Adventures in Mass

I was all set to write a thoughtful post about confession, inspired by Joanne’s fascinating post from this weekend, but then something awful happened.

I went to Mass.

It wasn’t that the Mass part was awful; at least, I don’t think it was awful. As usual, I was so distracted by the increasingly ludicrous antics of my 2 and 3 year olds that I barely managed to pay attention enough to give the proper responses. And I had such high hopes for today’s Mass! It’s Sienna’s first day of school, and a few nights ago she and I were talking as I tucked her into bed for the night. She admitted that she was very nervous about going to school. She was nervous that she would be too far behind her class because she wasn’t with them last year, she was worried about bullies, she was worried that her teacher wouldn’t like her…she was, in short, worried about going from being a big fish in a small pond to being a slightly smaller fish in a slightly larger pond. I reassured her as best I could without lying about the possibility that yes, she might be behind, and yes, there might be bullies, and yes, her teacher might not like her. When I saw that my tepid reassurances weren’t really having a soothing effect (shocker, I know), I asked if she would like it if I brought Liam and Charlotte to Mass on the first day of school.

Her school, being a Catholic school and all, has daily Mass for the students that the parents are invited to attend. Sienna was delighted at the prospect of seeing us (and even more delighted, I suspect, at the prospect of us seeing her in her uniform amidst her classmates) and mentioned it every day after that, even eliciting a pinky promise from me last night that I wouldn’t forget to come to Mass. So I dutifully curled my hair last night, made sure everyone had clean clothes, and made sure that all the ingredients for Sienna’s lunch were easily accessible for what was sure to be a bleary-eyed and chaotic morning. We saw Sienna off to school right on time, the smallest minions and I got dressed, the Ogre got ready for work, and we took him to his office and then drove the half-mile to Sienna’s school.

I was really thinking that Mass would be a pleasant experience today. It’s a daily Mass, after all, in an auditorium full of 1st-to-12th graders, so it couldn’t possibly be longer than a half hour, right? Plus, the auditorium is guaranteed to be air conditioned to a greater degree than the sweltering Oratory where we usually spend sticky, frustrating Sunday mornings, right? Plus it’s earlier than the Sunday morning mass, so the little kids would be in that “sweet spot” time zone right after they’d let out their post-breakfast energy but before they went into their pre-lunch meltdowns, right?

Wrong. Wrong. I was so, so wrong.

Spoiler alert: this is not what happened next...except for the indecent exposure. That part is true.

Spoiler alert: this is not what happened next…except for the indecent exposure. That part is accurate.

The parents sat along the sides of the auditorium, facing the rows of seats in the middle that held the students. It was really sweet to see Sienna’s face light up when she walked by with her class and spotted us and Charlotte and Liam immediately began screaming “Sienna! Nenna! Sienna! Nenna!” But things went downhill from there, and fast. Sienna’s class headed for the absolute opposite side of the auditorium, sending Liam into hysterics, while the rows directly in front of us filled up with high schoolers. I made the mistake of letting Liam carry one of his matchbox “security blanket” cars into Mass, thinking that it would be short, it was informal, and as long as he just held it like he usually does, it wouldn’t be distracting. 2.5 minutes into Mass, Liam began trying to run his car noisily along the side of the bleachers behind us, making enthusiastic “vroom! vroom!” noises. I took the car. He squealed in indignation. I whispered that he had to be quiet, and handed his car back. He promptly threw it at the woman seated next to us, who mercifully did not notice, but the car went into my purse after that. Then Liam went totally limp in protest, slid off his chair and onto the floor, and just as everyone grew quiet for the reading of the Gospel, he began to make loud, angry growling noises.

Like any patient, gentle mother, I began to issue copious threats in a steady hiss while attempting to reach around my enormous belly and yank him back into his chair. I was a little overly enthusiastic with the yanking, and he protested the near loss of his arm with a loud yelp. Then he smacked me in the face (which he got verbally reprimanded for, but honestly I couldn’t blame the kid). After that I sat him firmly in my lap, alternately begging and threatening him in a whisper to be quiet while he kept up a steady whining at a low-level frequency.

By this time the homily had been going on for longer than the 5 minutes that I think is the appropriate length for a daily Mass. I was starting to realize that the combination of my girth, Lincoln kicking the crap out of me from the inside, Liam flailing in my lap, and the hideous meteorological behavior of the state of Florida was going to make me sweat my behind off no matter how high the air was cranked. I could feel sweat dripping down my back and I swear to you that I could actually feel my carefully curled hair begin to poof and frizz. I risked letting one hand off Liam to wipe the sweat off my face, and heard Charlotte whisper, “ew, Mommy, why are you all wet?”

I looked over at my middle child, who had been so quiet that I’d almost forgotten about her, and saw her standing in the middle of the aisle, picking her nose and eating her boogers. Judging from the half-disgusted, half-amused expressions on the faces of the high schoolers across from us, her nasal spelunking had been going on for some time. I actually had to choose between telling her to stop and keeping my lips firmly closed against my third-trimester gag reflex as she happily chowed down on a particularly large booger, but once I got it under control I whisper-yelled “Charlotte Elizabeth! Stop that! That is disGUSting!

Charlotte looked at me as if I had not been trying to beat that habit out of her for the past year. She looked at me as if it were Christmas Day and I had dressed up as the Grinch and stolen all her presents. She looked at me as if I had crushed her soul…and then she threw herself against her chair and began banging her head against it while wailing. Loudly.

I grabbed her arm, barely noticing when Liam used that opportunity to dive out of my lap and roll onto the floor, and frantically tried to get her to stop banging her head. I finally resorted to hissing, “If you don’t sit still and be quiet until Mass is over, I won’t let you watch Tangled when we get home.” She immediately stopped freaking out and sat resentfully in her chair, glaring balefully at me out of the corner of her eyes.

Meanwhile, Liam was literally rolling back and forth across the floor at my feet, and by that point I was too exhausted to care. I figured he was at least quiet, and if the people on either side of me didn’t feel sorry for me by now they could go ahead and be offended at my misbehaving offspring. Then I realized that I was so hot that I was probably either going to throw up or pass out. I stared up at the altar and mentally begged the priest to stop talking and begin the consecration. Miraculously, he stopped. Like, mid-sentence. I mean, it might not have actually been mid-sentence since I patently had not been listening, but it seemed like it to me. I breathed an audible sigh of relief as we stood for the prayers of the faithful.

Liam continued with his silent rolling and Charlotte with her baleful glaring until just before the sign of the peace. I was starting to think that the worst was over, and that if I could just remain upright for ten more minutes we’d be home free. Then Liam tried to run away, and I was forced to scoop him up and hold him still again as we all stood. Charlotte, who had been perfectly (if angrily) silent and still, suddenly grabbed the hem of my skirt and lifted it as far over her head as she could, just as everyone began looking around to give each other the sign of the peace.

I was, at that moment, profoundly grateful that I had the foresight to put on boy-short style underwear this morning. I was also profoundly regretting being so behind on laundry that it was my oldest, rattiest pair of boy-short style underwear. With my arms full of Liam, there wasn’t much I could do but frantically order Charlotte to put my skirt down, which she did, with a slightly Bad Seed-ish smile. I looked up, not only dripping sweat but now blushing furiously, only to catch the eyes of every high-schooler at the Academy. They had the grace to look away, but I definitely caught some suppressed grins, because let’s be honest, who wouldn‘t laugh at that?

After that, I thought things couldn’t get any worse. Then, while everyone was kneeling on the floor and I was sitting because I’m huge and not into excessive mortification, Charlotte grabbed my boob.

I have no idea why she did that. I’m going with the theory that she was fascinated by the lace pattern on the top of my dress (because she is, after all, an excessively girly-girl) and not that she’s a tiny weirdo, but I was so shocked that I let out a yelp and naturally, everyone turned to see what was happening. And then Charlotte kept doing it, apparently delighted with the string of threats issuing from my mouth and the increasingly red color my face was turning, until I grabbed both her hands and held her still. Liam took advantage of that moment to hit her in the head, of course, and she wailed, and thank God that it was finally time for us to receive communion at that exact moment, because I scooped the kids up, ran for Jesus, and then hightailed it the hell out of there.

This was a particularly difficult Mass, it’s true. But Mass in general has been like that since we went from one kid to two. I cannot remember the last time I heard a homily. I never remember what the readings are, I never manage to eke out any prayer other than, “Dear God, please make them stop,” and Mass has become far less a time of grace and more a time of sheer survival. There have been weeks, in the plural, when we don’t go to Mass at all because I simply can’t face another hour-and-a-half-long battle with the two smallest ones, while being kicked from the inside, sweating copiously, and fielding disapproving glares from other parents seated near us.

Mass with young children really is a trial. I see other mothers at Mass who are polished, who don’t drip sweat, whose children sit quietly or rest quietly in their arms, whose naughty three-year-olds don’t provide the resident teenagers with a detailed description of Theology of the Body, and I think, what am I doing wrong? Why can’t I get it together?

I don’t have an answer for that. I’m sure theories abound about discipline tactics and such, but I’ve found that Mass is a struggle for some parents across the board, regardless of their discipline tactics or the relative docility of their children. Liam’s a great kid. He’s super easy to deal with and laid back, but as soon as we cross the threshold of a Church, it’s like all his naughtiness comes spilling out. It’s frustrating and discouraging, and I almost always leave Mass feeling like a colossal parenting failure.

And yet. And yet, there is grace there. There’s always grace.

Plus, if I were one of those polished mothers with perfect children, what would I blog about?


photo attribution: By Yair Haklai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Annie

    We’ve all been there, but thank you for the laugh. I just read this short article the other day, and thought you might enjoy it.

  • Theresa

    I feel your pain!!! I have an almost 3 yr old, a barely 1 yr old and I’m due in March. Last Sunday, my husband and I exited our Church “congratulating” each other that we had survived the mass, wondering if the other had the foggiest notion of the readings and reminding each other that this was one of those masses where we were sure the graces had transcended any emotion. Ay-yi-yi! But keep taking your kids. Don’t give up. “Let the children come to me.” It’s how we give them the best and finest. And some day in 10 years, you’ll sit behind a family dealing with the same struggle, and have no problem giving those parents all the gentle reassurances in the world that they’re doing the right thing. That, and not to sound crazy, I think it’s Satan who makes these things such hellish experiences. What would make him happier than keeping a young family, obviously in need of God’s grace from feeling like they should keep going to mass? Be strong and keep persevering! And, by the way, I LOVED the Theology of the Body line! You rock!

  • ashley.elise

    My 19 month old isn’t the only little boy in the whole wide world to make totally inappropriate growling/gremlin noises during Mass (generally during the Eucharist prayer)?! Thank goodness!

    I also feel like I’m surrounded by mothers whose children behave so much better than mine during Mass and who never look anywhere near as flustered/crazy as I feel. But I’ve also noticed that those mothers nearly always have older children as well as toddlers/babies–older children who can help corral the toddlers and who set an example of proper Mass behavior. I think it’s a fairly safe bet that those mothers were just as frazzled as I am when they had fewer and smaller children.

  • Katie

    For us, it comes and goes in seasons (we have 3: ages 1, 3, &4). We are fortunate to have a parish with a lot of young families. We do have a nursery and a cry room, but we prefer to just sit in the pew with them and take out the rowdy ones. With that said, I can’t handle them on my own – gotta have my husband with me. I have had enough older people approach me and tell me how they love seeing my family to fill up my tank and get me through. I actually had a woman approach me at daily Mass and thank me for bringing my children to church. “They’re our future” is what she said. We’ve even had our priests bring it up in homilies: “A church without the sound of children is a dying church.” I grew up in a big family and we’re close in age, so I remember my brothers mis-behaving (which was quite entertaining to me, particulary the time one of my brothers call the other a butt-head at the top of his lungs – I guess I wasn’t helpful as an oldest child) and I remember my dad walking in the back with whoever was having a hard time in the pew. I know it’s so cliche, but it is something we can offer at the altar, and when I’m lucid by that point of the Mass I try to do so for the intention of my children’s faith, that they’ll embrace it and fall in love with Jesus when they grow older. I don’t think there’s one simple solution. I think that every family has to figure out how they’re going to make that work. For us, we’re going to keep bringing them and we’re going to keep wrestling through.

  • Brian

    Thank you for sharing the humanity and inhumanity of your Mass experience. I laughed heartily while reading your entry more than once (but I did not point and stare)! With a son who is the president of the local Eat Ur Boogers Club and a 2 yr. old daughter who is ready to get her Irish up throw down at a moment’s notice, I can identify somewhat. I must say, however, that surviving these “Masses of Reparation” (for my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault) most Sundays has brought me a rare and unexpected Grace. One of the most intimate things I now experience with my wife of 10 yrs. come October (and 6 wonderful kids later) is when we have the precious opportunity to get away together because of her gracious mother, and go to Mass together. Just the two of us. I don’t want it to end. The sacred silence, the stillness, the ability to leave chronos and enter into karios, with her next to me, quietly, silently, softly, is deeply moving and humbling. I hope you can steal away with your own Ogre soon and just the two of you get to a Mass (with Lincoln napping). I think it will remind you that you’ve had it together all along.

  • Brian

    misspelling: that’s kairos, of course!

  • Elizabeth

    Calah, I don’t know if this helps but I think it should be a source of some hope:
    At my local parish, there is a woman who wears a wedding ring but always comes to Mass by herself with her two daughters (I’m estimating 3 and 5-6). The little ones are not particularly quiet or still; they make quite a bit of noise, run around, pull their mum’s skirt, etc. I work with disabled children at the local Catholic school, so frankly, I’m used to a lot worse in Mass, so it doesn’t bother me. However, whenever I sit near them, which is often, and the girls happen to be turned around looking at me, I always make sure to have a big smile and put one finger on my mouth (in a ‘shhh’ gesture). Nothing changed for a while and then a few Sundays ago, I noticed this family with the little ones sitting mostly still and mostly quiet. At the Peace, I ‘Peace-be-with-you-d’ the mum, and turned back around when I felt a tiny little pull on my top. The two girls were both standing there with outstretched arms wanting to ‘peace’ also. Now, they still aren’t the quietest children in the world, and I’m sure that their mum finds it difficult to get them to sit still and be quiet, but I’ve noticed a change, however small, in their Mass behaviour. I’m telling you this because I just want you to know a. that most people at Mass do not mind children being children (we’re Catholic – we love kids!) and b. even when your own children are driving you nuts and not seeming to behave, others might be more able to notice small improvements and eventually all children grow up and learn how to fully behave properly in Mass. So don’t worry.

    On another note, if my previous story didn’t cheer you up, then this one will at least make you glad it’s not worse! As I said, I work in a Catholic secondary school, and presumably because of my ability to be scary (despite my youth and miniature height), I always get assigned the older girls for Mass. On the way to Mass for Lent, as we climbed the steps to the church, I literally had to tell off two 16 year olds for discussing how one of them lost her virginity over the weekend. I have also had to discipline students for pushing, hitting, kicking and sleeping during mass. So even if your kids ever did push, hit or kick, at least they aren’t 16! ;)

  • Saoirse

    I often note how few families with very young children make the effort. After one painfully trying Sunday Mass with my fine young troublemakers (which included an escape attempt by the 2 year old- he snuck out under the pew and a mild brawl over who was going to put the envelope in the basket) – one of the ushers smiled encouragingly and said – “If it was easy everyone would do it”. Indeed.

  • Lesley

    I remember those days at Mass so well, it does get better, my youngest is 22 now and he does behave in Mass. I now teach RCIA and everytime someone expresses doubts about bring their small two children to Mass I say “until your child behaves at Mass as badly as my sons did, you don’t have a problem”. Two examples that stick in my mind, No 1 son (child 3) was two, children 1 and 2 were at school and I was very heavily pregnant with No 4. Took No 1 son to daily Mass, and sat in the back bench rather than the front a because I definitely would need the loo, b, might need to throw up and c might go into labour. I was definitely past the stage of being able to run after my son. Unfortunately he managed to squeeze past me into the centre aisle, I made a conscious decision not to chase him because I knew I couldn’t catch him but thought it was not a problem because of the fifty or so people in church, 99% knew him very well and somebody would just grab him? Not to be, they all decided to ignore him as well! He ran down the aisle calling Mummy Mummy and when I did not respond, stuck his thumbs in his ears wiggled his fingers and said Na Na Na Na, at which point somebody did grab him and he sat quietly with that lovely lady for the rest of Mass. Didn’t help that my priest was struggling so hard not to laugh at him.

    Around the same time, Palm Sunday Mass, Church was extremely busy, people were standing at the back and down the side aisles, and our very new Priest (newly ordained and saying his first Mass at our Parish) asked the children to sit on the sancturary steps during the homily so there would be space for the grown ups to sit down. So around 300 children came and sat on the sancturary steps, my son and his two friends were sitting near the altar and as more children came to sit on the steps were pushed back until they managed to sit under the altar and spent the homily playing peep bo with the altar curtains. Us mothers couldn’t get near them because there were too many children in the way and the poor priest could not understand why so many people were laughing at his jokes, he said afterwards that it was a steep learning curve and he would never make the same mistake again!

  • Genevieve

    I like the idea of getting a babysitter for you to go to Mass when ogre is unavailable. Just sometimes. I remember the decision to leave the parish that I loved for an just acceptable parish because they had child care available. It was a matter of being infuriated every week or having a chance of marshalling my frayed strands of attention into some sort of order. But you do what you can with the cross that God gives you, and let Him take care of the rest of it.

    And in case stories of badly behaved children alleviate your mood, I remember when my young cousin (maybe 5) shrieked, “take me out and spank me now, mommy, because I just can’t shut up!” Yeah, in the middle of a wedding Mass. And while his mother may never get over the mortification, I never fail to laugh remembering it. It was epic.