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The Problem with Help from Strangers

Monday, December 10, 2012 4:02 AM Comments (36)

I'll never forget the day, back in 2009, when I was getting overwhelmed almost to the point of a mental breakdown. It was late in the third trimester of my fourth pregnancy. I had three young children; when this new baby was born in a few weeks, we'd have four kids under age five. I had no babysitting help. My husband was gone 12 hours a day. The kids and I were all fighting colds, our youngest had woken up fussy at 4:30 AM, and I was in a fog of exhaustion. I felt like I was drowning.

I was zombie-walking around the kitchen that afternoon, cleaning up from my sad attempt at "lunch," when I thought I heard something on the front porch. Was that a knock? I couldn't hear well since my two-year-old and one-year-old were engaged in a shrieking tug-of-war over a baby doll, so I went to the front of the house to check. I opened the door just in time to see what looked just like the minivan of my friend Melanie, a fellow Catholic mom from our parish, disappearing around the corner. At my feet was a large gift bag. The attached note said that it was a drive-by gift, just to drop off a few things I might find helpful.

The kids immediately stopped the fighting and whining when they beheld this unexpected treasure. The bag contained coloring books, crayons, snacks, and all sorts of other goodies to amuse them, as well as a few things for me. I set the kids up at the kitchen table, and they played quietly, entranced by their new goodies, for so long that I was able to lie down on the couch -- I even got to doze off for a while. When they were done playing it was time for everyone's naps, and after I tucked the kids into bed I realized I felt like a new person. I was refreshed and energized, but, most importantly, I felt supported. At the beginning of the day I had felt isolated and lonely, struggling in solitude on my suburban desert island. Melanie's act of kindness reminded me that I was not alone, that I was in the trenches with other moms who knew me and cared about me, and that we all had one another's backs.

I've been thinking about that day as I've read the ongoing discussion in the blog world about how the Church can support mothers, especially those who have multiple young children. If you're not familiar with this conversation, it's worth following: The bloggers involved have brought up important points about the challenges that come with openness to life and the role of our churches in helping parishioners in need. It started with Calah Alexander's honest post about her struggles as a mom of four young children. Elizabeth Scalia responded with a great suggestion about parish ministries that could support moms in need. Elizabeth Duffy made a lot of thought-provoking points in response, saying that her own needs when she was in Calah's shoes were beyond anything a parish ministry could have solved. And Melanie Bettinelli has weighed in with an interesting piece that highlights Pope Benedict's thoughts from 1960 on Catholic communities, where she asks what modern parishes can do to promote true Christian brotherhood.

Many important points have been made, both in the blog posts themselves and in the comments that followed. The only thing I would add, that is an extension of what others have already said well, is that I believe that the core issue here comes down to one simple thing:

Nobody wants to accept help from strangers. And the sad truth is that, in many cases, our fellow parishioners are strangers.

Asking for help from someone you don't know well is always a last resort, which is why so many parish ministries reach out to those in dire situations, such as folks who are hospitalized, in prison, or in severe poverty. It's hard enough to expose the reality of your life to friends and family when you're struggling; to have someone you barely know come into your home and see your mess is extremely psychologically painful. It's one thing to be the beneficiary of charity from loved ones, since at least there there's a sense that you're giving something back in the overall context of the relationship. It's uncomfortable to receive charity when you don't have an immediate way to offer something in return -- so much so that many women would rather tough it out alone.

The other problem I see with thinking of the solution as lying in formally organized parish ministries (within the context of a parish where people don't know one another well) is that the help isn't customized to the need of the individual. As Elizabeth Duffy says in her post, there's no one-size-fits-all kind of support that would help every mom. I recently heard about a young woman who was at a breaking point with all the demands of her young children, whose girlfriends from the parish devised a unique solution: They secretly arranged with her husband to take the kids out to the movie one Friday night. He told her he was just going to pick something up at the store...and as soon as he left, five friends (whom she originally met through a moms' group at church) surprised her by showing up at her door with wine and her favorite sea-salt chips. Her friends knew that that "girls' night in" was exactly what she needed, and they were right: She still raves about how that night turned things around for her for a long time to come.

Now, that kind of thing wouldn't work well for aspiring hermits like me; having unexpected visitors when I was already maxed out would cause me so much stress that I'd probably end up in a padded cell before they even opened the wine. On the other hand, the drive-by present that blessed me so much back in 2009 might not work for another kind of person, who could end up feeling sad that the friend didn't stop in for a chat. 

When you're part of a close-knit community, these things work themselves out naturally. After a few years, everyone settles into their places within the group, and can give and receive in ways that work for their state of life and their temperaments. My friend knew exactly what I most needed, just like the other mom's friends knew exactly what she most needed. In each case, our relationships started through formal church organizations, but eventually transcended those lines to become friendships. And it was only then that we were able to offer personalized, intimate support to one another.

Therefore, the problem as I see it is: How can we create parish environments that foster meaningful relationships among parishioners?

There are no easy answers. On the macro level, I'd love to see a push for geographically-based Catholic communities where folks live within walking distance of one another and of the parish church. On the micro level, I think families in their childbearing years would benefit tremendously from choosing one location and putting down roots, not even changing neighborhoods if at all possible. Real communities require years of the same people being in the same place in order to gel. Our family has been at the same parish since 2005 and in the same house since 2007, and it's only been within the past year or two that we've finally begun to feel closely connected to our neighbors and fellow parishioners.

Admittedly, those are pie-in-the-sky ideas, and they don't offer short-term fixes. But I believe that there are a lot of solutions out there, and that it's possible to see the Church have a great rekindling of that "true Christian brotherhood" that Melanie Bettinelli describes so well. And I think that finding the right answers for how to help struggling moms -- or single people, or infertile couples, or anyone else who could use some support -- begins with asking the question, "How can we make our parishes feel less like a gathering of strangers, and more like a family?"

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About Jennifer Fulwiler

Jennifer Fulwiler
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Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She's a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.