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Christy Fitzpatrick holds her restless son, Matthew, in a room set off from the rest of the congregation at St. Mary Church in Williamstown, N.J. (CNS photo/Craig Pittelli, The Monitor)

I don’t normally write about mommy issues. As my day job, I spend enough time thinking about childrearing that once I’m off the clock, it is the last thing I care ruminate over. However, the cry room is a topic I can’t resist since I struggle every Sunday morning to emerge from it a bit holier and not seething mad.

Now, I am one of those people who loves idea of keeping our children in the sanctuary, but I have come to relish having a place where I know my children can make a little noise and I don’t have to be “that mother” who is disturbing everyone else. Perhaps I’m too self-conscious on this issue, but it makes it easier for me to be peaceful and prayerful. Moreover, the cry room has shown me that there really are children (sometimes my own) who, for various reasons, simply cannot be in the main sanctuary for everyone’s mental health.

The cry room, or as I lovingly refer to it, “the penalty box,” comes with a cost. I think of it as purgatory. The thought of putting together into a very small room, usually stuffy and hot, the most sleep-deprived, hormonal set of adults in the parish, and then sprinkling it with scads of children of varying dispositions, levels of crankiness, eating habits, and disciplinary codes, seems like a recipe for disaster. In fact, it is actually a miracle that anyone comes out alive some Sundays.

As my husband can attest, for the first few years I would come out of Mass fuming, feeling like I needed to head from the penalty box to the confessional box. In retrospect, much of it was because of the harsh transition from being in the front row of the church with undivided attention, to being in a box in the back of the church with every conceivable distraction. “How many more years do I have to do this?” was my constant thought back then. Additionally, there was also the steep motherhood curve and learning about different parenting approaches (many of which, I confess, I still simply don’t get).

The first thing I learned from the cry room was that I can’t control the behavior anyone except my child (sometimes) and myself, particularly my own internal disposition. Getting angry and frustrated with the chaos and irreverence around me wasn’t leading me any closer to God.

So to get my own house in order, I sought the advice of another mom about how to deal with my children. Tending to her seventh toddler, I asked this experienced mother her trick, seeing her very well-behaved six other children in the pews not too far ahead of us outside the cry room. Her sage advice:

1) Don’t bring food or drinks in to the cry room with you (of course, nursing and baby bottles don’t count).

2) Allow children to look at religious books for children, but no toys.

The idea behind both is to limit distractions, but if you must distract, have it be something related to the purpose of Mass. I have followed her advice religiously since then and I have added one rule of my own:

3) Keep your child in your lap or in your arms as long as you can, as much as you can.

Once my first child could walk, she wanted to run amok in the cry room. I felt like she was controlling me, instead of vice versa, which was not conducive to any kind of prayer. I figured out that I needed to make it clear to her that she needed to stay in my lap—either with a book, to nurse, or just sit quietly. “This is what we do at church,” I would repeat. And somehow the habit took in the cry room, but also helped to make a seamless transition into real pews when she was older. I have done the same thing with my other two, and yes, there are times when they cry or make noise, fussing to get down, but now with my third child, my older two can sit with dad in the sanctuary, freeing me up to take junior outside on those difficult days. It’s not foolproof (what is with children?), especially at daily Mass when I have all three, but it seems that getting the right habits in place early, particularly the understanding that Mass is not about being entertained, avoids a lot of other issues. This approach also keeps all five of us out of the cry room on Sundays, leaving more space for those who really need it.

I realize these ideas aren’t for everyone. There are a lot of great parents around who have managed to mold their children into well-behaved Mass-goers. Asking what they did is always helpful.

Aside from dealing with my children, the cry room has taught me how to think more charitably about others. Especially with this crowd, one never knows what is going on in any given family. Often there are moms with a few kids and no dad. “Is she making a great sacrifice to still try to get them there without dad’s support?” We live in an area with a lot of military. “Perhaps dad has been deployed?” I have found that trying to think of others in this charitable light has the added bonus of more patience with some of the invariable drama going on around me. It has also taught me to pray for these families, because no matter what, raising children isn’t easy.

So many times over the past five years I have bit my tongue after watching some of the crazy things parents let their children to do. Recently, however, I encountered one situation when it was necessary to say something. I can deal with kneelers dropped on my feet, sippy-cup spills, Cheerios strewn about, boys wrestling on the floor in front of me, and even another child hitting mine, but it is intolerable when grown women chit-chat through much of the Mass like they are in the parking lot. As adults they should know better. So getting up my courage, as politely as I could, I asked them if they could please stop chatting or go outside. In retrospect, I wish I would have said something like: “I know you are going to hate me for this, but could you please stop chatting until the end of Mass?” It would have at least put some of the awkwardness I felt into context, while making my request simple and clear. Fraternal correction is a lost art of prudence, charity, and humility (and frankly, it’s just uncomfortable), but an important one, particularly because there are so many uncatechized adults out there.

And when all else fails in the cry room, I try humor. When the dumpling in my lap moves toward tears and tantrum, I always think of that quirky 1960s movie, Dr. Strangelove, where international leaders are heatedly discussing how to keep the world from imploding and someone says: “No fighting in the war room!” I try whispering, “No crying in the cry room!” It hasn’t proven effective yet. Children can be so irrational. But it puts a smile on my face every time.
 
About the Author
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Carrie Gress 

Carrie Gress has a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. She was the Rome Bureau Chief of Zenit's English Edition and a Research Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. She is the author of two forthcoming books: Nudging Conversions (Ignatius Press) and a pilgrim's guide to Krakow, Poland, with George Weigel and photographer Stephen Weigel (Image Books). A mother of three, she and her family live in Virginia.
 
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