I was at Sunday Mass with my son, Peter, who was almost 6 years old. He was quiet and focused intensely on his color-by-number sheet. I was aware I was feeling grateful that Peter was able to be calmly present in church without being disruptive. Lately, Peter has become aware that if he screams certain phrases in a loud voice, his father will take him out of Mass. His latest phrases include: “I want to go home,” “Can I have a donut?” or the most theologically concerning phrase of all, “I don’t believe this anyway!” As I noted his contentment, so too I observed my own. I could hear the lectors and the priest; I could take part in the communal prayer; I was present in the Mass. I found myself thinking, “Isn’t this how church was meant to be?”
The Strength of Colors
I was grateful for Peter’s coloring, an activity he refused to engage in until recently, which puzzled me for many years. I had watched other children sit contentedly with their crayons. Not Peter. An occupational therapist who worked with him explained that Peter had an immature pencil grasp. Peter’s brain had difficulties knowing where to place his fingers. He didn’t realize innately how hard or soft to push to make the crayon “work.” Peter could read, count by 5s, 10s and even 12s. But coloring, the task that seemed easiest for his peers, which allowed him to be in relationship with them, was a monumental struggle.
When Peter was 2 years old, a psychologist told me that he met the criteria for autism. He also told me that Peter had a superior I.Q. Somehow the former statement always seemed to rattle in my mind and heart a bit louder and longer than the latter. I struggled to hear any blessing. In a sign of resignation, sometime along the way, I stopped carrying crayons in my purse and started praying Peter would miraculously behave in church.
One day, while Peter was with his grandmother, he came across a color-by-number. Something inside him clicked; he started coloring. With regular coloring there are no rules or order. Peter thrives on rules. He feels safe. A lack of rules causes anxiety. When it comes to coloring, it leads at best to giving up. With the color-by-number, Peter wanted to follow the coloring rule so intensely that he held the crayon any way he could. With time he started to hold it differently, the way his therapist had so many times tried to teach him. Ever so proudly, he came to me one day exclaiming, “Mommy my hand hurts from all the coloring. It is getting stronger!”
Then it got even better.
As Peter calmly colored in the pew, he began participating in Mass. He was even engaged in the homily as he responded to me so sweetly in a moment of great connection: “Mommy, the priest said Moses. Moses is from my Bible.” Later in the Mass, Peter started to sing. That Sunday, instead of screaming, he was singing “Hosanna” loudly. He was singing with heart and joy. His joy brought my joy; my joy in return encouraged his.
That was until the Hosanna ended and Peter didn’t. My first instinct was to stop him, thinking about how he may be bothering fellow churchgoers and how his continued song represented my inadequacy as a parent. Instead of immediately asking Peter to stop singing, I detached myself from feelings of guilt and embarrassment, and as my mentor, psychologist and author Robert Wicks reminds me so often to do, I “leaned back” and looked at what was happening around me with a quiet mind and an open heart.
Learning to Lean Back
Peter was in Mass on a Sunday morning. Peter was singing a beautiful prayer. People around him were smiling, some laughing. When I put my need for Peter’s compliance and my commitment to order aside, I noticed I was feeling gratitude for Peter’s continued growth and development, for the experience of joy that he and I both seemed filled with in this moment, and for our shared connection to something greater than ourselves. When I leaned back I questioned: What would I be teaching Peter by asking him to stop? What would he remember of my parenting in the moments, days and years to come when we forget the words but remember the feelings people create for us? So, I did what I have found can sometimes be the most profoundly difficult yet important stance to take as a parent. I held the space for Peter to be Peter; I allowed him to sing.
When he eventually stopped, instead of telling him he was not following the order of Mass or using some phrase that would convey the idea that his 6-year-old presence was a nuisance to others, I leaned close to him, gave him a kiss and told him I loved him very much. He smiled as he continued coloring.
If I had not leaned back in the moment, I wonder what I would have really asked of him? What lesson would I have unknowingly encouraged or discouraged? Sometimes, in an effort to make sure Peter is not bothering other people, I forget that Peter prays too, that he has a right to sing and that it is a sign of engagement that he asks questions.
When I lean back, I am able to respond rather than react. I am able to create space to honor curiosity and engagement with the experience. When I lean back, I can be a more effective parent. I notice that I want my children to be respectful, to know how to have self-control and to be able to quiet their minds and bodies—but quiet not as an end in itself but as a means to a relationship with the sacred. My goal is to help Peter create space in his heart so that he can be filled with grace and peace, perspective and love, curiosity and awe; so that as an adult he may be just as he is now as a child, full of wonder before God.
Mt 18:3 reads, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” There are days when I wonder exactly which children this verse is speaking about, because surely it is not the three I bring to church. But on days like this Sunday morning, I see that of course it is my children it applies to, and of course it is I.
When I lean back I notice that parenting Peter allows me access to deep gratitude. Peter is continually surprised anew by his joy that results from overcoming each struggle, and so then I find myself continually grateful anew. While my body is growing old, Peter helps me to keep my heart open and my eyes young so that I may remain grateful, so that I may know God and so that Peter and I may become more whole together.
Sometimes I find myself wishing that parenting could be more like a color-by-number than the abstract experience that is its nature. When I feel centered and empty my heart before God, I can recognize that maybe the goal is not joy. Rather, joy is the byproduct of gratitude. If my prayers focus on a desire to be more grateful, then the very crayons I use as a parent may look more vibrant, the ways I stay in the lines or don’t stay in the lines may look more beautiful. And, just maybe, the process of my children and I becoming us, which never ends, may feel more wondrous and right.
There is so much to pray for when one is a parent. But that which is in my control and has the ability to color my perspective of life experiences is my capacity to look for gratitude: in the purpose I have as a mother; the practice I am given seemingly every second of the day to become a mother; the God whom I love and who loved me first, who gave me this responsibility; and the lives that I am allowed to nurture, which in turn nurture me. My prayers are that one day I may learn to maintain a perspective in parenting so that I may feel not waves of appreciation, but that in each moment of parenting, I may feel ever blessed.