, “Mission Possible:  Putting Family First at the Mom, You’re Incredible! event, which was sponsored by the Neeje Association for Women and Family.  I am posting an article based on the outline for that talk on this page.  Because of the length of the article, it will be published on this blog on the page “Putting Family First” in several parts over a period of two weeks.

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My Better Half

February 16, 2003My heart is 39 years old today. No, it’s not my birthday, and the man in the photo is not a burglar. That is my husband, Michael, and today is his birthday. The photo was taken by a friend of his on February 16, 2003, which happened to be one of the coldest days of that year (at least according to a news account then).

I think back to the first day we met and all the days in between until today — and I am so grateful for the man that he is. We were completely in love when we got married and promptly had three kids within three years. We moved to Canada in 1999 with four kids (the oldest 5 years at the time) and with another one on the way. We stayed in 3 different rentals before we finally bought our very first home. We have had eight children in the fourteen years we’ve been married. He has worked hard at different jobs, is a very professional and extremely good photographer (I’d say it even if I wasn’t married to him…..) and he continues to give 100% at his job everyday. We’ve laughed a lot, fought some, prayed together and hold our marriage vows sacred. Ours has been an amazing adventure together!

I understand what people mean when they identify one’s spouse as their better half. It makes so much sense, at least for us it does. Mike is my better half; he completes the unfinished parts of my life like no one else can and ever will. He is the patient half of our marriage; the strong but silent type. He shares my dreams and gives me courage to carry on when I cannot see past disappointments and failures. He knows when to listen and he knows when not to listen too much. He knows how to apologize and — more importantly for me — he knows how to forgive. He knows how to love.

My heart belongs to this wonderful man and his belongs to me! And today, my heart is 39 years old and still beating strong, faithful and true. Happy birthday, dear heart.

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Mom You’re Incredible!

Do you remember this television show where they would feature various stories of people doing all sorts of fascinating, heart-stopping or mind-boggling things and then the live audience would shout in unison: “That’s incredible!”? (That question really dates me, doesn’t it? Anyway…..) Although that show is long gone, I remember it now as I tell you about this event some friends of mine are organizing in Ottawa.

This annual event is called “Mom You’re Incredible!” and is hosted by the Neeje Association for Women and Family, a charitable organization that runs the Valrideau University Residence for women in Ottawa, and offers programs to encourage women and strengthen families. It is — as the publicity below states — “an afternoon celebration of motherhood”. This year’s event presents a talk entitled “Mission Possible: Putting Family First”.

myi-publicity.jpgI happen to think that moms are incredible! We live in a world now that does not really recognize the true value of motherhood. It is discounted as something very ordinary and unsatisfying, something that women simply settle for. On the contrary, motherhood should be celebrated! Where would we be without our mothers? What would happen to future generations without mothers?

Motherhood is a privilege; it is a blessed gift. It is not just a job. It is not a 9-to-5, cut-and-dried, time-in, time-out kind of work thing you can change like you would clothes. This is a life’s work that embraces you, giving you meaning and energy as much as or even more than you give it meaning and energy. It is like an art form that evolves and changes yet reflects so much more than you could ever hope for. It is not something one ought to settle for because it is a giving of yourself. And the returns are boundless and precious! Motherhood itself is incredible!

So if you live in or close to the Ottawa area and are interested, and/or know others who may be interested in taking part in this very special event, you may contact Mrs. Natasha Gajraj at 224-1179 to register. It will be an afternoon of tea, a talk and lots of other moms!

I have the privilege of giving the talk at this year’s “Mom You’re Incredible!” event. I hope to meet you there.

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feb-19-1994.jpgIt has been five thousand one hundred and thirteen days since I walked down the aisle on my father’s arm to take the hand of the man whom I vowed to love till death do us part. I used the calculator to come up with that number, figuring in the fact that we’ve been through 3 leap years, this year being the fourth. Wow. Do you want it in hours? Well then, we’re talking 122,712 hours that my husband and I have been married…..at least, given that by the time you read this blog entry, a few more hours would have passed. Let’s be a bit silly: do you know how many minutes we’ve been married? Seven million, three hundred sixty-two and seven hundred twenty minutes — at least. And I cannot stop myself from breaking into a smile whenever I think about it because what an adventure it has been!

central-park-1993.jpgWhen two people first fall in love, the thought of spending their whole lives together can make them giddy with joy. There’s all these wonderful images of spending days on end laughing, looking into each other’s eyes and living happily ever after. Everything is possible; the world is a beautiful place to be in. When we first started dating, Mike (my husband) and I used to meet up at Central Park in New York for lunch — the homemade kind. He would bring sandwiches and bottles of water for each of us, and we would sit at a bench during my hour’s break. What a thrill it was for me to be able to spend an hour with the one person who made my heart beat faster and the butterflies in my tummy go haywire! Looking back, I tease my husband now about how “economical” our dates had been. He just smiles at me, knowing that the memories of these inexpensive dates are priceless. And I know he’s right.

In these fourteen years that Mike and I have been married, it hasn’t all been laughter and starry-eyed gazes between us. Far from it, in fact. There has been a lot of laughter, yes: the jokes only we understand, the stories we tell each other, the sense of humour that has developed because of circumstance and need. There have also been tears and angry words, at times. There have been good times and bad times, none of which I would change. Each moment we have spent together has only served to make use stronger and know each other better. Each moment we’ve had to be physically apart has been a reminder of how much we need each other and want to be together. It has not been happily ever after, but rather joyfully together.

It is an adventure Mike and I embarked on fourteen years ago, and it has been nothing short of spectacular. It would be a lie to tell you that we have a perfect life because we don’t. There have been moments of worry and anxiety, but also moments of gratitude for every single thing we have been blessed with. It is unrealistic to think that there is a blueprint for marriage because every couple that gets married is different from any other. Two people who promise to spend the rest of their lives together, whatever happens to them, have to work with what they both have….and don’t have. A man and a woman get married for better and for worse, and they become one. They are one, not forsaking their individuality but living a life together of singular purpose and motivation. They become, for each other, the highest priority and more important person in the world. And this does not contradict the love and care we have for our children. In fact, the best thing a husband and wife can do is to love each other and show their children they do. Children take strength, great comfort and happiness in knowing that these two very important people in their lives love each other.

And we — Mike and I — take a great amount of strength and perseverance from our faith. It has kept us and keeps us going even when the odds are against us or, humanly speaking, it seems impossible to do anything more. It helps us to say sorry faster, forgive quicker, to take each day that comes with a great deal of hope and trust. It is what moves us to accept and recognize our marriage for what it really is: a vocation.

So today, please keep us in your prayers and help us thank God for what we have been blessed with and with what He continues to bless us. We count each of our children (the eight who are alive and the two who were with us only for a short time in my womb) as blessings that keep on giving. And from this day on, we look forward to many more adventures we will be sharing together.

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No Flowers Please

It was a good day today. No heart-shaped cards or flowers or chocolate-covered cherries in candy boxes. No candlelit dinners or romantic music playing in the background. It was perfect.

I don’t know about you, but I do not care for the hype that the commercialization of occasions such as Valentine’s day invites. In previous years, going out for dinner on February 14 meant having to deal with traffic, parking in crowded lots, waiting in line and overpriced meals. Ugh. Who needs all that to be with the one they love?

This morning, being the man that he is, my husband gave me what I know to be proof of his true love: a cup of hot, steaming, fresh coffee. There is nothing I want more at 6:15 in the morning as I sleepily try to start my day with both eyes open than my caffeine fix, and my husband knows this. I am so blessed to have this man in my life.

The truth is we both forgot it was Valentine’s day. He called me up about ten minutes after having left for work to greet me belatedly — after having been reminded by a co-worker who rides with him in the morning. I was grateful for the reminder as it had slipped my mind. My six-year old daughter handed me a red lollipop with a small, heart-shaped card she had made. It was a great start to my morning.

It got even better when I had lunch with some girl friends. It was a long overdue get-together. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of listening and a lot of talking. I looked at each one of them earlier and was struck by how different we all were, and yet we shared the same spirit and outlook in life. We connect on a level of friendship where we look out for each other. It was certainly worth the drive to Toronto!

I thought it would be a restful and slow evening, but was reminded by my nine-year old son that it was their night to go to their chess club. Tonight turned out to be a fast dinner (thanks to whoever invented microwaveable rice cookers!) but not an unpleasant one. I looked around the table and was happy to be with my children, eating pot roast and hearing them tell stories. And they have so very many! So in a way, I suppose, you could say I had a quiet dinner. I was quiet, but my children weren’t — and I didn’t really mind it tonight. It was nice.

After hungrily eating dinner, my husband had to pick up the kids from their chess club. Before leaving, he said he just had to rush by Costco for something before coming home. I looked at him and knew what he was going to do.

“Please don’t get me any flowers. Really. I don’t want any.”

I knew he was feeling a bit guilty for not getting me a gift or card, but he shouldn’t have.

“I was so happy today,” I told him truthfully. “I did what I had to do, I was with people I wanted to be with, and we have a movie we can watch tonight. Please don’t get me flowers. That’s just too commercial.”

My sweet, tired but happy husband smiled. Today was indeed a great day.

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January 10, 1970

Today, I am moved by the thought that thirty-eight years ago, a young man and a young woman exchanged vows before God, family and friends — to love each other for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do they part. I’d like you to meet Ruben and Evelyn Umali, and I am proud to be their daughter.

It has been 13,870 days and four grown children since they made that promise to each other. Their marriage continues to be a beautiful and living proof of a truth often overlooked: Love is a verb.

The passions that once flared red and hot can sizzle out if the fires are not stoked. And even then, one has to realize that love is much more than just sweet, mushy words and warm, fuzzy feelings. Love is an act of the will. This is what I have learned from bearing witness to my parents’ marriage. This is what I am living out in my own marriage to my wonderful husband. We do not lay claim to perfection; in fact, I dare say we belong squarely on the other side of the scale, right between imperfect and complete opposites. The same was and is true of my parents.

Theirs was never a perfect marriage. It was one that they had made their very own, and really — those are the ones that take more time, more effort, more love. I have learned from them the value of getting to know each other really well and respecting each other as individuals. I have gained from them the wisdom that comes from years of trying again and again, never giving up. Some days have been better than others, but the hope that comes from this kind of love — true love — has never died.

I remember dateless and timeless moments when I would see them talking, laughing, even arguing or just being together. I recall these moment with deep appreciation and fondness because at those times, I felt loved the most. I never felt richer or more secure as a child than during those moments.

So today, I pay tribute to two of the most important people I have been blessed with in my life. I could not ask for better parents. They have my most profound gratitude for the unconditional love that they have for each other and for each one of us, their children, children-in-law and grandchildren. I have them to thank for my vocation as a wife and mother.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad — I love you!

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