Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Journey to Rome: Converting with kids

Yosef, Anna and Biniam in front of the Nativity scene after 10 pm Mass on Christmas Eve

When you have seven kids, you don't do anything alone.  :)

This part of our journey has actually been tricky at times.  To be honest, part of me was positively terrified as I gradually came to the conclusion (as did my husband) that we needed to convert to CatholicismBecause it's one thing to quietly assent to Church teaching, and it's another to instruct your children in those things.  I felt a heavy weight of responsibility, and all of the dogmas and doctrines that were difficult for me to wrap my head around were completely magnified when attempting to explain them to our kids. 

And, our kids had questions.  When we talked to them about needing to leave our church for the Catholic Faith, they wanted to know things like, "But don't the people at our church love Jesus too?"  Yes, yes they do.  "Well why do we have to go to a different church, then?"  And although Mass is shorter than most Protestant church services, the kids are in the pew with us the whole time.  So initially, they felt as if Mass wasn't as "fun" as our Protestant church.  "My knees hurt when we have to kneel!  Why do we have to stand and sit so much?  Why don't we get to go to Children's Church?"  And my oldest took communion as a Protestant, so she of course wanted to know why she can't yet receive the Eucharist at Mass. 

All of this was hard for me, because my children have always, always loved church.  I want this component of their spiritual life to be a positive thing, and most of all I want them to embrace the Mass--and ultimately the Catholic Faith--because we believe it is Christ's Church.

So suffice it to say that we had a lot of discussions.  We talked about how not everyone who loves Jesus is Catholic.  We explained however that we wanted to be Catholic, because we believe it is the fullness of faith and God's desire for His children.  We told them about the Reformation.  We explained the Mass and how we get to witness the miracle of the bread and wine becoming Jesus' actual body and blood, just like He and Paul talk about in the Bible.

And wouldn't you know it, in God's mercy our kids started getting the hang of the whole thing.  They quickly made some dear buddies at our parish.  They adore--and I mean, adore--our wonderful (and patient-with-small-children) priest.  They (usually) know when to genuflect and kneel and stand and make the sign of the cross and pray, and they (usually) all say the Our Father and Nicene Creed when it's time.  They know the Hail Mary and the Guardian Angel prayer and, um, know more about the Rosary than I do.

And wanna know what I'm discovering?  

The Catholic Faith is, for lack of a better word, earthy.  Ultimately, Catholics believe that God uses the stuff of this earth in supernatural ways.  And while there may not be any flannelgraph or glitter glue or Sunday School Charlie involved, the Catholic Faith is (in many ways) actually easier for kids to grasp.  The crucifix vs. an empty cross, the bells during the Consecration, different postures during the Mass, incense and prayers and statues and Holy Water and Rosary beads.  Things you can see, hear, smell, touch.  Perfect for children (and adults!) to worship God and actively participate in His Church. 

And the truth is that my kids see some things much more naturally than I do.  Mary as our mother, for example.  And the Sacrament of Baptism with its washing away of original sin.  They just get it.  No, they wouldn't be able to write a theological discourse on any of it (although my oldest did come up with a GREAT analogy about Baptism last week!), but they get it.  Faith like a child and all that.

In many ways I suppose we're playing catch-up.  I bet (and hope!) my kids' kids will be better catechized than mine, because I officially became a Catholic at age 30, as opposed to age 7 or 4 or 2.  But we're doing our best, and God continues to be gracious with us.

There are several resources and practices I've found helpful along the way in making this transition as a family, and I'll plan to share those with you later this week.  In the meantime I hope you're having a wonderful Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Having just converted to Catholicism two months ago, this is our first Advent we've celebrated as Catholics.  And, surprise surprise, I've loved it.

The Liturgical Calendar is pretty amazing in and of itself.  The fact that this is how the Church has marked time for centuries-upon-centuries is remarkable.  The idea that we can build our faith around the seasons is really beautiful.

And prior to a year ago, I really didn't know much about Advent, beyond the wreath with the four candles (why IS that one pink?) that was lit weekly in churches I attended.  I guess I'd always just assumed that Advent was another word for the Christmas season.

But it turns out that Advent is actually all about preparation, penance, and the anticipation of Jesus coming to earth as a baby to save the world.  And the pink candle is there as a reminder of the joy that will come at Christmas.  (So glad I finally got that figured out!)

This really has been an amazing past four weeks for me.  We've been reading the daily Mass readings each day at home (Old Testament, responsorial Psalm, and Gospel) and OH my goodness, we will be continuing with this.  It is positively amazing to see the prophecies and what they point to, and how everything ties together.  We've been trying to make it to weekday Mass at least once a week, which has also been incredible (although a bit stressful on account of the two-year-olds, who find it perfectly acceptable to occasionally start babbling while the priest is talking.) 

To be honest, I find that Christmas makes so much more SENSE...it is so much fuller and easier and Christ-focused and more beautiful to celebrate...when it is observed in its context.  We spend four weeks preparing our hearts and minds for Jesus, reflecting on Mary's willingness to say yes, on John the Baptist's preparing the way, all of it.  My kids have such a deeper understanding and appreciation of Christmas too. 

So as my first official Advent comes to a close, as the anticipation leads into celebration of Christ's Mass (did you know that's what the word Christmas means and comes from?!), I am ever so grateful for the Church, the Liturgical year with its seasons and feast and fast days, for Mary and the role God gave her in redemption, and most of all for Jesus who came into our world as a baby to save us from our sins. 

Gifts are wrapped and under the tree, the fudge is made, my cards are ready to be mailed out (Christmas lasts until Epiphany so I'm technically not late!), and we'll be at 10 pm Mass tonight.  What a joy it will be to receive Jesus in the Eucharist and kick off our Christmas celebration worshipping God come to Earth.

I hope you have a wonderful and celebratory Christmas Eve, friends!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

If I was sending out Christmas cards

This is what I would send.

Mary Lu, um, doesn't like Santa.

Never has, actually.

I honestly think this is the best photo we've taken in a long, long time.

Probably since last Christmas, when we snapped this gem:

And let's be honest: who really wants a bunch of polished, happy-shiny-people-holding-hands photos of their kids with Santa anyway?  That's just boring.

So I'll take my angry kid on Santa's lap any ol' day.

Just another Christmas with the Heldts! 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

When 7 kids is too much

I know, the title of this blogpost is perhaps a bit surprising coming from me: enthusiastic promoter of openness to life, advocate for waiting-child adoption, and now a card-carrying Catholic

But I'll be honest and say there ARE times when seven children feel like a LOT.
When my home feels really FULL.

When life is literally speeding along and it's all just a bit too much...or so it seems.

About a month ago our two new daughters, both born with Down syndrome, underwent heart surgery...on the same day.  We were at the hospital by 6 am, I'd only gotten a few hours of sleep the night before, and while they allowed us to go home the same day, it was still completely exhausting and draining. 

A dear friend had our other five kids at her house that afternoon.  So when I brought Mekdes and Tigist home from the hospital early that evening, Kevin headed over to collect our other children.

The minute the girls and I hit the door, the exhaustion set in.  Probably the most tired and depleted I'd felt in a long time.  All I could think about was putting on pajamas and crawling into bed--too bad it was only 5 pm.  But at least the house was quiet, and calm, with just the three of us in it.  The girls were pretty subdued after the day they'd had.

But eventually, Kevin and the other five showed up.  Which meant noise.  And lots of it.  It meant five kids excitedly jockeying to see who got to give Mekdes and Tigist hugs first, it meant Anna playing the piano, Kaitlyn playing games with the two heart patients, my boys racing around talking about all the fun they'd had at our friends' house, and Mary Lu babbling away and giving me hugs.

Oh, and the questions.  "How did the surgeries go?"  "Are Mekdes and Tigist okay, mom?"  "Are they going to be okay?"

To say I was overstimulated by this point would be more than a bit of an understatement.  :)

Because I had nothing.left. at the end of that oh-so-long day, but of course my kids weren't deterred by that in the least.  It was one of those times where I look around wondering, "How do we do this every day?  How on EARTH are we surviving?  How am I going to make it until bedtime...much less until the day they turn 18?!"

And yes, I was even feeling a little sorry for myself.  Which I really hate to admit, but it's true.

But at some point, in the midst of the questions and the noise and the chaos, I looked over at Mekdes and Tigist. 

And they were smiling.  And happy.  And coming alive after a horribly traumatic day.

That's when I realized that all the NOISE was really just LIFE. 

That's when I realized that even on hard days when I want to hole up and hide and just take a time-out, life marches on in its imperfect, messy, over-the-top-loud sort of way.

And this was actually healing for my daughters!

And it continues to be healing for my daughters, who had no family, no home, for years on end.  Now, they have five extra siblings who adore them and cheer them on and pray for them and hold them during Mass.

Suddenly a day spent in the Cath Lab at Children's Hospital with surgeons and anasthesiologists isn't so scary when it ends the way most days end: big sister practicing the piano, big brothers roughhousing with each other, other big sister making up fun games to include you in, and little sister being her usual feisty self. 

Normalcy.  Boring everyday stuff, but it's apparently the mundane where healing and love and life and grace happen.

As I look back I find myself GRATEFUL for all the noise, all the people, all the life.  It is what my little girls needed, and I have to wonder if it's actually what I needed too.

It's a common belief that kids in big families have to sacrifice way more than kids in small families.

And that may very well be true, but in the long-run?  They're getting a whole lot too.

I may have been overstimulated, but an entire fan club showed up to welcome Mekdes and Tigist home like they were total heroes.

I may have wanted to call it a day at 4:45 in the afternoon, but my kids made sure that our family returned to normal first, ate a meal together, and that Mekdes and Tigist were really okay.

So, heck yeah, sometimes seven kids IS too much!

And it's honestly a really, really, really good thing. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

But my van made me do it!

If you're here today for some sort of deep inspiration, or for well-thought-out insights into the joys of motherhood...well...sorry.  :)

Not gonna happen, people.  Not today.

Because this is one of those keeping-it-real stories that isn't fun while it's happening, but makes for a decent blogpost.  (One of the best reasons for having a blog.  Redemption of negative life events.)

And, it's about my big van. 

My big, 15-passenger-van that isn't so difficult to drive, but is a real pain in the you-know-what to park.

So on with the story.

Sunday mornings, my three oldest kids have Catechism class before Mass.  So Kevin takes them at 9:15 (in one of our two normal-sized cars that, you know, normal people drive), and I come at 10:30 with the four younger kids...in the big van that people assume I must need a special license for.

The parking lot at our parish is not as big as the ones at Target or Costco.  And it's always super crowded. 

And this past Sunday, I could not park my van.

Nope, couldn't do it.  I attempted three.different.parking spaces., but had to give up on all of them for lack of proper space (and parking ability).

And all of this while people (yes, multiple people) were honking at me.  Yes, honking!  Meanwhile I was working up a sweat, becoming more and more anxious, and also becoming more and more convinced that I was just going to have to give up and go home.  I was imagining myself going to Confession the following week and saying "Bless me Father for I have sinned", followed by the sad and embarrassing confession that I missed Mass on account of my big, dumb car.

Thankfully though, just as I was about to give up, Kevin (and the kids) came out of the building.  And that's when I jumped OUT of my big, dumb car and said "I CAN'T PARK THIS THING!  I'M DONE!  PEOPLE ARE HONKING AT ME!"  So my ever-calm husband took over, drove around back, and did indeed find a space.  And we made it into the church right as Mass was beginning, so I suppose it all turned out okay in the end.

Except of course that I was still sweaty, completely distracted, and beyond furious that I couldn't park my car.  Not sure who I was furious at (myself?  the assorted honkers?  the engineer who obviously didn't have a bunch of kids that designed the parking lot?  all of the above?)  but I was mad just the same.  Certainly not the peaceful frame of mind you want when you're going to wrangle two noisy babies worship God and receive Jesus in the Sacrament, but alas, it is what it is.

A really spiritual blogger would now probably write something really lovely about how we can all come-as-we-are to Jesus in our frustrations and in our need (which of course we can), but I'm not going to. 

Because this story was really just all about me being annoyed and stressed out.

Which happens sometimes.

And now you have proof that I'm not good at parking my van, my anxiety level could be graphed against how many elderly people are honking at me at any given time, and I almost committed a mortal sin on Sunday.

Maybe it's time the Church appointed someone as the patron saint of parking large vehicles!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

One week home

As of yesterday, Mekdes has been home from the hospital for a week now.  Her open heart surgery was a week and a half ago.

And, oh my goodness friends, she is doing amazingly well.

The surgery itself couldn't have gone any better.

And the only sign that Mekdes has even had surgery (aside from her rather large incision wound) was that she was extremely lethargic up until a couple of days ago.  But now she's up and about and playing again.

The photo above is from Mass last Wednesday night, when we celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception.  Our parish had a dinner afterwards and that's Mekdes, at the table.  Only two days after we'd come home, less than a week after her surgery, and yet there she was, smiling. 

What a special time it was honoring Mary, with Mekdes, so soon after her surgery.  Mary the mother of God has actually always held a special place in my heart, even before I was Catholic.  I'd always loved the story of the Anunciation, and the Magnificat, and I think the Hail Mary is one of the most beautiful prayers ever.  And lately I've been thinking about how even when my daughter had nobody else, when she was an orphan and alone and living with some very serious heart problems...she had Jesus and His mother.  We believe, afterall, that Mary prays and intercedes for us.  And I bet she has a super special place in her heart for those without mothers. 

So, yes, Mekdes is doing quite well.  It all feels rather miraculous, really.  We are of course a bit, um, tired--what an insane past few months this has been!!!--but oh, we are blessed.

Because the truth is that amidst the surgeries and therapies and endless laundry, God is faithful, my sweet little girl is healing, and during this season of Advent I'm doing my very best to take it all in. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Homeschooling extras

As you may or may not know, our family homeschools. (Yes, you can homeschool when you have seven children.  I promise!)  I currently have one 2nd grader and two 1st graders--this is our third year schooling at home and honestly, I love love love it.  (Well, most of the time!  Sometimes I want to rip my hair out, but usually it's awesome.  :)  )  The lifestyle, the way we have time to do things important to our family, the slower and more flexible pace, the convenience of not having all those pick-ups and drop-offs...it's great!

Of course, as every homeschooler knows, the general populace is often a little unsure about the whole thing.

People assume that kids not attending public school are socially awkward, deprived, and lacking in various academic and societal skills. 

Lately I've been thinking about how utterly absurd it all is, these silly stereotypes.  And I've been thinking that because we've been running to and fro to all manner of activities--the irony of homeschooling but not necessarily being home all that much.

So I thought I'd give you a look at some of the things we homeschoolers do that aren't actually at home.  Some proof that a homeschooled child can have a rich, full educational experience.

Two weeks ago, Anna performed in a dance production of "Babes in Toyland." 

She played one of Little Bo Peep's sheep, and did AWESOME! 

So proud of my girl!  We surprised her with (her very first) flowers right after the performance.

A typical week finds us at home (my favorite place to be, because I'm a card-carrying introvert) Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.  We spend time learning our faith (reading the Bible, reading Saint stories, praying, Catechism instruction), and studying Math, History, Language Arts, and various other things.  Sometimes we get together with friends.  We're pretty much always done with school by lunchtime.

Then on Thursdays, my three school-age kids attend an all-day school-for-homeschooled-kids.  They take Science, Art, Drama, Dance, Piano, Music...the list goes on.  They eat lunch with their buddies and get to wear backpacks and have a blast doing the typical school thing.  Anna's dance performance was through this school.

And on Fridays, we attend a homeschool co-op at our parish.  My kids LOVE it.  So do I.  Such wonderful families and my children are building community with other kids who share our faith.  We try to make it to 8 am Mass beforehand, too.  (That's Yosef painting a sculpture of St. Joseph, done by the teacher, during our ceramics unit.)

Just this past week at our co-op, we celebrated the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe (which is actually today) by making some really sweet crafts and having a little procession where each kiddo got to touch Mary's immaculate heart and give her a flower they made out of tissue paper.  It was SO cute!  (Even if the picture is blurry.)

And later, Saint Nicholas showed up (his feast day was on December 6th), talked to the kids, and handed out gold coins. 

So excited!  (I don't know why Kaitlyn always makes that face in photos, but it drives me crazy and cracks me up all at the same time.)

I'm honestly really grateful for the lifestyle we've carved out for ourselves.  I used to feel like we'd be missing out on things here and there by homeschooling, but the truth is that it's more or less the oppositeIf my children were in public school, we'd have less time for building community with other Catholic families, they wouldn't be involved in as many of the fine arts, and we'd have less time for dear friends in general.  I could go on and on about why I love homeschooling, but I'm not going to.  (Right now, anyway.)  I'll just say that our life is incredibly full and my children are blessed with a lot of pretty cool opportunities. 

And it's funny because even though we're homeschoolers, some of my favorite things about homeschooling aren't actually happening at home!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

We're home

Mekdes, with her all-fixed-up heart, leaving the hospital yesterday.

So, we're home.  :)

Yes, home!

Open-heart surgery on Friday, and back home on Monday.

Mekdes has been making an amazing recovery.

Kids tend to heal quickly anyhow, but the nurses and doctors have been pretty amazed by just how well she has done.

I have so much I want to share, so much I've been thinking about and so much I'm grateful for.

But that will take awhile--I'm tired and there's just so much I'm still processing through.

For now, I'll simply say that I remain in awe of God's hand on my daughter.  She may only be 4 or 5 years old, but she is brave.  Strong.  Gentle.  Kind.  Not once did she complain.  Not once did she act out in frustration.  Even when there were tears, they were short-lived.  She cooperated with the nurses and doctors, gave out smiles like it was nobody's business, and said "Thank you Mama" every.single.time. I gave her food or water.

I've honestly been on the brink of the "ugly cry" for days because I've never met anybody quite like Mekdes before.  Neither had one of the nurses who'd assisted in the operating room, who came to find us on her lunch break with tears in her eyes to share how sweet Mekdes was as they took her in and put her under.

I also feel like I've witnessed the very heart of God several times this week.  In the struggling kids and babies I saw in the Cardiac ICU, and the brave moms and dads sitting by their sides.

No one, myself included, would ever choose for their child to need something like open-heart surgery.  Ever.  It's terrifying and serious and always, always complicated.  And yet I feel like God has given me, and probably those other moms and dads too, a glimpse into life and suffering and hope.  For that, I am grateful.

I took this video right as we were about to walk out the hospital doors.  Mekdes LOVES saying her siblings' names, and as tired as she was (her red blood cell count is still pretty low because she didn't have any blood transfusions), she repeated every single name.  Oh, how she adores her brothers and sisters.   

So we rejoice in God's mercy and grace, and are so, so happy to be HOME.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Surgery today

Well, she did it.

My girl had open heart surgery today.

She's in the Cardiac ICU now, and doing great.  The surgeon was successful in repairing the hole and valve defects in her heart(!), and no blood transfusion has been needed so far (although that may change, because her red blood cell count is low.)

Kevin's home with our other kiddos now (after spending the day with me at the hospital), so it's just me and (sleeping) Mekdes hanging out.

Today has been a complete and utter whirlwind of activity and emotion.  Hospital days are exhausting in every possible way, especially when the stakes are high.  I'm so, so tired, and trying to process the whole thing, and praying that recovery continues to progress well, and missing my husband and other children, and wanting to see Mekdes' huge smile so very badly.

Yet even through my sleepy haze, I am totally and utterly in awe of God's working in the life of my daughter. 

There's something really profound about having a child who was not born to you, who does not in any way exist because of you.  Who would have been here even if you never were.  So the more I learn about this beautiful little girl, the more amazed I am by her soft, sweet heart and fierce determination.  She is calm in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  She smiles even when things are hard or confusing.  She knows what she wants...and refuses to give up.  She never, ever gives up.  She reflects God's beauty in countless new ways.

I talked to Kevin on the phone awhile ago, and he asked me how worried I'd actually been today about something going dreadfully wrong.  The truth is that I WAS worried about that...but I also knew that God is writing an incredible story with her life.  Every new chapter a testimony to God's grace, mercy and love.  That DOESN'T mean things won't go wrong, but it does mean that I can tangibly see God's faithfulness to my daughter, and I trust Him.

Last night, as Mekdes received the Sacrament of the Sick (for the second time in the mere two months she's been with us) and Father Daniel laid his hands on her head, she broke out in a huge smile.  God's provision was so evident in that moment.  A miracle.  And tonight when they took her breathing tube out and she cried, and I cried right along with her because my baby girl was afraid, God's provision was on display yet again.  A miracle.  Because Mekdes lost her first parents--and had nobody--but still God was there, and God did have a plan, and so in spite of her rocky start in life she now has a goofy mom whose eyes well up with tears when the breathing tube comes out.

Tonight my plan is to get some good sleep (thank you Children's Hospital for your window-less, private sleeping rooms) and hopefully be a comfort to Mekdes tomorrow.  Thank you SO MUCH for all of your prayers, and I'll plan to blog a little each day to keep you updated.

But for now, it's time for some much needed sleep.

It's been a big day.


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