The Penance I Struggle to Make Work

“You have searched me Lord, and you know me.” -Psalm 139:1

Before Easter, I rounded up my four and we headed to our parish penance service. I was going to meet my husband there. We needed the sacrament, of course, and it would be the second time our oldest received. And then, at the last minute, our 5 year old came down with a fever. The boys were cranky. I was at the end of my rope, and figured we’d skip our parish service and find another before Easter. I told our oldest, the “Passionate Princess”, and heartbreak spread over her face. She was looking forward to going! (Amazing! I am so grateful to our DRE for her hard work, and the second grade RE teacher, for making the sacrament not scary to these young souls! I was always afraid and dreaded going, even into adulthood.) Because my girl wanted so badly to receive the Sacrament of Penance, we went. I knew there would be extra graces in store for my younger kids, making a sacrifice so their sister could go to Confession.

We loaded up, met with my husband, and waited for the service to begin. I was stressed, to be sure, but not overly so. I wasn’t crying, I wasn’t a frumpy mess from not having time to dress appropriately. From all outward appearances, I was “put together”.

Since I had all the kids, my daughter and I got in line first so we could get back home quicker. I was in line for a face-to-face confession with a priest I’ve met before, but isn’t our parish priest. He also barely knows me. He might have remembered that I am the mother of 4 little children.

I made my confession, carefully, but without giving my life’s history of each sin. No “I was so stressed from a long day of homeschooling and preparing meals for our dietary challenged selves that I snapped and did XYZ.” Nope, I don’t roll that way. It was “I yelled, lost my patience…” etc. The specifics, but not too much information.

And then he spoke. But it was Jesus.

He told me, as part of my penance (and I feel comfortable sharing this, because it is part of how I am growing and walking along my journey, and how I am working to be a better mother raising my someday-saints), to take time for myself. Take time for myself! Inside, my jaw was dropping. How could this gentle, joyful priest know that I had been working non-stop to care for my family, struggling to have any time to rest in peace? How could he have known? He couldn’t, if not for the graces our priests have in the Sacrament of Confession. He couldn’t, without Christ being in him and using him in those moments. He also told me to rest in God’s Word, especially meditating on the story of Martha and Mary.

Martha and Mary. They always come back to me. I am too much of a Martha, struggling to be a bit more like Mary.

And I was told by our Lord to slow down, find some time (or make it!) for myself, and be with Him.


I struggle with this penance. It is a gift. It is like being given a certificate for a spiritual spa day, a spiritual pampering, but feeling guilty about using it. I don’t deserve this! And yet, our Lord’s mercy is a gift. It is a wonderful, amazing gift, and right now, it’s the kind that makes me feel warm and happy inside. I cried with joy at the priest’s–Christ’s–words to me.

I told my husband, who said, “I’ve been trying to tell you to get more time for yourself.”

I know. It’s true, and he kept trying to get me away to have time for myself. Bible study, wives’ nights out, running errands, whatever it may be. And it wasn’t “enough”.

This past weekend, it struck me. Even with the short prayer I kept adding throughout the day, the times out my husband was giving me, I needed something more. Those were all “Martha” times. I needed “Mary” time. Running errands without the kids, it’s great. But it’s not restful. It’s not “me” time. I realized that all the time I have been taking, it’s not at home. It’s not quiet. It’s not allowing me to be with Christ, or do the things that energize me, like my hobbies.

So, I decided to take painful measures to make this penance work. It is penance, after all. Even if I’m still gushing over the priest’s words to me, amazed with how Christ worked in him to see into my soul and bless me with such a wonderful penance, it is penance and penance can hurt!

I am waking up at 5:30am, to be alone and have time before the demands of the day must be met. It is time I can sip my lemon water, pray, blog, work on photos with Photoshop. It is my time. I begin each morning thanking God for another day, spend some time with His Word, and then I do what I don’t have time for when my family is awake. This short time in the morning is my “Mary” time, and the rest of the day, I can feel better about being “Martha”, because I have filled my tank already! I am filled so I can better serve my family and my Lord.

It is beautiful. It is hard to wake up at 5:30am. My littlest has been waking up at 5:30am these last few days, putting a cramp in my plans, but I have a feeling this is going to work, most days.

“You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.” Psalm 139:2-3


Tough Love

Parenting is hard. Having to raise children and train them, guide them, discipline them in hopes of them one day exercising their God-given free will in a saintly manner is tough! It pains me when my sweet babes are making poor choices, when they continue on the path to undesirable consequences. I can only imagine the pain our Father feels each time we choose a way different than the one He designed and offered us.

Lately, we have had a lot of tough love around our home. For whatever reason, our girls have found it funny (literally, tonight) to disobey. The privileges are running short around here! I won’t go into details of their poor choices, but they are five and seven…you can probably imagine myriad ways girls can find trouble, as we all have before. I find myself needing a system to deal with it, something more effective than what has felt like on-the-fly reactive discipline.

Last week, gymnastics was taken away for one practice time. Sadly, it might be a lost privilege for the rest of the season, which really breaks my heart. My girls are good at the sport, and truly love it. They have joined a mini-team, have special team leotards, and a mini-meet in two weeks. We have spent lots of time on this…I so much want to see them perform their routines. And yet, the lack of obedience, respect, and attentiveness to school work means they cannot participate. I pray they make good choices in the next few days! This is consequence I fear I might regret enforcing so rigidly.

My husband and I talked about a system to encourage good behavior. During Lent, we had a sacrifice bean jar. Each time the children did something kind, sacrificed something, did what they were told right away, etc, they put a bean in the jar. They loved watching their sacrifices add up. We decided to take the idea through the year. They each have a jar, marked with their initial, to collect pretty colored beads in for each good deed, obedience, kindness towards family, etc. we are hopeful this will encourage them. As they see their good deeds increase! I am considering rewarding them when a certain amount of beads are collected, as even more encouragement!

Something else I have considered is a list of rules or consequences for poor choices. These would be specific, like for talking back, refusing to complete a chore, not completing school work, fighting, arguing, etc. Each poor behavior would be followed with a predetermined consequence, always the same. I hope to make a list soon, and post it where we can all see it often. My girls will be reminded of what discipline they face,many my husband and I will be on the same page!

This part of love is tough! But I must remind myself that love is also patient and kind! What a delicate balance in raising our children to be saints.

“I just want to pedal!”

Today, my girl learned to ride her bike without training wheels. It was an amazing moment. Her joy is indescribable, though if any of you have a child who wanted something so badly they fought through tears to get it, you might know. I will look fondly on this for years to come.

It all started a few days ago. My husband decided it was time our seven year old learned to ride on just two wheels. Time for her to learn to balance and take that next big step into growing up, accomplish that thing nearly all kids do in these sweet, young years.

Little Miss wasn’t quite as enthused, but she was a good sport and tried a few times to gain her balance with Daddy’s help. I think fear, frustration, and general emotions of being overwhelmed got the best of her (and Daddy), and we decided to call it a day. We’d try again. I honestly thought it would take days and days of practice, coaxing, and encouraging before she’d be on the two wheels with no support. I was so wrong!

Today, she insisted upon riding her bike to the park, without training wheels. I lowered her seat, hoping she could learn to balance. Have you seen the bikes for toddlers, that have no pedals and no training wheels? It is like a sitting scooter, and when the child is ready, they left their feet, balance, and coast. Those bikes inspired the decision to lower her seat and hopefully give her a sense of balance. Before, she always leaned to the left, compensating for the bike tipping right onto a training wheel. The girl needed to learn balance!

Well, she scooted all the way to the park, and half way home. On the way home, she wanted me to support her while she pedaled. It is hard to balance a bike with a child on it while it moves! I tried to show her how to keep her body straight. She cried. I tried to hold her steady, she tipped and cried. We’d go about eighteen inches, she’d get frustrated and cry. I told her she could just walk her bike home and try again another day.

“But I want to pedal!” she’d say through her tears of frustration and determination.

I’ve learned in the last few years to stay as calm as possible through her emotions, so I had on my straight face, strong heart, and supportive Mama hat. This was a pivotal moment, to let her keep riding, tears and frustration and determination all mixed together.

“Ok, I will keep holding you while you get your balance.”

We did this for about five minutes, then she insisted that I let go.

I didn’t want to. She wasn’t keeping her balance. I let go, expecting her to fall over. Sometimes we have to fall to learn…

She was off! She didn’t even realize it, but she knew it. I ran along side her, in case she fell, but she was solid. She was riding, she was fast.

“This is so fun!” she shouted in a most delighted and joyful giggling voice.

My mama heart swelled with more pride and excitement than it has felt in a long time. And my girl kept laughing, shouting with joy, going over and over again on her bike. It was awesome.

Easter Doesn’t Mean Easy, but It Is Joy

Alleluia! He is risen! Death cannot and will not prevail!

Those words–and nothing like them–we’re the first in my mind or on my lips this morning. First of all, it was 3:35 am and my youngest was up, hungry. “grumble grumble, are you sure you’re hungry?” I ask, knowing that I will get him something to eat, tick him back in, and then fall asleep with him to save everyone else from waking.

Twenty-five minutes after, (roughly, I was sleeping again and didn’t check the time), I was awoken again. My oldest (aka the Passionate Princess) was up.
“Mama, I am dressed!”, she whispered in her Easter excitement. Of course, I am sure she was mostly excited for finding her Easter basket, but it was joy nonetheless. To which the sleepy, grumpy Mama replied, “That’s nice, honey, but it’s 4am. You can still get a few hours of sleep. Change and go back to bed.” Then I rolled over and fell asleep again.

Maybe an hour later, I stumbled back to my own bed, snuggled up with my hubs for a bit…and was awoken again by our oldest. She was dressed, again, and hungry. It was 5:45am. I walked her down to the kitchen for food, and the youngest woke up. Again wanting to spare the rest of the family, I let him stay.

And so began my Easter…I was not happy. They ended up cranky within hours because of missing out on sleep. I kept reminding us all that it was Easter, a day of joy. I reminded us all, over and over again, that we ought to be joy-filled instead of cranky. I told myself over and over again to breathe deep and put on joy, hoping to set the tone for everyone. I even donned the silly yet festive apron I have. Still, cranky! I told my husband that it still felt like Lent.

Even the first Easter still felt like mourning to the Apostles and Mary and the women, at first. Even after they knew our Lord rose from the dead, it was hard. Thomas doubted. They hid in fear. They questioned what was next. Maybe that is where I am, doubting, (wanting to hide from the whining), and questioning. When will they learn? When will I? When, what, how?

Easter is hope for the life yet to come, hope in our own resurrection with Christ, a new beginning. But it sure isn’t easy. Easter is the time of beginning…taking action while still waiting on the Lord, still learning what it all means. Today was joyful, because I hope all this I do with and for my family, will save us a spot at the eternal banquet which is the hope of Christ’s Resurrection.

How Does a Mother of Four Slow Down?

So, I wanted to spend this week, Holy Week, taking it easy. You know, waking up, making breakfast, then reading Bible stories to my children and resting in a calm, slower-paced, week. It was going to draw us all into the Passion, the stories, prayer. We would have had a beautiful, serene, “pretty” experience of Holy Week.

And then God saw my thoughts, read my mind, and laughed. Maybe not laughed, but shook his head in a loving way like good fathers do when they know what their children want, and know they won’t get it. I am not getting what I wanted this week. Not in the slightest. God had other plans. His plans? To live the Passion.

Yes, our Lord sees it fit for me to live Holy Week, praying through sickness, stress, worry, myriad household chores, tummy troubles for two kids, and more. This is not serene, calm, nor slow-paced. This is my personal Passion. It is, apparently, what I need. I keep falling. I keep getting up. Soon, maybe I will get a Simon to help me, and a Veronica to comfort me. In the meantime, I pray desperately for the grace to carry my cross like Jesus, with love, humility, perseverance. I unite my cross with His.

(and I wonder, how would I slow down anyway?)

To Be a Mary, or At the Foot of the Cross

Lent is now nearly over, and it seems that nearly every day our Lord has been teaching me that my ways and plans are not His. It is not that I am deliberately turning away and saying, “nanny nanny boo boo! I don’t want to, you can’t make me!” to his plans. It is more of a father gently telling me, often by letting me fall, “that way is not meant for you…stop, slow down, let me lead. I know a better way for you on this journey. Stop trying to leap over the rocks in the path, carefully and slowly walk around or climb over. Stop leaping. You can’t leap.”

I always try to leap…do too much at once, plan to get things done quicker than I can with four small children, “bite off more than I can chew”, you get the idea. I am sure many of us homeschooling mothers find ourselves in the same trap: there is so much to do, lesson plans to keep, household duties to attend to, liturgical plans we’d like to turn into real-life rituals in our homes…and if you are like me, you want to do it all, now, perfectly. Yes, I identity with Martha more than with Mary.

Ever since my last Confession, maybe even before then (but I am not always the best listener), God has been nudging me to slow down, rest, find peace in Him. My confessor told me to read the story of Mary and Martha, dwell with it and the lessons, and begin to take more time out for me, to be a Mary. I have tried, and tiny bits of progress are occurring. Tiny. But it is happening. After all, I am listening to the promptings of the Spirit now.

I was excited for Holy Week, and all the things I would do with my kids. Then, last night, my daughter (God’s Princess) started feeling sick, and was sick in her bed twice. Two loads of laundry, one candy cane, two cups of ginger ale, and 5 total hours of sleep later, I was staying home from Mass to care for her. Surely this is also part of God’s plan. He is symbolically throwing a wrench in my plans, forcing me to slow down and ditch all hopes of a beautifully crafted and liturgically decorated Holy Week. He is calling me to deeper prayer, prayer which has me on my knees begging for the grace to make it through one more night-waking. He is calling me to the foot of the cross, where his mother stayed, praying. He is calling me to his feet, listening and faithful in prayer, as Mary, his friend, was when he visited her home. Christ is calling me to forget about lovely decorating. Forget that, and sit with me. Bring your children to me, in the chaos you feel. Rest. Pray. Live this Holy Week with Me, carrying your cross.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added.” Jesus is speaking those words right to me, now. Yes, I will. I will (try my hardest!) to forget my ideal celebration of Holy Week, and live it at the foot of the cross. I will read Bible stories with my children in place of our regular studies, and listen to God speaking to us.

I will stop, slow down, and seek peace and rest at Jesus’ feet, and God-willing, that will be shared with my family, too.

Who is Raising Who?

(forgive me if I am using bad grammar in my title. I have never figured out when to use “whom” appropriately.)

It has struck me that I’m not the only one doing the work of raising others to sainthood in this family. In my head, of course I know that as a family, we are each working together to get each other to heaven. Don’t we all “know” that? It sounds so nice and noble when we talk about our vocations, our little domestic churches…the words are pretty. Talk is just talk, though, until our talk comes from the heart, from lived experience. And you know what? On my walk this Lent, Jesus has seen fit to teach me that I’m not just raising, I’m being raised.

Raised by my kids. Raised by my husband. I am no closer to heaven than they, and if it were not for them, who would be in the business of raising me to sainthood? I don’t say this disparagingly about them. They are incredible souls, each with great gifts from God. That is what I mean, really. Incredible souls show us the path to holiness, show us more joys of Christian living, show us that we don’t really know all there is to being people of God. I am learning from them! I am learning better how to live by following my own family. My 3 year old wakes up singing, and from him I learn joy. My 5 year old speaks to God and listens for His voice, which she actually hears. My 7 year old lives with an intense passion, and is asking to be able to receive the Sacrament of Penance again before Easter (we just went last week!). My husband is faithful in-spite of his own “dark night of the soul”, and thanks God daily for his job (a job which is less than ideal and full of great stressors, but a job providing for our family). My 2 year old is silly, deeply devoted to his siblings, and smiles with his whole being. They are raising me, teaching me about growing in faith, love, understanding.

Now I am realizing from my heart this truth about “the family helps each member to get to heaven.” I am living it, by way of the humbling experiences each day in which I learn from my children and my husband. We are raising each other towards sainthood, daily, through our simple lives.

“it would be better to just go to heaven…”

The other day we were listening to Catholic radio in the van, and heard the story if a man who came back to life when a priest visited him. The priest had been called to the hospital, but arrived minutes after the old man was pronounced dead. Wanting to see if my girls had paid attention, I asked them if they heard, and retold the story. While my oldest had her jaw dropping to the floor, my younger daughter was less impressed by the miracle. In her words, “It would be better for him to just go to heaven and not have the chance to do anything bad anymore.”

How right you are, my dear, if only we are doing enough good to begin with.

Homeschooling and Practicing Love

My oldest is seven, completing second grade equivalent work at home. This is our second year homeschooling, after one year of preK and then Kindergarten in a public school. We chose to homeschool when we moved to California (reasons which might be detailed later). It has proved to be a special kind of learning experience for all of us, one fraught with struggle and drama lately.

These times are made for prayer, and practicing love in a truly supernatural way. If not for prayer, deep breaths (in which I literally breathe all the way to my toes and back out again…counting to ten s-l-o-w-l-y so I don’t explode from sheer frustration and exasperation), and what has become nerves of steel, I would enroll the Passionate Princess in school, right now. Or yesterday, in fact. Oh, our days would be smoother, quieter, more predictable…until she came home from an exhausting 6+ hour day, with homework to complete. Then the battles would begin. I have heard it said recently that homeschooling magnifies problems that already exist, because parent and child are always together. It’s probably true.

Even in Kindergarten, as an above-average reader and good student (read: one quiet enough to not get into trouble, liked just enough to not be forgotten or lost in the “cracks” of the system), we struggled with homework. Assigned once a week, it was a dreaded time. She just loathes (if you were a fly on my wall, you would know this is no exaggeration) to write, do things she thinks are too easy, or put her mind to a task that seems hard. She writes beautifully. Her penmanship amazes family. She pens stories on her own time. Her creativity and grasp of language exceed her age. This is not a matter of ability. It is entirely a matter of applying herself and doing her best. (If you happen to be a wiser and more experienced mother than I, please feel free to gently share your gems of wisdom with me.)

I have found homeschooling to be a test of love. Patience, yes, but more love. If it were not for love, I would not be in this epic struggle to begin with. If it were not for love, I wouldn’t care about how patient I was or wasn’t. If it were not for love, I would give up. Surely, I sound like a clanging cymbal many days, but I am trying to grow in love just as much, even more, than I am trying to be an example of virtue to my sweet offspring.

Love is my driving force. You know what? Love hurts. It hurts like labor and childbirth hurt. Love hurts like dying on the cross. Now, I have no idea what Jesus’ death felt like, but I do know that I have to carry my cross each day. Picking up my cross every morning and trying to carry it joyfully, that is love. Last week, on Catholic radio, someone said, “If the greatest man who ever lived carried a cross, so should we, and we are blessed to carry one after his example” (or something very nearly like that). What wisdom there is in this!! Christ calls us to love, he calls us to pick up our crosses, he calls us to imitate him.

And I fail, miserably. But I keep getting up, under the weight of my cross, after I fall. I keep trying. That is what matters. That is what makes a difference in my children’s lives. It hurts.

Last week, it hurt. It hurt me, it hurt my oldest, it just hurt; which now brings me back to where I started: love and homeschooling. Last week began with Drama. Yes, Drama with a capital “D”. It was an event of magnitude, a cauldron of emotion was boiling over from within my oldest, stirred up by her writing assignment. Remember, she is an excellent writer, but hates it. This spewing of emotion was so great that the resulting consequences to clean up her spew-age HURT. I really dislike the “tough” side of discipline, but it has to be done to enforce boundaries. Last Monday was one of those days. Sent to her room after spewing anger all around, she continued to scream about it, upsetting her younger brothers. After she’d calmed to a dull simmer of emotion, I took her a notebook with an apology to write and Bible verse to copy. Suffice it to say, her anger continued to boil over. It wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon, around 1pm, that the apology was carefully finished and the unfinished work started again. She had to skip gymnastics for the week, having behaved poorly and not completed work. She missed on Thursday for the parish penance service. Yes, Love hurt last week.

But Love gave new life.

Oh, did we ever see a change. For the rest of the week, I held my breath, waiting for another outburst. Instead, my oldest surprised me (and delighted me) with raising the standard on herself. She did her work, without complaint, and neater than I’ve seen yet. She asked for more to learn. When Thursday evening rolled around and my 5yr old came down with a low-grade fever, my oldest was  truly disappointed she might miss going to Confession. I dragged us all out so she wouldn’t miss it. (Lord, please give my youngest three extras graces for bearing their time quietly while waiting). By Friday afternoon, she was still joyfully completing her work, helping extra around the house, even waking early one day and cleaning the kitchen for me.


(If you are still with me by now, thank you.) I learn about love daily. I learned a lot last week, that sometimes, in loving and lovingly disciplining our children to be their best selves, sometimes the results are slow to appear. And sometimes, the fruits of our labor grow quickly. We can never tell, but we can always love, and wait patiently for God to do the rest.

Prayer Challenge: Pray for Your Sons

Prayer is powerful. Someday I hope to know exactly how powerful. In the meantime, I trust that it is a most amazing way to communicate with God and allow Him to work miracles in our lives.

Today, a friend of mine posted about an upcoming prayer challenge. It is 21 days, dedicated to praying for our sons. I love the idea of dedicating prayer to our boys. Sponsored and hosted by the MOB Society (Moms of Boys), a duo of friends who are raising their boys to love Christ, the challenge begins in May. Go sign up now! I am looking forward to it! Here is where to sign up: prayer for sons.