Megan Cottam encourages young moms to endure the family trials of Mass.
There is an invisible world inside Mass life for young families. We walk into church scouting all possible exits, the least visible pew, and where we stand if our children cry out. We’ve tested nearly every toy on the market to find the smallest, most silent, closest-to-religious object we can find to keep our kids’ attention. Our beginning prayers are less “Good morning, Jesus!” and more “Please, Lord, let my children make it through this Mass without embarrassment!” There is always one eye and ear and usually a hand navigating our toddlers while we desperately strain to focus on the liturgy. Our deepest fear is making eye contact with anyone around us, lest we see them judging our children’s (mis)behavior.
Dear Mamas: I see you. You’re doing great. It is worth it.
My largest anxiety when my husband went through formation to the diaconate was not the long hours, the work, or the responsibility. It was the realization that I would be sitting with my children in Mass alone, left to deal with stares and judgment and temper tantrums while every single person in the congregation knew exactly who we were. There were certainly moments where I questioned why I was even doing this, and if Mass attendance was no more than an occasion of sin for my patience.
However, after years of struggle, I have learned something important in this process: Most of the judgment and negativity was self-inflicted. The harsh words about my parenting were my own. Did I have a look or two throughout my years? Absolutely. But mostly, I had grace, empathy, and help.
I had ushers help me navigate a graceful exit during the homily and sneak back into the communion line just in time. I had moms and grandmas sit with me when I was alone or sit next to my older child so I could better contain the younger one. I had parishioners tell me how nice it was “to see our family was normal and not perfect all the time” on those particularly rough days. And I had pastors who engaged my children in conversation in their entire spectrum of moods.
The full fruit of enduring those hard Masses came a few weeks ago, with my now 7-year-old. She had a disappointing day at the neighborhood pool after a friend from school did not want to play with her. She was sad, lethargic, and clinging to me as we entered the church doors.
However, from the moment we arrived, Jackie was greeted by everyone as if she were their grandchild. She was asked to bring up the gifts during the offertory, and she beamed as she handed Father the vessel. Father gave an encouraging smile back, thanking her by name, and she could have burst. At the sign of peace, everyone gave extra smiles and waves. By the end of Mass, she was singing and swaying in the pew with confidence. Afterwards, everyone came up to tell her she did a great job and ask about her upcoming school year.
As we got in the car, Jackie stopped and looked at me:
“You know, Mom, going to Mass always puts joy in my heart! I feel great now!”
There it was. The reason for why we do this.
When the world is harsh, Jackie has a community where she belongs. No one realized the impact they were having on her day, but my church family showed up when it mattered.
Now, these individuals have heard my daughter scream. They watched her have blow-out diapers in the middle of sacred moments, and wiggly fits during many Masses. They witnessed me hold her during entire liturgies when she didn’t make it through the opening song. There was a 6-month stretch when she was so anti-Mass that Father put me in charge of working the commons AV equipment because he knew I was going to be standing out there anyway.
It is with these memories of her growing up, not of her being perfect, that they were able to minister to her needs that day. They love her precisely because she invaded their pew and kneeler space, not because she went unnoticed like some small statue of piety we think our kids need to be at liturgy. And the years of building a routine despite the wiggles and cries have made Jackie comfortable and confident to be there.
No one in our parish families is perfect, but we endure together towards the Cross, learning to love one another and to accept that love ourselves. We are meant to live out the messiness of life in community, and that gift truly is a joy to the heart.
Copyright 2022 Megan Cottam
Images: copyright 2018 Holy Cross Family Ministries, all rights reserved
About the Author
Megan Cottam, Lay Ecclesial Minister in the Diocese of Richmond, has focused her ministry on early childhood formation (0-5), parent and family agency, and the sacramental life in the domestic church. Wife to Deacon Steven and mom to two wonderful young children, she is learning how to live out her faith at home with each daily opportunity for grace!