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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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October is such a beautiful time of the year, and especially so in North America wherein nature transforms itself right before our very eyes.  It is a very inviting time that follows that period of scurrying around that is September.  October allows us to breathe.

The good thing about being able to breathe easier is that it gives you a chance to think about things better.  Has your life been so rushed lately that you’ve barely had time for anything other than running around “doing” things?  I know mine has.  September passed by in a blur of activities.  Well, my friend, please do not forget to stop every now and then.  You and I are not automatons; we are not negligible.  In order for us to do what needs to be done, we must remember to take care of ourselves as well.

Often, in our effort to give priority to our family, we make the mistake of forgetting about ourselves.  I am not suggesting we should all spend hours in the spa or buy ourselves a whole new wardrobe!  For the most part, we do not consider our needs right away because we either feel guilty for doing so or it just doesn’t occur to us.

Let us remember, though, that we cannot take care of our family effectively without being well ourselves.  What does this entail?  Firstly, we need enough rest and sleep.  In fact, even if it seems a luxury most of us need about 7/5 to 8 hours of sleep every night.  We need to eat right – mind you, not too much but certainly not just whatever is leftover on your kid’s plate or whatever you can grab on the run.  Mealtimes are a natural way for us to stop a moment and take a break.  Do not begrudge yourself this time to replenish your energies.

Neither should you feel guilty for finding a need to buy a new item of clothing or make-up or getting a good haircut when it is needed.  Are you really doing yourself or your family any favours by not taking care of your appearance?  This is not so much for vanity’s sake as it is for your own dignity and self-confidence.

Make time to get together with your friends.  You are still an individual with your own ideas and interests – these should not have gone the way of the dustbin when you got married and started your family.

We also need to fully appreciate that we, as human beings, are composed of body and soul.  If we make the effort to take care of our bodies, we must also take great care of our souls for it is within this very part of us that our very essence is contained.  Some people make every human effort possible to keep to a strict diet, work out at the gym and exercise.  A similar and even stronger fervour should be applied to care for our spiritual needs.

That said, if after all your efforts you still find yourself at the end of the day exhausted, spent and perhaps not just a little frustrated – take heart.  There will be days like this and you mustn’t be discouraged.  At the end of every day, we need to be grateful for what we have in our lives.  As Scarlett O’Hara said, “Tomorrow is another day.” Remember that, breathe and punctuate each breath with a smile.  It helps.

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On the Fly

The summer if 3/4 done and this morning we are finally on our way to our Family Camp in Quebec. Every year, for one week, about ten families go the the Dominus Vobiscum camp near the town of St. Gabriel in Quebec for 7 days with family and friends. It is also an opportunity for us to talk more with other parents, learning from them and sharing the knowledge we have ourselves. We celebrate Holy Mass everyday and are able to take this wonderful time for vacation without taking a “break” from our faith — it is such a blessing to have this camp!

So as I type this, most of my family members are in the tan van. We are about 17 minutes past the time we should have left….hence, the rush. (Just been told by my husband, patient man that he is, that I must get in the van already.)

Please do not let the higher gas prices stop you from spending time with your family. It is absolutely possible to still be able to enjoy and have a meaningful time this summer — and you should! This road trip will take us about 9 hours to complete — say a prayer for my husband and I, will you? There will be whining, of that I am certain. But there will be more moments of chatting and thinking and laughing. There will be some pushing and shoving in the back seat, but that’s where the peanut gallery is too — you kind of expect that to happen, after all. But always, we will be with each other: for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in short trips and in long ones, till the need to go to the bathroom do we part (albeit momentarily).

Enjoy the rest of the summer. It’ll be gone too quickly before you know it.

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If you’ve cared to look for something new on this blog for the past two and a half weeks — I must apologize for not having posted anything at all. I didn’t fall off the face of the earth. I’m still here and am just finding my way back to blogging after being immersed in one adventure after another these past few weeks. I’m telling you the truth: Indiana Jones has NOTHING on mothers and the things we do!

Five days into T-TRAININGThis little girl you see in this picture is Daughter #3 who has been undergoing a most rigorous and intensive program of self-discipline involving the body and the will with our assistance and encouragement. Simply put, she has been toilet-training….or at least she is now mostly toilet-trained. At first, it seemed as if she was training us rather than we training her. Barely three days into the process of toilet-training, our family left for a road trip to Ottawa, about five hours away by car. It would have been so much easier to just put a diaper on her — but we resisted the temptation. It is three weeks since we started and she is — for the most part — disciplined enough during the day to make those very necessary trips to the bathroom when the need arises. This is quite a milestone for her and we are all very happy about it!

Our thirteen-year old daughter (Daughter #1) has also recently reached a milestone of a very different nature — a spiritual one. A new soldier of ChristOn May 7th, together with about 60 or so other young teens, she received the Sacrament of Confirmation at our parish. This is the final rite of initiation to the Catholic church. (The photo shows my daughter with our energetic parish priest, Fr. Vid.) I watched from the back of the church, holding onto the hand of a fidgety three-year old who had just been to the bathroom. Suddenly, my mind seemed to hurtle back in time nearly nine years ago to the day I watched this same child fall in line with other 5 year-olds on the first day of kindergarten. I had cried then, albeit briefly, feeling the poignancy of the moment. The same feelings came back, as I witnessed my daughter’s maturity over the years and thanked God for the immense privilege of having been blessed with her and her siblings.

Within these past weeks, our middle daughter (Daughter #2) also celebrated a milestone — she turned seven years old! This little girl, whom we prayed for and asked God to bless us with, was all of seven years old last May 1st. What a wondrous age seven is! She is now able to read quite a bit and loves to write up little notes for different members of the family. She has several friends, but I think her siblings are numbered among the best. She is a burst of sunshine and boundless energy, and is quite precious to us.

Each child in our family is allowed to invite friends to a bigger party to celebrate the birthday only on his or her 7th and 13th birthdays. (You can imagine how nutty it would be if we did this for every single child on every single birthday……not to mention expensive…..) So this seven-year old girl will be having a proper garden tea party with some very special girl friends who will be asked to come in their very best party dress. That will happen as soon as our party planner (a.k.a. Mom) gets her act together and organizes the whole thing.

In the meantime, we did celebrate her birthday with our family’s traditional “birthday cake” (chocolate cake with fudgy filling and whipped cream frosting), followed by the opening of presents. Here is part of the gang of siblings posing with the the traditional birthday cake (baked from scratch by Daughter #1, frosted with love by Mom):

(Note the general sense of gaiety and celebration made somewhat surreal by the presence of a grenade — just plastic, folks…..– in the hand of our impish three year-old daughter. The birthday girl is wearing the Dora the Explorer shirt. The boys are Sons #4 — left side — and #3 — right side.)

Of course, before this image was captured, there was a bit of thrilling action caught by my husband (a.k.a. The Cool Photographer), as you can see below: (Note his determined look and the toy pizza slice this little infant wonder is clutching in his left hand as he makes a grab with his right hand for the birthday cake his sister hasn’t even cut into!)

In between celebrations and training programs, I managed to give a talk at the “Mom You’re Incredible” event in Ottawa last May 3rd, got together with some very good and much-missed friends, went on a road trip with the family, did a bit of demo-cooking, went here, there and feel like I’ve been everywhere!

There are no better adventures I know than the ones you find within life with the family.

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Our home smells amazingly good right now. I finished baking these potato pies called pirojki, the recipe of which I got from the blog of Farida, a very personable young mother from Azerbaijan. I had my children kind of roaming around earlier, hoping for some of the pies. I let them each have a half since I did not want them to spoil their appetite for dinner.

The pastry dough came together quite easily and baked beautifully. Before putting them in the oven, I brushed each pie top with beaten eggyolk, according to the recipe. The finished product looks golden brown and smells oh-so-good!

I have to kick myself mentally, though. I was so thrilled to see the pirojki that I immediately made up my mind to take photos and post these on this blog. I got the camera out and turned it on…….only to discover that the battery was dead. Aaaarrrrggghh! Anyway, you will have to trust me on this for now: they are beautiful savoury pastries that have a light slightly bready crust and a flavourful potato filling. I would not mind having one or two for a snack.

If you haven’t baked anything lately, consider doing so for the sake of having extremely happy children milling around the kitchen, hoping against hope they can be allowed to taste the result of your culinary efforts. It does not have to be complicated. It doesn’t matter if it is a cake mix from a box. Just bake. Open the windows and let the lovely smells of home baking spill out into the neighborhood. Bring a smile to your children’s faces and help put a sparkle in your husband’s eye when he sees something sweet for dessert.

It’s amazing what a little home baking can do!

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There Snow Place Like Home

There are piles and mounds of the white stuff all over the place: in front of houses, in backyards, on the sidewalks, parking lots and on the sides of the roads. I spent about two hours in total yesterday shoveling the stuff off the ground into ever-growing mounds of old snow which is now more like crunchy, hard ice. I also spent a good deal of time on a step stool beside our full size tan van brushing the snow off the roof with a broom. It is a blue broom that stands taller than me and is quite a neat tool for getting the snow off the our van. I have to confess: I was kind of embarrassed to use it at first. After all, who uses a broom to clear snow of a vehicle? Well, I realized, I guess we do, especially when the vehicle happens to be a 12-seater van!

That was yesterday. Today, the weather forecast for the next few days looks like this:

weather-forecast.png Sigh. Great, more of the same, I thought, imagining the great fun (sarcasm is creeping in at this point…) I would have trying to reach up and across the roof of the van to push the snow off. And where else could I possiby put the snow that would be shoveled off the ground? The mounds of snow were getting so high, it was getting more difficult to add onto it.

But —

The snow is here because it snows in winter in this part of Canada. Our family has been in this country for eight years and eight months. Four of the children were born here. We came as immigrants and are now citizens of this great country that we live in. I think of the many friends we’ve made over the years and I realize how blessed we are to be where we are right now. I’ll take the snow and be happy about it.

And —

The full size, 12-seater tan van that sits in our driveway came into our lives on September 14, 2005, the day my husband brought it home from the dealer. It replaced the minivan that only seated eight (we were up to 7 kids by then…..) and which conked out on us during our family camping trip that summer. I had vehemently resisted the very idea of driving what I considered then to be a “monstrous” van. I sputtered in annoyance at the thought of having to drive such a big “thing” all over the place. And then I test drove it with the kids…….and never ever looked back again. Every child now had a proper place in the van; everyone belonged somewhere. My children could now sit comfortably and safely without feeling like sardines all the time.

I appreciate that van so much because it reminds me of every single child in our family. When I get asked if we’ll still have more kids, I often point out the fact that the van seats twelve, and now there are only 10 seats filled. I am grateful to have this van to drive around because it is there for my family and our needs. So I will happily clear the van of snow any time — but will not say no if my husband offers to do so for me. dscn0770.jpg

It is funny how something one considers a burden can be another’s blessing. In yesterday’s National Post, this news item appeared regarding cleaning and how more women were doing housework than men. Not really much news there — except for when it is mentioned that the luckiest group of people in the Canada are the ones who do not have to do any housework. If I believed that to be true, I would then have to say that I must be one of the most unfortunate Canadians. Imagine: a husband who is out of the house 10 to twelve hours a day plus eight children to take care of. That must be a “lucky” Canadian’s idea of a nightmare!

In truth, I consider myself to be extremely lucky and blessed to have the family I have. There are clothes to be laundered, meals to be cooked, beds to be fixed and a home to be cleaned because there are people who live in this home. They need caring for and help. My husband works hard at his job, and I do the same at mine — which happens to be keeping house and mothering our children. I dare say it is quite a privilege to be able to care for our children. They are not perfect, of course, but they are our children. We welcomed each one happily and are grateful for every single one of them.

I do not feel like a slave for doing housework because it is a conscious choice and commitment I have made as a wife and mother. Besides, when you do things for love, how can something like housework even be considered a burden? There are days, of course, when it will feel burdensome and tiring and a pain — but life is not just about feelings. At the end of the day, knowing the truth helps me to see what everything is all about. And that is something I am always grateful for.

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