I have always fancied myself as a natural diplomat who might have missed my true calling in life. Until, that is, I came head to head with my four-year-old niece, who was facing a sartorial crisis on Saturday afternoon.
I could hear her sobbing from her bedroom because her dress was “tooo [gulp] smaaaalll”, and so I ventured upstairs, confident I could coax her to get dressed and come and attend her own birthday party.
“Everyone’s waiting for you downstairs and they want to start the party. Why don’t you wear the dress but with a different top underneath?” I ventured. Her lips quivered.
“Or we could find you something else?”
This solution was met with fresh howls and shakes. I clocked my brother’s weary gaze; I clearly wasn’t helping, so I scuttled away.
She rallied in the end and made a sparkling appearance in her new party frock which really was a perfect fit. I looked at my brother with solemn respect for his persuasive powers. Parents who can negotiate with four-year-olds would make mincemeat out of the European Union.
My niece’s meltdown was probably due to tiredness. That morning she had been thoroughly enjoying herself at our regular Catholic Families meet-up. It involves a group of local families with young children meeting up every two months for a few hours of fellowship.
Like any good Catholic gig, we began with Mass, and like any normal parent, I spent most of it preventing my one-year-old from dismantling the church rather than saying my prayers.
Mass was followed by lunch, games and making Advent wreaths. As the idea of our group is to support the catechesis of our kids, our chaplain spoke directly to the children about Advent during his sermon as they gathered around the altar.
“How can we best prepare for Jesus’s birthday during the season of Advent?” he asked.
After a long pause, one little girl finally raised her hand: “We can open our hearts and minds to God,” she whispered.
“And how can we do that?” Father asked.
“We can pray,” said another.
By Saturday evening, it was time to accompany my husband to his work social. I ended up talking at length to a loquacious blonde lady who was passionate about her part-time work with Botox. “I’m so precise!” she told us repeatedly, so much so that I wondered if I should take a hint. She eagerly showed us before and after pictures of women’s lips which had been filled with Botox, in order to make them look more alluring. “Perfection!” she exclaimed. “Perfection!”
But I found myself feeling rather sad. First of all, will women like me, who hope to reject Botox in years to come, look old and haggard compared with everyone else my age? Second, is it reasonable to expect women who have loved, laboured, grieved and lived to bear no trace of this at all in their faces?
Wrinkles and crow’s feet are the least of my worries, anyway. Sunday’s Gospel was hair-raising, warning us that “men will faint with fear and foreboding at what is coming on the world”.
The sense of gloom that followed this reading hung heavier than usual, as it was the first Sunday in our parish when 11.15am Mass was not celebrated. It never will be again, sadly. The decision to drop one of our Sunday morning Masses is the result of our parish being “clustered” with another local parish, in order to address the shortage of priests.
“Clustering” is likely to be a common occurrence in the years ahead for the Church, although it does not sit easily with many Catholics. Five minutes observing pew etiquette at Mass will confirm this. There is almost an uncontrollable impulse in most Catholics to bag the emptiest pew and cling on to the very end of it, as if our souls depended on it.
I broke a rule of parenting in an attempt to write this article. It had been an unusually busy weekend, and in the interests of saving time I whipped out my iPhone and made notes while I was supervising my toddler.
Usually, I try not to look at my phone in front of him at all, after reading a worrying article in The Atlantic about smartphone use and its detrimental impact on child development, along with my gut instinct that it just ain’t right to expose kids to our addictive behaviours. But it is still appalling how much time I waste scrolling through utter nonsense on various websites. So much so that I’m planning to cut out social media altogether for Advent – and perhaps all liturgical seasons that follow.
You might be feeling guilty that you’re relaxing with the Catholic Herald, rather than finishing your Christmas shopping. But read on, as I heard a sound piece of advice the other day for parents trying to resist the commercial pressures of Christmas. The maximum number of presents per child is four: something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read.