Parenting is so easy, anyone can do it. It’s just a matter of instinct. And then, the children arrive. Holes the size of craters then perforate your belief system long before Junior even says his first word.
Marge Fenelon knows both sides of the family coin — the before know-it-all syndrome and the wow-wasn’t-expecting-that. In her book Strengthening Your Family: A Catholic Approach to Holiness at Home, she imparts wisdom in a practical and digestible way. I use the word “digestible” because thankfully, Marge does not talk down to parents or leave anyone feeling like a failure.
Oh, she almost tempted me to insecurity just for a moment. After all, the Most Reverend Timothy M. Dolan (he wrote her forward) was a frequent dinner guest who enjoyed not only hearty soups and homemade bread, but also “delightful company.” Okay, so Marge can cook well and taught her kids manners, but those are good things; the very things to which we aspire.
Through the pages, Marge feels more like a friend than a superior. Her stories of drama and consternation help us to feel that we are all in this together. She does not claim to be an expert beyond the fact that she raised four kids who grew up to be respectful and responsible. I’ll take that. What we need most is the desire to be a strong family. Add in God’s grace and lots of good suggestions, and it may not guarantee a perfect family, but one that will be head and shoulders above a family that missed out on those things.
Gems of Wisdom
Marge’s book is full of wisdom beyond just her own — which goes to show just how wise she really is. Blessed Pope John Paul is among those quoted. One of my favorites is his advice on how to attain an atmosphere of joy.
“To maintain a joyful family requires much from both the parents and the children. Each member of the family has to become, in a special way, the servant of the others and share their burdens. Each one must show concern, not only for his or her own life, but also for the lives of the other members of the family: their needs, their hopes, their ideals.”
Marge stresses that our family relies on atmosphere to lift us up and that includes more than just lilac air freshener and elevator music in the background. “Atmosphere includes much more than the physical appearance of the home; it also includes moods, attentiveness to one another (or lack thereof) feelings, and attitudes,” she writes. “It’s not only what we do or don’t do, but also the way we do and don’t do it.”
Her suggestion is to take our cue from the Holy Family. “We can form our home into a little Nazareth by striving to imitate the Holy Family.” This works for me, or at least it should be my goal. Imagining how Our Blessed Mother would speak to her husband or how Joseph would speak to her, or how either would speak to their son (and foster son) — aka God — is a good reality check for any parent. Not too many of us have achieved holy family status, but raising the bar to that level, can help us all.
Good Times and Bad
Marge points out that anger is often seen as a bad time and of course it is attached to at least some bad aspects. However, she says, “It’s only bad when it becomes destructive; constructive anger can be good.” Marge reminds us that Our Lord accomplished good with his anger when the moneychangers had turned his Father’s house into a den of thieves, cheating and deceiving people in a house of prayer.
Instead of looking at anger as bad, she suggests taking care with word choices, which can have a tremendous impact. In other words, it’s not so much what you say as how you say it. Every family is going to have some unpleasant issues to deal with but it can be done effectively without personal attacks. Marge suggests using the first person pronouns of “I” and “me” when expressing frustration. That way, instead of making a personal attack and being tempted to name calling, a person can express why the situation is a problem for them. For instance, “I feel as though my authority is being resisted when you don’t follow through on things I ask of you.” Rather than spouting off, “You stupid brat, why don’t you do what I tell you?”
Marge provides another example for husbands and wives. “A husband can say, ‘I was thoroughly embarrassed when I overheard you talking negatively about me to your friends. That really hurt.’ He cannot say, “’You have a really big mouth, and you tick me off.”
Another example of dealing with the unpleasant is St. Thérèse of Lisieux. When a nun in her community was a notorious annoyance, St. Thérèse offered to God the sacrifice of caring for her kindly and praying for her. Surely every family abounds in such opportunities.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is to treat others the way we want to be treated. It sounds so simple and yet, we all know what a struggle it can be sometimes to do this. Throughout Marge’s book the advice is practical and logical. It is about the things we may have heard before but need to hear again as well as novel ideas on how to handle family life in a positive way.
Ultimately, our families are our greatest challenge and our greatest reward. They are the only thing we can take with us to heaven, so they are worth the effort. Through her book, Marge is our cheerleader and counselor on this most important journey.
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