Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Dear Father, and Deacon, and Anyone Else Who Has Ever...

... made an assumption.

First of all, the Ginormous Disclaimer:

I know that 99-Point-A-Gigantic-Decimal-Value-That-Means-Almost-One-Hundred-Percent of priests and deacons are sensitive men of God who do not make hurtful assumptions, and even if they occasionally do, they do not make them to demolish anyone. They do it because they are human, as the rest of us are. And we've all made assumptions that could be hurtful to someone we don't know well. So, we're all guilty of this in one way or another. I've been on both sides of this hurt.

But recently I received a comment on my post, A Good Catholic Familyand it broke my heart.

The commenter (who has had nine miscarriages) said:

We were leaving the chapel and walking behind a mom and her six kids. The deacon saw them and said, "Oh how wonderful, what a blessing your children are!" He looked at me and my two kids, turned away and said nothing. 

"Ouch" doesn't begin to describe what happened here. I had something similar happen after my fifth miscarriage, and it took everything in me to hold myself together in the moment and get through it. I told myself that the person reacting to me didn't know me, and didn't mean to be hurtful but I was living with some intense grief, and grief magnifies everything.

The commenter went on to say:

I sometimes feel that the clergy and the Church treat large families as being more holy or blessed than small families. It can be very lonely, especially as a homeschooling mom where the more kids you have the more you seem to be valued in the group and within the Church. 

I know this whole thing gets tricky to even talk about because this stuff leads to defensiveness on both "sides." But there are no "sides" when it comes to large families and small families. There are merely realities.

And since, when we are faced with the visible reality of many kids vs. few-or-no kids, we cannot possibly know what the invisible reality is, we also cannot possibly make a judgment about what's going on in a family, and why would we? It's really none of our business. As I pointed out in "A Good Catholic Family" there are struggles (and losses and pain) in all families -- large, small, and everything in between. Large families have to put up with rude comments about their visible fruitfulness, and their openness to life has often led to miscarriage and other loss in their families, just as it has in the families that have remained small. And there are struggles for those who are single, struggles for those widowed, or divorced, or .... you get the picture. Life is a struggle. For all of us. Let's look for the places where we can build each other up, not judge each other down.

The final hurt this commenter recounted was this:

Another homeschooling mom of six pointed to my children and said,"These aren't your only two?"

Again, I can only sputter that, having been on the receiving end of such things, it, it, it ... hurts when someone assumes she knows why I have the children I have. Please don't assume. Dear Father, Dear Deacon, Dear Acquaintance, Dear Homeschooler, Dear Fellow Catholic, Dear Me (as I always need my own advice) ... don't assume.

Instead, befriend. Listen. Understand. Be Kind. We're all fighting great battles. Do we really need to fight each other?


Updated 10/13/14: 


Bonnie said...

Excellent article. I have 3 wonderful children and when i used to get those comments "are these your only" my response was "I accept what the good Lord gives"

Karen Edmisten said...

That's a great response, Bonnie.

Yes, I sometimes say, "These are the three I have with me, but we have quite a few in heaven, too."

So much has depended on where I am in the grief process. There have been times when I could answer only in tears, but now, with years and distance since our last loss, I am peaceful when I am asked such questions. We have the life that God allowed us, and I am happy in that knowledge. But I still have so much compassion for those who are suffering, wondering, waiting for children ... it's hard to be in that place and also be confronted by insensitive questions.

Jenny said...

God that's awful.

I love Bonnie's response.

Thanks for the reminder of yet another reason why we're instructed not to judge. Your transparency is a gift.

Karen Edmisten said...

It is awful, isn't it? That poor woman, after nine miscarriages.

And the poor man would be mortified (in the colloquial and the Catholic sense) if he knew the reality, I'm sure.

Thanks for your kind words, Jenny, and for all that you do and write.

Anonymous said...

People who are not in any way offensive can also come across that way when they "don't know your story". I did this and wish I could beg forgiveness to the poor woman I said it to.

When my husband and I first came into the church, I was getting used to all these big families. There was a woman at our parish that started talking with me and introduced her daughter. I said "Oh, is she your oldest?" And with such sad eyes she said "No, she is our only." I told her her daughter was lovely and sweet. I never saw them again. I still feel that I could have been more sensitive toward her. I'm not one to remember interactions like this, but I still see the hurt in her eyes that I caused without meaning to.

Words matter.

Karen Edmisten said...

Oh, Anonymous, I've done it, too. We all say things that might hurt because we don't know someone's story. I've done it in articles that were intended to make a particular point but struck a hurtful chord with someone. Most of us never mean to hurt with such innocent questions or statements, and clearly you didn't. It doesn't sound to me at all as if you were insensitive -- you immediately realized her situation and you *were* sensitive to it.

tammy cordery said...

Everybody has a comment about everything about everybody. You can never get away from people criticize you or your family. We are expected not to judge but always we are being judged by God and everyone even the clergy criticize them selves because I am hearing all the time about what this priest said about this one and on and on all they way down to the people in the pews. It is sad.

Karen Edmisten said...

I think we certainly all fall into judgments!

Anonymous said...

This was such a great post for ME to read. I have a bad tendency towards quick judgements. It is a fault I have and I rebuke myself whenever I do it.

Now, saying that, sometimes when we feel offended or hurt by another's comments, maybe it's more about our own hurt, then what the other person said. I think sometimes we assume the worst in another's comments, or think 'If only they knew'. But the thing is, most people are just trying to make small talk and they can't 'know' something that isn't made aware to them. When someone has made a comment to me about the number and/or spacing of my kids (which for me is a sensitive topic) I just smile and remind myself that they usually mean well, or are just commenting from their own experiences, good or bad.

I agree with what you say at the end, and wish we as women especially did it more often. Let us love and build each other UP.

Anonymous said...

First, I do not like posting as anonymous; however, my phone is acting up. I'm Kara- hello :)

I just wanted to comment because I felt you were very tactful on both sides of the fence. I've read a number I articles recently in complete defense of the woman struggling with infertility that frankly carried a tone of "those who have been blessed with fertility are out to get me, judge me, look down upon me, etc." And I just love how you caution on big sides because I've befriended many women who feel they have been shunned, pushed aside, etc by a friend in their life who struggles with infertility simply because thy have been blessed by many. Blessings to you for walking the line beautifully.

Karen Edmisten said...

Kara, thanks so much for those very kind words and for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it!

And Anonymous (commenter above Kara's comment), I think you're right that people usually just mean well or are trying to make small talk. That wasn't exactly the case with this deacon's actions, but in general I think it's true.

I've had similar conversations with friends about homeschooling comments. Some homeschooling friends see certain comments about homeschooling as a bit offensive, but I usually take them with a grain of salt and think people are mostly just curious.

We can all use these reminders now and then! :)

Molly Walter said...

Ugh, this is why I want my "My Other Children Are In Heaven" sign on my back when I go to church. I usually wonder what our new priest wonders about our one almost 4 year old so much it's almost a distraction.

Fr. Scott said...

A great post, as always! This one’s stuck with me for a few days.

Speaking only for priests, I wonder if I can offer a suggestion to those who have posted comments. Priests are guys. We’re almost always unmarried and almost always have no experience with fertility beyond what we read or from the people we encounter. We are pro-life, pro-family people. Think, though, what most unmarried non-fathers know about fertility—almost nothing. Think about how couples are different the second time that they are pregnant from the first time. Experience gives perspective and understanding. We don’t generally have either. In particular, young priests are zealous and excited about being priests, but they've got a lot to learn and in a lot of areas. Most of their friends are their age, too, and with couples often putting off even the desire for children later and later, young priests often don’t know many people who have lost children or struggled to get pregnant. If they do, this subject is only recently something people seem to talk about, and often not something people bring up to us. What we rely on is experience gathered from people around us. It doesn’t take long, I don’t think, to see how so many people struggle with fertility and pregnancy, but we need time and experience to see this. So, here’s my suggestion. Just tell us. But, don’t do it right after Mass or in passing. Like everyone else, we receive criticism better when we trust the people giving it. Invite us over for dinner, ply us with coffee and pie, and then bring it up. We become priests because we want to be involved in the lives of the people around us, so involve us (and I reemphasize the pie...).

In my own experience, the early friendships I made as a priest were incredibly formative. Luckily—and gratefully—people had the goodness to do exactly what I’ve suggested. As a result, I treasure those friendships, in general, and the trust they give, in particular. In short, my friends who have been willing to share their struggles with me and let me share my struggles with them, have helped me to learn how to be a better priest.

As it turns out, Atticus makes a killer coconut cream pie.

Karen Edmisten said...

Oh, Fr. Scott, how dearly we love you! :) You're the best. (I am turning your comment into a follow-up post, ok?)

There will be pie here when you get back to the U.S. :)

Dear Molly, I was going to reply to you and say it doesn't matter what your priest *thinks* -- what matters is what you, your husband, and Jesus *know.*

But now, all I want to say is, "What Fr. Scott said!" :)

Karen Edmisten said...

By the way, Fr. Scott, I meant to say that it was lovely to find this comment from you today because early this morning, this post was on my mind again for some reason, and I kept thinking about my friend who has a son in seminary. I was thinking about how valuable it would be for the youngest and newest priests to hear more about this -- I had lots of unformed thoughts about all this, and I love the way your comment brought it all together.

Also? You already know this, but we are and will always be extremely grateful for all the ways you have influenced and taught us as well. Your friendship was and remains a gift.

sarah said...

This is such a beautiful post. I could say a thousand things in response, but all I can manage is to thank you for speaking for those of us who, faced with such hurtful questions, are dumbstruck with grief. And I also want to send a hug to those people (like me, alas) who sometimes say stupid things without meaning to, out of sheer clumsiness because their hearts are full and tend to spill over in the wierdest ways.

Andrea said...

Great post. We have 2 children through a adoption. We had been married for 6 years before we brought our first son home - 6 years of being judged for having no children. It hurt a lot.

Anonymous said...

I remember when I was in a convent, a priest who was one of 12 siblings came to visit. He wasn't there 10 minutes before he went around to each Sister asking how many siblings they had, giving high-fives and encouraging words to those with 5 or more siblings, and being silent for those who had any less. I had never been so humiliated and ashamed to be "only" one of four. Looking back now, I see how ridiculous his behavior was, but now as a mother, it still stings.

I have always dreamed of having a very large family; but now, it looks like this will not be God's will for us. We have three children now, but may never have more, and it breaks my heart more than I can express. Our cross is not infertility, but we have various reasons we need to use NFP to avoid pregnancy, possibly even until menopause. It looks as though God may truly will us to remain a smaller family, and I have to resign myself by saying, "Not my will, but Thy be done, Lord," even though it hurts a lot sometimes. It especially hurts when people make assumptions about our family; I often feel like I need to explain myself so other people won't judge me. A huge part of that is my own pride, of course, but it would be nice if smaller families weren't automatically pegged as somehow less faithful or holy, which, unfortunately, does happen. In certain circles, it happens A LOT. You can encourage and commend large families without doing it at the expense of smaller families!

GraceofAdoption said...

After going through infertility for five years, with no conception, this post is close to my heart. Thank you for posting. If nothing else, one thing that infertility has taught me is not to judge or assume. Everyone has a cross, and whatever that cross is for them, it is both difficult and sanctifying.

Karen Edmisten said...

Sarah, thank you. But I can't imagine you ever saying something stupid. Hugs to you!

Andrea, that's so hard -- I'm so sorry you had to endure those comments and judgments. Blessings to you and your family, and I wish I could give you a hug.

Anonymous, wow! I am dumbstruck by the actions of that priest! So terribly insensitive and ridiculous. I'm so sorry. Hugs to you, too!

I think -- going back to what Fr. Scott said -- that our priests are facing a world so accepting of contraception, etc., that they think they are fighting the good fight -- but there are wise and loving ways to do that, and there are hurtful and ridiculous ways. Arrgh.

Grace of Adoption -- I'm so sorry for your pain, too, and you sum it up perfectly when you say that our crosses are always difficult and sanctifying. Yes, yes. So true. Blessings, and prayers and hugs to each of you!