“They don’t want to play with me,” my daughter sobbed into my chest. “They only came for our house.”
With our trampoline, swingset, and water guns, our yard is the hotspot for neighborhood children. While the revolving door has been great for our new-to-the-area family, most of the kids are a little older and know each other from school. While their intention was likely not to exclude, my almost seven year old perceived their slight.
All I could do was stroke her hair as she cried, but I wanted to say so many things:
They probably didn’t mean to leave you out.
That was unkind and unfair. You don’t deserve that.
What if you played with another friend next time instead?
These comments are well-intentioned. I want to spare my daughter hurt, hurt I myself have known, and fix her problem. I hate seeing her in pain, and watching other people hurt tends to make me uncomfortable. Really though, I want to remove this cross to give her, as much as I can, a life free from heartache. I want her to be happy, right? Isn’t that what all mothers want for their kids?
But as I reflect on a mother’s role amidst her children’s suffering, perhaps prioritizing happiness is not always the best practice—for both us and them.
As kids, we experienced difficulties, and most of us heard affirming comments in response. When kids weren’t kind on the playground, parents responded with, “Ignore them. They’re probably just jealous.” When we didn’t make the soccer team, we heard, “Look on the bright side! Now you can try out for the musical!” When our idea wasn’t picked, our friends said, “It’s just because the teacher just doesn’t like you. She’s being unfair.” When we fell down, we were told, “You’re okay! Just get right back up.”
While these comments are certainly not evil and come from a place of kindness, they are intended to shift blame, to find the silver lining, to remove the pain entirely. But growing up with the subliminal message that pain must be avoided at all costs, we may struggle to sit with uncomfortable feelings like anxiety, boredom, rejection, or loneliness.
Combine that with the instant and easy access to distractions—scrolling through social media, texting a friend to seek validation, or ordering a coffee delivery—and (Disclaimer: I am not licensed to make such bold claims, but I’m doing it anyway) I think part of the current mental health crisis stems from a struggle to carry, let alone be in the same room with, our crosses.
St. Thomas Aquinas said, “If you seek patience, you will find no better example than the cross. Great patience occurs in two ways: either when one patiently suffers much, or when one suffers things which one is able to avoid and yet does not avoid. Christ endured much on the cross, and did so patiently, because when he suffered he did not threaten; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter and he did not open his mouth.”
We are not called to be masochists, but we must learn to be comfortable in our and our kids’ small discomforts and challenges. Because when crosses we cannot hide from—crosses like long-term illness, financial struggle, parental overwhelm, or fertility issues—are laid on our shoulders, we will have to know that we can bear them, that we can turn to Jesus, that crosses are opportunities to grow in holiness, that “our momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
On the cross, Jesus gave us the gift of His mother as a beautiful example for mothers watching their children suffering—and thus simultaneously suffering themselves. As I prayed about Mary’s role with suffering, particularly how she walked alongside Jesus in His Passion, I found three things I can try to do to be a better mom as I prepare for my children’s inevitable suffering:
- Cultivate a rich home life. While little is known about Christ’s “hidden” years, we have to assume that the Holy Family’s domestic life was joyful and nurturing. Our homes can become little Nazareths for our children. Through prayer, family traditions, joyful interactions, and empathetic responses, we can create a safe landing space and a firm foundation for our kids, a place where they can experience a range of emotions and feel peace when suffering inevitably comes.
- Learn to be comfortable with “bad” feelings. Mary experienced a lot of difficulties of her own, from an unexpected pregnancy to hearing Simeon’s devastating prophecy about her Son to actually watching Him die a long and painful death. Yet she stayed faithful. Rather than desperately clinging to happiness or avoiding shame and pain, she experienced grief firsthand. We can fast and practice avoiding distractions or easy fixes when our own discomforts or true sufferings arise, modeling holy suffering for our kids.
- Be present. Mary stayed until the end as she watched her Son suffer and die. When Jesus looked down from the cross and saw His mother’s unfaltering presence, I have to imagine that His heart felt lighter. When our children inevitably suffer, even if all we can offer is our silent presence, we will encourage them like Mary did.
Our kids are going to suffer. Illness, heartbreak, rejection, or grief will strike. Yes, their spiritual, physical, and emotional wellbeing are our responsibility, but we can discern when we are actually called to help or advise (which might be less than we think) and when we need to simply be present. As much as we would like to take those crosses off of their shoulders (and of course, intercessory prayer is powerful!), we can instead help them bear those crosses in a saintly way because, as we strive to live like Jesus did, only through the cross will we reach Heaven.