Where “Suffer the Little Ones” meets Insufferable Little Ones

A while back a commenter asked me to write a post on children at Mass. I didn’t, at that time. Why not?

Let me just come out and say it: I usually can’t get all six kids to simultaneously behave. Most of the time, we leave the little ones home.

Admittedly, our parenting is a work in progress all the time, and our children are rarely show-ready (in our eyes). Somehow every fault, flaw and foible that is relatively easy to overlook on a daily basis is magnified at Mass. Even a child who has been on his best behavior the entire time, will certainly  make some kind of horrible, unpredictable and loud disruption at the moment of consecration.

When we have to attend Mass all at once, on our best behaved day, it’s an exhausting ritual with 100% parental management the entire time. It’s a constant “mom/death stare” combined with pointing (directing eyes toward the front, feet off the pew in front of us, etc), some leg pinching, and often, one or more carry-outs. Prayer? Hahaha. Hearing sermon? Hahahaha. And this is on a day when someone comes up to us after Mass and says, “Wow, your kids were sitting in front of us and I could not BELIEVE how well behaved they were!” We look at each other, the two adults who didn’t get to pray the Mass at all, and then look behind us to find the people they must be talking to.

On the bad days, well, we’ll be sitting in the pew for about 5 minutes and the moment Mass begins one of us is probably in the cry room or outside for the duration, with one to four kids in tow.

Since we live so close to church, one of us goes to the earlier service and one to the later one. That way we each get to go (and bring the older children who do behave) while the younger ones who cause all the ruckus, stay home. However, we do believe children receive graces from being there in the presence of Christ. And we fully believe it should be simply part of our family culture that “We go to Mass as a family on Sundays,” and that’s just understood, and unquestioned as a habit. So we would love it if we could all attend together, and we keep trying (whatever else you might say about us, we aren’t quitters).

I’m absolutely willing to learn, to get advice on how to work things better, and I don’t put too much stock in the press that we get from friends and strangers telling us (as they often do) how shockingly well behaved our kids are. Far be it from me to question the honesty of another, so perhaps the bar of behavior is just set too low. For others, maybe they just feel affection toward us. Some may be blissfully unaware of what is going on under their noses because, amazingly, they are focusing on the Mass and their own prayers, and we’re just not loud *enough* to disrupt them. I only know what I see, and we’re no poster family.

When I was first married and childless (and yet giving death/mom stares to other people’s kids who sat in front of me and turned around) I was sure *my* kids would be models, sitting primly and attentively like ducks in a row. I was appalled by the moms who brought (shudder) props to church for children to have “activities” to keep them quiet. See how much I’ve learned and grown, that I have even tried these once-abhorrent methods? 🙂 I could play the “you don’t know what it’s like to have six kids in seven years” card. I could play the “your kids are phlegmatic and mine are sanguine” card. I could play the “It’s just a maturity thing and they’ll grow out of it but we’re apparently always going to have one more to take the current 2 year old’s place” card. I’ve got an entire deck full of those cards, ok, we can play 52 card pickup sometime. Let’s just, for now, agree on this: all six never sit perfectly quiet and pay attention all at once.

One tip I’ve seen over and over from more experienced and more successful moms is this: the best way to teach children how to behave in Mass is to take them, often, especially to any daily Masses available, especially ones for homeschoolers which may be a little more tolerant of the (ahem) occasional hiccup. Recently our parish priest changed the Mass time from 9am to noon in an experiment to see if it would suit the needs of more people, making special mention of the homeschoolers of the community.

So for once, I actually can make it to Mass during the day. And my demographic was specifically invited. Today, we went as part of our string of errands we had to do. And it actually went pretty well, I thought. The baby was being slightly fussy so I gave her to Miriam, who stayed in the cry room with her. As other kids misbehaved (not loudly that I recall) they were sent to the cry room too. There were some whispered “I have to go to the bathroom”s from several of them  and I always feel it keenly at those times HOW MANY six children really is, because even if they each do something once, altogether it is just disruption after disruption. Agnes did annoy me a good bit by whispering to me off and on, but we were in the very back row and there was only one person near us, so I didn’t think it was a big enough deal to cause a scene and carry her out. I was actually able to collect my thoughts, pray, etc and I felt it was a decent dry run and not bad for a first attempt (in a while).

So I kind of had a bit of a jolt when I checked facebook later and found the following description of me by another Massgoer on a friend’s wall:

” the Hispanic lady who breast feeds during Mass, married to the short white guy and whose children chatter unimpeded during Mass and chatter today, they did. {aiiiieeeeeee}”

There are just so many things about this statement that make me cringe and laugh at the same time. First of all, the whole Hispanic comment. I’m no part Hispanic, but it reminds me of that Jackie Mason routine where the Jewish girls are always trying to look like a different race. “Do I look Hawaiian? Maybe I look Spanish?” Makes me laugh. I guess I should be flattered that I pulled off the other-ethnicity look, despite the obviously Jewish nose.

(Aside, and possibly unrelated, this particular lady is offended by my modest nursing, as evidenced by this comment: “Breastfeeding moms have no idea who else is watching, not even in church. There are perverts who are stimulated by breastfeeding women. Any priest or therapist will tell you that sexual addiction crosses all social classes, and I can tell you from my work that you cannot tell an addict by looking.”
Of course, the whole breastfeeding thing is a totally different topic. I’ve been involved in or witness to many heated (and many friendly) conversations on this topic, and I definitely believe in nursing discreetly while in public – and I endeavor to! )

Just to be more clear about the kind of “chattering” to which this individual (and perhaps others who aren’t as forthright!) is sensitive can perhaps be illustrated by this story on a day we thought the kids had exceeded our expectations during the service. The only noise had been from my infant, who was happily making mouth noises, for a short time. (Sometimes I feel it’s more disruptive to get up and leave than it would be to just try to quiet the noise or wait it out. It’s a judgment call – I haven’t always made it correctly, but there is a balance there. I also think happy noises are not distracting in the way that crying is.) I probably nursed the babe to get her to stop (but oh right, that’s more offensive behavior) but I was approached specifically about that “bababa” noise. (I asked many other people at the same Mass if they’d noticed it, but they claimed they hadn’t.)

Let me say I do believe that Mass is a place where we need to collect our thoughts, pray and participate, showing respect to Our Lord who is there, and that children should behave. So I’m not in disagreement with that. I’m sure someone who is used to being accompanied at Mass by the same four octogenarians would certainly get accustomed to a certain level of silence. So my sense of concern and consideration for others tells me – maybe it’s not time yet. Maybe just keep leaving them home, until they’re old enough to sit (and the ones who are, do great). Better not to disturb the faithful.

But on the other hand, how much disruption is actually too much? Isn’t the occasional baby noise or child’s whisper the sign of a parish that is full of life? How can we juxtapose the teaching of the Church to be open to life, with this apparent intolerance for any small noise that comes along with having children present? Are we who are open to life to be excluded from attending Mass until all our children are over the age of 4 (the ‘magic’ age we’ve found when they all start being able to do well)?

Jesus loves the little children and said we were to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. I don’t want to take that too literally, and maybe “suffer the little ones” doesn’t mean that it’s totally okay if they climb off mom’s lap and crawl under the pews or bang loudly with a metal object. But there has to be some kind of middle ground, right? Even with all the errands, the kids and I both noticed there was an unusual calm and pleasantness to our day after attending Mass. (Though that might have had more to do with Soren going home from church with friends. Hm.)

I have been thinking about this all day, and I think my conclusion is that I’m not at Mass to impress anyone, and I’m not there to disturb anyone, but I am responsible for my soul and the souls of my children, and if I believe that going to Mass is in our souls’ best interests, that’s between me and Jesus.

And if others don’t like my kids there, I’ll happily accept offers to babysit.

Thoughts? Where do you strike the balance?

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16 Responses to Where “Suffer the Little Ones” meets Insufferable Little Ones

  1. Brianna says:

    I only have one child, and this issue is a huge source of angst for me. She’s 2 and is what they call a spirited child, and has never made it through more than 5 minutes of a church service without letting out some form of exuberant yelp (except the time she went with her grandparents, but without us, and was apparently a silent and perfect angel for the entire 1.5 hours of service, including the sermon, which I expect was much longer than a Catholic homily–all of which only added about a pound of coarse sea salt to our wounds). It was so much easier when I could just wrap her and stand at the back rocking back and forth on my heels. We have two options: either one parent stays with her in Sunday school throughout the service, since she won’t yet stay alone, or we don’t go to church. I hate it, and I really feel for you. Our previous church, in a different city, before children, very much welcomed the usual minor din of child-noise, and had coloring tables and toys behind the last pews to facilitate their presence. Our priest then was fond of kidnapping newly baptised babies and carrying them around for the rest of the service. It was beautiful, and I miss it.

    (I’m an old Internet friend of Sarah Jones Mosley’s, by the way, which is how I found your blog).

  2. Chris B says:

    Sarah, I read all the posts on fb, and having now read your blog post, I am compelled to respond: I found it incredibly amazing that a stranger felt so bold as to chastise you in such a public manner. Where is the charity? Your temperance in responding was admirable. Imho, there are very few reasons for removing a child from Mass: screaming, and persistent loud talking and/or disrupting siblings are about it. Your children RARELY do either. Whenever I attend Mass at SFDS, it is a rare interruption that comes to mind from anyone’s children. Perhaps some people are more tolerant of that than others, but all should try to be. Do they think God doesn’t know what He created in small children? The unpredictable behavior, as you noted, goes away with time, but in the mean time, it brings a smile to my face when it occurs at SFDS, as the families that come there are seeking reverence in the Mass, and all are seeking to instill that same sense in their children. It just takes time and patience. Please continue to bring the children on Sundays, feast days, Holy Days of Obligation, and daily Mass, and ignore the clucking hens.

  3. Liliana says:

    That comment about breastfeeding just makes my blood BOIL!!! These persons are acting just like Pharisees: They are “practicing” and demanding the perfect law of how to behave at church. That means perfect silence, posture and attention, feeling better about themselves and bragging about how good they are… And where is the heart? Where is the charity? (I’m sure that without the children’s noise they would fall asleep in Mass… HAHA!) Targeting families in that way only shows how narrow-minded they are! Unfortunately, you and your family have been the first victims and I’m sure they are looking for more prey (I’m scare to death!! LOL!) Don’t lower yourself to their level by arguing or explaining to them why, how or when you educate your children. That’s a private matter between you and your husband.

    That lady have come to us once and said something to Philip about Maria Luisa… He didn’t say anything to her and it was the end of it. If she or anybody else cannot mortify their senses (remember the last sermon?) so they cannot live in this world full of distraction and grow in sanctity towards heaven!

    Bring the 6 children at church, they are the seeds of our beautiful faith and they need to be nourished. As you said, you’re no quitters!! If this lady don’t like the noise… Oh well, TOO BAD!

  4. Sheila says:

    Oh, that just makes me angry. Where does she get the idea that there are creepy guys with breastfeeding fetishes at daily Mass?! First off, I’m not sure that anyone has that kind of fetish in real life. And second off, we’re not responsible for other people’s weirdness. There may be guys with foot fetishes — that doesn’t give me the responsibility never to wear sandals. Not to mention that in real life, the various kinds of perverts are actually really rare. In any rate, that’s none of her business — why is she offended by the thought of a person she doesn’t know even exists who might be watching you? It’s kind of disturbing. I think that argument (which I have heard before) is just a cover for “it makes ME uncomfortable.” In which case, own that instead of blaming it on an imaginary pervert.

    About the rest, I really think you’re doing fine. Our toddler is so “spirited” that we often spend half the Mass in the vestibule. He just WON’T stay in the pew or stop talking at the top of his voice. But we still bring him. And seriously, I don’t understand why people are distracted by happy baby noises. I find those sounds very nice — it makes me happy knowing there are happy babies at church. My mom would always notice, and tell me after church, “Did you hear that baby jingling keys during the Consecration? It was like he was ringing the bells! Did you hear that baby babbling in the hymn? He was trying to sing along!” Seriously, unless there is screaming, running up and down the aisles, etc., it’s pretty easy to tune out.

    It upsets me that these people stood up at each baby’s baptism and promised to help the parents raise their children in the faith, and the second it costs them a moment’s distraction they turn around and start to complain. Sorry, people, that’s what a “spiritual family” means! It means you have to put up with babies babbling and I have to put up with the smell of the old man next to me and we all have to just smile at the disabled person who can’t help yelling at random … we are all part of the same Church and no one has the “right” to never have to notice that there are other people in the Church. The fact is, “focus” and “concentration” are not the supreme goods of the Mass; grace is, which we can get whether or not we are sometimes distracted. Seriously, is anyone ever focused for the whole Mass, even without babies around? I’m sure not.

    Of course, I know I’m preaching to the choir. I don’t know what to tell you that will help, except that you’re doing great and it seems that most people think so, too. But there doesn’t seem to be any way to stop the Masstime persecution. My mom used to get it from our priest, as well — he would stop the Mass and just glare at her until she took the offender out, even if it was just a soft babbling. Eventually he asked her to stop bringing them. Since she had very little help at home — my dad was military and wasn’t always there — that basically meant she couldn’t go either. So she went to the youth Mass at a neighboring parish. Isn’t it awful that a priest would drive people with children away from his parish?! But there doesn’t seem to be any way to get people to accept the reality of what children are like. 😦

    • Sarah says:

      “The fact is, “focus” and “concentration” are not the supreme goods of the Mass; grace is, which we can get whether or not we are sometimes distracted. ”
      Love that! Thank you!
      It actually reminds me of a very good sermon from our parish pulpit a few weeks ago where the priest said spending five minutes in prayer past the point of our comfort is more valuable than hours of ecstatic meditation. (Reminiscent of “will you not watch one hour with me?” in the garden) He quoted St Teresa of Avila about muddling through a spiritual darkness with applied faith – can’t remember exactly, but it does seem to be apropos to outside distractions as well. If you are distracted, offer up the distraction and get even more grace. Perfect.

  5. Jessica says:

    Oh! People like that deserve much worse than I am willing to write about here. But in the very least that person deserves to have to spend every single one of their Masses with a handful of random children of varying ages including those that need new diapers and need to be breastfed

  6. sheila0405 says:

    As a former Protestant, I love children at church! In my Protestant churches, children were hidden away–first in nursery, then in “junior church”, and often didn’t join their parents in church until they were 10 years old. Ridiculous! The only time I get distracted at Mass is when a child is a screamer. That seems to me to be the only thing that warrants leaving for the cry room. The fact that you and Dave have to attend separate Masses saddens me. Occasional noises from children at Mass reminds me of why I converted: the Church welcomes all, and loves life! Hang in there! One thing I’ve thought about is this: parents can set one hour aside each day for devotions/prayers, etc, and the children get used to having to be quiet for that length of time. In my own life, I will continue to thank God for dedicated parents who see the value of the graces received at Mass for both themselves and their children. (By the way, my parish has a large number of Hispanics, who have lots of children, so I know what I’m talking about).

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks, Sheila. We do about ten-fifteen minutes of family prayer daily and it’s sometimes great and sometimes constant management… I think either we’ve totally missed the mark overall, or there’s just an age/maturity thing. We did great in Mass when we had only 2 kids, and then 3, and even 4 was ok. Five started getting hairy as there were still a few under the age-4 mark and they really needed hands on management but we’d run out of hands. That’s when we started splitting Masses. I think in a few years we’ll have several 8+ year olds who can not only be examples but also help manage the littler ones. It’s just getting to that point that’s hard! 🙂

  7. sheila0405 says:

    My prayers are with all of you!

  8. Katherine Lauer says:

    Well, you know I have no advice with having only three children. Just keep on keepin’ on!

  9. We only have two, so I have absolutely no idea what to do in your situation. In general, though, I have found that other people are *more* tolerant of baby noise than I am and am told not infrequently that our children are no bother at all. I do my part by trying to anticipate loud noises at inopportune moments and pull the appropriate child to the cry room when I think it’s necessary. I don’t nurse in the nave, personally, since we sit in the front row so Camilla can see the service and I do think it would be offensive to some of the people behind us. But covert nursing in the back sounds fine to me, as long at the priest doesn’t mind. Taking your kids to at least part of the service, as often as you can manage, does not seem to me to be optional, though. Good for you.

    I am really surprised by the snide comment of your fellow parishioner, and I think it’s a good reminder to be careful what we say on the internet because you never know who is going to read it! I made a juvenile blog comment about a women whose booth was next to mine at a craft fair eons ago and she actually tracked down my email address and sent me a retort years later. I was simultaneously embarrassed, furious, and humbled. The woman who made the comment about you is fortunate that you have a very good attitude about the situation.

    • Sarah says:

      Yes, good reminder that the internet is not private! We tend to get comfortable and talk as though we’re among friends at all times. (And probably some things should just be kept to ourselves, too.)

      Oh, and I do sit in the back, but I’d think it was even less noticeable to nurse discreetly in the front – how would anyone even know? (I’m picturing pews, though, perhaps you have chairs instead, which would certainly be a different view from behind.)

  10. Nicole says:

    I would say that I am very Catholic-supportive Protestant. Without going into great detail, God has really been bringing me to a place of great respect and reverence of several typically Catholic beliefs and practices.

    That said, I think if that the church (any church for that matter) as a whole is sending that kind of message that it has to be hear-a-pin-drop-quiet, I would probably start praying about and looking for a new church. I have a very spirited 7 yr old son. I am also can be quite self-conscious about the noise and movement that he makes during our service. I would go to the point of saying that I am overly sensitive a lot of the time. That nasty old people-pleaser trying to sneak out. yuk! I certainly hope that the opinions of those one or two people is not widespread. I don’t know how you could find out honestly. It sounds like you are doing the best you can do.

    It also breaks my heart that the little ones are not benefitting from Mass and that you and your husband have to do split shifts. Since I only have one (not by choice), I truely have no idea what you are going through trying to juggle them all. I pray the Lord will show you what to do and give you peace. Oh, AND DON’T YOU DARE STOP BREASTFEEDING THOSE AMAZING BABIES! LOL
    Be encouraged my sister. You are doing a wonderful and mighty thing raising these little ones in the admonition of the Lord. May they all grow up to be strong men and women of God, unswerving, unyeilding in the Truth and the Love of Christ.

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you for the comment, Nicole. I am fairly sure that it is a few and far between thing at my parish, and this lady is an exception. After she posted the comments publicly I got a lot of feedback from others in the church, whether single, married, having older children, etc who reassured me in many ways. Also our pastor is very reassuring as well and tells me there is no problem. We’ll most likely be bringing them all once again as the Sunday School season has started. With my husband as a teacher it makes it more complicated to split masses, so we’ll be going together. And I’ll get to see if bringing them during the week for practice has paid off. 🙂

  11. Kerri says:

    I know this comment is coming in very, very late, but I wanted to chime on. I’ve recently found your blog and am reading your older posts. I encourage you to hang in there, things do get better. We have seven children, but mine are spaced out more (1 yr to 14 yr old). I can assure you we’ve had to miss many a service, and I have spent many hours in the cry room. But now, my older girls will take turns with my 1 yr old. Our church is very family friendly. There is no Sunday school, or other programs as they believe the family should worship together. So everyone there is open to the noises that children make. There are Sunday’s that go smoothly, and there are those that don’t. I can say “amen” to the 5th child telling me they have to use the restroom 🙂 As for the nursing, I’ve always just used a nursing cape of some sort. Yes, they know I am nursing, but they can’t see a thing, so what’s the big deal. That’s like saying “yes, I’m wearing clothing, but underneath I’m n*ked.” I can’t help what people are thinking! Ha!

    God bless you and your family. I am enjoying reading your blog.


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