Immaterial gifts

(c) Littlehampton Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Ever since I became a mother, I’ve been thinking about the connection of parenthood with gift giving. Gift giving for children is a subject fraught with strong opinions. And while I am interested in the relationship of physical objects in a child’s life and formation, I’m thinking here more of immaterial things.

It’s easy to become jealous of other parents who can afford all the organic/handmade/designer things for their children. Or of the private schools, neighborhoods, and travel destinations they’ll get to enjoy. Or to be persuaded by the false idea that certain things you may pass on to a child are gifts rather than what really might be burdens: opinions, political views, aesthetic taste, unfulfilled life dreams etc. Even beyond lovely and unquestionably good gifts of homecooked meals or craft time or, heck, reading, writing, and arithmetic, there are more foundational gifts Christian parents in particular are called to give their children. These gifts aren’t bound by money or intelligence, but only by love. Only by a mother or father’s willingness to conform their will to the One who is Love.

An existence rooted in love

In a world that wishes to make the starting point of existence conveniently vague, to turn children into commodities ready to be harvested and purchased when desired or blotted out when inconvenient, it’s a gift to root a child’s existence in the loving marital embrace of a husband and wife. By conceiving and receiving a unique and unrepeatable human being, a husband and wife live out the life-long vows they made the day they wedded themselves to one another: that they were “prepared to accept children lovingly from God”. And by being conceived and received as such, a child comes to know the truth that all creation is willed into existence by love–that, as a philosophy professor of mine once said, “all existence is a love affair with goodness.”

A recognized and honored identity

The mystery of the baby in the womb is thrilling and exasperating. You see them first during the ultrasound and now this abstract, fuzzy idea of your baby becomes concrete and breathtaking. Then, perhaps, you find out whether you are having a girl or a boy and you start to visualize the little person that’s about to make their entrance. Then you give birth to them and see them face to face and, maybe like I did, think, “Who are you??” Of course you don’t know their personalities yet. Their quirks. The things that will fill them with joy or irritate them. And honestly, it’s hard to even know what they really look like, all squashed and newbornish as they come.

But there are a few things you know and that you gift to your child by recognizing and honoring: that they are your son or daughter. That they have a heritage rooted in the families and cultures you’ve come from. But far more importantly, that they are are a son or daughter of God and have been made in His image and likeness. That they have a spiritual heritage: a family in the communion of saints.

That they are born with a free will that is most free when it is united to God’s will. That they are born with a vocation written in their hearts that you as a parent can’t alter or substitute with your own desire.

That they are ultimately not yours, but ultimately God’s. That they never fully belong to you. Not when they are growing in your belly or sleeping milk-drunk against your shoulder or at any moment beyond. That they are intended for deepest union with God and may be invited into that union in ways or at times unwelcome by you. To relinquish that control, to forever be reminding them of their identity and what that identity calls them to is a gift.

A name

A name is a powerful thing. A word imbued with such significance as to summon up a whole person in your mind. And you hope the names you choose for your children will be lovingly repeated again and again all the days of their life and for years after they’ve passed.

Names far too often become style symbols: a way to reflect the parents’s good taste and originality. Moreover, parents jealously guard them from “name-thieves” and woe be to anyone who “steals” the name they’ve chosen.

But a name is not a parent’s possession. Rather, it’s something that ought to be chosen and gifted for the good in itself that it is. How beautiful to give a child a name with namesakes of saints and angels and family members who then are called upon beyond time and space to become dear friends, guardians, and role models for the child. How beautiful it is to remember firstly that a name is not something in which to look for glowing reactions from others, but the very thing under which your child will be baptized and therefore forever be tied to his or her most fundamental identity as a Christian.

An understanding of reality

It’s easy to view childhood as a dreamy space removed from reality; that is, removed from suffering and sorrow. But reality is more than just hardship. It’s the fact that there is a ground beneath your feet and a sky above your head. That the physical world is impregnated with transcendence. That there are metaphysical confines of time and space which can be frustrating, but can also be made holy. That, like the mathematical laws that keep a cathedral standing through the centuries, there are absolute laws of nature written in the heart of man that must be upheld lest the architecture of human relations comes crashing down. But that within these solid and unchangeable truths of nature, there are a myriad of beautiful nuances. As Gerard Manley Hopkins so perfectly writes:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Too often, adults withhold the beauty of reality from children because of their own relativistic confusion and fear of imposing absolutes on anyone. Parents and teachers mistakenly believe they are forming open-minded people, when instead they are turning out empty-minded people. Instead of imposing absolutes, they impose their own anxieties on susceptible minds left to fumble through the world as a distorted funhouse of mirrors. It’s, therefore, a child’s birthright to be rooted in reality. It’s a gift to share with a child stories and conversations that reflect reality, to give them experiences of the God-given diversities in nature and in people, and to sanctify the time they spend and the spaces they inhabit (i.e. living the liturgical year and making the home a domestic church). It’s through these things that a parent gives a child a cohesive and awe-filled vision of the universe.

Faith

There’s a moving part in the novel, Brideshead Revisited, where the character of Julia Flyte laments that she wasn’t able to give her childhood faith to her stillborn child:

“I hadn’t thought about religion before; I haven’t since, but just at that time, when I was waiting for the birth, I thought, ‘That’s the one thing I can give her. It doesn’t seem to have done me much good, but my child shall have it.’ It’s odd, wanting to give something one had lost oneself.”

The indelible mark left by her own baptism makes Julia realize that the passing on of faith to one’s child, no matter how poorly you’ve adhered to it, is a gift.

We are creations living in a created and fallen world so we necessarily need a relationship with the Creator to navigate the fallenness and to reach our final, intended end with Him. That relationship is nourished and cultivated through concrete things such as the sacraments, Sacred Scripture, the moral teaching of the Catechism, the works of mercy, and little traditions and devotions. It’s up to parents to integrate all the aspects of their lives with these things.

A community

There’s a reason a child is born to a mother and father rather than growing out of the ground or dropping from the sky: because we are meant for community. And there is nothing like the community of family to form a person in joy and humor and, you know, to painfully stretch their soul in virtue. This is why being open to having more children (i.e. siblings) is a gift to a child. This is why investing yourself in the larger community of extended family, friends, and neighbors is a blessing. Why choosing good and holy godparents for your child is so important. Why reading stories of the saints (i.e. their spiritual community) with your children is a gift. Why considering something radical like communal living might be a weightier choice for your child’s life than whether you should formula feed or co-sleep.

A lived theology of the body

This is tied deeply to growing up in a healthy, loving community and having a sane sense of reality, but I think it deserves its own section. We are incarnational beings in an incarnational world. But it’s a fractured world where body and soul are often at odds with one another. A world where we are never comfortable with our bodies because of ever-changing standards. Where bodily autonomy reigns even to the point of medicated self-destruction. An over-sexualized world where bodies are objectified and the caution-tape language of consent must be learned at a young age. It’s frankly scary to have a body in this world.

So one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is an lived theology of the body. To teach them, through the everyday touches of life and our conversations with them, that there will always be a tension between the desires of the body and the soul but that body and soul are meant to be reconciled and redeemed. That our bodies are groaning for the resurrection. That the bodily actions that make up our days and our lives (washing dishes and hugging and resting and crying and dancing and, yeah, sex or the sacrifice of it) are all profoundly bound up in our relationship with one another, with God, and with the course of history.

An appreciation for stories

This one might not seem as foundational as all the other ones listed, but there’s something to be said about every human culture valuing storytelling even before written language existed (or you know, before long-form Netflix tv shows). More crucially for the Christian, history is not simply a random succession of events, but the story of salvation, and we are living in that story. As such, all good stories dramatize truths about the human condition in light of the creation, fall, and redemption. And this is why good, compelling stories matter and can change your life.

Far better than I could ever put it, Jessica Hooten Wilson argues for the need to be scandalized and changed by good stories:

I hope that we…that we do not turn away from the stories that may shape us into better humans, better Christians, more faithful sons and daughters. For as Christians we all live in the shadow of the Book of books, and we all desire with great fear, trembling, and hope to be scandalized by the Word made flesh.

….

All these things might seem obvious but so often they’re considered secondary or obsolete to other, frequently false things. So if you’re like me wishing you could give your child the world (i.e. needle felted wool toys and the ability to speak French), you can at least take comfort in the fact that you’re doing your best (even if your best is far from the best) to give them the things that really matter.

Image: Reginald Bottomley, A Mother and Child Looking at the Virgin and Child

Immaterial gifts

Weekly Edit

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Gifts from the Internet

On childhood and how we’re overcomplicating it:

  • Completely agree with this. I have very real memories of being stressed out about homework in elementary school.

“I believe that play should be the only work that kids do as homework,” said Karen Fitch, a Silicon Valley mother of a third-grade boy, and a former teacher. “Children are in school for hours on end; they don’t need to work on school subjects at home.”

  • Kids need less. Less toys. Less extracurricular activities. Less technology. This article is feeding my minimalistic aspirations for all stages of life:

“We enroll [sic] them in endless activities. And fill every space in their rooms with educational books, devices and toys with the average western child having in excess of 150 toys. With so much stuff children become blinded and overwhelmed with choice. They play superficially rather than becoming immersed deeply and lost in their wild imaginations.”

  • I don’t know how much I feel comfortable sharing about my child on here, which is why I tend to err on the side of caution. But I do follow plenty of bloggers who share all about their children. Many of these blogs made me less afraid and more excited about becoming a parent, so I’m very grateful to them and I wonder if I’m being too cautious. On the other hand, my child is his own person and I wonder how he will feel ten, fifteen, twenty years from now if I’ve put no limit on what I put out there about him. Of course, his entire generation will probably be dealing with these issues. Here’s some more food for thought on this issue:

“With the first babies of Facebook (which started in 2004) not yet in their teens and the stylish kids of Instagram (which started in 2010) barely in elementary school, families are just beginning to explore the question of how children feel about the digital record of their earliest years. But as this study, although small, suggests, it’s increasingly clear that our children will grow into teenagers and adults who want to control their digital identities.”

  • Lastly, something that I do struggle with. I want to be the sort of mother who can just be with her six month old all day absorbed in the wonder of all his tiny developments buuuut then I’d be a saint. Which I’m not. Technology dependency is such a vicious cycle in which the more I spend on social media, the more I feel the need to be on it when I’m not. I really don’t want my son’s first memories to be his mother hovering overhead eyes glued to the phone in her hand or said phone all up in his business snapping away photos. But this is pretty much the case currently.

Yums!

One of the challenges of domestic life that I tackle with great fervor is the leftover game. I relish the opportunity to upcycle them in as creative and delicious a way as possible. Sometimes, I’m like “Daaaamn girl! You can cook!” and sometimes it’s more like “Well at least we saved on groceries…” This week was all about leftovers.

  • I cooked chicken breasts, the last of an artichoke heart jar, and onions in last week’s aioli with a clear-the-fridge chopped salad (celery, sweet peppers, carrots, grapes, goat cheese-balsamic dressing). It probably would have earned a respectable 3.5 star rating except that I tried to quick defrost the chicken and the texture made me want to swear off chicken for good.

 

  • We made fajitas last weekend. I was in charge of the refried beans and Spanish rice (neither were great for the record.) I only had saffron chicken stock on hand (another leftover) so the rice so was more paella style. And then we just couldn’t seem to eat our way through it over the next few days so I thought: what if Spanish food and Sicilian food had a baby? What would that look like? Arancini de paella that’s what. I just added an egg to the rice, refrigerated it for a few hours, and used this as a guide for the rest of the process. 5 stars (at first it was 3.5 and then I couldn’t stop craving them and they improved upon reheating).

 

  • Then we couldn’t eat our way through the rest of the fajitas (By the way, here’s the secret for impressing people with tex-mex: homemade tortillas. Not actually daunting. You just need this and water and then you’ll be given lots of honor, praise, and glory.) So I made tortilla soup: threw the chicken and vegetables in more of the saffron chicken broth, boiled, simmered, shredded the chicken, loaded with cilantro, lime, avocado, queso fresco, and toasted tortilla strips. I will not lie. I had a daaaamn girl moment. 5 stars.

Other honorable mentions from this week:

  • In honor of Elizabeth’s 90th, we had Queen Mother’s Cake from our fave Queen Mother of desserts.
  • I married into the last name, Ramos, which has, as a perk, being able to call the Ramos Gin Fizz my signature drink. So, this email from a friend for a cocktail based on a Ramos Gin Fizz and named in honor of my son made me laugh (and enlist my resident mixologist to make me one):

“I give you…the Gin Léon

a shot and a half of gin
two and a half shots of almond-coconut milk
a half shot grand marnier
the juice of a large slice of lemon
about a teaspoon of honey

Mix thoroughly and enjoy.

This drink is the child of a Craving for a Ramos Gin Fizz and the Limitations of What I Keep in My Apartment. There’s definitely no fizz, and it’s not a fully grown Gin Ramos. So it’s just a Gin Léon.”

et cetera

 Let’s talk music. Because I love music recs. Which is why it’s helpful to have a friend who writes for an Indie music magazine and a husband who sends you songs while he’s at work with captions that he thinks you’ll appreciate. (e.g.: “If I were a funky astronaut, this would be my jam.”“To brighten your day.”, “Hipster advice to live by.”) Here was our week in music:

  • Monday was rough. I was taking care of my nephew and my son and had plans to load them up in the car, drive to my parents, and enjoy grandparent time. I timed leaving the house perfectly for when they both needed naps…and then I couldn’t find my keys. Which was fine until my perfect putting off of naptime meant errbody was getting cranky. So I turned the house upside down frantically asking…no…demanding that St. Anthony reveal where my keys were. The keys were not found and we all cried it out. Then I turned on some music and we all bounced about and felt better. So if some morning you find yourself a prisoner of your own home treating St. Anthony like a culprit with your charges nonstop howl-whimper-wailing, you might try turning up the music and letting your inner aerobics instructor go wild. This is my go-to Spotify playlist on such occasions.

 

  • On the other hand, maybe you’re looking for something to satiate your inner romanticist. This playlist has been our sweet naptime jam.

 

  • Not music but a further ode to the role Spotify plays in keeping stay-at-home mom life sane–did you know there are audio books on there? Like really, really good audio books. I’ve been trying to decide whether to get rid of my premium subscription because the subscriptions are piling up (but I hate hate hate hate hate hate hate ads). With Ogden Nash poetry read by the man himself and Shakespeare recited by Alan Rickman and Ralph Fiennes, I think I’m now listening enough to justify the subscription. No more trying to submit my ears to a whiny-voiced (though oh so generously volunteered!) librivox recording for me. The best discovery so far has been the collection of Oscar Wilde fairy tales. These are some of my favorite stories in the world and the recording by Basil Rathbone is sublime. Particularly, The Selfish Giant. Listen and try not to be moved by it.

……………

Happy Feast of St. Pius V, a man whose list of accomplishments is both inspiring and exhausting. And also of St. Joseph Cottolengo, whom I had never heard of before but whose love for the marginalized pulls at my heartstrings.

Weekly Edit