The Gift of Dinner at Joe’s

Having lunch at a pizza place in Chattanooga, TN.

Having lunch at a pizza place in Chattanooga, TN. 10/23/13

Usually, when I write about life with a “big” family,* I’m complaining. Not because I don’t like my “big” family, but because of the way my “big” family and I get treated when we’re out in public. This weekend, however, we had an absolutely wonderful experience, so I thought I’d switch things up a bit and tell you about that.

Friday night, we decided to take the kids out to dinner. We went to Joe’s Crab Shack, which, if you’ve never been, is very family friendly. It’s a bright, loud place with trash buckets and paper towels on the tables (intended for the crab eaters, but super useful for spills and other kid messes) and a playground outside. The kids were pretty tired from coop and a full day of other activities, so I figured Joe’s was a safe bet. If they decided to misbehave, I figured it would be less noticeable in a place like that.

As we approached the hostess stand, the manager walked over from nearby and asked, “Oh wow. Are they all yours?”

Josh: “Sure are!”

Him: “I just don’t know how you do it…”

Me: “With lots of craziness and fun.”

Him: “I have a 2 year old and that’s more than I can take.”

(I never know where to go from here. I can totally relate. 1 kid is super hard. 2-years-old is super hard. But how do I briefly articulate that with sincerity and compassion without being incredibly awkward? I find that when I try people do another headcount of my kids and react like I must be patronizing them. I’m not. I really feel for them. Simcha Fisher once wrote a piece that describes what I mean. But it seems like a bit too much to say as I’m walking away from the hostess stand…)

As we walked to the table we got the looks we normally get. Internally, I shook my head. Externally, I smiled, held my head high, and hoped I could get everyone seated and settled without making a scene. (You mothers know what I’m talking about: But, mom, I want to sit over there! He took my crayons! Why didn’t I get a blue one?? Where’s my silverware?? I want to keep my knife!)

The boys after a lunch date at Chick-fil-a in December. (Guess no one was really ready for the camera?)

The boys after a lunch date at Chick-fil-a last December. (Guess no one was really ready for the camera?)

Amazingly, there was no scene. We did play a small round of musical chairs with Ben, but it was mostly calm and quiet. The big boys sat exactly where we put them and didn’t complain. They unfolded their menus and began talking about what to order.

Incredibly, the rest of the meal went off without a hitch. All the boys ordered for themselves, used their manners, spoke clearly and respectfully to the server, etc. We had a lovely time! Even Leila sat in her high chair the entire time, which is somewhat unlike her when we are in public. She’s a bit clingy and likes to be held when she’s in an unfamiliar environment.**

Somewhere about midway through dinner, I realized all the servers kept walking by our table and looking at us. But not with a look that I was used to receiving. I wasn’t sure what was going on. After it happened a few more times, I was starting to feel a bit like we were in a fish bowl. Towards the end of our meal, the bartender came over. He said, “While you’re here, do you want to give a few lessons to some of the other parents sitting around you?” I just laughed awkwardly. Then, he looked at my boys, told them how awesome they were, and went back to work.

On the way out, the manager made an effort to get over to us again before we passed the hostess stand. He thanked us for coming and told us they looked forward to serving us again. I know this is the kind of thing managers say. But there was something about his tone and body language. He really seemed grateful to have met us that night.

I walked out feeling simply overjoyed. Not just because my kids were well behaved. Not just because we were complimented. Not just because no one said or did anything negative to us. I felt like, somehow, we made a difference that night. I felt like, somehow, the staff that encountered us saw the beauty and the joy of family life. Somehow, for that short hour or two that we were there, children and parenting didn’t seem like such a burden to those people. Somehow, we were able to convey that message.

I don’t know how we did it. We didn’t do anything differently than we usually do when we are in public. I guess we were just in the right place at the right time. But I really believe that our little family made the world a better place for that short window of time. And, maybe, just maybe, had a big enough impact that someone who saw us was willing to change their view of children and/or family life. I realize this may all sound like a stretch, but that’s truly how I felt leaving the restaurant that evening. It was almost magical. Unfortunately, I just don’t know how to better explain it. It was simply the most positive, uplifting experience I have ever had with a bunch of random strangers that I will likely never see again. They gave me such a gift in affirming the dignity of my family, and I really believe that we, somehow, gave them a gift too.

                                                                                   

* I still don’t think I have a big family. I’ve admitted before that I am aware that we are larger than average, but we just don’t feel big to me. In fact, when we’re missing even just one of the kids, we feel so incredibly small. Maybe my perception just adjusts with each child? I don’t know. All I know is I don’t feel like I have a big family.

**Behaving in the restaurant in and of itself isn’t that big of a deal. The majority of the time, they do. We have high expectations for behavior in public, which we clearly communicate to the children, along with the consequences that will follow misbehavior. Moreover, we make them behave appropriately every night at dinner, which helps tremendously. They are already used to behaving at the table. I was concerned about behavior on this particular night because they had a long day and tired kids doesn’t usually equal well behaved and/or “rational” kids.

Thanksgiving and High Expectations

Thanksgiving2Recently, thanks to the encouragement of my sweet hubby, I’ve been working really hard at setting realistic expectations. See, I’m a perfectionist, I have a very active imagination, and I put great importance on creating wonderful family memories. These three combined often make for highly fantastic fantasies and deadly disappointing realities, especially related to holidays, vacations, and any other large family events.

Moments ago, I was entering an amazing giveaway over at the Pioneer Woman’s website. (Oh, how I love her!!) Realistically, I have no chance of winning, as there were nearly 14,000 entries when I left my comment and only 3 available prize packages, but the prize was too amazing not to give it a shot. But I digress…

Back to my point.

To enter the giveaway, I had to leave a comment with my Thanksgiving plans. I started to write something about how we were going to my parent’s house this year, but I always come away disappointed, so we’ll likely have another Thanksgiving at our house on Saturday and invite some friends or whatever family wants to come so that I’ll have the opportunity to do it right. But that just seemed to negative to leave on the fabulous Ree Drummond’s site. So I sat for a moment and thought about what I could type that was both honest and uplifting. Suddenly, I had a beautiful moment of clarity. The truth, just as it is, is beautiful and uplifting. It’s only my bad attitudes and unmet expectations that spoil the beauty of the day. I wrote:

“We’re taking our four kids and joining my three siblings and their kids at my parents’ house. My mom does the turkey and the pies and we all bring the sides. I’m hungry just thinking about it!”

It’s simple. It’s true. And it provides all of the makings for my wildly fantastic holiday fantasies.

So why am I dreading it?

As I’ve already given away, the problem is me and my expectations.

While it’s true that my mother will likely do something (or lots of things) that annoy me, and my brother and his girlfriend will likely get in a “disagreement” at some point, and my kids will likely get in trouble for something that’s not really their fault, and my kids will likely do something horrific that is their fault, and my sister will try to disappear to sulk about some comment my mother makes to her…. (Sadly, I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you.)  None of this really matters. If I could just let that stuff roll off, it wouldn’t define the day.

But, unfortunately, I do the same thing every time. I arrive hoping for the best but expecting the worst, and right away I start keeping score. Each time something less than ideal happens, it impacts my hopes for the whole day. Usually, after I’ve been there for about 30 minutes, I’ve gathered enough evidence to decide that, once again, my holiday is going to be ruined.

And, if that weren’t bad enough, I walk in the door loaded down with all of the baggage from past ruined events. This means that I view little things as catastrophic because in my heart and mind I’ve combined their minuscule hurt with all the hurt experienced in the past. Suddenly, and before I’ve even had time to realize what happened, I’ve got a mountain where there was really only a molehill.

I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you how horrified I am to realize that I am the source of most of my holiday pain and frustration. But, more than that, I’m grateful. Relieved. Liberated. Hopeful. Maybe, now that I’ve gained some much-needed perspective, I can actually get around to creating some of the wonderful family memories I long for instead of grieving for unfulfilled fantasies and aching over wounds from the past.

This year is going to be different. This year is going to be wonderful. And it’s all going to start with me and my newfound realistic expectations.

(Is it just me or is this a great time to cue up some Michael Jackson??)

In the Narthex

We don’t have a cry room at our church, or else the title of this post would be “In the Cry Room” Over the years, we’ve belonged to parishes that have cry rooms and parishes that don’t. Regardless of what it’s called or where it’s located, it presents the same phenomenon. Something about walking through the door that separates one and their child from the rest of the church seems to make parents think that suddenly any and all behavior is acceptable.

Now, just to be clear, before anyone starts getting all upset about how I simply don’t understand what it’s like to have little ones in Mass, let me remind you: I have three very energetic little boys, currently 6, 5, and 2, and I’m also 28 weeks pregnant. I know all about being at Mass wondering why I even bothered to come. I know all about fighting off tears because of how hard I’m trying to manage my rebellious little one’s behavior, yet failing so miserably at it. But, I also know there’s a huge difference between desperately trying to convince an incorrigible wee one to behave and allowing that incorrigible wee one to do whatever s/he wants, however loudly s/he wants.

For those of you who are lost, let me back up. Many Catholic churches have some area, often a cry room, or in our case, the Narthex (which is basically just the foyer of the Church) where parents can take their little ones who are too loud to remain in the actual church. It usually has a glass wall and speakers so you can still participate in the Mass, but without your little one disturbing the entire congregation. Because of the sacredness of what it happening during the Mass, it is fitting that upset or loud little ones should be removed from the church until they settle down a bit. That’s what the cry room or other similar areas are intended for.

They are not areas designed for you to plop down right from the moment you arrive, accepting defeat before you ever even enter the battle.

They are not convenient places where you can spread your array of snack items, juice cups, video games, and toys all over the place for your child’s pleasure.

They are not your neighborhood park or playground, and, therefore, not the place for running, climbing, or any other park-like behavior.

But that’s exactly what they’re used for.

My husband and I work very hard to train our little ones to behave during Mass. We have very high standards for our children at Mass and expect our children to rise to the occasion, bearing in mind what they are actually capable of handling at their given age. We work with the children both during Mass and at home to ensure they understand what’s appropriate and what’s not. For the most part, these efforts have been successful. (And, thus, I get really annoyed when people comment about how “lucky” I am that my children behave during Mass. Luck has nothing to do with it.) But the fact remains that my children are children. There are times when the standards won’t be met. There are times that, for one reason or another, they are simply unable to behave as they should during Mass. It is times such as these that I need to take my child to the narthex.

But I feel like I can’t.

Because of the free-for -all that we will inevitably find when we walk through the door.

Because my little ones look around and think, “Wait. Why would I want to behave in the Church, when I could come to a party back here instead?”

Because instead of calming down they see all the kids behaving waaay worse then they were when were when I removed them from the church and very quickly jump on the bandwagon.

Because they want to know why all these kids (including many that are way past the age of reason) are hanging out on the floor playing video games, texting, or even TALKING on their cell phones.

There isn’t a place for me to take my child to redirect his behavior thanks to all the parents in the narthex allowing their children to go berserk. That’s simply not fair. If you’re going to allow your children to behave like wild monkeys, if you’re going to stand there chewing your gum and chatting with the mom next to you, in all seriousness, why did you bother coming? Surely a play date would have been a better use of your time.

Now, in case you can’t already tell, I have a really hard time being charitable about some things. I know I should simply pray for the narthex parents and offer a prayer of thanksgiving that, for whatever reason, they did find it important to make the effort to come to church. Some days I’m better at it than others.
Clearly, today is not one of those day.

I really resent the fact that after struggling with my child in the pew, I don’t have a place where I can take him to reinforce all the lessons we’ve been working on. I resent that all the parents who are too lazy, too tired, or too whatever to control their children undermine everything I work so hard on by the way they allow their children to behave.

I certainly don’t expect it to be quiet in the narthex, but what goes on back there is asinine. It is definitely not the sound of children who are struggling to behave and parents struggling to guide them. It’s just a giant play room. And, sadly, the parents aren’t usually behaving much better than the children.

I find it unfair that I’m stuck doing this dance where I’m trying not to actually leave the church because I know the chaos that awaits on the other side of that door. Yet, I’m trying to get far enough back where my 2 year old’s chattering or whimpering or uncontrollable squirming will be distracting to the least number of people as possible. The fact is, there’s a place I should be able to take him. I should be able to go to the narthex.

And in the narthex I should find parents fighting the same battle with me.

Parents who are actively participating in the Mass, but happen to also be trying not to drop their flailing child.

Parents who quietly redirect as their child begins singing the ABCs at the top of his lungs during the Sanctus.

Parents who, no matter how desperately hopeless the situation appears, remain convinced that they are, in fact, an authority figure to their child and have the obligation to train their child to behave better.

Parents who haven’t simply given up, leaving everyone around them to deal with the consequences.

Unfortunately, I don’t how to fix this problem. I suppose it’s a combination of catechizing the parents, offering some kind of parental support group or classes, and a great deal more charity on my part. It certainly isn’t a situation that could be resolved easily.

All that being said, I am so grateful that the Church is much more charitable than I am. She allows all people to be in the presence of our Lord, whether they realize they are or not. I’m grateful that, as always, Holy Mother Church holds up a high standard to me and expects me to rise to the occasion, just as I do with my children. It just frustrates me that these Narthex Parents don’t do the same.

Pray for me, as I obviously have a long way to go… I need to surrender my pride and grow in charity. I realize this, but, nevertheless, I remain frustrated. That being said, I suppose you’ll find me in the confession line this evening because, even after all this, and the realization that I am being called to grow, I still really dislike the Narthex Parents. St. Therese, pray for me.

On Being an Armless Supermom

As  I was just discussing with a girlfriend, I desperately need to invest in a baby sling or carrier to free up my hands. My lack of entries is evidence of the amount of time I actually have these days without a baby in my arms. So is my messy house, my subpar dinners, and my to do list, which has many more items added to it these days than items crossed off. Having three little ones at home has definitely been a huge change in terms of what I can get accomplished during the day. I’m either going to have to lower my standards for what being a homemaker means, quickly figure out a way to juggle my new responsibilities with my old ones, or quite possibly go crazy.

In all honesty the transition from two to three has been a breeze. Many people over the years, ranging from my mother to my Intro to Psychology professor freshman year of college, have told me how difficult the transition between two and three children is. I’ve heard horror stories about sibling jealousy, marital discord, and parental incompetence. I’m pleased to report that we are having issues in none of those areas. The boys are getting along smashingly…sometimes literally. My marriage seems to be unaffected. To my knowledge, neither Josh nor I feel incompetent to handle our brood, which now outnumbers us by one. As I recall, the transition from one to two was much worse. Ben has moved right in and I don’t think any of us remember life without him.

The only real challenges I’m facing are those encountered during the day on account of having no free hands. And as I mentioned earlier, this situation can be quickly remedied with the purchase of a sling or carrier. This purchase definitely needs to occur sooner rather than later or I might never be able to find the floor of my house, we may go broke thanks to my desperate pleas for Josh to pick up dinner on his way home, or we may just have to revert to people who never eat home-cooked meals and don’t remember what it’s like to find clean laundry in the dresser or what their house actually looks like sans mess.

The later is absolutely not an option. I am plagued with perfectionism and I could never live like that. I take pride in my home-cooked meals that I’m strategically placing on the table as Josh walks through the door in the evening. I love it when my mother inquires how my house could possibly be so clean despite the little monkeys that live here. Making a home is what I’ve chosen to do with my life and I intend to do it to the very best of my ability.

Truthfully, that mentality can be rather problematic for me. It makes me a little crazy sometimes as I’m racing to meet some goal or stretching to meet a standard that only exists in my own mind. However, for the time being, I’m perfectly capable of juggling my high expectations for myself and I don’t have any intention to lower them.  Down the road, sometime after reality smacks me in the face, I may write an entry or two documenting my journey to embracing realistic expectations of keeping house, raising a family, and what it means to be a good wife and mother. In the meantime we absolutely must purchase a baby carrier so I’m not forced to face my own human limitations.